Complex Emergencies and the Humanitarian Enterprise
David Keen has written a very readable and approachable book tackling a complex subject and tracing its multiple representations, interpretations and modes of analyses. I read it from the point of view of an insider of the “˜humanitarian enterprise’ that he skillfully critiques and as one who is frequently engaged in training and trying to inform and bring together external academic theory with internal practice. It is from this view point of view that I write this review seeking to see how it helps illuminate practice and identifying what further issues he could have dealt with.
Humanitarian workers, a bit like their forebears the missionaries and colonial service bureaucrats, are sent into a range of critical situations and war zones all over the world full of goodwill and backed by the passionate intensity of the organizations that send them. On arrival they are expected to help save lives, restore livelihood systems, correct inequalities and persuade apparently agency less communities, to participate in these initiatives and together forge a bright and hopeful future. At the end of the conflicts, these same agencies and their workers, have like, God, the metaphorical (or funders’) equivalent of seven days to put together a fully recovered society where assets have been restored, impeding cultural habits changed or constrained and a new peaceful society re-imagined and implemented. Things however inevitably, as the book so well explains, go wrong, peace talks are derailed, relief items are stolen or fall into the wrong hands, humanitarian workers themselves are targeted and many return home depressed, often traumatized, cynical and jaded from their experiences asking “˜what happened?, where did we screw up? Where did we go wrong? And above all…why don’t “˜they’ like us?
This book, one of a recent clutch of nuanced and field based analysis of violence and conflict, is a timely and good attempt to answer some of these issues and provide a very practical way of showing how a multi disciplinary approach can help illuminate the political, social and economic processes at work in a given context which then goes on to inform the ways on which external intervention itself can be impacted and does or does not realize its objectives.
As such it should be mandatory reading for all those embarking into the “˜field’ and certainly be a critical item in the tool kit of those agency stress counselors “˜debriefing’ those who return. Recommended post crisis reading to help alleviate somewhat, the burden of personal helplessness and culpability felt by those relief workers bewildered and bruised by their encounters.
At the same time for those teaching in the newly evolving the field of “˜Humanitarian Studies’, this can be a timely text book that draws on some of the multiple strands and disciplines that have helped shape debates in the humanitarian forum as well as informing some of the relief “˜technologies’ that are practiced in the field such as food and nutrition programming, psycho-social programs, responses for child combatants etc. Having said that, there are two areas I feel the author could have elaborated on further and thus rounded off both his trenchant critiques and his analysis.
The first is on the area of the aid enterprise itself. Though he draws on the usual cast of characters who have critiqued the humanitarian industry and enterprise, I was surprised that from one so involved in the anthropology of violence he did not bring in the literature of the anthropology of development itself to look at the workings and context of the NGOs and other international organizations working in the field. Over the past few years NGOs and other international organizations working in conflict zones have become sites of ethnographic research in and of themselves, of equal interest as the contexts of the regions they are situated in. Though he hints at this literature in the chapters on Aid agencies and on Information, a more fuller introduction and presentation of this research with specific case examples, could have helped further his pertinent arguments on the ways in which agencies “˜perform’ to the public and construct notions of how thy are managing complex situations.
A second area I would have liked him to comment on further, concerns the whole area of “˜gender in conflict and war’. Again over the years there has been an ongoing discussion led by feminist scholars in the international relations field who have been positing for the need to insert gender analysis into approaches and responses to conflict and international conflict. This group has formed quite a strong lobby group that has successfully campaigned for the integration of gender analysis and the development of another set of field practices and “˜tool-kits’ designed to review gender inequalities, prevent sexual violence and other wise address fundamental areas of social change and dynamics between men and women in war affected communities. It is striking how this literature (and the group debates) seems to be running in parallel with the discussions and literature on the political economy of war that David Ken’s book represents. One wonders if the gap in the debates and inter communication is due to a feeling that the level of analysis (on gender) is not strong enough and contextually rooted to warrant being taken seriously by the political economists, or that the gender discourse itself has been too conceptual and complicated and has not reached out or is accessible to others working in the field of conflict analysis.
Luckily a new group of anthropologists are now looking deeper into issues of power and the ways in which social constructions of gender and generational identities are affecting and being affected by the dynamics of conflict. Based on long term ethnographic research in places like the DRC, Sri Lanka and the Pacific islands, this research should hopefully bridge the gap between these two communities and help educate us more on the nature and workings of power in conflict affected regions. We look forward to Keen’s follow-up book, to further elucidate on these debates and question their practical implications.
Regional Emergency Advisor,
UNICEF Office for Central and Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States,
(The ideas expressed here in the review are the author’s solely and do not reflect any position by UNICEF or the UN).