Lisa Smirl’s book examines how the physical realities of this experience affect the perceptions of those who determine aid policies, and her stories from the field are reminiscent of the memoirs of war correspondents: aid work is a rite of passage for the worker, temporarily releasing them from the norms of social behaviour observed at home, not least because they are marginal to the societies in which they work. Marginal and separate, too: the compounds in which they typically live are designed with security in mind, but have unintended outcomes, influencing the behaviour of those within and colouring the perceptions of those without – the very designation of certain areas as ‘secure’ potentially reshapes a city and certainly affects its economy.
Away from generalities, in her examination of post-Katrina aid in New Orleans, Smirl suggests that the housing projects initiated by high-profile charities were intended to inspire the adoption of green housing technologies in other, high-income, non-disaster stricken locations: essentially becoming a marketing campaign.
The text is based on the author’s PhD thesis, and retains the dull apparatus common to academic texts (‘This chapter argues…’), but the ideas it contains are acute and thought-provoking. Smirl died before publication, and her early death was an enormous loss.
SPACES OF AID: How cars, compounds and hotels shape humanitarianism by Lisa Smirl, Zed Books, £19.99 (paperback)
This book review was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine