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  • The Chaos of Humanitarian Aid: Adhocracy in the Republic of Georgia
  • Elizabeth Cullen Dunn (bio)

Humanitarianism presents itself as an altruistic enterprise. The growth of humanitarian agencies in the last fifty years, both intragovernmental and nongovernmental, has advanced an agenda for improving the world to protect human rights and human dignity in the aftermath of conflict or disaster.1 As international agencies penetrate, override, or work in concert with nation-states, they increasingly seek not only to preserve human life by providing food, medical care, and short-term shelter but to help victims reestablish themselves socially and economically with everything from psychosocial assistance and peace-building seminars to microcredit and business development courses. Humanitarianism thus presents itself as an apolitical regime of care, one concerned with not only keeping people from dying but making them live.

Recently, humanitarianism has been portrayed as not altruistic but nefarious. Critics such as Barnett and Calhoun argue that aid is not a charitable gift but the continuation of politics by other means.2 Fassin and Pandolfi, for example, argue that the pretext of protecting individual human rights allows first-world states to override the principle of national sovereignty which undergirded the international system from World War II until the end of the Cold War and to involve themselves in the politics of third-world states.3 Here is humanitarianism as what Agier calls “the left hand of empire,” the use of NGOs and intragovernmental agencies as what Colin Powell famously called “force multipliers” for neo-imperialist military action.4 Even as humanitarians seek to preserve victims’ lives, humanitarian aid supposedly reduces so-called beneficiaries to “bare life,” stripping them of their individuality, their social statuses, and their capacities for political action.5 Humanitarianism is thus presented as a regime of violence as well as care, seeking not just to keep people from dying but to make them live in particular ways as dominated political subjects.6

Michel Agier presents this argument in its strongest form when he calls humanitarianism “totalitarianism.”7 Alleging that humanitarianism is “in secret solidarity with the police order,” Agier calls it a “powerful and enduring apparatus” that embodies the Western world’s “desire to control” the Third World.8 He writes, “In this moment of lurching toward the limit of power over life, the humanitarian world becomes a totalitarianism, which has the power of life (to make live or survive) and the power of death (to let die) over the individual it considers the absolute victim.”9 It seems ironic that humanitarianism, as a paradigm of post–Cold War politics, should be couched in the same terms as the critique of Communism, one of the central paradigms of the Cold War. (Indeed, it is not just the phraseology of totalitarianism that underlies the critique of both Cold War and post–Cold War politics; the two depend on the same [End Page 1] text, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.)10 Yet if there is one thing that the anthropology of Cold War Eastern Europe has shown clearly, it is that totalitarian Communist regimes were far less total than their Western critics ever realized. In taking Communist officials at their word about their practices of rule, rather than paying attention to the problems of everyday life caused by how officials really did exercise power, Western analysts grossly overestimated Soviet regimes’ ability to control all of social life and thereby completely missed the forces that undermined supposedly “totalitarian” state socialist power. Whatever the impulses of the Communist system were, totalitarianism was not total. It was the interrelationship between attempts at repression and domination and the way that people responded to lapses of power in everyday life that formed the dynamics of the system and, eventually, undermined it.11

In this essay, I would like to suggest that like Cold War–era Communist regimes, new regimes based on humanitarianism are much more limited in their reach than their ambitions might suggest. Incapable of doing all the good they claim to do, they are also not as capable of establishing sovereignty as the term “totalitarian” might suggest. By making the same error that Western analysts of Communism did—that is, dramatically overstating the...


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