Review of Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. Lauren Carruth, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021, 240 pp.

Reviewed Book

Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. Lauren Carruth, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021, 240 pp.

Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. Lauren Carruth, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021, 240 pp.

Ramah McKay

University of Pennsylvania

Lauren Carruth’s compelling ethnographic monograph, Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, brings attention to how Somali aid workers navigate the provision of humanitarian assistance in eastern Ethiopia. The book centers the experiences of Somali employees of national and international NGOs, following professional and personal trajectories and seeking to understand how situated actors define, experience, and contest the meanings of “humanitarianism” in a dynamic political context. In so doing, Love and Liberation joins a robust anthropological literature on the roles played by expatriate and local aid workers, and by aid recipients, in the construction (and sometimes dismantling) of humanitarian categories.

Carruth organizes her argument around a distinction between humanitarianism, understood as a set of abstract principles and (mostly foreign) institutions, and samafal, a polysemic Somali term that encompasses “loving, reciprocal, and expected ways of responding to others’ needs” (p. 58) as well as the “enduring, political, and compassionate relationships” on which those responses rely (p. 148). As she shows in Chapter 2, samafal shapes but extends beyond formal humanitarian practice and provides a lens through which to understand “the dynamic and socially and politically embedded actions of people caring for each other where foreign interventions recur” (p. 81). Yet, although these relations and actions are essential to humanitarian practice, they often go unrecognized within aid projects and in critiques of them.

By conducting an ethnography of samafal, rather than—or as—humanitarianism, Carruth aims to highlight the “ethics, expertise, and labor” that facilitates the caring, political, and liberatory work of Somali aid workers (p. 168). She also troubles the processes through which ethnographic and humanitarian projects render Somalis as “locals”—fixed and knowable subjects, at once subordinated to ostensibly global experts and elevated as a potential salve for humanitarian shortcomings. Indeed, Carruth notes that the common critique of humanitarian action, as imposed by white foreigners and expats who breathlessly arrive in moments of crisis, fails to recognize how aid is mostly delivered “by people from the very same communities facing emergencies” (p. 144)

In many agencies, she notes, upwards of 80–90% of staff come from local or regional communities, not including the subcontractors, temporary workers, and volunteers who are even more likely to come from affected communities (p. 5). Dominant critiques of aid are therefore both important and incomplete, further invisibilizing the work, experience, and expertise of Somali aid workers. Attending to samafal, by contrast, illustrates the extractive nature of the humanitarian industry, for whom situated relationships are an unrecognized but critical resource. Her account suggests how formal humanitarian practice relies on, and extracts value from, social and political relationships that humanitarian agencies only minimally support.

Love and Liberation also builds on recent accounts of the political economy of the aid industry as it shapes and refracts racialized professional identities. Using salaries, pay scales, and per diems, Carruth illustrates both the categories of difference that structure humanitarian labor and the insultingly small amounts offered to participants in aid projects. She unpacks how hierarchies of employment and pay refract through relations of race, region, religion, and ethnicity that distinguish between expats and “nationals,” as well as within national categories of racial, ethnic, and geographic difference. I was particularly drawn to her observations of how the experiences of her interlocutors are shaped by their conditions of work, including the near absence of collective representation, bargaining power, or even the ability to enforce the terms of their work contracts. These conditions are exacerbated for temporary and subcontracted workers, participants in aid-for-work schemes, and the many workers (such as truck drivers) whose efforts are essential to humanitarian projects but for whom few protections exist.

Among the strengths of Carruth’s approach are a close attention to how specific political histories shape humanitarian relations. Situating humanitarian action in light of both colonial and postcolonial history, Carruth shows how Ethiopian political processes of decentralization intersect with international development practices of localization. For the Somali aid workers who Carruth follows, these efforts increase (some forms of) political autonomy and (some) professional opportunities but also reinscribe experiences of marginalization. The demand for local workers, for example, creates professional space for her Somali interlocutors but also traps them in the lower rungs of a deeply hierarchical industry. Carruth’s articulation of how practices of reform can fail to challenge broader power structures also offers readers a space for ethnographic self-reflection, since many anthropological accounts have also championed the local as a site for the negotiation of aid, development, and politics.

Carruth’s attention to political reform also reveals aid work to be a site of nuanced regional, national, and international politics. Carruth argues that discourses of humanitarian neutrality—often assumed to be central to humanitarian assistance—rarely traveled between Geneva or New York and eastern Ethiopia, were hardly mentioned in training materials and were worse than useless in practice. As she shows, far from being apolitical, effective aid workers were in fact “hired for their political savvy, their ability to maintain good relationships with government agencies and other powerful actors, and their personal connections with populations in need” (p. 144). Indeed, political insight frequently served as yet another local resource from which international agencies profit, as Somali actors were tasked with helping their foreign counterparts navigate the complex, sensitive political dynamics on which their work depended.

While rendering samafal ethnographically provides a compelling lens into the experiences and worlds of Somali aid workers, this approach also presents some challenges. A rich and expansive term, samafal sometimes seemed to be everywhere and nowhere; at times, it felt hard to pin down precisely what, where, or in whom it might be located. This may have been exacerbated by the book’s close focus on the aid apparatus. The core protagonists in this account are doctors, nurses, aid professionals, and others in similar positions of institutional legibility. This circumscribed gaze helps avoid pathos-laden portrayals of needy recipients, a common pitfall of humanitarian ethnography. At times, though, I wished to read more about how samafal is articulated across and between the offices, SUVs, clinics, and distribution points that make up the aid apparatus and might extend into wider circles of social, religious, and political life. Quibbles aside, Love and Liberation is well written and compelling, and the book’s argument is thoughtfully conveyed. Drawing from ethnographic observation and interviews conducted over a multi-year period, the book is organized around five substantive chapters. The book’s clear organization and focus means that it reads well as a monograph and also offers chapters—including Chapters 2 and 3—that could easily stand alone for teaching. It is a welcome addition to graduate and undergraduate courses on decolonial approaches to aid and to the anthropology of humanitarianism and is accessible to a wide readership interested in the uses and limits of humanitarian assistance.