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Complex Emergencies



Complex Emergencies

David J. Keen

ISBN: 978-0-745-64019-8 January 2008 Polity 296 Pages

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If you thought the point of war was to win, this book will make you think again.

David Keen questions the model of war as a contest between two sides aiming at political and military victory, and he also rejects the contrasting view that war represents a collapse into anarchy, mindless violence and ethnic hatred. Rather than a contest or a collapse, war is analysed as a system that has significant functions and that yields complex economic, political and psychological benefits. Some may be more interested in prolonging a war than in ending it. War may help elites to derail democracy and suppress dissent; it may be profitable for government and rebel actors; and it may allow armed groups to enjoy a sense of power over unarmed civilians.

This book argues that understanding the complex functions of wars alongside other forms of human disaster, such as famine and ethnic strife, is essential if we are to reduce suffering and move towards lasting peace agreements.

Complex Emergencies will be essential reading for students of development, political economy, political science and international relations.


Chapter 1 War

Chapter 2 ‘Greed’: Economic Agendas

Chapter 3 Combatants and their Grievances

Chapter 4 Defining the Enemy

Chapter 5 Famine

Chapter 6 Aid

Chapter 7 Information

Chapter 8 Peace

Chapter 9 Conclusion


"A much more sophisticated contribution than most ... a valuable contribution to the ever-growing literature on conflict and violence."
Times Literary Supplement

"Complex emergencies aims to analyse the various abusive systems of government that have created the world's recent humanitarian disasters. It is an important and challenging book and, being well edited and thoroughly researched, it achieves its stated aim."
International Affairs

"A lucid and highly accessible volume and an essential text for anyone wishing to understand the multifaceted interaction between conflict and its benefactors."
Journal of Peace Research

"The great value of this book is that it enables understanding of the causes of complex emergencies. It provides powerful, detailed analysis of many specific instances from across the globe."
Third Way

"Combining critical theorizing and detailed knowledge of conflict zones around the world, Keen challenges a mountain of received wisdoms, urban myths, and simplified understandings regarding collective violence, aid, reconstruction, and peace-building."
Making Sense of Darfur

"Recommended for scholars of international relations and development studies. It provides an important contribution to the literature by synthesizing existing research about the dilemmas of trying to intervene in complex emergencies that initially may seem irrational to outside observers but ultimately make sense from the perspective of the different interests involved."
Journal of Refugee Studies

"Complex Emergencies is the indispensable text on the topic of internal war and its humanitarian implications. It analyses how conflict functions systemically and the role of psychological factors in extreme violence. Moreover, despite dealing with such a difficult subject, this book is also a delight to read."
Alex de Waal, Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University

"In providing a powerful corrective to the urge to dismiss African wars or terrorism as mindless violence, this book represents David Keen at his incisive best. In this comprehensive and challenging review of complex emergencies, Keen brilliantly shows how factors often dismissed as irrational or unforeseen actually function to constitute the predicament in question. For anyone seriously concerned with what is happening in the world’s disaster zones - whether student, policy-maker or general public - you will not find a better or more illuminating guide."
Mark Duffield, University of Bristol

  • timely new book by David Keen analyses the abusive systems that surround and produce humanitarian disasters
  • written by a leading figure in the field of complex emergencies and development issues
  • gives particular attention to the economic, political and psychological functions of civil conflicts and humanitarian disasters
  • clear and accessible in style, this book will appeal to students and academics alike