Humanitarianism and Unequal Exchange

Raja Swamy


This article examines the relationship between humanitarian aid and ecologically unequal exchange in the context of post-disaster reconstruction. I assess the manner in which humanitarian aid became a central part of the reconstruction process in India's Tamil Nadu state following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This article focuses on how the humanitarian “gift” of housing became a central plank of the state's efforts to push fishers inland while opening up coastal lands for various economic development projects such as ports, infrastructure, industries, and tourism. As part of the state and multilateral agency financed reconstruction process, the humanitarian aid regime provided “free” houses as gifts to recipients while expecting in return the formal abandonment of all claims to the coast. The humanitarian “gift” therefore helped depoliticize critical issues of land and resources, location and livelihood, which prior to the tsunami were subjects of long-standing political conflicts between local fisher populations and the state. The gift economy in effect played into an ongoing conflict over land and resources and effectively sought to ease the alienation of fishers from their coastal commons and near shore marine resource base. I argue that humanitarian aid, despite its associations with benevolence and generosity, presents a troubling and disempowering set of options for political struggles over land, resources, and social entitlements such as housing, thereby intensifying existing ecological and economic inequalities.


gift, humanitarianism, disaster, coastal fisheries, artisanal fishing, marine fisheries, NGO, disaster capitalism, neoliberalism, economic development, Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, reconstruction displacement, commons, neoliberalism

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