The State We Are(n’t) In

“The State we are(n’t) in: Liminal subjectivity in aid worker autobiographies,” chapter in Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (ed.) Statebuilding and State-Formation: The Political Sociology of Intervention, London: Routledge, 2012, pp.230-245.


Amongst the many problems attributed to international statebuilding, the mismatch between ‘the international’ and ‘the local’ is high on the agenda. How to ‘bridge’ the so-called local-international divide (Donais 2009) or how to balance top-down with bottom-up approaches (Mac Ginty 2010) are familiar debates. However, these categories are not without problems. Where does the local end and the international begin? What of hybrid cultures and practices? What is striking is the persistence of the categories themselves within statebuilding discourse and even amongst critical theorists: despite the recognition that the categories of local/international are unhelpful and potentially deleterious to attempts to improve statebuilding, they continue to be used and remain the dominant way of understanding and theorising statebuilding activity (Heathershaw 2008; Pouligny 2010; Richmond 2009).

It is the tenacity of this conceptual apparatus, and in particular the persistence and implications of the category of the so-called international, that are under investigation in this chapter, which focuses on the production and dominance of this distinction – both conceptually and practically.  I argue that the persistence of these categories can only be understood through an examination of international statebuilding practice in ‘the field’, as it is through these practices and their accompanying spaces (the offices, compounds, workshops, projects) that the categories of local and international are (re)produced despite rhetorical attempts to move beyond them. Using three examples of humanitarian memoirs (Cain 2004; Minion 2004; Olson 1999) to provide insight into various aspects of statebuilding (humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping missions, elections, reconciliation, judicial reform) from the perspective of the so-called international, I identify a structural process which drives and helps explain the persistence of the international and the local in international statebuilding.

Drawing on the work of Victor Turner (1969, 1975, 1977) and Arnold van Gennep (1960), the chapter suggests that the process of going to the field is a highly structured, codified, and predicable ‘rite of passage’ and the act of being in the field, as a statebuilder (and an aid worker more broadly), creates a unique and liminal space (van Gennep 1960). The processual and structured experience of going ‘to the field’ has very little to do with ‘the local’ but rather is focussed almost exclusively on ‘the international’. This analysis suggests that the embodied, practical aspects of international assistance in the context of statebuilding are a key contributing factor to the persistence of conceptual and actually-existing divides which are at the heart of processes of state-formation as defined in this volume.


Statebuilding as (International) ‘Rite of Passage

Van Gennep describes a rite of passage as a tripartite process consisting of, first, separation from an initial or equilibrium state, followed by a liminal or marginal state, and concluding by a reaggregation (or re-incorporation) with the original society (Bowie 2006). Each stage has its own set of accompanying rites (van Gennep 1960). Of the three stages, the liminal is distinct from the other two and involves spatial, temporal, social and moral separation (Yang 2000). In contrast to ‘normal society’, the liminal state is a one of anti-structure, where established hierarchies and rules are inverted or suspended and transformative processes take place. Here, work and play blur, experimentation and novelty are encouraged, and carnivalesque and ludic qualities manifest (Turner 1977). The initiates are considered as simultaneously sacred and polluting to society at large and must be kept separate and distinct: confined to designated spaces and identifiable by new or bizarre clothes, masks, or face paints and possibly made to adopt new homogenising behaviours or languages. Stripped of their previously defining characteristics such as clothes, insignia, or property they may form strong and rapid bonds of solidarity with the other initiates (Turner 1969: 95). Such ties of friendship or communitas often endure throughout life (Turner 1977). Once the transformation is complete, the initiate may return to society, to be reintegrated in his/her new role. In the following, I will first give a brief overview of the memoirs looked at in this study and discuss their representativeness, before interpreting them in more detail in the light of the ‘rite of passage’ literature.


