Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Rise of the Relief-and-Reconstruction Complex

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Rise of the Relief-and-Reconstruction Complex

Article excerpt

Massive infrastructure damage and great social dislocation have been common consequences of natural disasters and social disasters like wars. Up until a few years ago, the aims of relief and reconstruction efforts were fairly simple: immediate physical relief of victims, reduction of social dislocation, restoration of a functioning social organization and reparation of physical infrastructure. In major disasters or wars, international actors were central players--most prominently United Nations agencies and the Red Cross Movement.

In recent years, however, the objectives of both disaster relief and post-conflict reconstruction have become more complex. Strategic considerations have become more prevalent in military-led disaster relief operations. Post-disaster and post-conflict reconstruction planning and implementation are increasingly influenced by neoliberal market economics. A new militant humanitarianism infuses not only post-conflict reconstruction work but, in a number of cases, has itself helped to precipitate conflicts.

Disaster relief and post-conflict reconstruction have thus become increasingly intertwined, so that it is difficult to understand the dynamics of one arena without looking at the other. This is all the more true since the same set of actors now dominate both arenas: the U.S. military-political command, the World Bank, corporate contractors and humanitarian and development non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Humanitarian missions led by the United Nations and Red Cross are a thing of the past, though these players continue to participate in relief and reconstruction work along, of course, with national governments. The new establishment in post-disaster and post-conflict reconstruction is what will be termed here the "relief and reconstruction complex" (RRC). Power structures develop legitimating ideologies, and accompanying the rise of the RRC is a formulaic discourse that is built on appeals to national and international security, neoliberal economics and a burgeoning, militant "rights-based humanitarianism."


Within hours after the massive tsunami that hit at least eleven countries bordering the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004, U.S. Navy Orion reconnaissance aircraft began flying over the affected areas to deliver emergency relief and to assess the damage. This was the prelude to a massive expedition that eventually came to encompass more than twenty-four U.S. warships, over 100 aircraft and some 16,000 military personnel--the largest U.S. military concentration in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War. (1)

It was not a disinterested peacetime military mission. One immediate sign of this was the deliberate U.S. effort to marginalize the United Nations, which was expected by many to coordinate, at least at the formal level, the relief effort. Instead, Washington sought to bypass the United Nations by setting up a separate assistance "consortium" with India, Australia, Japan, Canada and several other governments, with the U.S. military task force's Combined Coordination Center at U Tapao, Thailand, effectively serving as the axis of the whole relief operation. (2)

Showing the flag was seen by the Bush administration as an important objective in light of the low point in the relations between the United States and many communities in the Southeast Asian region owing to the War on Terror, which many Muslims, who were in the majority in the most devastated country, Indonesia, had seen as being directed against them. The War on Iraq was also universally unpopular throughout the area, yet here was an opportunity to show a different face of the U.S. military than that of a force imposing a harsh military occupation on that Middle Eastern country.

However, there were more immediate military objectives as well. The Indonesian military had been subject to a ban on U.S. arms sales as well as restrictions on U. …

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