Spaces of Aid

“Spaces of Aid: The spatial turn and humanitarian intervention,” Paper presented at the BISA Conference, December 15, 2009, Leicester

Since the mid-1990s, international, non-governmental and multilateral actors have increased their organizational awareness of physical security concerns in the field (UN Secretary General, 2000). Where humanitarian presence was historically protected through appeals to international legal and moral norms of neutrality and immunity there is an increasing focus on the need to physically protect and control the space of intervention –  from the space of the body, to vehicles and their trajectories, to the living and work environments of both staff and beneficiaries (Van Brabant, 2000; Smirl, 2008). Such considerations have become necessary as humanitarian actors work in increasingly more complex and violent aid environments, leading to the paradoxical outcome that the international aid workers become increasingly enclosed, guarded and cordoned off from the very populations they were mobilized to assist (Stoddard, Harmer et al., 2009).

Current work on humanitarianism is now concerned with the implications that this may have on the politicization of humanitarian space through the built environment. However, this work fails to adequately theorize the mechanisms by which this politicization occurs. This paper seeks to address this by

  • first, examining what a spatial approach to humanitarian intervention might look like;
  • second, how such an approach can contribute to a better understanding of the significance of current trends toward humanitarian enclavism;
  • third, widening the debate out from the specific form of the compound to demonstrate that the tendency towards enclosure is a pervasive feature of humanitarian engagement in the field regardless of securitization.

Methodologically, this paper draws upon interviews with aid workers and security officials and a review of security manuals from ECHO, the IFRC, DFID and the UN.  It is supplemented by photographic and archival research and as a theoretical examination of the spatial turn in humanitarian intervention it is intentionally wide ranging – drawing on a variety of cases from Ache, East Timor, Rwanda, Darfur, and Sarajevo.

Before beginning it is necessary to undertake a few definitions.  In the context of this paper, the term humanitarian refers to the full spectrum of international assistance from relief to development.  The expression “in the field” is used to refer to the site of the humanitarian field mission, or offices of a given humanitarian agency based in a country which is being assisted. While th term ‘the field’ is itself inherently spatial – a phenomena I address elsewhere – I leave it unproblematized in the context of this paper.  Similarly, while acknowledging the inherently spatial nature of terms such as the ‘local’ and the ‘international’ in some cases these are the most clear designation for categories of people for normally reside in what is considered ‘the field’ (in the case of the former) and those that work in the mobile space of international organizations (for the latter).

Part I – The framework:  lessons from other space(s)

In The Production of Space Henri Lefebvre famously lays out a tri-partite framework for examining space (Lefebvre, 1991).  His intent is to demonstrate the role that space and place play in the production of capitalist subjectivities and processes.  However, the impact of this framework has gone far beyond a narrow Marxist analysis and has been used to explain the production and reproduction of identities, subjects and social relations regardless of the initial ontological assumptions.

In The Production of Space and subsequent works, Lefebvre urges the reader to critically interrogate the seemingly unproblematic nature of space as inert place in contemporary epistemology.  By analysing the causal role that space as place in the reproduction of accepted ontological categories, insight is gained into the various functions that space and place play in the establishment and maintenance of power relations more generally.

Lefebvre lays out a model of conceived, perceived and lived spaces. Conceived space (or representations of space)  is “conceptualised space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers…all of whom identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived” (Lefebvre, 1991, 38). Perceived space (or spatial practice) is the space of everydayness.  It is how a place is commonly used in routine existence and contains the “routes and networks which link up the places set aside for work, ‘private’ life and leisure” (Lefebvre, 1991, 38).  Lived space (or representational space) is the space of “the imagination which has been kept alive and accessible by the arts and literature” (Shields, 2004, 210).  It is

space as lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’…This is the dominated – and hence passively experienced – space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate.  It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects (Lefebvre, 1991, 39).

This tri-partite model (or triple dialectic) has proved useful for subsequent theoretical explorations of the nature of space.  For example, David Harvey, lays out the categories of space as absolute, relative and relational (Harvey, 2006).[1]  A third spatial theorist who is well known for his work on spatial trilectics is Ed Soja who translates Lefebvre’s framework into a First Space which is known, mappable (analogous, according to Soja, to Lefebvre’s perceived space); a Second Space with is imagined (analogous to Lefebvre’s conceived and lived spaces); a Third Space which brings together spaces which are both real and imagined (Soja, 1996).

In the context of humanitarian intervention, the use of a similar tri-lectic proves to be of great heuristic value.   Drawing upon insights from Lefebvre, Harvey and Soja, it is possible to identify three distinct spaces of relevance to humanitarian intervention.

The ‘first space’ or espace conçu is identifiable in the abstract spatial constructions of humanitarian assistance.  It can be seen in the neo-liberal, technocratic categorization of countries according to levels of poverty, conflict, volatility.  The way in which poverty and instability are mapped onto geographic locales and conversely how these geographies of humantarianism form the basis of further categories of intervention, assistance and international relations.  The most obvious example of the conceived space of humanitarian intervention is the distinction between first and third world countries.  Although this distinction has become refined and adapted to more nuanced categories such as HIPC, LICUS or LDCs, the spatial logic remains the same.  The underlying categories used to define the problem and need of global humanitarianism are based upon the spatial ontologies of OECD countries.  Nor is conceived space purely restricted to the macro-level.  Within international organizations, the established mode of service delivery is through technocratic tools and approaches which rely upon the conceptual belief that the spaces of assistance are as they are constructed within the humanitarian imaginary.

The perceived space of humanitarianism is how humanitarianism is experienced – the sensory experience of providing aid.  While it is possible to conceive of the sensory experience including a wide range of embodied experiences such as global conferences, meetings with beneficiaries, and so on., the field mission is the exemplar of perceived humanitarian space.  This is because the physical distance between the source of humanitarian assistance – first world capitals – and the place where the assistance is being delivered – the third world field site, or mission – restricts the experience of humanitarianism to the interface between those individuals who physically travel to deliver assistance and those individuals who receive it.

Lived humanitarian space encompasses both perceived space and conceived space – looking at how the representations of humanitarian assistance are represented and woven into histories and  experiences.  In the context of humanitarianism, examples of lived space are the experiences that individuals have with each other through the process of work, projects, social interactions, publicity.  Here, Soja’s idea of Third Space (as well as its subsequent uptake by post-colonial theorists such as Bhabha (Bhabha, 1990), Spivak (Spivak and Harasym, 1990), Khan (Khan, 1998)) points to the role that a hybrid space between so called reality and imagination plays in interrogating, building and contesting conceived as well as perceived spaces.

The next part of the paper will examine this framework in three material contexts of humanitarian intervention:  the humanitarian compound, the SUV or land-rover and the Grand Hotel.  Doing so allows for a better understanding of  the precise way in which the spatiality of humanitarian intervention is significant.


Part II – The Humanitarian Compound

Since the early 1990s there has been a consistent tendency toward an increased physical securitization of ‘the field’.  Three specific trends can be identified: the introduction of standardized security regulations and building codes within the UN, the rise of the UN integrated mission, One Office approach and tendency for governments to co-locate humanitarian, development and political field offices, and the increased stress on standardized security protocols for field staff in a wide variety of organizations. Among these tendencies, the built form of the humanitarian compound stands out as a key example of this tendency.

But what exactly is a compound?  As an exemplar, a humanitarian compound is a securitized, walled space which contains buildings for both working and living.  It will be guarded, and entry will be controlled – usually through a system of identification.  It will contain the food and NFIs to be distributed, as well as vehicles.  It will be self-contained – having independent generation, water and food supplies for staff and it will be networked to other parts of its organization through independent communication channels at a velocity that it much higher than the majority of its immediate physical surroundings.  This is not to say all aid agencies work and live in compounds however the trend within aid work is towards increased physical securitization of staff and assets, driven (according to Duffield (Duffield, 2009)) by the need for insurance.  Through the homogenizing and securitized nature of the compound, the person who is the ‘object of development’ can only be permitted into the confines of the compound if they meet the requirements of the ideal beneficiary (Mitchell, 2002). And the more that the compound is securitized and separated from those its supposed to be assisting, the more the ideal beneficiary will become abstracted: in Auge’s terms “a spectacle of the real” (Augé, 1995).

This enclavism exists even when the precise physical conditions of the compound are not present. In the terminology of Tilly and Collins, the institutional conditions in the field effectively create reified social groupings (Tilly, 2005; Collins, 2004).  There will be minimal contact between these groups and local populations. And contact that does take place will be highly codified, taking the form of “fact finding missions”, prearranged meetings or consultations. Consider the ECHO’s advice to staff on “relations with the local population” (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office, 2004a, 21). As part of an effective security strategy, managers and staff should “spend a considerable proportion of their time meeting and talking with a representative variety of local people” including “random visits to homes in a variety of geographical areas…; visiting people living away from major towns and away from major roads….[and] visiting areas inaccessible to vehicles, on foot if necessary” (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office, 2004a, 21).  They admit that “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”.

This tendency is almost inescapable in a context where staff are simultaneously being told and trained to minimize risks, to only walk on “well used roads” (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office, 2004a, 29), to be “suspicious of anything out of the ordinary”, to “walk alone or drive alone” and to always “know where you are going” – all quotes from the same EC manual.  While understandable as a security strategy, the cognitive implications of this advice are significant.  Combined with an intensification of security trainings which emulate car jackings and stress the danger in the everyday, aid workers gravitate towards the same secure housing estates, and familiar bars, restaurants, hotels and gyms. In Goffman’s terms, the “ex-pat” enclave exhibits characteristics of a “total institution” which structures the aid workers existence in the field and mediates their understanding of their local surroundings and the people they are supposed to be assisting (Goffman, 1991).  In Lefebvre’s terms, it will shape their perceived space and inevitably what is considered to be normal, to be safe.  This is supported by lessons from gated communities which seem to suggest that increased physical separation, does contribute to a fear of what lies outside the gates.

Lessons from gated communities

Since the 1960s the defensive architectural technique of the gated communities (GCs) have been studied as an identifiable and prevalent settlement type (Blakely and Snyder, 1997).[2]   Atkinson and Blandy (2005) define GCs as a “housing development that restricts public access” symbolically and/or physically,  “usually through the use of gates, booms, walls and fences.  These residential areas may also employ security staff or CCTV systems to monitor access.  In addition, GCs may include a variety of services such as shops or leisure facilities” (Atkinson and Blandy, 2005, 177).  Most importantly, they represent an attempt by their residents to disengage with the wider social processes in an attempt to increase security, safety and comfort.  They are “residential enclaves [that] in all times and places share a basic characteristic of setting themselves off from the urban matrix around them, through control of access, and the solidification of their perimeters” (Luymes, 1997, 198).  Work on GCs in the UK reveals startling similarities with international humanitarian compounds.  Acknowledging the immediate difference – that the compound is established with the purpose of accomplishing a particular labour outcome, while the GC is established primarily for residential and associated purposes such as increased social cohesion and quality of life –  comparisons may offer insight both in terms of material form, and in the ways it affects their residents’ understandings of their local environments.

For many internationals, the experience of working in the field will have an effect much like that of Atkinson and Blandy’s description of the inhabitants of so-called GCs in the UK, US, and Canada.  Consider Atkinson and Flint’s description of connected “fortified residential and work spaces” which resemble  “a seam of partition running spatially and temporally through cities” (2004, 877).  Residents of GCs restrict their movement to a small and secure number of places…”elite fractions seamlessly moving between secure residential, workplace, education and leisure destinations” (Atkinson and Blandy, 2005, 180).  Similarly, for many humanitarians in the field, movement is restricted between office, home and target project.  Contact is often limited with the aid recipient, and when it exists it is highly codified interaction – often within humanitarian or government space.

Significant research has been undertaken on the relationship between the form of a GC and the perceptions and behaviours of its inhabitants.  The results raise similar questions for the inhabitants of humanitarian enclaves.  In particular, three findings are applicable to this discussion.  First, Low (2001, 2003) found that the process of living in gated communities may have actually increased residents’ fear, even though fear of crime and personal insecurity are cited as a major reason for moving to a GC (Blakely and Snyder, 1997).  The first way that this would occur was through the general, overall increased attention to security which heightens residents’ awareness of anything that might seem abnormal.  By surrounding themselves with constant reminders of the possibility of crime such as CCTVs, guards, and gates, residents begin to frame their existence in terms of secure versus non–secure situations.  As applied to the case of international humanitarian assistance, a similar impact could be seen from the introduction of system wide, standardized training programmes for staff; the mainstreaming of security concerns into programme design; and the introduction of increased physical security measures.

A second way in which GCs increase their residents’ fear, is through heightening the residents’ distinction between the space of the GC, which is safe, and that which lies outside the gates and is unsafe and threatening.  Residents of GCs expressed the feeling of being threatened “just being out in normal urban areas, unrestricted urban areas” (Low, 2001, 54).  The process of gating a community is by definition about identifying those that belong and those that do not.  The category that is used to define this belonging is spatial.  Those that are outside are against us; those that are within, are with.  Rationally, there is a recognition that not all the people who live outside of the humanitarian enclave are enemies.  However, looking at the impact that gating has on its inhabitants, even within a normal civic setting, raises serious concerns as to the potential impact of humanitarian enclaves on the humanitarians who reside in them.

A security expert in Banda Aceh felt that within expat communities in the field a “siege mentality” can develop, where “you don’t speak the language, don’t read the local press so are completely isolated from what is going on around you.  This can mean that you have the impression that everyone is incredibly nice, or that everyone is out to get you.”[3]  He went on to say that, in an immediate post–disaster situation internationals are particularly isolated; they “really don’t have any contact with the local community.”[4]  In this context, an event that is actually part of the “normal chaos” happens, such as kids throwing stones at a passing car, or a mugging of international staff, it is seen as a huge aberration warranting (and requiring) stringent security measures.  [5] And unlike most other places, where the longer you stay, the more comfortable you become, in an expat situation the situation is “highly charged” and because as a Westerner you are “highly visible” even in a neutral or positive way, you begin to think that everything is about you, and you may interpret things in a skewed way.  [6]

At the time of the above interview, in June 2008, there had been an increase in recorded incidents of crime (World Bank/DSF, 2008) which many expats in Aceh were anecdotally interpreting as proof of increasing anti–foreign sentiment amongst the Acehnese.  However, my informant proposed that this crime increase could actually be seen as evidence of things in Aceh “returning to normal”; that people were no longer in a state of “post–tsunami shock”.  [7] Further, prior to and during the tsunami, crime figures were not published making any statistical increase using an artificially low crime rate for its starting point.  However, within the ‘gated community’ of the ‘expat bubble’, anecdotal experience quickly turns into fact, resulting in increased security measures on the part some international organisations.

A third way in which the spatial arrangement of the gated community affects its residents’ perceptions is through path dependence.  Low observed that once residents started to live within GCs they were unlikely to move out again (2001, 47).  This is supported by Merry (1981) which found that a lack of familiarity with ones’ surroundings is an important contributing factor to residents’ perception of danger.  Again, as applied to trends in humanitarianism, the more that humanitarians tend to enclose themselves, or adopt defensive or deterrent security strategies, the less likely they will be to revert to acceptance strategies.  Even if the fear is not supported by empirical evidence, over long periods of time it my lead “people to unnecessarily secure themselves, remove themselves from social activities, and increase levels of distrust of others” (Wilson-Doenges, 2000, 600).[8]

This reinforcement of shared beliefs among physically proximate communities is supported by those who argue for a geographic basis for culture; for example, Wagner and Mikesell (1962) stress the importance of the “habitual and shared communication [that] is likely to occur only among those who occupy a common area’” in the formation of a cultural identity (as quoted in Cresswell, 2004, 17).  Within this cultural identity are shared models of self and also shared models of the other.  By increasingly using the compound epistemology as the basis for envisaging and understanding the place that they are in, both possibilities of thought and possibilities for action are shut off: dismissed as non–options or worse, simply unimaginable.  If we consider Tuan’s (1977) view that as human subjects we get to know the world through our perception and experience of places, if the perceptions and experiences of humanitarian workers are confined to compounds, then there is little chance for humanitarians to get to know the world that they are assisting.  If the objective of the humanitarian assistance is to better understand, relate to, assist, and capacitate the ‘other’, is this not completely at odds with such practices of enclosure?  If experience of space and place are fundamental to a human’s understanding of the world, what is the impact of humanitarian enclavism on its inhabitants’ fear of what, or who lies outside the gates?

Beneficiaries at the gates

Indeed, over the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in the perceived risk of “the field” so much so that the EC said that “the increased fear of attack can itself be considered a significant challenge in humanitarian agencies’ efforts to maintain the security and well being of personnel” (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office, 2004b, 1).  This fear is amplified by the rapid turnover of these agencies which sees new recruits constantly arriving with little knowledge of their new posting beyond the security manual they’ve just received.  It is further exacerbated by the fact that so much of aid work is now done by short term experts or consultants who fly in and out and rarely venture far beyond conference rooms and the hotel bar.

Whether this fear is well-founded is a matter of debate.  Figures on aid worker fatalities are notoriously incomplete with no comprehensive records kept until approximately 1997.  An analysis of the most comprehensive study of aid worker fatalities found that when controlled for the six outlying contexts of Afghanistan, Darfur, and Somalia aid work has become marginally less dangerous for internationals since 2003 decreasing from 2.7 fatalities per 10,000 to 2.3.  However, it is worth noting that the figures were never that high to begin with. As a comparison – the UK rate of fatal or serious vehicle accidents for 2002 was 5.9 per 10,000.

It is not possible to say whether this decrease is the result of increased securitization.  However, there is no doubt that a security spiral is taking place, where fear leads to increased securitization leads to more fear.  Nor is this necessarily fear vis-à-vis the “other” – it may be fear of being punished for violating security regulations, as was the case for the security officers following the UN bombings in Algiers, Bagdad and now Kabul.  In may also be fear of losing staff – for example, in Darfur, the restrictions on staff mobility have led IOs to improve the quality and security of the compounds to entice staff to stay longer than a typical 6 month tour.  Perhaps most worrying is the implication that this has for  national staff, whose fatality rates have clearly and significantly risen in the last 10 years.  Either, the increased securitization campaign on the part of the international community is working for its internationals, and were it not in place we would be seeing similar increases in the rates of international casualties OR, and more likely, the increased securitization is resulting in increased use of remote management and outsourcing which transfers the risk to the very people that these agencies are supposed to be assisting.  I say more likely, because a closer look at the figures shows that the largest group of humanitarian targets are truck drivers. This would support the argument that the targeting of humanitarians needs to be seen primarily in terms of opportunism and predation.  This is also supported by post-mortem reports of Iraq and Algiers which show that in terms of real security, most humanitarian installations remain soft targets, and could be easily attacked – but aren’t.

More generally, the question needs to be asked as to how this security spiral is being translated into the conceived space of the humanitarian imaginary. In the context of aid policy it is often based upon “lessons learnt” or “best practice” collected from field offices around the world.  However, the previous observation that aid workers are increasingly limited in their lived space of the field raises the question of who’s lessons and what practices these reports are based upon. If they rely primarily on the “non-lieux” of the compound, on the flying visits of the consultants and experts, on the “field work under fire” this implies that the entire way of thinking about the humanitarian “problem” is fundamentally flawed and that our humanitarian imaginary is imaginary indeed.  Further the decline of lived or third space where new imaginaries may be developed,  while there is ,simultaneously, a rapacious demand from headquarters for demonstrable outputs encourages conclusions based on the severely restricted perceived space of the aid workers.

Two possible critiques of these observations of the significance of increased humanitarian enclavism need to be addressed.  First, there is the possibility that this is an extreme case that applies only to a small number of highly securitized environments.  Second that in any situation there will be social boundaries.  That is, even in the context of a geographically proximate location such as a city neighbourhood, there will be spatially distinct social groups.  Their perceived (or relational) spatial relationship to the same geographical area will be radically different dependent upon their unique spatial trajectories, their gender, ages, mode of transport, temporal demands (do they work the night shift, or work from home?), do they have pets or children which mean that they are aware of the local public spaces? What is their religion? Do they use the church or the mosque? Do they shop locally or drive to the superstores? Are they recent immigrants? Do they speak the language? In other words, spatial divisions are not restricted to the context of humanitarian intervention in dangerous places. They will occur in any area where distinct groups use the same space for different ends.

These divisions become problematic when a) the use of this space by one group of users impedes upon other users of the space in a way which is problematic for the second group (for example, the installation of bollards and set back in residential civic areas by the US government to ensure the safety of their embassy staff); b) and/or the perceived spatial experience of one group of users is influenced in a way that falsely or negatively constructs their view of other users of the space.

In the context of humanitarian intervention, this unequal use of space has been a constant feature of most interventions. Given the time frame, I’m not able to include a discussion on the impact of spatial divisions on the host community.  Some excellent work has already been done in the context of the social and economic impacts of peacekeeping missions on their surrounding communities – work that needs to continue. However, in taking this forward, there is the need to move beyond a positivist lens.[9] And while it may be impossible to move beyond the epistemological constraints of perceived space, it is possible to recognize it as a constitutive part of the aid experience not only in the context of increased securitization, but in the context of any humanitarian intervention.

To demonstrate this, I will now turn to two examples of how this has been the case with reference to two dominant tropes of international involvement in ‘the field’:  the SUV and the Grand Hotel.

Part III – Des espaces des autres

Sport utility vehicles

The white sport utility vehicle (SUV) has become a symbol of international humanitarian presence; in many countries better recognised than the symbol of the blue helmet of UN peacekeepers.  To humanitarian workers, it represents physical safety both in terms of its large frame and on–road visibility, and in terms of the protection that has historically been derived from its symbolic values of neutrality, impartiality, and universality.  However, to the Third World it has arguably come to represent the petroleum fueled inequality that has led to a situation where a self appointed few behave in a way which damages their surroundings and others.  More recently, the SUV may also be seen as a symbol of hybridity and the co–option, by local power brokers, of Western elite dominance.

While the white SUV has become a ubiquitous part of aid work, any theorization of how its material form is co-constitutive of the humanitarianism is sorely lacking.  The lack of reflexivity over its use is reflected in the absence of any history of why or how it has become the dominant mode of transport in the majority of humanitarian field operations.

Consider that in the late 1970s, Land Rover held 80 percent of the aid market (Wernle, 2000).  While this translated into merely 40,000 to 70,000 vehicle sales per year, their importance “goes far beyond the numbers” (Wernle, 2000).  As late as

the early 1980s, Land Rover was the vehicle of choice of aid organisations such as the United Nations, Oxfam and the Red Cross.  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).

By 2000, Land Rover’s share had fallen to just over five percent, with new entrants such as Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi taking over Land Rover’s share (Wernle, 2000).

The form and design of the vehicle, however, has remained remarkably unchanged since the introduction of the iconic Defender model in 1948.  It is still a four by four, all terrain vehicle, based on model of a jeep (Campbell, 2005).  It has a  gross vehicle weight of approximately 3,500 kg, a strong, rigid chassis often with an integrated front grill and all terrain tyres.  It sits high off the ground and can pull a load equal to its own weight.[10]  In the context of humanitarian aid it is almost always painted all white, and bears the logo of the agency that owns it.  The jeep itself was developed in response to the requirements of troop movements during the Second World War (Campbell, 2005).  As the jeep’s heir, “[f]rom the outset then, the SUV has been marked by the military” (Campbell, 2005, 956).[11]  Nor has the potential of this history been lost on the marketing teams of Land Rover and its competitors.  Advertising and promotional material continues to emphasise the capacity of the SUV to protect its passengers from the dangers of the passing environment (Campbell, 2005; Glover, 2000; Bradsher, 2003).  In the original 1940s and 1950s development context, Land Rover did present one of the few vehicular options for development agencies to transport staff in areas with poor or sometimes non–existent roads.

Just as the vehicles are associated with safety and refuge (Glover, 2000, 364), they are also intentionally linked in their promotional material with ideas and images of adventure, individualism, and frontierism.  Speaking of SUV names (and therefore of marketing strategies), Glover says that a common theme is “the Western frontier, those most mythologised and culturally laden of times and places” (Glover, 2000, 362).  Likewise, according to Campbell, consumers of SUVs felt that through their purchase they expressed “a rugged individualism” emphasising their connection to untamed nature and the idea of the frontier (Campbell, 2005, 957).

This is significant for the context of humanitarianism in two ways.  First,  with regard to potential viewing audiences in the First World, the image of a brand such as Land Rover or the Toyoto Buffalo being used in humanitarian contexts will add to the appeal of their eventual purchase.  As quoted in Automotive News, a management consultant named Ken Slavin, being interviewed for a report on Land Rover said,

[w]hen you have disasters, you need 4x4s [sic.].  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 whole lot of money to any manufacturer (Wernle, 2000).

This is supported by Koshar’s research which demonstrates that “a car’s notionally unique national qualities depend in part on how motoring nations from other nations regard it as both artifact and image once it travels, literally and figuratively across national borders” (Koshar, 2004, 123).[12]

The second way in which the association of the SUV with frontierism, rugged individualism, and adventure is significant is with regard to the aid workers who use them.  In so far as the aid workers can be seen to be part of the international community, and sharing a habitus of advanced stage capitalism in their countries of origin, they will have common symbols and mythologies.  Particularly with regard to OECD nationals, to step up, into a (white) Land Rover, is to simultaneously step into the myth of the First World aid worker assisting Third World populations in need.  Linking it to the tri-partite framework, to step into the Landrover will also influence the users perceived space of ‘the field’.

The experience of being inside a Land Rover, or inside an automobile more generally, has been the subject of sustained attention in the area of the phenomenology of car use (Sheller, 2004; Dant, 2004; Thrift, 2004).[13] These theorists look at how the experience of being in an automobile – either as a driver or a passenger – has affective, and ultimately epistemological and ontological impacts.  Work by Miller (2001) and Michaels (2001) has proposed the car as social–technical hybrid with driver and vehicle operating as a co–constitutive assemblage.  In line with Sheller (2004) I argue that the experience of being in a car, or in this case a Land Rover, “orient[s] us toward the material affordances of the world around us in particular ways and these orientations generate emotional geographies” (Sheller, 2004, 228).[14]  These emotional geographies (or in Lefebvre’s terms perceived and lived spaces), shape the way in which the aid worker see themselves in a place.

In the most basic of terms, it changes the experience that the aid worker has of the physical environment and climate.  Instead of being exposed to heat, rain, dust, the aid worker can ride along in a climate controlled environment.  Likewise, it changes the noisescapes of a place, enclosing the rider in a sonic envelope (Bull, 2004).  It may allow the passengers to move at a higher velocity than the majority of other people around them, introducing a level of inequality of movement, and possibly making movement for those on foot, bike, motorcycle, horse, or even lower, older cars more dangerous.  This may also introduce an affect of privilege and/or guilt for this inequality.

Work on the social impact of the SUV in America suggests that the rise of the sports utility vehicle parallels a model of citizenship that values safety and inviolability of person above all else (Mitchell, 2005; Campbell, 2005).  Similarly, the material practices of the international community may be seen to constitute an attempt at self–imposed exclusion from the wider neighbourhood, as well as the exclusion of others (Atkinson and Flint, 2004), reinforcing the observations from local residents that “the objectives of the international community are different from those of the community they are assisting.”[15] Just as the white Land Rover (or SUV) is associated with certain affective and symbolic resonances to the people who use it, it may evoke other, quite different things to those for whom it is meant to assist.

Globally, the SUV’s large petrol–guzzling body has increasingly become a symbol of the excess of the West and the exceptionalism with which the West is seen to regard itself.  The vehicle is also a constant reminder of the underlying economic driver of much global conflict: unequal access to oil.[16]  In El Fasher, Darfur, home to one of the UNAMID ‘supercamps’, the introduction of hundreds of humanitarian Land Cruisers (or Buffalos, in this context) has led to the streets being widened to avoid traffic jams.  The example of Darfur, also points the destabilisation of the myth of the SUV as safe haven.  As of August 2009, “due to a spate of carjackings” all Toyota Land Cruiser (Buffalo) vehicles have been withdrawn from use by UN personnel (UNAMID, 2009).  This phenomenon is not restricted to Darfur, and increasingly SUVs are seen as valuable both for their re–sale price and as fighting vehicles for rebel groups who would cut off the Buffalo’s top and attach a gun.[17]  The increased frequency of carjackings is forcing aid agencies to look to other, less conspicuous modes of travel, such as local taxi drivers and minibuses.  More dramatically, these trends are rendering car travel, as a mode of transport, effectively unusable outside of urban centres, and in Darfur, travel by helicopter between cities and towns, has become the norm for aid staff.  Nor is the co–option of vehicles restricted to SUVs.  In April 2007, the New York Times leaked a UN report that said the Sudanese government had been intentionally painting its planes white with UN insignia in order to ship arms to Darfur (Hoge, 2007).

What it is important to note, is that while carjackings have increased, they have not been associated with an increase in violent attacks against humanitarian workers.  In general, the transaction is a purely monetary operation, with the vehicle being taken away and the passengers returned unharmed.  However, returning to Latour’s idea of hybridity (Latour, 2005) and Miller’s  proposal of the car as an assemblage of worker and vehicle (Miller, 2001), any assault on a SUV is seen as an assault on the aid worker, and ultimately, on the larger humanitarian norms the vehicle has come to represent.  Rather than an assault on the hybrid form of the Land Rover/aid worker, the capture of the vehicle is a bid for what it embodies: wealth, excess, greed, military might.  It is a clear statement that what is wanted from the international humanitarian community is not their assistance, but their material assets and the associated power.  Nor can this desire be interpreted in a simple, linear manner, which sees rebels groups or government militia capturing humanitarian assets in order to replicate Western material modes of existence.  Rather, these actions need to be interpreted as a local response – a ‘making do’ – to the already, existing, structuring material space of humanitarian assistance informing “a new range of strategic military initiatives” (Hoffman, 2004, 212) in contemporary Third World conflict.

However, from within the perceived space of the Land Rover, and the humanitarian enclave these types of encounters tend to be read against the conceived global spaces of the war on terror, and the perceived targeting of aid workers in general.

The Grand Hotel

In the context of aid work, a second ubiquitous humanitarian space is that of the so-called, grand hotel (Denby, 1998; Sandoval-Strausz, 2007).  Technically, the term is used to refer to a large, luxury hotel, usually dating from the nineteenth century and having colonial heritage  (Henderson, 2001; Stewart, 1988).  But in the context of humanitarian work, it will usually refer to one or two large hotels in a given city or town which are used for the majority of diplomatic conferences, summits, press briefings, retreats, and negotiations.  They will often be left over from previous regimes such as British colonialists in Singapore  (Henderson, 2001), or the Portuguese in East Timor.  What makes it architecturally recognisable will be both the grandeur and scale of its physical form and its multi–functionality.  It will usually have bars, restaurants, conference halls, travel agents, shops, swimming pools, and health clubs.  And while these may not be well maintained, at some point they would have been the height of luxury in their respective milieus.  In the context of international humanitarian assistance, the grand hotel may be the only structure with adequate facilities from which to live and work.

The space of the grand hotel provides the setting for a remarkable number of political acts and performances.  Particularly in the context of humanitarian assistance, the space of the grand hotel is central to both formal, high politics, and to the politics of the everyday: the informal meetings, chance encounters, and daily rituals of both local political classes and visiting elites (de Certeau, 1988; Bourdieu, 1990; Vesely, 2004).  Not only is it implicated in local power structures and contestations, but, in the event of social and political collapse, it often provides sanctuary and enclosure for guests and local populations alike.  As a site of perceived inequality and amorality it may equally be the target of outrage, vandalism and violence (Sandoval-Strausz, 2007).  But despite its centrality to international political interactions and events, outside of cultural (Jameson, 1990) or tourism studies (Pritchard and Morgan, 2006) it remains largely unexamined.  Although its iconic or emblematic status is regularly invoked in the context of a particular conflict, with the sole example of Hoffman’s  radical ethnography of the Brookfields Hotel in Sierra Leone (Hoffman, 2005), I have come across no work within international relations or development studies that seriously engages with the object of the hotel and its central role in international humanitarian intervention.[18]  The present study begins this investigation, although it only provides an initial overview of a larger work on the topic, which is currently under preparation.[19]

In the context that aid workers can also be considered to fall into the related category of tourists or travellers, the hotel, as a temporary shelter, is a necessity.  In the literature of tourism and travel studies, this is the way in which the hotel is most commonly considered: as a networked space of flows (Castells, 2000); a transit space (Pritchard and Morgan, 2006); a non–space (Augé, 1995).  The necessity for frequent refurbishment, novelty, and (re)branding meant that high–end hotels also presented the opportunity for famous architects to experiment with ultra- (or post-) modern designs.  This arguably significantly influenced the framing of the object of the hotel in cultural theory (McNeill, 2008; Davis, 2006; Jameson, 1990).

While the 1990s theories on hyper–modernity and globalisation have since been amply critiqued for their hyperbolic claims regarding the ontology of a new age, certain aspects warrant a re–examination.  In particular, the much (ab)used work of Marc Augé deserves a second look.  Augé assigned the term non–lieux to

contemporary topographies characteristic of what he calls ‘supermodernity’ – namely those urban, peri–urban, and interurban spaces associated with transit and communication, designed to be passed through rather than appropriated, and retaining little or no trace of our passage as we negotiate them (O’Beirne, 2006, 38).

