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).