- A House of One’s Own: The Moral Economy of Post-Disaster Aid in El Salvador by Alicia Sliwinski
A House of One’s Own: The Moral Economy of Post-Disaster Aid in El Salvador.
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018. x + 251 pp. Illustrations, tables and index. $32.95 paper (ISBN 978-0-7735-5292-0); $110 cloth (ISBN 978-0-7735-5291-3); $32.95 electronic (ISBN 978-0-7735-5294-4)
Alicia sliwinski’s book is a detailed and reflexive ethnographic account of the contradictory and difficult dynamics that underpin humanitarian assistance, especially food aid and housing provision, in the aftermath of disaster. It is based on in-depth and long-term fieldwork with a small group of survivors of the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador who were enrolled in a self-help housing project in which they were expected to provide their labour in return for a house.
The author aims to understand the social relations of power, the forms of identity construction and modes of humanitarianism that emerge in this context. She does so by mobilizing and developing two key concepts. The first is that of moral economy – the question of what the right thing is to do in this situation – and the second is that of the gift, focused here on the tension between what is a right to which one is entitled and what is a gift for which one should be grateful. In combination, these two concepts have substantial analytical purchase for understanding the post-disaster landscape. In exploring these issues, Sliwinski traverses a great deal of terrain, including the spiralling lack of trust, disaster-related forms of social categorisation, the complexities of community participation, the role of NGOs and religious organizations, and gender relations, themes that will be of interest to both disaster scholars and aid agencies engaged in disaster response and reconstruction initiatives.
The key strength of the book is its analysis of the kinds of social dynamics engendered by the gift-giving and reconstruction process, in which survivors are also constructed as [End Page 294] victims, beneficiaries and unpaid labourers and must therefore assume or resist these identities. Rather than replicate tropes of suffering or victimhood, Sliwinski focuses on the (limited) agency of survivors to negotiate the situation in which they found themselves, as they encountered both the aid industry in situ and each other. The book poignantly captures the substantial challenges of living and working in such conditions and underscores how well-intentioned aid projects and aid workers often humiliate those they are supposed to help and thus contribute to the generation of feelings of mistrust. She also pays close attention to the gendered dynamics of disaster, in a way that avoids the simplification, essentialism, and reification of much work on the intersections of gender and disaster, and as such the book is an extremely useful addition to that literature.
Sliwinksi raises important issues that have arisen in my own disaster research in Central America. As she recognizes, the legacies of conflict and civil war complicate the Central American region’s hazard and disaster susceptibility, and we must not divorce a disaster event from the longer-term political and structural conditions that produce vulnerabilities. But this book also encouraged me to reflect anew on work I did two decades ago on a post-Hurricane Mitch housing project in Nicaragua, where the situation was similarly dominated by community conflicts, mistrust, and the frequent absence of gratitude, which the NGOs working there struggled to accept. Women and men worked alongside each other on the building site and there was a clear gendered division of labour at work there, but unlike Sliwinski, I did not pay adequate attention to the gendered interactions that unfolded there. I found Sliwinski’s accounts of flirting between men and women on the building site and the divisions this created between single mothers and partnered mothers extremely interesting. This book also provides timely insights that I will seek to take into my current project working with survivors of the eruption of the Fuego Volcano in Guatemala, where communities are fragmented and fragmenting partly as a result...