DV520      Half Unit
Complex Emergencies

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof David Keen CON 6.06


This course is available on the MRes/PhD in International Development. This course is not available as an outside option.

Course content

When genocides, civil wars and famines are reported on television in countries such as Syria, Sudan or Yemen, we are often left with a sense of confusion. Why is this happening? Why do these disasters keep recurring? And which actors are driving the process? This course looks behind the headlines to get a deeper understanding of the causes and functions of humanitarian disasters.


By re-thinking common conceptions of conflict (such as the idea that war is a contest between two or more sides aiming to ‘win’), the course offers new ways of thinking about war, humanitarian intervention and peacebuilding. Who benefits from conflict? Who benefits from famine? How do these benefits shape the information we receive? How is the ‘enemy’ defined, and whose interests do these changing definitions serve? And how can one make peace a peace that doesn’t propel society back into war?


The course offers an understanding of the complex fault-lines that lie behind oversimplistic news coverage. It also expands our understanding of disasters to take account of the fact that many disasters (from climate change to ‘migration crisis’, from Covid to democratic crisis) are now ‘coming home’ as far as Western democracies are concerned.


The course draws on detailed empirical case-studies — including the course-leader’s own fieldwork in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Guatemala, France and on the Syria/Turkey border. The course makes use of the political thought of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, showing how they can help us to deconstruct the interests and the language that muddle our understanding of the causes and functions of contemporary disasters — in whichever part of the world they are found.


The course is interdisciplinary and looks at the political, economic and psychological functions of violence, though it requires no specialist knowledge of any particular discipline.


15 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

This course is delivered through a combination of lectures and seminars in the LT. 

Student on this course will have a reading week in Week 6.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 piece of coursework in the LT.

A plan for the research paper (1500-2000 words) on which the student will receive feedback and topic approval

Indicative reading

A detailed weekly reading list will be provided at the first course meeting. A useful text, which is designed in large part around the course, is David Keen, Complex Emergencies (Polity, 2008).

Other texts of interest include:

• David Keen, The Functions and Legitimization of Suffering in Calais, International Migration (2020), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/imig.12800                  

• Ruben Andersson and David Keen. 2019. Partners in Crime? The impacts of Europe’s outsourced migration control on peace, stability and rights. Saferworld: London, July, https://www.saferworld.org.uk/resources/publications/1217-partners-in-crime-the-impacts-of-europeas-outsourced-migration-controls-on-peace-stability-and-rights ;

• Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land (The New Press, 2016), Ruben Andersson, Illegality Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe. Oakland: University of California Press.

• David Keen, Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important than Winning Them (Yale University Press, 2012);

• Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2006);

• Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge University Press, 2005);

• Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines (Oxford University Press, 1981);

• Frances Stewart and Valpy FitzGerald (eds.), War and Underdevelopment, Volumes 1 and 2 (Oxford University Press, 2001);

• Jeremy Weinstein, Inside Violence: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2007);

• Tim Allen, Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord's Resistance Army (Zed Press, 2006);

• Chris Dolan, Social Torture: The Case of Northern Uganda, 1986-2006 (Berghahn, 2009);

• Zoe Marriage, Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game: International Assistance to Countries in Conflict (Hurst and Co., 2006);

• David Keen, Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone (James Currey, 2005);

• David Keen, Endless War? Hidden Functions of the 'War on Terror' (Pluto, 2006);

• Christopher Cramer, Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries (Hurst and Co., 2006);

• Mats Berdal and David Malone, Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Lynne Rienner, 2000);

• Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War (Hurst and Co., 2008).


Essay (100%, 5000 words) in the ST.

Key facts

Department: International Development

Total students 2021/22: 1

Average class size 2021/22: 1

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication