Drive by Development

“Drive by Development: The role of the SUV in international humanitarian assistance,” unpublished paper (2011)

“There was even an old saying that, for 70 percent of the world’s population, the first vehicle they saw was a Land Rover” (Wernle 2000).

“A Land Rover is less of a car than a state of mind” – Car and Driver Magazine 1964 

The white sports utility vehicle (SUV) has become an inextricable part of aid and development work. Not only do they underpin the majority of aid and development activities – either through the transportation of staff, goods, or equipment – but they have become symbolic of the act of doing aid both for better and for worse.

An analysis of peacekeeping expenses between 2002 and 2009 showed that total expenditure on Motor Vehicles/Parts & Transportation Equipment amounted to $891,807,651 and between 4.5 and 9.7% of total expenditure depending on the year (Figure 2).  In 2009, this made it the 6th highest budget line for total peacekeeping expenses, however, when related expenses such as fuel are taken into account, it is likely that it is closer to third after construction, and air transport.  While peacekeeping operations are notorious when it comes to their fleets of land rovers, they are by no means alone in their reliance on SUVs as a primary form of transport. Most UN agencies, and the majority of INGOs are equally reliant upon the vehicles. Yet despite their prominence both programmatically and physically in the context of aid work they are considered to be an incidental and generally unremarkable.

When compared to the attention that car usage has received in other disciplines the complete absence of discussion over the SUVs ubiquity in aid work is striking.  While there are occasional grumblings regarding the purchase and transport costs of the vehicles and difficulties with re-sale or disposal of the vehicles, these are restricted to the logistics or operations side of aid work.  When compared to the centrality of automobiles and automobility in Anglo-European social theory, the lack of any discussion of the political-economic, sociological, psychological or spatio-material implications of its pervasive use is puzzling.  Why, when car and more specifically, SUV use has been the subject of such extensive social enquiry in other contexts and disciplines, should it have avoided scrutiny in the context of aid and development work.

My work on the SUV serves to rectify this gap, however it’s not meant as merely an academic hole filling exercise. Rather, what initially started as a quixotic sideline of my more broader work on the spatial aspects of aid has quite quickly revealed itself to be, I feel, an enormously productive approach to thinking through the major aspects of humanitarianism broadly speaking. In particular it has led me to the following set of arguments:

1. There has been a co-evolution between technologies of aid and development (in this case the SUV) and the content of aid and development practice.  While the way in which aid is done is usually seen as irrelevant to what is done – so for example, using land rovers as part of staff transport in a micro-finance scheme is seen as extraneous to the project content: advisors; training sessions; credit funds – my work shows how the way in which do aid is influenced by the how we do it.  Likewise, the SUV as a central feature of contemporary metropolitan experience, has been influenced in its design and marketing through its use in the periphery which in turn, has effected the ways in which the object has been designed, distributed and used in the context of aid work.

2.  This challenges the story that we in the humanitarian ‘North’ tell ourselves about development as an encounter “between autonomous and sovereign selves” and challenges the very premise of development as linear, progressive trajectory – as something that can be directed from donor capitals and enacted across the Global South.

3.  This disruption not only dispels the possibility of enacting development the way it is meant to be done, but can also be helpful in examining the seemingly inexplicable ways in which aid relations ‘on the ground’ change, shift, move, are challenged, supported.

4. Forces us to recognize the micro-political of everyday actions – looks at how global political relations are mediated through objects, encounters.  This is not a new recognition but it is one that has been generally applied at the national level with regards to citizenship and demos. Interesting to see what happens when we extend these ideas to the realm of aid work, and ultimately the international.

Now before I turn to the body of the paper, I need to clarify a few concepts, definitions.  First of all, I’m sure that some you are already have internal conversations regarding the flexibility with which I use the terms aid, development, relief, humanitarianism. This is not an accident. In some cases in the paper, I will make clear indication as to whether I’m referring to project based, long-term development aid or short term relief aid.  I use the word ‘aid’ to refer to both. Likewise, while in policy circles humanitarian refers to the strictly emergency phase of a response – I am using it to refer to the broader enlightenment project of helping those in need through established institutions or organizations. I am, however, often quite fluid in my use of the terms for several reasons. First, the lines between long term development and short-term relief are increasingly blurred institutionally, organizationally, in terms of personnel and policy. This is part policy, part accident.  Second, with regard to my discussion of the comment about development containing an implicit narrative of the triumph of man over his own destiny; over nature – this discourse is increasingly also present with strict aid circles.  Disaster and emergency response is increasingly embedded within narratives of prevention, mitigation, minimizing vulnerabilities and complex emergencies point to underlying structural or  root causes which can be minimized and even eliminated.

The methodology for this paper is very much a ‘mixed methods’ approach combining archival research with secondary sources and some preliminary interviews of people who either worked on or with Land Rovers in general or in the specific development contexts under review.  These were obtained through a snow-ball approach i.e. people who knew people.  Theoretically and empirically, I am still working through approaches and moments, so what I am going to present today are really the building blocks of my bigger project, from which an article needs to be extracted. Although I’ve tried to develop a line of argument, I’m intentionally kept the piece quite broad to solicit feedback on the best approach to take in the article that is struggling to emerged. Particularly, as this is turning out to be such an inter-disciplinary project, I welcome advice on theories or approaches that I may have overlooked or omitted.

The structure of the article proceeds in two phases:

1 – an examination of the theoretical approaches that I have been pursuing to explore the phenomenon

2 – an overview of the empirical trajectory that I have uncovered focussed around the object of the Land Rover.

