Lisa Smirl, ‘Spaces of Aid’

Spaces of AidSpaces of Aid is 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. The book gives academic credibility to some ‘home truths’ many development workers will recognise, and contains some interesting insights on the post-tsunami reconstruction of Aceh, Indonesia. But does it actually include any lessons from the people that it says aid agencies are losing touch with – the people they are trying to help?

It’s often difficult to know what the impact of a development project really is. Whatever changes have happened in the project’s ‘target area’ might not be due to the project at all but caused by other factors (see a debate on this related to the Millennium Villages project). The bigger and more complex a programme is, the harder it is to be sure about what effects the programme is really having. But for all this uncertainty, one kind of programme effect is virtually guaranteed: the import of four wheel drive vehicles, the rental of office space and houses for expatriates, and large numbers of nights in international hotels.

Lisa Smirl, who sadly died aged only 37 in 2013, put these aspects of development – usually considered tangential or unimportant – front and centre of her Doctoral research. Spaces of Aid is a posthumous publication of her PhD thesis, and is the first full-length study of what is sometimes referred to as ‘Aid Land’. Smirl’s central argument is that aid workers’ increasing isolation from the people they are trying to help leads them to misunderstand those people and this has significant effects on the kind of aid that is ultimately delivered.

The book starts with three theoretical chapters, and finishes with two case studies on post-conflict reconstruction in Aceh after the tsunami and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The theoretical chapters are quite hard going and jargon heavy in parts, reflecting the fact that Smirl never had the chance to edit the thesis for publication – but make a clear case that the increasing securitisation of aid, the fortification of humanitarian compounds, the high staff turnover and other factors combine to make aid workers’ experience of ‘the field’ a kind of parallel universe from the one in which project beneficiaries actually live. She argues that time in the field, for most aid workers, ends up being about staying in hotels, driving through the landscape in four wheel drive vehicles and socialising with other expatriates, with little time left for engagement with the people who live in these areas. The picture of ‘the field’ they then feed back to headquarters is deeply distorted and originates from conversations within these protected spaces rather than from any first hand understanding of the real lives of the victims of humanitarian crises. One particularly hard-hitting chapter reviews figures on attacks against aid workers: Smirl argues that the perception that aid workers are increasingly under attack is unfounded. Although the total number of attacks has increased in recent years, the increase is attributable to a small number of countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. Also during this time the total number of humanitarian workers has increased significantly and so, in Smirl’s view, the likelihood of any individual aid worker being attacked has, on average, reduced. She argues that what is happening is not increased insecurity leading to securitisation of aid – but increased securitisation itself leading to aid workers’ perception that they are under threat.

The chapter on post-tsunami Aceh was the most interesting for me, providing an account of how the massive availability of funds and the need for measurable results led to a frenzy of house-building, as development agencies and NGOs – with little or no experience in construction – scrambled to build some 120,000 small, two- to four-room houses. When these houses were not used as intended (e.g. families acquired two houses, did not move in but rented houses out or used them as collateral for loans), aid workers felt betrayed and cried ‘corruption’. But the origins of the problem lay in donors’ lack of understanding of beneficiaries’ perspectives. The insistence on victims demonstrating ownership of the previously destroyed houses meant that those assisted were not the poorest but the middle or upper class. Many of their destroyed houses had been large and had more than one family living in them, but aid agencies applied a strict policy of building only one new home for each destroyed one. And most important, aid workers had a conception of the house as semi-sacred ‘gift’ which should not be rejected or misused, whilst local people saw the house as a commodity to be used as other commodities.

The chapter on the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina makes an interesting case that donors’ misunderstanding of beneficiaries’ perspectives is not limited to a context where rich, foreign aid workers descend on a poor, supposedly backward country. Reviewing Brad Pitt’s ‘Make it Right’ campaign to rebuild the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Smirl argues that architects’ focus on super-modern, eco-friendly reconstruction was more intended to impress Pitt and the international media than the residents themselves. At the time of the book’s writing some 85% of addresses in the lower ninth ward remained vacant or unoccupied. But whilst this chapter shows how deep problems of misunderstanding of ‘victims’ or ‘beneficiaries’ runs in humanitarian work even in rich countries, it seems to undermine the arguments Smirl had just developed about humanitarian compounds and cultural isolation of aid workers in developing countries. If aid workers can misunderstand beneficiaries even when they speak the same language, what particular role does the isolation of development workers in humanitarian compounds and four wheel drive vehicles play?

Spaces of Aid is about humanitarian work, especially post-conflict reconstruction, but its main points are valid in many other developing country contexts. In my most recent role in Tanzania, I spent most of my working life inside a heavily fortified office compound, managed ‘field trips’ about once a year and, despite my efforts to learn Swahili, ended up socialising more with other expatriates than with Tanzanians. Globally, development workers are prevented from engaging with beneficiaries by staff security concerns, requests for bureaucratic form-filling from headquarters (which DFID is trying to reduce), and the contracting out of responsibility for actually delivering programmes to complex chains of private companies, other development agencies, international and local NGOs. In this context I agree with Smirl that there is a risk development workers become isolated from the populations they are trying to help, and when they do engage with beneficiaries it is too often in highly staged ways.

But whilst I agree with this main point, I was frustrated with Spaces of Aid in some ways too. For a book which is all about how aid workers misunderstand beneficiaries, the actual voices of these beneficiaries are disappointingly absent. Smirl’s critique of the SUV (4×4 to those on the East side of the Atlantic) includes claims that “to the Third World” it “has arguably come to represent […] petroleum-fuelled inequality” but this does not seem to be based on any actual views of people in developing countries. On the contrary, some such as Chinua Achebe have complained that downtrodden people retain a disappointing reverence for symbols of wealth and power such as smart cars. Similarly, the account of the rise of the fortified humanitarian compound does not mention the fact that many ordinary middle and lower-middle class people’s houses in urban settings in developing countries are surrounded by high walls – at least this is the case in Dar es Salaam and Addis Ababa, the two cities I’ve most recently lived in. There is a lot of theorising in Spaces of Aid about what compounds and big cars may mean to people in developing countries, but little evidence of what these people actually think.


I see this as disappointing because the idea of writing a book about the effects of aid agencies’ misunderstandings of life in developing countries is a fascinating one. It left me hungry for more research on the actual effects of what Smirl calls the ‘built environment’ of aid, as far as we can estimate this – rather than just theories about the kind of effect it might be having. Any exploration of these effects would have to take more account of the views of the intended ‘beneficiaries’ themselves. But this should not be an impossible task. It is just very sad that Lisa Smirl will not be around to do that research herself.


One thought on “Lisa Smirl, ‘Spaces of Aid’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s