Aidnography: The Everyday Practices Of Humanitarian Assistance

Keywords: Humanitarianism, Practice, Ethnography.

In recent years, scholars of International Development have shifted their focus from development as a category of analysis (Escobar, 1995) to development as a category of practice, revealing the everyday ‘practice of politics’ (Li, 2007) that exists beneath the ‘anti-politics machine’ (Ferguson, 1990). By probing this relationship between policy and practice, ethnographies of aid have opened the ‘black-box’ of practice to reveal the ‘micro-social processes of policy’ (Mosse, 2006, 940). Practices are ‘concealed rather than produced by policy’ and are guided by the ‘political logic and culture of specific organisations’ (Mosse, 2005, 16). Authors have also directed the ethnographic gaze onto ‘Aidland’, exploring the cultural practices and ethical contradictions that are part of aid workers’ daily lives (Mosse, 2011; Fechter & Hindman, 2011; Hilhorst, 2003). This framework has also been employed to explore ‘Peaceland’, examining the ‘everyday habits, practices and narratives’ of peacekeepers, which influence the outcome of international interventions (Autesserre, 2014, 15). In sum, this literature demonstrates the importance of examining everyday practice and the social and cultural spheres of aid. But despite a growing body of scholarship examining everyday practices in development programmes, there are few, in-depth ethnographic accounts of humanitarian organisations and their ‘cosmologies and encounters’ (Bornstein & Redfield, 2011, 25) when responding to situations of disaster, conflict and displacement. There is a need for ethnographies of humanitarian practice that shift the academic focus to ‘where the action is’: ultimately, humanitarianism involves ‘people and their interactions’ (Abramowitz & Panter-Brick, 2015, 15; Redfield, 2015, 246).

This panel will welcome papers that focus on the everyday practice of humanitarian assistance, its inherent dilemmas and its effects. We would welcome a range of perspectives, including those of practitioners and academic researchers, but also recipients of humanitarian aid. The panel defines humanitarian assistance broadly as assistance delivered in response to disaster, conflict or displacement. This includes anything from community-level responses to disaster, local and national government responses and those of national NGOs, to UN agencies, INGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movements. The panel aims to explore everyday humanitarian practices through a variety of lenses. Papers could approach the topic along a variety of different themes including, but not limited to: political interactions and the processes of maintaining humanitarian access; protection; targeting and delivery of assistance; monitoring and evaluation; gender and sexuality; race; organisational structure; or materiality. Finally, we would also welcome reflexive papers discussing the methodological implications of focusing on everyday practices. For instance, what are the ethical considerations, the practical hurdles, the emotional and psychological demands on the participants and researchers themselves? How can academics work with and alongside humanitarian organisations to produce detailed, ethnographic portraits of the complexity of everyday practice in the field?



Abramowitz, Sharon, and Catherine Panter-Brick. eds. 2015. Medical Humanitarianism: Ethnographies of Practice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Autesserre, Séverine. 2014. Peaceland: conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bornstein, Erica, and Peter Redfield. eds. 2011. Forces of compassion: humanitarianism between ethics and politics. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fechter, Anne-Meike, and Heather Hindman. eds. 2011. Inside the everyday lives of development workers: The challenges and futures of Aidland. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.

Ferguson, James. 1990. The anti-politics machine: ‘development,’ depoliticisation and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hilhorst, Dorothea. 2003. The real world of NGOs: Discourses, diversity and development. London: Zedbooks.

Li, Tania. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mosse, David. 2005. Cultivating Development: an ethnography of aid policy and practice. London: Pluto Press.

Mosse, David. 2006. “Anti-social anthropology? Objectivity, objection and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12: 935-956.

Mosse, David, ed. 2011. Adventures in Aidland: The anthropology of professionals in international development. London: Berghahn Books.

Redfield, Peter. 2015. “A Measured Good.” In: Medical Humanitarianism: Ethnographies of Practice, edited by Sharon Abramowitz and Catherine Panter-Brick. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 242-253.


Faith Cowling [corresponding chair]

Faith is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research uses ethnographic methods to explore the ways that gender is enacted and negotiated in international humanitarian programmes for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Myfanwy James

Myfanwy is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Myfanwy’s research employs a synthesis of historical and anthropological methods to explore the everyday interactions and negotiations between humanitarian organisations and armed groups in North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.