These ‘threshold spaces’ made up a significant part of the humanitarian field experience.  For Augé, these are not “just spaces to be analysed but manifestations and above all agents of a contemporary existential crisis, a crisis of relations to the other, and by extension a crisis of individual identity constituted through such relations” (O’Beirne, 2006, 38).[20]

This crisis of relations to others is particularly relevant in the context where the ‘other’ (or in the humanitarian context, the beneficiary) only makes select appearances within the non–space of the hotel: as subservient waiters, porters, maids, or prostitutes.  In the ethos of contemporary hotel management, staff should neither be seen nor heard, melting seamlessly into the décor, effectively erasing themselves from the interior landscape.  Katz claims that, in the context of twentieth century US and European hotel construction, hotels

came to resemble cities in microcosm, vertical cities housing laundries, valet services, barbers, gymnasiums, travel offices, drug stores, libraries [sic.], music rooms, baggage rooms, automobile fleets, libraries, swimming pools, clothing stores, banks, florists, gift shops, screening rooms, medical services, convention halls, newsstands, mail services, roof gardens, and ballrooms – to name only the respectable services that hotels provided.  Like the self–contained superblock, the privatized space of the metropolitan hotel could be said to have turned its back on the city (Katz, 1999, 137).

As claimed by Ibelings, while the 1950s and 1960s saw the global spread of these big, architecturally similar hotels (Ibelings, 1998),[21] many of which are still in use in the Third World capitals under discussion, by inhabiting these non–spaces, the international humanitarian community may be seen as turning its back on its constituents.  However, the nature of the work is such that the beneficiary is at the centre of the imaginary and if the beneficiary is absent, then s/he must be invented.  Inside the non–space, says Augé “[t]here is no room…for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle” (Augé, 1995, 103): into a meeting, conference, or workshop where the problem can be distilled into so–called action points and plotted into a matrix.

The significance of the hotel as metaphoric stage for a wide range of humanitarian gatherings has been vastly under–emphasised.  As a touristic enclave, hotels are “‘purified’ spaces, which are strongly circumscribed and framed, wherein conformity to rules and adherence to centralized regulation hold sway” (Edensor, 2001, 6).[22] Moreover, the rules and regulation are geared towards the international clientele immediately creating a power–imbalance between those that are framing the discussions and those have been invited to attend.  As security becomes more of an issue for the international community and mobility increasingly restricted it is likely that the necessity of the hotel as a venue for conferences will not diminish in the near future.[23] Nor are the ‘performances’ necessarily restricted to official gatherings.

The hotel lobby has long been regarded as a key site of social, cosmopolitan interactions (Berger, 2005; Kracauer and Levin, 1995; Cocks, 2001) and in the context of the field its significance is amplified.  This is the place where local and international businessmen, journalists, politicians, aid workers all come to unwind and to interact (George, 2004; Courtemanche and Claxton, 2003; Minion, 2004).  Information is exchanged, alliances publicized, and rumours spread.  A further examination of the significance of these networks is undertaken elsewhere, but for the purposes of this chapter, I will now turn to how these non–spaces are seen by those outside the hotel.

As Tomlinson rightly points out, these non–spaces are only non–spaces from the perspective of the visiting travellers; for the hotel’s employees and the local residents they are real spaces (Tomlinson, 1999).   From an external perspective – that is, not only from a perspective of someone standing ‘outside’ but also from the perspective of someone who is not a user of these spaces – the grand hotel is important in a number of ways.  First, it may represent a space of opportunity: a place of potential employment; a locale to sell souvenirs;  or from which to offer taxi rides.  Second, it may be seen as a place of safety.  In the context of Hotel Timor, in Dili in 2008, one of the three internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in the city had grown up outside the hotel’s front door.[24] To the IDPs, proximity to the hotel was thought to confer safety.[25]  Similarly in the context of the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, Martin Coward quotes from testimony before the US Congress in which gunners on the hillside overlooking Sarajevo apologized to BBC journalist, Kate Adie, for shelling the Holiday Inn where the foreign correspondents were known to live, “explaining that they had not meant to hit the hotel, but had been aiming at the roof of the National Museum next door” (Coward, 2002, 30).[26] During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Hotel des Milles Collines became a refuge of last resort for internationals and Rwandan civilians alike as they attempted to barricade themselves against the Interhamwe’s machetes (Dallaire and Beardsley, 2003).[27]

The imagined safety of the hotel is the by–product of the association with not only international humanitarian law and humanitarian conventions, declarations, and resolutions but also because of the hotel’s association with inequality and privilege.  These same qualities can also make the hotel a target, as seen most recently with the bombing of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai (Biswas, 2008).  What is being attacked, precisely, is a matter of debate.  While it is sometimes seen as a direct targeting of the symbols of foreign interests (Wharton, 2001), it could just as likely be seen as the targeting of domestic political dealings (Donais, 2002), or in its embodiment of the  “essential common ground of togetherness” (Iveson, 2006, 80).[28]  A hotel may also be seen as the site of immoral or amoral behaviour, which also contributes to it being perceived as a predominantly masculine space.  More mundanely, as a high, often centrally located and well built structure, it may offer a valuable strategic acquisition from the perspective of local military actors.

In summary, the hotel contributes to the shaping of humanitarian relations in the field in myriad ways and deserves additional research attention.  In the context of this thesis, its impact is most noticeable in the way in which it shapes the perceptions and understanding of the local situation for the aid workers it houses.  For the people that pass through it, it is a temporary non–space, but for its host community, it is a part of everyday lived and perceived spaces.  Considered in tandem with the SUV and other material forms of humanitarianism, the hotel creates a material landscape of humanitarian intervention.  From the perspective of the internationals, this landscape is temporary, but from the perspective of local people, it has become the permanent topography of assistance.  The people in the hotel rooms, in the cars, in the offices will change but the built environment stays the same.  If anything is symbolised by the compounds, the cars, the planes, perhaps it is first and foremost the repetition of the ritual of assistance.  While the internationals each experience the field as a new, albeit enclosed, experience of the ‘other’, the material and spatial rituals of the interaction never change.


The preceding paper has looked at how a spatial approach to the field helps to theorize the relationships and identities that are formed through humanitarian intervention in its current material guise.  By looking at the humanitarian compound, the SUV and the grand hotel – all key material spaces of humanitarian intervention – it becomes clear that a crucial aspect of the Spatial Trilectic is being squeezed.  The absence of a mutually constituted ‘third space’ points to the problematic impact of increased securitization upon the way in which humanitarian policy is understood and formulated.  Nor is this restricted to the case of overt securitization.

In all three cases, the spatial modalities restrict or eliminate the possibility for a third or lived space but to differing degrees. While the example of the hotel seems to offer the potential for the most degree of lived space due to its openness and potentiality of hybrid spaces.  However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the hybridity is a limited one, which although open to people beyond the aid community such as national or civic politicians and other local power brokers and stakeholders, remains firmly closed to beneficiaries of aid, who are left to be imagined and represented within its confines in the same way as within the compound and the SUV.   Arguably, it is the increasing elimination of the possibility of lived space that is contributing to a antagonistic spatial relationship at the field level, and ultimately, at the level of international policy.

It is important to point out what this paper is not advocating.  It is not calling for humanitarian workers to fling open their compounds and walk into the far–flung regions of the world to live at one with the ‘other’.  In fact, it implies the opposite.  Highlighting the material constraints, which are necessary for the practical application of contemporary humanitarianism to function, simultaneously identifies why humanitarianism is fundamentally flawed in its conception.  To go to another, to tell them what they need, and to do so from a position of superior material power, can only be a form of domination.  As long as the material power is so much superior as to be unassailable, so great as to be completely overwhelming, humanitarianism may be seen to function.  Those who are overpowered will accept what is being offered without question, without retort.  But as the power differential lessens and the mechanisms of control become visible, those being dominated may begin to exert their own desires, opinions, and approaches.  This implies that the current displays of material force and securitization by humanitarianism cannot be read as extensions of Western power, but rather as its absence.  The need to retreat to the compound – both figuratively and physically – implies that an urgent and fundamental rethink about the objectives and possibilities of humanitarian assistance is required.


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[1] While the first category maps clearly onto Lefebvre’ category of conceived space:  space as abstract, mappable, divisible and static, the other two categories are complements rather than substitutes for Lefebvre’s framework.

[2] There is an extensive literature on gated communities including those in the ‘developing world’. See the Special Issue of Housing Studies 20:2 (2005) and the special issue of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Within this literature there are well established debates regarding whether it is possible to speak of a universal form of gated community, and authors such as Atkinson and Blandy caution against making universalist claims that ignore local history and context. Atkinson, Rowland & Sarah Blandy. 2005. Introduction:  International Perspectives on the New Enclavism and the Rise of Gated Communities. Housing Studies, 20(2), March 177-86.

[3] Interview,  June 10, 2008, Banda Aceh.

[4] Interview.

[5] Interview.

[6] Interview.

[7] Interview.

[8] See also Blakely, Edward J. & Mary Gail Snyder. 1997. Fortress America : gated communities in the United States. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press) ; Taylor, Ralph B. 1988. Human territorial functioning: an empirical, evolutionary perspective on individual and small group territorial cognitions, behaviors, and consequences. Environment and behavior series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) .

[9] The integration of lessons from the spatial turn could lead to a very different aid epistemology – one that moves away from cause and effect and moves toward a recognition of the mutually constitutive nature of humanitarianism.  Instead of thinking about aid as a factor that is introduced into a host nation that produces an outcome, which may be mitigated, there is the need to think about the humanitarian relationship, or condition as “always, already there”.  For example, work by anthropologist Danny Hoffman has looked at the way in which methods of warfare evolved in Liberia following UN intervention in Sierra Leone.  While initially the change in tactics were in response to the UN presence in Sierra Leone, they can no longer be understood within an international or humanitarian frame, but need to be understood in term of local contexts of meaning. They have evolved in ways which do not map onto local-international scales or according to pure humanitarian logics.

[11] See also Shapiro, Michael J. 1997. Violent cartographies: mapping cultures of war. (London: University of Minnesota Press) .

[12] See also Edensor, Tim. 2004. Automobility and National Identity: Representation, Geography and Driving Practice. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4-5), 101-20.

[13] On ‘automobility’ and the sociology of mobility see Urry, John. 2007. Mobilities. (Cambridge: Polity) ; Featherstone, Mike. 2004. Automobilities: An Introduction. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4-5), 1-24; Featherstone, Mike, N. J. Thrift & John Urry. 2005. Automobilities. (London: Sage) .

[14] See also work on the sociology of emotion Hochschild, A.R. 1983. The Managed Heart:  Commercialization of Human Feeling. (Berkeley: University of California Press) ; Hochschild, A.R. 1997. The Time Bind:  When Work Comes Home and Home Becomes Work. (New York: Metropolitan Books) ; Hochschild, A.R. 2003. The Commercialization of Intimate Life:  Notes from Home and Work. (Berkeley: University of California Press) ; Bendelow, G. & S. Williams. 1998. Emotions in Social Life:  Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues. (London: Routledge) ; Katz, J. 2000. How Emotions Work. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) ; Goodwin, J, J Jasper & F Polletta. 2001. Passionate Politics:  Emotions and Social Movements. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) ; Ahmed, S. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

[15] Interview, Banda Aceh, 19 December, 2007.

[16] And as much as the vehicles have become the target of displeasure with the international community, so too are they sought after by government ministries as a requirement of international assistance.

[17] Interview, August 13, 2009.

[18] Martin Coward deals with it obliquely in the context of his theory of “urbicide” Coward, Martin. 2002. Community as Heterogeneous Ensemble:  Mostar and Multiculturalism. Alternatives, 27(1), 29-38; Coward, Martin. 2009. Urbicide : the politics of urban destruction. (New York: Routledge) ; Coward, Martin Philip. 2001. Urbicide and the question of community in Bosnia-Herzegovina. [electronic resource]. (University of Newcastle upon Tyne).

[19] Smirl, Lisa. (In progress). Do not disturb:  the affective significance of the “grand hotel” in international politics. Journal of Architectural Theory and Practice, (Special Issue on Gated Communities).

[20] See also Augé, Marc. 1998. A sense for the other: the timeliness and relevance of anthropology. Mestizo spaces (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press) ; Augé, Marc. 1994. Pour une anthropologie des mondes contemporains. (Paris: Aubier)   De Certeau also used the term non–space, although with reference to the space of tactics. There is the potential for an interesting comparison between these two authors use of the concept de Certeau, Michel 1988. The practice of everyday life. trans. Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press)

[21] See also King, Anthony. 2004. Spaces of Global Cultures; Architecture, Urbanism, Identity Architext Series (London: Routledge) ; King, Anthony D. 1990. Urbanism, colonialism, and the world-economy: cultural and spatial foundations of the world urban system. International library of sociology (London: Routledge)  and Wharton, Annabel Jane. 2001. Building the Cold War: Hilton International hotels and modern architecture. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago) .

[22] See also Sibley, D. 1988. Survey 13:  Purification of Space. Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space, 6, 409-21; Schmid, Karl Anthony. 2008. Doing ethnography of tourist enclaves: Boundaries, ironies, and insights. Tourist Studies, 8(1), April 1, 2008, 105-21.

[23] Likewise, the continued use of short-term consultants and experts guarantees their place within auxiliary space.

[24] The other two were outside the main hospital and across from the UN’s Main Base: Obrigado Barracks.

[25] It also potentially offered positive externalities like running water, or leftover food.

[26] Killing Memory:  The Targeting of Bosnia’s Cultural Heritage. 1995,  cited at http://www.h– accessed on August 14, 2009.

[27] See also Harrow, Kenneth W. 2005. ‘Un train peut en cacher un “autre”‘: narrating the Rwandan genocide and Hotel Rwanda. Research in African Literatures, 36(4), 223-32; Hitchcott, Nicki. 2009. Travels in Inhumanity: Veronique Tadjo’s Tourism in Rwanda. French Cultural Studies, 20(2), May, 149-64.

[28] See also Coward. Community as Heterogeneous Ensemble:  Mostar and Multiculturalism. ; Coward. Urbicide : the politics of urban destruction.


Plain Tales from the Reconstruction Site

“Plain Tales from the Reconstruction Site: Spatial continuities in contemporary humanitarian practice,” chapter in Mark Duffield and Vernon Hewitt (eds.) Empire, Development and Colonialism: the Past in the Present (London: James Currey, 2009).


The idea of a ‘pure’ or natural disaster is a pervasive one. The occurrence of an ‘Act of God’ appears to be the one instance where international intervention is beyond criticism: the blamelessness of the victims translates into an ethical imperative for action on the part of the ‘international community’ to alleviate the resultant suffering (Edkins, 2000). While it is possible to point to many instances of critique of political interventions (Mamdani, 2007; Pugh, 2005; Chandler, 2006) and others who critique the efficacy or appropriateness of certain modes of disaster relief (Duffield, 1991; Edkins, 2000; Keen, 1994; De Waal, 1997), there are few authors who problematized the basic premise that the international community has a responsibility to provide assistance to those affected by a natural disaster (Bankoff, 2001; Hewitt, 1995). Yet authors such as Smith (2006), Davis (2000), and O’Keefe (1976) stress that while natural hazards exist, the severity of their impact on human settlement is determined by human decisions: where and how to build; access to preventive measures; the existence and knowledge of escape routes.

While a direct, and unique causal link between geography and social development (Landes, 1998; Diamond, 2005) is highly disputed, the link between underdevelopment and increased risk of natural disasters is well documented. According to Ian Davis (1978: 11), ‘the study of disasters is almost by definition a study of poverty within the developing world.’ Even within high income countries, those groups which are structurally impoverished, or underprivileged, experience a higher vulnerability to disasters (Cutter, 2006; Giroux, 2006). Still, such nuances

fail to stop the idea of a ‘pure’ natural disaster from being held up as an ethical rationale for intervention. This chapter challenges this assumption by pointing out that despite the perceived ethical neutrality of post-disaster intervention, particular spatial and material approaches may have similarities to previous colonial practice. Focussing on the way in which the international community moves through and lives in the post-disaster reconstruction sites illuminates power relations and dynamics generally obscured by more abstract discussions over the ethics and modalities of international intervention. The first section of this chapter places contemporary humanitarian intervention within a longer continuum of global North-South relations and looks at why a spatial approach provides a useful heuristic for our examination of colonial continuities. The second section examines two particular examples of such continuities, mobility and separation, in some depth, juxtaposing observations and interviews with contemporary development and humanitarian practitioners with personal accounts from previous Anglo-Indian colonial administrators as described in the classic text, Plain Tales from the Raj, by Charles Allen (2006).[i]

A Spatial Genealogy of Response: Locating the Humanitarian Imaginary

According to Craig Calhoun, the idea of an Emergency Imaginary is an important part of the Western social imaginary (Calhoun, 2004; Taylor, 2005; Castoriadis, 1987). According to Calhoun (2004: 7) the ‘notion of “emergency” is produced and reproduced in social imagination, at a level that Charles Taylor (Taylor, 2002) has described as between explicit doctrine and the embodied knowledge of habitus.’ Calhoun goes on to say that the ‘production of emergencies, and the need to address them, has become one of the rationales for assertion of global power’ (Calhoun, 2004: 9; Klein, 2007; Duffield, 2007). An important part of the discourse is the perceived unusual nature of the emergency: ‘”[e]mergency” is a way of grasping problematic events, a way of imagining them that emphasizes their apparent unpredictability, abnormality, and brevity, and that carries the corollary that response – intervention – is necessary. The international emergency, it is implied, both can and should be managed’ (Calhoun, 2004: 6).