Brief Overview of Each of the Memoirs

In Cruel Paradise (CP; Olson 1999), Leanne, a nurse from Canada, receives an offer to work for Medécins sans Frontières (MSF). She is deployed to run a feeding centre in rural Liberia during the first Liberian civil war. After being evacuated back to Winnipeg nine months later, due to increased hostilities, she is almost immediately redeployed to Bosnia where she meets Rink, a logistics officer with whom she starts a romantic relationship. Based in the Republika Srpska, their team is responsible for providing non-partisan medical supplies to hard to reach areas such as the infamous Bihać enclave. After being evacuated again, in June 1995 (after seven months) she rejoins Rink in Burundi, where she is in charge of renovating and managing a 70 bed hospital in the north of the country. Dissatisfied with the MSF programme in Burundi, she and Rink hand in their resignations after only three months to join their friend working in Goma, Zaire (now DRC), ‘where nobody in their right mind wants to work’ (Olson 1999: 153). In mid-may they leave Zaire, fearing for their lives. After a brief time in Canada, France and Holland, they join the international medical NGO Merlin and are deployed to a series of countries as short-term consultants: Rwanda, Angola, Albania, and finally Liberia. After coming full circle, they return to Holland to resume (in their words) normal life. The narrative spans from December 1993 to May 1997 (three and a half years).

In Emergency Sex (ES; Cain 2004), three interweaving narratives tell the stories of Andrew, an Australian doctor; Ken, an American law student come human rights advisor; and Heidi, an American social worker come UN secretary come elections monitor come jack of all trades. They meet on their first mission, in 1993, in Cambodia. After overseeing the country’s first democratic elections they immediately depart for new missions. Heidi and Ken go to Mogadishu (‘the dish’), Somalia, as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, Operation Restore Hope, while Andrew goes to Haiti with UNMIH to document human rights violations in prisons and hospitals. After the UN (and US) withdrawals from both Somalia and Haiti in early 1994, the authors rotate missions once again. Ken takes an assignment in Rwanda, collecting evidence on the genocide for the UN Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda (ICTR); Heidi joins the next UN mission in Haiti; and Andrew goes to Bihać in Bosnia-Herzegovina to ‘set up a forensic team to investigate massacres’ (Cain 2004: 223). Unable to work due to continued fighting, Andrew is almost immediately redeployed to Rwanda to collect forensic evidence by exhuming mass graves. Ken leaves Rwanda to meet Heidi in Haiti. Heidi, in turn, has fallen in love with a Haitian man and plans to stay in Haiti when the UN mission leaves. But in November 1998, her partner dies in an accident and she returns to New York to start her life ‘anew’ (Cain 2004: 295). Ken takes his last mission in Liberia documenting human rights abuses in the middle of the first Liberian war. From 1999, they all return to New York. Andrew gets married to another expat aid worker and decides to move to live in Cambodia.

In the case of Cruel Paradise and Emergency Sex the characters had several tours or postings whereas the third book, Hello Missus (HM; Minion 2004), documents two subsequent missions in East Timor by the Australian freelance journalist, Lynne Minion. Lynne arrives in East Timor just prior to the official hand over of the new country’s administration from the UN transitional administration, UNTAET. Although she has no job, she does have one powerful acquaintance: the then Foreign Affairs Minister and Nobel Laureate, Jose Ramos-Horta, who helps her get a job working as a UN advisor to the local TV station. After East Timor receives its independence in May 2002, she is offered a job as media advisor to the then Prime Minister, Dr. Mari Alkatiri. But her contract takes a long time to finalise, leaving Lynne to occupy herself with a series of unsuitable romantic liaisons, moving from house to house in an effort to find sanctuary. When her contract finally comes through, she is given neither a job description nor a place to work; crammed behind a child’s school desk in the lobby of the perpetually absent ‘Prime Miniature’ (as she calls him)’s office. Stonewalled, and eventually sacked from her advisory position due to her affiliations with Ramos-Horta, she is preparing to depart when the December 2002 riots break out. Following the riots, she decides to return home for good, although not before initiating yet another relationship with a peacekeeper, this time a Serb. The book ends with Lynne flying up and out of Dili, her ‘capacity built’.[1]

To ensure a wide range of coverage and balance, the texts were chosen for analysis based on several criteria.[2] The authors represent a cross section of organisations: both United Nations and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) on a variety of scales (big and small). The three narratives span the full spectrum of so-called statebuilding activity: from the sectarian humanitarian aid that would lay the foundations of the future of the former Yugoslav Republics of Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia to the spate of UN missions in the 1990s (Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti) to the post-independence support to the newly independent nation of East Timor. The protagonists are both men and women, and all the authors use their real names and claim that their stories are based on real events. The time period ranges from 1991 to 2004 – 13 years in total – and, though short, nonetheless captures the ‘long decade’ of increased multilateral activity following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the choice of these novels as the subject of analysis can be critiqued on the basis that they, through their very existence as a personal post-mortem, are biased in an ‘anti-aid’ direction, they are nonetheless valid for the significant population that they represent.[3] They are also some of the most readable and best-known examples of a much wider genre of aid memoirs that, to date, has received minimal critical attention. Equally, the books analysed in this chapter are also some of the most controversial of the genre. I learned about two of them (Cain 2004; Minion 2004) whilst in ‘the field’ where the books and their authors were regarded with a mix of disdain and jealousy. The books were madly read, circulated, and then dismissed not on the grounds that they were untrue, or misrepresentative, but that they broke the code of the field.


