International Aid and Urban Change

Humanitarian Presence in Bamako, Abidjan, Nairobi and Juba

by Pablo de Roulet (Author)
©2022 Thesis 364 Pages
Open Access


The presence of expatriate humanitarian workers in African cities is not neutral. Country
capitals receive large and sudden influx of expatriates during humanitarian crises
responses. This book examines the influence of this presence on the local urban ecosystem,
from the building of a security discourse to the self-segregation of aid agencies
in expatriate enclaves. The examples of Abidjan, Bamako, Juba and Nairobi illustrate
different variants of urban change induced by the normative power of aid organisations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Research Questions
  • 1.2 Case Studies
  • 1.3 Theory
  • 1.4 Chapters
  • Chapter 2 Theory and Method
  • 2.1 State of the Art
  • 2.1.1 Aid, Security and Space
  • 2.1.2 Aid Workers and the Built Environment
  • 2.1.3 Procedures, Design and Security
  • 2.1.4 Urban Form and Segregation
  • 2.1.5 Organisational Discipline and Its Spatial Consequences
  • 2.2 Theoretical Framework
  • 2.2.1 Landscape: Panorama, Viewers and Viewpoints
  • 2.2.2 Social and Material Layer
  • 2.2.3 The Aid Industry as a Social Field
  • 2.2.4 Norms and Transformations
  • 2.3 Research Methodology: Four Case Studies and Diverse Techniques
  • 2.3.1 Methods, Techniques and Tools
  • 2.3.2 Methodology: General Strategy and Physical Access to Sites of Research
  • 2.3.3 Techniques: Practical and Analytical Articulations
  • Deontology: Ethics as a Technical Element
  • Organisational Secrets
  • 2.3.4 Observation and Collection of Data
  • Collected Data: Written Documents and Maps
  • Created Data
  • Interviews
  • Visual Methods: Drawings, Maps, Chor\xE8mes
  • 2.3.5 Tools
  • 2.3.6 The Body as a Technical Ensemble: Interface between Methods, Techniques and Tools
  • Chapter 3 The Aid Industry: Social Field and Spatial Habitus
  • 3.1 International Aid and the History of Capitalism
  • 3.1.1 Neoliberal Ideology
  • 3.1.2 Project Management
  • 3.2 Reliance on the Private Sector for Goals and Models
  • 3.3 Statistics of Funding, Personnel and Sites of Operations
  • 3.4 Funding for Interventions
  • 3.5 Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Presence
  • 3.6 Workforce Data: Job Websites and UN Board
  • 3.6.1 UN Board Data: The Classes of Humanitarian Workers
  • 3.6.2 Sites and Staff
  • 3.6.3 Highlight on Capital Cities
  • 3.7 Security Gaze
  • 3.7.1 Strategic Papers, Research and Policy Documents
  • 3.7.2 Security Manuals
  • 3.7.3 UN Field Security Handbook
  • 3.7.4 Codes of Conduct and the Non-Spatial Ethics of International Aid
  • 3.7.5 Training and Storytelling
  • 3.7.6 Training the Good Soldiers of Humanitarianism
  • 3.7.7 Storytelling and Role Play
  • Role play
  • Chapter 4 Panorama
  • 4.1 Contexts of Political Violence
  • 4.1.1 The Conflict in Mali
  • 4.1.2 South Sudan and the Never-Ending Wars
  • 4.1.3 The Regional Hub and the War on Terror in Kenya
  • 4.1.4 War and Politics in Ivory Coast
  • 4.2 Violence and Numbers
  • 4.3 African Cities and Four Case Studies
  • 4.3.1 Population Growth and Spatial Expansion in Bamako Juba Abidjan and Nairobi
  • 4.3.2 Visibility of Infrastructure
  • 4.3.3 Moorings
  • 4.3.4 Bamako
  • 4.3.5 Abidjan
  • 4.3.6 Juba
  • 4.3.7 Nairobi
  • 4.4 The Local Population and the Right to the City
  • Chapter 5 Landscape of War
  • Chapter 6 The Layer
  • 6.1 City Scale: Available Space, Social Fragmentation and Airports
  • 6.1.1 Juba
  • 6.1.2 Bamako
  • 6.1.3 Abidjan
  • 6.2 Virtual Spaces
  • 6.2.1 Zoning: Forbidden Areas
  • Colour Symbolism
  • Nairobi Blue
  • Bamako in Red and Green
  • Residential and Office Areas in Abidjan
  • 6.2.2 Through the Lens of Bad News
  • 6.3 The Built Environment and Social Relations
  • 6.3.1 Compounds
  • 6.3.2 Hotels
  • Hotel Managers and Their Strategies in the Aid Market
  • Hotel Industry in Bamako
  • 6.3.3 Houses and Apartments
  • Security and Luxury Residences
  • Living Allowance and Residential Choices
  • Urban Quality
  • Prices and Standards
  • 6.3.4 The Aid Layer and Local Security Practices
  • Armed Violence and Collective Security in Juba
  • Defensive Designs and Fears of Crime in Nairobi
  • Mirror Fears in Bamako
  • 6.3.5 Supermarkets and Malls
  • 6.4 The Locals and the Cash Flow
  • 6.4.1 Property Owners
  • 6.4.2 Public Institutions
  • 6.4.3 Transport and Other Services
  • 6.4.4 Fixers for Houses and Apartments
  • 6.4.5 Hotel Employees
  • 6.4.6 Balance of Salaries and Costs of Living
  • 6.4.7 Service and Gendered Relationships
  • 6.4.8 Rebuttals and Frictions
  • Chapter 7 Transformations
  • 7.1 Shaking Local Urban Economy
  • 7.1.1 Local Employment
  • The End of Direct Employment
  • The Wide Variety of Indirect Employment and Businesses
  • 7.1.2 Privatisation of Public Services
  • Schools in Family Duty Stations
  • Dual Health Services
  • A Splintering of Public Services for the Future?
  • 7.1.3 The Built Environment in the Local Economy
  • Fears of Rent Increases
  • Foreseeable Future for the Uses of a Renewed Built Environment
  • 7.2 Control and Power in the Public Space
  • 7.2.1 Road Blocks and Sand Bastions in the Street
  • 7.2.2 The Radisson Hotel and the Levels of the State
  • 7.2.3 Fragmented Upgrades in the Public Domain
  • 7.2.4 Scales of Intervention
  • 7.3 Aesthetics of Defensive Design
  • 7.3.1 Spikes of All Sizes
  • 7.3.2 Cars as Symbols
  • 7.4 Outcomes in Abidjan
  • Chapter 8 Synthesis
  • Chapter 9 Conclusion
  • List of Figures
  • Bibliography

←12 | 13→

List of Abbreviations


African Development Bank


Danish Refugee Council


Economic Community of West African States


International Committee of the Red Cross


International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali


Mission internationale de soutien au Mali sous conduite africaine


Minimum Operational Residential Security Standards


Minimum Operational Security Standards


Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency


United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire


Oxford Committee for Famine Relief


Save the Children


Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation


United Nations


United Nations Development Programme


United Nations Department of Safety and Security


United Nations Environment Programme


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


United Nations Mine Action Service


United Nations Mission in South Sudan


World Food Programme

←14 | 15→

Chapter 1 Introduction

This work is the result of research started in 2014, on the processes of urban transformations in Bamako Juba, Nairobi and Abidjan in relation to the presence and security policies of UN missions and international aid. The results of this research highlight an uneven process of territoriality where humanitarian organisations operate.

The focus of this work originates in my work as a cartographer for humanitarian demining in Mali during the year 2013. My arrival at the beginning of the year in Mali was part of a larger trend of aid workers landing after the French military intervention that pushed back the jihadist movements that had taken over the north of the country the previous year. I stayed in the city of Bamako most of the year and left in December. From the time I arrived in Bamako to when I left, the atmosphere had changed spectacularly.

In the wake of the French intervention, French flags were hanging everywhere, along with pictures of then-French President François Hollande. Malians enthusiastically asked me if I was French and looked almost sad and disappointed when I answered by the negative. By the time of my departure, a number of demonstrations against the French and the UN presence had taken place, and the word on the street was no longer as positive as before. Many Malians were accusing the French army and the United Nations of supporting Tuareg separatists in the North.

During the course of this year, I lived and worked, as a number of expatriates, in the affluent neighbourhood of Badalabougou, located south of the Niger River. Like many fellow aid workers, I lived in hotels for months, and at other times along with colleagues in a villa. I was struck by the power of the UN and the aid community in general taking over public and private places. Barriers and sandbags were installed in streets. Hotels and bars were crowded with expatriates. This newcomers’ power was not always benevolent and sometimes reflected in diverse forms offensive remarks against Malians. During this year, the streets of Bamako changed a lot, with highly visible United Nations-marked white cars now part of the city scene. Roadblocks completed the picture, along with street checkpoints operated by security companies.