Part 1:  Theorizing the SUV

Thinking about or through ‘the car’ has been a pet project of social theory almost since the object’s inception.  Theorists such Adorno and Benjamin were interested in understanding how the object facilitated systems of capital both materially and symbolically. This theme was to be picked up again by those interested in structural Marxism and became a trope in the writings of Barthes, Baudrillard, Althusser and Lefebvre during the 1960s.  It was during this period that sustained examination was undertaken on the object of the car.  Lefebvre, considered the “motor-car” to be “the epitome of ‘objects’” (Lefebvre and Rabinovitch 1971:101).  Fast forward to the 1990s and a renewed interest in automobilities was adopting a larger phenomenological approach to the subject, but also building upon political economy approaches which had been part of the sub/urbanization discussions of the 1980s and concerns and considerations around car use and energy security of the late 1970s. Within these approaches there was a small, but significant subgenre that was interested more narrowly in the emerging predilection amongst North American suburbanites for large, gas guzzling vehicles whose safety and security features went far beyond the requirements of ferrying lil’ Jimmy to and from soccer practice. But in very rare cases were these discussions taken outside of the metropole and into the realm of international development or even the ex-colonial periphery at large. Notable exceptions include Green-Simms and Higate and Henry’s work.   From this broad work on cars, Matthew Patterson identifies three broad approaches to theorizing the automobile:  Automobility theory (that i’ve already mentioned), ecology and global politics.

But if widen our lens to include those theories which look not only at the object of the car, but the car as objects, we suddenly find at our disposal a much wider repertoire of theory that can be drawn upon.  This includes work on objects and materiality; science and technology studies and actor network network theory.  While this may seem like a very heavy toolkit, it is one that at least, initially is helpful is thinking through how the SUV may be implicated in both the development of individual subjectivities – both of aid workers and so called beneficiaries – but also with regard to the global relations of aid.

This is the part that I am currently working on – trying to figure out how I want to position the paper, and what makes most sense.  Given time frames I haven’t been able to include the most recent work that I’ve been looking at by people like Mol on the Zimbab Bush Pump; Latour’s Aremis and his ideas of scripts and mediation or things and Bennett’s work on vibrant matter and distributive agency.  So I’m going to present the framework from the first draft, even though I am quite sure that this will be discarded in favour of something new.

Working from the micro to the macro, I suggest that at least three sets of theoretical considerations are useful for this project:

1.  affect and interiority of SUV use (being in the car);

2.  Seeing through the car: the SUV as instrument of seeing and way of knowing

3.  the economic and symbolic circuits of car production, distribution and (re)use (car as assemblage).

Having positioned the argument theoretically, the article will then turn to a select genealogy of SUV use in aid work, focussing on the iconic vehicle: the Land Rover.

Although, the way in which these cars are received by their host populations (the citizens of the beneficiary country) is a crucial part of the dynamic, this article is written primarily from the perspective of the primary user of the vehicles – the aid workers.  Understanding this trajectory is a key initial step in the process of understanding contemporary dilemmas associated with the vehicles’ use and future work intends to engage more explicitly with how the vehicles are used and understood by host populations.

1. Being in the car – affect and interiority

The first set of issues surround how aid workers experience the vehicle and what types of emotional or affective implications it may have. Although the focus of this paper is on the SUV and the related form of the 4×4, Automobility theory, which looks at the experience of being in a car more generally – either as a passenger or driver – is relevant (Featherstone et al. 2005; Flink 1988; Urry 2007), identifying a series of ways in which the SUV has affective impact on its passengers.

First, theories which relate to the interior space of the car help understand the various ways that car use impacts on the emotional and cognitive experiences of its passengers.  The attributes of commonly used SUV models such as Range Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers or Ford Kijangs include air conditioning, sun tinted windows, stereo systems and communications technology for liaising with the home base. This creates a sonic envelope – encasing the passenger(s) and driver in a different soundscape to their surroundings (Bull 2004) – allowing them to block out the representative noises of their environment and/or to create a soundtrack to accompany the passing land and city scapes.  This envelope will also be linked through radio contact to the space of the office base.  When working in tropical countries, the interiority of the LR also offers shelter, from sun, sand, rain and most importantly heat: the climate controlled vehicle a non-representative oasis of cool.  That is not to say that it is necessarily comfortable – not all vehicles are top of the line, the roads are rough, the engine is loud – but relatively speaking it is a more expedient and comfortable way of travelling than that available to the majority of the surrounding population.  Inevitably this creates a physical distance from surrounding environments and populations, particularly where rates of car use are relatively low.

By providing respite from everyday demands (Bull 2004:249), the aid worker may also have unrealistic expectations about the general living conditions of the place they have come to assist. The hermetic space of respite – where engines hum and radios crackle – may help the aid worker to ignore the pedestrian difficulties encountered by the majority of the populations: the unreliable public transport, the lack of childcare, the prevalence of disease flare ups such as malaria, the power cuts, the financial disruptions. In his discussion on cars, Baudrillard considers cars to be an extension of home – something that is even more the case in the context of working in a foreign context. {cite} Merriman compares the space inside a car, and the accompanying space of transit, to Auge’s non-space: a space between places, a space of transit, outside of the time (Augé 1995; Merriman 2004).  Particularly in the context where you are being driven, there may be a moment of nothingness where you may gossip with your co-passengers, listen to music, or contemplate the blurred passing scenery – perhaps recoiling form the children or beggars who run to the windows displaying wounds – sometimes to mirrored glass.  This non-space of the car bears little or no-resemblance its surroundings.

