Policy reports

Before returning to the academy to write her PhD and pursue a career as a scholar, Lisa  spent six years working for the UN, in Bratislava, Kigali and New York.  During this time she contributed to several policy reports:

Rebuilding State Structures: Methods and Approaches

The Inflexibility Trap

MDGs: Reducing Poverty and Social Exclusion

Building Crisis Management Capacity in Civil Society in South East Europe

Post Tsunami Aceh-Nias Settlement and Housing Recovery Review

Home Away From Home

“Home Away From Home: The role of the single family dwelling in the construction of a ‘humanitarian imaginary,'” unpublished paper (2008)

The elementary moment in reconstruction after a large scale disaster is the re-housing of populations that have lost their homes and possessions. And despite the historical and social specificity of the built form of the house, it is dramatically under-theorized in a post-disaster context. Through its material, built form and through its visual representations, the reconstructed house is a site where and through which global categories and frameworks are constructed and reproduced. This paper looks at how it is both defined by and contributes to the (re)production of the space of the international and in particular, to an international ‘humanitarian imaginary’.

In their work on the nation, Jones and Fowler look at the importance of local spaces in the reproduction of the nation. They argue that this (re)production is done in several ways including that ‘localised places’ are used as “‘metonyms’ of the nation” and come to represent, “in a generic and abstract sense” “national messages, symbols, and ideologies.” (2007:  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.” (p.  336).

If we take these arguments to the level of the supra or international, we begin to see the potential of place in the (re)production of international scale and in specific aspects of the ‘international’ as a collective concept.  An important narrative in stories about international, or cosmopolitan identity is that of international humanitarian assistance:  the imperative, or expectation that those actors capable of assistance those in need should do so.  Drawing on Charles Taylor’s concept of a ‘social imaginary’ and Craig Calhoun’s subsequent elaboration of the ‘social imaginary of emergencies’  the idea of an international ‘humanitarian imaginary’ is embodied, in part, in the built form of the reconstructed house.

The first part of this paper, provides a brief genealogy of housing in the context of reconstruction, and begins to unpack some of the cultural and historical assumptions associated with this practice.  It problematizes the predominance of the single family dwelling as the dominant building typology through an examination of two case studies:  Hurricane Katrina and the Katrina Cottage; and the houses built in and around Banda Aceh, after the 2004 South East Asian Tsunami. Through recourse to contemporary architectural theory, I suggest that while the built form, the materiality of the house, is indeed a vital aspect of reconstruction, it may not be for the reasons that are immediately apparent, but rather for what it represents to the various actors involved in its reconstruction and use. As such, the act of rebuilding a home becomes not only an act of place making – but also an act of place taking and giving, and is inseparable from the interactions and contestations that this involves.   

SECTION I:  The built form of the house in post-disaster reconstruction

After a large scale natural disaster, there is an inordinate focus on the reconstruction of single family dwellings, or ‘houses’. In the context of a large scale reconstruction, the success or failure of the reconstruction effort is popularly judged according to the number, speed, and arguably, quality of houses built. Media accounts of the reconstruction of the Indonesian autonomous province of Aceh, one of the hardest hit areas after the 2004 South East Asia Tsunami, focused almost exclusively on progress in housing construction.  Progress reports and representations of the Tsunami response by the large international aid agencies such as Oxfam, and Care, give prominent focus to the built form of the house – both visually and in their choice of monitoring indicators. But is this focus on externally provided houses – particularly when separated from discussion of location, infrastructure, water & sanitation, livelihoods, and subsequent use – the best way to approach reconstruction?

It is true, that shelter is a basic human need:  third only in importance to water and food.[1]  As described in the Sphere Standards:

Shelter is a critical determinant for survival in the initial stages of a disaster. Beyond survival, shelter is necessary to provide security and personal safety, protection from the climate and enhanced resistance to ill health and disease. It is also important for human dignity and to sustain family and community life as far as possible in difficult circumstances. [2]

The right to housing is enshrined in a variety of international documents. According to Cornelis and Vitale (2005), “The strongest reference to housing rights in the international legal context is the right to adequate housing as enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article II (I) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).” In their 2002 publication, UN-HABITAT and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assert the legal importance of ‘adequate housing’.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the right to adequate housing has been reaffirmed and explicitly recognized in a wide range of international instruments as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and joined the body of universally accepted and applicable international human rights law.[3]

Therefore, it is possible to argue, in the context of international humanitarian law, that after a disaster, there is the international legal obligation on the part of the international community to ensure adequate housing for the affected populations.[4] But the provision of shelter – as seen by the persistent derision directed at the FEMA trailers – is not the same as the provision of houses, nor should the provision of houses necessarily by assumed to translate into the particular form of the single family, detached house.[5]  According to the head of shelter from the International Federation of the Red Cross, instead of asking, as the media did in June 2005– “why had only 10 000 units been built in 6 months?”, the question that should have been asked was “why are we building so many houses, so quickly?”[6] 

The most commonly observed approach to the reconstruction of permanent houses is a small, single story, house with 2 or three rooms:  most often one living/bedroom, a kitchen and/or an adjacent living area/bedroom. They are constructed from a small range of materials – usually cinder block, brick or concrete. In Aceh, the same design proposals were seen over and over despite consultations with the target communities and a lack of initial guidelines from the government. (Fig. 1 & 2))  The designs were remarkably similar – at least in external appearance –  to approaches seen in other post-crisis settings including those as geographically diverse as Kosovo, and Rwanda. 

Figure 1 – Banda Aceh, June 2006 [missing – eds.]

figure 2

Figure 2 – Meulaboh, June 2006

Dynamics of International Relief and Reconstruction

Part of the focus on housing can be accounted for by the dynamics of the international institutions and organizations, whose objective is to provide assistance to countries to rebuild after large scale disasters. These include both large international and multilateral agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as the international development arms of OECD governments and Non-Governmental Agencies.  While the institutional arrangements and development literature, attempt to demarcate between those organizations whose objective is primarily humanitarian relief (UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance; International Federation of the Red Cross) and those organizations who are tasked with assisting with long scale development (UN Development Programme, the UK’s Department for International Development), in reality, many humanitarian agencies continue working well into the reconstruction phase of post-disaster work.  This is partly because the distinction between relief and reconstruction is itself an artificial one – with many ‘temporary’ solutions becoming permanent and many development interventions starting while a society is still operating in a relief framework.  It is also partly due to the rhetoric of the international aid community itself, with many programmatic discussions in the 1990s and early 2000s advocating for the closing of the ‘relief to development’ gap.[7]

In the case of housing, the path dependence of the initial relief operations is particularly strong:  many temporary or semi-permanent shelters becoming effectively permanent dwellings  and the post-disaster displacements resulting in long term social restructurings.[8]  This blurring of the relief and development functions can be demonstrated by looking at the agencies that are involved in the housing sector – for example, in the case of Banda Aceh, two of the largest agencies involved in the building of permanent houses are the IFRC and Christian Relief Services (CRS).  The mandate of both agencies is primarily relief, however after the Tsunami, various bottlenecks in the relief effort meant that even the provision of temporary shelter was massively delayed.   With people still living in tents, 6 months after the Tsunami, it no longer made sense to provide temporary shelter or even transitional houses.  Instead, both the IFRC and CRS undertook the construction of thousands of permanent housing units.[9]

The dominance of ‘relief actors’ in the provision of permanent housing after a disaster may partially account for the dominance of the single family detached housing model as the dominant approach to reconstructed housing. Within the context of humanitarian assistance, the dominant mode of shelter is that of the tent.  While many architectural attempts have been made to provide alternative forms of emergency relief, the dominant typology of international assistance remains the tent.[10] Even if established in a ‘row formation’ which allows for an adjustable length – this implies that the dominant unit of social organization is the nuclear family.  If we translate the type and logic of the tent to a more permanent dwelling, the detached, single family dwelling becomes an obvious choice – so much so, as to be largely unproblematized, as a form, throughout the relief community.

Both Fred Cuny (1983) and Randolph Kent (1987) trace the genealogy of natural disaster relief to the provision of relief from the damaged inflicted by conflict, beginning with Henri Dunant’s establishment of the ICRC in 1863 following the human suffering that he observed at the Battle of Solferino (1859). During and after WW1, the Red Cross movement “remained the single most important landmark in the evolution of humanitarian relief” however, Kent identifies the contributions of two other organisations as being particularly significant during this period. The Commission for Relief in Belgium and the American Relief Administration (in conjunction with the European Children’s Fund and the European Relief Council) provided basic assistance to war affected Europeans and with the end of WW2, the plight of millions of refugees gave rise to the creation of international response mechanisms through the newly created United Nations (Kent:  37).[11]

As emergency assistance moved from an ad hoc form of international activity to a more professionalized, structured activity[12] the provision of emergency shelter grew in importance. Following both the first and second wars, the relief effort included the large scale reconstruction of houses to replace those that had been destroyed, and to provide new housing for displaced persons. And while high profile architectural contributions offered innovative design possibilities, in the main, most humanitarian NGOs relied on engineers to “design and oversee the construction of projects.” (Stohr: 40) Standards were developed for the design of temporary and transitional shelter, as well as accompanying components such as water and sanitation, layout of settlements, and guiding principles of interaction with the affected populations.  However, until the mid 1980s, “the approaches and techniques used in relief operations”  were still based on those that had been developed to assist European refugees and displaced persons after World War II.  These included the establishment of large camps, located far away from the people’s original place of residence; the reliance on “temporary measure and goods supplied from outside the affected region” including food, blankets, tents, and clothing.  Most importantly, “because the relief agencies operated in close cooperation with military occupation authorities, the approaches were often regimented and relied heavily on military-style planning and logistics for operation.” (Cuny: 18).

According to Cuny, the provision of relief after-WW2, informed the direction of relief services globally: 

In the late 1940s, the relief agencies operating in Europe began to expand their services into the trouble spots of the Third World:  India, Palestine, and Korea required the agencies’ help in dealing with refugees.  The agencies continued to use the techniques that they had used in Europe and adapt them to needs in the developing countries.[13]

In the 1950s, the demand for their services was magnified by rapid withdrawal of colonial powers, which left the newly independent states with fledging government and civil infrastructure, unable to cope with natural disasters – either in terms of expertise or resources.  Unlike the national governments, relief agencies were able to take a direct operational role, without concerns of breaches of sovereignty. (Cuny:18)  Most importantly, the “response pattern used by the relief agencies for natural disasters was virtually the same as that developed for use with refugees. There are many differences between war and refugee relief, and relief and recovery needs after a natural disaster.” (Cuny: 19)

The ‘WW2 paradigm’ continued to dominate until the 1980s, when various groups began to undertake significant and focused work to improve the international response to emergencies.  These included the re-examining camp layouts:  moving away from traditional military grid systems and towards more organic forms of social organization.[14]

Such proposals were in response to the recognition that temporary solutions often last years, if not decades and that relief should be designed in a way that enables long term, positive development.[15] However, despite advances in camp design, and attempts to modify the design of transitional shelter, the single family dwelling or ‘hut’ typology (Hayden, 1984) remains the dominant form of reconstructed housing.

SECTION II:  Theoretic importance of home and house in reconstruction sites

The concept of ‘home’ has now been extensively discussed in various literatures.  To be ‘homeless’  in Western society means that you are unable to be a functioning member of society.  Without a fixed physical address – a home – it is almost impossible to hold down a job, to receive education or medical care.  On a symbolic level, ‘home’ represents an emotional or spiritual grounding:  a place where a person can feel comfortable, safe, and a part of their surroundings – be that a family, a community or a country.[16]  While no architect, or development planner would be so delusional, nor arrogant, as to claim that the reconstruction of a house is all that is required to re-establish a home, there is an assumption in the discourse of post-disaster reconstruction that while not sufficient, such an aspiration is both realistic and desirable.  The conflation of ideas of shelter-housing-home can be seen in the slogans that are deployed by many of the organizations, for example:  “Building Houses Rebuilding Communities” (UN-HABITAT, 2005); or “A Place to Stay, A Place to Live” (Oxfam Briefing Note, 2005).

Beyond this initial logical slippage, is the already identified near automatic assumption that the reconstruction of housing means the reconstruction of a single family dwelling – an architectural form termed by Hayden as that of the ‘primitive, sacred hut.’[17]

For many Europeans, and for many settlers in North America who came from Europe, the archetypal house is a hut with a peaked roof, a strong door, and small windows to resist snow, wind, and rain.  The house may be constructed of wood, if it is near a forest; or stone, if it is near a quarry.  One large hearth provides a warm, bright place, the center of nurturing activity.  The archetype can be elaborated in its English, French, German, Scandinavian and American versions.  As ham, domus, bauen, or log cabin, the image has been analyzed, romanticized, sanctified, psychoanalyzed, celebrated, and copied.[18]

Theorists such as Bachelard, attribute the tenacity of form of the primal hut to its archetypical nature – locating within its form the embodied solution to the isolation of the human condition. (Bachelard, 1994)  Others, such as Claire Cooper and Carl Jung see the house as the symbol of self:  the attic representing the mind, the basement the unconscious.[19] Still others, such as Martin Heidegger, and Mircea Eliade link the building of a domestic dwelling to the construction of a temple and ultimately to an entire world view.[20]   Within the American context, the detached house has even more overt spiritual dimensions, for example, Catherine Beecher, an 19th c. minister and social commentator, considered the home to be a space for ‘domestic ministry’ and experimented with designs that incorporated areas for both living and worship. (Hayden, 2003: 41)

Such domestic ministry also carries a strongly gendered association. Beecher goes on to say that “a woman, nurturing her spouse and children, could create a ‘model family commonwealth’ in her suburban home.” (Hayden, 1984: 23)  The binary association of the female to the realm of interiority, the private and that of the male to the exterior, the public, has a long and well documented history.[21] In the West, no other built form so clearly articulates the patriarchal structure of the nuclear family than the single family dwelling. “Post-war propaganda told women that their place was in the home, as nurturers; men were told that their place was in the public realm, as earners and decision makers.[22] This ideal, gender-based division of labor [sic] described women’s and men’s economic, social, and political relationships to the private and public realms as distinctly different.” (Hayden, 1986:  42)  The result was “a spatial prescription for married suburban bliss that emphasized gender as the most salient feature of every citizen’s experience and aspirations”; (Hayden, 1984:  42) a spatial prescription that, 60 years later, continues to dominate as the preferred mode of housing across the US and, as concurrently, as the preferred mode of re-housing after a large scale disaster.

In his brief history of the ‘Home’, Rybczynski traces the genealogy of these spatial prescriptions to the emergence of the contemporary single family dwelling in 17th c. Netherlands.  “The emergence of the family home reflected the growing importance of the family in Dutch Society….The publicness that had characterized the ‘big house’ was replaced by a more sedate – and more private – home life.” The emergence of what Rybczynski terms ‘domesticity’ is bound up with “family, intimacy, and a devotion to the home, as well as with the house embodying, not only harbouring – these sentiments.”[23] (Rybczynski, 1988:  59)

As industrialization began to transform the old cities of Europe, and the emergent ones of the New World, the desire for a retreat from the chaos and pollution of the inner city drove more and more of the emergent ‘middle classes’ to seek affordable, private solutions further afield.  According to Hayden, “[b]y the mid-1830s, American architects were designing developments of single-family detached houses with gardens on the outskirts of cities.” (Hayden, 2003:  47) By the mid 20th c., the “American dream of single-family ownership” was firmly entrenched within the American psyche.  (Hayden, 1984:  13) She continues, “[s]ingle family suburban homes have become inseparable from the American dream of economic success and upward mobility.  Their presence pervades every aspect of economic life, social life, and political life in the United States…” (Hayden, 1984:  14)

The ownership of a house remains the dominant life goals of the majority of Americans and Western Europeans. As a symbol, it represents achievement, stability and security.  It is culturally preferable and seen as superior to other arrangements for living.  It is also the primary locus of consumption. Under U.S. President Hoover, private, single family homes were established as a “national goal to promote long term economic growth and recovery from the depression.” (Hayden, 1986:  34) Not only did they provide a excellent potential for consumption with their endless possibilities of modern appliances, furniture and garden accoutrements, they also provided a locus upon which the capitalist worker, and his wife, could focus their energy, and see the material results of their labour.  The connection between home ownership and national stability was clearly and overtly articulated in the policy of the time. Perhaps the strongest testament to the success of this rhetorical strategy is the complete absence, within American public discourse of alternative living arrangements, despite the inability or unwillingness of large portions of the American public to achieve the ‘dream’ of the house ownership.

