Review of Monica Krause’s book “the Good Project Humanitarian Relief and the Fragmentation of Reason”

the good project pic

In my research, I use a Bourdieu-inspired theoretical framework to understand why international protection actors interact the way they do. While much of the recent ethnographic literature on the aid world has shed light on every day practices of intervention and is therefore helpful for understanding how organizations function, the descriptions often remain on the micro level. Bourdieu’s theoretical framework requests a similar empirical focus but pushes for reconstructing a more holistic picture of the system and why it functions in the described ways. Similarly, I found much of the organizational theory unsatisfying because it only explains part of the picture. For instance, most organizational behavior is explained by interests, which are generally assumed to be pre-existing and stable. Interest-based frameworks do not offer answers to one of my central puzzles, which is: how do aspiring aid workers, with all their idealism, turn into interest-focused strategists? In contrast, Bourdieu brings rational and sociological factors together in a way that allows for incorporating the different explanations from organizational theorists into one more holistic framework. An added value of his work is the skillful articulation of the interaction between structure and agency.

Empirically, Bourdieu’s focus on power and competition breaks with the self-description of the aid world and offers insights beyond its harmonious rhetoric. Although the concept of “symbolic capital” first appears abstract, it is particularly useful for understanding what keeps the aid world up and running. Arguably, legitimacy is particularly important for Aidland, which explains many of the sector’s schizophrenic tendencies, such as the tensions between elevated moral claims and constant under-achievement. However, grappling with Bourdieu’s concepts can be challenging (in its freedom) and bears the risk of over-theorizing. He sketches his theoretical underpinnings only briefly over a number of relatively inaccessible publications. While there exist a large amount of useful secondary literature, I remained unsure if it is indeed the most accurate framework for capturing the “field” of humanitarian intervention and whether I really need the theory to describe the empirical reality. Hence, other applications of Bourdieu’s theory are of particular interest to my work.

Monika Krause’s 2014 book “The good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason” represents one of the most consequential and strongest applications of Bourdieu’s theory to the aid world (a strong contender being Catherine Goetze’s more recent “Distinction of Peace”). Contrary to other analysts of “Aidland”, such as Lisa Smirl and Séverine Autesserre, Krause is a sociologist who has not worked for NGOs or the UN and who has conducted much more limited fieldwork. Instead she has a stronger theoretical focus, which she applied to produce a rare system-level analysis of the aid world. However, the strength of this book is not its solid theoretical foundation but the insights they lead to: a revealing description of how the aid world functions and why it functions that way. While other authors are stronger in depicting the everyday practices of the sector, Krause’s holistic picture of the aid world is very convincing. For instance in chapter two, when she not only argues but explains why donors – and not beneficiaries – are at the center of organizational priorities; and why, in fact, beneficiaries have become a commodity in the project cycle.

The basic premise of the book is that humanitarianism is a distinct field of practice, in which NGOs share basic assumptions and a common practical logic. This logic developed historically and is shaped by the structural conditions of the field. In return, the practical logic “mediates” factors such as problems, needs, values and interests into organizational action (p.21). The author argues that these practices are “practices of production” and that their primary product is the “project” (p.23). The logic of project management is the taken-for-granted way things are done in humanitarian relief. Its focus on added value – what Krause calls “the pursuit of the good project” – creates a logic that shapes the allocation of resources and the development of activities independently from what recipients may want or need (p.37).

