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Environmentalising Humanitarian Governance in Za’atri Refugee Camp through
‘interactive spaces’: A Posthuman Approach
In Za’atri, a refugee camp with a population of almost 80,000, more than twenty Western
humanitarian NGOs have been working to respond to the Syrian refugees’ everyday needs.
review conducted by MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) in October 2013 to evaluate the quality
of the camp management contrasted the weighty administration and coordination of Za’atri with
the critical view taken by refugees of their circumstances there.
The report of that review
referred to refugees’ attitudes to different probabilities of ‘failure’ by agencies in Za’atri to
effectively facilitate refugees’ participation in decision-making and their desired changes in the
Today, five years after the camp was established, Western NGOs in Za’atri still seem to struggle
to bridge the gap between what they think they should offer and what actual life in the
campground might require. It is apparent to visitors to the camp that refugees there are not
satisfied with how their lives are run by the NGOs; discussing camp governance with them
tends to elicit responses tinged with irritation. For example, one Syrian refugee complained to
me: ‘we know how to do things if they ask us what we think! It is ironic for us how they come
up with some decisions while abandoning others without any logical reason; we just watch from
a distance and smile, waiting to see what happens next!’ Another refugee who was more
involved in the decision-making process said, ‘Even if they do ask us what we want, they end
up doing what they think is right anyway!’ These objections address two main opinions among
refugees about camp governance: one sees the NGOs as strongly implicated in the currently
despised governance of the camp; the other opinion is that the refugees themselves need to be
included in the camp’s governance structure. The perception that NGO frameworks resist offers
of practical input and ideas from their clients widens the gap between the Western NGOs as the
camp governors and the refugees as the governed population. This gap gestures towards an
accountability that humanitarian NGOs have failed to achieve in the camp.
While Western humanitarian NGOs aim to respond to people in crisis, their legitimacy and
accountability should be questioned in light of their ideological and pragmatic paradigms.
legitimacy, which they seek with their governmental counterparts, is established in Za’atri by
their pledges to abide by the humanitarian principles of the UNHCR with which they are
While these principles are assumed to be universal, their accountability is still
measured against ‘their ability to argue persuasively that they contribute to the welfare of the
To establish their accountability, many Western NGOs lean on their pragmatic
agendas to show how their frameworks work towards engaging with or representing those who
are governed. However, as suggested above the governed are often dissatisfied with the quality
of the services or programs delivered by the humanitarian NGOs.
Mindful that NGO activities tend to reflect their respective ideological frameworks, I argue that
Western NGOs are hampered by their ideological commitment to their humanistic approaches
with their presumed universal applicability. Since Western humanitarian NGOs are structured
upon a universal description of the human, they usually bring the Western construct of basic
definitions to other contexts without accounting for the culture, language, or belief systems of
those contexts. Derived from Eurocentric subjectivity, with reference to the Vitruvian white,
perfectly proportioned male human, such definitions have not only excluded others, they have
also failed to fulfil subsequent promises to incorporate ‘otherness’.
The Eurocentric mind-set
has glorified the Europeans’ vision of themselves as imperial powers, and it has also led them
to ‘objectify’ the other.
When Western NGOs address the agency of the ‘victimised’ refugees
out of ‘pity’, they become blinded by their certainty of knowing the answer to how best to offer
aid, and by their superior, egotistic attitude when responding to criticism, especially criticism
coming from those they seek to help.
As a result, this disposition, which assumes the embedded
privilege of the white as a saviour,
causes what Geoffrey Pfeifer and Chioke I’Anson describe
as ‘dialectical deafness’.
As their ‘humanistic’ mode of thought is built into their frameworks,
they are not only blind, but also deaf to refugees’ authentic needs, desires, and aspirations, as
well as unable to identify new effective technologies that can be learned from the refugees
Politics of Location
The posthumanist critical stance has emerged not only to refute a long lasting humanistic
attitude that is exclusive, but also to provide a methodology to construct posthuman
When introducing her account of the posthuman, Rosi Braidotti proposes the
practice of ‘the politics of location or situated and accountable knowledge practices’ as a
methodology to facilitate the process of becoming a posthuman.
Questions that address
located complexities and multiplicities of place and time are an important point of departure in
her thought. For example, how we can constitute ourselves without an emphasis on ‘self-centred
and instead acknowledge our relations with others?