Such embedded assumptions are rarely foregrounded – and particularly not in the context of emergency reconstruction.  These issues will be examined through two examples of reconstruction – first a case where a particular vision of society is communicated through the built form of the detached single family dwelling and second, a case where the generic form of the house is replicated as the dominant reconstructive form via the reconstructive process.

i) The Case of post-Katrina Housing:  the Katrina Cottage[24]

The Katrina Cottage is a small cottage-like permanent structure that is intended to provide affordable, ‘dignified’ shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina, specifically to replace the ubiquitous FEMA trailer that have been the government standard in emergency shelter.[25] Originally designed by New York architect, Marianne Cusato, the term referred to a 308 sq ft., one floor, downsized “Mississippi-style coastal cottage, complete with an inviting porch.”[26] To ensure elements of local vernacular Coastal style, inputs were solicited from the affected communities and ‘fine tuned’ by local architects.[27]  (Fig. 3 & 4)

figure 3

Figure 3 – KC1 308 – Bunkhouse  (www.cusatocottages.com)

The “KC 308” is 308 sq. ft. (420 sq ft., including porch) house composed of two main rooms arranged in a row:  the living room (13’11” by 8’8”) and, behind it, across the rear of the house, the bedroom (7”0x13”3’).  A small kitchen, lavatory and storage space occupy one side of the house and can be accessed off the living room. According to its website, it can be built with wood or steel framing and “are finished with fiber cement siding and a metal roof.”[28] It is engineered to withstand hurricane force winds.

Key principles of the design include that it is based on local vernacular, that it is easily and quickly erected (estimates of building time range between 7 days and 6 weeks), affordable, and can be easily modified.[29]

figure 4

Figure 4 – KC1 – 308 – Bunkhouse (www.cusatocottages.com)

When speaking of traditional Gulf Coast architectural forms – for example, ante bellum –  the choice of a ‘cottage’ is not an obvious one.  The term itself is a rich one, and one more commonly seen in the North East States of the US and Canada than the deep south.  It is a term that is generally used to refer to a small, single story, dwelling intended to house a single family often for vacation purposes or as a second home.  In some parts of the US such dwellings may be referred to as ‘cabins’.  It is more likely to be seen in rural or peri-urban than urban areas and carries with it a variety of associations.  These range from ideas of ‘leisure’, ‘casualness’, ‘coziness’, ‘nostalgia’ – as described in the lifestyle magazine ‘Cottage Life’ to the  ‘pre-fab’ or ‘temporary’.  These associations vary strongly accordingly to the location where it is used, the term ‘cottaging’ in the UK, for example, referring to a particular sexual acts performed in a public lavatory.  All this is to say that a ‘cottage’ is not an obvious choice as either a permanent, not a ‘vernacular’, housing solution, along the Gulf Coast.  Interestingly, the term ‘cottage’ for post-disaster housing is not new.  According to a post-Katrina article in Slate, Wytold Rybczynski tells us that after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the city of SF ‘built 6,000 two-room temporary wooden huts’ which he refers to as ‘cottages’ and some are still in existence today.  (Rybczynski, 2005 and 2006)

While certain elements such as the pre-fabrication, and purported ease of construction, make it potentially good choice for post-disaster housing – other purported benefits such as its affordability and adaptability are relative virtues – dependent upon other variables of the potential occupant such as secure land tenure and  access to credit (costed at between USD 30 000 – 100 000 plus building costs, it is not cheap).

However, its popularity, as a form, has proved sufficiently popular for it to have been picked up by Lowes’, the US building supplier, for distribution.  Follow the unveiling of Katrina Cottage II – a roomier version of the first referred as ‘The Cabin’ – in the Chalmette Louisiana, Walmart parking lot, other models have been developed including the Tiny House, the Thin House and the Double House.[30]  They vary in terms of floor space, number of floors, different layouts and cost.  They are intended to fit a range of budgets and locations.[31]  For example, models which fall into the  Thin House type “are between 500 and 1,600 sq ft., and are 16′ wide or less, measured to the eaves.”[32] Both Katrina Cottage IV, and VI are ‘thin cottages.’

An important part of the promotional material for the cottage is its growth potential. The initial cottage is considered to be a ‘Kernal House’ – which can either be expanded upon, through architectural additions, or converted into a garden shed, or guest cottage at the back of the lot once the real house is built.  Images on the Lowes website include time lapse animation of the cottage being transformed from an isolated structure on the corner of an expansive, leafy, yard dominated by a new, expansive structure, many times larger than the original cottage.

The dream of building a enclave of one’s own from scratch, is a deeply engrained part of the American identity.  For in the mid 1800s, work by such authors and amateur architects as Andrew Jackson Downing, and A.J.Davis provided written and visual guidance on “how to convert an ordinary farm into a gentleman’s estate or “Country Seat”.” (Hayden, 2003:  27)  Through their work, they “suggest that in the borderlands, buying a farmer’s land and turning it into a suburban property was what men and women of this era – and indeed every succeeding decade – needed to do.”[33] (Hayden, 2003:  27)

In the same way, the advice for “Using the Cottage:  Building for the Future”, found on the CusatoCotages.com website, implies limitless room for expansion, in the new borderland of the post-disaster setting.  What is omitted from these sketches, is one of the most pressing problems associated with reconstructive work – that of property rights and ownership.  In many cases, those people who lost their homes cannot return easily to their original place:  either it has been destroyed, or is being rezoned within the larger scheme of redevelopment.  Significant work has been done to document the uneven swathe of damage caused by Katrina: those who lost the most were exactly those people who could least afford to do so.  With persistent ambiguity over insurance claims, property rights and ownership, the dream of re-establishing oneself on a clean, lot remains exactly that.

The images of the mansions on these web pages also raises obvious questions, such as where the income necessary for the reconstruction will come from if the residents have lost their jobs.  And if the Cottage is truly meant to be temporary, why is a trailer not sufficient? Is it becomes what is being sold is less about the form of the cottage, and more about the possibility for a new life(style) that it represents.[34]

The Lowes online ‘model cottage gallery’ is careful to present the images of the cottages accompanied by white picket fencing, rocking chairs and bushes.[35] However, the form of the cottage itself bears a striking resemblance to a less bourgeois tradition.  In his 1976 article, John Michael Vlach explores the historical origins of a vernacular Louisiana housing type – the shotgun house.  As described by Fred B. Kniffen, in his paper, “Louisiana Housing Types” , the shotgun house is composed of “one room in width and from one to three or more rooms deep, with frontward-facing gable.” (as quoted in Vlach:  59)  The number of rooms varies, but is usually two or three, with the entrance on the gable end, leading to a front porch.  The roof is pitched, and the construction tends to be of timber frame with a façade of horizontal siding.  While the doors tend to form a straight line, this is not always the case, and examples of the type with one of the door ways offset have been documented.  (Vlach in Upton & Vlach, 1976)

In order to demonstrate the historical linkages between Louisiana’s shotgun house and earlier, African architectural traditions, Vlach traces the genealogy of the house.  In contemporary Louisiana, the shotgun house is most commonly associated with poor, black communities; its presence in visual representations of post-Katrina New Orleans, so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable.[36]  Vlach traces this history to the presence of free Haitian slaves in New Orleans, at the turn of the 19th century and their use of maison basse building techniques.  He shows the similarity between the floor plans of tradition Haitian homes (Fig 5)  and the shotgun house of New Orleans (Fig 6). (Fig 5 & 6) plans in Upton & Vlach:  65 and 66).

figure 5

Figure 5 – Traditional Haitian Maison-Basse Plans (Upton & Vlach, 1986:  65)

figure 6

Figure 6 – Traditional New Orleans Shotgun Types (Upton & Vlach, 1986: 66)

When we compare these plans to those of the Katrina Cottage, the are strikingly similar both in the layout, dimensions, and intended room use.  (Fig. 5).  The similarities in layout – rooms arranged in a row, with the entrance placed on the gable end, leading off a porch – is evident by looking at the respective plans.

figure 7

Figure 7 – KC3081 Floor Plan (www.cusatocottages.com)

While the average dimensions of the initial Katrina Cottage (KC 308) had a shorter length than the examples of shotgun houses that Vlach found in Port-au-Prince or New Orleans, they are identical with regards to width.  They are also similar with regard to intended room usage:  multi purpose space at the front, sleeping quarters (reached through the multi-purpose space) at the back.  The observed variations, or ‘sub-types’ are also similar between the shotgun house and the Katrina cottage with frontal ornamentation of (the appearance of) two doors (see KC 612)[37] or the addition to the shogun house of extra rooms on the side (similar to KC 576).

But Vlach’s inquiry doesn’t end in Port-au-Prince.  He is interested in demonstrating that the Haitian maison basse has an even older architectural genealogy, based simultaneously in West Africa, and with Caribbean Amerindian populations and their bohio house type – a type strongly resembling a shotgun house.  (see fig. 8 p. 73 in Vlach).  According to Vlach, the shotgun house represents an “architectural response to slavery” where African slaves from the Awarak sugar plantations, “maintained their own African house form by making one morphological change (shifting a doorway [from the long end to the garret end of the house]), adapting one secondary feature (a front porch), and learning a new technology.” He goes on to say that “Africans in Haiti did not drift aimlessly in a sea of alien experiences.  Their response was to make sense of their new environment by transforming it so that it resembled a familiar pattern.  Cultural contact did not necessitate an overwhelming change in architecture; what was needed was rather an intelligent modification of culture.  The shotgun house form is the result of this kind of mental transposition.” (Vlach: 76)

If we accept that the Katrina Cottage draws upon a shotgun legacy, Vlach’s observations have relevance in the post-hurricane landscape of the Gulf Coast. While the language and imagery used to market the cottage is one of Rockwellian Americana and a DIY attitude, the form and type of the cottage is one that draws upon the less publicized historical narrative of the US – that of slavery and its legacy of racial inequality. In the context of New Orleans, the spatial dimensions of this legacy were shown by the unequal impact that the hurricane had on its inhabitants with inner city, black populations being disproportionately affected both by the hurricane itself and by their lack of financial insurance against such an eventuality.

“Katrina revealed how topographical gradients were proxies for race and class gradients in New Orleans, with largely white neighborhoods situated on higher, drier ground.  Simple put, white privilege underlay the spatial location and racial composition of communities most vulnerable to flooding.” (Bakker 2005)[38]

It is ironic then, that the solutions offered not only draw upon a local, vernacular architectural form but that they subsume a subaltern architecture beneath a veneer of arch-typical middle class America.

The irony runs deeper still. According to the New Urban Guild’s website, The Katrina Cottage has been designed using the concepts of ‘Living Traditions’ and ‘Most Loved Places’. According to the New Urban Guild website, ‘Most Loved Places’ are “the places in every region which have been valued the highest and loved the longest.”[39] A living tradition is “something that resonates enough with the average citizen that they want to repeat it on their house, on their shop, or in their town.[40] The implication of these concepts is that people will turn to, and value, classic architectural forms, such as the antebellum architecture of the Gulf Coast.  The provision of an architectural form, which arguably embodies a legacy of subjugation, as the solution for the structurally disadvantaged groups hit by the hurricane, contains within it a double message.  Superficially, the ornamentation and presentation of the cottage – the picket fences, the rocking chair, the flower bushes – offers the promise of a better life. The plans showing the growth potential emphasizing the need to work towards embedding the cottage within a larger landscape of success; of using the cottage as the stepping stone to a larger house, and a permanent, grounded, home.  The promise of the ornament, is counterpoised to the threat of the form – the shotgun house – which evokes the memory of slavery,  of structural poverty and entrenched discrimination.  Suggesting that unless the necessary actions are made to improve the cottage, the fate of previous generations of shotgun owners is theirs to repeat.

Hayden distinguishes between two aspects of the built form:  the building program and the architectural form:

The building program is the implicit or explicit statement of spatial requirements to be fulfilled within the constraints of available sites, budgets, and technologies; it can be simple or detailed, but it will usually define the building type (such as detached one-family house, or thirty-unit apartment house) and the intended activities such as eating, sleeping, or parking the car.  A program will also usually specify what kinds of spaces are to be provided for these activities, such as kitchen, dining room, bedroom, or garage; how large these spaces must be; and what sorts of daylight, mechanical systems, and other equipment are necessary.  At the same time that the building program conveys the economic, social, and technical requirements for built space, the architectural style chosen for a building conveys the cultural requirements.  The choice of style may be made by the client or by the designer; it can be as enduring as any religious dogma or as fleeting as high fashion.[41]

She goes on to say, “The one thing that architectural style cannot do is transform the building program.  So if the basic social model of home is outdated, or the basic economic model of home is not appropriate, then architectural design cannot save the situation.  Architects cannot make outmoded family etiquette modern; they cannot make false economic definitions of private and public work equitable.  Because architectural style and building program represent form and content (or, if you will, cultural superstructure and material base), architectural styles and building programs often conflict in industrial societies.[42]

Within the context of reconstruction, the focus is generally on the built form of the house – with the larger building program receding into the background either as part of a larger reconstruction effort that downplays the importance of space (focusing instead on issues of economic regeneration, and livelihoods, abstracted from their material base) or due to the piecemeal nature of the reconstruction effort.  By presenting the choice of a better life as one that lies with the individual – the structural aspects, and governmental failings are obscured. The focus on the built form of the house obscures the larger issues of why the disaster happens, which groups are disproportionately affected, and highlights instead micro-issues of ornament, façade, and layout. The packaging of the solution to the reconstruction effort in the form of a single family dwelling on private (seemingly limitless) property draws the attention away from larger context; one, where, a second Katrina is more likely than the eventual conversion of the Katrina cottage into a children’s play cottage in the corner of an expansive property.  Just as the single family dwelling has come to represent, and even embody the value of the individual over the value of society, the Katrina cottage places the burden of reconstruction on the individual, as the form of the house implies a permanence that a wheeled trailer does not.

[F]or the first time in history, a civilization has created a utopian ideal based on the house rather than the city or the nation.  For hundreds of years, when individuals thought about putting an end to social problems, they designed model towns to express their desires, not model homes.[43]

But isn’t the Katrina Cottage ‘better than nothing?’; better, as many of the disaster victims themselves have said, than the FEMA trailer?  Perhaps.  At the very least, Lowes franchising of the design demonstrates at least a temporary demand for the cottage[44] although whether this demand is partly a result of the fascination with the Katrina disaster, or a love of the cottage itself, is unclear.  There is even discussion of the adoption of the design by Habitat for Humanity, for use in its overseas housing projects.[45]  It is also remarkably similar to models made nearly a century earlier.

