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Abstract In this talk, I offer a view into the co-constitution of humanitarian ethics and technological expertise, by looking at humanitarian approaches to urban, spatial and environmental problems, from the 1960s to the present. One objective is to describe planning as a technology of aid; the other is to present humanitarian organizations as planning institutions. The narrative I suggest is organized around the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) participation in the Vancouver Human Settlement Conference of 1976, a pivotal moment in which the humanitarian organization first formulated explicit links between physical planning and its mandate to safeguard the lives and dignity of victims of conflict and refugees. The moment reveals significant convergence between aid and urbanism, around issues of risk anticipation, sustainability and spatial justice. This position starkly contrasts both with UNHCR's original institutional design, and with what we have come to expect from humanitarian place-making today. The case provides an example of the shifting ways in which moral, political, legal and technical rationalities intertwine with one another during humanitarian crises and situations of mass displacement.
Bio Marianne F. Potvin is a PhD candidate in urban planning and architecture at Harvard University. Her dissertation “Humanitarian Urbanism Cities, Technologies and the Hybrid Practices of Humanitarian Planners” explores the crucial yet paradoxical role that technical expertise plays in international aid agencies’ quest for legitimacy and moral accountability. She is a licensed architect and holds a master of architecture from the University of Montreal and a master of design studies from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Prior to Harvard, Marianne led field teams in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur, for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other international NGOs to support victims of armed conflict, refugees and other displaced persons. Her research has been supported by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.