Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2463

Article | Open Access

Governing the Humanitarian Knowledge Commons

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Abstract:  Humanitarians and bureaucrats who are mandated to work together in complex emergencies face many challenges, especially in settings marked by conflict and displacement. High on the list of challenges are barriers to sharing knowledge freely. These barriers include (self)censorship, contested framings and priorities, deliberate ICT black-outs, and the withholding (or not collecting) of mission-critical information. These barriers exacerbate the gaps in knowledge sharing that occur as a result of a lack of time or capacity. This article conceptualises crisis knowledge as a ‘commons’: a shared resource that is subject to social dilemmas. The enclosure of the knowledge commons—brought about by the barriers outlined above—hampers daily operations as well as efforts to improve the situation in the long term. Trust is key to effective commons governance, as actors need to sacrifice personal benefits (e.g., control over information) for a collective good (e.g., shared learning). Knowledge and trust are deeply interlinked, as shared ways of knowing (alignment) foster trust, and trust fosters the sharing of knowledge. Given the hierarchical nature of humanitarian relationships, this article explores how power and networks shape this dynamic. It focuses on the humanitarian response to the 2018 Guji-Gedeo displacement crisis in the south of Ethiopia. It presents a qualitative analysis of how the governance arrangements that marked this response shaped emergency operations centres’ ability to manage the local knowledge commons effectively. It shows how in Guji-Gedeo, these arrangements resulted in a clustering of trust that strengthened barriers to knowledge sharing, resulting in a partial enclosure of the knowledge commons.

Keywords:  bureaucrats; commons governance; complex emergency; emergency operations centre; Ethiopia; ethnic conflict; humanitarians; knowledge commons; trust; wicked problem



© Femke Mulder. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.