The Humanitarian Compound and the (De) Constructing of Social Relations in Kenya
Gemma Houldey (University of Sussex)
Paper short abstract:
Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, this paper argues that the conditions of the fortified humanitarian compound common to many disaster areas shape relationships between the aid worker and colleagues, 'beneficiaries', family and loved ones.
Paper long abstract:
Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Kenya, this paper proposes that the conditions of the fortified humanitarian compound common to many disaster areas shape how aid workers interact with the outside world. Focusing on national and international staff working for humanitarian agencies in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, I will argue that the humanitarian compound and its related policies have evolved from a security narrative that emphasises the dangers of the aid environment. The compound serves to increase the social and spatial distance between aid giver and aid receiver, whilst also creating close bonds between aid agency staff who are largely confined within this infrastructure. The rules of the compound impose specific restrictions on what sorts of relationships are acceptable and which are not - with family life largely written out of policy and practice. This has implications for how men and women, and staff from the global north and global south, navigate their social lives and career aspirations. In a situation where many everyday norms governing human interaction don't apply, there emerges a culture of permissibility regarding particular social relations, including extra-marital affairs and the use of sex workers. The paper argues that the humanitarian compound and its associated objects and working practices provide a space for both escapism and isolation, and that behaviour is shaped by an aid worker's socio-economic circumstances, by their status of 'national' or 'international' staff, and by gender and race.
Thinking through aid objects to open up development