This disjuncture between inside and outside is also reflected in the physical presences of many SUVs or 4×4 as common models used in aid such as, mean that they are highly elevated off the ground – one needs to literally heft oneself up and out of the surroundings and into the space of the vehicle. This vantage point is remarkable, sitting in the SUV you look down upon and over your surroundings, a sense accentuated by the relative absence of similar vehicles and the prevalence of foot traffic, bicycles, or motor-bikes in the majority of development situations.  There is a sense of security through visibility – you are seen and can see.  Although as will be discussed, it is this same visibility that is increasingly putting aid workers under threat. The actual velocity of movement can also be seen as affectively fraught, motion and emotion being co-constitutive – perhaps invigorating, perhaps soothing (Sheller 2004) – but contributing again to a sense of being in-between, ungrounded, ambulatory.

As aid agencies have become more professionalized and rationalized in their labour forces, it is not uncommon for aid workers – particularly those who are visiting experts or on short term contracts to be driven by a local driver. This contributes to a sense of not knowing where you are going and renders the landscape unknown, mysterious, strange.  The ritual of being driven in an SUV, through unknown landscapes may also create a sense of inter-changeability of development or aid contexts: that they are similar in how they are interacted with, and in their unknown-ness. Within the vehicle, being driven creates an implicit hierarchy of ‘international aid staff’ being transported by local drivers although this may also confer power upon the driver – to take the best roads; to not be selling out his/her passenger; to not run out of petrol; to know how to fix the vehicle should things go wrong. A satirical aid blog “Things Aid Workers Like” comments:

Expat aid workers who have limited contact with real live “locals” will often take what their driver says as the “voice of the people.”  This “local voice” can go so far as to influence decisions an aid agency makes with regard to an entire country. Because they are such great sources of cultural information, it may be a good idea to include the driver in focus groups or run new strategy ideas past him for quick informal “vetting.” Drivers make expat aid workers feel like they are friends with a local and have “insight into local perspective,” another thing that expat aid workers like.[1]

A final area where the affective experience of being in a car needs to be considered is with regard to what Miller, Gilroy and others have describes as ‘car cultures’ (Gilroy ; Miller 2001).  These are the affective bonds which develop between people – either individuals or groups – and their cars.  They may invest large amounts of time on their vehicle – fixing it, upgrading – or may overly identify with their vehicle. Car cultures are remarkably strong when it comes to SUVs and in particular land rovers – a point I’ll return to later.

2. Seeing through the car: the SUV as instrument of seeing and way of knowing

A second way of understanding the role of the car in aid work, is with regards to its role as instrument of seeing and knowing.  As already mentioned, the trajectories and narratives of development and car use are inseparable. Post-WW2 development was focussed on a linear modernization narrative – pointing both to the endemic growth potential of so called the third world and its ability to adopt and adapt technological transfers from the first world.  This narrative was constructed by, in good part, the visiting experts – the colonial and commonwealth officers, researchers, and emerging breed of aid workers – who went to the newly invented ‘field’ (Gupta and Ferguson 1997) and discovered, collected, named and analyzed its components (Escobar 1994; Kothari 2005).  An instrumental and constitutive part of these modernization practices were the 4×4 and the concurrent development of roads: enabling factors in the penetration of territory and in the multiplication of collection practices on the part of researchers and aid workers.[2]

The perceived technological superiority of the car versus local modes of transport also reinforced the transformative logic of the modern development project within aid and development circles. An embodiment of enlightenment philosophy’s valorisation of the power and potential of the atomistic individual, the automobile is also the direct and pre-eminent product of the industrial age – of Fordist modes of production, mechanisation, Taylorist rationalisation and petroleum driven dominance.  Chella Rajan calls the car “the (literally) concrete articulation of liberal society’s promise to its citizens” (Rajan 2006:112-13). In the context of development, the SUV could be seen as global liberal society’s promise to the world’s poor.

But the impact of the SUV is more than purely symbolic or metaphorical. A bi-product of the use of the motor vehicle was that it perpetuated a hierarchy of mobility where it was seen as a necessary and normal that aid workers enacted development through short, penetrative missions and engaged with their host landscapes in increasingly hermetic ways.  As a result, the short term mission has come to dominate planning and policy aspects of aid and development (Lewis and Mosse 2007; Stirrat 2000), as alluded to n the acknowledgments of an ECHO report:

“The consultants would like to thank the many people who took time to share their knowledge, experiences and opinions in interviews and consultations for the Security Review, and via the web forum. In many cases, the organisations where interviewees worked lent drivers, recommended other interviewees and gave assistance in setting up meetings and organising accommodation and transport” (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office 2004:v).

This tendency is recognized by development agencies as problematic and widespread – for example, The EC urges staff to visit “people living away from major towns, and away from major roads.  (There is a tendency for busy humanitarian staff  to visit people near easily accessible towns and routes far more than those in areas off the beaten track.)” (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office 2004:21). And although the EC wouldn’t put it in these terms, part of the problem is the reinforcement a uniform and unreflexive subjectivity amongst aid workers.

Part of the creation of this subjectivity is through sight and the accompanying techniques of observation which are inseparable from the way in which we organize knowledge and social practices (Crary 1990:3). While in art history or the history of science, the instruments and technologies which structure site have long been the objects of scrutiny {cite}, in the context of aid work, the mechanisms through which ‘local’ knowledge has been viewed and interpreted are left invisible, unquestioned: “[t]hus certain forms of visual experience usually uncritically categorized as ‘realism’ are in fact bound up in non-veridical theories of vision that effectively annihilate the real world” (Crary 1990:14). While Crary is speaking of nineteenth century instruments of vision such as the stereo-scope and the phenakistiscope, the same argument can be applied to the car, and the SUV. For the passenger, the driver, vision is focussed on the external, distant, speeding landscapes, or those that can be reached easily by car. These landscapes are construed as real, and documented and reported upon for development purposes – becoming representative of the development ‘problem’ at large.  But in their most abstract, these landscapes are subjective and imagined and at least can must necessarily be only partial representations, based on previous decisions of where to build roads, gas stations, pipelines, settlements.

