UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Thinking vulnerability infrastructurally

The paper explores the notion of vulnerability in the context of the multiple crises in Lebanon through an infrastructural lens.

lebanon refugee camp

22 June 2023

Thinking vulnerability infrastructurally: Interdependence and possibility in Lebanon’s overlapping crises

Hanna Baumann and Henrietta L. Moore

The notion of ‘vulnerability’ has gained growing traction in a range of different fields, from disaster risk reduction to feminist theory. This increased academic use has been paralleled by a rise in the use of the term as an operational concept in humanitarian and development policy. Using the incongruent deployments of the term as a starting point, this article examines the assumptions underpinning definitions of vulnerability in humanitarian programming in Lebanon, with a particular focus on the links between Lebanon’s crisis of public services and the mass displacement from neighbouring Syria since 2011. We show that, in the international response to Lebanon’s overlapping crises, ‘vulnerability’ is operationalised in ways that fail to address underlying causes, and thus resist meaningful transformation while even bearing the potential of additional harm. Based on the finding that vulnerabilities emanating from Lebanon’s public service crisis and from mass displacement are deeply entangled, the article proposes that an ‘infrastructural’ approach to vulnerability may better be able to address precariousness and precarity linked to basic service provision. An infrastructural approach, we posit, foregrounds dynamic interdependency and relationality with the human and non-human environment. Such a view allows us to acknowledge the power relations at work in both the production and alleviation of vulnerability and ultimately may better enable us to ‘think otherwise’ in situations of seemingly perpetual crisis and disruption.

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