Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia's Somali Region

Lauren Carruth provides a useful introduction to Ethiopia's Somali region, to the practices of global health, to 'humanitarianism', and to anthropology / ethnography with her 2021 publication: Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia's Somali Region (Cornell University Press). The book helpfully deconstructs international / Euro-Western conceptualizations of humanitarianism and re-orients that within the Somali context (linguistic, socio-cultural, political, historical, religious). The book is accessible and likely will find a home in undergraduate many courses. Additionally helpful for readers is the extensive use of narratives and personal stories, which makes the book very readable. Far too little research focuses on Ethiopia's Somali region, and this is a welcome addition.

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The World's Emergency Room

Michael VanRooyen's book (2016) "The World's Emergency Room: The Growing Threat to Doctors, Nurses, and Humanitarian Workers" presents a personal narratives of work in the humanitarian sector. While readers do gain glimpses of humanitarian work, and of the challenging settings staff work within, the book does not make a forceful argument about the growing threat to medical professionals (as the sub-title would imply). The book is an interesting read. It sheds light on the challenges of the sector, the author's interest and efforts to professionalize it, and specifically the work of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

The context:

  • "Today, nearly 60 million people have been displaced form their homes by war or catastrophe, more than at any time since World War II. While such huge numbers can feel abstract, the threats to families and communities are very real and very personal. Refugees live in makeshift shelters and temporary settlements, struggling day to day to survive. They have little food, not enough clean water, and few resources for health care for their children. Rates of malnutrition, diarrhea, and respiratory infection are exceptionally higher among refugees than among the population at large. The same is true for violent crimes like rape, abduction and human trafficking. Humanitarian aid works are often on the front lines of these conflicts."(p. 6)


  • "Finally, I understood. I knew nothing of her struggles. I had come form relative wealth and privilege, had never known hunger or feared for my life. I carried a passport in my back pocket and could leave at any time. I had been indignant at the indifference of these women, but they were faced with an impossible dilemma… And I wasn't alone. I realized that most of us, despite our past experiences and good intentions, had little idea of the complexities we were facing in Somalia." (p. 48)

On changing situations:

  • "… the US government made it clear that US-based NGOs receiving government funds were an integral part of the nation's foreign policy. As a result, the perception of these NGOs changed. They were now seen as extensions of the American government, and part of a strategy to improve global public opinion of the United States, rather than simply altruistic humanitarians. The use of aid to engender goodwill is neither new nor novel. But in the aftermath of 9/11, the use of foreign aid as an instrument to improve the public image of the United States and advance US foreign policy placed NGO personnel's lives in danger in a new way." (p. 107)

An improving sector?

  • "Watching the humanitarian free-for-all unfold provided unwelcome evidence that the aid "industry" had not moved very far beyond the problems at the 1990s. The aid effort in Haiti was overrun by neophytes with good (and bad) intentions that reflected terribly on the entire aid community. My career had been built on the notion that we could professionalize humanitarian aid responses. But, the onslaught of novice agencies, inexperienced surgical teams, and disaster tourists created what seemed to be an overwhelming problem that no amount of training or organization could change." (p. 151)
  • "This lack of on-the-spot sharing of information is not only common, but the norm. As a result, organizations have no ability to learn from each other on the ground in real time. The opportunity to coordinate is lost almost immediately. Dozens of organizations work alongside each other, but they can't provide their information to each other, to local providers, or to the ministry of health. This pattern of aid agencies rushing to the field to gather their own information for their own programs creates a cycle of un-coordination and non-collaboration." (p. 173)
  • "The response to the Haiti and the Ebola crises revealed the dangers of novice aid. Freshly minted NGOs will inevitably respond to future emergencies in similar ways, pushing into the field in an effort to make their name and providing aid solutions without a sense of professional accountability. These efforts will consume aid dollars and create little in the way of lasting, sustainable solutions – and sometimes not even adequate short-term solutions." (p. 184)
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