Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Emergency Shelter Topologies: Locating Humanitarian Space in Mobile and Material Practice

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Emergency Shelter Topologies: Locating Humanitarian Space in Mobile and Material Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract. Focusing on two different devices commonly deployed in emergency shelter responses, the emergency family tent and the shelter kit, this paper traces the topological associations of humanitarian spaces as enacted through humanitarian practice. The emergency family tent is shown to effect humanitarian space within the associations of a network topology by acting as an 'immutable mobile', connecting different places of humanitarian crises with each other through stabilising relationships between them across space and over time and ordering space according to a sequential timeline of action. In contrast, the shelter kit is shown to effect humanitarian space within the associations of a fluid topology by acting as a 'mutable mobile', connecting the sites of crisis not through stabilisation but through adapting to a wide variety of local contexts and conditions and ordering space according to an overlapping and partly simultaneous timeline of action. These different 'shelter topologies' are shown to convey different assumptions about, and underlie different topographic renderings of, humanitarian space.

Keywords: humanitarian space, topology, (im)mutable mobility, devices, emergency shelter

Introduction: locating humanitarian spaces in emergency shelter responses

Since gaining broad usage among policy and practitioner circles in the 1990s, the phrase 'humanitarian space' has been the subject of increasing contestation and confusion (Collinson and Elhawary, 2012; Hubert and Brassard-Boudreau, 2010; Tennant et al, 2010). A large part of this lack of agreement over what humanitarian space is, or should be, stems from the larger discord over the appropriate meaning and scope of the term 'humanitarian' (see, for example, the opposing views of Rieff, eg, 2002 and Ignatieff, eg, 1997). Seeing the practical impossibility of reconciling conflicting claims on the designation 'humanitarian', some observers have suggested abandoninguse of the phrase 'humanitarian space' altogether to avoid operational confusion (eg, Hubert and Brassard-Boudreau, 2010). Others have conversely advocated for adopting a definition of humanitarian space broad enough to encompass all concurrent claims on the designation 'humanitarian' (eg, Collinson and Elhawary 2012). While offering the allure of a 'solution', in their fixation with resolving the multiple and competing understandings of 'humanitarian', each of these tacks ends up sidelining the 'space' in 'humanitarian space' and so both are, ultimately, unsatisfying. After all, notions of space and spatiality are central to the many different iterations of humanitarian space, for example in the humanitarian demand for an operational space in which humanitarian actors may offer assistance without interference, the claim to an ostensibly neutral and impartial 'third' space of exception, hors de combat, protected by international humanitarian law, or the occupation of a symbolic space of witness to the suffering of others. Accordingly, getting a grip on the spaces and spatialities of humanitarian action is a crucial challenge in the task of untangling humanitarian space.

In an effort to respond to this challenge, this paper takes the case of emergency shelter provision as a site for examining the mobile and material practices, arrangements, and temporal entanglements through which humanitarian spaces are enacted. More particularly, this paper explores the mobilities and materialities of two commonly deployed emergency shelter devices, the emergency family tent and the shelter kit, as a means of empirically tracing humanitarian space as it is enacted in the course of emergency shelter responses. (1) In thus attending to the ways in which these two shelter devices participate in enacting humanitarian space, this paper joins the ever growing body of work concerned with the role objects and technologies play in coarticulating social phenomena. (2) Such a device-centred approach signals a concern with empirically located analysis (Marres, 2012), challenging the assumption that humanitarian space can be satisfactorily understood in reference only to abstracted processes or universal categories. …

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