Dunn on “The Chaos of Humanitarian Aid”

One of the things that fascinate me about humanitarianism is how chaotic it is. I expected to find the aid community to be highly professionalized, highly organized, and highly disciplined, something more like WalMart than a MASH unit. What I found instead was a huge group of aid agencies, donor governments, and representatives of local government who were mostly winging it. So my problem became figuring out how to theorize “winging it,” and to find out how to trace its effects on both geopolitics and on the lives of displaced people. How do improvisation, guesswork, “satisficing” and other forms of partial knowledge shape humanitarian aid?

Some of what makes aid chaotic is the breakneck tempo of what Craig Calhoun has called “the emergency imaginary.” During my fieldwork with NGOs, there were hasty meetings in the capital nearly every day, flying trips down the main highway to the new settlements near the militarized administrative border, then a frantic meeting with a group of IDPs before we piled into the ubiquitous white jeep to go speeding back down the highway.

What really makes the humanitarian situation so chaotic, though, is disorganization. This isn’t just part of the “fog of war,” but a kind of chaos arising from the humanitarian system. Georgia was small for a complex emergency: only 96 registered groups provided assistance. The aid community is only loosely coordinated by the UN’s cluster system.  Mostly, donor governments and aid agencies devise projects on their own and then inform other groups of what they’ve already done, leaving the others to adapt their own strategies. (The aid agency Oxfam refers to this as “rampant bilateralism.”)

The humanitarian condition is a highly complex social situation, and the knowledge that is produced in it is inevitably partial. Aid agencies have to rely on previous experience (often from wildly different contexts like Africa, which makes much of the aid inappropriate for second-world countries like Georgia). Some of what they do relies on stereotypes, like the common practice of giving aid to women because men are assumed to waste it on booze and cigarettes. And much of what they do relies on quickly improvised creative solutions.

The result of this chaos is that beneficiaries understand little about the humanitarian system. It’s nearly impossible to figure out what agency is giving out what, what kinds of aid might be delivered in the near future, or why people in one settlement get something while relatives in a nearby settlement don’t. Planning for the future in such a situation is nearly impossible: how do you make rational plans for the future when you have no idea what’s going to happen to your housing, food, or power?

Worst of all, the chaos of aid often results in aid simply being wasted. In Georgia, while the disproportionately aged IDP population got breastfeeding support groups, painting classes for children, and movie nights, what they needed was medication for chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, insulation to keep the bitter cold from seeping through the floorboards, and running water. In Haiti, the chaos of aid had even more profound effects: according to Oxfam, for example, more than a year after the Haitian earthquake, less than 5% of the rubble had been cleared, and fewer than 15% of displaced people had received new permanent housing, leaving camp residents exposed to cholera and widespread sexual violence.

The chaos of aid not only squanders time, resources and good will, but has profound effects on the lives of displaced people. Understanding why and how it works is crucial to knowing why, despite the best intentions, aid is often so unhelpful.

Read Elizabeth Cullen Dunn’s article here.


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About Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

Associate professor of geography and international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her work focuses on the global circulation of new forms of governance. Her first book, Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (Cornell, 2008), looked at how the transfer of new forms of corporate management to Eastern Europe reconstructed labor and created markets after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It won the Ed A. Hewett and Orbis book prizes for 2005. In 2009–11 she conducted ethnographic research in camps for internally displaced persons in the Republic of Georgia. Her new work examines humanitarian governance and the reconstruction of citizenship and personhood among displaced people there.

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