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Humanity Must Be Defended: War, Politics and Humanitarian Relief in Iraq, 1990-2004


Iraq was the first political and humanitarian crisis to be described as a "complex emergency." Contested claims about human suffering there -- beginning shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and continuing for over a decade under UN sanctions -- became the justification for multiple forms of engagement and intervention by religious and secular NGOs, human rights organizations, journalists, political activists and foreign military forces. This dissertation explores how the international relief system's "humanitarian apparatus," together with powerful Western governments and media outlets, framed Iraq as a humanitarian problem. It provides an ethnographic description of this apparatus (a specific, territorialized ensemble of actors, techniques, technologies and practices), focusing on international NGOs and UN agencies in Iraq from late 1990 until mid-2004. The dissertation takes up a particular "problematization" (Foucault) -- namely, how human suffering in Iraq appeared as a problem to which "humanitarianism" was a self-evident solution -- and situates this problematization temporally and institutionally, exploring the historical and contemporary articulations between national governments, multilateral organizations, humanitarian NGOs and the media.

The dissertation foregrounds the challenge of practicing "embedded anthropology" in complex, problematic and rapidly changing situations. The narrative style alternates between vivid, first-person descriptions of the author's experiences in Iraq, dialogic conversational exchanges with various interlocutors in the humanitarian apparatus, and analytical sections that assemble the conceptual tools and equipment for an anthropology of contemporary problems. The international system of state and non-state actors, together with the norms, rationalities, rhetorical figures and forms of practice that these actors both generate and reproduce, is presented as an organizing framework for humanitarian action in Iraq as well as a site for critical anthropological inquiry.

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