Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami.
|Publication:||Name: Refuge Publisher: Centre for Refugee Studies Audience: General Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Centre for Refugee Studies ISSN: 0229-5113|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2010 Source Volume: 27 Source Issue: 2|
Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami
Kumarian Press, Sterling, VA, 2011. pp. xvii, 171.
Jennifer Hyndman sets an ambitious goal in this slim volume, nothing less than a re-examination of the way in which humanitarian aid is provided in the light of the increasing complexity of humanitarian disasters. The international response to the tsunami, which struck countries around the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, provides the starting point for her analysis, but the scope of the book is broader than the impact of the tsunami alone. The bulk of the empirical material comes from Sri Lanka and the Indonesian province of Aceh, both locations where terrible devastation as a result of the tsunami coincided with ongoing separatist conflicts. This combination of political and environmental emergencies leads to the characterization "dual disasters" that forms the central theme of the book. This clear, straightforward term encapsulates a complex and detailed argument and is sure to be widely cited.
The core of the argument is that environmental emergencies and politically focused conflict have much in common and (in contrast to the common characterization of specifically natural disasters) both may be exacerbated by human action. The notion that there is no such thing as a purely natural disaster is now widely accepted but it is given new force here through the comparison of Sri Lanka and Aceh. In Aceh, the tsunami was a "key catalyst" (p. 105) for a peace agreement which ended the decades long conflict and still holds. In Sri Lanka, in contrast, the central agreement to deliver assistance to areas of the country controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam broke down. The tsunami was followed by a gradual resumption of conflict which escalated to a catastrophic end in 2009 with what an official UN report has since estimated was as many as 40,000 civilian casualties.
Systematic comparative analysis of the two contexts is deliberately avoided. Hyndman anticipates and avoids any potential criticism that she is using the nation-state as a unit of analysis, which such a comparison would inevitably involve. Rather, she emphasizes the significance of scale, incorporating multiple scales into her analysis, from the individual human body (an analysis of the changing status of widows) to global political economy (discussion of the securitization of international aid). All of the analysis is empirically informed, including interviews with many of the key participants. The policy context is a key component of this analysis so there are obvious conclusions for policy--the inequality of responses received by individuals caught up in the different disasters, for example. Yet policy analysis is not the principal aim and the key questions are of a more theoretical nature. This approach is engaged since it seeks to address the context in which particular policy approaches are conceived rather than the policies themselves. Hyndman's critical engagement has become a hallmark of a style of critical, feminist geographic practice which Hyndman has done much to popularize.
This is Hyndman's first research monograph since Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2000). That book, based on research with refugees in Kenya and Somalia, introduced a geopolitical analysis to the field of refugee studies through a "transnational geopolitics of mobility" (p. 58) that has proved extremely influential. In some senses Dual Disasters can be seen as a follow-up: geopolitical analysis, political engagement, and questions of humanitarian action remain central. Yet given these similarities, it is the distinctions between the two books that are more instructive, charting important developments in the humanitarian environment that have occurred in the intervening years.
One of the most notable differences between the two books is the role of UNHCR. The earlier book was targeted directly at the UN refugee agency, whereas it is barely mentioned in Dual Disasters (it does not even appear in the index). This is partly an indication of the broader scope of Dual Disasters, which considers the politics of aid delivery across the whole spectrum of international and national NGOs and various other international organizations such as IOM and UNICEF. It also relates to the contrasting theme; in the post-tsunami setting, UNHCR had a more limited role and operated in a more crowded field beyond its traditionally assumed role of refugee support. This new emphasis reflects the changing landscape of aid (or "aid scapes" as they are widely referred to in the book) as other actors have become more significant in international responses to displacement. This increasingly neo-liberal environment of competition in the provision of aid is assessed in detail in Chapter 5 ("Acts of Aid") in the context of Sri Lanka.
Since the publication of Managing Displacement, Hyndman has cemented her reputation as one of the most original commentators in the field of geopolitics. Her contribution has refined a specifically feminist geopolitics, which forms an important strand of analysis in the book. Chapter 4, for example, examines the ways that the tsunami has transformed the institution of widowhood in Sri Lanka. This builds on a suggested transformation in classic "Gender and Development" frameworks to incorporate "Feminism and Development" or "Feminism and Disaster" approaches. The feminist approach expands the focus on gender to an intersectional analysis of disadvantage and inequality that encompasses not only gender roles but religion, ethnicity, class, and location within Sri Lanka, amongst other things.
This intersectional approach supports a critique of Naomi Klein's analysis of "disaster capitalism" that is first raised in the introduction and further considered in an assessment of the geopolitics of fear in Chapter 3. Klein's critique of post-tsunami policy development as focused on the interests of a global capitalist class is usefully complemented by Hyndman's more detailed assessment of the competing forms of nationalism, geopolitical interests, and "humanitarian hubris" which help explain why the patterns of development predicted by Klein during her 2005 visit to Sri Lanka have largely failed to appear. Of the remaining chapters in the book, Chapter 2 provides the only comparative element to the book, with examinations of the historical background to conflict in Sri Lanka and Aceh, and Chapter 6 (written jointly with Arno Waizenegger) returns to Aceh with a more critical account of the post-tsunami peace process that has failed to provide the promised "peace dividend" for many rebel fighters.
In a book as wide-ranging yet as concisely presented as Dual Disasters there are inevitable sins of omission. More could have been made of the role of UNHCR in disaster relief, for example, particularly at a time of significant introspection within the organization about its mandate. Given Hyndman's previous landmark work in this area this is a surprising omission; examination of UNHCR's role in Aceh would also have supported the argument about the disparity of treatment received by conflict-displaced and tsunami-displaced people that is central to Chapter 6. A second point is that since the tsunami, one of the most notable trends in the geopolitics of international aid has been the continued emergence of relatively new donors, most obviously India and China. Although the significance of Chinas investments in Sri Lanka is highlighted in the introduction there seemed to be more opportunity for a re-evaluation of Mark Duffield's critical characterization of the "liberal power" of international aid in the chapter on the securitization of aid, particularly following the failure of Western governments to coerce the government of Sri Lanka into a ceasefire in the closing months of the war, as the terrible human cost was becoming apparent.
Yet to address all these points would have required a longer, denser book. One of the book's virtues is the clear, concise approach to the complexity behind the "dual disasters" of the title. It is the nature of dual disasters themselves which is the main contribution to the book. The introduction considers a number of other situations, particularly the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The conclusion emphasizes that the likely progression of climate change will make dual disasters more likely as existing conflicts are increasingly overlain with environmental disasters. Through the intervening consideration of both Sri Lanka and Aceh it becomes apparent that the distinction in the impact of the tsunami, between war and peace, which initially appeared obvious, is much less clear. Outcomes for individuals in both contexts were determined more by the tendency to respond separately, and often unequally, to the combination of emergencies constituting these dual disasters.
Michael Collyer is Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.
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