In 1906, “Earthquake refugee cottages, or “shacks” were built by the Department of Lands and Buildings of the Relief Corporation to house refugees from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.”  According to the Western Neighbourhoods Project, a nonprofit historical organization based out of San Francisco:

5,610 cottages were constructed to house over 16,000 San Franciscans in 11 refugee camps in locations including Dolores Park, Washington Square, Precita Park, Portsmouth Square, and today’s Park-Presidio Boulevard. Union carpenters built three main sizes of cottages between September 1906 and March 1907. Cottages had cedar-shingle roofs, fir floors and redwood walls. All were painted green to better blend into the parks and public squares in which they were erected. When the camps began closing in August 1907, refugees hauled cottages to private lots, and often cobbled together two or more to form larger residences. Of the 5,343 moved from the camps only a handful are certified to still be standing.[46]

figure 8

Figure 8 – Preserved San Francisco Earthquake Shack

( http://www.outsidelands.org/shacks.php)

Pictures of the preserved cottages (see Fig 8) show a remarkable resemblance to contemporary Katrina Cottages…perhaps reflecting a nostalgia for a time when disasters were manageable, and refugees respectful and grateful.

ii) The case of post-Tsunami Banda Aceh

In June 2006 – one and a half years after the Boxing Day Tsunami – driving into the harbour area of Banda Aceh gave one the impression of driving into a fairground.  A single gravel road snakes through kilometre after kilometre of buildings in all stages of completion.  The carnival quality is due to the rainbow of colours that the buildings are painted and the variety of designs and placement.  Some houses are low long bungalows, others are built in a vernacular manner.  Some are elevated on stilts with staircases running up the side, and balconies wrapping themselves around the façade.  Some have been built on hills of gravel, while others are nearly sitting in tide pools. And in which ever direction you look, you are met with competing logos, flags and billboards – most in English, all proudly taking responsibility for their section of the building patchwork.

Housing – or ‘shelter’ – makes up the largest sector of the largest reconstruction budget ever seen, and has become the primary focus of government as well as the implementing agencies and organizations.  Out of an overall reconstruction portfolio of US $4.9 billion, US$1.1 billion – or just under 25 percent – has been allocated to housing.  The next highest sectors are transport, health sector, education, and community infrastructure, in that order. (Ivaschenko et al., 2006:  78)

What is remarkable about the Achenese example, is perhaps less the amount of money allocated to housing – it is, after all, a vital component of a reconstruction effort where 500, 000 people were displaced – but rather the number of actors involved in, specifically, the reconstruction of housing and the high visibility of the reconstruction endeavour.  According to the 2006 World Bank report – over 300 NGOs were involved in the reconstruction of houses – many with little or no prior experience in this sector. The scale, & high international profile of the disaster, and the commensurate high levels of money, meant that the numbers of independent, international NGOs was particularly high.[47]

Most concentrated in easily accessible areas – such as the capital, Banda Aceh – and, typical of post-crisis situations, many failed to go through the official coordination channels, meaning that their presence, and contributions, were initially unrecorded with either the government or the central coordinating body – the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, one of the few International Agencies who had kept international staff ‘in country’ after the collapse of the 2003 peace talks.[48]  But while the reconstruction effort attracted a large number of small, independent NGOs the majority of the housing reconstruction was undertaken by a few major players. These can be divided into three main categories.

On the government side, the BRR is tasked with directing housing reconstruction.  Overall, they are the largest reconstruction player with a portfolio “about twice as large portfolio as the next major  player (Red Cross).” (Ivaschenko:  80).  The Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency[49] is the new government agency, created to oversee the reconstruction effort.[50]  Its head had a Ministerial rank, and the agency both builds houses and oversees the building by other agencies.[51]

On the side of the international community, the overall reconstruction effort was ostensibly coordinated by the UN – first by UN OCHA, and then by the Office of the Resident Coordinator (UN ORC).  The UN, however concentrated strictly on coordinating, documenting and supporting the relief effort, leaving the physical reconstruction projects to be carried out either by the World Bank or by the large bilateral (national donors).

A third category of reconstruction actors are the large, international non-government organizations (INGOs) such as the Oxfam, Christian Relief Services, Habitat for Humanity.  The “massive global public fundraising that followed the tsunami” resulted in international NGOs having “unprecedented budgets.  Some NGOs such as CARE, Save the Children, and various national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies each have over US$100 million to spend.  This makes them larger than some donors or UN agencies” . (Burke & Afnan:  39). And, unlike UN Agencies, whose criticisms, though multiple, are usually indirect, International NGOs are answerable to private donations.

The prominence of the disaster and its aftermath on Western news outlets, contributed to a record level of donations from individuals who had participated in the mass donation campaigns, and were eager to see the visible (and quick) impact of their aid dollars.  And what is more accountable, countable, and visible than houses?  Houses are easily identifiable symbols of reconstruction – emotionally satisfying to Western audiences. In the mind of Western audiences a Western house is a powerful, visual symbol of progress, and economic and social stability.  For example,  in the US, housing starts are an important indicator of economic growth (Hayden, 1986:  38) and private home ownership has at various times, been promoted as an explicit government policy to ensure social stability and encourage a more conservative political environment. They are particularly useful if the organization in question needs to spend large amounts of cash, quickly, as they involve large building contracts including materials.

The construction of housing is also attractive become it is perceived by humanitarian organizations as relatively non-technical.  It is also adaptable – allowing you to build as many units as you have money for.  While high profile projects such as schools and hospitals are quickly ‘cherry picked’, the need for new houses is seemingly limitless and sells well to audiences (the donors) back home as an obvious human need.[52]

Much has been written on the slow pace of reconstruction.  For our purposes, this means that by the time the international agencies and NGOs were ready to build, the need and demand was for semi-permanent or permanent housing rather than temporary. In addition to predictable construction bottlenecks (discussed below), the reliance of implementing agencies on national funding cycles and systems means that continued delays in the delivery of aid, makes temporary and even transitional shelter redundant for large proportions of the population:  by the time the relief programmes are delivered, it is time to start building permanent shelter or temporary or transitional shelter becomes permanent through lags, and path dependence. It is also possible that there is a transfer of knowledge between international NGOs and aid agencies. People with similar functional knowledge, i.e. in post-disaster reconstruction, are moved from one zone to another bringing with them experience, knowledge, and contacts from previous disaster zones, meaning that this dominant mode of reconstruction remains largely unproblematized.[53] In the case of international development, the inertia associated with any large organization, is amplified by a rapid staff turnover, limited funds for managerial development and often poor, or antiquated systems of record keeping. This means that experiences learned, and mistakes made are quickly lost (or covered up) and therefore, have a high likelihood of being repeated. 

In Aceh, guidelines for reconstruction were set by the government – by the BRR.  The BRR is the donor supported, government agency responsible for reconstruction. Initially created under another name, it was quickly re-established in its current guise after allegations of corruption and mismanagement.  BRR developed guidelines for reconstruction based on previous building codes, but initial problems with the set up of the government agency meant that there were delays in actually issuing the guidelines. The rough ‘design guidelines’ were that the house should measure not less than 36 sq. m (not including bathrooms) and should be “constructed in accordance with applicable Indonesian building codes concerning building materials to be used and electrical and mechanical systems to be provided.”[54] But these were not issued until approximately March 2005 and the final versions were not issued before June 2006.  Further, the issue of translation added another level of interpretive difficulty, with many of the official documents being issued primarily in Indonesian.  In the time spent waiting for these guidelines many agencies went ahead and started building houses.

However, this was before the dynamics of a reconstruction effort of this scale were properly understood.  As reconstruction began, the bottlenecks that would hamper reconstruction efforts for the next year and half, began to become apparent.  Shortages of labour and building materials resulted in massive and rapid inflation far above any that had been factored into the cost projections for the houses, reducing the number of projected modules that the agencies could build and leading them to try and reduce unit cost, resulting in smaller, less fancy houses.[55]

Now instead of competing on design or grandiosity, the benchmarks for competition began on number of units, rapidity, quality of materials and location.  Arguably, another type of competition – although one less easy to quantify – was ‘loyalty’ or allegiance from a specific community. 

The basic design was supposed to have in keeping with government guidelines – leaving little scope for major community input.  It is hardly surprising, given this constraint, that the housing designs are all very similar.

Housing Designs

A survey by UN-Habitat of the housing designs by the various organizations operating in Aceh revealed an over-riding basic typology with certain key, recurrent variations. Although the BRR guidelines were not yet official, when the plans were designed, the guidelines, as expressed at various working groups and through consultation, was that the houses were to be 36 meters square, excluding terrace area.  The majority of floorplans were roughly square, with a pitched (or double pitched roof).  They all had two doors (a front and a back) and most had two bedrooms (kamar tidur), a living area (ruang tamu) and a kitchen (dapur).

Where they varied was largely to do with the placement of the Toilet (W/C) and Bath/Sink (Kumar Mandi).  In some plans (such as the one’s by the NGO SOS Children’s Villages)[56], the WC/KM was directly inside the house (Fig. 9) where in others, it was placed outside the back (Fig 10); built as a separate small building (Fig. 11); or simply non-existent.  Informal interviews conducted in June 2006 with beneficiaries, contractors and workers for NGOs and multilateral organizations raised the location of the WC/KM as being a concern for some beneficiaries.  Certain people said that having the mandi inside was in violation of Islamic laws,[57] it may have been more in terms of local norms, as the houses planned by PKPU, a Jakarta based Islamic NGO, also included an interior WC/KM in their plans.

figure 9

Figure 9 – SOS Children’s Villages Design (courtesy of UN-Habitat)

fig 10

Figure 10 – Houseplan Yayasan Social Kreasi (courtesy of UN-Habitat)

fig 11

Figure 11 – Houseplan Oxfam (courtesy of UN-Habitat)

There were also complaints that the houses did not provide for a sufficiently private area for female members of the household.

Such cultural preferences seemed to be only marginally reflected in the planning, although ornamentally it is possible to identify a vernacular touch in the choice of bright house colours (a typically Acehnese style) and occasionally, in the presence of an apparently ‘Islamic’ influenced pediment and entrance columns (see Fig. 12).

fig 12

Figure 12 – House PKPU (courtesy of UN-Habitat)

And while there were a few plans put forward for multi family dwellings, the predominant approach remained that of the single family dwelling.  Given the similarity across the donors, it is worth noting the degree to which some of the buildings, and settlements, appeared to convey the worldview of their donors.

For example, the houses built by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) houses were identifiable by their standardization.  USAID houses were uniform, square, and tended to be on the small side.  They were constructed of and were built in long, perfectly straight lines.  18 months after the disaster the houses observed in Banda Aceh, were not yet completed, and none were occupied, but the lines and grids of houses were immediately identifiable as a USAID product.  At that stage there was no ornamentation, and the houses, looked as though no one had worked upon them for some time:  the grass was growing long through the foundations, and frames, and there was no construction going on. Still, proudly displayed – clear and well maintained – were banners with the USAID logo.

This was contrasted with the much lauded houses contributed by Turkish Relief.  Their houses were built on significantly larger plots of land, and the houses themselves, although only slightly larger, had some structural variation in shape:  they had a small porch and a triangle over the front door, complete with an Islamic Crescent.  Pink in colour, they had a front window approximately 1 m sq, into the front, multipurpose, living room with glass.  The Turkish houses were much remarked upon as being particularly well made.  The BRR also built some of their own houses.  Informal site interviews highlighted problems of poor and slow construction.[58]

Interesting, although most likely coincidental, the design put forward by Habitat for Humanity – had more of a shotgun feel – with the bedrooms one behind the other – and the dimensions being 5 m across by 10 m deep.  (See Fig. 13)

fig 13

Figure 13 – Aceh Barat, Habitat for Humanity

Also telling, was the way in which different donors built the houses – the process and management of construction and the approach that they took to the site. For example, Catholic Relief Services, frustrated with inability to locate a reliable and ‘non-corrupt’ contractor, made the decision to establish an in house team of architects, designers, engineers sourced from across Indonesian and overseen by their American core team.  This meant that the output in terms of design, architecture and implementation, will be closely managed by the CRS.  It also means that the houses will be composed, designed and monitored at arms length, from within a physical compound, a microcosm of the ‘Western world.’

In the case of Aceh, there is also the need to mention one type of “temporary shelter”:  the ‘barracks’ which are long, thin buildings, normally used to house soldiers, with a long thin balcony running along the front.  Immediately after the disaster the Indonesian army built these to house large numbers of displaced persons quickly.  And while, initially there was fear that this was to be used as a population control strategy by the military, this fear remained unrealized.  When it became clear, that there was no ulterior motive to the building of barracks, other donors – including GTZ – replicated this form of temporary housing.  These barracks were still being used 1.5 years after the tsunami – housing large numbers of families who are increasingly treating them as permanent, rather than temporary houses including decorating them with plants, and other ornamentation. From a public health perspective, this raises concerns over the lack of sanitary facilities such as running water, and toilets.  Water is supplied to the barracks from tanks, and many families live side by side, with little or no privacy.  The locations of these barracks may also have an impact on the social structures of Banda Aceh, as they were built in what was, immediately post tsunami, considered to be ‘temporary’ locations.  One group of barracks is concentrated directly beside the wind ravaged, and yet unreconstructed, stadium.  If this grouping of ‘temporary’ barracks persists, how will this play out in terms of developing a (new) community?

The idea that temporary shelter can (and should) be convertible into permanent housing is the physical manifestation of the idea that the humanitarian response should meld seamlessly into long term development planning (the ‘relief to development’ continuum)  In Aceh, the International Committee for the Red Cross experimented with a type of ‘transitional’ shelter which was supposed to be easy to put up and could be used also as semi-permanent housing.  But the uptake of these structures was not great – many remained unlived in, 1.5 years after the disaster – deemed unacceptable by the local populations.

The idea behind the development of the cottage was in response to a similar type of reluctance by the end user to a transitional solution.  Various reports claimed that the FEMA trailers were not aesthetically desirable, not sufficiently comfortable and even that they led to an increase in crime in the neighborhoods in which they were located (Fornoff, 2005). Reluctance of permanent residents to have them located in their neighborhoods can make post-disaster planning difficult.

SECTION III:  The house in international humanitarian Identity

The history of international development, of which humanitarian response is a part, is a history of (often failed) social experiments[59]; the idea of the hinterland, the margin, the reconstruction site as a unique space where innovative and unexpected events may occur is a well developed theme.[60]   In these spaces, the lack of oversight, accountability, or continuity makes them particularly open to the implementation of progressive or avant-guard practice; to the implementation of designs and forms of the built environment which will better the human condition.

Similarly, within the Western architectural imaginary, the ‘reconstruction site’ has always occupied a prominent place. By virtue of their seeming blank slate quality, their lack of restrictions, the phoenix-like potential – they are perceived as sites of enormous potential for those architects wishing to push the boundaries of architectural practice (viz. Diller & Scofidio).[61]  Over the years, a wide range of super-star architects have put forward their proposals for post-disaster housing. For example, Corbusier’s iconic Maison Dom-ino (1914-15) was originally intended as a “solution for the rapid reconstruction of regions such as Flanders, which had been heavily damaged during WW1.” (Stohr: 36) Between 1939 and 1945, Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto designed a movable temporary emergency shelter, designed to house war refugees that ‘could be trucked to the site and house four families with a shared central heating unit’. (Stohr: 37) “Prouvé also developed a number of prefabricated shelters, including a metal-frame tent, demountable barracks and schools for war refugees that he called ecoles volantes.” (Stohr: 39) And while, not strictly speaking for post-disaster response, during the 1940s, Buckminster Fuller designed the Dymaxion Deployment Unit – a form of ‘emergency accommodation for troops in various locations during WW2.” (Stohr: 38)  More recently, Studio Libeskind has been involved in the design of a Master Plan for Unawatuna – a beach side community in Sri Lanka, devastated by the Tsunami.[62]

Significant theoretical and practical work has been done on the concept of temporary shelter.[63]  In architectural theory there is an almost romantic interest in the concept and manifestations of temporary shelter – from the Mongolian Yurt, to the bivouac. As Witold Rybczynski, says (drawing on Davis), “Architects in the past have proposed a variety of ingenious shelters including prefabs, inflatables, geodesic dome kits, sprayed polyurethane igloos, and temporary housing made of cardboard tubes and plastic beer crates…not only are these often untested ‘universal’ solutions generally prohibitively expensive, their exotic forms are usually ill-suited to local conditions.”[64]

And while there is a particular fascination with the way in which the temporary influences the permanent the designs remain (as described by Rybczynski) largely  utopic.  Peter Kraftl (2007) claims that architecture is fundamentally linked to utopia, and outlines, how historically, the most common type of utopia has been linked to ideas of comfort and home.  In the context of global geopolitics, the domestic is held as a realm of relatively stability against a backdrop of “disease, famine, war and death”. (Campbell 2007: 358)

However, in the approaches that we have considered, ideas of comfort and home have been bound up in ideas of nostalgia, the ‘traditional’ or ‘the vernacular’, but as we have seen from the built form of the Katrina Cottage, and from the process of reconstructing post-Tsunami Banda Aceh, these ideas are themselves have been informed by the history of intervention and reconstruction.  Indeed they embody and reproduce, as part of the humanitarian imaginary, the nostalgia/utopia of humanitarian intervention and salvation first, in the belief that it is possible to control first place, and ultimately time.

i) The nostalgia of place

The marketing of place – of utopic space – is a key part of reconstruction.  For example, if we consider New Urbanism – the urban design movement which the designers of the Katrina Cottage espouse:  it originated in the US, in the1980s in response to the problems identified with suburban sprawl. New Urbanism is best known for its ‘model towns’ – planned neighbourhoods based on strict urban planning principles such as densely backed, walkable neighborhoods with mixed use and mixed age buildings.[65] New Urbanism promotes the notion of ‘natural variety’ and that architectural and planning decisions should follow a transect approach to planning, respecting the essential truth that different areas have different qualities – different flora, fauna, and social norms.  They identify 6 different ‘context zones’ ranging from the rural to the urban.[66]  According to the website of the New Urban Guild, “the list of things that change along the transect is far too long to fully include here [in the principles for transect planning].”  Readers are advised to “[j]ust look around you; you’ll see it in all the great old places.”[67]  What we will see are the essential qualities of a place that should be respected during the design, planning and development process.