A second insight from Crary comes from his claim that “[t]hese apparatuses are the outcome of a complex remaking of the individual as observer into something calculable and regularizable and of human vision into something measurable and thus exchangeable” (Crary 1990:17).  Again, these criticisms can be applied to the SUV, where the relatively recent rise of the white SUV as a global design icon has also contributed to standardizing practice the world over.  As aid workers, the modalities of interaction will be the same whether you are in Kosovo, Liberia or Haiti (Higate and Henry 2009).  And while it is possible to argue that for aid relations this is necessary – quick response times and standardization is arguably a pre-requisite for a rapid and consistent emergency response, for development workers it is not.  Instead, their perpetuation has contributed to a material culture of aid and the creation of an aid subjectivity, which sets up a material template for the physical and embodied etiquette of the way in which aid relations are conducted.

3. Car as assemblage: economic and symbolic circuits of car production, distribution and (re)use

A final area is the area of Networks. Here work on assemblages is helpful in thinking through the material, discursive, social aspects which link together the network of aid vehicles.  For example, the very materials that make up the SUV are the same materials that have driven colonial relations of exploitation and extraction: fuel, tires, aluminium.  Economically, the car companies have seen the aid market as an important and lucrative part of their business not only in terms of its markets but also for the symbolic and moral capital that it provides when marketing to its domestic audiences – these adverts in turn shape the expectations and ideas of aid workers who go to ‘the field’ to ‘perform aid’ in an expected way. There are also well established distribution networks for the cars themselves: networks of logistics, operations managers, mechanics, and procurement experts spanning the globe.

In order to explore these three themes, the article now turns to a case study of one of the most iconic brands of aid SUVs, the Land Rover.  This will take part in four main sections and concentrate primarily on its history in Africa, but first, a brief introduction to the brand.

In post war Britain, Rover company was tasked as part of British Industry to revive the economy through export promotion.  But steel shortages made car construction difficult and limitations on car ownership meant a limited domestic market.  The Wilks brothers had been impressed by the durability of the American Willys Jeep – which were still lying around in Britain. They designed the first Series 1 Land Rover in 1947 as an agricultural vehicle circumventing purchase restrictions and using aluminium (Slavin et al. 1989:14). From the beginning a consciously patriotic product, it quickly caught on with the overseas markets and became intrinsically associated with the British empire, when the Queen and Prince Philippe used it in their Royal Tour of the Commonwealth in 1953 and 1954 (Slavin, et al. 1989:187).  The Wilks brothers – the owners of the Rover at the time – were extremely well connected in British society, and had easy access to existing Imperial and emerging Commonwealth distribution networks for their vehicles.[3] As a result, according to Slavin, Land Rovers were, as of 1989, sold into more overseas territories than almost any other single British product (Slavin, et al. 1989:80).

1. They shall know us by our velocity (Land Rover goes nuts): Development, Legibility and the 4×4

The first documented use of Land Rover in a development context is the infamous Tanganika Groundnuts Project. The mammoth project was conceived and implemented by the Colonial Office in conjunction with The East Africa Corporation (and Unilever) as a way of providing cheap fat to British production, and introduce ‘advanced agricultural techniques’ to East Africa (East African Groundnuts Scheme 1949; Hogendorn and Scott 1981).  It was also used as an employment scheme for decommissioned troops and as a way to re-use ex-army equipment. Interviews and photos indicate that the scheme was used by the rover company to test early prototype models and must have been shipped from the UK by boat and then brought inland by train from Dar Es Salam.  According to an automotive journalist, Michael Bishop, in 1949 there were four Land Rovers, but this number expanded quickly. The early models were notoriously unreliable.[4]

The project was strongly criticised for its lack of attention to local conditions and poor choice of initial location.  Rolled out without a pilot phase, the entire 6 year, 25 mil pound project covering 3 and a quarter million acres (East African Groundnuts Scheme 1949) was planned on the basis of one nine-week mission to East Africa [sic.]  “covering 10,000 miles of territory by air, 2,000 by road, and 1,000 by rail” (Hogendorn and Scott 1981:85).  This velocity would come to characterize the administration of the project, says Wood, “The air of Tanganika was thick with flying executives. They were always either coming or going: they wore themselves out: they never came down to earth long enough to sit down and collect their thoughts…[The]he unfortunate Area Managers spent half their time waiting on the airstrips for people from Headquarters to arrive, or hanging around airstrips waiting for their planes to take off.” {Wood – page?}.  And while the quote applies to airplanes, it was equally applicable to vehicles. Speaking of the scheme in the House of Commons in 1949, Sir John Barlow remarked “There are about 1,000 lorries, cars, jeeps, land rovers and tankers of various sorts. Without doubt a very large amount of transport is available there” (East African Groundnuts Scheme 1949) (See Figure 3).  He goes on to emphasize the significance of transport by says that “there are about 11,000 natives…[m]any of them are becoming skilled or semi-skilled mechanics” and mentions that he saw the Minister in passing (p.1).  International staff turnover on the project was “still” over 60% a month in 1950 (Hogendorn and Scott 1981:91).