These changes in the Malian capital are not an exception, and many African cities witness similar processes. The presence of international aid in different places produces relatively similar marks of presence. The place of security measures and devices appears ubiquitous wherever international aid settles in. This ←15 | 16→research is in line with an ambition to observe and understand a socio-spatial process much wider than Bamako and the other case studies presented in this document.

1.1 Research Questions

The intriguing process of urban transformation by an outside social body absorbed me enough to start a doctoral research, based on a number of questions and assumptions centred on security policies and practices in relation to the urban environment. The questions that prompted this research focused on three main aspects: the production and dissemination of security discourses, the materiality of the aid presence and the transformative aspects of this materiality. Humanitarian aid, despite being generated by a number of different organisations, responding to different social or political ambitions, and thematic specialities, form a coherent social body able to influence a variety of social environments. The discourse of fear and security needed to implement models of defensive urbanism are organised under global security structures. How are these discourses produced and disseminated throughout the wide and diverse social body of aid workers? How are these discourses translated into the material environment and social practices? What social and spatial transformations occur in the cities with a large presence of humanitarian aid?

1.2 Case Studies

Four case studies illustrate the spatial aspects of security norms of international aid agencies and their influence on the broader urban environment. The four capital cities of Bamako, Abidjan, Nairobi and Juba constitute four distinct paradigms in the intervention of international aid in contexts of diverse levels of political violence. The presence of a UN mission in Bamako and large-scale humanitarian aid is a recent feature in Mali, although development agencies have been implanted there since a long time. In Juba, the capital of the new state of South Sudan, humanitarian presence has already lasted decades as war and famine have repeatedly ravaged the country. Nairobi hosts major UN offices and has long been a hub for international agencies serving as a central node in the provision of aid, both within Kenyan territory, and to several neighbouring countries. Abidjan presents a rare case of the official end of a UN mission, which terminated in 2017.

The four cities studied for this research constitute a multi-sited research rather than a comparatist approach, for theoretical and practical reasons. The ←16 | 17→theory underlying this multi-sited approach is to understand these cities not as a number of case studies but as fragments of the same space. The different cities where the research was conducted are relatively peripheral to globalisation while at the centre of the humanitarian and peacekeeping world. From a practical point of view, the research in multiple sites in a domain that has frequent access restrictions, allows the collection of enough data to both nuance and generalise the theoretical conclusions of the research.

1.3 Theory

The theoretical approach to the subject is that the territoriality of international aid presence manifests itself in the creation of a landscape of aid in African cities. Academic literature has highlighted the insularity and segregation of aid presence in a number of African (and other Global South) cities, driven by security discourses and risk evaluations. The complex apparatuses maintaining the isles of aid within cities include norms, architecture, finance, and aesthetics, all of which tend to create separate spaces within a city. The space-time contraction of the late capitalist world economy has produced a particular space of aid where international airports create a catastrophe-hopping class of humanitarian workers, moving from one short-term mission to the other. At the scales of the receiving cities, this means a territorialisation process akin to the creation of a landscape of risk.

The research borrows largely from the three disciplines of Urban Studies, Political Geography and the Anthropology of Development. A tradition of Political Geography permits locating aid within broader trends of the globalisation of capitalism in the scalability of its materiality and ideologies, including recent trends in humanitarian policy and practice. The tradition of anthropology of aid has helped discuss the practices of aid as separate objects of studies from the declared policies of humanitarian and development aid. Urban studies as an assemblage of a multidisciplinary research approach has nourished this project in the theoretical framing of humanitarian use of cities as well as an openness to a multiplicity of research methods to describe and analyse complex urban realities.

I have developed and used a variety of techniques and methods for this research. It involved field visits in all the four cities and the collection of diverse forms of documentation, including policy documents, maps, spatial and non-spatial databases. In complement to the collected documentation, I have produced a variety of data in order to understand and describe the interactions between the aid industry and the urban social and material environment in the ←17 | 18→four African cities, mostly in the form of interviews, photographs, drawings and maps. This combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, of data produced and collected allows a comprehensive picture of the complex and multi-scalar phenomenon of the interaction of the aid industry with local urban settings.

The particular focus of this research on cities that are amid violent political processes influenced greatly the limits of the field research and data collection. The sensitivity of the subject, and the sensitivity involved in gathering data from the field required a careful evaluation and selection in data collection. In two different instances, in Juba 2016 and in Abidjan 2017, armed conflict forced me to interrupt or modify the course of my research. These times of crisis during my research resulted in the unexpected and partly uncontrolled collection of empirical materials and helped me develop some theoretical findings of this book. A short section describes this particular epistemology of non-controlled experiment.

