How does it feel to win the Spinoza Prize?

“An enormous honour. It’s a very strange feeling, intangible, especially since I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about it before now. It was a total surprise to me. But above all, I see it as a wonderful recognition of my field -humanitarian studies -that through this award, it is seen as a worthy field in its own right.

“Humanitarian studies actually didn’t even exist in the 1990s. The question of how people cope within a society in crisis was not really the subject of any research. Hilhorst was one of the first to start doing this in the late 1990s. At first, this primarily entailed disaster studies, but this subsequently became more extensive.”

Thea Hilhorst was born in the Dutch town of Voorburg in 1961. Her academic career began in 1998 as an associate professor of Disaster Studies at Wageningen University and Research. Two years later, she completed her PhD, a field study on the practice of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the Philippines. She was instrumental in founding the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA), an international association for researchers in the field of humanitarian studies. In 2016, she transferred to the International Institute of Social Studies (an institute of the Erasmus University in The Hague). In the years that followed, she landed an ERC Advanced Grant for research on humanitarian aid to communities in crisis, was appointed to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and secured another grant from the NWO for research on sex work during humanitarian crises, among other things. A sum of 2.5 million euros is tied to the Spinoza Prize, which Hilhorst plans to use to strengthen her field further.

If hardly any research was being done in this area, how did Humanitarian Studies cross your path?

“I was studying Developmental Sociology in Wageningen in the eighties. During my studies, I did research on accidents in mines. These can also be major crises for a community located around such a mine.

“Actually, I’m a bit of a late bloomer; I didn’t finish my PhD until I was 39, with a dissertation on the functioning of NGOs in the Philippines. Precisely at that time, there was a vacancy for a ‘half’ professorship in disaster studies at Wageningen University, where Georg Frerks had just been appointed professor of disaster studies. To be honest, I don’t think I would have qualified for it today with my CV back then, except that I was one of the few who had done research in this field. So, I got the job. Our research group started with a mere 0.7 FTE. We then very successfully landed grants, including a few from civil society organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. By the time I left Wageningen in 2015, we had grown to around thirty people.”

One key insight from your research that you mention is the normality of a crisis. What do you mean by that?

“In the 1990s, there was an image of war that after the first shot was fired, people flee their country and everything comes to a standstill. Now we know that people don’t do that, but that was a new insight in those days. Education often carries on as per usual, people keep on sowing crops and only flee once the harvest is in.

“Another new insight was that NGOs sometimes do more harm than good. Of course, I always have to say that as far as this is concerned, I am only a small cog in the wheel; American colleagues in particular have contributed a great deal to this insight, such as Mary Anderson with the 1999 book Do No Harm. “

Can you cite an example of such a harmful case?

“NGOs sometimes distribute food for an extended period of time in a particular area. That can disrupt the food market structurally. Which is why many scientists, including me, said that sometimes it’s better to give money than food. Then you actually stimulate the local markets that way. That giving money works better was also backed up by all kinds of research, but it remained a taboo topic for a long time. Finally, after ten or fifteen years, some experiments were carried out, but then once again we would hear those paternalistic voices coming from NGOs: ‘Can these people handle money?’ Whereas, of course, before the crisis people had simply dealt with money all their lives and managed just fine.”

One other important contribution is that you asked that attention needed to be paid to conducting research safely in hazardous regions. One of the ways you did this was by compiling a manual. Why was that necessary?

“It is a really terrifying thing that something might happen to one of your PhD students, so you want to prepare them properly whenever you send them to a dangerous country. That manual was created by bundling all kinds of information together, such as on how to get yourself insured. But I thought a single document wasn’t enough; you have to link that to training courses. I still give these twice a year, together with my colleague Rodrigo Mena.”

Thea Hilhorst. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

What risks have you yourself encountered in your fieldwork?


“The funny thing is that I’m actually not at all suited to fieldwork in high-risk areas; I’m the prototype of an absent-minded professor. As an example, once I was in Sri Lanka with my family, where I was for work and a vacation, trying on clothes in a store, when my husband suddenly said that we had to leave quickly. It turned out that there were all these aggressive types walking down the street with weapons. I hadn’t noticed a thing. The advantage of this is that I don’t tend to panic so quickly. Because that’s what I always tell my employees: never make decisions when you’re panicking. Then leave those decisions up to someone else. And never travel alone.

