A Ciritcal Book Review: Managing The Undesirables By Michel Agier

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Agier’s “Managing the Undesirables” aims to describe and construct an understanding of humanitarian governance, by providing evidence on the treatment of the individuals and groups who are a part of the worlds “victims of forced displacement”. He does this by conducting research within a series of fieldwork studies in a time frame between the years of 2001 to 2007. His work is an ethnographic account of his visits to refugee camps in Zambia, Guinea, Kenya West Bank, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, whereby, his association with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) allowed him to gain access to the camps, sanctioning sufficient time to observe humanitarian government work within the camps, in addition to witnessing the response made by the refugees in its purview.

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This first-hand experience draws upon “facts, conflicts and cases of aggression or attested information of events of the last few years”, providing adequate justification to the investigation into the failures in humanitarian work. This book is an essential tool used to link to the current debate around the refugee crisis. Throughout the book, the information contained provides thorough comprehension and thought-provoking reading, which the author has set out to accomplish from the start to the finish. Agier has split his book into three sections, firstly, a theoretical account is set out to understand the concepts of “refugee, displaced and rejected”. This theoretical account although maintaining the idea of power in regards to the humanitarian management, to which the author opposes, equivalently shows the attempt made to understand the multifaceted situation faced on the ground. Agier makes the point that; there is an increasing partition between two categories in the world, one a “healthy, clean and visible world” and the other is a “dark, diseased and invisible world”, that of the refugees. This statement is a true reflection on today’s society, as refugees evoke such unprecedented hatred as they are merely seen as an inconvenience to society, however, have done nothing to deserve it other than simply existing and being dependent on outside assistance to seek security and an increased standard of living. help.

Furthermore, this portrays the contrast between the public perception of humanitarian aid and the impurity in which organizations have. Secondly, the author provides a detailed ethnological study of the different camps that he visited, drawing attention to the experiences and stories of the refugees. Although Agiers focusses on the day to day problems faced by the refugees and argues over how humanitarian organizations exhibit power over the displaced people, the author does not, however, allow for how the individuals acting within the humanitarian framework feel about implementing these power relations put in place by the organizations and the resulting effects of this. If he had provided a small ethnographic study for the humanitarians on the ground, he would be able to analyze if the power plays from NGOs and UNHCR were removed, would there still be implementations of this power shown through social hierarchy in amongst the “undesirables” and whether their overall treatment within the camp would improve.

The book provides a good starting point of an ethnographic study, nevertheless, what this book lacks is a boarder viewpoint; his ethnographic study only takes place in Africa and needs to widen its reach across the board, in order to provide a more accurate portrayal of the specific organization and order or power within camps, in which case are generally found in places of humanitarian involvement.

Lastly, he explores three themes that protrude through his entire ethnographic study; that of urban ethnography of the camps as spaces of socialization, that of the perceptions of the humanitarianism as a social world and establishment of thoughts, and of the humanitarian government’s power and materiality. The author appeals for social justice, as well as for the respect of the basic rights of the refugees, this echoes similar literature topics including that of Anderson (1999) and Prendergast (1996), whereas Anderson refers to there being no harm in delivering aid and Prendergast (1996) identifies the framework of the “seven sins” by which the humanitarian agencies must oblige to for the purpose of avoiding harm. These outside sources are evidence of the numerous anthropologist’s in-depth monographs which have been created as a result of the degree of interest in refugee camps, Agier has been careful not to overlap with these parallel publications. Within this chapter nonetheless, there are many issues at hand that are only touched upon at the surface and should have been delved into more deeply, for example, as a point made by Agier in the book; deciding what to do when refugee camps after a long period of time are finally turned into townships, which would have allowed the reader to get a deeper insight into the future development of the refugee camps. Agier concludes that it is the gaps between the system – in this case, the failure of humanitarian work – that contradicts the stories of equal treatments amongst the suffering undesirable refugees. However, Omondi Opongo, E. (2006) makes the argument that it is only with these injustices that one can discover what must be done to allow refugees to earn their identities and free them from the oppressive constructions of the camp. Thus, for this to be done political action must be enhanced to transform camps into an urban center, towns, and cities.

Agier’s study is a fair representation without biased interpretation as his involvement in the MSF has meant that he is involved in both the research world, in addition to that of the humanitarian organization. Through the book, it is evident that the author’s standpoint lies in his respect for the individuals acting within the humanitarian framework in regards to their intentions rather than their ideas. Moreover, he focuses on highlighting the forms of domination specific to humanitarian mechanisms, in which he feels greatly dissatisfied by. Agier’s “Managing the Undesirables” surpassed expectation as this commendable ethnographic account bring to the fore the current crisis of the humanitarian movement with regards to the “undesirables” in an understandable manner.

15 July 2020

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