On this part of the argument, there is wide agreement. Neo-institutionalists, such as Meyer & Rowan and DiMaggio & Powell stress the shared cultures and norms in an organizational field as well as actors’ orientation towards legitimacy. However, Bourdieu’s original thought reaches further. In chapter four, Krause argues that humanitarian organizations are not only similar, but actively seek to differentiate themselves from each other (p.93). The reason for that is that the ‘field’ is organized around specific forms of symbolic capital and humanitarian agencies look at each other, rather than looking at the abstract market or the customers (p.98). Accordingly, humanitarian relief is primarily shaped by competition for symbolic capital, which Krause identifies to be ‘humanitarian authority’. As each field has developed in a unique manner, Krause then describes the history of the humanitarian field and the emergence of its specific symbolic capital. Unsurprisingly, the ICRC features prominently as the embodiment of humanitarian authority. Krause accurately summarizes: “In its pure form, humanitarianism is humanitarianism for humanitarianism’s sake” (p.113). But this purity is nowadays “polluted” by political, religious and other aspects. Interestingly, Krause argues that the foundation of MSF and its challenge against the “traditional” way of being humanitarian, established the field of competing positions. “MSF’s innovation, though it had ‘purity’ on its flags, clearly formulated an alternative to the ICRC, and so called into question the foundations of the (humanitarian) enterprise” (p.107). Simply put, “MSF’s move made it easier for a range of other actors to claim the label ‘humanitarian’” (ibid) and, therewith facilitated the expansion of the field in the nineties.

Despite the intellectual depth of the book, it does not come across as theoretical or pretentious. The work is very theoretically informed without ever really confronting the reader with dense concepts. Instead, Krause speaks mainly about empirical reality in an accessible way. This makes it a great read and probably less vulnerable to push-back from ‘Aidland’, which would be expected (if its inhabitants read Krause’s book). While other authors have made similar observations and came to the conclusion that flawed practices should be improved, Krause takes her analysis of the field as the basis to also explore the actors’ reform efforts in chapter five. Specifically, she investigates the Sphere Project and Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP), concluding that their impact is ”mediated by existing practices and institutions” (p.145). Accordingly, both “have become incorporated into the process of producing projects, and with their respective standards shape specific products and add to the infrastructure of the market for projects” (ibid). This judgment is another instance of great courage and consequentialism.

Another virtue of the book is that it makes the most out of comparatively modest methodological means. Krause mainly bases her analysis on a limited sample of interviews with desk officers and directors of operations at headquarters level but was able to infer a whole lot from these conversations. Particularly memorable is the chapter on management tools. Krause participated in a training for relief workers where she was confronted with the ‘logframe’. While everyone else was naturally familiar with the tool, Krause was clueless and took it on her to study this artifact. She come to the conclusion that “management tools like the logframe do not determine what people do, but they shape it: They shape what people get to see and know about the world, and people’s ideas about what the task before them is” (p.76). She argues that historically the logframe has facilitated the project as a unit of planning and production. “It has linked results to costs, and it thus made it possible, in principle, to compare projects” (p.77). The logframe also “created the beneficiary” as the specific part of the population in need that is selected to be served (ibid).

Having outlined in the introduction that I am convinced by the approach (so much in fact that I have independently chosen a similar one) and praised the book sufficiently, some criticism is in order. I have two interrelated points: First, I am wondering why she only researched and wrote about NGOs with the omission of the UN organizations. UNHCR, WFP and OCHA are also major relief organizations and together the UN entities are the biggest actor and a major agenda setter for the field. Leaving them outside the analysis might distort the picture.

Second and more generally, I am doubtful whether the pure humanitarian field still exists in practice. Through the constant broadening of mandates and proliferation of new actors, Humanitarianism, Development, Human Rights and Peacekeeping have increasingly blurred together in something like a larger field of ‘international intervention’. They overlap in regards to their principals, beneficiaries, mandates, activities, etc. The author alludes to this in regards to ‘protection’ in chapter six, where she writes about the field of human rights and its relation to relief work. This is maybe the only part of the book where Krause is not consequential enough. Particularly protection – the focus of my own work – no longer falls within one separate field but rather seems to be a discourse in the larger field of international intervention. Separating the humanitarian field cleanly from this complex is to some degree possible and useful to distill the essence of humanitarian symbolism. However, it is of limited practical value. Humanitarian authority remains an important form of (symbolic) capital but it is no longer the main currency. I am wondering if one can capture the norms, games and symbolic capital of this field accurately, when only looking at the humanitarian sub-dimension. In practice it is messier, more complicated, but perhaps still ordered and understandable. I would thus argue for continuing where Krause stops – taking a closer look at protection as an intersection of different fields or as a discourse in a larger field of international intervention, and then working towards distilling the symbolic capital and practical logic of that larger field.


