Notes Towards an Anthropology of Nothing: Humanitarianism and Displacement in the Republic of Georgia

Lecture by associate professor Elizabeth Dunn, Indiana University

In 2008, 28,000 people were ethnically cleansed from South Ossetia, a breakaway province in the Republic of Georgia, when the Russian 58th Army invaded.  In response, Western donors  gave more than $4.5 billion in aid, over $350 million of which was earmarked especially for internally displaced people (IDPs). Yet, when I visited the new camps where the IDPs had been told  to resettle, they told me over and over "We have nothing. The government and the NGOs are not helping us, they do nothing for us. We are alone, we are abandoned, and we have nothing." 

Why would displaced people surrounded by donated aid continue to insist that they had nothing? In this paper, I show how nothingness becomes a central category through which IDPs understand their new lives in the settlement,their new social status as displaced people, and their new political relationships to the state and the international community. Using the ontology of Alain Badiou, I show that despite best intentions, the practices of the international humanitarian system create four kinds of voids that trap IDPs in camps and leave them in the long-term limbo of protracted displacement.

The seminar is open to everybody.

For further information please contact Dan Vesalainen Hirslund (