On April 12, 2018, Elizabeth Dunn, a political anthropologist and professor in the Geography department at the University of Indiana Bloomington, delivered a lecture that has far reaching implications, not only for the field of international development, but for any endeavor which seeks to understand the nature of authoritarianism and rightest tendencies throughout the world. Dunn is quick to point out that authoritarianism is not only rising in states considered relatively new to democracy, but also in states considered to have strong roots in liberal democracy, like the U.S. and U.K., for example. When asked for causes of rising rightest tendencies, Dunn responds that the confluence of the information revolution (the impact of which she likens to the industrial revolution) combined with financial insecurity throughout the EU and U.S. is partly responsible. International humanitarianism, as the title suggests, can inadvertently give rise to authoritarianism in the wake of conflicts because of the ways aid is delivered and distributed without regard for the specificity of different post conflict zones.
The talk focused on the Republic of Georgia, a country still grappling with its Soviet legacy and to a greater extent its realization of a liberal democracy, and having to define a modern Georgian political identity that is both part of, and apart from Europe. Dunn frames her talk around the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Georgia in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008, and the response of the international humanitarian apparatus in handling the crisis.
The current aid climate is project based and comes in very large cash allotments directly to state governments. The funds are eventually circulated to local non-governmental organizations that carry out projects mandated by the international humanitarian community. This system leads to aid funds left behind with each entity that handles it, and not with IDPs. Humanitarian aid projects are often treated similarly to the fall out after a natural disaster, as Dunn noted. The aid arrives quickly and with such magnitude but then leaves in much the same way. For example, international aid funds provided electricity to IDP camps until (without warning from the Georgian government) meters were installed in the winter, and the electricity was cut off to families, except to those few that could afford to pay. The degree of inefficiency and lack of strategic planning for IDPs brings into sharp relief the misappropriation of some international aid by the Georgian government at the time.
In the first year following the war, $1 billion was funneled into Georgia and much of that aid went to capacity building. Under President Saakashvili’s direction, capacity building meant a restructuring and shoring up of the state security apparatus, as well as excising political competition. Under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign, the security service maintained an unwelcome presence in the IDP camps, surveilling any potential sources of political discontent. This eventually led to paranoia throughout the camps, not only in relation to the state but also amongst IDPs themselves. As the blanket of aid began to thin over the next year, this paranoia compounded competition among IDPs for who the next beneficiaries of aid would be. Moreover, the war had exacerbated Saakashvili’s brand of populism and thwarted the direction of his policies towards authoritarianism and away from his centrist platform of the Rose Revolution. All the while, the Georgian state’s ability to provide for IDPs was compromised by the frailty of its institutions.
Kate Butterworth works at the University Library as a Library Specialist in Slavic Cataloging. Her primary research interests include ethnic identity and conflict in the Republic of Georgia and the South Caucasus.