Speculative Humanitarianism; Political Economies of Aid and Disputed Notions of Crisis

Manuel Schwab

Speculative Humanitarianism; Political Economies of Aid and Disputed Notions of Crisis
Schwab, Manuel
Thesis Advisor(s):
Mamdani, Mahmood
Ph.D., Columbia University
Persistent URL:
Geographic Area:
South Sudan--Unity State
This dissertation is based on two years of field research in Sudan, in Khartoum; the three capitals of Darfur; and Bentiu, Unity State, at the border between North and South Sudan. Building on a now substantial literature in critical humanitarian studies, my work focuses on the emergence of new economic forms, circuits, and entitlements that accompany humanitarian aid. These include the influx of ration cards, trade routes that deliberately shadow humanitarian convoys and draw in aid recipients, and entitlements based on kinship ties to injured or displaced victims of conflict. For well over a decade anthropologists have studied the social and political work humanitarianism does in excess of its stated intention to relieve the suffering of civilians in regions of national and political disasters. As numerous scholars have shown, humanitarian discourses and practices intentionally and unintentionally transform local and regional political values and institutions by altering the social relations that subtend them. I pursue how these transformations intervene into core categories of how people understand themselves to have status in a social world. The manuscript focuses on the one ways in which people and events are evaluated as having status within humanitarian logics. It explores the nexus between this logics and the creation of novel economic subjects, values, and institutions that are neither foreign nor local, neither neoliberal nor traditional. They are, rather, a glimpse of something the manuscript refers to as humanitarian economies, with all dimensions of the economic intended. These include new forms of dependency and altered structures of political authority. But they also include new strategies of local speculation based on humanitarian rubrics of recognizing need. For instance, I track the circulation and resale of objects of material necessity, such as grain, cooking oil, or work tools distributed by aid agencies. I demonstrate the ways in which such objects begin to function as general equivalents; they become a form of currency, and a vehicle for the storage, accumulation and transmission of wealth. But on the other hand, the manuscript is just as focused on the circulation of universal values of protection, and their transformation as local actors pick them up and deploy them in their social worlds. In other words, as local actors come to understand how humanitarian actors assess crisis, they produce a second order assessment of where aid is likely to go and thus what would be a profitable investment. They also produce second order deployments of how injury and livelihood is evaluated. Such practices transform basic dynamics of social entitlement. And they also change how people think of themselves and their neighbors as economic and political subjects. Meanwhile, critical infrastructures - from irrigation channels to pharmacy supply routes to radio transmitters - become the objects of heightened ethical scrutiny. Infrastructure comes to stand in for good governance, stability, and sustainable political relationships. What we witness is the emergence of what I call a speculative investment in crisis that binds crisis, livelihood, and life-value into a troubling knot.
Political science--Economic aspects
Humanitarian assistance
Economics--Political aspects
Comparative literature
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Suggested Citation:
Manuel Schwab, , Speculative Humanitarianism; Political Economies of Aid and Disputed Notions of Crisis, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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