The Rite of Passage in the Memoirs of Aid Workers

Within the experience of statebuilding, an important structural divide exists between the physical space of headquarters, which are physically located in a (usually) First World location and the location that is being assisted in the field (see also Schlichte and Veit in this volume). The historical structure of international aid is such that traditional donor countries are primarily located in the Global North. The field by contrast, is where the projects or interventions are located – where the state is being built. While headquarters define policy, the objective of their policy can only be reached by undertaking a physical voyage to the space of the beneficiaries: the field. The three books in question all have a narrative structure that details this processual experience and simultaneously replicates a rite of passage. The characters all have a sudden departure to far off lands in an attempt to escape unstable, boring, and/or unfulfilling lives. An unsteady (but pleasantly exciting) beginning is followed by a steady descent into increasing political, personal, and institutional chaos. The characters become exhausted and frustrated with their persistent inability to have a significant or positive impact on their surroundings. They reach a crisis point where the characters feel the need to make a decision regarding their future, at which point all but one of them choose to return to the First World (not necessarily home) to resume so-called normal life and to write their memoirs. In the case of one of the books – Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures – the chapters are named according to increasing levels of UN security classifications moving from Condition Alpha (safe) to Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo (evacuate immediately)…and finally Return to Normal (Cain 2004). This emphasises both the anchoring effect of the ‘home country’ in terms of the trajectory and also the framing of the series of ‘local’ experiences of the field in terms of international concepts.


Rites of Separation: Leaving ‘Home

According to Turner (1969: 94) the separation phase ‘comprises symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a “state”) or both.’ In all the memoirs studied, clearly identifiable rites of separation take place. The pre-departure state is characterised by a frustration with the inauthenticity or superficiality of the authors’ own western culture. In ES the characters are openly dissatisfied with the perceived amorality of western society and bored with a normal existence. When presented with the chance to leave, they jump at it. In both ES and CP the departures are whirlwind, rapid and unexpected. In Ken’s case (ES), after a 15 minute interview with a human rights organisation he is told that he has a week to ‘get shots, a visa, and on the plane’ (Cain 2004: 33).

The inoculation of the aid worker against the unknown of the field is a common theme and includes the vaccination of the aid worker against fabulous, rare, and potentially deadly tropical diseases, often without consideration for the real risk of coming into contact with, for example, rabid monkeys. Prophylactics are taken. Packing is done, often in a hurried and badly conceived manner. For example, Lynne, after a boozy going away lunch, packs bikinis, frocks, hipster slacks, and a tiara: ‘just because I’d be living in a Third World country I didn’t have to look as though I was living in a Third World country’ (Minion 2004: 3). MSF HQ warns Leanne about the impact of stress such as drinking, risk taking behaviour, and mood swings: ‘[w]e were also warned about the dangers of beginning relationships between the national and expat teams, primarily because in case of an evacuation, only the expat staff leaves, and bringing the national staff along is out of the question’ (Olson 1999: 13-14).

The narrators admit an almost complete lack of knowledge about where they are going, or even where the missions are located. ‘To say that I was a bit naïve when I first started working as an international relief worker would be an understatement of monumental proportions! I knew nothing,’ said Leanne (Olson 1999: 9). ‘I was probably the only Canadian who didn’t really have a clue about what was happening in Bosnia…’ (Olson 1999: 77). Similarly, in ES Heidi signed up for the UN mission as a secretary, ‘without a second thought, didn’t even know where Cambodia was’ (Cain 2004: 29), while Ken admits to having thought about Somalia exactly once before landing there (Cain 2004: 109). The field is romanticised, compared with Hollywood movies (The Killing Fields) or the Discovery Channel (Cain 2004: 30). Admiring the idea of living in a war zone, Ken says ‘[t]here are none of the subtleties and nuances of ordinary life; you’re at the core of every feeling…And that’s how I want to feel’ (Cain 2004: 13). These passages emphasise the role of affect and imagination, which underpins both their decisions to leave, and their initial preparations. Such fantastic or clichéd understandings are normal and expected when beginning a new experience, but in the context of a rite of passage, they will fail to be challenged.