The focus on road building and the physical, motorized penetration of the African continent contributed to the experimental nature of late and post-colonial development regimes.  By 1951, the British scientists endorsed an approach to African development that considered it to be an “equation like problem that could be solved by experiment. Planned pilot schemes constituted the laboratories where development could be experimented with, using Africans as subjects” (Bonneuil 2000:259). In particular, the use of large scale settlement schemes and land use schemes that came to characterize development projects across the African continent during this period, stressed legibility and rapid collection of data from subjects.  By 1950 the number of European researchers had reached several thousand from the fewer than 1000 in 1930 (Bonneuil 2000:266).  The novel presence of the Land Rover influenced both their ability to penetrate further and further into rural areas and the way in which they interacted with and understood their landscapes.  The geometrization of land use was facilitated and rendered logical by the concurrent need to establish roads for the multiplying vehicles.  The ability to collect, monitor and collate data at an unprecedented rate through the use of vehicles and air power was also part of this trend.

However, the relationship between the use of Land Rover and collection epistemologies is not as clear-cut as it might first appear. An informant working in Zambia from 1968-70 recounted her experience using World Food Programme (WFP) and UN land rovers. “They were painted grey with the logos on the doors. The Dutch had them too. I think they were brought up from South Africa.”[5] While the project that she worked on was about collecting nutritional data from 12 far-flung villages – visiting each 3 times over the course of a year – because of the poor quality of the roads and the absence of radio technology, the team would spent between 10 day and several weeks in each village per visit.  And although the Land Rover came equipped with a local driver, the informant commonly drove the vehicle herself, increasingly her knowledge of the place in which she worked.

A similar complication arises in characterizing development projects in the periphery as zones of experimentation for the metropole (Jacobsen 2010).  Such narratives risk over-simplifying the geographies and histories of aid and need to keep in mind 2 key points. First, although complicit in the import of experimental technologies, in this case of the LR, the aid workers are equally part of the experimentation process. As liminal populations, they are as much caught within the structures of aid and development as constitutive of it (Smirl 2011).  Secondly, humanitarianism has a much less decisive relationship between technologies developed in the colonies and then re-imported in the metropole. For example, with regard to the use of motorized vehicles in aid work – these can be traced initially to the use of interwar ambulances in Europe and the first UN-led relief programme UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency for Europe (which would in 1946 become UNICEF). In the wake of WW2, Jeeps, Morris Minors (car), GM trucks were a common part of the European refugee landscape.   Land Rover sold Tickford Station Wagons to UNICEF after the war. It had a “timber ash frame – skinned with aluminium” (see Figure 4).[6] A total of 480 were made and about 80-100 got to Poland (others went to Finland). In concept it was closer to Range Rover in that it was meant to transport people, not just things, and comfort was a consideration although, in an off-road context. Information from UNICEF stressed the important facilitating role that improved transport networks (roads) and new vehicles played in expanding their programmatic areas (Grant 1986). By early 1950s, vehicles were an established part of the humanitarian effort. UNICEF records show that their post-WW2 programme assistance to European Countries was heavily focussed on large scale programmes around mass immunization, malaria control (Bulgaria, Romania), syphilis prevention (Finland) and imply that the approach was to bring health workers to geographically disparate locations (Grant 1986).

However, despite the necessary presence of vehicles to the aid project, it was rarely explicitly acknowledged. A quick examination of the post-war budgets of UNICEF reveal that no motorized transport was explicitly calculated for. And yet, across the world, the advent of the 4×4 was changing the way in which aid work was done, and ultimately changing the aid workers themselves.  In Haiti, the Yaws treatment campaign was realizable only through “extensive travel over difficult terrain with nearly impassable road conditions…[and] instead of trying to train health technicians to drive jeeps, experienced jeep drivers were taught injection procedures – a most successful experiment! [italics mine]” (Grant 1986:36).[7]

The same UNICEF report, describes the work of the organization quotation with reference to the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

‘“Caminante no hay camino, el camino se hate al andar” (the traveller has no path; he makes his path as he goes)…Over the years the lives and work of many individuals have fashioned a path for the organization in The Americas [sic.]. They too might join today in pointing with pride to the many signposts which have marked the progress of a journey not concluded” (Grant 1986:3).

Indicating the axiomatic processual nature of aid work – that it is a route that will never end, that we are travellers, the metaphor of mobility as central to the aid project.[8]

2. Driving into the heart of darkness (1950-1970) – Aid as exploration

Land Rovers penetration of the African aid market was not accidental – as early as 1951 the company was interested in widening its overseas market, but was unsure as to this market’s potential (Slavin, et al. 1989:260). Initial awareness raising for the brand seems to have had a lot to do with specific individuals. For example – a Colonel Leblanc, a “colourful” French-Canadian adventurer who as early as 1951 took on a job as a “sort of travelling salesman” for the company, “demonstrating his Land-Rovers wherever he went” (Slavin, et al. 1989:260). The availability of Land Rovers had taken African adventure tourism to another level, opening up new markets of leisure tourists and new, previously inaccessible geographies.  Again, speaking of Colonel Leblanc, Roger McCahey, retired Manager of UK Government and Military Sales for Rover at Solihull tells us, “’He organized countless expeditions with Land-Rovers another African trip we did together was in 1958-9 from Cairo to Addis Ababa and back again, through Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (the Nubian Desert in those days) taking eight weeks or so. By this time he knew that part of African like the palm of his hand…” (Slavin, et al. 1989:261).[9] Another famous adventurer was Barbara Toy – an Australian woman who toured to world in her Land Rover called Polyanna and wrote a now series of infamous travelogues about her adventures (Toy 1956, 1955a, 1955b, 1957). She too became a travelling salesperson for the company.  It was during this period that Land Rover initiated its official relationship with the Red Cross when, in 1954 they “donated a long-wheelbase Series 1 to act as dispensary in the UAE.”[10]

Through the 1950s and 60s the number of these firms grew.  Julie and Ken Slavin worked for one of these – Militreck expeditions ltd that navigated the trans-Saharan way using up to 40 Land Rovers.[11]  In the late 1960s they broke off and formed Quest Four where they were approached by Land Rover to tailor make vehicles for long expeditions.  Part of the success of Land Rover in terms of African penetration came out of the option for clients to import kits at a much lower tariff and assemble them in country.[12]  Because of this – it is very difficult to know exactly how many there are.

