The subjects and objects of relief: how local aid workers articulate and remake what it means to be humanitarian

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.

“Allah will help the one who gives. If I have even one Birr [Ethiopian currency], I try to give it to him, the man in need. Most people do this. It is our culture. We share what we have. That is who we are. We are the same people, all of us, the same blood. And when you do this, the people will know. People would see if I was doing this work at [the relief NGO] professionally and not living it. What you are doing and saying in the community, it has to be what you are. If I am not practicing, they will know. … You should not go to a hotel, but you should sleep there with them, and then they will know you are serious.’ Mussa, a Somali man from Ethiopia who works for a European relief organization.

This essay introduces one part of my larger ethnographic project to investigate “humanitarianism” as it is enacted by local aid workers like Mussa in the Somali Region of Ethiopia. In this, I address the following questions: Who is a “humanitarian” — and therefore whose work is deemed vital and benevolent in emergencies? What counts as a “humanitarian” intervention, for aid workers as well as people in communities where crises recur? And finally, how do various forms of humanitarianism evident in the Somali Region differ from and also shape the legally recognized international humanitarian system, governed mostly be international law, wealthy donor governments, and multinational organizations?

“[H]umanitarianism is contingent,” Brada (2016: 756) argues, “it depends on circumstance and varies from one context to another.” Following Brada, I trace the contingencies, contexts, and the constant linguistic and programmatic maintenance of what is be deemed “humanitarian” (and what is misrecognized or ignored as such) within aid organizations, clinical spaces, and beneficiary communities in the Somali Region.

Numerous exposés and scholarly analyses critique the global humanitarian enterprise (e.g. Alexander 2015, Cain 2006, Curtis 2018, Fox 2013, Redfield 2013). But often, these perspectives myopically focus on (mostly white) expatriate aid workers. However, the vast majority of people responding to conflicts, disasters, and epidemics of disease around the world are not parachuting in from afar, but are themselves from crisis-affected communities (Fox 2013, James 2010).

They are locals and they are frequently also the so-called “beneficiaries” of aid; they are language translators, survey enumerators, refugee camp managers, and community health workers. They are manual laborers building latrines and clinics, and they are experts on and brokers of local power relations and cultures. They are the neighbors and relatives of people in crisis; they are certified nurses and physicians with steady streams of patients whether someone declared an emergency or not; and they are caregivers and volunteers who live in crisis-affected communities long before and after aid organizations intervene.

Within thinktanks, professional organizations, and relief agencies headquartered in Europe and North America, there is increasing attention to the needs of local staffers, and an increasing desire to “localize aid” and “devolve” power from donor and global aid institutions to organizations located in crisis-affected communities (Charter4change 2017, Gingerich & Owen 2017, ODI 2016, Mahmood 2017). Professional venues and publications frequently portray the local and national staffs of relief organizations as the heroes and the rightful focus of humanitarian response (e.g. Oxfam 2014, cf. Benton 2016).

Consequently, while emergency assistance does involve material distributions of resources, it also now entails an effort to develop the capacity of people in crisis-affected communities, and to transform individuals there from beneficiaries or “crisis-affected persons” into competent service providers and the leaders of humanitarian missions. Local aid workers like Mussa are therefore both the object and the subject of global humanitarianism. They are employed by aid agencies – often to perform the most difficult and dangerous jobs within the relief industry – and yet at the same time, their work is also a variant on what Feldman (2007) calls, “ethical labor:” it proves relief agencies’ righteous empowerment of locals and their innovative attention to local contexts.

I have spent the last eleven years engaged in ethnographic study of the lives of Somali aid workers, healthcare providers, policymakers, and beneficiaries in eastern Ethiopia, as well as the local economies and moralities produced through various and episodic forms of humanitarian and medical engagement there. Like so many other places around the world, political violence, forced migration, droughts, floods, and outbreaks of infectious diseases like cholera threaten lives and livelihoods every few months or years. Interventions happen reactively and sporadically, as the funding priorities of aid agencies ebb and flow. Like other places facing recurrent declarations of “humanitarian crisis,” employment with relief agencies represents the best gig in town, but these jobs are few and far between. Even the most dedicated workers lack for professional development and contracts beyond the horizon of the crisis at hand.

