Waves of Disaster – Waves of Relief : An Ethnography of Humanitarian Assistance to Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Institutionen för kulturantropologi och etnologi



This paper applies an impressionistic and reflexive genre of ethnography to understand the ethnographer’s meeting with the humanitarian aid workers in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. It offers an analysis of the political atmosphere in the country prior to the tsunami as a central framework for understanding current tensions and debates over the distribution of tsunami aid resources, and traces the emergence of what has been termed Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Based on three months of ethnographic fieldwork from April to July 2005 among aid workers at the central level in Colombo and a careful attention to the rhetorics and arguments that characterized the writings in the Sri Lankan press during this period, the paper argues that while public debates over tsunami aid distribution has been entwined with political rivalries between the Sri Lankan government, and Sinhala and Tamil nationalist groups, the everyday reality of international humanitarians evolved around the forming of a common development language to categorise the demands of the aid intervention and on the performances of individual organisations, personified by a limited number of individuals in the professional fora of the humanitarians in Colombo.

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