Spaces of Aid

How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism

Lisa Smirl


A landmark work that – through analysing the three key symbolic sites of the grand hotel, the SUV and the compound – shows why we urgently need to think differently about humanitarian theory and practice

Aid workers commonly bemoan that the experience of working in the field sits uneasily with the goals they’ve signed up to: visiting project sites in air-conditioned Land Cruisers while the intended beneficiaries walk barefoot through the heat, or checking emails from within gated compounds while surrounding communities have no running water.

Spaces of Aid provides the first book-length analysis of what has colloquially been referred to as Aid Land. It explores in depth two high-profile case studies, the Aceh tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, in order to uncover a fascinating history of the objects and spaces that have become an endemic yet unexamined part of the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Author Bio

Lisa Smirl was a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex. She worked previously for the United Nations Development Programme in Africa, Southeast Europe and Central Asia. A Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, she did graduate work at the London School of Economics and completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2010. Lisa was from Manitoba, Canada. She died in 2013 at the age of 37.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. Stories from the field, stories of 'the field': how aid workers experience the space of the field mission
  • 2. Exploring the humanitarian enclave
  • 3. How the built environment shapes humanitarian intervention
  • 4. Building home away from home: post-tsunami Aceh and the single-family house
  • 5. Playing house: rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Katrina
  • Conclusion


'An intriguing book on a neglected subject: the increasing trend towards aid workers barricading themselves away from "target populations" in fortified compounds, four wheel drives and grand hotels.'
Development Book Review

'Inspirational. Lisa Smirl was one of the first to expose the spatial dimensions of aid and thus open to view a whole new area of critique and research.'
Mark Duffield, professor emeritus at the University of Bristol and honorary professor, University of Birmingham; author of Global Governance and the New Wars

'No humanitarian scholar or aid worker can afford to ignore the political and moral realities with which this path-breaking work confronts us.'
Professor Stephen Hopgood, SOAS University of London, and author of The Endtimes of Human Rights and Keepers of the Flame

'Lisa Smirl was one of the most original and brilliant academics working on the global humanitarian order.'
Tim Dunne, professor of international relations, University of Queensland

'Spaces of Aid is masterfully researched, theoretically innovative, and analytically sophisticated. It is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding or improving humanitarian interventions.'
Severine Autesserre, Barnard College, Columbia University

'A fascinating and well-written book that unearths an important, but often unseen, part of the humanitarian world.'
Michael Barnett, George Washington University, and author of The Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism

'A ground-breaking work, which introduces a spatial dimension to humanitarian analysis while spanning fields, disciplines, and geographical areas, in order to explore what is going wrong and what might be done about it.'
Professor Oliver Richmond, University of Manchester

'Lisa Smirl's remarkable book teaches us that objects and structures of privilege such as the SUV and gated apartment complex contribute to the insecurity perpetuated by the international aid industry. An inspiring read.'
Marsha Henry, LSE

'The book is a critical examination of the aid landscape, looking at how the built environment of humanitarian staff - from gated communities and hotels to air-conditioned cars and mobile phones - alters power relations between international aid workers and local communities. Well worth reading.'
Lucy Siegle. The Guardian


Publication Date: 12 March 2015
264 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781783603497
Hardback: 9781783603503
eBook ePub: 9781783603527
eBook PDF: 9781783603510
eBook Kindle: 9781783603534

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