Hyndman, Jennifer 2011 Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami, reviewed by Léonie Newhouse
Jennifer Hyndman, Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami, Kumarian Press, Sterling, VA, 2011, 171 pages, $75.00 cloth, $24.95 paper, ISBN 9781565493360 (cloth), 9781565493353 (paper)
‘Natural’ disasters are never only ‘natural.’ Human political, social, and economic relations play a decisive role in whether or not a natural event such as an earthquake or a hurricane becomes a disaster. In her most recent book geographer Jennifer Hyndman argues that government and international responses to natural disasters cannot be understood outside of global geopolitics and local histories. Hyndman makes an impassioned call for the place of a distinctly feminist geopolitical approach to understanding and practicing humanitarian aid, which takes into account relations of power wherever they occur.
Hyndman examines the responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and illustrates the unique complexities that emerge where pre-existing conflict, natural disasters, and international humanitarian engagement overlap. One of her primary goals is to document and analyze the “recursive effects of war on international aid and of aid on conflict” (page 84). In a field of study characterized either by internal critiques aimed at identifying ‘best practices’ or analyses that underscore the place of humanitarianism in geopolitics, Hyndman’s innovation is to draw attention to the political considerations at stake at various and interconnected scales. While Hyndman focuses on two cases—Sri Lanka and Aceh, Indonesia—the book’s purpose is not so much to compare as to juxtapose. By looking at the two cases together, Hyndman highlights the complex and contingent impact of disaster response in each place.
The majority of the book (much of Chapter 2, and Chapters 3, 4, and 5) focuses on the Sri Lankan case. Hyndman teases out the dynamics through which aid to Sri Lanka became politicized in ways that contributed to a renewal of violence. The government’s inconsistent application of a prohibition on rebuilding homes—but not businesses—in coastal buffer zones disproportionally impacted minority populations and the poor. The implementation of the buffer zone policy was widely recognized as transparently discriminatory, further deepening political mistrust and feeding the renewal of nationalist conflict in the country. But Chapters 3 and 5 go beyond an analysis framed within the boundaries of domestic Sri Lankan politics. Unpacking the polyvalent demands of securitized humanitarian aid under neo-liberalism, these chapters explore the ways in which tight domestic budgets in donor countries articulate with an international political climate of fear. Security has become a powerful logic used to justify overseas spending, but only on the condition of efficient management and proven effectiveness (page 90). Hyndman then looks at the struggles of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to implement ‘aid effectiveness’ policies in conflict-affected Sri Lanka—efforts which faced distinct, often competing pressures from aid officials, political actors in recipient states, and vocal diasporas.
Chapter 4 opens with a review of varying conceptual approaches to the incorporation of women in development planning and disaster relief. The chapter is also the most empirically rich chapter, incorporating interviews and discussions with survivors of the dual disasters to show how gender relations are differently remade for those who lost spouses to political violence and those who lost them to the waves. It is here that Hyndman makes a case for the usefulness of a feminist approach to humanitarian practice sensitive not only to gender disparities, but also to the dynamics of power in all social relations. When relations of power are not taken into consideration in relief efforts, aid can fail in the face of pre-existing social and political differences. For example, Hyndman shows how a welding training program for tsunami-affected Muslim women initially failed to attract participants because of spatial restrictions on women’s movements. The program later accommodated social and gender norms by providing women-only classes. This change made women’s participation possible and had other spatial ramifications. Families of graduates re-ordered domestic space by bring welding indoors, allowing the women to continue working while maintaining propriety.
The single chapter (Chapter 6) on Aceh is an important foil to those on Sri Lanka. Contrary to the further entrenchment of conflict that occurred after the tsunami in northern Sri Lanka, in Aceh it lent urgency to pre-existing peace efforts, culminating in a cessation of conflict which endures to this day. Yet Hyndman and chapter co-author Arno Waizenegger deftly chart how the distinction between conflict- and tsunami-affected people has conditioned access to assistance. In Aceh it was possible to make this distinction in part because these two groups were easier to differentiate geographically (victims of the earthquake and tsunami lived by and large near the coast, whereas those affected by conflict lived in inland areas). This is where a feminist geopolitical approach is most productive. It shows that the neglect of conflict-affected people compared to the efforts made to assist tsunami victims is deeply enmeshed in geopolitical positionings of certain people as “blameless” and therefore more worthy of assistance (pages 18 & 118). Building on the groundwork laid in previous chapters, Hyndman and Waizenegger link these practices of exclusion to both the neoliberalization and the securitization of aid. They demonstrate that even in a ‘success story,’ resentments surrounding differential access to humanitarian relief often simmer below the surface.
Hyndman’s book powerfully shows the need to view disaster responses in relation to the historical and geographic contexts in which they occur. Given this argument, the book is weakened by an introduction that hurriedly addresses the more recent earthquake in Haiti. While Hyndman traces Haiti’s long history of crises and details the early humanitarian responses to the 2010 earthquake, the topic demands a more sensitive, detailed treatment—and perhaps a book of its own—than is possible in a chapter meant to introduce the concept of the ‘dual disaster.’ That said, the second chapter more than makes up for it, introducing the main substance of the book, outlining the contours of the arguments that are to come in subsequent chapters and providing essential background on the political history of the conflicts and the tsunami responses on which the rest of the book relies.
For Hyndman, a feminist geopolitics inheres in tracing the ways in which political considerations at one scale rebound across others. Rather than single out one scale for analysis, she highlights the layers of connection and friction that “permeate the most intimate and global scales of social and political space” (page 16). The book’s audience is humanitarian practitioners as well as academics, and for this reason the attention to historical and geographic context and cross-scale connections is a challenge to a depoliticized disaster response industry often more interested in developing prescriptive models that can be applied irrespective of the particularities of place.
Léonie S. Newhouse, Department of Geography, University of Washington, Seattle WA 98195 USA