Two of the best known New Urbanist developments are the towns of Seaside, California, and Celebration, Florida.  Both Seaside – used as the backdrop for the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, and Celebration – commissioned by the Walt Disney Corporation – perpetuate through their urban layout and architectural choices, a neo-traditional aesthetic of small town America, where, “women call in their kids to do homework and old men sit outside the general store.”[68] New Urbanists have been accused of perpetuating an imaginary idea of the US and their critics have seized upon what they perceive to be an exploitation, of “a yearning for an imaginary small-town America”[69] and the explicit call for a return to so called traditional social relations through urban and architectural design is evidenced by the above quote.[70]

While green neighborhoods, sustainability, walkability are all principles that are hard to dispute within the current ethical climate of Western society, the level of social control and the homogenous implications of the planning designs – largely white, economically middle class – sit uncomfortably with main stream architectural and urban design practice.  It is interesting then, that New Urbanism has found new life along the Gulf Coast.  Starting with the Mississippi Renewal Forum, of 2005, many of Mississippi’s coastal communities decided to rebuild using SmartCode planning – the transept approach developed by Duany, William Wright and Sandy Sorlien. Two years later, “most of Mississippi’s coastal communities, with the notable exception of Biloxi, are embracing the SmartCode.” (Snyder, 2007)

Consider the tension identified by Hayden with regards to form versus programme – can changes to the programme be made through the base. If suburban sprawl is the result of underlying, structural dynamics, can local, largely aesthetic decisions reverse these trends? Is it possible to imagine reversing capitalist trends through local planning decisions, when the social and economic relations that underpin ownership, employment, family relations, and ultimately place, are driven.  Surely, they can only be temporary enclaves in the sea of progress, Looking at the dubious legacy of Celebration, Florida, where – according to Hayden, it seems likely that the original community (Phase I) provided the marketing hook for future, replica villages, suddenly New Urbanism rather than reversing sprawl, is merely replacing the grid like suburbia of the 1940s and 50s America with the 21st century version of the picturesque enclave.  (Hayden, 2003).

And indeed, the enclave model is one that is aspired to – evoked not only through the design and aesthetic, but also by the romantic, pastoral rhetoric of the movements’ propaganda.[71] The marketing material for the Katrina Cottage is rife with a similar nostalgic, aspiration – promising not only a chance to rebuild and recovery, but to regain a sense of place and belonging that was arguably lost long before Katrina ever hit.[72]

ii) Time

In much of the discussion over reconstruction, there is an assumption that the affected communities should and can return to the pre-disaster state. Andrio Adiwibowo, a lecturer on Environmental and Natural Resource Management Policy at the University of Indonesia, suggests that donors are more likely to provide assistance to disasters which have an end which can be defined.  Describing the lack of response to an ongoing, catastrophic mud volcano, in Eastern Jave he says,  “International donors responded quickly when the tsunami struck Aceh and Nias and the earthquake rattled Yogyakarta and Central Java, but disappointingly, they have never come to Sidoarjo.  Perhaps from a donors perspective, the Sidoarjo disaster is not “attractive”. Once the mud is spilled, you cannot un-spill it.” (2007)

In disaster literature, and practice there is a recognition of the complexity involved in defining a disaster as a discrete event.  Still, the formal engagement with the situation, defines a ‘starting point’ at which the disaster is brought into public awareness and creates a before and an after.  This distinction allows for a romanticization of the pre-disaster situation. As discussed above, this may be done through the largely arbitrary use of such terms of ‘traditional’, ‘vernacular’ and ‘authentic’. These terms often serve as a modifier for existing, pre-formulated design solutions. For example, in the case of the designs put forward after the Tsunami, a housing design would become ‘vernacular’ by the addition of a specific ornament, or a coat of paint in a ‘traditional’ colour, whereas post-Katrina, ‘Traditional Mississippi style’ seems oddly synonymous with ‘has a front porch.’  The romanticization of a pre-disaster state, through a focus on design solutions obscures pre-disaster dynamics – which as we saw so starkly in the case of Katrina – inform the severity and demographic impact of the disaster. Consider the advertised virtue of the Katrina Cottage as its ability to ‘take a swim.”[73] “Even if it’s completely submerged in a flood, you simply remove any furnishings that have absorbed water, hose down the interior, and replace the electrical switches.”[74]  This neglects the  larger issues of why it is necessary for certain people to rebuild in locations where their houses must be submergible.

The issue of mobility is intertwined with how external vs. local’s perceive the reconstruction in terms of time.  Where, for residents of the reconstruction sites – the disaster and the consequent reconstruction are part of a continuum of their lifetime, for external actors, the disaster and the reconstruction represent an event, temporally disengaged from the longer existence of the place. The disaster is privileged as a unique event, and the response as an exception, obscuring the more permanent or entrenched dynamics which make the event into a way of life for certain sectors of the population. There is also the issue that certain actors have the ability to move more or less easily, back and forth, to and from the reconstruction site.[75] Here, Massey’s discussions of the hierarchies/binary of spatial versus temporal considerations come into play – and suggest that different actors – the external versus the local – respectively privilege a spatial versus a temporal approach to reconstruction.  (Massey, 2006)

Because of the power dynamics identified above – skewed in favour of external actors –  it is possible that the reconstruction project, may be biased toward a spatial approach, at the expense of a more nuanced one that also incorporates a temporal element.  From a development perspective, this can be seen in the lack of continuation, oversight, evaluation or follow up.[76]  All the focus is on the built product, the physical outcome.  It is also seen in the broader dynamic of international reconstruction work which sees each reconstruction site as an event, one in a series of reconstructions – creating a network or horizon – between reconstruction sites, rather than seeing the disaster as part of the continuum of the place in which it occurred.

Conclusion:  External vs. Local and the Humanitarian Imaginary 

The problematique of attributing spatial or geographic attachment of a certain group of people to a specific place is notoriously difficult. All people are a unique amalgam of places, traces and experiences derived from a range of geographies and locales.  However, in the context of a reconstruction site, it is possible to differentiate between ‘local’ and ‘external’ actors.  External actors can be defined as those organizations that are brought to a reconstruction site through the political economy of humanitarian assistance:  they would not be in the reconstruction site, had it not been for the event of the disaster. In the context of a disaster, this binary could also be described as the relationship between donor and recipient; saviour/victim; capable/incapacitated and so on.  These categories are reified within the institutional structure of disaster response where they are given geographic attribution:  North-South, or the ‘West and the Rest’.[77]

Many authors distinguish between international (external) and local actors with respect to their physical and economic relationship to the reconstruction process.  The claim is often made that those actors who do not have demonstrable ties to the damaged area should not have a voice in the reconstruction, or their voice should be weighted to reflect their origin and physical relationship to the site.  In some ways this makes perfect sense – those people who are the ‘beneficiaries’ of the reconstruction should have more of a say in the design of the response.  In others, it is a conservative approach which assumes that place may be geographically discrete, and that identification with place implies primary rights to that locale.  It neglects the interdependencies of that place or the layers of ownership.

However, post-colonial scholars have critique such a binary narrative for its failure “to acknowledge the ways modernity is constantly in negotiation and constructed not only vis-à-vis the West but within non-Western places.” (Besio, 2007: 72) Through her work on tourism in Northern Pakistan, Besio (2007) problematizes the attribution of geographic origin to particular modes of thought.  While a superficial reading of the interactions of western travelers to northern Pakistan would seem to suggest a modern/non-modern split between travelers and local resident, she suggests drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell and Chakrabarty (2000) that the categories are much more nuanced.  In the same way, it is important to recognize the iterations of identity construction that are going on in the process of reconstruction.  For example, in Banda Aceh, designated recipients of new houses were reluctant to accept homes made of more resilient and less dangerous materials such as cinder block, insisting instead on brick houses – an option which is much more likely to cause bodily harm, in the case of an earthquake – based on its status value.

Such unexpected demands, and expectations of the reconstruction process are consistent with Neil Smith’s observations of post-Katrina New Orleans where, he warns, the reconstruction programmes may interweve with pre-existing class divides  in unexpected ways. (Smith, 2006)

In practice though, in a post-disaster context, the money or expertise of the external actors – their power  –  allows them a voice in a discussion that they would not normally have a right to participate in:  how to reconstruct the built environment of a society.  Inevitably, those actors who are not normally physically located in the area, the normative framework from which they are operating is (at least partially) representative of/constructed by the societies, and communities where they are regularly located; as well as by their own needs and incentives and their perceptions of the needs and incentives of the recipients.[78]

The built form of the house is a particularly important site for the construction and negotiation of categories which our central to humanitarian intervention and to the (perceived) utopia of reconstruction.  When contextualized by their history – that is, more likely than not, a previous experience with disasters and an endemic, structural proclivity to experience them in the future – the futility of the utopia of reconstruction; and the vacuity of the term itself –  is highlighted.[79] [80]

The site of the house becomes less an example of comfort, and security, and instead, becomes imbued with qualities of the uncanny, the unhomely.  Kraftl puts forward the hypothesis that this unhomeliness is inextricably bound up with more traditionally positive definitions of the word, not only in a binary, mutually constitutive way, but also that “aspects of the comforting, homely utopian…can be powerfully anxiety inducing and unsettling.” (Kraftl 2007:136)   That these tensions are embodied within a reconstruction site are consistent with the idea that although  the struggle for security may be a key concern of modernity (Bauman 2000) “homelessness and homesickness are equally important in the spacings and desires of modernity.” (Kraftl 2007: 35) Theorists such as Beck (1992) have famously argued that the uprootedness of contemporary, global society makes the idea of a perfect home attractive but since such a utopia can never be achieved, the best that can be attained is a model version.   And while the reconstruction site provides a place that ‘can’t fight back’ Grosz, as quote in Kraftl (2007: 126) argues that “utopias ‘in’ space – if conceived by architects separately from time – are bound to produce architectures of direct control and political inflexibility…”

This tension is manifest in international development thinking, where, according to Pupavac (1995), “international development now offers so little materially to populations globally, its continuing existence may perhaps better be understood as addressing the therapeutic needs of the international community to feel a sense of moral purpose.” Combined with the tendency for external actors to experiment with utopian futures, or recreate nostalgic pasts, reconstruction sites provide a key geographic locale for the othering of a Western, humanitarian identity. The portrayal of reconstruction sites and their occupants as chaotic, incompetent, disabled, disorganized, corrupt, needy simultaneously sustains the superiority of those external actors who are assisting, and justifies introduction and use of various techniques of governmentality:  monitoring, oversight, reporting, management structures.

Shock and outrage have been the reaction when the same problems have occurred in the reconstruction process in New Orleans, as have been seen elsewhere – incompetent, slow, or corrupt contractors; disputes over land ownership and tenure, the janus faced nature of the ‘victims’ who may try to play the system for their benefit.[81] Such behaviour and attitudes have been understood to be those of poor, disaster victims in places far away, not contained within the geographic confines of the West.[82]  The built form of the house is thus important both through its positive contribution to the creation and reinforcement of a Western humanitarian identity by offering ‘concrete’ examples of social ideals, AND through the neo-Orientalist role which physically locates the needs, inadequacies, ineptitude and simplicity of the victims of the disaster in a specific, external geographic local – the reconstruction site. It is in these sites, that the West looks to both reassure and define itself.


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Bakker, Karen “Katrina:  The Public Transcript of ‘Disaster’.” Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space 23 (2005): 795-809.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Community : Seeking Safety in an Insecure World: Polity, 2000.

Beck, Ulrich, and Mark Ritter. Risk Society : Towards a New Modernity: Sage Pubns., 1992.

Burke, Adam and Afnan. “Aceh:  Reconstruction in a Conflict Environment:  Views from Civil Society, Donors and N.G.O.S.” In Indonesian Social Development Paper DFID, 2005.

Campbell, David. “Geopolitics and Visuality:  Sighting the Darfur Conflict ” Political Geography 26 (2007): 357-82.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Chesterman, Simon. You, the People : The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Cornelis, Tom, Antonella Vitale. Transitional Settlement:  Displaced Populations Oxford: Oxfam and Univeristy of Cambridge shelterproject 2005.

Corsellis, Tom, Antonella Vitale, Yasemin Aysan, Ian Davis. “Exploring Key Changes and Developments in Post-Disaster Settlement, Shelter and Housing, 1982-2006:  Scoping Study to Inform Revision of ‘Shelter after Disaster:  Guidelines for Assistance’.” United Nations/OCHA, 2006.

Cuny, Frederick C., and Susan Abrams. Disasters and Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Cutter, Susan. 2006. The Geography of Social Vulnerability:  Race, Class and Catastrophe.  In, Social Science Research Council http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Cutter/. (accessed May 31, 2007).

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return : Or, Cosmos and History, Bollingen Series 46. [Henley-on-Thames]: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Ferguson, James. Global Shadows : Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, N.C. ; London: Duke University Press ;, 2006.

Graham, Stephen. 2006. Cities under Siege:  Katrina and the Politics of Metropolitan America In, Social Science Research Council http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Graham/. (accessed May 31, 2007).

Hales, Linda. Oct. 15, 2005. In Mississippi, the Reshape of Things to Come In, washingtonpost.com, Washington Post. (accessed April 5, 2007).

Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia : Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.

———. Redesigning the American Dream : The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Hetherington, Kevin. The Badlands of Modernity : Heterotopia and Social Ordering. London ; New York: Routledge, 1997.

Ivascheno, Oleksiy, Ahya Ihsan and Enrique Blanco Armas. “Aceh Public Expenditure Analysis:  Spending for Reconstruction and Poverty Reduction “, 132: The World Bank Group 2006.

Kent, Randolph C. Anatomy of Disaster Relief : The International Network in Action: Pinter, 1987.

Kraftl, Peter “Utopia, Performativity, and the Unhomely.” Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space 25 (2007): 120-43.

Lane, Barbara Miller. Housing and Dwelling : Perspectives on Modern Domestic Architecture. London: Routledge, 2007.

———. Housing and Dwelling : Perspectives on Modern Domestic Architecture. London: Routledge, 2005.

Marcus, Clare Cooper. House as a Mirror of Self : Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home. Berkeley, Calif.: Conari Press, 1995.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: Sage, 2006.

