Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism.

Author:Baines, Erin K.

Jennifer Hyndman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 253 pp. ISBN 0-8166-3353-3

"At what point do charitable acts of humanitarian assistance become neo-colonial technologies of control?" (147) So is the provocative challenge set by Jennifer Hyndman in her critical geopolitical study of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) during the 1990s, a period of tumultuous change in the global refugee regime. Using an ethnographic approach, the author draws upon her own work experience in refugee camps along the Somalia-Kenyan border to reveal the "culture, practices and operations" of the UN refugee agency, and the global discursive politics of managing difference within its operations. This ethnography is framed in relation to the changing geopolitical environment shaping (and arguably compromising) the UNHCR's mandate. The insights gleaned from this project offer much to both the academic and to the practitioner, reflecting the author's concern to make humanitarianism more accountable by bringing theory to the practitioner, and the practical domain to the theoretician (xvi).

Central to Hyndman's analysis, articulated in Chapter One, "Scripting Humanitarianism," is the position that the post-Cold War era soon led to the dawn of new regime of international humanitarianism, distinguished by the ascent of neo-liberalism and descent of development practices. In the 1990s, Western donor states reacted to global displacements assertively, insisting UNHCR prevent or, at the very least, contain displacement by keeping people "safe" in otherwise unsafe areas. In practice, the UN refugee agency began work in "safe areas" of conflict zones such as that of northern Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Somalia. What is now termed "preventative protection," and the inevitable emergency assistance delivered to allay loss of life within safe zones, has been pursued in an ad hoc manner globally, and not necessarily with the best coordination among UN and NGO agencies. For Hyndman, such an undefined approach deepens the divide between an "us" (donors) and a "them" (recipients), intensifying the "politicization of need and the politics of need, that is, questions of who is deserving and who has the power to decide." (181) This feeds into a legitimization of actions or inactions, or neo-humanism: humanitarian intervention determined by the popularity and visibility of a particular group, and the efficiency of measures used to assist this group...

To continue reading