Another market for the vehicles during this time were the colonial administrators. Interviews with the son of an ex-colonial administrator in Kenya indicated that the colonial police force were the primary users of Land Rovers (and other 4x4s). Upon their withdrawal in 1973 the vehicles were turned over to the Kenyans. Originally designed as an agricultural vehicle, the Land Rover also proved very popular with white colonial settlers in Kenya who by 1950 numbered approximately 80, 000[13] and, during the so-called Mau Mau Uprising of 1952-1960, were a vehicle of choice for finding and killing insurgents (Edgerton 1989:152).

From the 1950s-70s there was also the emergence of traveling cinema-mobiles that would travel throughout the country broadcasting documentary films on hygiene, sanitation and nutrition (Green-Simms 2009).  In addition to government sales – both colonially administered and newly independent nations, mining companies such as Shell were also major buyers.[14] The rapid expansion in the African market can be seen by comparing statistics on number of overseas plants. Between 1961 and 1971 they expanded from 3 plants to 13 (Taylor 2007).

3. Car Aid (1980s)

I am still in the process of documenting the use of Land Rover by aid and development agencies in the post-colonial/Cold war period.  As NGOs were not significant international actors until the 1980s (need some stats), it is likely that their use of Land Rovers was not highly significant until then. The emergence of the iconic white SUV as we know it today seems to have been a bi-product of the Red Crosse’s use of white vehicles for their field ambulances combined with the use of 4x4s for development projects. For example, the image an image of a field ambulance from 1940 clearly shows that it was not white, but this ‘kit car’ from the ICRC mission to Nigeria during the Biafran war in 1960 shows the white vehicle with the Red Cross and we found evidence of the white jeeps being used as the official UN vehicles in the first UN mission in Africa – UNOC (1960-64). More work needs to be done in looking at how these decisions were made within the UN – both peacekeeping and the UNHCR and UNICEF, as well as individual organizations such as the ICRC, Care, Oxfam and so on.[15]

It does seem clear that by the mid 1980s, the focus on mobility, and specifically mobility using SUVs was an integral and established part of the aid modality.  For example, Land Rover was intimately involved with the Band Aid project, and their Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) department prepared a

“very special Land Rover for Band Aid – a mobile workshop kitted out with enough equipment to be the envy of a small garage. Based on the Land Rover 127-inch with box body built by SVO, it was airlifted to North Africa to help keep Band Aid’s food truck convoys moving. This box body proved an instant success: the first went to the Ministry of Defence, quickly followed by another to the BBC as a mobile workshop. As word got round, demand for the 4×4 ‘box on wheels’ grew…” (Slavin, et al. 1989:181).

Land Rovers and Land Cruisers were also repeatedly explicitly named as expenditures for Live Aid implementing agencies.  As explicit breakdown was not provided across the board, but even just this cursory glance indicates that the vehicles were being identified by brand name; were considered central to the emergency relief response and that Land Rover has competition. This last observation is consistent with Land Rover’s own analysis. According to their records, until the early 1980s, as a company they were the major supplier of the African aid market, but by the early 1980s they has lost their pole position to other competitors most notably, Toyota Land Cruisers dropping from 80% of the aid market in the 1970s to just over 5% by the late 1990s (Wernle 2000). This was disastrous for the company was, as late as 1989 sold over 70% of all sales overseas (Slavin, et al. 1989:16). The reasons for this are numerous including declining product satisfaction, improved distribution networks on the part of Toyota, and perhaps the recognition of the potential of the aid market.

The worldwide focus on famine relief that resulted from the media focus on Ethiopia, and later Sudan, also entrenched mobility as a central part of the aid enterprise. A much lauded part of the Band/Live Aid response was the Band Aid Trust Shipping Operation which undertook 33 voyages between 1985 and 86 and carried 5, 437, 201 USD worth of food, medical supplies, shelter materials and vehicles to Ethiopia.[16] Of the total short term relief 29,470,654 – 18,735,647 or 63% was spent on transport costs or vehicles.  This was similarly the case with Operation Lifeline Sudan (1989-91), “a massive relief operation to deliver food into Southern Sudan by land, river and aid from across the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.”[17]

Now obviously, a big part of aid is about bringing basic relief supplies to those who have nothing and doing it in the short term – but in addition to the numerous critiques of the efficacy of this type of aid in the first place (De Waal 1997; Duffield 2001; Edkins 2000; Keen 1994), this approach to humanitarianism has had at least two impacts. First, it has amplified and normalized the trend which sees movement, mobility and the passing through of space and an integral and largely unquestioned part of aid work. Secondly, through the development of the ‘relief-to-development’ spectrum, these practices broadly, and the widespread use of usually white Land Rovers/Cruisers in particular are used in places and on projects where it isn’t necessary or justified.  By the end of the 1980s, a ‘regular’ development project inevitably included one or two Land Cruisers/Rovers for the project manager, even for peri-urban or urban projects where a 4X4 was not necessary. Unlike the Groundnuts project, these vehicles increasingly were assigned local drivers – the international aid and development workers, sitting in the backseat, often quite unaware of where they were going or the direction they were going to get there. As technology advanced, the new generation Land Rovers incorporated more ‘luxury’ aspects such as air conditioning, tinted windows, and stereo equipment.  Combined with general improvements in road conditions across the African continent, this meant that the contact of aid workers with their immediate environments was minimized.