The transition from one stage of a rite of passage to the next requires traversing a threshold. This may be, quite literally, a passageway, a stairway, or a door through which initiates must pass and is itself the quintessential liminal place. While in the threshold, initiates are suspended between two states: neither here, nor there. These transition states are often guarded by gatekeepers who determine who is allowed to enter into the next phase. The sacred status of the aid worker is communicated through dress (for example, the uniform of the MSF t-shirt, the ‘Smurf blue’ of UN peacekeepers). This makes the uniforms attractive to expats and locals alike, as they confer a degree of inviolability to the wearer. As liminal, sacred, and inviolable beings, the aid workers are allowed to pass through border zones that would, without the blue passport and the international law that it represents, be off limits. The characters are clear as to the symbolic significance of these thresholds. Ken, leaving Mogadishu, says ‘[w]e deplane and walk together across the tarmac, the UN has a special landing field in Nairobi just for us. But when I leave their company and cross the threshold of the main terminal alone, I’m a regular civilian again, a tourist’ (Cain 2004: 199). This emphasises the hold and almost magical power that the space of the field has over its international inhabitants.


The Liminal Space of the Field

Once the characters have crossed the threshold, they pass into ‘a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state’ (Turner 1969: 94). They are amazed at how the degree to which the new countries differ from their previous situations: extreme poverty, razed buildings, all alongside the comparative luxury of the international community. Says Lynne upon first meeting members of the international community in Dili, ‘these humanitarians have eclipsed my most affluent fantasies’ (Minion 2004: 15). Badly or inappropriately attired in the clothes/attitudes from a former life, they quickly make an effort to assimilate – in Heidi and Ken’s cases more in keeping with the international jet set aesthetic of the UN; in Lynne’s case more in keeping with what her third space patron, Ramos-Horta, feels is appropriate. Taken literally, this shedding of clothing corresponds to Turner’s description of the liminal state (Turner 1969: 103). By creating a tabula rasa the neophyte’s or initiate’s individuality is erased and she or he becomes part of the larger group of expats. Leanne joyfully exclaims after five months in Liberia, ‘I felt like a real expat. I was an actual relief worker, and I was loving it’ (Olson 1999: 47). Describing her experience in Cambodia, says Heidi, ‘[w]e’re foreign and free and obnoxious and have dollars, so stay out of our way. We’re immortal and nothing can touch us’ (Cain 2004: 76). These types of behaviours emphasise the strong social boundary formation that occurs amongst internationals in ‘the field’ and point to the open acceptance of views that would not be accepted in their home countries, and that they would certainly not say aloud, and likely not even espouse.

The freedom to express such views is attributable in part to the close-knit living situations which lead to the formation of rapid and close bonds with their expat co-workers: ‘[h]as it been six months already? Already? I love these people. I don’t even want to think about saying goodbye’ (Olson 1999: 68). Within the space of ‘us’ of the expat community, privacy is at a premium, and ‘there was no such thing as a personal private relationship’ (Olson 1999: 51); everything is shared, including bathrooms (Cain 2004: 213). Speaking of the situation in Banja Luka, Olson says, ‘[w]e have our little community here of MSF, ICRC and UNHCR, so it’s nice to be back in my little family again’ (Olson 1999: 108). This space also presents the opportunity to remake oneself in ways that would not be possible within their normal societies. Lives prior to the field are downplayed and previously important markers like ‘career or money or…social class, the currency of social intercourse at Harvard’ disappear (Cain 2004: 15). Among the expats, distinctions of race or background fade away.

For some of the initiates this is shocking. One Bangladeshi UN worker is horrified by the lack of funeral rights for Muslims in the field (Cain 2004: 73). In all the memoirs, drugs and alcohol play a prominent role and are frequently mentioned as a tool that gets them through the horrors they face. As a group they are separated from their previous lives through distance, both physical and emotional, and from their immediate surroundings. They are separated from their families and friends ‘at home’ by a ‘distance of experiences, of time, of tragedy’ (Olson 1999: 9-10). Their inability to speak the local languages also creates a barrier between them and the local population, and security concerns (ostensibly) precipitate the maintenance of physical barriers.