Call for Papers “Inter-Organizational Relations: Theory and Practice”

We are proposing a panel for the next meeting of the German Association for Political Science’s (DVPW) International Relations Section 4-6 October 2017 in Bremen. If the subject and panel description (below) spark your interest, please submit an abstract of approximately 200 words by 20 March 2017 to:

Ulrich Franke (InIIS), Martin Koch (Bielefeld University) and Janosch Kullenberg (BIGSSS) at

“Inter-Organizational Relations: Theory and Practice”

In global governance, both the proliferation of international organizations and the broadening of their mandates increasingly lead to organizational overlaps and the emergence of new organizational fields, also referred to as regime complexes. Due to its traditional focus on states, the discipline of International Relations had long neglected the importance of such inter-organizational relations. It was only when international organizations were recognized as autonomous units towards the end of the 1990s that IR’s attention subsequently also turned to the relations between them. Given this delay, IR scholars have tended to ‘import’ theoretical frameworks from disciplines more advanced on that matter, mainly sociology, economics, and psychology. Today, IR scholars apply a multitude of theoretical frameworks alongside each other, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in contradiction (particularly economic vs. sociological or rationalist vs. constructivist perspectives). The explanations provided by these frameworks, be it resource dependency, culture, path dependence or bureaucratic logic, shed light on specific aspects of inter-organizational relations and are helpful in elucidating individual instances of organizational interaction. However, they tend to subsume the empirical reality under pre-established categories and thus frequently fail to do justice to the more complex and dynamic reality of Inter-organizational relations.

Therefore, we are seeking papers papers that demonstrate strong empirical understanding, while building on previous frameworks and making sophisticated theoretical contributions. Some of the questions that could be addressed are:

  • What is the most insightful theoretical approach for explaining inter-organizational relations to date? Can such a claim even be made or should theoretical approaches rather be categorized according to their main research question, for instance: how do organizations relate to each other (network theory), why do organizations act in certain ways (institutionalisms), or what are the consequences of their interplay (regime theory)?
  • How can the multitude of theoretical explanations be reconciled in a more pragmatic and/or holistic theoretical model? In particular, what ideas exist to reconcile rationalist and constructivist as well as economic and sociological divides? Should scholars be encouraged to build more on each other’s work, instead of continuously developing their own ways of making sense of the subject or will consolidation happen ‘inevitably’?
  • The different theoretical explanations of organizational actions are insightful, but how do they work in practice? How can we imagine the organization/individual making those decisions that follow one or all of the above-mentioned theoretical logics?
  • More generally, how could the gap between theory and practice in the field of inter-organizational relations be reduced? Does addressing the theory-practice gap require an agreement among scholars on the most viable theoretical approach?
  • What is currently restricting research on inter-organizational relations, and how is it possible to overcome these obstacles?

We do not want to limit discussions to a particular area of global governance because we assume that the dynamics across empirical contexts may be similar. Therefore, we want to prioritize the phenomenon/topic of inter-organizational relations over its specific empirical manifestations. Given the focus of our own work, however, we particularly welcome studies on international interventions (humanitarian action, development aid, peacekeeping). We, of course, remain open to papers that challenge our premise about generalizability and consequently highlight the idiosyncrasies of the inter-organizational field of intervention. If a shared interest on the topic of interventions exists, more specific questions may emerge, such as:

  • In what ways are the inter-organizational dynamics in the field of intervention fundamentally different than in other fields?
  • What then is the impact of inter-organizational relations on multidimensional interventions, such as on the Millennium Development Goals, Peacekeeping or the Protection of Civilians?
  • How does the coordination discourse relate to organizational practices in post-conflict interventions? Does this discourse remain on the level of rhetoric, or is the UN engaging in ‘overlap management’? If policy reforms, such as the cluster system and UN Integration, can be seen as active overlap management, how do we assess them?
  • Why are practitioner/policy studies on inter-organizational relations in intervention contexts often of limited analytical value? Can this be explained merely by the influence of a strong coordination rhetoric, lack of theory, or the technocratic tendencies of these studies?