Mitchell, Timothy. Questions of Modernity, Contradictions of Modernity ; V. 11. Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Oxfam. “A Place to Stay, a Place to Live:  Oxfam Briefing Note.” 14: Oxfam, 2005.

Perry, Rex “Katrina Cottages.” Review of Reviewed Item. Cottage Living, no.  (2006), www.cottageliving.com/cottage.

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short History of an Idea. London: Heinemann, 1988.

———. 2006. The Katrina Cottage:  Cute Beats Cutting-Edge When It Comes to Temporary Shelters.  In, Slate. (accessed July 31, 2007).

———. 2005. There’s No Place Like Home:  The Historical Problems with Emergency Housing.  In, Slate. (accessed July 31, 2007.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, The Yale Isps Series. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 1998.

ShelterCentre. “Shelter after Disaster 06b.” Paper presented at the Shelter Meeting 06b, 16 November 2006.

Smith, Neil 2006. There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.  In, Social Science Research Council http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith/. (accessed May 31, 2007).

Snyder, Mike. “Mississippi Communities Hope to Avoid Sprawl in Rebuild.” HoustonChronical.com, June 3, 2007 2007.

Stohr, Kate ed. Design Like You Give a Damn:  Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crisis Edited by Architecture for Humanity. London: Thames & Hudson Not Specified.

UN–HABITAT. “Building Houses, Rebuilding Communities:  Un-Habitat Post-Tsunami Reconstruction Effort in Indonesia.” edited by UN–HABITAT Regional Office for Asia & the Pacific, 3: UN-Habitat, 2005.

UN–HABITAT/OHCHR. “Housing Rights Legislation – Review of International and National Legal Instruments.” Nairobi: United Nations Housing Rights Programme, 2002.

UNDRO. “Shelter after Disaster:  Guidelines for Assistance.” New York United Nations 1982.

Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny : Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press, 1992.

Wilson, David ed. The Sphere Project:  Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response The Sphere Project 2004.

[1] Depending on the climate, a human being is physically unable to survive for long without the protection from the elements afforded by a shelter. In addition to meeting the immediate needs of its users against the elements, shelter also provides protection by providing a barrier to its inhabitants from wild animals, or aggressive humans.  Depending on the quality of its construction, it also secures its inhabitants against pests and vermin, and allows for a higher degree of hygiene and sanitation for its inhabitants by separating different human functions from one another.

[2] David  Wilson, ed., The Sphere Project:  Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (The Sphere Project 2004).

[3] UN–HABITAT/OHCHR, “Housing Rights Legislation – Review of International and National Legal Instruments,”  (Nairobi: United Nations Housing Rights Programme, 2002). As quoted in Tom Cornelis, Antonella Vitale, Transitional Settlement:  Displaced Populations (Oxford: Oxfam and Univeristy of Cambridge shelterproject 2005).

[4] Beyond emergency shelter guidelines, UNDRO, “Shelter after Disaster:  Guidelines for Assistance,”  (New York United Nations 1982).no official international standards exist for the reconstruction of permanent houses after a disaster.  These guidelines are currently under review.  See ShelterCentre, “Shelter after Disaster 06b” (paper presented at the Shelter Meeting 06b, 16 November 2006).

[5] In a relief situation, the distinction between temporary, transitional (semi-permanent) and permanent housing refers to the length of time that the building is intended to be used for, and therefore, is also indicative of the types of building material used, as well as potentially, site location.  Typically, temporary housing refers to tents (or some variant) while permanent refers to buildings made out of brick or concrete.  Transitional is more ambiguous and all three categories are ultimately dependent upon the geographic situation.

[6] Interview, February 15th, 2007.

[7] For more on distinction between relief and development see Simon Chesterman, You, the People : The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[8] See Witold Rybczynski, The Katrina Cottage:  Cute Beats Cutting-Edge When It Comes to Temporary Shelters (Slate, March 31 2006 [cited July 31 2007]).

[9] Both agencies used different modalities, however.  The IFRC primarily outsourced their housing contracts to other NGOs and developments agencies, whereas the CRS used Acehnese engineers, architects and builders to build the houses.

[10] For an excellent overview of various architectural models for emergency shelter see Kate  Stohr, ed., Design Like You Give a Damn:  Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crisis (London: Thames & Hudson Not Specified).

[11] In 1943, 44 states signed a convention to create the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency which was replaced only a few years later (1946 – 1947) by four separate functionalist agencies – The UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF, created1946), The International Refugee Organization (IRO, 1948), The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 1945), and the World Health Organization (WHO, 1946).  Out of these, only the WHO had a ‘clear cut reference to the principle of universal emergency assistance.  Stephens, as quoted Randolph C. Kent, Anatomy of Disaster Relief : The International Network in Action (Pinter, 1987).38.

[12] See Chapter 2 ,  Ibid. for an overview of the development of international response from WW2 to the late 1980s.

[13] Frederick C. Cuny and Susan Abrams, Disasters and Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

[14] C.f. Tom Corsellis, Antonella Vitale, Yasemin Aysan, Ian Davis, “Exploring Key Changes and Developments in Post-Disaster Settlement, Shelter and Housing, 1982-2006:  Scoping Study to Inform Revision of ‘Shelter after Disaster:  Guidelines for Assistance’,”  (United Nations/OCHA, 2006), ShelterCentre, “Shelter after Disaster 06b”.

[15] See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, The Yale Isps Series (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 1998). and work by James Ferguson, Global Shadows : Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham, N.C. ; London: Duke University Press ;, 2006).  for examples of large scale development schemes gone awry.

[16] Witold Rybczynski, Home:  A Short History of an Idea (London:  William Heinemann Ltd, 1988)

[17] This is contrasted with two other dominant programmes:  “the industrial strategy produced the program for high-rise mass housing treated aesthetically as an efficient machine for collective consumption; and the neighborhood strategy produced the program for low-rise, multi-family housing treated aesthetically as a village with shared commons, courtyards, arcades, and kitchens.” Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream : The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a Mirror of Self : Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home (Berkeley, Calif.: Conari Press, 1995).  See also Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny : Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press, 1992).

[20] cf. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return : Or, Cosmos and History, Bollingen Series 46 ([Henley-on-Thames]: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).  and Martin Heidegger’s seminal essay “Being, dwelling, thinking” reproduced in Barbara Miller Lane, Housing and Dwelling : Perspectives on Modern Domestic Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005).

[21] Recent artwork by Geraldine Pilgrim, challenges the binary categories of female/male; inside/outside by bringing elements of the outside ‘in’ (a young girls bedroom has trees growing in it) and  a sitting room is overwhelmed by snowdrifts of teacups – disrupting the domestic calm of the interior through the introduction of the outside.  See also work by Suzanne M. Spencer -Wood in Barbara Miller Lane, Housing and Dwelling : Perspectives on Modern Domestic Architecture (London: Routledge, 2007).

[22] Hayden considers the promotion of the detached house as the overt decision of American capitalist interests to move women away from their war time roles as factory workers, and back into the domestic sphere – removing any their emergent power as wage earners while encouraging their increased consumption. “Developers argued that a particular kind of house would help the veteran change from an aggressive air ace to a commuting salesman who loved to mow the lawn.  He would also assist his wife to forget her skills as Rosie the Riveter and begin to enjoy furnishing her dream house in suburbia.” Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream : The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. 42.

[23] The value attributed to domesticity can also be seen in, England, in the 1800s.  Throughout the 1800s there was an increased emphasis amongst the British upper classes, on the house as a center for both leisure and for private contemplation.  The material expression of these social trends was the rise of the picturesque with its emphasis on rural retreats and organic, romantic form; as well as the return to neo-classical forms of construction, favoured by the 16th c. Venetian architect Palladio and his latter day enthusiast, Inigo Jones.  These trends coincided with an increased emphasis on the value of privacy – on the importance of private space. “The desire for a room of one’s own was not simply a matter of personal privacy.  It demonstrated the growing awareness of individuality – of a growing personal inner life – and the need to express this individuality in physical ways.” Witold Rybczynski, Home : A Short History of an Idea (London: Heinemann, 1988). 111.

[24] Acknowledging that the ‘New Urbanist’ response to Katrina is but one of many competing visions of what a reconstructed Gulf Coast should look like, it is illustrative of the recurrent themes observed across reconstruction sites. It has also engendered significant support from communities along the coast and is being considered by many as their dominant planning approach. Duany Plater-Zyberk also has a planned development for Mostor for the resettlement of war refugees. http://www.dpz.com/projects.aspx

[25] See http://www.cusatocottages.com/index_content.html (last access date June 30, 2007)

[26] Ben Brown, “Katrina Cottage Unveiled:  Affordable cottage a hit at builder’s show” (Orlando Florida, January 11, 2006) on www.mississippirenewal.com/info/dayJan-11-06.html (last accessed on April 5th, 2007)

[27] Brown

[29] The description from the Lowe’s website describes the cottage as “Designed to be functional, efficient and affordable, the cottage is a permanent residence constructed of quality materials.” http://www.lowes.com/lowes/lkn?action=pg&p=2006_landing/Katrina_Cottage/KatrinaCottage.html (accessed April 19, 2007)

[30] See http://www.katrinacottages.com/plans/index.html (last accessed June 30, 2007)

[33] I explore this theme of the reconstruction site as borderland, in my other work.

[34] Further research is required on the genealogy of the 1906 SF Earthquake Cottages.  See http://www.outsidelands.org/shacks.php [last accessed August 1, 2007] for more information.

[36] Consider, for example, artist Robert Polidori’s photograph of the double shotgun type:  “2732 Orleans Avenue”

[37] see KatrinaCottages.com

[38] See also Neil  Smith, There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster (Social Science Research Council 2006 [cited May 31 2007]); available from http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith/. Susan Cutter, The Geography of Social Vulnerability:  Race, Class and Catastrophe (Social Science Research Council 2006 [cited May 31 2007]); available from http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Cutter/.,

[39] New Urban Guild

[40] There are a host of problematic assumptions contained within these definitions including the pre-existing equality of a society’s citizens to travel to, experience, ‘most loved places’ and therefore to equally define its living traditions.

[41] Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream : The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. :99-100.

[42] Ibid.: 100.

[43] Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream : The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life.18.

[44] The cottage has been in demand not only as a ‘permanent dwelling’, but also, according to the Lowes website, for use as a mountain retreat, vacation cabin, or guest house. http://www.lowes.com/lowes/lkn?action=pg&p=2006_landing/Katrina_Cottage/KatrinaCottage.html (last accessed on July 10, 2007)

[45] This would be very interesting, and worthy of further investigation.

[47] This was even more the case in Sri Lanka, where the easy accessibility of affected areas and the familiarity of the Island as a popular holiday destination meant that many more Westerners actually came to help with the reconstruction.

[48] after the collapse of the 2003 peace talks, most international agencies and NGOs left Aceh, “as the government made it increasingly difficult for them to operate.” Adam and Afnan Burke, “Aceh:  Reconstruction in a Conflict Environment:  Views from Civil Society, Donors and N.G.O.S,” in Indonesian Social Development Paper (DFID, 2005).: 3.

[49] Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi

[50] It has also served a key role in the peace process by providing jobs to high ranking GAM officials.

[51] Leading to accusations of conflict of interest by various donors.  (From interviews, June 2006)

[52] For work on media representations of disaster see David Campbell 2004 and Moeller 1999.

[53] According to Stohr, ARH, p. 40 – While some of the nascent humanitarian NGOs employed architects in their relief work following WW2

[54] Taken from Attachment B, Regulation of Executing Agency Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency and the Lives of the People of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province and Nias Island, North Sumatra Province [sic] On Policies and Administration of Housing and Settlement Assistance for Victims in the Post-Disaster Area (2006) DRAFT.

[55] “Since the tsunami, prices in Aceh have increased more sharply than the national average. The  most dramatic increase is in Banda Aceh where year-on-year inflation in June 2006 was almost 30  percent, down from 41 percent in December 2005. The increase in prices has been mostly driven by  increases in transport costs that in turn have been the major determinant in the increase in the cost  of construction materials (year-on-year inflation of brick, wood, and sand was 83 percent, 124  percent, and 164 percent respectively by December 2005).    Labor costs also increased significantly in 2005; up 40 to 50 percent across all categories of  construction workers. On a less pessimistic note, since January 2006 prices for both material inputs  and labor have remained relatively stable at the high 2005 levels but they have not increased  significantly since then. The impact of inflation is readily shown by the fact that BRR has increased  the average unit cost of new houses from its original estimate of Rp. 28.5 million to Rp. 53 million-  an increase of some 85 percent.” Oleksiy Ivascheno, Ahya Ihsan and Enrique Blanco Armas, “Aceh Public Expenditure Analysis:  Spending for Reconstruction and Poverty Reduction ”  (The World Bank Group 2006).111.

[56] SOS Children’s Villages are an example of an NGO whose mandate does not normally include the reconstruction of houses for families.

[57] The Islamic Code of Qadaahul Haajah has strict prescriptions regarding personal hygiene including that one should be out of sight of people when going to the toilet.

[58] It should be noted, that the responses given, may have been to some degree slanted to what the interviewee thought that I wanted to hear, since, I, the interviewer, was white, and by appearances from ‘an NGO’.

[59] Cf. Scott, Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. or works by James Ferguson.

[60]Cf. Kevin Hetherington, The Badlands of Modernity : Heterotopia and Social Ordering (London ; New York: Routledge, 1997).

[61] There is also an argument to be made with regards to similar ‘far off’ architectural opportunities in the architects imagination, e.g. Corbusier’s Chandighar, Rem Koolhaus in Beijing,

[62] A fascination can be identified, in architectural desig with the temporary structure, the emergency shelter.  This can be seen in the popularity of Shuguru Ban’s designs and the attention given to the design proposals for post-Katrina reconstruction at the 2006 Venice Bienalle.

[63] For example, see the work of Japanese architect, Shiguro Ban.

[64] Witold Rybczynski, There’s No Place Like Home:  The Historical Problems with Emergency Housing (Slate,  2005 [cited July 31, 2007).

[65] Associated movements include the Smart Growth Movement, the Congress for New Urbanism, The Guild Foundation.

[66] The six ‘context zones’ identified on the New Urban Guild website are Natural, Rural, Suburban Neighborhood [sic.], General Urban, Urban Center [sic] and Urban Core.  www.newurbanguild.com (last accessed June 30th, 2007)

[67] www.newurbanguild.com (last accessed June 30th, 2007)

[68] www.newurban.guild.com (last accessed June 29th, 2007)

[69] Linda Hales, In Mississippi, the Reshape of Things to Come (washingtonpost.com) (Washington Post,  Oct. 15, 2005 [cited April 5 2007]).

[70] For a discussion on the pros and cons of New Urbanism see Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia : Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003)., ch. 10 “Nostalgia and Futurism”

[71] Stephen Graham, Cities under Siege:  Katrina and the Politics of Metropolitan America (Social Science Research Council 2006 [cited May 31 2007]); available from http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Graham/. identifies a possible ‘anti-urbanism’ in the reconstruction of New Orleans.

[72] The New Urbanist approach to post-disaster reconstruction should be compared to

[73]Rex  Perry, “Katrina Cottages,” review of Reviewed Item, Cottage Living, no.  (2006), http://www.cottageliving.com/cottage.  In other descriptions, it has been referred to as ‘The Cottage that can go for a swim.” – from the April 2006 issue of New Urban News (www.newurbannews.com)  (last accessed on April 5th, 2007).

[74] Perry.

[75] The issue of mobility is an interesting one in two respects: first, in the role that it plays in transitional and temporary housing and the However, With the rise of mass produced housing, the interpretation of ‘one’s own’ began to emphasize the need for aesthetic detailing, which emphasized the ‘sacred hut’ quality as well as en element of grounding.  The distain with which mobile homes and caravans are regarded within popular culture, may be partly attributable to their cultural associations with certain class behaviours, but it may also be due to the antipathy with which nomadic or transient behaviour is regarded.

