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The everyday emotional lives of aid workers: how humanitarian anxiety gets in the way of meaningful local participation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2021

Amoz J. Y. Hor*
Affiliation:
Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
*
Author for correspondence: Amoz J. Y. Hor, E-mail: amozhor@gwu.edu

Abstract

Participatory approaches to humanitarianism, peacebuilding, and international development promise to listen to the voices of local aid beneficiaries. However, aid workers often listen to these voices through reductive narratives of aid beneficiaries, ventriloquizing their voice and inhibiting meaningful participation. Why do aid workers – despite humane intentions – continue to rely on reductive narratives? This paper inquires how the everyday emotional lives of aid workers make reductive narratives persist. Based on 65 semi-structured interviews in Singapore, Jakarta, and Aceh, and 40 aid worker books and blogs, I show how aid workers regularly experience emotional anxieties that question their complicity in the suffering of others and their powerlessness to do anything about it. Reductive narratives resonate and persist because they allow aid workers to cope with these anxieties. I illustrate the emotional resonance of three reductive narratives – civilizing; romanticized; and impersonal narratives – in three common practices of local participation in aid work: professionalized standards; visiting the field; and hiring locals. Given the emotional origins of reductive narratives, rational critique is insufficient for reforming or decolonizing aid work. Rather, change must also involve engaging the underlying emotions of aid workers.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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