The Symphony of the Damned: Racial Discourse, Complex Political Emergencies and Humanitarian Aid


Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT.


This paper concerns the manner in which the West is responding to protracted political crises beyond its borders. It examines the conceptual world-view that aid agencies bring to complex emergencies and which shapes action. The paper provides an analysis of developmentalism. That is, the currently dominant idea of development which is an adapted form of multiculturalism. It is based on the empowerment of cultural differences and the relativisation of progress. As a variant of multiculturalism, developmentalism is part of Western racial discourse. In terms of understanding conflict, it establishes a mirror-image relationship with new rascist ideas premised on cultural pluralism inevitably leading to social breakdown, violence and anarchy. To the contrary, with its functional view of social harmony, libertine developmentalism claims that even unresolved political crisis constitutes a development opportunity.

Developmentalism, like culturalism generally, is incapable of analysing power. It therefore cannot understand the effects and significance of its own organisational forms. Moreover, since the absence of power translates into operational neutrality in a war zone, it is also unable to analyse the nature of new political formations emerging in the global periphery. That is, the so-called weak or failed states, warlords and so on. This functional ignorance has allowed a widespread incorporation of humanitarian aid into the fabric of political violence. Developmentalism is an essential underpinning for the growing organisational accommodation to ongoing conflict and eroding standards of justice and accountability.