While Leanne insists that ‘[n]othing about this kind of work is typical’ (Olson 1999: 10), it is this unpredictability that structures the novels and characterises its authors’ experiences. The bizarre, the heterotopic, the unpredictable, the anachronistic, and the politically incorrect are recurrent themes. All the characters express their amazement at the dreamlike or surreal quality of their life and work conditions in the field. Part of this is attributable to the places where they work, war zones, refugee camps, prisons, but also because they are witness to violent events while remaining untouched and outside of the structures that created these events. Leanne often speaks of being ‘in a dream’ or ‘on holiday’ (Olson 1999: 110) while Ken insists that ‘none of this is real’ (Cain 2004: 132). They often use imaginary nicknames to refer to their situations, for example Blue Lagoon for Banja Luka.

In contrast with their previous lives, the spaces of work and play blend into one. In Cambodia, parties at Ken and Heidi’s house become a place to exchange information on the political situation in the country. Conversely, their spaces of work become the places in which they celebrate. Leanne describes the unreal experience of spending New Year’s Eve on the frontline of a war, wearing ‘bulletproofs and drinking champagne to the sounds of shelling a few hundred meters away’ (Olson 1999: 102). This feeling of unreality lends itself to ludic, verging on bacchanalian activity. Exclaims Ken,


[w]e’re on the roof of our mansion in the middle of Indochina, no parents, no boss. Everything everyone does is funny and perfect…we’re young and immortal and together and drunk and stupid and in Cambodia.

(Cain 2004: 37)

While not ascetic in the way sometimes described by Turner (1969: 106), by engaging in bacchanalian and politically incorrect behaviour, the laws of western society (as the characters know them) are suspended. Heidi, normally socially conscious and anti-elitist, goes to the beach in Cambodia with her fellow UN secretaries to float

in inner tubes in the steamy waters of the Gulf of Thailand. We signal to the waiters, who wade out to us fully clothed, carrying trays of beer and cigarettes already lit…We decide this must be what it’s like to be rich, to be entitled.

(Cain 2004: 76)

While in their normal lives she would condemn conspicuous consumption, here she partakes.

Part of the significance of such activities is that they occur in places that are simultaneously ‘cutting edge, dangerous, lonely, urgent’ (Olson 1999: 175). In this context, experimentation, trickery and ignoring laws of normal society become the norm. Working on human rights law Ken muses, ‘I’m not actually a licensed “lawyer” in the US, but who’s splitting hairs about that in Cambodia?’ (Cain 2004: 32). Similarly, Leanne comes to accept that if one were to play by the rules of normal society, nothing would get done. She ‘learned to lie with impunity, cheat, steal, negotiate with and manipulate anyone, to beg, borrow, stretch facts…We developed quite a ruthless reputation but, considering the circumstances, one could say that necessity drove us to it’ (Olson 1999: 118). What ‘drove them to it’ seems to have been the juxtaposition of First World goals with Third World circumstance. For example, Heidi describes trying to set up polling stations in a mud field beside pigs (Cain 2004: 82), while Ken attempts to collect human rights abuse testimonies in a context where he does not know the language and can offer no protection to witnesses. The quality of pushing the boundary creates a euphoric atmosphere amongst initiates: ‘[i]t was terrifying, it was exciting, it was insane. We were living on the edge – and you should have seen the view!’ (Olson 1999: 10).

Another way in which the structure of normal life is suspended is through sexual relations. Prostitution is openly accepted as part of the landscape (Cain 2004: 76). Two of the three female characters engage in a string of emotionally or physically promiscuous relationships. Both women are excited by the ‘smorgasbord’ of men. Crows Heidi,

[w]ith so few women available, the men have to try harder, offer more of themselves. …In the permanent emergency of the mission, I suddenly don’t have to play by the boys’ rules. Which only proves that the boys’ rules were bullshit to begin with.

(Cain 2004: 133)

However, they both find themselves being bound by yet another set of rules. According to Turner, ‘[i]n liminality, the underlying comes uppermost’ (1969: 102), and in ES Heidi describes her need to have sex in the face of death as a way of re-engaging with bare life. Heidi and Lynne also both find themselves in inverted sexual positions compared to their normal lives. Stripped of their normal human agency as independent beings, they become pure women. In Heidi’s case, she fights against this by trying to use sex to assert herself. In Lynne’s case, she allows herself (and admittedly enjoys) becoming a classic ‘Dili Princess’, wearing a tiara to serve dinner to her male, expat housemates.