An important part of this emergency imaginary is the ability to locate the emergency, the event, in a particular geography or spatial imagination (Hewitt, 1995). The ‘assertion of global power’ that Calhoun points to must be asserted over someone or something – it must be asserted from some position of (perceived) security, and over another place of (perceived) insecurity. The ‘common practices’ that underpins Charles Taylor’s understanding of a particular social imaginary happen somewhere – they are locatable, they are grounded. One specific, yet underexamined way in which this is done is in the day-to-day material and spatial practices of international humanitarian workers who come to a disaster or reconstruction site. This is important because although humanitarian policy and discourse expresses the desire to frame individuals and communities affected by disaster in terms of empowerment rather than victimhood, the material practice and spatial dynamics of intervention may work against this. Despite an increasing focus in humanitarian literature on ‘downward accountability’ to ‘clients’ (beneficiaries) the material practices of aid delivery demonstrate disturbing continuities with previous colonial approaches. While such continuities can be observed across the spectrum of relief to development assistance, this chapter focuses on the particular space of the reconstruction site. This is due both to the privileged position of the emergency within the larger humanitarian imaginary and because the immediacy of its conditions strips away the rhetoric that couches the majority of longer-term development practice, allowing the material and spatial practices to be brought to the fore.

The term ‘reconstruction sites’ refers to geographic locations that have or are being physically reconstructed, with external assistance, after experiencing a crisis that overwhelms the ability of the affected society to respond. ‘External assistance’ refers to the provision of physical and/or financial resources by individuals and agencies that normally reside outside the geographic boundaries of the reconstruction site and have been brought there specifically by the event of the disaster. The precise geography of the reconstruction site will differ depending on whose perspective we are considering. The mapping of disaster is often one of the easiest and best executed aspects of a post-disaster intervention (Davis, 1978). Careful attention is paid to the location and categorization of victims, beneficiaries, types and location of damaged buildings and infrastructure. But the lens of analysis is rarely, if ever, turned back upon the implementing actors. While there is widespread informal acknowledgement amongst development practitioners that the rapid influx of hundreds, or thousands of foreign workers has feedback effects (Collier, 2007) these are dramatically underexamined. This is partly explained by the fact that the reconfiguring of space and the reconstruction of the built environment are not seenas political and socially transformative in themselves, but just a basic, and largely neutral component of a reconstruction process (Graham and Marvin, 2001).

However, the dissemination of work by Bourdieu (1990; 1977), Lefebvre (1991), and de Certeau (1988) highlighted the subjectivity and relativism in the designation and construction of particular physical and social spaces. This work contributed to and coincided with two major disciplinary shifts in the social sciences at large. First, in those disciplines which were already engaged with ideas of space and materiality such as geography and urban planning, it led to an re-examination and problematization of the ontological pre-eminence of an independent materiality that could be mapped, designed, shaped and built. Second, in disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, it contributed to the recognition of the need to consider space and materiality both as a potentially causal variable in the societies under examination, and also as an inextricable part of the embodied experience of research, and of the construction of knowledge itself (Crang, 2000).

The 1990s saw the application of the ‘spatial turn’ to a wide range of enquiry from discourse analysis (Ó Tuathail, 1996) to economic geography (Barnes, 2003). However, it did not have a significant impact on development or humanitarian studies, nor, by extension on post-crisis relief or reconstruction which focused on the level of the individual and its aggregate – society. Issues of governance, local livelihoods, civil society, capacity building, human security and anticorruption filled the agenda in the 1990s and 2000’s (Pupuvac, 2005) an agenda that assumed the solution, liberal, democratic peace, had already been found and only the instruments required perfecting (Paris, 2006; Hoogvelt, 2006).

This overlooks the way in which post-disaster reconstruction evolved. From its modern post-WW2 inception, international humanitarian assistance was conceived in spatial terms (Slater, 1997). The categories and binaries by which it defined itself as an activity were fundamentally geographic: 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds; developed and underdeveloped countries; the global North/global South. Direct links to the process of European de-colonization can also be found (Duffield, 2007). Fred Cuny (1983) attributes the rise of disaster response as an industry within the global north to the rapid, post-1945 decolonization process which left the former colonies without either the human or financial capacity to respond. The ‘apolitical’ international system of NGOs and multilateral agencies was seen as preferable to the reassertion of control by former colonial powers. However through the application of spatial considerations, it is possible to see how contemporary material and spatial practices of humanitarian response may continue to invoke and reproduce colonial power relations. If the social imaginary is interlinked with the material practices of the everyday, it is necessary to consider the impact of the material expression of particular places and practices (Bourdieu, 1990; Certeau, 1988; Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

An initial application of the ‘spatial turn’ to the realm of post-crisis reconstruction points to several areas which are immediately problematized. First, the need to consider that the space of a reconstruction site is not a tabula rasa, and that what is produced is immediately and inextricably politicized and used in different ways by different groups, for different ends (Lefebvre, 1991). Second, space is relative and relational. Spatial and material designations, mappings and representations of needs and responses, may not be in keeping with other scalar designations or social categories such as the idea of the ‘local’, in the policy designs of the international community; or the programmatic separation of certain categories of beneficiaries such as post-conflict vs. post-disaster (Scott, 1998; Ferguson, 2006; Escobar, 1994).

Third, that knowledge is embodied – predicated upon ‘cognitive (mental) and physical (corporeal) performances that are constantly evolving as people encounter place’ (Hubbard et al., 2004: 6). These ‘geographies of embodiment’ are therefore implicated in the subsequent production and reification of categories of class, gender, and in the case of humanitarianism of donor/beneficiary and of saviour/victim. In the case of post-conflict reconstruction, this embodiment will be the result of the social and cultural environments that humanitarian workers have come from (their countries of origin) as well as the environments that they find themselves

in during the reconstruction process. According to Bourdieu (1990), it is impossible to separate subjects from their habitus (the practices and games of their surroundings) either present, past, and possibly future (Massumi, 2002). This means that the responses of particular individuals, and agencies are conditioned as much by previous experiences both of their place(s) of origin, and of previous reconstruction sites as they are by the immediate emergency they are responding to. Further, as discussed below, the precise material circumstances experienced while in a reconstruction site may also be significant.

These linkages point to the fourth insight of the spatial turn for post-crisis reconstruction: that the presence of international humanitarian agencies in the country of intent, must always be read contrapuntally with their space of origin (Inayatullah, 2004; Said, 1995). The activities, practices, and places of the international community in reconstruction sites are as closely networked to their spaces of origin as they are to their proximate physical environments (Castells, 2000; Sassen, 2000; Appadurai, 1997) and may need to be considered as particular, embodied instances larger global processes (Beck and Ritter, 1992; Harvey, 2001). As such, their representational consequences need to be taken into consideration. How are these international practices and spaces understood and interpreted by the groups and individuals in their immediate physical surroundings? Does this impact or effect the tactics (Certeau, 1988; Scott, 1998) that may be used in their interactions with the international donor community?

A fifth area of consideration is how are the spatial and material circumstances of humanitarian relief workers related to temporal considerations? How do differential spaces effect the way in which the time of response and intervention is conceived (Massey, 2006). The differential rates of mobility and speed between the international community and the target population are rarely examined, yet lie at the heart of some of the most problematic aspects of the ineffectiveness of humanitarian assistance. While the previous discussion has focussed on the applicability of the spatial turn to contemporary post-crisis reconstruction, the foregrounding of space and materiality also highlights the continuities of contemporary practice with previous modes of colonial governance and the unequal practices associated with it. In particular, two major continuities can be identified: mobility and separation. The next section will look at these two continuities in more depth.

 Spatial Continuity A: Mobility

A key feature of contemporary humanitarian intervention is the mobility with which aid workers move to and from, and between response and reconstruction sites (Telford, 2006). The nature of an emergency requires the rapid deployment of staff. The relatively short period of time that is required for the response and post-crisis reconstruction; the frequency of disaster events and the scarcity of qualified professionals means that staff are only present in one place for a limited time: anywhere from a few weeks to, at most, a few years. Likewise, within contemporary development practice, the (necessary) introduction of transport networks dedicated to the movement or international staff and associated goods creates a parallel space of movement, maintaining physical difference between the individuals who have come to assist, and those that are being assisted.

These differential spaces of travel and movement are important in several ways. First, they are significant in that they are securitized and separated, either literally or symbolically. This will be further explored below, under the theme of separation. Second, a key aspect of humanitarian assistance and post-crisis reconstruction is timing as the space of response and reconstruction necessarily has a higher velocity than its surroundings (Virilio, 1991). Long debates have taken place on the so-called ‘relief-to-development’ continuum i.e when humanitarian assistance ends and long term development assistance begins. While the current consensus in policy circles is for the need to link the two to ensure that humanitarian assistance is sustainable in development terms, an unavoidable distinction remains: humanitarian assistance must arrive as soon as possible after an emergency in order to achieve its stated aims of saving lives. The introduction and use of parallel transport systems for staff, and parallel delivery systems for food and nonfood-items (NFIs) such as tents, medicine, blankets is justified on the grounds that a slow humanitarian response invalidates the rationale for providing assistance. But the ends of timeliness and efficient delivery require certain sacrifices at the level of process, i.e. it may be deemed necessary to bypass national systems in the delivery of aid. For example, in the case of the of the international humanitarian response to the 2004 tsunami, the World Food Programme (WFP) instituted nearly daily flights up and down the coast of Aceh to transport humanitarian staff and equipment. This was justified on both the basis of need (efficiency) and staff security. However, the perception among some Acehnese, was that particularly in the post-emergency stage of the recovery effort, the WFP travel department operated more as a tour operator than a development agency, ferrying consultants, visitors from headquarters, and well-off disaster tourists from disaster site to disaster site. The flights cost exponentially more than domestic carriers, and therefore were out of reach for the average Indonesian. They were also temporary, and will not leave a sustainable transport infrastructure behind, to be used by the Acehnese, upon the departure of the international community. In the larger picture, the timeliness of delivery is also an important proof of the technical superiority and ability of the global North to respond to and manage emergencies.[ii]

The differential rates of mobility also emphasize the different metrics that are used to assess the risk conditions of humanitarian staff versus those of the target communities. While within the emergency imaginary, a disaster is a unique and unusual event, which can be gone to, managed, and left, for the populations that are being assisted, risk (or the potential vulnerability to similar disasters) is part of the fabric of daily existence. But for the humanitarian (and development) aid workers, the ability to leave the reconstruction site at any point, is always an option; a condition of their employment. Many medium term, high risk postings also contain the guarantee of regular periods when staff are expected to leave their place of work and go to another physical location to relieve the pressure of living in confined and dangerous surroundings. This emphasizes the feeling of impermanence of location amongst the staff, and the emotional and cultural distance from their immediate physical environment. It also highlights the centrality of travel and movement to the experience of humanitarian assistance.

While often identified as a feature of contemporary globalization (Bauman, 1998; Appadurai, 1997) such impermanence and mobility has a much longer history (Hirst and Thompson, 1999). Significant work has been done on the pivotal role played by ideas and experiences of travel, under colonialism (Pratt, 1992; Gowans, 2006; Kearns, 1997). As heard in Allen’s testimonials, constant travel also characterized the life of colonial administrators and their families: ‘[F]requent transfers and movements over great distances were recurrent themes in the “Anglo-Indian” experience: “As official people we were constantly on the move”’ (Allen, 2006: 57). Allen’s interviewees describe the boat voyage to India as central part of the colonial experience: a space where professional and social networking took place and where relationships and partnerships were formed and solidified (see also Gowans, 2006).

Striking comparisons can also be drawn between contemporary and colonial experiences of arrival: ‘[r]eceptions varied according to status and connections. Those of high degree or with connections were garlanded and their luggage seized by chaprassis in scarlet uniforms. Some were met by shipping agents and shepherded through customs. Others had less auspicious introductions’ (Allen, 2006: 54-55).[iii] Such a scene could equally describe the arrival of international aid workers to a reconstruction site. Those who belong to a high level international agency such as the United Nations (UN) or the World Bank are often quickly guided through customs by their agencies’ operations staff, whisked into a large, radio equipped sports utility vehicle (SUV) and driven away in power-locked and air conditioned security, while those who are from a smaller organization or travelling as individuals may face long queues at the visa window and frustrating negotiations with local cab drivers.

Regardless of the hierarchical position of the agency or organization in question, an underexamined aspect of the reconstruction effort remains the types of individuals that it attracts. Across generations and cultures, the idea of unknown and the ‘other’ is appealing to certain segments of a population. The idea of a reconstruction site has been imbued with poetic, often romantic notions (Kenny, 2005). According to Ian Davis, the process of rebuilding after a disaster combines preoccupations of social awareness; advanced technology; mobility and impermanence (Davis, 1978) and may attract individuals that seek a life that is perceived as more adventurous, unpredictable and emotionally and professionally fulfilling that one than could be found in their country of origin (Cain, 2004). This allure of the foreign was clearly seen in the types of NGOs and aid personnel that arrived in South-East Asia after the 2004 tsunami (Kenny, 2005). Such desires are also found in the descriptions of the types of individuals who were drawn to the colonies. As described by the Prince of Wales in his opening address to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, ‘the Colonies…are the legitimate and natural homes, in future, of the more adventurous and energetic portion of the population of these Islands’ (British Parliamentary Papers, 1886). Indeed, within the person of the aid worker, the embodied links between colonial administration and contemporary humanitarianism can be clearly identified. Duffield (2007: 59-60) describes how during the 1950s and ‘60s the ‘expanding overseas voluntary sector’ relied on ‘people who, through colonial administration, military service, missionary societies or the business world had come of age within the Empire.’ While the types of individuals who were attracted to the overseas voluntary sector were initially different from the previous colonial administrators in their desire to give something back, the subsequent merging of NGO and donor processes has meant, once again, a reintegration and exchange of state and non-governmental personnel, through, among other things the merging of career paths (Duffield 2006: 64-65).

On a psychological level, continuities also exist between the two groups over their conflicted emotions surrounding ideas of ‘home’. British colonists in India were, on one hand, living far away from their official domicile. ‘”We never thought of England as home,” recalls Nancy Foster. ‘It never occurred to us that our home wasn’t India’ (Allen, 2006: 35). On the other hand, their ‘home’ in the colonies was the bi-product of employment, and therefore subject to uprooting at any moment. This contributed to a feeling of impermanence (Ibid: 87; see also Blunt, 1999). ‘For instance, flowers grew very beautifully in the north of India but you knew when you planted some daffodil bulbs that you’d never see them come up’ (Allen, 2006: 87). For some countries, rapid rotation of the diplomatic corps was a precautionary measure against their ‘going native’ and losing their emotional ties to the metropole. While no such official policy is behind contemporary development practices, the institutionalization of certain programmatic approaches and categories (for example, the categories of ‘relief and response’ or ‘rapid reaction teams’) means that the individuals occupying these positions will find themselves quickly rotated from job to job, from emergency zone to emergency zone. The feeling of impermanence may also account for the iconic role played by the ex-pat hotel in both colonial and contemporary post-crisis setting (Wrong, 2000; Dallaire and Beardsley, 2003; Allen, 2006).

The impact of this constant mobility is two fold. First, rapid staff turnover may lead to the impression on behalf of ‘local’ interlocutors and staff that the international agencies are not truly committed to fostering a long term relationship with the beneficiary country. It may lead to short termist programming, a lack of institutional memory, and a disproportionate amount of resources going into staff recruitment and relocation. Secondly, this rapid mobility from one disaster site to another makes it difficult for the international staff to engage with their surroundings, leading staff members to more easily turn toward their fellow aid workers than towards their physical surroundings. The institutional structure of international relief and development also creates conditions that promotes collusion amongst aid agencies at the field level, by encouraging them to spread the risk of non-delivery among themselves and concentrate on promoting collective successes rather than individual failures (Easterly, 2002).

While Easterly concentrates on the negative economic consequences that this has on the inefficient delivery of aid, the sociological impact of such behaviour is also worthy of attention. By creating an environment that encourages intensive networking through frequent meetings, coordination and information exchange, the emotional and intellectual worlds of the international community are arguably defined more by the needs and demands of the international community than by local beneficiaries. Although current policy agendas of international relief and development organizations include the need for increased feedback and input from the target beneficiaries of the aid, it is worth considering the material and spatial circumstances of the way in which this feedback is sought and collected. While participatory planning processes have long been an integral part of humanitarian assistance, they are problematized when we take into consideration the physical, and material circumstances in which the processes are held which may themselves account for the identified inability of beneficiaries to provide feedback (Ibid: 244). In the same way that the location of peace talks may influence the outcome of a fragile negotiation, so could the location of consultative meetings for the coordination of particular relief sectors, or aid frameworks.

