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Book Review: Love and Liberation

Book review of Lauren Carruth’s Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region (2021)

Published onAug 15, 2023
Book Review: Love and Liberation

Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region (2021), by Lauren Carruth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lauren Carruth’s Love and Liberation is an insightful ethnographic study of global humanitarianism, critically analyzing humanitarian work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region (Soomaaliweyn). Over the course of the book’s chapters, the author takes us on a journey, from the vast and arid terrains of the Ogaden to the dilapidated and stifling office buildings of Jijiga (the region’s capital). In opening, the book features a section on the Somali language in order to acquaint the reader with the unique ways in which its consonants and vowels are pronounced. The section is an indication of what lies ahead, as this is a study that demands its readers adopt a new language and sensibility.

The primary aim of Love and Liberation is to understand humanitarian work as it unfolds in this specific region. To achieve her goal, Carruth examines humanitarianism from the ground up, utilizing the perspectives of local humanitarian workers to critically assess this “industry” and its values. The use of the phrase “humanitarian industry” artfully illustrates the essence of aid work, and Carruth goes about deciphering its intricate organization in the book. In doing so, Love and Liberation narrates the story of inequality within aid organizations, as it is entwined within international geopolitics and the national politics of the Somali Region within the Ethiopian state.

Via her fieldwork, Carruth reveals that the majority of aid workers are locals who intimately understand and speak the language of the people they support. While the text acknowledges the credibility of the work done by humanitarian organizations, it seeks to challenge dominant narratives about humanitarianism, which envision humanitarians as “white saviors” on a global mission. Employing an ethnographic approach, the author participates in local aid workers’ daily activities and tries to understand their working conditions, issues, and aspirations. Her multi-sited fieldwork was conducted between 2007-19 and, thus, provides a unique longitudinal account of humanitarian processes as well as some trajectories of individual workers within this system. Moreover, Carruth acknowledges her own privileged position as a white person and as an expatriate. The comfortable interior of the SUV in which she conducts her interviews is contrasted with the searing outdoor heat that the other aid workers must face. Regardless, the author utilizes her own experiences to comprehend the extent of the racial bias within the humanitarian industry as it concerns job opportunities, promotions, wages, and rights.

As a discipline, the anthropology of work seeks to unpack the ways in which workers’ lives are mediated by their labor – exploring how work affects them as individuals and, in turn, how they affect the nature of their work. In this light, Carruth allows her aid-worker interlocutors to tell their own story; as such, they become true protagonists of the narrative, drawing from their own traditions, memories, and experiences in the Somali Region. To understand what this work means for the aid workers themselves, the author delves into the local epistemology of humanitarianism. As mentioned, this side to Love and Liberation necessitates that readers learn a new language in order to understand locals’ aspirations and concerns. The book introduces the concept of Samafal, described as a “subaltern humanitarian epistemology” (p. 38), which encompasses help, charity, philanthropy, and crisis response (p. 58). Samafal suggests a more expansive sense of aid than analogous terms in western languages, which emerges as the author interacts with aid workers operating at various levels. The author demonstrates how Samafal is intertwined with interdependence (p. 74) and care (p. 77) and thus goes beyond the notions of temporary, direct, and dispassionate aid that are typically associated with humanitarian work.

Chapter 3, entitled “Humanitarian Work,” illustrates how the international aid industry is built on a hierarchical labor system that is deeply rooted in racial relations. Love and Liberation’s contribution, however, lies in showing just how rigid this labor hierarchy is (p. 92). Local aid workers are alienated from the means of production through which “aid capital” is generated and provided. This usually results in stagnant careers for local workers, who are often excluded from the leadership positions reserved for their Global North counterparts. The dichotomies of “inside and outside” and “expatriates and locals” emerge again as racial boundaries separate white administrators from most local employees, as privileges and value tend to accrue upwards in this system.

Chapter 4, entitled “Crisis Work,” delves into a key dilemma faced by humanitarian workers, who are often perceived as providing temporary assistance during times of crisis. In an area suffering from structural issues of deprivation, however, the “production of crisis” (p. 120) becomes a method through which local aid workers focus on the essential needs of the population under the guise of an “emergency.” Emergency aid provisioning is indexed, as a result, to the “normal conditions” in which these already vulnerable populations live, without taking into consideration the subaltern nature of the Somali Region vis-à-vis the larger Ethiopian state. The author shows how the local concept of Samafalfacilitates the subversion of this understanding. Its translation is crucial, however, according to Carruth – as it illustrates how global methods morph into the local ideas that guide the ways in which Somali aid workers assist their compatriots in need.

In Chapter 5, entitled “Humanitarianism Is Anti-Politics,” the myth of neutrality and the supposedly apolitical nature of humanitarian work are contested. Carruth questions the Global North perceptions of humanitarianism as the act of a good-intentioned and neutral legion of workers arriving to combat a crisis. The author questions this myth of neutrality, based on Henri Dunant’s work (p. 145), by tracing the genealogy of aid to Ethiopia and the politicized nature of U.S. humanitarian support in the region, thus highlighting how aid can become a political tool of coercion. Pursuing further this line of analysis, Carruth also highlights the political embeddedness of the local aid workers since the idea of Samafal is relational and necessarily political. Indeed, the most riveting passage of Love and Liberation describes how aid workers function in their daily work, collaborating with locals, and encouraging them to participate in relief operations (p. 78). The author notes how crucial these relationships are for humanitarian interventions to have an impact.

In the final chapter, entitled “From Crisis to Liberation,” Carruth emphasizes that humanitarian work, while global in its mandate, undergoes significant changes when it takes place in local contexts, such as that of the Ogaden. In this sense, the author invites us to contemplate Samafal – with all its emotional, social, and religious entanglements (p. 168) – as a legitimate and effective way of structuring humanitarian operations. Love and Liberation is also a call to problematize the racial hierarchies and skewed distribution of workers’ benefits across the contemporary humanitarian industry (p. 111). Anthropologists interested in understanding the differing value systems of workers in the same organization, as well as racial relations within humanitarian organizations, will benefit immensely by reading this book. Its fundamental commitment to portraying the narratives of local aid workers renders it an authentic triumph within anthropology, setting an unparalleled standard for future studies.   


Author Biography

Anshul Rai Sharma works as an Academic Associate at the School of Development of Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India. His research focuses on the intersection of labor, informality, and urbanization in the city of Bengaluru.  

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