Mutual aid

Forms of mutual aid – or ordinary people helping each other – have a long history. The term ‘mutual aid’ was made prominent in the late 19th century by the Russian anarchist and geographer Kropotkin, as a progressive response to ideas of Social Darwinism. Much later, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom critiqued the idea of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. In the words of The Nobel Foundation, Ostrom showed that ‘when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable’.

Since then, mutual aid has become a tool for helping individuals, such as in social work. This is practiced in the ‘self-help group’. In the words of Schwartz, this is where ‘the group is an enterprise in mutual aid, an alliance of individuals who need each other, in varying degrees, to work on certain common problems’. Mutual aid has sprung up in the context of disasters, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, suggesting that a sense of community can emerge from disaster. Just how impactful mutual aid can be is underscored by the emergence of local community groups in the wake of COVID-19.

Apart from its history in (Western) academia, mutual aid is by no means unique to the Global North. Local forms of collaboration, organising agricultural work or support in emergency, are found in many societies across the world. The Indonesian practice of gotong royong, meaning ‘mutual assistance’, is one example, or the Swahili concept of Ubuntu, signalling ‘a sense of moral obligation regarding your responsibility for others even before you think of yourself’. How does this matter for protracted displacement economies?

Much attention has been paid to formal and institutional responses to the needs of displaced people, channelled through governments, the United Nations system or international non-governmental organisations, so much so that mutual aid and peer-to-peer support have often been overlooked. This is despite the fact that we know of multiple ways that people in difficult circumstances support each other. The role of remittances sent into refugee camps by diaspora groups is substantial, as is the effect of refugee-led projects. Local social protection and disaster assistance often reaches people more effectively than top-down approaches.

Researching the reach and role of mutual aid in protracted displacement economies also puts the spotlight on ‘localising’ aid, showing that aid has long been local. This recognition of mutuality and reciprocity in displacement contexts offers a powerful decolonial perspective on aid, which informs this project.