[76] An article in the Jakarta Post, describes the policy [he does not specify whose, although the implication is that of the Indonesian government] of “visiting, donating and forgetting that has been applied to victims of the Aceh tsunami and the Yogayakarta earthquake.” Andrio Adiwibowo, “One Year Later, Still Stuck in the Mud,” Jakarta Post, June 1 2007.

[77] C.f. Chesterman, You, the People : The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building.

[78] Granted, that no matter how small the locale, multiple identities, values, and visions would enter into considerations of the reconstruction.  Even if the individuals and organizations were geographically located in the reconstruction site, the complexity of their identifies, histories and external geographic allegiances would mean that the reconstruction would, inevitably, incorporate elements of external (to the reconstruction zone) considerations, values, and expectations (viz. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[79] For example, the occurrence of a level 4 or 5 hurricane in New Orleans was regarded as an inevitability by its residents.  See Karen  Bakker, “Katrina:  The Public Transcript of ‘Disaster’,” Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space 23 (2005).

[80] The idea of a utopia has always embodied an aspect of impossibility – Thomas More’s original definition of a utopia as “simultaneously the ‘good’ place and ‘no’ place – in a sense, somewhere perfect whilst being unachievable.” More as quoted in Peter  Kraftl, “Utopia, Performativity, and the Unhomely,” Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space 25 (2007).Kraftl 2007:121)

[81] Dan Baum’s regular column in the New Yorker has been excellent at revealing these tensions.

[82] Arguably, this incomprehension, was responsible for the visual distancing (othering) – in the footage of the immediate post-disaster situation the faces chosen to be broadcast, were of poor, black, New Orleans residents.  And they were geographically contained within a specific, seemingly separate geographic locale – the superdome. That the superdome was not physically cut off from the rest of the city – connected, as it were by a bridge – was arguably not communicated through the media coverage.  Likewise, the resonance with the ‘thunderdome’ and the chaotic, apocalyptic imagery from Mad Max was hard to miss.

Building the Other, Constructing Ourselves

“Building the Other, Constructing Ourselves: Spatial Dimensions of International Humanitarian Response,” International Political Sociology (2008) 2, 236-253

Humanitarian reconstruction after a large-scale natural disaster has become a key site of international politics; a site where global assumptions, relationships, and responsibilities are negotiated, solidified and questioned. While post-crisis response strategies and institutional practices have strong spatial and material characteristics, these are rarely considered as significant—either to the reconstruction effort, or to international politics more generally. This article identifies and examines the ‘‘auxiliary space’’ created by the everyday practices of international aid workers and asks whether its effects may lead to unanticipated and potentially transformative outcomes not only for the reconstruction effort, but also for global North-South relations at large. The article concludes that post-crisis reconstruction sites may offer both cautionary and emancipatory potential for the evolution of international relations.[1]

This is the accepted version of the following article: ““Building the Other, Constructing Ourselves: Spatial Dimensions of International Humanitarian Response,” International Political Sociology (2008) 2, 236–253, which has been published in final form at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-5687.2008.00047.x/abstract

Internationals and locals are from two different worlds.

– Azwar Hasan, Founder and Chairperson of Forum Bangun Aceh

We created a world.

– International employee of a multilateral development bank, Aceh.[2]

In the analysis of humanitarian response, debate among theorists and practitioners centers on the inefficiency of particular response modalities, or the lack of preparedness of affected communities (Birch and Wachter 2006). Missing from these discussions are considerations of how post-crisis humanitarian interventions have become a key site in the negotiation of international political relations. The event of a large-scale natural disaster offers a unique possibility to view the way in which the international community conceives of itself and its role in the ‘‘international’’ (Calhoun 2004). It also provides insight into assumptions that underpin global North-South relations—both on the part of the donors and on the part of the so-called beneficiaries. This article examines this encounter by foregrounding the aspects of humanitarian assistance which despite being the most tangible, are the least remarked upon in the policy and analysis of the global North: the spatial and material practices of the international aid community. The highly visible bodies and physical environments of aid workers are almost completely overlooked in any analysis of post-crisis reconstruction or emergency response. It is not considered how these bodies and environments may be an essential aspect in international political affairs and to the way particular categories and relationships are constructed. This politicization of the bodies of aid workers and the acknowledgment that the presence and associated practices of the international community are themselves transformative can be seen in the Myanmar government’s statement, following Cyclone Nargis (2008), that they were willing to accept aid money but not the aid workers themselves (Mydans 2008). It highlights that while the normative international claims of humanitarian assistance may be framed in terms of ethically neutral discourse, the delivery mechanism belies an implicit politicization. A politicization that is regularly airbrushed over in the international community’s accounts of its own activities.

This article explores these claims with reference to the post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh, Indonesia. Based on participant observation and in-depth interviews with international aid workers, government officials, and local NGO representatives in Aceh, Indonesia, over a period spanning from May 2006 to December 2007, this article proposes the production of an ‘‘auxiliary space’’ of reconstruction which needs to be taken into consideration in any post-crisis humanitarian intervention. The larger theoretical claims are further supported by field work on the 2004-tsunami response in Sri Lanka (June 2006 and December 2007), and the international presence in contemporary Timor-Leste (May 2008). Turning the frame of analysis back upon the spaces and practices of the international aid community, and at the material and cultural aspects of the delivery of aid (Certeau 1988) calls into question the programmatic claim that it is possible to ‘‘do no harm’’ (Anderson 1999) and problematizes such operational distinctions as ‘‘relief’’ and ‘‘development’’ planning.[3] Most importantly, it reveals how the practices involved in post-crisis reconstruction by the international humanitarian community are inseparable from the production and reconstruction of global relations and identities (Barnett 2005). In a context where the visible presence of the international community and aid agencies is growing— recently with the piloting of United Nation (UN) integrated missions, in certain countries—there is an urgent need for such an examination.

In the context of this article, this is done in three steps. First, the article looks at the material and physical accoutrements of the international community including the procurement and use of vehicles and spaces of living and working; then it proposes that these aspects are essential, although underexamined, aspects of any intervention (Pandolfi 2002, 2003). While vernacular and autobiographical writings are rife with well-established visual tropes of the white UN Land Rover and the gated humanitarian compound (Cain 2004), they remain largely untheorized. Theoretical work by Yacobi (2007), Elden (2006), and Hyndman (2000, 2007) has drawn attention to the unique spheres created by NGO and humanitarian agencies; however, any causal impact this auxiliary space may have has not been seriously examined (Yamashita 2004). Recent work by Heathershaw and Lambach (Forthcoming) applies a spatial lens to post-conflict situations and identifies several ways in which such an approach can be helpful both in understanding policy failures in post-conflict settings, and in contributing to the overall debate on post-conflict reconstruction, statebuilding, peacebuilding and associated themes. This article argues that the application of a spatial lens is useful to humanitarian reconstruction more broadly (Hyndman forthcoming; Kleinfeld 2007; Le Billon and Waizenegger 2007), and that it is possible to identify characteristics of ‘‘auxiliary space’’ which are common across post-conflict and postdisaster reconstruction sites alike. These characteristics are derived from the spatial and material practices, techniques and approaches used by the international community in post-crisis settings (Certeau 1988) and contribute to how the international community is perceived by its beneficiaries, and to how the international community itself conceptualizes the reconstruction effort. They may lead to unexpected or unanticipated consequences. Contained within the ‘‘auxiliary’’ approach is the overwhelming assumption that places can be ‘‘reconstructed’’—that space is malleable and static and that the production of space can be disconnected from the techniques and processes used to produce it.

This assumption is explored in the second section which looks at two ways in which priorities and approaches of ‘‘auxiliary space’’ influenced the direction of the post-tsunami reconstruction of Aceh in terms of what was built, where and how. The type and quality of response strategies were significantly informed by the personal trajectories, narratives and resultant imaginaries of the international aid workers themselves. In particular, the inordinate focus on the reconstruction of the form of the single family dwelling and the perceived ability to distinguish a space of disaster from a space of conflict are looked at (Elden 2005; Helmig and Kessler 2007). The article suggests that many of the programmatic problems that have been identified need to be understood in the context of competing fields or spaces of reconstruction which are adopted, used and adapted by the groups and individuals for which they are intended (Bourdieu 1990).

The article concludes by pointing to two possible outcomes that require further examination—one potentially emancipatory, and one cautionary. Just as the process of reconstruction creates new houses, spaces, and social relations, so too do the means of reconstruction—the physical presence of the aid workers has its own impact on social relationships and identity formation. On one hand, there is the need to recognize that the presence of aid workers is itself political, both through its overt influence over political dynamics in the country and implicitly through the differential modalities of movement, living, bargaining, and interacting which are used by the international community and which may create or reinforce perceptions of global inequalities. On the other hand, the spaces that are created may also provide emancipatory opportunities for both donor and recipient to forge new relationships, new routes, and new identities.


Within international politics, a ‘‘container’’ approach to space remains the dominant assumption (Helmig and Kessler 2007). The ‘‘territorial trap’’ (Agnew 1997) assumes that physical geography and political territory are coterminous and can be mapped out, carved up, bordered and defended. In few situations are these assumptions as visible as in the reconstruction after a large scale disaster. A tabula rasa approach to post-disaster reconstruction is in evidence by the similar approaches used in planning adopted in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, New Orleans, and Ecuador. To challenge this assumption leads us in two potential directions: first, the problem of ‘‘fit’’ between international solutions to local circumstances, that is, project design; second what happens in the physical and material encounter between international aid worker and local beneficiary.

The Problem of ‘‘Fit’’

The counter-intuitive impacts of restructuring space and the built environment are well documented. Scott (1998), Ferguson (2006), and Hodge (2007) all look at the way in which large-scale development schemes have backfired. In the area of humanitarian response, work by Edkins (2000), Keen (2008), Duffield (2001), Chandler (2006), and Marriage (2006) have demonstrated how the implementation of humanitarian interventions produce unintended and often negative consequences for the very people for whom the intervention has been designed. In de Certeau’s (1988) terms, this is because the very creation and attempted imposition of a top down strategy necessarily entails the appearance of ‘‘tactics’’ that will be deployed by those whom the strategy is intended to assist. These tactics are inseparable from any strategy, and will arise wherever one is imposed. They allow the user of a space to adapt it to his ⁄ her own needs. This changes the way in which the strategy operates, and potentially disrupts the attainment of its intended objectives. In a context of post-disaster reconstruction, tactics are manifest by the intended beneficiaries in the way in which they use, adapt, or reject the houses, infrastructures or trainings that are provided for them by donors.

The Effect of ‘‘Auxiliary Space’’

While specific human subjects deploy the tactics, they are as much a relational product of strategy and environment as they are of human design (Bourdieu; Bourdieu and Nice, 1977). The way in which subjects respond to the imposition of a particular structure is informed by, and inseparable from their personal experiences, social and class conditioning, and past-and-present environment. In the context of post-crisis reconstruction, particular approaches will therefore be informed by previous experience as well as current circumstances. This implies that if the physical circumstances, or habitus of the international community in country is circumscribed, then this will have an effect on how they interact with their intended beneficiaries (Newman 2003). While ideas of the reciprocal causal relationship between subjects and their environments have been common currency in other, more spatially oriented disciplines, development studies, and practice have not, in the main, stressed the importance of spatial concerns in shaping human subjectivities and their social and material practices. Doing so has several implications for the reconstruction effort. First, in terms of project design and delivery—the proposed strategy will be influenced by the particular experiences of its implementers—both in design and interpretation. In their work on the protests of Sudanese refugees toward the UNHCR, Moulin and Nyers (2007) discuss how sited categories such as ‘‘global political society’’ obscures the non-representational reality of how these categories are interpreted and played out on the ground. Second, subtle yet particular socio-cultural biases may manifest in the programmatic approach adopted, as arguably informed the focus on housing and home in post-tsunami Aceh. Third, the particular unique space of the international aid community may invoke further tactics on the part of the intended beneficiaries, thus changing the direction of the overall reconstruction effort.

‘‘Auxiliary Space’’ and the Culture of Reconstruction

The rapid arrival of thousands of humanitarian workers, following the 2004 ‘‘Boxing Day’’ tsunami, has frequently been referred to as a second tsunami. The largest post-crisis reconstruction effort ever seen led to approximately $US 7.7 billion being pledged for post-tsunami reconstruction and hundreds of humanitarian agencies descending upon the province in a matter of months. According to Telford, Cosgrove, and Houghton (2006), the number of International NGOs (INGOs) peaked at around 170 in mid-2005. This was in addition to 430 local NGOs that were also identified. In December 2007, the official government database had identified 841 ‘‘Donors and Partners’[4] and according to Barron (2007) they initially numbered in the ‘‘thousands.’’ The Government of Indonesia (GoI) stated that 133 countries provided assistance, and during the emergency phase, ‘‘16,000 military troops from different countries were deployed in what has been described by observers as one of the largest non-war military missions since the Second World War’’ (BRR 2007a). (The peak number of NGOs and individual donors remains disputed.) What remains completely overlooked in the programmatic literature are the bodies and material circumstances which compose the agencies, and organizations. Viewed from a spatial perspective, the metaphor of the aid tsunami is remarkably accurate. The physical occurrence of a tsunami is the visible result of unseen events (an earthquake) miles away from the damage that takes place. Its footprint is narrow, circumscribed, arrives quickly and retreats shortly afterwards—leaving an uneven, unpredictable, and remade landscape in its wake.

Similarly, work and progress on a post-crisis reconstruction are intimately linked to its site of origin—geographic and functional priorities dependent upon domestic or institutional agendas of organizations based elsewhere (Drury, Stuart Olson, and Van Belle 2005). Evocative of the auxiliary forces of a Roman army, international humanitarian workers are drawn from a wide range of locations and brought together in a foreign land to promote shared values and cosmopolitan norms. While differing in their approach and personal relationship to the particular location, they all have the shared objective of assisting and supporting the reconstruction after a large-scale disaster. Common to this post-crisis space are the three themes of mobility, securitization, and links to the place of origin. Running through all three of these is the fourth theme of exceptionalism.


The ability to leave at will—mobility—fundamentally distinguishes the international community from its intended beneficiaries who are generally unable to leave after a few weeks, months or even years, and if they do so it is often in an illicit capacity (Bauman 1998). This applies both to the ability of internationals to arrive and leave a post-crisis site and to their ability to negotiate the space of the disaster itself. In Aceh, the geography of the disaster—long and narrow— meant that the reconstruction site was relatively easy to physically get to from Jakarta. However, the difficulties in moving up and down the approximately 300 km of damaged coastline, led the UN to set up a parallel transport system including almost daily flights to and from certain coastal cities (Calang, Meulaboh). These flights were used to transport (primarily international) staff to and from projects. Throughout the reconstruction effort, the transport of staff—- both of internationals working in country, and visiting experts, consultants, and staff from headquarters—constituted a major part of the UN’s activities. One Acehnese interviewee felt that the constant arrival and departure of international staff was tantamount to tourism, and commented that this money would be better spent on concrete reconstruction work rather than on transport, salaries, and per diems. It also meant that NGOs with fewer resources tended to concentrate their activities around the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.[5]

The theme of mobility is closely related to the theme of securitization where the conditions of movement of international staff around a reconstruction site will often be dependent upon the level of risk that various agencies are willing to expose their staff to. Differential measures of risk with regards to local and international staff are reflected in the operating procedures of various organizations. In the case of largest international organizations such as the UN and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), locally recruited staff members are only evacuated in the most exceptional of circumstances and only if the threat is a direct consequence of their employment by the organizations. While for internationals, disasters and other risks are an exceptional circumstance to be temporarily manage and remunerated with hazard pay, the uncertainty that characterizes the live of the inhabitants of many disaster prone regions is a normalized part of their existence (Beck and Ritter 1992; Giddens 1999).


