Humanitarian aid is often presented as a technical project, one that uses the tools and techniques of industrial management to efficiently deliver life-saving help in the midst of crisis. For critics of humanitarianism, bureaucratization allows humanitarians to reduce beneficiaries to mere victims and to conduct political action under the guise of an apolitical regime of care. But does humanitarianism actually function as effectively as either its critics or its proponents claim? In this paper, I argue that rather than functioning as a bureaucracy, humanitarianism is actually an adhocracy: a regime of governance that uses epistemologies such as guessing, rules of thumb, improvisation and satisficing. Because of its ad hoc nature, humanitarianism fails to create either beneficial or nefarious order, and instead creates chaos that prevents displaced people from rebuilding their lives.
Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is Associate Professor of Geography and International Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her first book, Privatizing Poland (Cornell 2004) won both the Ed. A. Hewett and Orbis Book Prizes. Trained as an anthropologist, she was the first non-economist to win the Hewett Prize for the study of socialist or post-socialist economies. Her current work focuses on the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, humanitarianism, and internally displaced people. Her work has been published in American Ethnologist, Humanity, and the Iowa Review, among other venues.