Short Article on CLA’s

Indian commander

In October Forced Migration Review – “the most widely read publication on forced migration; available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, and free of charge in print and online” – published it’s latest issue on community-based protection. I contributed a short article on UN Peacekeeping’s Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs) that you can find online here and the printed PDF here (the latter is visually more appealing). CLAs are a great instrument and deserve more attention and support. I have worked on  CLAs since 2013 and wrote MONUSCO’s CLA Best Practice Review, which is available here. Get in touch, if you want to get more into the subject.

In addition,  the Policy and Best Practice Section in DPKO’s & DFS’ joint Policy, Evaluation and Training Division (DPET) should soon release a review on the global implementation of CLAs. It is not yet clear whether that will be made publically available.

Wold Humanitarian Summit: What results

Last week (May 23-24) the World Humanitarian Summit was organized. The first of its kind and a product of long preparation, the event brought together some 9000 participants from 173 of the UN’s 193 member states, as well as civil society organizations and NGOs. Some of the Successes were:
– The even itself: everybody (or their representatives) coming together and giving public attention to the pressing issues
– 1500 individual commitments and lots of exciting initiatives
– An education fund for children in emergencies with 90$ million already pledged
– A “Grand Bargain” for humanitarian financing, with donors and aid organizations pledging that 25% percent of aid will be given directly to local NGOs (giving them a bigger share of the cake); complexity of report will be cut and more aid will be given in the form of cash transfers, meaning that affected population will get money instead of aid organizations deciding what to buy for them.
On the other hand there were also a number of shortcomings:
– Despite the recognition of the need for political leadership, no real commitments were made and the world’s most powerful leaders were frustratingly absent
– The over 1500 individual commitments are mostly fragmented, a lot of small initiatives have been launched; individual actors committing to individual action thus no consistent commitments.
– Finally, there is no action plan of how to move all the debated issues forward.
For more information and analysis, see the following blogs that I found quite insightful: IRIN, ODI, GPPI and some expert voices.



A glimpse on the predatory state


Perception Taxe Kopie

The Congolese state, from its colonial origins through the Mobuto dictatorship to Kabila’s regime, has widely been described as „exploitative“ and „predatory“ (e.g. here). In practice, this means that power is used arbitrarily and abusively to squeeze resources out of common people. As an expat working for an international organization you miss most of that. Your special status and the bubble you live in safely shield you from being confronted with such inconvenience. You don’t pay any of the creative “taxes” and quickly pass, for example, the checkpoints which are used to extract money form the population. Seeing these things through the lens of the legal-rational (Weberian) state, you come to think of them as normal regulatory and security measures.

During recent fieldwork in the Congolese countryside, however, I was able to catch a glimpse of reality. Without the “carte de service” that identified me as belonging to a powerful international organization, all kinds of semi-officials and authorities laid claim on my freedoms and ultimately my money. Roadblocks became real obstructions and in every location, I had to register with the administration, the immigration service (DGM), the security forces (FARDC & PNC) and the intelligence service (ANR). Such situations represent ample opportunities for establishing “infractions” and subsequent demands. The difference to normal Congolese people is that I remain privileged and never really feel vulnerable. I am aware of my special status, which protects me from abuses, and increasingly use it in negotiations. As a consequence, these situations are more annoyances – costing me time, energy and money – than they are threats. However, by the behavior of those “agents”, you get an idea of what it would be like to have no power at all and be completely at the mercy of such agents. This is probably an exaggeration as ordinary citizens have agency and negotiations always take place, but it leaves me wondering, if experiencing such a sporadic glimpse of reality is necessary to understand governance and coping strategies. Timothy Raeymaekers writes in this regard that “one should always remain aware of the often intricate ways in which daily attempts to avoid risks, increase predictability, and make a living profoundly inform political rule systems” (2015, P.151). It follows that such an understanding might be needed to successfully work on any kind of reform in this country. If that’s true, could such experiences be made part of a cheap and effective introductory course for new arrivals?