Spatial Continuity B: Separation

The previous section has looked at the common theme of mobility in both the colonial and contemporary development settings. The differential rates of movement between humanitarian aid workers and target beneficiaries will influence programmatic choices such as where and how to build, and who to assist. Intensified by the notion of an “emergency” of which the ethical imperative for action may justify normally inappropriate decisions, this leads to a situation where response strategies are determined, in part, by a temporary and short termist logic. This creates one type of separation. However, within the reconstruction site there also exist built forms of separation between the aid workers and the beneficiaries: forms that evoke colonial patterns and practices. In this section, two particular forms will be examined: the space of the home and the space of the vehicle.

 The space of home

The living conditions of humanitarian aid workers are often compared informally to architectural and visual typologies of the fortress, the compound, the camp, the cantonment. But how applicable are these allusions? Can comparisons be drawn with colonial approaches to the built environment?

The particular physical type of building will depend significantly upon the circumstance of the particular reconstruction site. Where the built environment has been seriously damaged or destroyed, temporary accommodation may be provided in the form of tents, the few remaining hotels, or rental of select, often premium properties. Where security is of immediate and significant concern, the built form of the compound may be used. While the camp, or compound, is by no means the only type of physical experience of the international community in a reconstruction zone, it is an evocative one – a place that often becomes the focus of ‘ex-pat’ meetings and leisure activity, whether or not it is truly representative of the international sentiment at large. Authors such as de Chaine (2002), Ek (2006) and Edkins (2000) have pointed to the physical, bounded structure of the international compound (or ‘camp’) as having unique and potentially affective properties on the bodies their contain and exclude (Clough and Halley, 2007). Descriptions of the US Green Zone in Iraq increasingly point to the implications of conducting a ‘reconstruction’ from within a walled compound however the analysis is not taken beyond the point of journalistic or anecdotal observation (Chandrasekaran, 2006). This is particularly surprising when we consider the instrumental role played by the colonial home under British Imperialism.

According to Blunt and Dowling (2006: 150), the space of the Anglo-British colonial home was important in the reproduction of the ‘domestic, social, and moral values legitimating rules.’ It was partly through the example, of what a quintessentially British household was supposed to be, that the civilizing mission was to be achieved (Gowans, 2006). British superiority was to be defined by the degree to which its civility and order differed from the chaotic and unregulated space of the native, and vice-versa (Said, 1995). Allen (2006: 63) describes the British section of Calcutta as ‘a world apart’ with residential areas reflecting social divisions of the colonial administration. ‘There were the old parts of central Calcutta where the old palatial burra sahibs’ houses had been built, left as a legacy to those who came on afterwards, and around them came the new buildings, blocks of flats where the young sahibs lived when they first came out. But as you became more senior and you wanted tennis courts and more servants, you moved into what was called the suburbs. Ballygunge was the second stage, and Alipore, built under the wing of the Belvedere, which had been the old viceregal lodge and which therefore contained that air of sanctity, was the final stage’ (Ibid: 63-4).[iv]

Even within the colonial cantonment, racial demarcations ‘reproduced on a domestic scale the racial distancing that underpinned colonial urbanism’ (Blunt and Dowling, 2006: 152). However, the space of the colonial home had at least three further functions. First, the placement of particular settlements, or hill stations was useful for purposes of oversight and control of populations (Duncan and Lambert, 2004). Second, the adoption of ‘European models of household organization and domesticity’ was a central part of assimilationist strategies (Ibid: 392). Finally, the linking of metropole to the colonies was a key part of the domestication of empire. Not only did this involve bringing the colonies ‘home’ through exhibitions, scientific studies and even the import of exotic plant species (Duncan and Lambert, 2004; Blunt, 1999) but, through the transference of architectural styles, aesthetic trends, and legal and educational systems, also brought the metropole to the colonies. In this way, the space of the home played a central part of colonial governance, and nation building. However, its exclusivity and racial segregation may have also ‘provoked racial antagonisms between rulers and ruled, and ultimately contributed to the decline of the British Empire’ (Blunt and Dowling, 2006: 150). In a contemporary humanitarian context, this resonates with the rental of the most expensive houses in a reconstruction site by internationals, at greatly inflated prices.[v] Similarly, while the names, locations, and political economy of particular hotels, restaurants and clubs, may be meaningless to new humanitarian arrivals, they may evoke a material legacy of previous colonial patterns of domination (Sudjic, 2005; King, 1990; Vale, 1992).

The space of the vehicle

The separate living spaces of humanitarian workers can be seen to extend to the realm of the vehicle. Few visual images are as evocative of the international community as the white UN SUV. It can be observed across reconstruction settings, often in a caravan with several others, parked outside a particular office complex, bar, or restaurant. Even in countries where it is not necessary, it is often used.

The form of the SUV has been extensively analysed within a North American and European context (Bradsher, 2003). Edensor (2004: 117) describes how cars ‘are part of the mediated imaginaries, mundane geographies and everyday practices that inhere in the formation of national identities.’ Work on the social impact in the United States of the SUV suggests that its rise parallels a model of citizenship that values safety and inviolability of person above all else (Mitchell, 2005; Campbell, 2005). If we apply this to a humanitarian context, the material practice of the international community may be seen to constitute an ‘attempt at self-imposed exclusion from the wider neighbourhood, as well as the exclusion of others’ (Atkinson and Flint, 2004: 178) reinforcing the observations from local residents that the objectives of the international community are different from those of the community they are assisting.

Such a delimitation from the wider physical context, is also found within colonial experience. A description of the ‘highly hierarchical’ railway carriages, that reflected the social structure of British India reads thus: ‘[a] four-berth carriage had been reserved for us with a self-contained toilet compartment with a shower…. Furthermore, the windows, which were in triplicate – glass, venetian blinds and gauze – were also latched, so you were in a pretty impregnable position. We asked what would happen if anybody else tried to come into our compartment and were assured that nobody would turn up. No Indian would dare to attempt to come into our compartment so long as he saw more than one European therein.’ (Allen, 2006: 59) This allowed its travellers to ride comfortably, undisturbed and separate from the surroundings they were there to assist. More broadly, the very possibility of travel was imbued with notions of freedom versus ‘unfreedom’, distinctions which continue to resonate within contemporary humanitarian practice (Grewal, 1996).


This chapter has discussed how continuities exist in the material and spatial practices of the international community with previous Anglo-Indian colonial experiences. The initial examination indicates two ways in which this might be significant. First, even where no obvious barrier exists between the international community and the intended beneficiaries of the assistance, the material practices and spatial dynamics create a bounded microcosm of international activity. Such separation inevitably affects the way in which the international aid workers interact with and understand the target community. This will influence perceptions of what types of response strategies are needed, and, through path dependence and ‘lessons learned’ what types of interventions are used in future reconstruction sites.

Second, particular material and spatial arrangements have an observed impact on the individuals that they are intended to assist. The tropes of the white SUV, the ex-pat hotel, the UN transport planes have become clichés, but their persistence, denigration and targeting, indicates their importance in the overall impression of humanitarian intervention. By reinforcing ideas of exclusivity, transience and inaccessibility neo-colonial categories of us-them; local-international; north-south are reinforced and perpetuated.[vi]

How exactly particular material forms or designated places (Cresswell, 2004; Agnew, 1997) are implicated in and related to larger categories of space (Lefebvre, 1991) is the subject of much study. Contemporary theories of cultural geography emphasize the importance of materiality and lived experience in the construction of such abstract, scalar, concepts as the international. For example, in their work on the nation, Jones and Fowler (2007) look at the importance of local spaces in the reproduction of the nation. They argue localised places can become “’metonyms’ of the nation” through their abstract and generic representation of national messages, symbols, and ideologies (Ibid: 336). Citing Jackson and Penrose (1994) they ‘stress the potential for localized places to be key sites for generating ideas and sentiments that can ultimately reproduce the nation’ (Jones, 2007: 336). But what happens if we extend this to the category of the ‘international’? How do particular practices of the international community contribute to creations of larger ideational categories? The classic texts of post-disaster intervention point to the military spatial heritage of humanitarian relief and reconstruction: the tents, the conception, layout and organization of refugee and relief camps. (Kent, 1987; Cuny and Abrams, 1983; Davis, 1978) However, they do not include an examination of older continuities – those that may exist between the built forms of colonial occupation and contemporary relief efforts.


In the current processes and practices of international assistance, the lived experiences and built environment of the international community are rarely examined despite their contributions to the humanitarian imaginary. They may also be an important aspect of the way in which the international community is understood and interpreted at the local level. In this way, although many theorists have cautioned against drawing historical continuities where none exist (between development and colonialism), this analysis suggests that these parallels may be stronger than hitherto suggested and worthy of further sustained examination. The material and spatial practices of these groups will not only inform the immediate and long term direction of the reconstruction project, but may, ultimately, contribute to the larger social imaginary – both in terms of how the international community sees itself, and how the international community is viewed by others. It is within reconstruction sites and other humanitarian spaces that particular key relations are crystallized, produced and reproduced.

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[i] Empirical work for this chapter is based upon open-ended interviews with subjects working in and on the postcrisis reconstruction in Aceh and Sri Lanka. The themes are part of a doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge, Centre for International Studies entitled: Post-Crisis Built Environments of the International Community. For their comments and suggestions, the author would like to thank Mark Duffield, Vernon Hewitt, Tarak Barkawi, David Nally and Arran Gaunt.

[ii] This is part of the reason why the inability of the U.S. to respond to Hurricane Katrina was so disturbing. It drew into question the ability, and therefore the legitimacy, of the U.S. to respond to overseas emergencies.

[iii] Allen translates “chaprassi” as “office servant” or “messenger”.

[iv] Allen translates “burra sahib” as “great man”.

[v] According to Allen’s interviewees, bachelors would typically live in a shared household with a cook, and basic rented furniture. Such themes can be easily translated into the social divisions in contemporary development practice, with young, unattached emergency workers living in shared, rented accommodation, while heads of station, and senior staff of bilateral and multilateral agencies will be put in large, often grand houses suitable for diplomatic functions; their furniture shipped by their agency from a previous duty station.

[vi] For example, the representative significance of the form of the white SUV can be seen in its violent targeting in a variety of humanitarian and developmental contexts. In certain situations (Afghanistan) non-governmental organisations (NGOs) purposefully defaced their white SUVs to make them less conspicuous. Elsewhere, development organizations have recently foregone the traditional white SUV in favour of local taxi cabs (Darfur), and mini busses (Liberia).

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

“Complex Humanitarian Emergencies” – MA option taught at the University of Sussex

This course looks at the emergence and development of the phenomena known as “complex humanitarian emergencies” and their role in North-South relations. While this is a contemporary term, the course looks at it in historical perspective. Using two in-depth case studies and small group exercises, it critically examines the following themes: the origins, evolution, and foundational principles of humanitarianism; distinctions between key concepts (catastrophe; natural vs. manmade disaster) key actors (governments, the UN, NGOs, private sector, military); key historical events; technologies of response (camps, food-drops); the role of the media; cultures of aid.

It incorporates the following themes and approaches:

  • Challenging established frames of references and concepts (what is a CHE? Is it a North/South phenomena?)
  • Providing both a strong empirical focus through case studies, and up to date policy approaches with critical theoretical approaches.
  • Focus on the lived and embodied experience of complex emergencies: how camps experienced by the beneficiary? What is it like to ride in a white Landrover? And how have these experiences shaped the way in which big ideas such as humanitarianism have been shaped, understood and transmitted.
  • Uses a wide range of source material: from aid worker biographies and blogs, to novels such as David Eggers’ Zeitoun to maps and objects both in terms of what they represent and how they are used.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the course a successful student should be able to:

Describe, understand and evaluate the concept of complex humanitarian emergencies both in contemporary terms and in historical perspective

Have a knowledge of the actors, institutions, legal frameworks, funding mechanisms and procedures relating to a complex humanitarian response

Understand and evaluate the competing theoretical claims and perspectives relating to complex humanitarian emergencies

Advance academically formulated ideas about the utility of the concept and the process as a mode of international political interaction.

Be able to conceptualise the idea of CHE beyond conventional North-South frameworks and to problematise its continued use within international humanitarian discourse.



Week 1 – Background Reading

Week 2 – The origins and evolution of humanitarianism

Week 3 – Principles, Professionalization and Organization

Week 4 – Humanitarian Space, Securitization, Remote Management, Logistics


Week 5 – Haiti as complex humanitarian emergency

Week 6 – Haiti before and after

Week 7 – Essay Preparation Week


Week 8 – New Orleans as state of exception

Week 9 – The picturesque and the disaster imaginary – Rebuilding New Orleans

Week 10 – Cultures of Aid – Codes of Conduct


Week One – Background Reading (no class)

Try to read one of these prior to starting the course.

Keen, D. (2008). Complex emergencies. Cambridge, Polity.

Higate, P. and M. Henry (2009). Insecure spaces : peacekeeping, power and performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia. London, Zed.

Samantha Power (2008). Chasing the Flame New York, Penguin.


Week Two: The origins and evolution of humanitarianism

This week looks at the emergence of a humanitarian ethic from Henri Dunant‟s revelation on the battle field at Solferino through to the creation and use of legal instruments.

Guiding Questions:

 What are the philosophical and guiding principles and ethics that underpin humanitarianism? How have they evolved?

 What are the key moments, documents and decisions?

Weiss, T. G. and C. Collins (2000). Chapters 1 Main Actors, Humanitarian challenges and intervention. Boulder, Colo.; Oxford, Westview Press.

Calhoun – The idea of emergency (2010) in Fassin and Pandolfi (eds) Contemporary States of Emergency (New York: Zone)

Rieff, David “The Hazards of Charity” in (2002) A Bed for the Night New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ranciere, Jacques (2004) “Who is the subject of the rights of Man?” South Atlantic Quarterly 103(2/3):297-310.

Slim, Hugo “Not Philanthropy But Rights” – on rights based humanitarianism

Please have a look at online

1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter

2. Geneva Conventions

3. Refugee Convention

Additional sources

Curti, M. (1957). “The History of American Philanthropy as a Field of Research.” The American Historical Review 62(2): 352-363.

Bass, G. J. (2008). Freedom‟s battle : the origins of humanitarian intervention. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Crossland, James (2010) “Expansion, Suspicion and the Development of the ICRC: 1939-45” Australian Journal of Politics and History 56(3): 381-392.

Cowan, J. K. (2007). “The Supervised State “ Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 14(5): 545 – 578.

Edkins, J. (2003). “Humanitarianism, humanity, human.” Journal of Human Rights 2(2): 253-258.

Weiss, S. S., Hans-Joachim, and van Meurs, Wim, Ed. (2009). Diplomacy, Development and Defense: A Paradigm for Coherence, Bertelsmann Stiftung. (not yet available, awaiting delivery)

Rozario, K. (2003). “”Delicious horrors”: Mass culture, the red cross, and the appeal of modern American humanitarianism.” American Quarterly 55(3): 417-455.

Davis, M. (2000). Late Victorian Holocausts : El Nino famines and the making of the Third World, Verso.

Hutchinson, J. F. (1996). Chapters 1 Champions of charity: war and the rise of the Red Cross. Oxford, Westview.

Lester, A. (2002). “Obtaining the „due observance of justice‟: the geographies of colonial humanitarianism.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20: 277-293.

Skran, C. M. (1995). Chapter 3 in Refugees in inter-war Europe : the emergence of a regime. Oxford, Clarendon Press.


Week Three: Principles, Pragmatism and Organization

This week looks at the development of pragmatic humanitarianism in response to the Goma crisis. It examine the various systems of coordination, accountability and resources mobilization that have been developed.

Guiding Questions:

 Who are the main actors? What are the conflicts between them? How do they coordinate?

 How is funding obtained?

 Has development become a profession; has it become more principled?

 How does a pragmatic approach compare to last week‟s approaches?

Linda Polman – Chapter 1 in (2010) The Crisis Caravan. New York: Metropolitan

The Humanitarian Charter:,english/

and The Sphere handbook:

Darcy, James (2004) “Locating Responsibility: The Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Rationale” Disasters 28(2): 112-123

Collins and Weiss – Chapter 2

Barnett – Humanitarianism Transformed

UN General Assembly Resolution on the creation of UN OCHA

IASC standing committee on Clusters$file/Full_Report.pdf?openelement

On Funding:$FILE/Tufts-July2007.pdf

Codes of Conduct

IFRC code of conduct:

The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership

An example of a CAP/Cluster approach in action (not in pack)$FILE/CAP_2010_Zimbabwe_SCREEN.pdf?OpenElement

Additional Reading:

Brauman, Rony (2004) “From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism: Remarks and an Interview” The South Atlantic Quarterly 102(2/3): 397-417.

