Aid, Architecture and security: the spatial turn

  • Duffield, Mark R (Principal Investigator)

Project Details


The aid industry is comprised of different local, national and international institutions and their associated workers. Through the medium of contracts, payments and wage relations, these institutions and people have the betterment of others as their ultimate aim. In terms of the numbers of workers involved, it is probably among the largest employment sectors in the world today. Outside many of Africa's capital cities, for example, the aid industry is often the only viable employer. A generation ago, someone with a university degree would likely aspire to state employment. Today, however, working for an aid agency, or starting one's own NGO, is more typical. Despite this growing importance as an employer and a corresponding increase in the number of aid organisations, the aid industry itself has been noticeable by its absence as a site of enquiry and research. It has been successful in concealing its own materiality and accompanying spatial effects. One of aid's preferred self-images is that of transience and impermanence. Through its own acts of commission and completion, the ethos of the aid industry is that of working itself out of a job. Hidden within this optimism, however, is a growing institutional footprint especially in the world's crisis and transitional zones. Since the 1960s, there has been an incremental but largely undocumented expansion in the number of aid organisations, NGOs, multilateral agencies, coordinating bodies and, not least, national and international aid workers together with the accommodation, office and transport infrastructure necessary to support them.

Serious study of the material and spatial effects of the aid industry is overdue. Apart from the empirical challenge of simply counting aid workers, a number of modes of enquiry are possible; for example, exploring the interconnection between aid, architecture and security. That is, examining security and risk reduction in relation to aid's built architecture, especially, its office, accommodation and transport infrastructures. As a protected and privileged zone of international space, the aid compound has a long history. By the end of the 1990s, however, an important shift had occurred within post-Cold War liberal interventionism. Its initial humanitarian phase had vectored into a concern with societal and state reconstruction. This shift marks the transition from an interventionary to a post-interventionary political space; a move from short-term humanitarian objectives to the re-establishment of acceptable government through the contingencies of indefinite occupation. Compared to an earlier demand for neutrality, aid and politics have been thrown together in a new urgency to secure liberalism's external sovereign frontier. In this current manifestation of the old development-security nexus, the distinction between the aid worker and the security agent has blurred. Consequently, where the aid industry once thought itself above politics, while not universal, attacks on aid property, kidnapping and the murder of aid workers have increased.

Pulsing from its epicentre in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Occupied Territories a common spatial feature of post-interventionary society is the militarization of aid architecture. From the Caribbean through Africa to East Asia, via the institutional medium of the UN Integrated Mission, the fortified aid compound, with its double fences, razor-wire and guards, exerts a pervasive presence. Driven by insurance requirements and the need to reduce risk, much of this architecture precedes the insecurity it is meant to defend against. Coupled with the appearance of mandatory field-security training for aid workers, the fortified aid compound complements an increasingly segregated form of aid work. Development and reconstruction efforts take the form of security-vetted sorties from the protected compound. Interaction with aid beneficiaries looses spontaneity for contrived, structured and time-limited encounters. Wired into an international space of flows through exclusive transport linkages, fortified aid compounds mark out an archipelago of aid within the global borderland. They manifest an outpost, an external sovereign frontier, where liberalism comes face-to-face with underdevelopment as dangerous.

Through photography, anecdotes, life-histories and beneficiary perceptions, the aid, architecture and security project seeks to document the spread of fortified aid compounds and understand their material and spatial effects.‌
Effective start/end date1/02/081/10/08

Structured keywords

  • SPAIS Global Insecurities Centre