The exponential increased in the estimated number of aid workers in Africa (numbers from Stoddard, Fast) has gone hand in hand with an increase in white Land Rovers.  Throughout the 1990s they became standard equipment for everyone from small scale NGOs to UN peacekeeping operations.  Generally, white with the corporation’s logo on the side, a global distribution network grew up to become middle men between the aid agencies and car companies (Kjaer, Conaco).  Recognizing the money that was to be made, in the mid 2000s these distributors began to actively target the aid market.  For example, in 2005, Kjaer, one of the major distributors “made the decision to focus on…developing and professionalizing auto-dealerships in developing countries, and supporting humanitarian agencies” (Stapelton et al. 2009:n.p.). They became explicitly proactive as they felt that “[i]n this aggressive market they could no longer wait for the phone to ring” (Stapelton, et al. 2009:n.p.). Similarly, car manufacturers, in the advent of the media aid frenzies of the 1990s recognized not only the gains to be made from sales the organizations but the knock on effects of being able to use their involvement in aid work as a marketing tool. The companies have been quick to advertise their good deeds in Africa to potential consumers ‘back home’. For example, their website advertises their collaboration with the ICRC, ‘Reaching Vulnerable People Around the World’ in part, through the use of Land Rovers.[18]   But the potential reverberations in domestic minds is more than purely philanthropic. David Campbell has written about the deeply emotional way in which SUVs were marketing in the 1980s and 90s to American suburbanites craving adventure and distant danger (Campbell 2005).  According to Wolfgang Reitzle, chairman of Premier Automotive Group, owner of the Land Rover mark,

‘ìThe aid-agency market is only about 40,000 to 70,000 vehicles a year, but its importance goes far beyond mere numbersÖIf you look at Formula One racing, the aid market has similar benefits for manufacturers,” Slavin said. “In the present crisis we’re having with the environment and global warming, the motor industry takes a hammering. When you have disasters, you need 4x4s. There’s nothing better for a 4×4 vehicle than to be seen with an emblem that says United Nations or Oxfam or the World Wildlife Federation. That’s worth a lot of money to any manufacturer.”’ (Wernle 2000)

By stepping up into her Land Rover, a suburban housewife in Des Moines can step into dreams of escaping to a life of adventure and doing good.  But it is worth bearing in mind the impact that these media images have had on the aid workers who themselves are climbing into their Land Rovers, expecting adventure, danger, the unknown.  Since the early 2000s, however, aid work has been becoming significantly more adventurous. According to Stoddard and Harmer, as of 2009, violent incident involving aid workers were up by xx% and the majority of these involved a vehicle (Stoddard et al. 2009).  In the majority of cases, the aid worker was left unharmed, but the vehicle taken (Fast 2010).  In Darfur, in 2009, car jackings became so widespread that the UN Mission in Darfur issued withdrawal of all Toyota Land Cruisers (Buffalo) as they “are most exposed to attack” (UNAMID 2009).  This led to staff either using local, unmarked taxis or mini-busses, or more commonly, resorted to moving between the monstrous UN supercamps in UN helicopters – further distancing themselves from their surroundings.  It has also led, since the late 1980s to an increased demand for armoured Land Rovers worldwide (Taylor 2007:216).What is interesting about this problem, from our perspective today, is not that marauders are preying on UN assets – this has been the case as long as there have been UN missions to prey upon[19] – but that from a programmatic perspective, the vehicles themselves are seen as little more than incidental to the more generalized hostilities against aid workers not only in Darfur, but, on a global level.  This epistemological separation between the material or ‘hard’ and the programmatic or ‘soft’ sides of aid and development is only beginning to be identified as an area that needs attention.

Since 2003 an organization called ‘Fleet Forum’ begun to bring together the logistics managers from over 40 aid organizations including WFP, ICRC, World Vision international and many others.[20]  Together they operate a combined humanitarian fleet of 80,000 vehicles with an estimated operating cost of USD 800 million, the second highest overhead cost.  They aim to be a neutral interface between private sector resources and humanitarian transport and include a wide range of private sector partners including TNT (who fund the secretariat), Land Rover, the Overseas Lease Group and Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings Limited. Their stated aims are efficient and effective humanitarian aid, increased road safety and security, and improved environmental impact including improved disposal.  (A common problem is what to do with the vehicles as the end of a project).  Although they were formed to re-dress the marginalization of fleet management within the overall development project, they have not gone any way to repositioning the lens of aid to include transport, which remains, for all intents, invisible.  One impact of Fleet Forum may actually be a deepening of the humanitarian assemblage. As Graham points out in his recent work – infrastructure only becomes visible when it breaks down. Similarly, it could be argued that the beneficiary only becomes visible when the transport fails.  Our previous informant recounts with joy the occasions on which her Land Rover got a flat in the bush, and they had to camp for several days while the ‘messenger’ biked back to the nearest town to fetch a spare.  Likewise, Mr. Jackson and his pregnant wife forced to walk back to Urumbo, bitten by mosquitos and threatened by wildlife, were able to relate to the experiences, challenges and fears of the people they were meant to be helping. Rather, that bring us closer to understanding the situation and concerns of potential beneficiaries, improvements to the humanitarian fleet may only increase the inability of the aid community to understand.[21]

Interim Conclusion: Car-jacking the theory

The danger of course, of looking at the history of aid work primarily from the perspective of aid workers is that it “run[s] the risk of re-inscribing the world according to experts rather than recovering the world as lived by people” (Trentmann 2009:302); or, as a participant at a recent conference quipped: “writing a history of white people, for white people, by white people”.  I recognize this as a problem, and am pursuing research into understanding rather than merely speculative how these vehicles were received.  Part of the difficulty is obviously methodological – both in terms of positionality and with regards to records which are more readily available and accessible in the metropole – in this case the UK.  Post-colonial theorists would warn that the narrative of aid and the SUV needs to be understood not only as a homogenous narrative about the imposition of modernity, but also as interactive and ‘multiple’ – taken up in different ways, spun back, hybridized and thrown back again.