Brauman, Rony (2006) “Global Media and the Myths of Humanitarian Relief The case of the 2004 Tsunami” CRASH Papers

Clements, Ashley and Edwina Thompson (2009) “Making Tough Calls: decision making in complex humanitarian environments” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine Issue 44

ODI working paper on complexity 10

HPG Principles in Practice

Kent, R. C. (1987). Anatomy of disaster relief: the international network in action. London, Pinter.

MSF grey archive on Rwanda Refugee Camps in Zaire (available in Global Resource Centre)

Failure of Humanitarian Action in Rwanda Panorama


Week 4: Humanitarian Space, Securitization, Remote Management, Logistics

The week examines the emerging concept of „humanitarian space‟. What it means, how it‟s been constructed – legally, figuratively and materially.

Guiding Questions:

 What is humanitarian space?

 Who is it for?

 How is it constructed?

 What are the implications for humanitarianism?

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2008). Background Document: Preserving Humanitarian Space, Protection and Security. New York, UNICEF.

Abild, E. (2009). Creating Humanitarian Space: A case Study of Somalia. New Issues in Refugee Research. Oxford, UNHCR.

Fast, Larissa – “Mind the Gap” (2010) in EJIR

Van Wassenhove, LN (2006) “Humanitarian Aid Logistics: Supply Chain Management in High Gear” The Journal of Operational Research Society 57(5):475-489.

Agier, Michel (2008) Chapter 3 in On the Margins of the World Cambridge: Polity.

Additional sources

Hyndman, Jennifer.

Garro, H. (2008). Does humanitarian space exist in Chad? Humanitarian Exchange Magazine. London, ODI.$file/odi_dec2008.pdf?openelement (pp. 39-41)

Wagner, J. G. (2005). An IHL/ICRC perspective on „humanitarian space‟. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine. London, ODI.$file/odihpn-gen-dec05.pdf?openelement (pp. 24-26

Lischer, S. K. (2005). Dangerous sanctuaries : refugee camps, civil war, and the dilemmas of humanitarian aid. Ithaca, N.Y. ; London, Cornell University Press.

Debrix, François. (1998) “Deterritorialised Territories, Borderless Borders: The New Geography of International Medical Assistance” Third World Quarterly, 19(5):827-846

Principles pragmatism: NGO engagement with armed actors

Gibson, T. (2006). “New Orleans and the Wisdom of Lived Space.” Space and Culture 9(1): 45-47.

Burkle, F. (2009). “Sovereignty, Endurance, and the Elusive Search for Humanitarian Space in North Korea ” Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 24(3): 161-165.

Yamashita, H. (2004). Humanitarian space and international politics: the creation of safe areas. Burlington, VT, Ashgate.

Tomaszewski, B and L Czárán, Geographically Visualizing Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) Information

Thurer, D. (2007). “Dunant’s Pyramid: thoughts on the “humanitarian space”.” International Review of the Red Cross 89: 47-61.

Week 5 – Haiti as complex humanitarian emergency: What happened up to 30 days after the event. This week is devoted to understanding what happened when the quake hit. Who did what, what was the sequencing? We will work together as a class to develop an up-to-date bibliography and a timeline of events.

MSF archive

See for events (in French!)


Week 6 – Haiti 2 – Before and After

This week continues the case study looking at the context of Haiti that informs current and continuing events. It will be used to pick out key humanitarian themes such as clusters, logistics, responsibility, camps, media to coordinate, distribution, infrastructure. We will continue developing the case study.

Muggah, Robert (2010) “The effects of stabilisation on humanitarian action in Hait” Disasters 34(S3):S444-S463

Zanotti, Laura (2010) Cacophonies of Aid

Additional Resources

Lucchi, Elena (2010) “Between war and peace: humanitarian assistance in violent urban settings” in Disasters 34(4): 973-995

Week 7 – Essay Week

This week should be used for you to pick the object that you want to investigate for your final essay, identify primary material, decide upon a theoretical framework, and establish an initial bibliography and outline. You are encouraged to come to my office hours to discuss your proposed outline.

Week 8 – New Orleans as state of exception

This week looks at the concept of ”natural disasters” as distinct from CHEs and ask whether the distinction holds. It will look at how one of the highest profile disasters unfolded and how its exceptional nature translated into the way in which it was managed. Through this, the symbolic, metaphoric and actually existing space of the “camp” will be examined. Again, as a class will exploring time line of events, and the response.

Eggers, David – Zeitoun

Hayley – on Camps

Klein, Naomi – Chapter from the Shock Doctrine

Possible Presentations: – timeline of response (who did what, when)

– What is a “disaster”? – legal definitions.


Brinkley, Douglas The Great Deluge

Dyson, Michael Eric (2006) Come Hell or High Water . New York: Basic Civitas

Piazza, Tom City of Refuge ( a novel)

Williams, Stewart (2008) “Rethinking the Nature of Disaster: From Failed Instruments of Learning to a post-Social Understanding” Social Forces 87(2):1115-1139.

Oliver-Smith, A. (1996). “Anthropological research on hazards and disasters.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25(1): 303-328.

Harada, T. (2000). “Space, materials, and the “social”: in the aftermath of a disaster.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18(2): 205-212. 13

Smith, N. (2006). “There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.” From

Spike Lee’s documentaries: When the Levees Broke and If God is willing and the Creek don’t rise

Trouble the Water (another documentary)

Week 9 – The picturesque and the disaster imaginary – Rebuilding New Orleans

This week looks at the way that disaster (and CHEs) are imagined and how this influences the response. It will continue with our case study of New Orleans to examine the ways in which “outsiders” contributed to the rebuilding of the city, and the resulting implications. Through this we will access the wider discussion of the place and role of „disaster‟ in society at large.

Ophir, Adi “The Politics of Catastrophization: Emergency and Exception” in Fassin and Pandolfi (2010) Contemporary States of Emergency (New York: Zone)

Solnit chapter (to be distributed)

Kingsley, Karen “Rebuilding New Orleans”

Presentation – “Representing Katrina”.

Additional Reading

Lots of articles by Demond Shondell Miller

A special issue of Space and Culture here:

Bianchini, Stefano et al. (2005) Partitions: Reshaping Hearts and Minds London: Routledge.

Brusma (2007) Katrina: The sociology of disaster

Rozario, K. (2007). Introduction in The culture of calamity : disaster and the making of modern America. Chicago ; London, University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, D. (2007). “Geopolitics and visuality: Sighting the Darfur conflict “ Political Geography 26: 357-382.

Simpson, Edward (2005) “The Gujurat Earthquake and the political economy of nostalgia” Contributions to Indian Sociology 39(2):219-249.

Week 10 – Cultures of Aid – Codes of Conduct

This week will look at the cultures that spring up around aid workers and how they represent and understand themselves. It will look at the idea of the “memoire” (bringing us back to week 1 and H. Dunant’s memoire) and how this has been instrumental in self understandings of humanitarianism. How does the memoire in question square with the standards and principles examined in previous weeks? Whither local populations?

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures

Dawes, James (2007) chapter on “Storytelling” in That the World May Know (Cambridge: HUP)

Presentation: The role of Aid Blogs in contemporary aid work

Additional Readings:

Huggan, Graham (2009) Extreme Pursuits: Travel Writing in an Age of Globalization Ann Arbor: U of Mich Press.

Lewis, et al. “The Fiction of Development” (2008) Journal of Development Studies 44(2):198-216.

Gigliotti, Simone (2007) “Genocide yet again” Australian Journal of Politics and History 53(1):84-95.

Kay Schaffer & Sidonie Smith (2004) “Conjunctions: Life Narratives in the Field of Human Rights” Biography Vol. 27

Pandolfi, M. (2003). “Contract of Mutual (In)Difference: Governance and the Humanitarian Apparatus in Contemporary Albania and Kosovo.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 10: 369-382.

Pouligny, B. (2006). Peace operations seen from below: UN missions and local people. London, Hurst & Co.

Edkins, J. (2000). Whose hunger?: concepts of famine, practices of aid. London, University of Minnesota Press.

Debrix, F. and C. Weber (2003). Rituals of mediation : international politics and social meaning. Minneapolis ; London, University of Minnesota Press. (See chapters by Campbell, Dillon and Weber).

Richmond, O. P. (2009). “Becoming Liberal, Unbecoming Liberalism: Liberal-Local Hybridity via the Everyday as a Response to the Paradoxes of Liberal Peacebuilding.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 3(3): 324 – 344. 15

Rajaram, P. K. and C. Grundy-Warr (2007). Borderscapes : hidden geographies and politics at territory’s edge. Minneapolis, Minn., University of Minnesota Press ; [Bristol : University Presses Marketing, distributor].

Heathershaw, J. (2007). “Peacebuilding as Practice: Discourses from Post-conflict Tajikistan.” International Peacekeeping 14(2): 219-236.

Special issue on spaces of post-conflict state-building in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 2(3) 2008

Eggers, D. (2008). What is the what : the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng : a novel. London, Penguin.

Malkki, L. H. (1995). Purity and exile : violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago ; London, University of Chicago Press.

Malkki, L. H. (1996). “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11(3): 377-404.

Ek, R. (2006). “Giogio Agamben and the spatialities of the camp: an introduction.” Geografiska Annaler, Series B 88(4): 363-386.

Salter, M. B. (2003). Rights of passage : the passport in international relations. Boulder, Colo; London, Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22(1) 2004 is a special issue on complexity and networks.

Coward, M. (2006). “Against anthropocentrism: the destruction of the built environment as a distinct form of political violence” Review of International Studies 32: 419-437.

Hansen, T. B. and F. Stepputat (2005). Sovereign bodies : citizens, migrants, and states in the postcolonial world. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford, Princeton University Press.

The object(s) of humanitarianism

“The object(s) of humanitarianism: object based learning in taught post-graduate courses,” paper presented at the International Studies Association Conference; Montreal, Canada, March 2011


International Relations (IR) tends to focus its  research on representational forms of knowledge: historical accounts of events as told through archives, news media, interviews.   While these approaches are well established within UK higher education, emerging pedagogy stresses the significant contribution that objects can make to students’ intellectual development. Based on a graduate course at Sussex University the paper suggests that object based learning has unique contributions to make to teaching complex humanitarian emergencies and the related disciplines of conflict, security and development and international relations.

How does one teach ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ to graduate students, who have little to no experience with the phenomena beyond what they see on television? How does one do this in a way which is both ethically sensitive to the concepts and events under examination and conveys the realities involved (death, injury, destruction, corruption).  Is it possible to both offer a philosophical critique of the concept and processes while imparting students with the ‘skills base’ that is increasingly in demand at the post-graduate taught (PGT) level in England?  It is these questions that I began to wrestle with when asked to develop a course on ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ in the context of our new taught Masters programme on Conflict, Security and Development.  With a research background in the spatial and material aspects of humanitarianism, I decided to mobilize new techniques in student engagement such as “inquiry-based learning” to introduce the students to an “object oriented approach” to the subject.  The rationale for this was based on the following two hypotheses:

  1. The current composition of UK PGT classes requires modification of typical text based seminar approach

An increasing proportion of university level education in the United Kingdom is delivered through taught post-graduate courses (PGT). In International Relations these courses are typically one year long and are taught through a two or three hour seminar format which typically includes a combination of lecture/discussion/small group work.  The size of the classes varies between 10 to 25 students however increased student demand in the past few years and attempts to reduce costs has seen a trend towards the higher end of this spectrum.  [need stats]  In addition to larger class size, other pedagogic challenges include a wide variety of class composition:  students come from all over the world (representing all continents); wide variety of ages (from students who have just graduated from under-graduate courses to mature students); an fairly even split between genders; and an increased recognition of the pervasiveness of learning challenged students such as those with dyspraxia, dyslexia and autism.

2.       The study of complex emergencies (narrowly) and international relations (broadly) would benefit from an introduction of this pedagogic approach by challenging existing narratives of causality and agency.  The introduction of objects also allows highlights the affective and ethical issues which are often obscured in traditional text based teaching methods.

International Relations, like many humanities and social science subjects has typically been taught through representational methods include the use of abstract models and historical narratives.  The established PGT format, described above, relies heavily on texts which tend to be circulated in advance to students in order that they form the basis of discussion during the seminar.  While the discipline’s traditional perspectives  – i.e. realism, liberalism and even marxism –  are concerned with the material aspects of statecraft – for example economic resources; populations; borders; weapons arsenals; government institutions the pedagogic approaches have focused on the representational and epi-phenomenal aspects such as power; ideas and norms.  This tendency towards representation was amplified from the 1990s onwards when interest in discursive and constructivist approaches gained new prominence.  Recently, interest in materiality has seen a small but influence group of scholars foregrounding issues around objects and things (Debrix and Weber 2003; Higate and Henry 2009; Salter 2008; Venturi et al. 2007).  Another group of scholars has been interested in matters of ‘practice’ in International Relations (Pouliot 2008; Richmond 2009).  But these theoretical approaches have not translated into changed pedagogic approaches, and in the main they are still defined and discussed largely through representational means. This is not to say that all approaches to International Relations Pedagogy are the same – the papers on this panel attest to this. In various sectors of the discipline there have been attempts to incorporate more experiential and active learning techniques.  But approaches such as simulations, field trips and problem or case based learning approaches are still generally seen as supplements to the established text based techniques rather than the centerpiece.[1]

This paper is an analysis of recent experiment in using object based approaches to teaching and learning in a PGT environment.  It argues that while an incorporation of object-based learning seems to have pedagogic benefits based on student feedback, further research is needed.  It is also unclear whether a partial incorporation of an OBL approach may be confusing for some students who are used to a textually based approach.

1 – Best Practice in Learning

Contemporary pedagogy stresses the need to ensure that students reflect upon the material in a way that ensures absorption and comprehension of the material (Cowan 2006).  Approaches to reflective learning, also stress the importance of presenting materials in ways which allow students to reconsider and challenge their pre-existing assumptions and frameworks regarding the material (Moon 2004). While it is more than possible for reflexive methods to be deployed using texts (Cowan 2006) educators will still encounter the challenges which derive from a reliance on texts in a PGT environment namely:

  • Students will different cultural backgrounds will struggle more or less with texts which tend to reflect the Eurocentric nature of the discipline.
  • Students with different learning needs (autistic, dyslexic) may find themselves relatively disadvantaged in a learning environment which privileges textual pedagogies.
  • Students who do not have English as their first language and often find the traditionally dense academic articles which are assigned as PGT reading difficult to comprehend. As ESL students are an increasing proportion of our PGT student cohorts this consideration needs to be taken seriously. Personal experience suggests that ESL students will often ignore or skim read those articles they find inaccessible, resulting in in-class discussion being dominated by those students who are most comfortable with the texts.

Current best practice in pedagogic approaches stresses the role that multi-dimensional learning approaches can have in improving comprehension and retention (Moon 2004).  In particular, the need to distinguish between verbal and tacit knowledge highlights the different ways in which students learn.  Say Phillips and Tinning quoting Hooper-Greenhill, “verbal knowledge is primarily textual and is characterized as ‘knowledge through the written, spoken or heard text’” (Phillips and Tinning 2011: 57). In other words, the type of knowledge that forms the nucleus of PGT teaching in the social sciences and humanities in the UK.  Tacit knowledge on the other hand, “is experiential and involves encounters through the senses and the body producing ‘powerful “gut reactions”, mobilizing feelings and emotions” (Phillips and Tinning 2011: 57). The mobilization of emotion can itself be an important aspect of comprehension and retention (Moon 2004) in two different ways. First, a students personal emotional state during the teaching experience will influence whether they are comfortable and able to absorb information. Students who are frightened are less able to learn and less likely to retain information.   Secondly, it will have an effect on the level of comprehension itself by involving a range of senses – vision, touch, hearing, kinesthetic – not only eyes (Phillips and Tinning 2011; Rodaway 1994).

Particularly in the area of international relations, the core disciplinary concepts contain a strong affective element. Consider the study of conflict. While some branches of conflict studies approach the subject from a largely empirical perspective – measuring number of casualties, frequency of events (Collier and Sambanis 2005; Gleditsch et al. 2002) an equally influential perspective stresses the need to engage with our basic conceptualizations of violence, civil war, conflict in order to not only measure and observe but comprehend the motivations, experience and dynamics of ‘conflict’ (Kalyvas 2004; Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004). For example, Thomas (Thomas 2010) says that within IR our conceptions of violence lack in nuance and specificity – instead using the term to stand in for any act of bodily aggression that is considered to be non-legitimate.