Article in German Development Magazine

Im November hat das entwicklungspolitische Magazin Welt-Sichten eine Ausgabe zu UN Friedensmissionen veröffentlicht. Die ganze Ausgabe kann hier runtergeladen werden, mein Artikel zu der Situation im Kongo ist hier einsehbar. Lustigerweise ist unter den ausgesuchten Bildern mein indischer Arzt vertreten. Viel Spaß bei der Lektüre, Feedback und Kommentare sind wie immer Willkommen.

UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians

Open debate

Last week I watched the 18th “Open Debate on Protection of Civilians” in armed conflict at the UN Security council. This event takes place once a year and represents an important forum for member states, i.e. the world’s governments, to discuss the issue and position themselves. As this month’s president of the Security Council, Uruguay chaired the debate, and UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, the ICRC’s Vice President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans provided briefings. Subsequently, many member states’ representatives, including Iran, Montenegro and the Holy See, gave their respective statements. As usual, these statements expressed great concern for civilian victims of today’s armed conflicts, but there also seemed to be a sense that “civilians in conflict are in greater risk now than at any time in the UN’s history” (New Zealand), which is reflected by the record high of 60 million displaced people. Statements also referred to this year’s worrying trends. Virtually every speaker condemned the attacks on hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen, the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Madaya and 14 other areas in Syria, the increasing attacks against journalists and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Speakers were also in agreement concerning the solutions to civilian’s plight in armed conflict, again, referring to the above mentioned documents. Accordingly, they stressed the need for political solutions, specifically for dedicating more attention to preventing and meditating violent conflict. Burundi was often mentioned as a case in point, as the Security Council mission left for the country the next day – quite late but hopefully able to avoid worse. Speakers agreed that compliance to International Humanitarian Law needs to be ensured through applying and reinforcing the existing accountability tools of (international) criminal justice. Statements also referred to a number of operational issues for UN peacekeeping, such as the need for realistic and clear mandates, more engagement with local communities and regional organizations, well-equipped and quickly deployable peacekeepers, and a commitment to zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff. Speakers expressed hope that the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) would lead to fruitful discussions.

As someone who is interested in practice-theory, I am also trying to make sense of the event on the basis of what actually happened. First, as Jan Eliasson remarked, the high number of speakers suggests that the topic is important for many of the world’s governments. Actually, there were so many registered speakers that the chair urged orators to keep their statements brief and provide longer versions online. Second, this was not a “debate” in the classical sense. Rather statements were given about the same topic but without referring to each other. The Uruguayan delegation had provided a briefing note beforehand, which obviously guided the statements alongside three other documents: the Secretary General’s report on the protection of civilians, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report and the SG’s report on the implementation of its recommendations. Consequently, statements mirrored each other. What was more interesting and differentiated the statements from each other was when speakers took the opportunity to connect PoC to their country’s history and interests. For example, Rwanda focused on the FDLR, Israel mentioned that Hezbollah was responsible for much of the violence in Syria, China stressed the neutrality and impartiality of UN peacekeeping, India talked about its experience in PoC since ONUC, Ukraine described Russian aggression and South Africa underlined the success of the FIB, etc.                Third, speakers obviously adhered to a set of shared norms, spending a good portion of their limited time to thank everyone and subsequently acknowledge previously stated facts and generally agreed-upon points of reference. Finally, the debate was a bit lengthy and repetitive. Some speakers made more relevant connections or, like Samantha Powers, depicted situations skilfully, but you were getting the gist of it after a couple statements. I must be one of the only people that followed it from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and quite frankly that wasn’t necessary. Many of the diplomats just came in for their statement and even the chair rotated several times.

It can be concluded that the “debate” did not seem to be about rethinking PoC or exchanging information, but should be seen more as a political process where member states expressed their commitment to the protection of civilians and broadly agreed to an agenda. While falling short of committing to tangible steps, the strong condemnation of the practice of starvation, for instance, will increase the pressure on Assad. Nevertheless, it should be taken with a grain of salt when many of the member states’ representatives ended by pointing to the forthcoming Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) as “an excellent opportunity to address the issue in a more in depth and comprehensive manner”.