The archetype of international securitization is the walled and gated compound: an enclosure containing an assortment of offices, storage, medical, and sometimes living and leisure facilities. This can be seen most clearly in countries that are perceived to be highly insecure, where the experience of the international worker in the country will be physically circumscribed. It is highly securitized and may have an extra buffer zone or checkpoint. There may be watchtowers on the walls where guards can be located. It can also have other oversight mechanisms such as security cameras, or barbed wire on top of the walls. Compounds secure the vehicles, materials, and delivery systems that are used to interact with the target beneficiaries and provide communications networks when others have been destroyed, or are not working. The form will vary in terms of scale and level of securitization, and on the level of resources that the particular organization invests in staff security.

The compound must also provide bodily security to the aid workers who are increasingly targeted by elements of the populations they intend to assist (Boone 2008). With the increased targeting of humanitarian aid workers, both the UN and INGOs have invested more resources into ensuring the physical safety of their staff (Report of the Secretary General 2000, 2003). However, as the humanitarian community becomes increasingly physically separated from their intended beneficiaries, such securitization inevitably comes into conflict with the need to have an open and easy dialog with one’s beneficiaries. With the advent of the integrated UN mission, such analysis is increasingly important; however, much analysis concentrates on the programmatic impacts (Eide, Therese Kaspersen, Kent, and von Hippel 2005).[6]

While the extreme separation of staff from their environments is only seen in the most non-permissive of reconstruction and development circumstances—situations which are arguably not ‘‘post’’ anything (Heathershaw and Lambach forthcoming)—even where the security considerations are not extreme, there is a spatial separation between international staff and their local environments. From the perspective of an organization, it is necessary to provide an environment in which staffs are able to carry out their tasks to a speed and level of efficiency required by their donor governments and funding agencies. This means high-speed communications systems and a common working language. In a development context, it may also be required for hygiene standards to be maintained at a level where foreign nationals are able to function and remain healthy—food and water may be flown in or provided to a standard that reduces exposure to local pathogens and meets country of origin standards. Power generation facilities will also be required in most developing contexts. The degree to which such material and logistical support systems are required will depend upon the pre-existing infrastructure and the level of security and inevitably contribute not only to a physical circumscription. In countries that are deemed to be highly insecure, or dangerous, the staff of international agencies will be restricted in their physical movements.

One way of ensuring mobile security is the wide spread use of what has by now become a development cliche´: the white Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). While its large frame, and on-road visibility do offer a level of physical safety to their occupants, the protection that it offers has historically derived from its symbolic value. Its form is a mimetic of international humanitarian presence, in many countries better recognized than the symbol of the ‘‘blue helmet.’’ But recent experiences in many countries have shown that the form of the white SUV has become more of a liability than an asset. In some countries, it is not uncommon for international agencies to use local cars or taxis to transport staff instead of official, branded, vehicles to make both staff and vehicles less visible.

Work on the social impact of the SUV in America suggests that the rise in the SUV parallels a model of citizenship that values safety and inviolability of person above all else (Campbell 2005; Mitchell 2005). Similarly, the material practices of the international community may be seen to constitute an ‘‘attempt at self imposed exclusion from the wider neighborhood, 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.’’[7] 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.’’ The SUV’s large petrol guzzling body has increasingly become a symbol of the excess of the ‘‘West’’ and the exceptionalism with which it regards itself.[8] Such ‘‘self-imposed exclusion’’ may also be related to a personal limited of geographic places that may be deemed risky or insecure, particularly by those internationals who are there on a short-term mission, and therefore are limited in their ability to assess the situation. For most international agencies, the level of security is highly subjective, influenced by political and institutional factors (Lowenheim 2007).[9] It may be tied to the global political concerns of the agency, and may not be directly correlated to the material circumstance of a particular location, again emphasizing the linkages with country of origin rather than location.

Links to Site of Origin

Experiences of host governments have proven that the activities, and priorities of NGOs and multilaterals are remarkably difficult to coordinate and are both strategically and temporally more closely linked to their respective places of origin than to the host government’s (Collier 2007). As the source and location of primary funding, it is in their ‘‘space of origin’’—the country or institution that they are ordinarily based—that field missions are approved and results are assessed.[10] The creation and oversight of contracting, procurement, and assessment all happen in the space of origin, as does the recruitment and retention of staff. Employees’ career paths are tied to their points of origin, or through short-term contracts tied to particular events or disasters. Current debates and policy models at headquarters will inform strategy and approaches where programmatic operating procedures are often based on ‘‘best practice’’ or ‘‘lessons learnt’’ from previous reconstruction efforts, and may be implemented in a new situation with minimal adaptation to local circumstances.

In the case of post-tsunami Aceh, the larger organizations flew in their crisis response teams from headquarters and quickly transported those field staff who had been working on ‘‘similar crises’’ (Telford et al. 2006). This had two effects. First, while the locale of the reconstruction may change, its basic attributes do not, and similar spatial and material circumstances which accompany the aid industry will inform the people who work in them ‘‘hopping’’ from one disaster to the next. From an institutional perspective this is logical. To accomplish a quick and efficient intervention, you need people who are experienced with the instruments and processes of humanitarian response. You do not want to be re-inventing the wheel at every new disaster. However, from a political perspective, the reification of a mobile space of response means that certain assumptions regarding reconstruction become increasingly difficult to challenge and will develop into the ‘‘de facto’’ way of doing things in a particular context; the implications of which are not questioned. It creates an environment where ‘‘you can forget where you are and sip your latte.’’[11] That the priorities of the donors were at spatial and temporal odds with the location can be seen in the frequent complaint from the government and local NGOs that the timing of the reconstruction was problematic.[12]

While many development theorists have criticized the programmatic inefficiencies that result from such disjunctures, this article argues that the discrepancies have a further impact—they are embodied in the material practices of the international aid community. For example, the temporal structure of the in-country workday, including holidays and working hours, will be strongly influenced by the country of origin. Local customs such as prayer and fasting may come into conflict with competing temporal demands such as fiscal and reporting deadlines from headquarters. The length of time that staff spends in country is also significantly different from the local environment with work being carried out by staff who come for either very short periods as consultants (a few days or weeks) or for slightly longer, but still temporary assignments of 6 months to 2 years. To remain in a country longer than a few years is unusual in most agencies and particularly in the case of emergency relief and reconstruction; the demand for such skills is high, and workers are often quickly moved on to the next emergency.

The occurrence of ‘‘burnout’’ amongst this group of individuals is also very high. Other spatial exceptions include common dress codes, in keeping with the business practice and cultures of the point of origin, which may be at odds with local customs, for example, women baring their heads. Depending on which aspects of the space are in question, they may also be the location of potentially exceptional cultural practices such as the consumption of alcohol.

For all three themes, it is worth noting that to talk of the international community as a homogeneous entity is itself an abstraction. Within the aid community there exists, in many large-scale reconstruction sites, a ‘‘tiering of aid’’ between the Multilateral Organizations, INGO, and small scale NGOs.[13] Often these three groups create their own spheres of dialog and interaction—functionally separate from the others, although similar in the characteristic described. This tiering only serves to reinforce the overall theme of exceptionalism, as the more ‘‘elite’’ or prominent the international body, the higher the likelihood that it will have resources to invest in securitization, mobility and links to the space of origin. Such practices focus the international community inward, and bound their experience—both spatially and temporally. But also to disparities in the ability to produce knowledge that is recognized as such by the international community (Siapno-De Araujo forthcoming). The next section will look at how this circumscription contributed both to a particular understanding of the beneficiaries, and to particular choices regarding the built environment. It will first look at the inordinate focus on the built form of the single family dwelling and second, at the assumption that it is possible to separate out natural from political spaces of disaster.

Siting the Reconstruction

The Central Role of the Single Family Dwelling

In the reconstruction of post-tsunami Aceh, the building of new, permanent houses has become a key indicator of recovery. The number of completed houses, as well as required houses has been the source of much debate, and has changed in light of updated beneficiary information and increased costs. By the third anniversary of the tsunami, in December 2007, over 100,000 houses were completed, and the government was continuing to build toward the target of 120,000 (AFP 2007). Of the houses that have been built, many remain unoccupied because of either questions over ownership, land tenure, problems with quality of construction, or lack of adequate infrastructure. The tone between donors and beneficiaries was marked by frustration, mistrust, and sometimes outright anger (World Bank ⁄DSF 2007). Interviews within Acehnese civil society and government offices blamed both the international community and their government-sponsored institutions for the slow pace of construction, misuse of aid funds, and unfulfilled promises. The  internationals in turn, have blamed beneficiaries, government, and contractors for corruption leading to resentment by some internationals toward the very people that they had been brought in to assist.

Prior to the tsunami, there was almost no international presence in the province. Due largely to the protracted guerilla campaign by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) against the GoI, few agencies maintained a presence in the province and of these even fewer maintained international staff. Consequently, relatively little was known about Aceh as a province. This element of the unknown contributed to the fascination that many aid workers felt coming to this place (Kenny 2005) and may have added to reported perception of ‘‘disaster tourism’’ by local interviewees. Upon arrival, the sheer scale of the disaster was overwhelming to many less experienced NGOs and more experienced players alike. Added to this was the previously unheard of US$ 7.7 billion in aid pledges that needed to be spent. In addition to this, the GoI pledged an additional US$2 billion. Rather than begging for funding, they were begging for beneficiaries. In this setting, large building projects, which would show results quickly and use up relatively large amounts of cash, were very attractive to the donor community. So, by December 2006, World Bank figures show 1,424 projects and programs in the housing sector alone—over 757 more than the next nearest sector—transport (World Bank 2006).

Within the humanitarian aid community, the idea of ‘‘home’’ is an elusive concept. The ethnoscape of the humanitarian aid worker is the topography of nomads (Appadurai 1997; Deleuze and Guattari 2004). The concept of home is held up as an archetype of stability and comfort. Arguably, within a globalizing concept in general, the idea of home or neighborhood has come to occupy almost a sacred status. Houses have the added benefit that they are seen to be relatively non-political: they are a basic human need. But for the international community to physically rebuild permanent houses for an entire province is an unusual approach. Normally, reconstruction is done through either cash transfer or concentrates on the temporary or transitional phases of an emergence. The commitment that all earthquake and tsunami-affected families ⁄ households would be entitled to reconstruction or rehabilitation assistance can be traced to the central government directive of January 2005 (Steinberg 2007). In the initial reconstruction strategy of January 2005, the unit of a 36-square meter house was used as a costing estimate, and the reconstruction of houses took up only 12 pages of a nearly 200-page document (AFP 2007). But as the international community experienced increased pressure to show visible results, and tsunami-survivors became increasingly vocal about their need for houses, many NGOs turned to the building of housing as the easy way out.

But the reconstruction of a place proved to be neither as politically nor as technically easy as it was first assumed. Even well-established NGOs were not experienced in the area of construction and had little to no experience designing and implementing full-scale construction projects. In addition to the technical expertise and land right issues, you are dealing with families, with communities.[14] When reports of houses being allocated to ineligible persons began to surface, for example people who had not lost their house in the tsunami, ex-combatants, or people who had more than one house, donors were initially shocked. Interviewees expressed almost a personal sense of betrayal in their descriptions of events. Part of this is due to the way in which the idea of the ‘‘local’’ was imagined by the internals—both in terms of their circumstances and their desires.

Imagining Circumstances

Aceh’s long history as a rich and cosmopolitan place was not visible in the aftermath of the  tsunami. Instead of a multi-ethnic port city that had lain within a vast trade network and that had resisted Dutch colonialism for many years (Siegel 2003), the influx of aid workers knew the province only as a poor, conflict-ridden, and isolated place and consequently, one that should be grateful for what it received. Tsunami survivors were simultaneously constructed as beneficiaries, recipients, victims, and sometimes culprits (Bhabha 2004; Said 1995). Attempts to shift institutional thinking toward a more nuanced, ‘‘client’’ oriented approach were undermined through the continued interpretation by the international aid-workers of a disaster zone as a flat space, and its inhabitants as inherently ‘‘local’’—a term that typical of development circumstances has often been conflated with traditional ways and a vernacular aesthetic (Ferguson 2006).[15]

It was this understanding that led to an overemphasis on the ornamental and stylistic aspects of building. Lengthy discussions were held with beneficiaries on whether the houses should be built in the vernacular style, whether they should have a balcony, where toilets and kitchens should be placed, and what the color of the paint should be. Particular emphasis was placed on involving the communities in the design of their houses; however, the guidelines had already been largely specified by BRR, so changes to the design could only be minor. While many NGOs initially tried to provide larger houses, inflation and other complicating factors such as technical difficulties forced some organizations to scale back their original designs and meant that even the 36-square meter houses were often built to a substandard quality. Some donors were surprised when recipients ultimately seemed most concerned about the overall size of their house compared to their neighbors and whether it was built of concrete or brick.[16]

Within Acehnese society, the role of the house is traditionally complex. According to John Siegel (2003), a typical, traditional Acehnese village ‘‘consists of clusters of houses owned by sisters and aunts (mother’s sisters) with the compounds often sharing a wall and a fence. The size of the clusters depends, of course, on the size of the families and the availability of land’’ (Siegel 2003:52). It is not uncommon for an entire family to live together in one house. Post-tsunami—in the case that the house that was destroyed was a large one, accommodating several generations—there was no provision available within the BRR guidelines for anything except the standard 36-square meter house.


Three years after the Tsunami, the government agency responsible for investigating corruption in the reconstruction of houses had identified 1,000 cases of ‘‘cheating’’ involving 5,000–10,000 houses and as many as 50,000 individuals. According to a BRR official, entire villages colluded to gain extra houses. Such behavior is held up by internationals as a prime example of the corrupt and dishonest nature of Acehnese society, and have subsequently used this as an explanation for slow project delivery and mismanagement. It has also been used as an excuse to increasingly deploy interventionist and un-participatory methods and to terminate projects. Officially, the approach adopted by the international community was one based on local ‘‘ownership’’: where the community that is being assisted invests their own resources in to the process, and is therefore vested in seeing the outcome and maintenance of the project (Kenny 2005). Many NGOs pursued this approach to the reconstruction of housing, but the sheer scale of required coordination across different legal jurisdictions, issues with property rights, coordination with water, sanitation, roads, and in some cases electricity made it inappropriate for many of the smaller and medium sized NGOs which were not able to marshal the necessary commitment from various constituencies.

Ultimately, many NGOs were forced to abandon the approach and bring in large-scale construction companies that were neither participatory, nor particularly concerned with the impressions, needs, and requests of the beneficiary. Some were cited by interviewees as overtly corrupt, adding to the negative impression of the reconstruction experience. The low quality of the houses, and associated problems meant that the beneficiaries were unhappy—some complaining openly to the media, government or directly to donors; others threatening particular agencies; and many others simply refusing to live in the houses. In December 2007, there were reports of recipients storming donor offices demanding houses and of beneficiaries burning down houses that they considered to be unsafe (The Times 2007). This reinforced the impression that recipients are ungrateful, corrupt, and potentially violent. The resultant level of disgust with Acehnese society was expressed by one aid worker, who claimed that Acehnese culture is based exclusively on the principle of exchange, and is lacking in ‘‘western emotions’’ such as gratitude or love.[17] Such a claim sits uneasily against analysis that blames donor practices for the rise of an ‘‘entitlement culture’’ in Aceh (Barron 2007).

