From humanitarianism to humanitarianization

Intimacy, estrangement, and international aid in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Andrew C. Gilbert

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caption: Returning refugees surround the US ambassador on a visit to the Stari Grad neighborhood of Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 15, 2002. (Andrew Gilbert)

In 2002, Bosnia and Herzegovina was the site of massive housing-reconstruction projects run by international aid organizations as part of a plan to move refugees back to their prewar homes. Alongside the usual technical tasks of such projects, aid workers spent considerable time and effort establishing and stabilizing the categorical distinction between things humanitarian and things political.

Analysis of these efforts by one aid organization reveals the often-overlooked social and cultural work necessary to maintain a humanitarian field of operation, demonstrating that the humanitarian status of aid projects is never more than provisionally settled. This unstable, provisional nature of humanitarian action constitutes an underexplored dynamic shaping and limiting international responses to suffering and need.

Returning refugees surround the US ambassador on a visit to the Stari Grad neighborhood of Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 15, 2002.
Returning refugees surround the US ambassador on a visit to the Stari Grad neighborhood of Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 15, 2002. (Andrew C. Gilbert)