While initially, the characters express an exuberance with their jobs, they all eventually descend into despair. This transition occurs as they begin to realise that they are all in a state of ineffectual limbo, where none of their efforts have any impact, and where they seem to be constantly waiting for someone else to take action. Lynne’s entire time in Timor is spent waiting: first for the Independence celebrations working in an office where she is not wanted (hated, according to her colleague); then waiting for a job in the PM’s office promised to her; then waiting for the PM to give her work to do. This leads to a sense of temporariness and uncertainty. ‘[E]veryone keeps a bag packed for emergency evacuation if we need it’ (Olson 1999: 47); ‘I feel like a yo-yo’ (Olson 1999: 98), complains Leanne.  People arrive and leave incessantly.

The state of constant movement is also reflected in the characters’ inability to affect any change. Andrew sighs, ‘[m]y dreams of being useful here are vanishing’ (Cain 2004: 173). The characters see that their activities are directed towards their own liminal state, the space occupied by the international community: ‘all they [the UN] do is bring supplies into their own UN bases for their own staff, and certainly nothing gets to the population’ (Olson 1999: 94). Many of their jobs are by definition observation posts, documenting the situations they are put in. And while, ‘we do some essential work now, the minute we leave it will all fall apart’ (Olson 1999: 151).

This results in frustration, followed by despondency and cynicism in the narrators: ‘I managed to convince myself to believe in this work again. But I don’t. It’s a lie. We are the only beneficiaries of our righteousness’ (Cain 2004: 226). The liminal situation loses its appeal, the narrators begin to crave private space and isolation. This is often preceded by a period of getting sick, when their inoculations, both medical and emotional, can no longer protect them from their surroundings; or by an evacuation where it becomes clear that their presence in the Third World can only be temporary. Discussing the UN’s evacuation from Haiti, Andrew says: ‘[n]ow that they’re at their most vulnerable, we’re abandoning them,…flying out, clutching our precious blue UN passports and bags full of Haitian art’ (Cain 2004: 174). Leanne ruminates, ‘[w]hen things get really bad and we are needed the most, that’s the time when we have to leave’ (Olson 1999: 61).

Ultimately, the characters break down, psychologically, physically, and make the decision to return home. Says Leanne: ‘I just wanted to go home…Frankly, I was sick and tired of the whole thing’ (Olson 1999: 192). ‘I’d been at aid work for nearly four years and was beginning to feel too far removed from “the real world”. I didn’t know if we could truly ever return to the world but it was time to try’ (Olson 1999: 234). This juxtaposition between the surreal world of the field and the ‘real’ world of home is indicative of the anchoring influence of the country of origin.


Rites of Re-Aggregation: Returning to ‘Normal

When the characters do try to return to their previous ordinary lives, they find the re-aggregation difficult. Heidi concedes,

[w]e’ve all tried to make new friends here in New York, and to reverse the alienation we feel from our peers. But the conversation doesn’t usually go far once I say we lived in Somalia for two years, or Ken says that Andrew dug the graves of Srebrenica.

(Cain 2004: 286)

Similarly, Leanne complains that upon return, ‘I found out that my friends and family, for all their good intentions, shared little interest in what I had to say’ (Olson 1999: 9). They try to relocate normalcy as ‘civilians’ (as they call themselves) and find it difficult. Observes Leanne, ‘[w]e led one life that our regular friends and family saw and one that we saved for our friends from the field. We couldn’t seem to get the two lives to merge’ (Olson 1999: 221). This is arguably due to the fact that they have been irrevocably changed by their experiences in the field. In all three memoirs, the liminal phase is described as a transformative and quasi-religious experience. ‘Life as an international relief worker changed me profoundly,’ states Leanne (Olson 1999: 9). Even where it is not overly religious, there is the voiced desire on the part of Ken and Andrew to be part of something bigger than themselves (Cain 2004: 10). This tension in the re-aggregation stage is both predictable and provides insight into the types of people who are attracted by this type of work and the types of challenges that they face. It is of course important to consider that the aid workers who wrote these memoirs are not necessarily indicative of all internationals who engage in statebuilding. It may be only representative of a small, disgruntled or marginalised group who decided to vent their frustration in literary format. But even if this is so, it still represents a significant vocal minority, whose views are remarkable in their consistency. It is also in keeping with van Gennep’s rite of passage. The act of writing such a memoir is the ultimate act of transgression and betrayal for those who remain in the field. By telling the story as they see it – ‘the story of what it’s really like to be an international aid worker’ (Olson 1999: 10) – they break the unwritten code of the field, they separate themselves out from its communitas, from its liminal state. Such an act is the ultimate rite of separation and can only be done by someone who, at least temporarily, feels that the passage is complete.