It is strange, too, that so many of the concepts that occupy the discipline are essentially affective in nature. While, concepts such as security and power occupy the pages of our journals, the embodied and affective aspects of these terms remains under-examined. Even in the theoretical spheres of bio-politics – the concern with the body qua its visceral embodiment – our teaching methods and engagement with the terms remains squarely verbal, determinedly textual.  I argue that not only would a change in teaching methods to a more tacit approach improve student learning with regards to these abstract and multivalent concepts; but that this approach may force a reconsideration of the anemic manner in which these terms are traditionally deployed within the discipline.  By considering the tacit, visceral, embodied meaning and aspects of conflict, security, power, development one may find their interpretations of given events being challenged; possibilities for action opening up or shutting down; and even the focus of study shifting.  For example, the famous study of trench warfare during WW1 found that the majority of soldiers were physically unable to shoot their targets (Collins 2008). The horror of the situation overwhelmed their rational brain and their automatic bodily functions took over. Many urinated or defecated in their trousers; others fired over-head; still more ran.  Recognizing the visceral, embodied experience of conflict raises questions over the accuracy to capture the central issues through an abstract or quantitative approach.

A sustained engagement with the human element of conflict also raises ethical issues with regard to the way in which the subject is studied.  In my own experience of PGT courses on Conflict, Security and Development and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies it is far to easy to slip into a discourse which obviates the recognition that the events under consideration involve human casualties – death, trauma, suffering.  A purely textually or verbally based engagement arguably facilitates an approach which see ‘conflict’, ‘insecurity’, ‘emergency’, ‘under-development’ as abstract concepts to be critiqued, hypothesized, proven or rejected without a tacit recognition of the constituent human elements.

In order to address these concerns, in Spring 2010, I designed and taught a class which adopted an ‘object based approach’ to the topic of complex humanitarian emergencies. The course, was designed around four ‘object oriented’ aspects:  overall theoretical orientation, the object lesson, in class presentation and end of term paper.  The next section will review each of these approaches in turn.  Following the course, two forms of student feedback were elicited. First, the official university anonymized feedback through the online system (Annex x); second, using Study Direct, Sussex University’s virtual learning environment I established an online anonymous short answer survey that allowed me to solicit more targeted answers than the generic university feedback forms (Annex x).  The final part of the article will describe how I modified the course for my Spring 2011 session and present my initial thoughts on the these modifications.

2. The Course

The course ran for nine weeks between January and March 2011.  The class was comprised of 24 students:  10 male and 14 female students of ranging between early twenties and mid forties in age, and from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. As this was an elective, the students can be identified with reference to their programme of origin – which included the MA in Conflict, Security and Development, the MA in Anthropology of Violence; MA Human Rights; MA International Relations; and MA anthropology of Development and Social Transformation.   As described in the syllabus:

This course interrogates the concept of “complex humanitarian emergencies” (CHEs) as a modern form of humanitarian response.  As such, it is interested in what CHEs reveal about the underlying tensions in the stated objectives of humanitarian intervention.  To examine these questions, it applies an often neglected theoretical lens to the study of CHEs – that of spatial and material theory. The two main questions are:

1.  What does attention to the material and spatial practices of humanitarian response reveal about the underlying tensions in the stated aims of humanitarian intervention?

2.  How do the material and spatial practices influence the way in which subjectivities and power relations are constructed both locally and in global terms?

It will use a wide range of historical examples and media to problematize the idea that CHE is a purely modern concept.

It did this both by investigating material and spatial approaches, i.e. those approaches attentive to objects, and by adopting ‘object oriented’ learning approached. Each will be examined in turn.

i) Overall Theoretical Approach

The overall theoretical approach was one which introduced the students to a variety of theorists who adopt a variety of spatial and material approaches including:

  • Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (2006) as applied to ideas of ‘humanitarian space’
  • Bourdieu (1990), de Certeau (1988) and Butler (1993) on ‘performance, practice & the everyday ‘ in international response
  • Low (2003), Brown (Venturi et al. 2007), Weizman (2007) and Hyndman (2000) on ‘spaces of enclosure, spaces of separation: the camp, the border’
  • Latour (2005), Dant (2004) & Auge (1995) on ‘moving in the field: assemblage and networks’
  • Coward (2005), Pandolfi (2003) on ‘state of emergency?’ how the material culture and built environment of humanitarian response may be considered as a quasi state.

Each of the weeks brought together the theory with material aspect of complex emergencies:  camps, tarpaulins, food drops, SUVs, categories of people, organization logos, ration cards.  The students read the readings, so visual knowledge was still a key learning modality, but with this knowledge as background, the seminars – 1h50 minutes per session – foregrounded the objects of aid in the following three ways.

 ii) The Object Lesson in Historical Perspective

‘Objects lessons’ were a well established pedagogic approach within the nineteenth century practice of using objects in teaching. Usually attributed to the pedagogic philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi,[2] the approach involved using objects to engage students’ full range of senses in the process of learning. According to Carter, “[i]n his teaching and writing he [Pestalozzi] emphasized the concept of Anschauung, which may be understood as ‘sense training.’ In Pestalozzi’s model, children were first to develop sensation, then perception, notion and finally volition, learning and how to act morally based on an individual view of the world” (Carter 2010: 8).  Associated with Anschauung was the implication that knowledge was not absorbed in a linear or ‘brick wall’ fashion (Moon 2004) but rather holistically and through a variety of sensory channels including affect and emotion.

Pestalozzi’s approach proved to be very attractive to certain educators particularly in the U.S. and England who after visiting Pestalozzi’s school in Yverdon, Switzerland, “adopted his basic notion that children should learn from experience and observation as opposed to memorization and recitation. They employed these notions to develop entire curricula or to solve specific pedagogical problems in the teaching of subjects like music, mathematics, or drawing” (Carter 2010: 8).  Pestalozzi’s approach focused on educating the whole person; treating his students as people not subjects (Pestalozzi 1801).  This was very much part of what has become known as ‘progressive education’ – a trend that began in Europe, Great Britain and America during the late  nineteenth century and persists in various guises to the present day. Progressive education stresses the value of experiential knowledge over rote memorization and became associated in the late nineteenth century with such names as Francis Parker and John Dewey (Reese 2001).  It also stressed the need to foster a loving and kind relationship with the student.

Pestalozzi and his acolytes such as Elizabeth Mayo in England promoted the ‘object lesson’ as a key part of progressive education (Reese 2001: 13; Schultz 1995).[3] By focusing on ‘things’ rather than words, students were thought to be able to approach learning in a more organic and intuitive fashion.  The object lesson was “typically organized around specific everyday objects and substances, listed and detailed at length in the many object lesson manuals published throughout the century.”[4] For example, Mayo’s Promethean Lessons on Objects: Graduated Series designed for Children between the ages of Six and Fourteen Years offers a series of graduated series – one to five; each cumulative series intended for more advanced pupils  (Mayo 1863) Series one contains such objects as glass, Indian rubber, milk, rice and chalk.  Series Two contained Ïan uncut Lead PencilÓ, ÏA Wax CandleÓ, and ÏA KeyÓ; Series Three ÏA QuillÓ, ÏA Piece of Honey CombÓ and ÏA Laurel LeafÓ. By the Fourth Series students the ‘objects’ included the senses such as ÏSmellÓ and ÏTasteÓ as well as Spices such as ÏClovesÓ and ÏNutmegÓ and Liquids such as ÏInkÓ and ÏForeign White WineÓ.  By the Fifth Series a wide range of household items were represented – including some that had been used in previous lessons such as ÏHornÓ and ÏGlassÓ.  The Fifth Series also included groups of objects entitled ÏOn The MetalsÓ and ÏOn EarthsÓ.  In this way, more abstract concepts such as location, chemical composition, distinctions such as ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ and political and economic inter-relationships (such as empire) could be explored through accessible concepts.

Nor was Mayo alone in her documentation of the process of Object Teaching.   Dozens of similar manuals sprang up throughout the nineteenth century in both Europe and America.  The approaches were broadly similar, and differed in the degree of direction with regard to the employment of the technique.  For example, Calkins’ (Calkins 1882) provides minute instructions to teaching on how to use the technique with student’s including questions that they should ask for different ‘objects’.  Consider this suggested approach for examining a cat.

What does the cat do when she is happy?

Children. She  purrs.

Teacher. How does the cat show that she is angry?

C. She wags her tail, and makes a noise.

T. How does the cat tell you that she is hungry ?

C. She mews.

T. How does she tell you that she wants you to open the door for her to come in or to go out ? […] (Calkins 1882: 184).

Pestalozzi’s approach borrowed from two major and overlapping philosophical trends of the nineteenth century: naturalism (or romanticism) and empiricism. On one hand, Pestalozzi’s approach emphasized careful empirical observation of the objects in question. Through the application of one senses, a variety of information and data could be identified and comprehended that was not possible in the context of textual approaches. While it focused on ‘everyday objects’ – salt peter, India rubber, sage – these objects did not themselves appear to have been imbued with any type of enchanted or extra-material quality (Bennett, 2001).  Says Professor S. S. Greene in his ‘Report on Object Teaching’ for the meeting of the National Teachers Association of 1865, knowledge is not “in the object, but in the mind. The object neither embodies nor in any way expresses them. It merely serves as the occasion to call them into consciousness” (Greene 1865: 5). Unlike the early to mid-twentieth century focus on everyday objects for their phenomenological impact (Adorno and Jephcott 1974; de Certeau 1988; Kracauer 1995; Lee 2002; Simmel et al. 1997), the use of objects in the Pestalozzian sense was primarily as pedagogical instruments or tools which could engage and direct a students senses to have a more complete understanding of the thing and through the thing, to a more complete understanding of nature. While it is possible that those adherents with more naturalists or transcendentalist tendencies may have spoken of particularly natural objects with an almost agential reverence, in the main, the object was seen as a tool to clarify thoughts which originate only in the mind and therefore feel squarely within Cartesian mind-body thinking.

An understanding of nature was in turn thought to organically foster moral recognition within the students of what constitutes right and wrong, and ultimately would bring them closer to God. There was also a clear association both in Pestalozzi’s own work and in his adherents in the explicit connection between object teaching and religious and moral training (Greene 1865). Interwoven with romantic, humanitarian notions of the child and childhood, there was also an implication that children through their privileged epistemological position were somehow closer to God and that an object based approach to learning was a better fit with their pedagogical level.  Reese argues that “American advocates of the new [progressive] education drew as they pleased from a large corpus of romantic writings, domestic and foreign” including Emerson, Rousseau, Thoreau, as well as Pestalozzi and his German student Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) (Reese 2001: 10).

As evidenced from the Object Lesson manuals, it was rarely the objects themselves that were used in teaching although educators were encouraged, where possible to bring the actual ‘object’ into class.  One common tool were Object-Lesson Cards, first published in the early 1860s by Oliver and Boyd of Edinburgh (Carter 2010: 9). Describing a set from the 1880s, Carter says

“[e]ach of the lesson cards measures roughly twenty by thirteen inches and includes actual specimens of ‘raw and manufactured materials’ along with a short essay detailing the chosen plant and is connections to the commodities displayed. A boll [sic.] of cotton resides next to brightly colored calico; oak park connects to a square of tanned leather; a cypress leaf is displayed beside a pencil…by redefining cookies, straw, or macaroni as the subject of a classroom exercise, as part of a network of meaning, these pedagogical tools attempted to transform children’s daily experiences into learning opportunities” (2010: 8)

But according to some this was not object teaching: “But what is object teaching? Not that so-called object teaching which is confined to a few blocks and cards to be taken from the teacher’s desk” (Greene 1865: 10).  Such an approach only “exchange[d] an unknown term for another equally unknown” (Greene 1865: 10). Instead, it is an approach that “works from the well known to the obscurely known, and so onward and upward till the learner can enter the fields of science or abstract thought” (Greene 1865: 11). Pestalozzi and Froebel’s methods and pedagogic influence had long lasting effects on contemporary Anglo-American education, most notably in the spread of Froebellian kindergartens (Tarr 1989: 117).

While the ‘object lesson’ tended to be primarily geared towards younger learners, in 1889 Emerson E. White told a local graduating class that “The theories and methods of methods of Pestalozzi and Froebel have permeated elementary schools and science and other modern knowledges, have entered the universities and are working their way downward through secondary education” (White as quoted in Reese 2001: 10). Although the influence of object learning is generally no longer an explicit aspect of secondary or university education, its pedagogic inspiration can be found in a variety of approaches that fall under the object based approach.  For example, inquiry based learning “is an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and rigorously testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding” (Foundations 2000).  A variety of scholars are also interested in the value of the museum and the objects it houses in teaching and learning (Hooper-Greenhill 1999; Leinhardt 2002; Paris 2002; Phillips and Tinning 2011; Schwartz 2008).

iii) The Object Lesson in 2010

The object lesson for this class took place from 11:00-12:50 on February 4th, 2010 in the Mass Observation Archive of the University of Sussex Library.  The MOA “specializes in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organization (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is in the care of the University of Sussex and is housed in the Library in Special Collections.”[5] It is particularly concerned with the opinions of everyday people – their experiences and observations.  The Mass Observation project was concerned with collecting ephemera: “paper items (as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”[6] In conjunction with Fiona Courage, the Curator of the Mass Observation Archive, students were introduced to the idea of using objects to do research, particularly in the context of an archive, as many of them were unfamiliar with the concept.  As Fiona expressed it in her introduction, “the aim, the objective of today is that you will leave with some idea of how you can go about researching an object.”[7]  Myself and Fiona had previously gone through the archive for objects which we felt had relevance to the topics under consideration in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies.  As the archive is only concerned with Britain, we were reliant upon objects from and relating to the Second World War and the year following it.  While the majority of them were paper based, Fiona succinctly explained to the students that “what I want you to get the feeling for is that the document is an object, its not just the information that’s contained within it that’s important, it’s the object itself: it’s what it’s written on, it’s how it’s written, it’s what it smells of, it’s what the marks are…coffee stains…what does that tell you about that item?”

She illustrated what this means, by showing them, first, a transcribed copy of a poem by Rudyard Kipling[8] called “Ballad of the King’s Jest”.  You contrasted a verbal approach to knowledge with a tacit approach by first, demonstrating how, on strictly verbal grounds, the first version of the poem would be interpreted based on the language, the prose, the linguistic meaning of the poem. She then took out the original manuscript and put it on the overhead projector (Figure 1).  Based on the manuscript she asked the students what he was feeling when he wrote the poem.  Based on the fluidity and erratic placement of the text on the page students suggested that Kipling was ‘inspired’ when he wrote the poem, that the text came easily and quickly to him. Fiona also pointed out that the prose started out quite calmly on the page, but towards the end is crammed tightly in order to fit on the page. She also remarked that while people consider him to be a genius, the crossed out words and moved others around indicate that “he made mistakes too…he changed his mind too.” It offers insight into the writer and the writing process that the printed page can’t.  Similarly, a coffee stain on the page may give insight into how the manuscript was treated over the years and indicates that the manuscript was possibly not considered to be a terribly important document at certain points in its history.

Students had been assigned randomly to groups through seating arrangements – tables with pairs of chairs had been distributed around the room, and students had sat down at them as they came in. We then distributed one or two pieces of ephemera and/or objects to the tables. Students were then asked to begin by asking themselves two questions:  1) what is it? 2) where is it from? Students were encouraged to look beyond the text and to consider the thing as an object.

One group had been given a gas mask.  They asked themselves questions about how it was made; what materials had been used; the design. They tried it on, smelled it, looked at the wear marks.  Doing this led them to question the age of the mask.  A second group had been given a poster from a charity ball in 1885 for ‘needy and necessitous upholsterers and upholsteresses’ in London. This discussion around the poster raised issues of class, social literacy, spatial location of upholsterers in London, and most importantly for the course, issues relating to nineteenth century notions of charity.  A third group had been given a charity appeal for Belgium refugees in London, from a religious organization in 1916. This highlighted a variety of issues from the significance of charity appeals as early as 1916. Something that may have been seen by students on the course as a relatively recent way of conducting humanitarian affairs was given history depth. The brochure also gave insight into the geopolitical relations between Belgium and London during this time, and the plight of refugees. That European refugees were a significant problem in England during the first World War problematized the students framing of refugees as primarily a contemporary and North-South issue. Another group had a hand-written letter dated 1940 which describes the everyday lives of ambulance drivers for a religious charity, located in Buckhurst Hill, Essex.  The letter describes how they were accommodating refugees from East London. The discussion revolved around the issue that unlike the previous piece of ephemera – the charity appeal – the hand written artifact provided an intimate sense of the everydayness of accommodation and treating refugees.  Returning to the gas-mask, Fiona revealed that it had actually been purchased at a museum, emphasizing the point that in the context of object based research it is essential to carefully consider the object, and not jump to conclusions regarding its origins or intended use.

After all groups had a chance to present and discuss their objects, we then asked them to consider how they would go about finding more information about them. This was intended to prepare them for their final research paper. “How would you build your research project up from the information that you have.”  Several of the groups suggested looking at national and local archives; unions or guilds such as the upholsterers. Another suggested going through the Charity Commission to find records of historical charities. Others suggested interviews.

iv) In Class Presentation

All students were also asks to give in-class, not contributory presentations on respective weeks.  The way in which the seminars were structured, was that I would introduce the theoretical frameworks under consideration for that week.  This ensured that all students were comfortable with the main theoretical points under discuss. Groups would then present on that week’s theme in a way that applied that week’s theory to aspect of complex humanitarian emergencies under discussion.