Mapping the Reconstruction

The perception of reconstruction space as flat space, empty space, smooth space (Lefebvre 1991) contributes to an approach to reconstruction, seeks to catalog, and report upon the reconstruction site according to the logic of its space of origin (UN-HABITAT 2007; UNORC⁄BRR 2007). As already mentioned, a major and widely recognized difficulty with the reconstruction effort in Aceh, was the lack of coordination between donors. This is a common problem in all humanitarian and development settings and the general solution on the part of donors is to increase the amount and quality of information. Internationally, it has led to the promotion of a ‘‘cluster system’’ to coordinate donor activity which is currently promoted as a ‘‘best practice’’ in humanitarian responses. This means that the reconstruction effort is divided up into different ‘‘sectors’’ with a different ‘‘lead’’ agency heading the relief and reconstruction effort in each one. When viewed from a spatial perspective, one effect of this system is to carve up the effort into functional areas that treat areas such as ‘‘water and sanitation’’ as distinct from ‘‘shelter.’’ Such distinctions are understandably necessary from a programmatic perspective; however, they also reinforce the perspective that it is possible to divide up a reconstruction effort into geographic and functional areas, and inevitably lead to a ‘‘silo’’ mentality where different sectors pursue endeavors which are out of sync with other, necessarily complementary, areas.[18] The response of the international community to coordinate problems is typically the identification, or creation of more or new data about what is essentially a political problem. In the case of Aceh, consultants and financial advisors were brought in to improve oversight mechanisms which included the establishment of a database to record and track all manner of donor activity.[19] An inordinate amount of attention was placed on the mapping of the disaster through Geographic Information System technology, attempts at coordination ultimately relied upon the production of reports, matrices and face-to-face and word-of-mouth contact through working groups.[20] Easterly (2002) has claimed that there is an incentive for aid agencies to spread the risk of failure by engaging in collaborative endeavors. Such collaborative endeavors may also lead to a shared culture of response between donors, who will regularly see each other at meetings. The regular turnover of staff may also mean that any institutional memory is regularly erased, encouraging a constant re-mapping of the situation.

Such a lack of institutional memory, and a tendency toward spatially oriented categories led to a distinction in the allocation of post-tsunami funds between donor funds and mechanisms which could be used to assist victims of the tsunami and those which could be used to assist communities that were affected by the long-running civil conflict (Helmig and Kessler 2007). Until the tsunami, Aceh had been the site of a long running battle between Acehnese pro-Independence supporters and Indonesian forces (Aspinall 2007; Kell 1995; Reid 2006). August 2005 (6 months after the tsunami) marked a peace agreement (the Helsinki Accord) between the GAM and the GoI. Money and resources were allocated with the demobilization and reintegration processes, but nowhere near the amount that had been allocated for post-tsunami reconstruction. The two types of post-crisis assistance were, by and large, kept financially and programmatically apart (Barron 2007). Separate institutions were created to oversee the respective processes, and use of largest pooled fund of post-tsunami money—the ‘‘Multi Donor Fund,’’ worth US$ 673 million—although espousing a conflict sensitive approach, could not be used on post-conflict projects.[21]

Ignoring years of policy analysis on the need to adopt conflict sensitive approaches to development (Burke and Afnan 2005), post-tsunami projects and programs initially adopted a largely ‘‘conflict blind’’ approach. It was considered to be relatively easy to distinguish between tsunami affected areas and conflict afflicted ones, and the two issues were seen to be programmatically separable. However, in some areas, such as Bireuen and Aceh Utara, there was significant overlap, creating tension between two categories of individuals who were receiving different levels and quality of support (World Bank 2008; UNORC⁄BRR 2007). Even in areas where the two categories of beneficiaries are not overlapping or contiguous, people move. The ‘‘search for beneficiaries’’ on behalf of NGOs may have contributed to this, as did their demand for reconstruction materials and labour (International Crisis Group 2007). The appearance of ex-combatants, looking for homes in areas designated for tsunami victims has also caused social problems. While the ex-combatants were unhappy that they were receiving fewer resources than their tsunami-affected compatriots, the tsunami victims, were uncomfortable living beside ex-combatants who have been associated with a rise in robbery and extortion in certain areas (Barron 2007; International Crisis Group 2007).

Contributing to this has been a ‘‘lack of fit between internationally derived assumptions about the aims of reconstruction and the context and needs of post-conflict Aceh’’ (Barron 2007). While occasions were provided to discuss the appropriateness of particular approaches to local conditions, they had no sustained impact. Instead, he observes that the use of individual compensation approaches in the reintegration of ex-combatants may be (re)producing the very conditions that made conflict likely in the first place: decreases in social cohesion, the hardening of conflict-era group identities, the aforementioned development of an entitlement mentality, and the perpetuation of a lack of trust of communities toward the state. Barron attributes the problem of ‘‘lack of fit’’ to a focus by the international community on implementation and modalities of the reintegration program rather than aims. However, his paper suggests that the space of these discussions—the context, delegates, timeframes and constraints— informed the discussions in such a way as to bias the discussions toward outputs that are in keeping with international assumptions about the nature of the ‘‘local.’’ As seen from the discussions of auxiliary space, such ideas of the ‘‘local’’ are strongly shaped by the bounded presence of the international and what the humanitarian imaginary considers to be local, both in country and in the space of origin.

Work by Heathershaw and Lambach (Forthcoming) has identified the tendency to oversimplify in-country relationships and allegiances through the overreliance on categories of ‘‘local’’ and ‘‘international’’—a problem that is observed across reconstruction sites. In Aceh, when the Agency of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for the Region and Community of Aceh and Nias (BRR) was set up in April 2005 by Presidential Decree, it was supported by international donors as a way of ensuring local ownership over the reconstruction process. In practice, it was staffed almost exclusively by Javanese and has been seen by some as a way for the GoI to ensure oversight over the reconstruction of one of its three daerah istimewa or ‘‘special territories.’’ Many of the employees—substantive and administrative staff alike—came to Aceh exclusively to work at the Bureau and when interviewed, expressed a distain for life in Banda Aceh. With the expansion of the Bureau’s mandate in early 2006 from coordination and oversight to include project implementation, conflict of interest issues arose and the Bureau was accused of graft and irregular contracting and procurement procedures which were exacerbated by the often poor quality of houses built (Afrida 2006; Guerin 2006; Sijabat 2006). The resulting BRR antipathy needs to be read through the lens of contemporary Acehnese politics and the push and pull over various government and parastate institutions, both at the local and national levels. A more nuanced reading that takes into consideration the overlapping and possibly competing fields at play in a reconstruction site, allows one to consider the various interpretations and behaviors of individuals who, in one field, may be beneficiaries, but may in other, be operating according to quite different parameters. A final section will examine this in more detail.

Implications and Conclusion

The Emancipatory Space of Reconstruction

This article has so far discussed the unanticipated ways in which the restructuring of space has resulted in negative unanticipated outcomes. However, the analysis also suggests that the new spaces that are created may also exhibit some emancipatory potential. In the discussion of home, we have seen how many of the aid workers may themselves occupy a liminal space with regards to their own countries—simultaneously longing for home, and yet estranged from it. They not only simultaneously benefit from the privilege and insurance that their nationality of origin confers upon them, but also wish to distance themselves from the most mundane elements of static existence. And while they are brought to these spaces through the impetus of their sites of origin, and offered a relative degree of wealth vis-a`-vis their host populations, they are still subjected to the spaces and timings of their temporary homes such as unexpected power cuts and national holidays. While the article has discussed the ways in which two-dimensional ideas of beneficiaries are often embodied within reconstruction strategies, the many aid workers interviewed espouse nuanced and complex attitudes toward their beneficiaries. Many expressed the desire to find a way to engage with the communities in a way that allowed them to live ‘‘not as a colonist, a soldier, or an aid-worker’’ but as the people they actually are (Meek 2008). However, as discussed, the way in which post-crisis space is reconstructed, makes these types of liminal experiences difficult to obtain.

The post-tsunami reconstruction and its ‘‘auxiliary space’’ also presented new and potentially conflicting opportunities and experiences for the beneficiaries. In light of Aceh’s cosmopolitan heritage, the arrival of foreigners was not seen as particularly threatening by the majority of the population, but rather as a source of interest and for some, of opportunity. The movement of delegations, consultants, and in-country staff created a demand for drivers, fixers, translators, local administrators, restaurants. Some of the financial benefit of this apparently filtered down into the wider economy. Particularly in Aceh, there was a visible economic boom—with the number of scooters, and SUVs having increased exponentially in the last 3 years. One government official commented, on the ‘‘current donor-aided construction-driven economic boom’’ (BRR 2007b), ‘‘when you drive through Banda Aceh in the evenings it looks like Paris: people sitting on the sidewalks, in cafes.’’[22]

For Acehnese living, working, and studying abroad, the event of the tsunami drew them back to assist their families, friends, and communities in rebuilding their lives. But the auxiliary space of humanitarian response also provided the opportunities for them to remain working in Aceh by providing salaries and working conditions comparable to what they would experience abroad. Under the circumstances of reconstruction, it also provides a microcosm (or space of exception) in which ‘‘western’’ behavior and attitudes are encouraged. For example, in post-tsunami Aceh, the bar within the World Food Programme (WFP) compound become known as a place which allowed ex-patriot staff and like-minded Acehnese to drink, dance, and relax in the context of an otherwise strict Muslim society. However, to certain elements within Acehnese society, the compound became a site of suspicion, and in June 2006, the compound experienced a nighttime raid where Syari’at police were reported to have shined lights onto sleeping staff within the compound (Deutsch Presse Agentur 2006). It is not clear whether the threat posed by the compound was one of exceptional space—an unregulated space nested within the space of Aceh—or if it was one of subversion—of the corruption that could be carried out upon the Acehnese subjects that came into contact with it. However, it raises the possibility that the binary distinction between ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them,’’ ‘‘local’’ and ‘‘international’’ is as instrumental to elements within Acehnese society as it is necessary as a strategic framework for the international community. However, it is also possible, that after such a large scale trauma, the new, ‘‘auxiliary space’’ and material practices present an opportunity to dramatically restructure space, to fundamentally reorient  the direction of a particular society, and offer a visible and tangible hope that spurs the ‘‘beneficiaries’’ on to a better life. Such a window of opportunity was frequently cited in post-tsunami Aceh, as the arrival of an ‘‘army’’ of aid workers was considered to be a major contributing force to the resolution of the long running conflict between the pro-Acehnese independence GAM and the GoI. The physical presence of so many internationals and the accompanying media attention was seen by many as the necessary impetus for the resolution of the conflict (Le Billon and Waizenegger 2007; Renner 2006). In this way, ‘‘auxiliary space’’ may have allowed for a reconsideration of options and relationships between the combatants.[23]

While in the case of Aceh, the outcome of increased international presence has so far been positive, it needs to be considered for its wider impact. Arguably, attribution of causal impact to the international community has contributed to a hardening of the Government of Sri Lanka’s post-tsunami policy stance vis-a`-vis international involvement in domestic politics. Likewise, the 2008 post-cyclone Nargis position of Myanmar’s government was structured along geopolitical lines. Initially, they were willing to accept aid but not the aid workers to deliver it (Mydans 2008), and subsequently expressed a willingness to accept assistance only for other South East Asian countries (Mydans and Cowell 2008). Such outcomes offers insight into the degree to which host governments view the bodies and material presence of the international community as political and emphasizes the need to consider the built forms and material practices and in particular, the role of an ‘‘auxiliary space’’ as an integral part of the international humanitarian response. It is only by understanding that the way in which we do things is as important as what is done that we will be able to move beyond the existing categories of north ⁄ south; donor ⁄ beneficiary; savior ⁄ saved that dominate and constrain current international politics.


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[1] The author would like to thank Tarak Barkawi, Josef Ansorge, Alex Anievas, and two anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions. Thanks to Mary J. Hunter and Arran Gaunt for their support. Research funds for this article were provided by the Smuts Foundation. The themes explored in this article are part of a doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge, Centre for International Studies entitled ‘‘Post-Crisis Built Environments of the International Community.’’

[2] Interview, Banda Aceh, 17 December, 2007.

[3] In the context of this article, ‘‘humanitarian intervention’’ is used to refer to the spectrum of international response following a large-scale disaster, as in practice there is significant blurring and overlap between the categories of ‘‘relief’’ and ‘‘development,’’ particularly from the perspective of the beneficiaries.

[4] Statistics provided by BRR.

[5] The requirement of the GoI for aid workers to register with the military or face expulsion if caught outside the main cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, compounded the concentration in these areas c.f. BBC. January 11, 2005 Indonesia Restricts Aceh Aid Work BBC.

[6] For work on the impact of military bases see Enloe, Cynthia H. (1989) Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making

Feminist Sense of International Politics. Updated ed. with a new preface. ed. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of

California Press, 2000; Cooley, Alexander. (2005) Base Politics. Foreign Affairs 84(6): 79–92.

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

[8] 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.

[9] The higher the risk rating, the higher the level of financial compensation and benefits earned by staff, which may incentivise some staff—particularly in peacekeeping missions—to maintain a higher security rating. Interview, Dili, May 23, 2008.

[10] While there is a stress in the programmatic literature on downward accountability, the key stakeholders remain those organizations and individuals who fund the intervention

[11] As one NGO worker cynically quipped. Interview, Dili, 20 May, 2008.

[12] It is worth noting that such complaints ran both directions, and that some donors felt that the GoI’s strict

imposition of reconstruction ‘‘phases’’ was unhelpful to a coherent reconstruction effort.

[13] Interview, Dili, 19 May, 2008.

[14] Interview, Banda Aceh, 13 December, 2007

[15] Interview, Banda Aceh, December 14, 2007 & Dili, 19 May, 2008.

[16] Although the general consensus was that the preference of brick over other materials was based upon social prestige, one interviewee felt that the preference was based, in the context of a long-running civil conflict, on the need for the physical security that brick provided. Interview, Banda Aceh, 13 December, 2007.

[17] Interview, Banda Aceh, 14 December, 2007.

[18] The institutional dynamics of aid are such that each ‘‘sector’’ may quite quickly move from being strictly an implementer of the overall project to having its own institutional incentives to expand into other areas ‘‘outside’’ its sector leading to mandate creep.

[19] Certain donors, such as the World Bank, have continued to collect and process their own data leading to disputes over which reporting figures are accurate.

[20] Certain donors, such as the World Bank, have continued to collect and process their own data leading to disputes over which reporting figures are accurate.

[21] Originally named the ‘‘Multi Donor Trust Fund,’’ the ‘‘Trust’’ was dropped from the title, according to one facetious interviewee, because there was no trust left.

[22] Interview, Banda Aceh, 18 December 2007.

[23] The tsunami itself is also pointed to as an event of religious significance which led to a realization on behalf of all the parties, of the futility of violence.

The Gift of Home

“The Gift of Home: The key role of housing reconstruction in the Acehnese peace process following the 2004 tsunami,” unpublished abstract (2011)

Contemporary aid and development policy has consciously distanced itself from the idea of assistance as ‘gift’ both overtly within academic literature (Kapoor; Kothari) and implicitly through policy positions which emphasize the need for local communities to be active participants in their own relief and development trajectories (DFID, OCHA). But particularly in the area of post-disaster assistance, the paradigm of apparently selfless giving is still a fundamental part of the humanitarian imaginary and business model where both private and public donors are implored through media messages and charity advertisements to do the right thing: give.  Based on the case of the reconstruction effort in Aceh following the 2004 tsunami, this article argues that instead of hampering the relief effort, it was the overt espousal of the idea of the ‘gift’ that enabled the reconstruction to become a success – although not in the way it was originally envisaged.

Drawing on fieldwork carried out between 2006 and 2008 and over a hundred interviews with donors, contractors, beneficiaries and local officials, this paper argues that initially, from within the humanitarian imaginary, the house was viewed as the Maussian ideal of the gift while from the perspective of other parties concerned (Government of Indonesia (GoI), the Aceh and Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Board (BRR), the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM), the Aceh Transitional Committee (Komite Peralihan Aceh or KPA), contractors, and the beneficiaries themselves) it was viewed as a commodity.  While initially, this epistemological disjuncture contributed to problems – most notably in the reconstruction of 120 000 houses for tsunami affected families – it also enabled a practical re-negotiation of the housing projects. The result was that the ‘success’ of the reconstruction process in Aceh came not from the ‘gift’ of the house but instead from the resultant ‘commodity’ of peace which the practices surrounding the houses enabled.