Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Infrastructuring Aid: Materializing Humanitarianism in Northern Kenya

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Infrastructuring Aid: Materializing Humanitarianism in Northern Kenya

Article excerpt

Abstract. In numerous African countries humanitarian and development organizations-as well as governments--are expanding expenditures on social protection schemes as a means of poverty alleviation. These initiatives, which typically provide small cash grants to poor populations, are often considered particularly agreeable for the simplicity of their administration and the feasibility of their implementation. This paper examines the background work required to deploy social protection in one especially remote area: the margins of postcolonial Kenya. Specifically, it documents the often overlooked social and technical construction of the infrastructure necessary so that cash transfers may function with the ease and simplicity for which they are commended. Attention to the practice of 'infrastructuring' offers insights into the tensions and politics of what is rapidly become a key form of transnational govermentality in the global South, showing that humanitarian rationalities and subjects cannot be understood independently of the material networks on which they rely.

Keywords: infrastructure, humanitarianism, materiality, biometric identification, Kenya, biopolitics

Infrastructures and infrastructuring

Every two months, many thousands of poor Kenyans living in drought-prone areas receive around US$50 from British taxpayers. How this money reaches the remote margins of Kenya involves bureaucratic negotiations, political commitment, and ethical ideals. But it also involves rugged trucks, Post-It notes, and carefully washed fingerprints. As these so-called 'cash transfers' become a key form of poverty alleviation in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, this paper turns away from the high-profile battles over the politics and future of aid and humanitarianism to examine the humdrum and obscure practices that enable actually existing poverty alleviation. In doing so, I follow Maurer (2012a) to focus on payments infrastructures--"the portals, rails and plumbing"--that move monetary value, in this case transferring it from Her Majesty's Treasury to northern Kenya.

A growing body of interdisciplinary literature has turned to large technical systems as both objects of inquiry and objects with which it is good to think. Infrastructure is a multifaceted concept, usually defined as the sociotechnical means through which goods, people, and information circulate; infrastructures incorporate techniques and material objects, not to mention the labor and relations that enable those (Star, 1999). In Edwards's (2003, page 185) words, "they are the connective tissue and the circulatory systems of modernity." Their absence or breakdown is thus of fundamental importance to the structure of everyday life.

In Larkin's (2013) recent characterization, the anthropology of infrastructure approaches both the "politics and poetics of infrastructure". As means of distribution and "networks of power" (Hughes, 1993), infrastructures are "constantly ranking, connecting, and segmenting spaces and people" (Larkin, 2004, page 292; see also Graham and Marvin, 2001). They embody rationalities and politics (Collier, 2011)--even if the ability of any one entity to dictate their design is severely limited (Edwards et al, 2007), in part because things themselves display a surprising amount of 'recalcitrance' (Bennet, 2010) and "intransigence" (Collier, 2011). But as cultural anthropologists have emphasized, infrastructures also operate symbolically and aesthetically, stirring the imagination and entwining with ideology (see Larkin, 2013, pages 334-338).

This paper draws on Pipek and Wulf's (2009) concept of 'infrastructuring', by approaching ethnographically the human and material components of infrastructure 'in the making'. I draw on fieldwork in Nairobi and the north of Kenya to explicate the types of labor, negotiation, and struggle that enable functional circulatory systems in a region without infrastructural density. …

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