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(2016-7) Disaster capitalism: An investigation of the NHS crisis

By Roisin Cogan, Lorna Furminger, Alice Godfrey, Emma Maria Sandberg, Aliaa Ibrahim Mohamed Shaaban

To demonstrate the possibility of anthropological insights to understand humanitarian expertise in crises, we consider this event, as captured in a news headline: ‘NHS faces “humanitarian crisis” as demand rises, British Red Cross warns’ (Campbell et al. 2017). The instability of the NHS demonstrates the occurrence of humanitarian crisis in a developed country such as Britain. It is clear, however, that such a crisis is linked to politics; the NHS is being systematically underfunded because of governmental policies (Stone J. 2017). This underfunding is linked to the contemporary neoliberal society in which inequalities are exacerbated by the de-construction of social networks which creates vulnerability and crises.

To further these ideas and situate them within anthropological analysis, we consider Naomi Klein’s concept of ‘disaster capitalism’ that has been used by anthropologists as ‘a tool to first name, clearly see and then analyse’ (Shuller 2008:20) humanitarian crises and aid responses from a political and economic perspective. The concept refers to the destructive and exploitative use of crisis to push forward market based policies (neoliberal policies). The concept further extends to the privatization of humanitarian aid which in turn provides a possibility to profit from aid relief. The underfunding that led to the crisis within the NHS shows how neoliberal policy thrives on crises e.g. ‘private health insurance sales surge amid NHS crisis’ (Collinson, P. 2017).

Vincanne Adams’ (2013) ethnographic account of the long-term recovery in post-Katrina New Orleans describes the struggles that non-profit organisations are facing because of the market-based competitive environment of a neoliberal society. Competition for funds forced grass-roots movements and organisations to develop business-like models e.g. in terms of hiring fund-raisers and creating ways to ‘show’ its donors that their money is used well (Adams, 2013:160). Adams (2013:162-164) claims that this political and economic climate forces non-profit organisations to change their structure to fit within the market driven logic. This emerging business model poses a challenge for such organisations to remain focused on caregiving whilst developing strategic investment models to survive in the neoliberal market system.

We believe that the insights gathered by Adams (2013) of non-profit organisations’ struggle to sustain themselves within neoliberal societies can be extended to organisations such as The Red Cross. The Red Cross, too, ensures its survival through the development of a business-like model in terms of its administration of fundraising and demonstration of its use of money to sustain its donations from both private and public sources. If we refer to the crisis within the British health service, the British Red Cross was allocated governmental donations to help the NHS crisis. On the British Red Cross website, they demonstrate their goal and progress related to the assignment and what they refer to as ‘the relationship between the NHS and the British Red Cross’ (Oakley, 2017). One can argue that this is an effort in transparency, but in light of the highlighted information it is also related to the British Red Cross’ survival as a viable entity in a market governed society.


Adams, V. (2013). Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham: Duke University Press.

Campbell, D. et al. (2017). ‘NHS faces ‘humanitarian crisis’ as demand rises, British Red Cross warns.’ The Guardian. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2017).

Collinson, P. (2017). ‘Private health insurance sales surge amid NHS crisis.’ The Guardian. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2017).

Oakley, L. (2017). ‘The Red Cross and the NHS: a history of helping.’ Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2017).

Schuller, M. 2008. Deconstructing the Disaster after the Disaster: Conceptualizing Disaster Capitalism, in: Gunewardena, N. Schuller, M. (2008) Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press: 17-28.

Stone, J. (2017). ‘Government ‘systematic underfunding’ to blame for NHS humanitarian crisis, Labour says.’ Independent. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2017).