Accepting the nuance, a central suspicion of this line of inquiry is that recent car-based violence needs to be read against a deeply unequal narrative of car use and interaction across many parts of ex-colonial Africa.  For example, compared to Western Europe and North America that have 500 -700 vehicles per 1 000 people, most Sub-Saharan African countries have between 20 and 60 vehicles per 1000 people (Aeron-Thomas et al. 2002; Green-Simms 2009). Partly because of this, Green-Simms argues that it cannot be considered to have the same uniform associations of power, autonomy, speed etc. but is much more “disjointed and multiply determined” (Green-Simms 2009:4).  And yet, it is worth investigating the degree to which identifiable narratives have emerged.  For example, amongst those communities who are most in contact with aid workers, anecdotal evidence suggests a perceived visual hypocrisy of the use of these vehicles has not been incidental to a deterioration of relations between aid workers and intended beneficiary populations; their connection with previous modes of interaction (colonialism, elite oppression) and their wasteful use of the very resources which had created grievance in numerous African countries:  tires, oil.   Green-Simms further suggests that fantasies of development or material success co-exist with what she calls “occult anxiety” – “anxiety produced when sources of wealth are obscured and associated with magic and witchcraft” (Green-Simms 2009:30). While Green-Simms is speaking only of West Africa, the lack of material basis for aid wealth is worth considering from the perspective of host nations – who see bases, cars, camps spring up from no-where preaching the doctrine of self-improvement through economic development, but obscuring the mechanisms through which this occurs.

Looking at the history of Land Rover and aid workers, with attention to the three themes – car as personal space; car as instrument of movement; and car as integrated network – highlights the trend of separation, and estrangement in aid and development rather than rapprochement. This may be explained by the emergence of two narratives about aid as understood through the object of the SUV. The first story is the one about development as modernization. As car use and ownership as an example of what can happen when you work hard, invest in innovation, pursue market economies, autonomy, and so on.  This is the story as told within the aid industry and it’s a story that has been exacerbated by technological advancements.  As SUVs have becoming more advanced, larger, more enclosed, so too have aid workers become more distant, and less in contact with the people and places they have come to assist. As Northern car manufacturers have relied on exoticised tropes to sell their product to home markets, some aid workers are steeped in a orientalist binary long before ever entering the profession.  With nothing outside their mobile bubbles to challenge them, these categories have become exacerbated rather than challenged.

The second narrative is that of SUV as symbol of the failure and hypocrisy of development.  Disconnected from the systems of production that created them, local populations may understand these large cars as representative of the unequal development dynamic that has played the African continent since colonialism. As the car has not been obtained through any observable dynamic of progress – but simply appeared, its material presence is a contradiction to the idea of linear, processual development.  It’s very existence undermines the  idea of global development solidarity – a amalgam of colonial and neo-colonial processes of domination – of rubber, oil, aluminium, Fordism, Taylorism, exhaust. Not only does the car appear from no-where, a feature of an elite and rarified landscape, but the repetitive, and non progressive nature of lived-aid work – where new experts continually cycle through on short term projects – undermines the aid and development rhetoric.  As a passenger/vehicle hybrid, the car itself is seen to symbolise and possibly confer power – historically the domain of colonial interests, local elites, and aid workers – it has become sought after as an object to obtain and wield. The rise in car-jackings and modifications of SUVs needs to be considered as an act by groups who feel they have too long,  been excluded from these processes.  Begging through mirrored windows, while, the drivers stare straight ahead.

But what the analysis of this paper tell us about the possibility of a third approach, one that doesn’t focus on either inside or outside, but on recognizing that humanitarianism is inseparable from its “knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc” (Foucault and Gordon 1980:117) ….where the SUV becomes the driver of development.


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[2] Important to note that in the 1950-70s aid work and scientific research were often interlinked – considered to be part of the same modernizing project.

[3] Interview, December 2, 2010.

[4] Also, see the Queesland development scheme

[5] Interview, November 27, 2010.

[6] Interview, December 2, 2010

[7] the work of Dant on the driver-car Dant, T. (2004) The Driver-Car. Theory Culture and Society 21: 61-79..  He says…xxxx [need to look at Oct 2004 issue of Theory, Culture and Society – automobility issue

[8] ..could also say development as modernity, as technological progress…as running (driving over) anything in its path

[9] – there was also a well established overland expedition tradition (Oxford-Cambridge race)

[11] Interview

[12] These were called Completely Knocked Down (CKDs) Taylor, James Oct. (2007) Land Rover : 60 Years of the 4×4 Workhorse. Ramsbury: Crowood Press..

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Interview, December 2, 2010

[15] Work also needs to be done looking at the use of LRs under the late colonial regimes such as the Belgians in the Congo.  More work needs to be on the evolution of the role of motorized transport in aid and development and possibly done separately.

[16] “With Love From Band Aid” report from

[19] See UN SC council resolution xxxx re: situation in Congo 1961.

[20] Accessed December 20, 2010.

[21] It might be worth mentioning, also, that typically, the major problem is not the vehicles themselves – or even procurement, but logistics, transport and political border regimes. A political rather than a strictly material problem.

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