Humanitarian Aid and the Politics of Crisis

By Nesiah, Vasuki | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Humanitarian Aid and the Politics of Crisis


Nesiah, Vasuki, Women's Studies Quarterly


Humanitarian Aid and the Politics of Crisis Malathi de Alwis and Eva-Lotta Hedman's Tsunami in a lime of Wan Aid, Activism, and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka andAceh (Colombo: ICES, 2009)

From 1967 to 1970 the war catalyzed by the secession of the republic of Biafra became the stage for a massive transnational humanitarian relief effort. These efforts not only brought "aid" to the Biafrans, but also initiated a new role on the global stage for organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Oxfam through a massive scaling up of their relief operations and an even more significant transformation of their political weight. Biafra represents an important moment in the birthing of the norms, practices, and institutions of contemporary humanitarianism. Twenty years later, we saw another pivotal moment as the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the doors to a humanitarianism empowered by the ideology of the postideological; global humanitarianism entered into a new contract with global governance. Thus when the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 occurred, international humanitarian organizations had already built up a crisis résumé that had zoomed through the headlines of the preceding years . . . Serbia to Sudan, Haiti to Afghanistan. The lines connecting the dots between these different fields of engagement also tell a story about the increasingly diverse modalities through which humanitarian aid travels - deeply intertwined with military interventions in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan, with development and poverty alleviation programs in places like Ethiopia, with conflict resolution efforts in places like Sudan.

Against this backdrop, Tsunami in a Time of War: Aid, Activism, and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka andAceh, edited by Malathi de Alwis and EvaLotta Hedman, opens a window into the work of humanitarian aid at the intersection of the 2004 tsunami and the long-term conflicts that had shaped the political landscape in both these contexts. Tracing the money trail alone suggests that post-tsunami humanitarian aid was of a scale where it clearly had to have long-term impact on "recipient" countries. The humanitarian aid sectors budget for operations in Indonesia went from $29.7 billion per annum to $799.7 billion; the budget for Sri Lanka catapulted from $53.5 billion to $442.7 billion.1 Tsunami in a Time of War, the result of a multisite research project headed by the editors, is not focused on the international humanitarian aid sector alone. It also looks at how state structures in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, militant groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Gerakan Ac eh Merdeka (GAM), local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and community activists responded to the tsunami against the backdrop of conflict. It also touches on several thematic areas, such as ethnic nationalism and neoliberalism, that extend well beyond humanitarianism; questions of security and questions of pluralism; and a range of other issues that have particular significance in the Sri Lankan and Aceh contexts. In fact, one of the books key contributions is that it situates and analyzes aid outside a purely self-referential humanitarian sector universe to address the dynamics of humanitarianism in relation to other themes (such as nationalism and neoliberalism) and other actors (such as the governments of Sri Lanka and Indonesia). The essays in this volume situate humanitarian aid in the particularities of these contexts so as to deepen our understanding of the local dynamics of post-tsunami aid in Aceh and Sri Lanka, while also providing insight into the broader global arc of humanitarian aid alluded to in the opening paragraph of this review.

Following a brief introduction explaining the research project and the editors methodological choices, the volume gives us eight essays - four engaged primarily with Sri Lanka, three engaged primarily with the special region of Aceh in Indonesia, and a concluding chapter that works with the previous seven to draw out policy implications of the analysis. …

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