“Something that not everyone thinks of immediately is that it’s not only about your own safety. But also, about those of your colleagues, or the people participating in your research. Making sure they can talk without suffering any repercussions. That if you are stopped at the border, you are not carrying a USB stick in your pocket with all your data on it. Well, most researchers do bear that in mind, but all the while, they often take pictures with their phones regardless. So, then all your data is safely encrypted in the cloud, but you will still give everything away with those unsecured photos. In some countries that can really have repercussions for the people in those photos.”

Have you personally ever made such an error of judgement?

“A small example is that I was doing research with someone, a colleague from a trade union in Namibia. We had to spend the night there, and we could choose between a spot by the lake or somewhere further inland. Of course, I immediately chose the beautiful spot on the lake, but my colleague pointed out the danger of malaria mosquitoes near the lake. Then I blurted out: ‘But I have my malaria prophylaxis,’ not thinking that he might not have had it. That was one of those moments when you think, oops, that was incredibly thoughtless. We did not end up sleeping by the lake.”

A cash prize of 2.5 million euros is tied to the Spinoza Prize. Two years ago, you also received a European grant, an ERC Advanced Grant worth 2.5 million euros, how are you going to combine these?

Laughing, she answers: “Yes, I actually just felt like retiring! Ha ha, no, not at all. The ERC grant is really intended for research, whereas I see the Spinoza Prize primarily as an invitation to strengthen the field of study.”

What does that research with the ERC grant entail?

“The past few years have seen a lot of changes in how crises are dealt with. The role of authorities, communities, international aid, that interaction has changed a great deal. We are trying to map these trends by going into greater depth in three countries. Ethiopia, where since 1994, there is a war again but where something has actually always been amiss since the 1980s. Congo, where there has been an ongoing history of war, peace, then no peace for a while, followed by a modicum of peace, but then some more war yet again. And Colombia, where things are going slightly better, but for a very long time there was an internal conflict with the FARC and where a lot of people from Venezuela have also migrated to. The fourth topic concerns climate refugees. This has become quite a popular term, but what exactly does it mean and how do you deal with climate refugees? Is it really the case that so many people have to flee because of the climate? How are governments dealing with that?”

Can you cite an example of that?

“One of my PhD students, Mausumi Chetia, is doing research on rivers in India. Over there, you have rivers that are eroding very quickly. That can sometimes affect a meter of riverbed each year. Due to climate change, this is taking on increasingly more serious forms, and can lead to whole villages eventually being swept away. During an earthquake or a flood, you see that people are temporarily displaced, and that they then go back later. But what does it mean when your village is completely wiped out? That means that you are permanently displaced. Which is an entirely different situation. Do they have a right to protection from the government, do they fall under the disaster policy or not? That’s a topic that’s becoming more and more important.”

And how would you like to use the money from the Spinoza Prize?

“At Erasmus University, there are a lot of people who are familiar with subtopics in this field, but there are only a handful of people who are working in the heart of the field. There is a lot of interest from students and from the outside world, but we very often have to say no, because we are unable to cope with so many students. I really want to expand that in a structural way. A prize of 2.5 million euros in itself won’t get you very far. You can hire a number of teachers for this, and then after four years the money is spent. But if you can use it as a kind of flywheel to permanently strengthen the field, then I’ll be extremely pleased. How this should be done, is something I’m going to talk to people about starting this Friday.”

What are your personal ambitions for the coming years?

“I would like to experiment even more with innovative partnerships, where people in crisis countries are themselves involved in research and in the search for solutions. What I’m really enthusiastic about are the ‘observatories’ that we are setting up in different countries with the ERC grant. What you can picture there are sorts of flexible think tanks made up of about fifteen local people, from NGOs, the government, and science, who meet regularly to talk about social issues. It is all still in the very early stages, but I expect a lot from them. Together, this can amplify their voices, and consequently boost their impact.”

What actually takes place on the day of the official announcement of the prize?

“Funnily enough, not very much! A lunch is held together with the three other winners and the two winners of the Stevin Prize. I think that will be really enjoyable. The prize does really mean something to me. It may be a bit of a women thing, I’m going to ask Eveline Crone (previous winner of the Spinoza Prize, ed.), because for the first time in years, I was bothered by the imposter syndrome again. I lay there at night thinking: ‘What am I worth? -People will see through this. There are so many other brilliant people who probably deserve it even more!’ It really is a big deal, a tremendous honour.”

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