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This article underlines the importance of grounding the analysis of humanitarian aid in an understanding of everyday practice. It presents ethnographic vignettes illustrating three aspects of aid response in Sri Lanka following the tsunami disaster in 2004. The first deals with the nature of humanitarian actors, the second explores how different kinds of politics intertwine, and the third considers humanitarian partnerships. The authors discuss the need for a shift in current academic approaches, where discussions on humanitarian aid usually start from the level of principles rather than practice. They argue that accounts of the everyday practices and dilemmas faced by NGOs help to correct blind expectations, expose uncritical admiration, and put unrealistic critiques into perspective.

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