For weeks five, eight, nine and ten you have been assigned to a group through Study Direct.  As a group you will be assigned an object or theme, which will be sent to the respective groups via Study Direct.  As a group have the choice to develop a short presentation on how that’s week readings do (or do not) apply to the object in question.  If, as a group, you decide that would prefer to use a different object that is more appropriate for that week’s readings, you are encouraged to do so.  However, there needs to be a clear link between the object and that week’s reading, and you will need to clear your choice with the tutor in advance.

You will need to meet in advance of the seminar to develop a presentation of between 15 and 20 minutes on the object in question. You may use Study Direct to have virtual discussions if it is difficult to meet, and I am happy to add other electronic tools such as a group wiki.  Please let me know if this is desirable.

The presentation should include a power point presentation, ideally with visuals, and all members of the group should be involved in some way.  Roles should be detailed on a slide at the end of the presentation (e.g. Power Point:  Jane Doe; Archival Research:  Dogs Body; Presenter #1 Austin Karl; etc.).  At the end of the presentation, the group should reserve 2-3 minutes to present their reflections on the exercise itself:  how they found the material, what difficulties they encountered, what surprised them. The presentation will be posted on Study Direct after the seminar.

This exercise is intended to not only develop critical analytic skills, by actively bringing together theoretical frameworks with empirical objects, but serves as a preparatory exercise for the final essay.

So, for example, the group in Week Eight presented on the issue of Women’s Safety in Camps, choosing the object of ‘camp’ and relating it to the theoretical perspectives on borders, bordering and enclosure as discussed by Garry Marx, Jennifer Hyndman and Charlie Hailey. Week Five’s group looked at how performativity and considerations of ‘audience’ help us to understand violent or ‘inappropriate’ behaviour of peacekeepers (with reference to Somalia).

v) End of Term Paper

Both the ‘object lesson’ and the presentation were intended to prepare students for their final contributory assignment: a 5000 word essay. Students were asked to:

identify an object or artefact that you would like to investigate as central to complex humanitarian emergencies. This might include the object of the Kalashnikov gun, the UN laissez-passez (passport), the food drop, the field hospital.  Other possibilities are listed at the back end of the syllabus.  You may investigate this object with reference to a variety of media and methods.  The essay should investigate how the object is involved in humanitarian emergencies (broadly speaking) and what it tells us about some aspect of complex emergencies. This could include historical, symbolism, or political economy approaches.  The paper may use the object to reveal some hitherto under-investigated aspect of humanitarianism and/or to develop theories presented in the course. You may want to include diagrams or other visual aids such as pictures, photographs.  These do not add to the word count.[9]

In order to ensure they were adequately prepared for the assignment and they understood what was being asked of them, an entire week (Week 7) was set aside to have an essay writing workshop. In addition to a presentation that I gave on common mistakes and how to avoid them (Annex x), students were asked to prepare and bring to class a one page outline of your essay comprised of a research question, basic outline and short bibliography by Thursday, February 25th.  Students were assigned to pairs and asked to assess each others’ outlines according the following criteria.

  • Is the research question well formulated?
  • Is there a clear argument?
  • Is the structure logical and does it work to support the argument?
  • Is the bibliography appropriate?
  • Is the project viable in a 5000 word essay format?
  • What elements/issues need to be included for a well supported argument?
  • What pitfalls do you anticipate?

Based on these criteria they were asked to assign a mark to the outline.  Marking sheets were distributed in class (Annex x).  Students were asked to include a short paragraph, prior to the essay’s main body which describes how the feedback you received influenced your work (see sample attachments). The essays as completed ranged in quality along a normal spectrum. Several outstanding essays were identifiable including an examination of tunnels as spaces of resistance; and the social life of blue tarpaulins.

3. The student response and observations

Student feedback was solicited through two different methods. The first method was via the online feedback system as carried out through the university.  The course received very positive feedback on average with the overall experience receiving a mean rating of 4.1 out of 5.0.[10] On the overall approach of the course students commented positively:

“Good discussions, engaged and conscientious teaching, introduced me to intellectual field to which I was previously unknown [sic.].”

[on things s/he liked about the course] “Combine theory and practice.”

“…providing useful, career-applicable skills to disaster and conflict.”

“the course was both relevant and interesting to current affairs.”

“Fascinating subject.”

“Very new and exciting material to which I had not been exposed. It caused me to rethink and research areas that are now becoming more and more important to me…”

“The professor conducted the class seminar well, enabling students to express themselves, yet also making them see other aspects to the discussion. The class group works actually are meaningful.”

But they also had some complaints…

“We can understand more the meaning of space and non-spaces by more practical approach than philosophical.”

“Perhaps not all students followed the material and spatial approach as much as was required to obtain full learning experience, hence the stress on these approaches should perhaps be lessened.”

“…relevance of readings unclear and felt like being taught a rigid obscure methodology on CHE…”

“I thought the course would be much more ‘hands on’ but it turned out to be way to [sic.] abstract and way too theoretical.”

“At times, I got lost in the theory…and how it related to what we were talking about.”

A not insignificant contributing factor to the negative responses, may have resulted from the unavoidable truncation of the course.  Due to snow, the university was shut and the course started later than intended.   As a result, the first week – where the basic conceptual and historical apparati of ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ was explained – but rushed through and meant that students might have been lacking in the basic concepts before exploring more abstract concepts.

In order to gain a more focused understanding of students’ responses to ‘object based learning’, I also conducted my own online survey after the course was done, but while students still had access to the VLE. The full survey is available as an Annex however it is worth considering these responses in some depth with regards to how students related to the approach.  Eight out of 24 students responded: 5 men, 3 women; all under the age of 35 and from a range of nationalities and disciplinary backgrounds.

When asked how they would define an ‘object based approach to learning’ all eight chose “foregrounding the material aspects of a particular issue (for example, focusing on camps when studying refugees.” The majority (5/8) felt that focusing on objects and materiality was “a little bit different” than the approach to learning adopted in their other courses.  Said one anthropology student,

“anthropology has a strong thread on materiality, and so there were definitely theoretical similarities between my other classes and this one, for example Auge was not new. However, CHE certainly had a greater focus on objects – be them, as noted above, refugee camps, spatial zones, automobiles etc, and it used video/multimedia such as powerpoint than my other classes which, very often, were dominated by discussion of anthropological theory and ethnographic accounts.”

Another said, “it greatly brought out an emphasis on structure over agency. To some extent, conventional IR seems to place greater emphasis on agency.” And a third, “Studying objects placed the perspective of the interpreter/student on a more or less equal footing with that of the object’s constructors or original users – laying the ground for a critical examination of both perspectives from a third or more position(s).”

One student eloquently explained the benefit offered by an object centred approach by contrasting it with more orthodox approaches to social science and humanities pedagogy:

“Although it is important to note that many courses eventually focuses on objects (i.e. History -> Discovery of America -> Gold as the most important material which resulted in the indiscriminate actions against native Americans), the main innovation brought by is related to the process of learning: instead of going from the concept to the object, the course focused on the object before explaining the particular concept.  According to me, this approach gives you more time to form your own idea so that as soon as the final concept emerges in class you have already unconsciously built your opinion about the matter.”

Students were of mixed opinions as to whether focusing on objects changed the way that they thought about the issues addressed in the course such as disasters, complex emergencies, and humanitarian response. One student felt that the approach was very similar to anthropology where “objects and the relations that actors have to and around objects are a core area of analysis which provides a tangible way to untangle otherwise complex power relations.” However another said it “opened my eyes for how strong a material focus emergency interventions take.”

They found the best (or most useful) part of focusing on objects to be rendering “the theory more tangible” – an aspect that was highlighted by two students.  Said one respondent, “as someone rather averse to high-level, abstract theory, focusing on objects seemed to me to provide a way of understanding in more ‘real’ terms issues, such as considering places/spaces as central to understanding experiences – so, thinking about the camp and then, from that, thinking about what it means to be inside/outside the space.” Another commented that “it brought to light some unconscious taken-for-granted manifestations of power relations” and another felt that the course “offered a most informative and practically a new way of looking at developmental issues. The abstract nature of the course also made it quite challenging and interesting.”

My observations

Overall, I thought the course went well and this was reflected in the high scores that the students gave it in the official assessment.  However, the course as it was formulated was perceived to have been deficient in two main ways.

1. The weighting of the course did not sufficiently engage with ‘first principles’ of humanitarianism – at least in a way which was graspable by non-specialists in such a short period of time. Says one respondent, “There is plenty of  “orthodox” critique of CHEs that students weren’t exposed to at all; things like mandate conflicts, organizational structure, the nature of  “crisis”, funding imperatives, professionalism, government-NGO-public relationships, agency coordination – these would have been good practical areas for them to think about that would significantly contribute to the humanitarian field for those who would eventually go in this direction.”

2. Perhaps there was a need to manage expectations. Although the course description clearly laid out the parameters that would be adopted in the course (and according to feedback the majority of students agreed that it had delivered what it promised), one or two students felt that what they were taught would be “cast aside if they did go into humanitarian fields.” Part of this, I believe, is the result of a changing PGT landscape in Britain where students want to leave with clearly identifiable and transferable skills.  The ability to engage critically with a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives is not seen as one such skill.

It is clear from the feedback and from observing individual participation in class that students with an anthropological background were familiar with related concepts such as material culture, ethnomethodology and were therefore much more comfortable exploring humanitarianism using spatial and material culture. I think that their expectations are also quite different. Unlike International Relations or Development Studies students, there is less of expectation that course content be ‘policy relevant’.

With regards to my starting assumption that such an approach might help students from a range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I am not sure this was the case. As part of my VLE survey, I asked my respondents whether English was their first language.  2 out of 8 of them were non-native speakers.  Of these two, one of them felt that the use of objects to complement textually based approaches did make them think about the concepts of the course in a different way while the other was not sure. On engaging students from a variety of backgrounds, one student said, “From a sociological point of view you could see how different our backgrounds were: ranging from the person already used to the field to the scholar sitting in the library, everyone brought something in class, either academic or practical. As a result, our discussions were always interesting.”

I do think that perhaps a stronger focus on the object qua object would have helped solidify the methodology. As it stood, the objects under consideration where still considered from a primarily visual and text based perspective. Ideally, the various theories would have been tacitly matched to environments or objects which they could directly engage with. Interestingly, even the object lessons as described in the nineteenth century still relied on textually based, visual knowledge.   Overall, it seems to have been a love-it-or-hate-it course (a ‘marmite’ course in object terms!). At least one student was very vocal about his dislike of the approach and feeling that overall the course was “a fairly useless experience.” Whereas others said that there was no part that they considered to be deficient. Asked what was wrong with the course one student responded: “un, dunno – I really liked the approach.”

4. Resultant modifications

The course was an interesting experience. On one hand it was a truly rewarding experience. The students who did ‘get’ the approach really ran with it and produced outstanding work.  The discussions were dynamic and animated. However, the comments from students regarding the need to make the course more attentive to mainstream approaches to and concerns in humanitarianism, as well as the absence of any similar course in the department led me to significantly modify the course for the Spring 2011 session.  In the new course, issues of space and materiality are now only brought up as selective complimentary readings (for example, in the study of Humanitarian Space).[11] This issue of the ethics of researching CHE is dealt with in the week on ‘Representing Disasters’. I have retained the essay workshop as the uniform feedback from students is that it is worthwhile and useful. However, I have modified it slightly so that students now have two rounds of peer review in order to ensure that they are not putting too much weight on one other student’s opinion.

The course is still in progress, however it will be completed and feedback available for comparison by Summer 2011.  My sense based on comments from students is that I may have gone too far the other direction and that the course may now be much too mainstream and atheoretical.

5. Conclusion and Reflection on the place of object based learning in IR

Based on my experience designing and teaching the CHE course both in Spring 2010 and again in spring 2011, I feel that the integration of an object based approach has tremendous potential value both for CHE specifically and IR more generally.  Through this evaluative paper I have found support for some of my initial hypotheses and a lack for others.  My hypothesis that an object centered approach would help me reach those students who are less comfortable with the traditional PGT format is inconclusive.  It is clear however, there is the feeling amongst students that there is a need for more engaged and directed teaching of PGT classes: “in contrast to other course in this so called ‘taught’ MA, I felt properly engaged.” Because students are so un-used to an object centered approach, it seems unlikely that they will grasp such an approach immediately unless they have been previously exposed to it.  This can be seen in the way in which those students with anthropology backgrounds quickly grasped the conceptual approach.  This is not to say that the approach is not useful, only that teaching it as a single week module at the post-graduate level may have difficult reaching all students.

Another consideration in that, as discussed, although the attention was placed on ‘the object’ and the built environment, the techniques used were still quite visually oriented.  The inclusion of even more radical approaches of object teaching including field trips and role-playing might have made the approach more easily accessible to those students unfamiliar with it.

It is, however, worth recognizing, that in the current higher education context of fee increases and the widespread perception of rampant job insecurity, students are increasingly demanding courses that deliver what they perceive to be transferable skills.  While critical enquiry does obviously fall into this category, students taking my complex humanitarian emergencies course are preoccupied by the concern that the knowledge that they receive and develop in their PGT courses will be clearly recognized as valuable by potential employers. As instructors, we shouldn’t shy away from engaging with radical methodologies or theories based on student demand, but do need to find a way to manage student expectations of an increasingly skills based curriculum, with the value of challenging them and encouraging them to question their basic assumptions regarding ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ and international relations more generally.

For those students who are open to exploring a broader approach to knowledge, an object-based approach is undoubtedly a useful and positive complement to more orthodox curriculum.  Not only does it problematize established narratives of humanitarianism and international politics but it also calls into question more fundamental assumptions regarding epistemology, ontological and causation. Instead of seeing complex humanitarian emergencies as a problem to be solved, is allows for an intimate and enchanted engagement with people, places and issues under examination.[12]


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[1] For a discussion of the use of museums as learning objects see Bennett, Tony. (1995). The birth of the museum : history, theory, politics. London: Routledge..

[2] For more information on Pestalozzi see Barnard, Henry. (1874). Pestalozzi and His Educational System. Syracuse C.W. Bardeen, Biber, Edward. (1831). Henry Pestalozzi and His Plan of Education. London: John Sauter , Down, Robert. (1975). Heinrich Pestalozzi. Boston: G.K Hall, Holman, Henry. (1908). Pestalozzi. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. , Krusi, Hermann. (1875). Pestalozzi: His Life, Work, and Influence. Cincinnati: Wilson, Hinkle & Co, Monroe, Will. (1907). History of the Pestalozzian Movement in the United States. Syracuse: C.W. Bardeen , Silber, Kate. (1965). Pestalozzi: The Man and His Work. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.

[3] It is possible, of course to go further back than Pestalozzi for the use of natural objects in teaching. Schultz points to John Amos Comenius as “one of the first educational theorists to argue that…a child’s education was most profitably begun not with general principles but with concrete objects and/or illustrations, that is, with the senses” Schultz, Lucille M. . (1995). Pestalozzi’s Mark on the Nineteenth-Century Composition Instruction:  Ideas Not in Words, But in Things. Rhetoric Review 14(1)..

[4] For a sample of these object manuals see Calkins, N.A. (1882). Manual of Object-Teaching. New York: Harper & Brothers, Macleod. (1891). Talks about Common Things. New York: Teachers Publishing Company, Ricks, George. (1893). Object Lessons and How to Give Them. Boston: D.C.Heath & Co. Publishers , Salmon, D. (1891). Longmans’ Object Lessons. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, Sheldon, E.A. (1862). A Manual of Elementary Instruction for the Use of Public and Private Schools and Normal Classes; Contains a Graduated Course of Object Lessons for Training the Senses and Developing the Faculties of Children. New York: Charles Scribner, Willson, Marcius. (1864). A Manual of Information and Suggestions for Object Lessons in a course of Elementary Instruction. New York: Harper & Brothers

[5] (accessed March 3, 2011).

[6] (accessed March 4, 2011).

[7] The session was recorded and posted on the VLE environment.

[8] I had not been aware that she was going to use Kipling as an example, and the use of Kipling in a course which stressed the interdependencies and historical legacies of North-South relations was not lost on one of the students who, when asks if they’d ever read any Kipling responded, “Yes, White Man’s Burden”

[9] Those students who were uncomfortable by an object focussed essay, or who felt this might disadvantage them in some way were given a second option of taking a more traditional approach and identify a research question that they would like to investigate.  For example:  Is the history of humanitarianism inextricable from the military?  What are the origins of the refugee camp?  Is humanitarian space a useful concept?  The questions that will be raised in the seminars should help you formulate your questions.

[10] The response rate was 83.3% (20 / 24 students).

[11] I have included a week on the “the Ethics of Researching Conflict” in my MA course on Conflict, Security and Development.

[12] In the future, it is possible that I will run two different courses – one on materiality and spatiality in the context of international relations broadly, and one on complex emergencies from a more orthodox perspective.