1.4 Chapters

The book is divided in five main chapters highlighting the process of territorialisation of international aid in African cities. The first chapter highlights the state of the art, the theoretical framework and the methodology used for the empirical research. The following four chapters Aid Industry, Panorama, Layer, and Transformations present the four interconnected elements in the creation of a landscape of aid. The intermediary short chapter Landscape of War describes how violent events have shaped the theories used in this research.

The chapter on the Aid Industry presents the social field of aid and its spatial habitus. Using statistics from humanitarian employment websites, it presents the main trends and polarities within the aid industry and the socio-spatial division of labour within aid organisations. This approach furnishes description of aid workers as part of a global, albeit North-dominated, middle-class workforce linked to a spatial habitus. This spatial habitus, learnt social norms in relation to the use of space, stems from general middle-class aspirations as well as a security culture assimilated through institutional trainings. Within the context of cities where electricity and water access standards and personal security are often at risk, these imported spatial norms and habitus pave the way for separated modes of dwelling from the poor majority towards enclaves of high consumption.

The chapter on Panorama refers to the context of the four case studies of Bamako, Juba Abidjan and Nairobi, following an understanding of the urban environment through the social lens of the aid industry. It presents a broad ←18 | 19→overview of the political and social histories of the four countries and cities that constitute the case studies.

The Panorama chapter introduces a history of the social and built environment of the four cities. It presents the political history of the cities and a series of common socio-spatial features, and notes the short history of all these cities, their relationship to French and English colonialism and the spectacular growth after their independence. However, the lack of comparable data and documentation on these cities – and the complexity of gathering the existing documentation – witnesses the limited resources of the territories studied in this research about themselves, particularly in relation to urban histories. This scarcity also partly explains the limited vision that aid organisation produce when working in African cities, focused on security and strictly functionalist.

The use of the concept of landscape as a theoretical framework for this dissertation stems from personal experience during this research. Apart from the overall structure and chapter development, this reflexion aims to present the influence of witnessing large-scale combats from within the humanitarian system in orienting the general theoretical framework of this research. The short chapter Landscape of War combines recollection of events, perceptions, feelings and ideas that explain in large parts the directions and choices taken during fieldwork and writing phases.

The cities considered as a palimpsest and as the site of complex histories present a relatively similar way used by the aid industry to settle in. The Layer chapter describes the process of settlement and segregation initiated by the aid industry over the local environment. It considers that explicit and implicit norms either formed or justified by security concerns structures the settlement process of aid workers. Contractual obligations and constant discourse in relation to risks maintain the bodily discipline of aid workers in remaining in enclaves combining offices, hotels and secured houses, while movement is limited and controlled.

The construction of a separate layer of aid workers from the city is a process that includes some sections of the local population as well as non-humanitarian expatriates, in pre-scripted roles where aid agencies and aid workers use segments of the local population as service providers. The array of actors needed to maintain the enclaves of aid within African cities produces a specific socio-spatial layer with loose connections to the local environment. Multiscale processes of settlement imply different levels of directives and actions over the territory from the scale of the country to the city, the neighbourhood, buildings, and ultimately control over bodies. The body of the aid worker is controlled and disciplined, ←19 | 20→while the body of local employees is often put in a vulnerable situation by the very structure of the aid industry.

The last chapter, Transformations, deals with the transformations induced by the presence of international organisations. The impact of the presence of aid workers in the cities is multiple. Their presence influences African cities at different scales and on seemingly distinct issues. Institutional relationships with the local authorities unveil different strategies from the part of local officials, whether elected personnel or technical specialists. While it is important not to depict local actors as passive servants or victims of the international aid, it should be emphasised that the uneven relationship makes the aid industry a powerful player in the territoriality of the city. The private economy is impacted, and the local population unevenly receives the dividends of the presence of aid. Capital, in all its forms (financial, social and cultural) is crucial to understanding the capacity or not of local actors to benefit from new flows of cash in the urban economy.


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2022 (August)
Influence of expatriate influx on the local urban ecosystem Expatriate humanitarian workers Influx of expatriates during humanitarian crises
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 364 pp., 39 fig. col., 35 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Pablo de Roulet (Author)

Pablo de Roulet is a social scientist and a cartographer. His research focusses on socio-spatial dynamics in the Global South cities. His interest in the geography of aid stems from his experience in field missions for humanitarian organisations.


Title: International Aid and Urban Change