Accounting for crisis: the power of ambiguity in the management of humanitarian emergencies
Gatzweiler, Marian Konstantin
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A defining feature of humanitarian crises is their unpredictable nature, making them interesting sites to analyse how accounting systems can facilitate engagement with the unexpected. This thesis explores the question of how evaluation systems can be designed and practiced to engage with the complexities of humanitarian crisis settings, in which the potential for disastrous errors is overwhelming. Informed by empirical research on the management practices in a large-scale refugee camp, the study investigates principles and tactics that allow humanitarian evaluation systems to make a resource of the inevitable ambiguity and incompleteness that define their contexts. In doing so, the thesis draws from and further develops the concept of heterarchy, defined as ‘governance through difference’, and shows how it provides promising insights for accounting research. To explain how evaluation systems can become performable in the dynamic humanitarian environments, the study theorizes four interlinked principles that emerge from the empirical findings. These principles are: (1) in-built tensions between evaluation dimensions; (2) open and participatory design; (3) relational value and incompleteness; and (4) enacting minimalist control through a community of practitioners. In doing so, the study makes three contributions. Firstly, the study contributes to the accounting literature on the enabling role of ambiguity by theorizing how evaluation systems can foster approaches and techniques that embrace ambiguity as a resource to engage with complex settings. Secondly, it further develops the notion of heterarchy by explicating how heterarchical tensions can become productive without leading to chaos and by theorizing additional principles that are necessary to sustain heterarchies in an organized fashion. Thirdly, departing from the emerging literature on humanitarian crises that primarily focuses on how accounting systems can be used to normalize and control disaster settings, the thesis advances understanding of how accounting technologies can serve as anomalizing devices for the adaptive management of crises.