‘others’ are not limited to other humans, but also include ‘all non-anthropomorphic elements’,
allowing other elements to be species, ecologies, or even machines.
A situated approach that
is based upon a ‘heterogeneous politics’ imposes an ethical responsibility on the researcher to
look for channels of communication with all forms of ‘otherness’. In the following section, I
will address the complexity of Za’atri refugee camp where I position myself as a visitor to the
Za’atri as a hybrid organism
Mindful of the complexity amidst which the life of the camp materialises, Za’atri refugee camp
can be described as what Michel Agier calls a ‘hybrid organism.’
The life of Za’atri as an
‘organism’ does not reproduce any existent form of life but its own. Conditioned by its
that were destined when its boundaries were
decided by the UNHCR and the Jordanian government, Za’atri camp has opted out of the
normative order of life to develop its own norms. It has developed as a composition of diverse
bodies, materials, technologies, spaces, and languages. Due to the ‘dialectical deafness’ that the
Western NGO frameworks suffer from, the composition of this lively organism is fractured into
two structures: on the one hand, the structure of Western NGOs as suppliers of aid, and on the
other hand, the new social structure of refugees who receive the aid and are governed by the
Each of these structures features its own bodies, equipment, mobility, and
technologies. Whenever each of these multiplicities confronts the other, hierarchies are upset.
In this chapter I want to ask: How can such fractures between the two structures be approached
with a level of sensitivity to the refugee subject? How might an approach to the posthuman
subject enable the dialogue between the Western NGOs and the refugee community to avoid
the stalemate of ‘dialectical deafness’?
In his essay Can the Subaltern be Heard?,
which is a reading of Gayatri Spivak’s well-known
essay Can the Subaltern Speak?,
J. Maggio argues that the subaltern subject already speaks,
it is just a matter of hearing her. To displace the limited transcendental Western subject,
Spivak challenges in her essay, Maggio suggests the concept of translation as a way to approach
and understand other cultures; cultures that Western discourse usually stands at a distance
The significance of translation lies in its intermediate position in enabling an open
According to Walter Benjamin, translation cannot give the full meaning
of the original, but can only echo it.
To be made accountable, translation needs to exceed the
emptiness of a literal conversion to involve instead the translation of a people’s culture and
Gayatri Spivak argues that to interpret a people’s everyday practices requires
the translator to ‘inhabit’ the host language.
A real understanding of language takes place
through the interconnections between the translator and the environment of everyday spatial
and social forms.
So for the posthuman, understood as a mediated body that is interconnected with human, non-
human and ‘earth’ others,
translation as non-systematic and a non-linear approach
responsibility that the posthuman subject not only takes on, but is ethically accountable for. By
translating the language of the refugee subject through its vitalist and materialist interrelations
in the camp environment, posthuman experiments can break away from the Western
Eurocentric framework to work with other alternatives. This experimentation of the posthuman
subjectivity actualises ‘the virtual possibilities of an expanded, relational self that functions as
a nature–culture continuum and is technologically mediated.’
How does the posthuman
subject’s inhabitation of the linguistic, social, and spatial forms of life in Za’atri Camp offer an
alternative to Western NGOs accountability? While ‘environment’ is constructed in Western
NGOs’ frameworks to indicate a place that surrounds passive subjectivities, how can the
posthuman subject’s experience contribute to redefining the ‘environment’ as a more dynamic
milieu that is inhabited by intentional subjectivities? What other alternatives does this
posthuman approach suggest?
‘Environment’ can be related to the verb, to environ, which also means to surround.
