London, United Kingdom

Fire, Famine and Conflict: The Politics of Humanitarian Interventions

when 22 June 2020 - 10 July 2020
language English
duration 3 weeks
credits 4 EC
fee GBP 2500

This interdisciplinary course looks at international, national and local humanitarian responses to conflict and natural disasters. Building on an analysis of the causes, construction and consequences of humanitarian disasters, we consider the principles and the politics of humanitarian action; exploring the overlaps and tensions between practices of humanitarian assistance and humanitarian intervention and how humanitarian institutions shape and are shaped by global governance and state power.

We consider why humanitarian organisations and governments respond to some crises and not to others as well as the critique of humanitarian assistance and the ways in which the UN and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO)/Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) communities have sought to professionalise their activities. We analyse the ways in which humanitarianism relates to ideas about human rights and justice, state interests and the politics of global governance and security.

Programme structure:

The course begins by exploring the nature of humanitarianism and its relationship with capitalism, colonialism and faith before unpacking some of the consequences of this history for the contemporary humanitarian system.

Vulnerability and Responses
It then looks at the way in which societies construct the discourses surrounding disasters as ‘social imaginaries’. This provides an analytical framework for exploring how crises are neglected, supported, distorted and whose interests these processes serve. In particular, we look at the role of the media, early warning systems and states in selecting crises for response. We then turn our attention to the ways in which human vulnerability to disaster agents is constructed. Natural hazards do not affect people in disaster-hit areas equally. Rather, consequences stem from the interaction of natural hazards and factors that are embedded in social, economic, political, cultural and ideological structures that determine unequal access to resources, opportunities and control over power. Hence the consequences of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2012) and the Nepalese Earthquake (2015) were amplified by underlying social relationships. Of these structural issues, gender relations are amongst the most significant. In this section, we also explore the ways in which famines are produced: who is constructed as ‘vulnerable’, who benefits, how they emerge and the types of policy responses that are provided by the international system. We extend this analysis to armed conflict: introducing and analysing the political economy of ‘new wars’ and the ways in which these impact on contemporary humanitarian actors and populations.

We then move onto explore the devastating critiques of humanitarian action that emerged in the mid-1990s. We introduce a range of criticisms; from those that challenge the performance and technical functioning of the system through to more theoretical Foucauldian analyses that seek to characterise the system’s functions in North-South relations, world ordering and the promotion of liberal peace. The critiques are set against analyses of the reform of the UN humanitarian and NGO system – looking in particular at issues of accountability, localization, rights-based assistance, disaster risk reduction and professionalization and the extent to which these are able to address the general critiques of the humanitarian system.

The Major Debates
The next section explores a series of major concerns of humanitarian workers: the impact of technology on humanitarian assistance and the humanitarian system, the issue of the perceived contraction of humanitarian space and the securitization of aid; the related issues of military-led ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the protection of civilians; and the rise of ‘resiliency humanitarianism’. Finally, we look at the adequacy of the refugee regime and the extent to which its legal instruments and humanitarian institutions are able to address the challenges of and for refugee populations.

Specific topics include:
- The origins of ‘humanitarianism’: Faith, Capitalism and Colonialism
- Socially Constructing Crises: Aid Flows, Neglecting crises, Interests and the Media's interaction with states and the humanitarian -system
- Vulnerability, Gender and Natural Disasters
- Famine theories and the limits of entitlements
- War systems: greed, grievance, counterinsurgency
- The Critique of Humanitarianism: From Foucault to Function
- Reforming the Humanitarian system: Professionalization, Regulation, Certification and Standards
- The Impact of Technology on Humanitarianism
- Resiliency humanitarianism
- Humanitarian space and securitization
- Humanitarian intervention and the protection of civilians
- Refugees, the internally displaced and forced migration.

Course leader

Dr Stuart Gordon and Professor David Keen

Target group

Undergraduate and Graduate students


Course aim

Students will be able to understand and analyse:

- The origins of the humanitarian system
- The nature of vulnerability and the politics of disaster response
- The theoretical criticisms of the humanitarian system and how the latter has sought to reform
- The major political debates in the contemporary humanitarian system

Credits info

4 EC
Typical credit: 3-4 credits (US) 7.5 ECTS points (EU). You will need to check with your home institution. Assessment is optional.

Fee info

GBP 2500: Discounts apply when booking multiple courses. LSE Summer School runs three sessions during the summer, and students can book one course per session. Save 32% on your second course and 68% on your third course when booking.