“Love and Liberation” Captures Voices of Local Aid Workers in Famine Zone

Lauren Carruth’s important 2021 book, Love and Liberation – Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press) fills a gap in the literature about aid programs by listening to the perspectives of those personnel delivering aid on the front-lines who are not expatriates, but locals, who, by the way, represent the majority of staff for all aid agencies everywhere.  In doing so she discusses alternate ways of understanding crises, what “localization” actually means, inequalities in local labor hierarchies.

Carruth, a Professor at American University in Washington, DC, explores the reasons why the eastern region of Ethiopia is repeatedly beset by food crises that have compelled substantial amounts of food and health assistance by the World Food Programme, Save the Children, UNICEF and other aid organizations for decades.  This cyclical nature of the relief industry plays out in other countries as well.  An anthropologist, Dr. Carruth suggests a typology for places and peoples who suffer repeat or perpetual food insecurity.

The author’s interviews cover not only the conditions driving food insecurity, but the emotional lives of the local aid workers who are passionate about their work and emotional about the problems they see firsthand.  As she says “Drivers, logistics managers, translators, data collectors, researchers and field monitors and the like were all necessary to aid operations because, essentially, they make projects happen.”   She compares the expectations and experiences of locals working with the UN, with Non-governmental Organizations, and the Ethiopian government.  The book returns often to this theme:  “the global humanitarian industry depends on ample supplies of cheap, temporary, flexible and expendable labor from the localities where it intervenes — ironically to proffer a narrative of improving the lives of locals.”  She gives voices to the 95% of humanitarian personnel who are from the countries and communities in crisis.

Dr. Carruth’s focus is the Somali region in the northeast of Ethiopia, not the also-disaster-prone central and northern regions of Ethiopia or the recent warzone in Tigray.  The northeast region, past Jijiga is arid lowlands where many populations are pastoral herders, moving around, posing challenges for aid agencies to reach.  Drivers of conflict, the author explains, include both drought and inter-communal conflict.  The research for this book occurred during a confluence of these hazards:  “By July 2018, as I was conducting research for this book, there were over one million persons internally displaced in eastern Ethiopia, newly settled into makeshift camps and informal settlements near Jijiga and Dire Dawa and all along the Oromia-Somali regional boundaries.”

An example of the type of work the book draws on are mobile health and nutrition teams.  “Mobile teams have been active in the [East Ethiopian] Somali Region since 2005 during a measles and polio outbreak.  Most mobile teams are designed to provide vaccinations, a few essential medications, water treatment equipment referrals to higher medical facilities, supplies of ready-to-eat fortified BP-5 biscuits and therapeutic Plumpy’Nut peanut paste…  Typically communities qualify for mobile team visits based on local rates of acute malnutrition in children under five years or reported outbreaks of infectious disease in the local population… but ..most humanitarian relief targeted the lives and health of young children and their mothers and not the entire community.”

While describing the “affable characters” whom the author finds in the local humanitarian outreach, Dr. Carruth also documents the reciprocal exchange networks  by which the population copes, including trade over long distances.  For instance:

  •        “The decentralization of relief work with its focus on training and hiring ever more local staff and deploying them throughout the region — often on mobile dynamic projects — requires hospitality on the part of hosting family members, friends and recipient communities.  Hospitality is therefore necessary to accomplish the logistics and travel humanitarian interventions require.”
  •    Local staff are compensated in a range of ways.  For instance, “Food for work, training workshops in midwifery and similar interventions organized through governmental and UN relief programs are almost free gifts and …humanitarian handouts.”

Carruth does an admirable job describing the tensions between short-term relief (band aids) and longer-term systemic problems.  So many locals in Ethiopia have been saturated with surveys by NGOs who also promise assistance that doesn’t come.

She describes how local aid workers who are indispensable feel, nevertheless, that they are invisible. “The humanitarian industry continues to rely on the willingness of locals to accept temporary, precarious and flexible contracts, informal labor arrangements and small salaries and per diems [reimbursements] for less money than either Amharic-speaking Ethiopians or expatriates occasionally flying into the Somali [eastern] Region.  The informality of the aid work so often performed by locals and the popularity of tropes about the heroic local aid worker also leave unquestioned the consideration in which their labor takes place, and leave unquestioned the fact that it is often performed in unacceptable conditions with no benefits and no legal rights or recourse for workers’ emotional well-being, abuse, exploitation or injury.”

At 169 pages this book is readable, timely and relevant to anyone interested in how actual humanitarian work unfolds, telling a very neglected part of the story.

To follow the author’s research, see:  https://laurencarruth.com/

For further information about food insecurity in eastern Ethiopia, see:




reviewed by Steven Hansch, WHES board

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