‘Environment’ indicates circumstantial variables that surround persons and things in a generic
form. Mindful of the controversy that envelopes the inactive representation of refugees inside
the temporal boundaries of a refugee camp,
I argue that associating ‘environment’ as given in
its western construct to a ‘refugee camp’ contributes to a further reduction of the camp’s
subjects as passive recipients, rather than as active actors. Western NGOs are deafened by their
own language and discourse. They become unable to hear other languages, such as those spoken
by refugees. Nevertheless, ‘environment’ understood as ‘Bee’ah- ’ in the Arabic linguistic
discourse is derived from the verb ‘bawa’a-’, which indicates any intentional inhabitation of
spaces, relations, or ideologies. This linguistic variation offers a new alternative for a
consideration of the context of the camp environment by activating the subjectivity of the
refugees inside the camp, and by understanding the environment less as generic than as concrete
The spatiality of the refugee camp has always been related to the way in which the camp is
governed. How space presents itself in the camp is captured in two main images. The first is an
image of a policed life and large-scale technologies: fortified and policed gates with guards and
checkpoints; an asphalted wide ring road encircling twelve districts; long, tight queues hemmed
in with wired fences and watch towers leading to large-scale nongovernmental spatial units that
provide food items and non-food items; fenced-in hospitals, fenced-in schools, toilet units, and
so forth. The other is an image of a social life and small-scale technologies: people chatting
while sitting together at the side of a street; planted backyards and small front gardens; shaded
courtyards where coffee and tea is served; laundry lines suspended between vertical surfaces;
busy markets and mobile street merchants, and shops to hire and sell wedding dresses.
The refugee camp as a built environment has been structured in accordance with specific
guidelines that follow humanitarian frameworks. Regardless of the prevailing circumstances of
its location, geography, environment or inhabitants, ‘the physical design of refugee camps …
originates from a single UN design manual applied and adapted in different contexts.’
Humanitarian government initiatives that ‘construct, manage, and control camps’ by
corresponding to priorities that are concerned with controlling ‘undesirable’ populations, have
long used the same UN design manual to sketch out the main principles for the layout of refugee
These principles are then associated with the agenda of local or international NGOs.
Referring to the work of the architect Manuel Herz, Eyal Weizman describes a development of
refugee camp spaces following medical and military logics:
Hygiene, sanitation, the management and containment of plague, the circulation of
services, infrastructure and the provision of water, electricity, medicine and nutrition,
along with the disposal of sewage and waste, all become the organisational principles of
a new spatial regime of multiple separations and regimentation of time and space,
intersecting quasi-military with quasi-medical principles.
The problem with the ‘UN design manual’, and with the technologies of the hastily produced
spatial regimes of humanitarian management, is their practice of total governmental control,
whether the goal of this government-through-the-construction-of-refugee-camps is perceived
as the production of what Rony Brauman, a former president of MSF, calls ‘humanitarian
spaces’ or is closer to what Agier calls ‘waiting rooms.’
Whether the apparatuses deployed
towards achieving these respective ends are administrative programs or sets of necessary
operations, humanitarian government action homogenises a whole population into the figure of
a refugee, a victim, or a beneficiary figure. This ‘macro scale’ approach de-socialises refugee
subjects. Through the following section and by discussing field explorations I have undertaken,
I aim to counter the assumed narrative about the camp as a place of mass representation. I will
argue that in spite of ‘the managerial representation’ that humanitarian governments inflict on
the refugee camp, understood as a large space that confines a large number of people,
can develop their own micro-scaled ‘environmental subjectivities.’
To reveal these micro-
scaled ‘environmental subjectivities’,
I will dwell on linguistic and physically embodied
approaches as new lenses through which I search for alternatives.
Linguistically and physically embodied situated knowledges
I am attentive to the criticism that linguistic approaches might receive where they risk being
uninformed in relation to the practical demands of the built environment. As Amos Rapoport
has argued, ‘in linguistics itself, there has been increasing criticism of the neglect of
The sociolinguistic approach that I follow is accompanied by a situated position
whereby I physically inhabit the context, both as Braidotti’s posthuman subject, and as Spivak’s
translator. Inhabiting the context is part of being inside Za’atri camp, of positioning my own
subject position there. This subject position I inhabit and perform is not only conditioned by
attending to the daily life in the camp, but also by speaking the Arabic language, living in the
culture, and practicing a similar religion.
I present this section by reflecting on my field experience, enabled after I volunteered with one
of the NGOs working inside Za’atri camp, within a component called Community Mobilisation.
Community Mobilisers work as mediators to facilitate platforms of dialogue between refugees
and NGO management. Mediators are responsible for both disseminating NGO operational
decisions to refugees, and transmitting refugees’ needs to NGO management. Community
mobilisers apply walking as a methodical approach to observing and engaging with the
everyday life of people inside of Za’atri. By following in the steps of community mobilisers for
two months, my aim was to observe the role of different spaces in steering the dialogue between
refugees and NGOs, specifically through an acknowledgement of everyday embodied practices
in these spaces. By highlighting what I call ‘moments of interactivity’, I critically analyse how
a space relevant to a specific moment becomes interactive, and thus socially productive in
developing relations between NGO representatives and refugees.
To achieve the aim of the
walks I undertook, I commenced my study by mapping out the possible scenarios that might
support such moments. For example, the occurrences of those moments varied in tactic (social,
organisational), frequency (on a daily basis, occasionally), activity (verbal, physical), scale
(between two persons, three to ten persons, more than fifteen persons), actors (community
mobilisers, men, women, or children), and spatial settings (a refugee’s place, street, NGO
centre). At the same time as encountering spaces in which moments of interactivity occur, my
concern is also with any representation of agency.
Below, illustrations of two such moments
of interactivity, Moment 1 and Moment 2 capture glimpses of spaces where acts of interest
As Anthony Giddens explains, the agency of actions is linked to the ability of that action to
influence ‘a specific process or state of affairs.’
To act with agency is to transform a flow of
procedures by exercising ‘some sort of power’ whether this happens by intervening or refraining
In the context of the camp where I look at existing NGO frameworks as
the representation of what Giddens describes as a state of affairs, an act of agency is that which
has the capacity to affect a state of affairs. These affects may be produced by deterritorialising
a situation’s structured hierarchies, by abstaining from attending to its order, or by forming a
new state of affairs that counters the current one.
The significance of the two moments lies in
the overlapped processes that bring into that space other moments and actors. By coming
together they form the force of a multiplicity that can challenge the regulated structure inside
By presenting these moments of interactivity, the attempt is to describe each within its setting.
To unknot how a space’s configuration rendered these moments as important, I will describe
the occurrence of these moments. Despite the stagnancy attributed to the image as a static form
of representation, moments of interactivity will be recalled with spontaneity, or as they were
encountered in the field. I will arouse each of the moments by attending to both movement and
<Figure 14:1 Moment 1: Al- Madafah>
Moment 1: This moment is captured in the ‘Madafah’ of Abu Al Waleed, one of the respected
leaders in Za’atri. ‘Madafah’  is a noun in Arabic that designates a place that is derived
from the verb ‘Daf’ [ ]; ‘Daf’ [ ]means visited as a guest. Madafah is the ‘place of
guests’, with specific spatial arrangements in which a powerful man in a community hosts
guests from the same community to discuss their issues and use his connections to resolve them.
Sitting there in his own Madafah, Abu Al Waleed spends most of his time in expectation of
visitors. He has never been an official leader and never aspired to be one. However, people in
his community trust him and look up to him. During the time I spent in the camp, many of the
formal and the informal meetings between refugees and NGO representatives took place there.
While I was sitting there with NGO representatives, many of his neighbours came in to discuss
their daily issues. Abu Al Waleed listens to people carefully and when he speaks it is always
with confidence. With his euphonic and assertive voice, when he speaks everyone listens. It is
only when he mentions NGOs, that his tone become tense. When I ask him about how happy
he is with the NGO services inside the camp, he says: ‘I have never needed an NGO to provide
me with aid and I will not ask for it. They owe me, I do not owe them. I know how to sustain
myself and keep my extended family sustained too.’
Reflection: While it is assumed that NGOs dominate a place at the top of the power structure
in the camp, I suggest that the encounter in Moment 1 destabilises this hypothesis. The space
of Madafah opens up a new position that NGOs find they must adapt to. Madafah has not been
limited to the visits of people from the refugee community, but has also served as a stage for
other actors to politically perform their agencies. While refugees and NGO representatives sat
there together, Abu Al Waleed succeeded in mediating the discussion between them.
<Figure 14:2 Moment 2: The Wagon.>
Moment 2: This moment was captured as we stopped by a mobile street merchant to look at his
vegetables. At the same time and in the same place where he had stopped at the edge of a main
street, a few women came along to check the wares in his wagon. One woman walked towards
the wagon and was joined by other women, ‘this is the time my daughter returns from school;
I am here to pick her up’ she said. One of the NGO representatives asked the seller about his
vegetable prices. ‘Vegetables here are much cheaper than vegetables in Amman. I usually shop
for groceries from the camp’, she whispered into my ear. When I asked the seller about the
source of his vegetables, he simply said ‘from outside.’ I used to see wagons in the camp before,
but not with such frequency. Some wagons are pushed by mobile street merchants, other
wagons are pulled by donkeys.
Reflection: Emerging from previous social constructs that are based upon gender distinctions,
women’s movement is bounded to specific spaces and restricted to a few specific practices.
However, the arrival of the street merchant’s wagon and the situation it creates interrupts this
construct. For example, while women find it hard to visit the market to get their groceries
without a male companion, the wagon, as a mobile spatial element, deconstructs the boundaries
constraining women’s movements by providing them with a temporal space that performs like
a market place.
Human vs Posthuman
Both the Madafah and the Wagon and the moments of interactivity they manifest represent
spaces that were initiated by refugees. Although each has its own specificity, both were
configured, created, made, remade, or collected in response to an embryonic need for such
spaces. In both moments acts of agency can be witnessed at a micro scale. Agency according
to Giddens’ notion of Structuration Theory is fundamentally linked to the power of an action
and how it holds a transformative capacity; a capacity that involves a logic and intention that
precedes the emergence of a given subjectivity.
Structuration Theory, according to Giddens, situates the body of the human as a medium
interconnected with its surroundings, where human acts take place.
This deliberation gestures
towards the mediation of the body that Braidotti has described in many places through her work
on the posthuman, and yet it is substantially different.
Where agency in Giddens’ terms is
restricted to human beings, limiting intermediation to human bodies, Braidotti’s approach to
the posthuman also acknowledges actors that are other than human. Braidotti aims to destabilise
the limited focus on the human subject, questioning the assumption that the human subject is
the only actor that exerts influence in a situation.
How can the agency manifested in Moment
1 and Moment 2 be reread through the lens of the posthuman? What alternatives does this new
approach avail us with? Will this rereading of space and situation illustrate a new layer of agents
that have otherwise remained invisible?
To destabilise the limits that the human subject occupies, the posthuman subject position aims
to break down the boundaries surrounding the human by flattening structures and opening up
spaces for alternative points of view.
What follows is a possible subversion of power
structures revealing how subject-positions come to be located. By allowing a consideration of
the posthuman into the scene, a cartography of epistemic and ethical accountabilities emerges,
which not only offers a critique of such locations, but an alternative representation of the subject
as ‘a dynamic non-unitary entity.’
Now, looking back at Moment 1 and Moment 2, which I highlight as moments of interactivity,
the emerging acts of agency witnessed in each extends beyond the human actor, to include the
nonhuman, which in turn requires recomposing and reconceptualising each moment’s
Each of the moments should instead be witnessed as a dynamic collective,
that is, an assemblage of human and non-human actors.
By being immersed in the camp, whether by walking, socialising or formally interviewing
refugees or community mobilisers, I have been exposed to different complexities that are
associated with the camp as a hybrid environment. An exposition through which I had to locate
myself in a position, interrelate to its actors, materials, and adapt to its surrounding
circumstances, only to dislocate myself again through acts of transposition, reconfiguring my
own subject position in relation to others.
The significance of the different accounts amidst
which I have transposed myself lies in their capacity to draw attention to other possible
substitutions that may allow a better understanding of the refugee subject-position as one that
is not fixed or pre-determined. Understanding refugees’ subjectivities in the camp is
conditioned by understanding their relations to their surrounding environment. Their
subjectivities are rendered vivid through these transpositions. They are not passively confined
by camp boundaries, but become active subjects through their everyday life practices.
Refugees are dynamic environmental subjects.
Despite the ‘dialectical deafness’
and the homogeneity that Za’atri suffers from as a UN
refugee camp, Syrian refugees in Za’atri have produced spaces, however minor and fleeting,
that correspond to their own specific needs in the everyday life of the camp. These are spaces,
or dynamic assemblages, that feature refugee environmental subjectivities. As many of these
spaces reproduce and influence other subjectivities inside the camp, a careful reading of specific
spaces and situations, what I have called ‘moments of interactivity’ is crucial for an
understanding of how alternatives are actively produced through the spatial configurations
created by refugees. Following a posthuman approach is one tentative step towards a careful
reading of such moments and spaces.
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