The States in Between, or What van Gennep Tells Us About Statebuilding

This approach holds several lessons for statebuilding efforts and attempts to go beyond the local-international divide. First, it identifies the strong, anchoring influence of the aid workers home country. So far, discussions about bridging the ‘local-international’ divide have been spatially focussed on the country of intent – that is, where the statebuilding is physically taking place. In this reading, the activities, processes, and people associated with the international community in the field are seen as part of the ‘international’ elements of statebuilding and are juxtaposed to those activities, processes, people that are deemed to be ‘local’. Here, the state of being ‘liminal’ or in-between implies being between the workers’ home country and the ‘local’ environment. However, from the perspective of the memoirs, the space of the field is liminal not with regard to its physical surroundings, but with regard to the country of origin. That is to say, that the experience of being in the field is liminal in a temporal sense – as a transformative experience between the before and after of living a ‘normal life’ in the so-called First World. This is in keeping with Duffield’s idea of an ‘archipelago of aid’ where the international space of ‘the field site’ is more closely networked through transport and communications links to its country of origin than it is to its surrounding physical geography or ‘the local’ (Duffield 2009). In the context of statebuilding this implies that to talk of bridging the gap between the international and the local both risks applying conceptual frameworks that only exist within the international, and over-estimates the ability of the international to look towards (and recognise) the local, rather than continuing to gaze in towards itself.

Second, an analysis of the liminal space of ‘the field’ contributes to social boundary formation and highlights the close-knit emotional bonds that are created between members of the international community. Understanding this as an expected part of a rite of passage provides insight into the persistence of seemingly irresponsible or culturally inappropriate behaviours. Affective and emotional bonds are further reified through the material and spatial practices of exception, practiced by the international community. As international workers, they are protected by international accords of immunity, which translate not only into different laws, but different lifestyles within the compounds. It also helps explain the noticeable absence of ‘local’ people within the spaces of the international. In the context of the memoirs, the pages are peopled largely with other ‘ex-pats’. Even when the project or intervention is intended to be for an entire population, such as the independence celebrations for East Timor in 2002, the beneficiaries end up being excluded: linguistically, culturally, and physically. Lynne describes how the grandiose celebrations to celebrate the handover of the UN transitional administration to the Timorese, in May 2002, was aimed almost exclusively to the international community. She says, ‘despite the dark skins of some of the visitors, the host country has very few of its own in attendance, other than those who carry the trays’ (Minion 2004: 114). The impact of these structured spaces is that it reinforces established ways of being, and ultimately of thinking and doing. In each one of the novels, the ‘logic of the mission’ is theirs, not the local community’s (Cain 2004: 174). This is a potentially devastating point as it emphasises the structural aspect of the international habitus of statebuilding and raises the question of whether it is indeed possible to move beyond it.

Even those individuals who speak the language of the place they are going to, or stay in a country for long periods of time, may find themselves rejected by the very populations that they have come to assist. Local populations may consider aid workers as potential contaminants to the larger society or a threat to local elites, and accordingly push the aid workers back into their spatial and social categories. A theme in the narratives is the characters’ repeated attempts to break out of the ‘expat bubble’ only to be met with resistance both from other expats and from the local communities. During Lynne’s time in East Timor, the bars and restaurants frequented by the expats are quite literally kept offshore where boats have been converted into floating bars. As late as 2008, the international community is kept on permanent stand-by, by the refusal or inability of the Timorese government to provide long-term working visas for internationals. Heidi, on ‘rest and relation’ near Mombassa, tries and fails to escape her tourist hotel to find the ‘real Kenya’ (Cain 2004: 95). Lynne attempts to enter into the daily routines of her Timorese patrons, but is met with a lack of understanding as to why she, a malae,[4] would want to.

