Fire, Famine and Conflict: The Politics of Humanitarian Interventions

  • Summer schools
  • Department of International Development
  • Application code SS-IR215
  • Starting TBC
  • Short course: Closed
  • Location: Houghton Street, London

Please note: This course will not be running as part of the 2021 programme. However, you may be interested in our confirmed courses.

This interdisciplinary course looks at international, national and local humanitarian responses to conflict and natural disasters. Building on an analysis of the causes, construction and consequences of humanitarian disasters, we consider the principles and the politics of humanitarian action; exploring the overlaps and tensions between practices of humanitarian assistance and humanitarian intervention and how humanitarian institutions shape and are shaped by global governance and state power.

We consider why humanitarian organisations and governments respond to some crises and not to others as well as the critique of humanitarian assistance and the ways in which the UN and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO)/Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) communities have sought to professionalise their activities. We analyse the ways in which humanitarianism relates to ideas about human rights and justice, state interests and the politics of global governance and security.

Session: TBC
Dates: TBC
Lecturer: Dr Stuart Gordon and Professor David Keen


Programme details

Key facts

Level: 200 level. Read more information on levels in our FAQs

Fees: Please see Fees and payments

Lectures: 36 hours

Classes: 18 hours

Assessment*: One 1,500 word essay (worth 25% of the final grade), and a take-home exam at the end of the final week (worth 75% of the final grade).

 Typical credit**: 3-4 credits (US) 7.5 ECTS points (EU)

*Assessment is optional

**You will need to check with your home institution

More information on exams and credit


At least one introductory course in either social science (e.g. political science, international relations, sociology, economics), history or law.

Programme structure


The course begins by exploring the nature of humanitarianism and its relationship with capitalism, colonialism and faith before unpacking some of the consequences of this history for the contemporary humanitarian system.  

Vulnerability and Responses

It then looks at the way in which societies construct the discourses surrounding disasters as ‘social imaginaries’. This provides an analytical framework for exploring how crises are neglected, supported, distorted and whose interests these processes serve. In particular we look at the role of the media, early warning systems and states in selecting crises for response. We then turn our attention to the ways in which human vulnerability to disaster agents is constructed. Natural hazards do not affect people in disaster hit areas equally. Rather, consequences stem from the interaction of natural hazards and factors that are embedded in social, economic, political, cultural and ideological structures that determine unequal access to resources, opportunities and control over power. Hence the consequences of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2012) and the Nepalese Earthquake (2015) were amplified by underlying social relationships. Of these structural issues, gender relations are amongst the most significant. In this section we also explore the ways in which famines are produced: who is constructed as ‘vulnerable’, who benefits, how they emerge and the types of policy responses that are provided by the international system. We extend this analysis to armed conflict: introducing and analysing the political economy of ‘new wars’ and the ways in which these impact on contemporary humanitarian actors and populations.


We then move onto explore the devastating critiques of humanitarian action that emerged in the mid-1990s. We introduce a range of criticisms; from those that challenge the performance and technical functioning of the system through to more theoretical Foucauldian analyses that seek to characterise the system’s functions in North-South relations, world ordering and the promotion of liberal peace. The critiques are set against analyses of the reform of the UN humanitarian and NGO system – looking in particular at issues of accountability, localization, rights based assistance, disaster risk reduction and professionalization and the extent to which these are able to address the general critiques of the humanitarian system. 

The Major Debates

The next section explores a series of major concerns of humanitarian workers:  the impact of technology on humanitarian assistance and the humanitarian system, the issue of the perceived contraction of humanitarian space and the securitization of aid; the related issues of military led ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the protection of civilians; and the rise of ‘resiliency humanitarianism’. Finally we look at the adequacy of the refugee regime and the extent to which its legal instruments and humanitarian institutions are able to address the challenges of and for refugee populations.

Specific topics include:

  • The origins of ‘humanitarianism’:  Faith, Capitalism and Colonialism
  • Socially Constructing Crises:  Aid Flows, Neglecting crises, Interests and the Media's interaction with states and the humanitarian system
  • Vulnerability, Gender and Natural Disasters
  • Famine theories and the limits of entitlements
  • War systems: greed, grievance, counterinsurgency
  • The Critique of Humanitarianism: From Foucault to Function
  • Reforming the Humanitarian system:  Professionalization, Regulation, Certification and  Standards
  • The Impact of Technology on Humanitarianism
  • Resiliency humanitarianism
  • Humanitarian space and securitization
  • Humanitarian intervention and the protection of civilians
  • Refugees, the internally displaced and forced migration.

Course outcomes

Students will be able to understand and analyse:

  • the origins of the humanitarian system
  • the nature of vulnerability and the politics of disaster response
  • the theoretical criticisms of the humanitarian system and how the latter has sought to reform
  • the major political debates in the contemporary humanitarian system.


LSE’s Department of International Development promotes interdisciplinary postgraduate teaching and research on processes of social, political and economic development and change. The department is dedicated to understanding problems of poverty and late development within local communities, as well as national and international political and economic systems.   

Research and teaching in the department is concerned with the causes of poverty, social exclusion, economic stagnation, humanitarian crises and human security. Their aim is to provide students with an understanding of why and how some late developing countries have succeeded in overcoming these problems while others have not or have seen their progress derailed by disasters and conflicts. There are also research units that operate through the department. Faculty have considerable experience in living and working in the developing world and most have engaged in policy-relevant research and consultancy work with international development agencies or non-governmental organisations.             

On this three-week intensive programme, you will engage with and learn from full-time lecturers from the LSE’s international development faculty.

Reading materials

  • Stuart Gordon and Antonio Donini ‘Romancing Principles and Human Rights - Are Humanitarian Principles Salvageable?’ International Review of the Red Cross  International Review of the Red Cross / Volume 97 / Issue 897-898 / June 2015, pp 77-109.
  • Barnett, M. and Weiss, T. 2011. Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread. NY: Routledge Press.
  • Barnett, M. and Weiss, T. 2008. Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, and Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Peter Walker and Daniel Maxwell. 2009. Shaping the Humanitarian World. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Antonio Donini (Ed). 2012. The Golden Fleece. Sterling VA: Kumarian Press.

*A more detailed reading list will be supplied prior to the start of the programme

**Course content, faculty and dates may be subject to change without prior notice

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