At the same time, the emic forms of humanitarianism local aid workers, healthcare providers, and humanitarian policymakers actualize through their engagement and employment with relief organizations are also part of broader efforts on their part to be, as Mussa phrased it, “the one who gives,” and to “share what we have.” As such, and to summarize points I will expand on in the upcoming workshop in Bergen, the driving and organizing forces of humanitarianism in the Somali Region include:

  • Islamic practice and ethics,
  • personal histories of receiving foreign humanitarian assistance,
  • responsibilities to care for family—broadly speaking, beyond blood-based kinship ties, to encompass neighbors and close friends,
  • communality, and a common practice of radically redistributing and sharing resources, especially within kinship groups and to elders and persons in greatest need,
  • hospitality—especially to those from afar.

These forces of humanitarian action shape both the implementation of relief operations by local aid workers, and the consideration and design of policies at higher levels of aid agencies. These forces are also explicitly and intentionally political, personal, and emotional – a stark contrast from articulations of “neutrality” and “impartiality” so fundamental to International Humanitarian Law and actions of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Humanitarianism in the Somali Region, I argue, may therefore be better understood as contingent on the morality and sociality of caregiving (Kleinman 2012) and “logics of care” (Mol 2008), more than the missions of relief organizations headquartered in London, Geneva, or even Addis Ababa.

Understanding the multivalent humanitarianisms at work within aid agencies undermines popular imaginaries of humanitarian action as something mostly carried out by expatriates on rescue missions, and highlights instead the dynamic, hybrid, and socially- and politically-embedded actions of people caring for each other where foreign interventions recur. Recognizing the contingency of humanitarian action does not merely provide contextual nuance; instead these perspectives are necessary to decolonize and reconceptualize humanitarian practice as we know it.



Alexander, Jessica. 2013. Chasing chaos: My decade in and out of humanitarian aid. Broadway Books.

Bennett, Christina, Matthew Foley, and Sara Pantuliano. 2016.    “Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era.” Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute.

Benton, Adia. 2016. Risky business: race, nonequivalence and the humanitarian politics of life.” Visual Anthropology. 29(2): 187-203.

Brada, Betsey Behr. 2016. “The contingency of humanitarianism: moral authority in an African HIV clinic.” American Anthropologist. 118(4): 755-771.

Cain, Kenneth, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson. 2006. Emergency sex (and other desperate measures): true stories from a war zone. Random House.

Charter4change, “Localisation of Humanitarian Aid: The Charter.”

Curtis, Heather D. 2018. Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Feldman, Ilana. 2007. “The Quaker way: Ethical labor and humanitarian relief.” American Ethnologist 34(4): 689-705.

Fox, Renée C. 2014. Doctors without borders: humanitarian quests, impossible dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gingerich, Tara and Marc Owen. 2015 “Turning the humanitarian system on its head: saving lives and livelihoods by strengthening local capacity and shifting leadership to local actors.” Oxfam.

James, Erica Caple. 2010. Democratic insecurities: Violence, trauma, and intervention in Haiti. University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur. 2012. “Caregiving as moral experience.” The Lancet 380(9853): 1550-1551.

Malkki, Liisa H. 2015. The need to help: The domestic arts of international humanitarianism. Duke University Press.

Mahmood, Jemilah. 2017. “Opinion: Yes, the humanitarian sector really is going to localize.”

Mol, Annemarie, Ingunn Moser, and Jeannette Pols, eds. 2015. Care in practice: On tinkering in clinics, homes and farms. Vol. 8. transcript Verlag.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The logic of care: Health and the problem of patient choice. Routledge.

Oxfam. 2014. “Local aid workers, heroes of World Humanitarian Day.”

Redfield, Peter. 2013. Life in crisis: The ethical journey of doctors without borders. University of California Press.


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