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Disaster, Development and Humanitarian Reason (CFP)

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AAG Pre-Conference

February 24th, 2022

Rutgers University

“As development expenditure gives way to humanitarian assistance, we are watching the unedifying spectacle of the rich world, patching up the worst of the casualties its policies have created while pretending to be a magnanimity”

- Middleton and O’Keefe. Disaster and Development: The Politics of Humanitarian Aid

Disasters are the moments in space and time when underlying relations that produce endemic crises of capitalism are made visible. The production and reproduction of vulnerability that ultimately causes these disasters to materialize has been studied for nearly fifty years (O’Keefe et. al, 1976). Since, vulnerability as a concept has evolved in many directions now emerging as a dominant discourse alongside the concept of resilience to disaster. This evolution is not exclusive to places tied to former (and ongoing) colonial dynamics of uneven development, but is now increasingly relevant in rich but unequal countries of the global north.

The project of development everywhere is in crisis, faced with the ecological limits of economic growth and the increasing number of disasters wrought by a century of ill-fated ideas of modernity and progress. Food, water and housing crises, mass migrations and vulnerability to armed conflict, natural hazards and environmental degradation are increasingly informing a politics of disaster relief that is reshaping the development sector and tying it ever more intimately with humanitarianism. The deployment of this humanitarian reason is paradoxical, for the politics of compassion is both a politics of inequality and a politics of solidarity, one that binds relations of dominance and assistance into a socially palatable framework of concern (Fassin, 2011). In the process of managing precarious lives, humanitarian interventions restructure capital flows and develop governance mechanisms that have come to occupy key positions in the contemporary moral order (Barnett, 2011).

Organized through a diverse constellation of institutional actors, responses to disaster and human suffering involve socio-political contests among supranational organizations, state governments, NGOs, foundations, individual donors, aid and relief workers. As such, humanitarianism has emerged as a growing field of inquiry for scholars studying the politics of aid and emergency assistance (Hyndman, 2000; Bornstein and Redfield, 2011; Kapoor, 2013, Reid-Henry, 2013, Richey and Chouliaraki, 2017, Pallister-Wilkins, 2018). Yet this literature has yet to be adequately linked to the rich body of scholarship on political ecology including disasters, vulnerability and risk (O’Keefe, 1976; Blaikie 1985; Watts and Bohle, 1993; Wisner et. al, 2003; Adger, 2006; Ribot, 2014)

This blurring of the lines between humanitarianism, disaster relief and development is especially concerning in light of the intensifying effects of climate change, the accelerating reorganization of the geopolitical terrain and its attendant networks of power over international aid flows. The restructuring of the international donor community is upending the traditional moral basis that has linked development to humanitarianism and its attendant neoliberal policies are being challenged by the rise of new state and non-state actors.

From a historical perspective, the intensification of humanitarian action across the world forces a consideration of the tight links between the mobilization of compassion and the expansion of market and state power (Reid-Henry, 2013). From a geographical perspective, the structural relationship between the metropole and the periphery, as a constitutive element of humanitarianism (Lester, 2002), forces a consideration of the way in which systems of care are organized across space and scale. This includes the governance mechanisms and territorial frameworks that come to shape the allocation of resources to governments and aid recipients.

In this pre-conference we aim to revisit the rich literature on the intersection between disaster and development, while advancing these debates in light of the rapid reorganization of international networks of aid and development through humanitarian logics. We seek contributions relating to the following lines of inquiry:

  • Long-historical view of disaster and development

  • Moral framings of development and disaster

  • Infrastructure development and disaster preparedness

  • Humanitarian Governance

  • HumDev Nexus

  • Bottom up/informal responses to disaster and development

  • Mutual Aid, community driven development and disaster

  • Green capitalism and humanitarianism

  • Ethical branding and development

  • Environmental risk assessments

  • Racial and gendered politics of humanitarian assistance

  • Human rights and disaster

  • Food aid and emergency food assistance

  • Hydro development and disaster

  • Emergency shelter and disaster

  • Decolonizing aid and development

  • South - South disaster response

  • Diaspora and disaster

  • Data, development and disaster


We welcome submissions for virtual and in-person presentations. Please send title and brief abstract (250 words) to jlohnes@mail.wvu.eduand paul.okeefe@rutgers.eduby December 15th and indicate your preference for presenting virtually and/or in-person. Presenters will be notified by January10th.


This pre-conference is supported by Rutgers University, the West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities and the Development Geographies specialty group of AAG


Joshua Lohnes - West Virginia University -

Paul O’Keefe - Rutgers University -

Alvin Maingi Solomon - University of New Hampshire -


Adger, W.N., 2006. Vulnerability.Global environmental change,16(3), pp.268-281.

Barnett, Michael. 2011.Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism.Cornell University Press

Blaikie, P. et. al.2005.At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters.Routledge.

Bornstein, E. and Redfield, P.2011.Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism Between Ethics and Politics.School for Advanced Research Press.

Fassin, Didier.2011.Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA

Hyndman, Jennifer.2000.Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism. University of Minnesota Press

Kapoor, Illan.2013.Celebrity humanitarianism: the ideology of global charity.Routledge, London

Lester, A.2002. Obtaining the ‘due observance of justice’: the geographies of colonial humanitarianism.Environment and Planning D: Society and Space,20(3), pp.277-293.

Middleton, N. and O'Keefe, P.1997.Disaster and development: the politics of humanitarian aid. Pluto Press.

Pallister-Wilkens, Polly. 2018.Hotspots and the geographies of humanitarianism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Reid-Henry, S.M.2013.Humanitarianism as liberal diagnostic: humanitarian reason and the political rationalities of the liberal will‐to‐care.Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(3): 418-431.

Ribot, J., 2014.Cause and response: vulnerability and climate in the Anthropocene.The Journal of Peasant Studies,41(5), pp.667-705.

Richey, L.A. and Chouliaraki, L.2017.Everyday Humanitarianism: Ethics, Affects and Practices. New Political Science, 39:2, 314-316

Watts, M. Bohle, H.1993.Hunger, Famine and the Space of Vulnerability.Geojournal. 30(2): 117­125

Wisner, B.2003.Changes in capitalism and global shifts in the distribution of hazard and vulnerability(pp. 59-72). Routledge.