Spaces of Aid


I was proud to call Lisa Smirl a friend. Last week I attended the posthumous launch of her important book, Spaces of Aid: How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism. I have extracted some choice quotes from the preface here. It is provocative, fearless and honest – and an exemplar of Spoken Truths…

The book, and accompanying website, will ensure that Lisa’s legacy lives on…

Aid workers will tell you that the spaces and experiences of working in the field often sit uneasily with the goals they’ve signed up to. Aid workers visit project sites in air-conditioned Land Cruisers while the intended project beneficiaries walk barefoot through the heat. The aid workers check their emails from within gated compounds, while the surrounding communities have no running water. But the longer they work in the ‘field’, the more normalized these experiences become. Instead of living and interacting with the communities they have come to assist, aid workers are drawn towards other international ‘expats’ and rarely move beyond a small number of hotels, restaurants, offices and compounds. While these observations are intuitive and much bemoaned within aid circles, no concerted academic or policy study has dealt with the impact of these factors on theory or policy.

The physical environment of the aid world – the hotels, planes, cars and compounds – has been a fundamental yet overlooked aspect of aid relations since the advent of contemporary humanitarian response. Each one of these built forms has played a key role in the evolution of development practice. Consider, for instance, how the Land Rover has normalized the use of high cost, petrol-guzzling SUVs and the way this has impacted on town planning and pedestrian safety in places where most people walk; or how the highly guarded humanitarian compound has drawn upon colonial architecture to maintain hierarchical spatial divisions between the aid workers and local residents. Taken together, this landscape of aid has been a key driver in how the West has collectively understood aid and for the kind of policies that have been pursued.

The influence of these spaces of aid has increased in recent years as security considerations and reliance on abstract planning technologies, such as logical frameworks, have led to policy being heavily based upon the views of a select group of individuals: experts, international field staff or consultants who live in or visit the field. This book shows how these individuals’ understanding and exposure to a situation will often be bounded and secured. Their experience of the field will rarely extend far beyond the hotel conference room or humanitarian compound. The resulting policy made at headquarters is therefore also spatially constrained by an overly narrow understanding of the place that is being assisted.

It is important to stress that this book is not a moral tirade against the luxurious lifestyles of aid workers. Almost every aid worker comes to the ‘field’ with the intention to improve other people’s lives. But as aid dollars become ever more scarce and aid workers are increasingly the target of violent attacks, a careful examination of why it seems so difficult to merely ‘do good’ is drastically needed. What is it about the way in which aid is delivered that continues to reproduce situations where aid money is wasted, projects are left unfinished and aid workers are themselves under attack? This book points to the elephant in the room: the way in which aid workers work and live.

Extracted from Spaces of Aid: How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism by Lisa Smirl

About thesocialenterprise

The Social Enterprise was established in 2007 by David Russell to develop creative and innovative approaches for individuals and organisations that seek to deliver social value. We work with charities and businesses, and our starting point on any project is to determine how we will generate a return on investment in our services – whether through a more effective working approach or delivering greater social impact.
This entry was posted in Other. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s