But the exclusion may not only be on behalf of local populations. According to Douglas (2002), liminal figures by Turner’s definition are ‘almost everywhere regarded as “polluting” and “dangerous”’, and this seems to be supported by the aid workers’ experiences, the third issue to highlight. As Andrew exhumes bodies in Gisenyi, Rwanda, he thinks to himself, ‘I have my UN passport and my air ticket out. But I don’t smell so good, I have human flesh under my nails, and I spend my days arguing with priests and governors about corpses and money’ (Cain 2004: 246). Sitting on the plane back to Winnipeg, Leanne remarks, ‘[n]o one wants to sit next to a skinny orange woman who has obviously been out in the bush too long’ (Olson 1999: 58). Such experiences need to be taken into consideration when trying to understand what it means to be an international, working in challenging conditions. Issues such as staff composition and turnover may be as important in the success or failure of statebuilding missions as constitutions and elections.



The analysis of aid workers’ memoirs offers three sets of conclusions. The first offers insight into the persistence of the category of the international (and its perceived inverse of the local) in statebuilding discourse. The application of van Gennep’s rite of passage suggests the need to consider whether the practices of the international are part of a structural process that has very little to do with the so-called local. To attempt to engage in ‘rapprochement’ or ‘bridging’ is to over-simplify the essential qualities of these states and to ignore that they are driven by different incentives, with different time frames, and different objectives. Further, to understand the space of ‘the field’, the space of statebuilding, as liminal implies that ‘the international’ is not hermetic by accident, but that this has been an important part of the experience of ‘going to the field’ for the aid workers carrying out the task and therefore an important (and overlooked) part of statebuilding. The implication of such a discrete and resilient international space has implications for the epistemology of statebuilding. If the experience of the local is only conducted from within the spaces of the international – the compounds, the conference rooms, the hotels and Humvees – then what is understood as ‘local’ can only be an ‘international’ concept.

A second set of conclusions can be drawn with regard to the methodological need to go beyond established qualitative and quantitative research methods for understanding the experience of statebuilding. As encouraged by Carr (2010), Lewis et al. (2008), and Schaffer and Smith (2004), life memoirs offer insight into the processes of aid work which is easily missed by other methods; into what Pouligny has called the intangible dimensions of statebuilding (Pouligny 2010). By reading across memoirs, as done in this chapter, there is the further opportunity to identify recurrent structures, themes, tropes and absences offering yet another level of insight into the process. Further work needs to be done to understand the impact of these novels on their readership – both in terms of attracting the next generation of international civil servants and aid workers and in terms of influencing how those in the countries of origin think about the liminal space of the field.

A final conclusion is that the practice of statebuilding is not an accident or incidental part of the process, but is actually co-constitutive of the process itself. A positive reading of this conclusion would be to highlight the need to look as much at the way in which statebuilding is done, as the stated objectives. Change the process and we will change the result. This is the approach endorsed by organisations, which endorse professional standards and codes of conduct for aid workers. But a more pessimistic reading would point to the structural quality of the process of statebuilding and ask whether it is possible to separate thought from action, agency from structure. As long as statebuilding continues to be an internationally driven endeavour, it will be based in the structures and habitus of the international, raising questions as to the possibility of either bridging or going beyond the categories which continue to plague its intended success.[5]




The author would like to thank Berit Bliesemann de Guevara, Ellen Smirl and Anna Stavrianakis for their helpful comments on this chapter.




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[1] The term ‘capacity building’ is often used within development discourse to refer to the transfer of skills in a particular area from external technical advisors to local beneficiaries (cf. Eade 1997). For critical perspectives see (Kenny 2005; Smillie 2001). Here, Lynne is using the term facetiously.

[2] It is worth highlighting that this is not the first attempt to use fictional narratives to deepen understandings of development processes. Lewis et al. (2008) look at a range of texts that document the impacts and experience of development from a wide range of perspectives. Similarly, Carr (2010) has looked at the potential for using narrative to better understand different perspectives, and Schaffer and Smith (2004) and Gigliotti (2007) have looked specifically at the human rights memoir to understand the process of bearing witness.

[3] Turner himself encourages the use of ‘oral narratives of personal observation and experiences’ in his study of the rites of passage of pilgrims (Turner 1975: 167).

[4] Malae = foreigner (usually white).

[5] Cf. also Goetze and Bliesemann de Guevara in this volume.