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Aid, Humanitarianism, Sustainable Development and NGOs

Chris Dolan


Professor Chris Dolan

Module Leader

Term 2
10 weeks
Lectures: 9x1h
Seminars: 9x2h
Not available to students outside the School for Cross-Faculty Studies

Introductory description

This module offers students an introduction into the complex world of international aid and current challenges to established modes of international collaboration arising from shifting geo-political alignments and escalating impacts of climate change. Through alternating between seeing the big picture and granular analysis of particular settings in which humanitarian and/or development aid have been or are a feature, students will enhance key skills required to engage critically in the promotion of sustainable development. The module revolves around three main areas of concern:

Institutional landscape: Aid has long held the potential to respond to urgent human needs as well as critical longer-term development and social change agendas. And yet the fortunes of governmental and non-governmental institutions, and the landscape, profiles and relationships of the various stakeholders, are ever-changing and inextricably linked to broader historical and current global dynamics across and within all levels; international, regional, national and local. How do these dynamics contribute to and/or detract from sustainable development?

Concepts and Contexts: The current (and long-standing) structuring of international aid into a humanitarian relief vs. development aid dichotomy rests on flawed models of ‘emergency’, ‘crisis’, and ‘conflict’, and correspondingly uncritical assumptions about what the needs during and after crisis are, as well as the needs for an effective transition. Interventions are often further troubled by a lack of contextual knowledge and specificity, with additional implications for their (lack of) effectiveness, particularly if assessed from a global sustainability perspective. How can the disconnects be better tackled?

Power and Voice: Non-governmental stakeholders in the humanitarian and development aid sectors leverage resources from multiple sources on the basis of particular narratives, social change agendas that are explicit, and foreign policy agendas that frequently remain unstated. In the process, distinct hierarchies of power and interdependency can be discerned. What are the costs to the overall effectiveness of interventions made, and to the entrenchment of counter-productive (often racist) tropes of beneficiary ‘dependency’, if ‘international’ voices dominate while those of beneficiaries remain unheard?

Principal Learning Outcomes

• Demonstrate the research and analytical capacities required to critically assess aid interventions and present these in written form

• Deconstruct the narratives – including those embedded in policy frameworks – that inform international aid interventions

• Be cognisant of power dynamics in aid interventions, including cognisance of their own possible positionality in such work

• Demonstrate good oral communication and presentation skills of the kind required to persuade aid stakeholders


The following topics are indicative and are clustered around the three themes identified. Individual topics may be modified and will not necessarily be delivered in this sequence. Overviews provided through lectures will be explored and critiqued through case studies developed by students for presentation in seminars:
Institutional landscape
• Histories of international aid and development
• Mapping the stakeholders, part 1: Multi-laterals, ‘International’ NGOs, academic and policy institutes, religious bodies
• Mapping the stakeholders, Part 2: National and grass-roots civil society and academia

Concepts and Contexts
• Spotting the social change agendas in humanitarian and development interventions (e.g. Women’s empowerment, LGBTI rights, environmental conservation)
• Spotting foreign policy and political change agendas (e.g. Transitional Justice)
• Territoriality or mainstreaming?

Power and Voice
• Positionality, Aid workers and Beneficiary Voice
• Locating the sources of change: "Top down vs bottom-up" perspectives, South-South collaborations, the ‘Localisation’ agenda
• Digital humanitarianism


Critical Policy Review 50%
Individual Presentation of Critical Policy Review 40%
Preparation and engagement 10%

  Please note: Module availability and staffing may change year on year depending on availability and other operational factors. The School for Cross-faculty Studies makes no guarantee that any modules will be offered in a particular year, or that they will necessarily be taught by the staff listed on this page.