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(2021-2022) ‘Crisis’ and the Unintended Consequences of Aid

by | Nov 27, 2021 |

Written by Liam Anderson, Becky Dyas, Natalia Galindo, Andrej Sebo, and Florence Banzhaf-Blanco.

Aims and Lesson Objectives

The aim of this lesson is to use the theme of ‘crisis’ applied to the developed world to encourage students to consider how difficult it can be to respond to suffering in an effective, unproblematic way. Thus, we believe that the theme of ‘unintended consequences of humanitarian work’ will change how students think about humanitarianism and will encourage students to think critically about how intervention isn’t always inherently good. The lesson will get students to critically consider how we constitute crisis and how we can improve relieving suffering in the developed world.


  • A laptop, projector and whiteboard are required for the first set of resources.
  • Paper will be required for handouts depicting the crisis scenarios.
  • Stationary for students to map out what unintended consequences may stem from responses to crisis.

Background information for the teacher

The way we interpret the word crisis shapes the humanitarian aid that aims to relieve it. Academic articles by Redfield, Ticktin, and Cabot provide us with anthropological insight regarding crises and the unintended consequences of humanitarian action. Redfield defines it as a general sense of rupture that demands a decisive response. He argued that the main problem is the codification of crises into  “a state of exception,” where the “normal” way of addressing problems gets lost.

An example of unintended consequences arising from humanitarian efforts can be found in Ticktin’s analysis of illness becoming the primary means through which undocumented immigrants obtain residency in France. As the French government introduced a clause that gives the right to get medical assistance and temporary right to stay to people in poor health, undocumented immigrants resorted to self-infliction to gain permission to stay.

Cabot’s work on the identity document “pink card” issued to asylum seekers in Greece shows how seeing the influx of immigrants into Europe is seen as a crisis, leaving refugees in an ambiguous position of identity. This shows seeing a crisis as a state of exception gives way to harmful modes of identification for refugees.

Basic requirements

  • This lesson plan is aimed to accommodate a class size of around 20 students to ensure students can be split up into 2 smaller groups.
  • Students will be able to work together to think critically about how doing good can cause a wave of negative unintended consequences. Discussion as a group will help them formulate ideas about how to achieve the best outcome.

Brief for students

  • The term ‘crises’ is usually seen as being far removed from our lives. However, crises occur close to home in many European and North American countries. Today, you will learn what constitutes a crisis, and will become familiar with the strategies used to make decisions that will be the most beneficial for those suffering.
  • Activity 1: You will rethink how you have previously viewed crises. You will view images/videos to highlight how the crises can be applied to events currently occurring in the developed world and will consider the outcomes. You will critically assess how aims of doing good can result in a chain of negative, unintended consequences in relation to the AIDS crisis and the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Activity 2: You will work as a group to become aid workers yourselves and will make decisions together on how to best help people in crisis. Using what you learned from the video, map the unintended consequences of your actions and how you could minimise the negative effects. You will have the chance to present your decision to the class, and they will provide you with feedback regarding your decision.

Introductory activity

  • We will read this description to the students:
    • A row of houses behind a sea wall; a breach in this wall could sweep them away and drown villagers at any moment. They will likely have to evacuate within the next 26 years (Wall, 2021).
    • After reading the description, we will ask the students this question:
      • Where in the world do you think this is happening?

The Guardian, 2021

  • We will then teach them about the Nationality and Borders Bill (Dunt, 2021)
    • Have students reflect on how we will treat UK refugees considering how we treat foreign refugees, while also giving students an introduction to unintended consequences of disaster relief.

Activity 1

We will show the students a video regarding the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. (we will present a trigger warning first)

Video: (ABC7 News Bay Area, 2020)

We will then ask them the following question:

  • What do you think were the unintended consequences of portraying this as a condition that mostly affects the LGBTQ community?

Activity 2

Students in two groups will be given handouts with scenarios of humanitarian aid.

Group 1:

Scenario = Humanitarian clause in French law which gives undocumented immigrants or sans papiers (those without papers) with serious illnesses the right to stay in France and receive treatment.

Unintended Consequence = Undocumented immigrants turning to self-inflicted physical injury/infection to claim the right to stay in France and receive treatment.

Group 2:

Scenario = An identity document, the pink card, which allows asylum seekers to live and work in Greece but does not give them citizenship. This card is used by the Greek state to regulate the movements of applicants seeking protection.

Unintended Consequence = The status the pink card puts asylum seekers in is one of ambiguity. Being documented means the state can decide what rights/resources to give refugees, which usually are more limited than those given to citizens. 

Final activity:

  • Students will summarize their knowledge in 2 groups.
  • They will create a mind map describing the intended and unintended consequences of relieving suffering related to the scenario on their handout. They will be able to see how intervention in a crisis creates a ‘chain reaction’ pointing to causes of this humanitarian crisis. They will draw from the causes they learned about today.
  • Both groups will then present their maps to each other and take questions/feedback.


ABC7 News Bay Area (2020) From The Archive: Early days of AIDS crisis in San Francisco in 1982. [online video] Available at: <> [Accessed 22 November 2021].

Cabot, H. (2012). The Governance of Things: Documenting Limbo in the Greek Asylum Procedure. Political and legal anthropology review, 35(1), pp.11–29.

Dunt, I., 2021. Priti Patel’s authoritarian Borders Bill is designed to criminalise those most desperate for our help. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 25 November 2021].

Khan Academy. 2021. Emergence of the AIDS crisis (article) | Khan Academy. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 22 November 2021].

Redfield, P. (2005). Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis. Cultural anthropology, 20(3), pp.328–361.

Ticktin, M., 2006. Where ethics and politics meet. American ethnologist, 33(1), pp.33-49.

Wall, T., 2021. ‘This is a wake-up call’: the villagers who could be Britain’s first climate refugees. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 November 2021].