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The concept of biopower is often used in the analysis of contemporary aid. Referring to a power that is exercised over life and that operates through self-government, it seems very appropriate for the operations of humanitarian agencies, particularly in refugee contexts. This article critiques the application of biopower in studies of humanitarianism, arguing that many aid operations are based on top-down control, rather than self-government and the internalization of norms. As an illustration, I examine a supplementary feeding programme in South Sudan, looking at how food was provided, how hunger was measured, and pointing out the hierarchical and paternalistic control involved. As well as suggesting that biopower often lacks relevance in refugee contexts, I also argue it has been applied too broadly. By being associated with a vast array of humanitarian practices, it risks losing any analytical utility, becoming a substitute for detailed descriptions of power. This article seeks to return to that detail, describing a humanitarian programme and pointing out some discrepancies with the ever-popular notion of biopower, which, I argue, has a tendency to be applied without an adequate definition.

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Journal article

Publication Date



28 (1)


21 - 37