Research

Soldiers of misfortune (or ‘the dark side of virtue’)

In a recent article in the New Yorker, writer Philip Gourevitch asks: Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts? He and the author of the book he is reviewing, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, by Dutch journalist Linda Polman, think not.

This book review should be mandatory reading by all who enter the (upside-down) worlds of emergency aid.

In Linda Polman’s view: ‘[T]he good intentions of aid—and the good that aid does—are too often invoked as excuses for ignoring its ills. The corruptions of unchecked humanitarianism, after all, are hardly unique to Sierra Leone. Polman finds such moral hazard on display wherever aid workers are deployed. In case after case, a persuasive argument can be made that, over-all, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good. . . .

‘. . . [H]umanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of sustaining casualties, and supplying the food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst—as the Red Cross demonstrated during the Second World War, when the organization offered its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to—impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity . . .

‘“The Crisis Caravan” is the latest addition to a groaning shelf of books from the past fifteen years that examine the humanitarian-aid industry and its discontent. Polman leans heavily on the seminal critiques advanced in Alex de Waal’s “Famine Crimes” and Michael Maren’s “The Road to Hell”; on Fiona Terry’s mixture of lament and apologia for the misuse of aid, “Condemned to Repeat?”; and on David Rieff’s pessimistic meditation on humanitarian idealism, “A Bed for the Night.” All these authors are veteran aid workers, or, in Rieff’s case, a longtime humanitarian fellow-traveller. Polman carries no such baggage. She cannot be called disillusioned. In an earlier book, “We Did Nothing,” she offered a prosecutorial sketch of the pathetic record of U.N. peacekeeping missions. Then, as now, her method was less that of investigative reporting than the cumulative anecdotalism of travelogue pointed by polemic. Her style is brusque, hardboiled, with a satirist’s taste for gallows humor. Her basic stance is: J’accuse.

‘Polman takes aim at everything from the mixture of world-weary cynicism and entitled self-righteousness by which aid workers insulate themselves from their surroundings to the deeper decadence of a humanitarianism that paid war taxes of anywhere from fifteen per cent of the value of the aid it delivered (in Charles Taylor’s Liberia) to eighty per cent (on the turf of some Somali warlords), or that effectively provided the logistical infrastructure for ethnic cleansing (in Bosnia). She does not spare her colleagues in the press, either, describing how reporters are exploited by aid agencies to amplify crises in ways that boost fund-raising, and to present stories of suffering without political or historical context.

‘Journalists too often depend on aid workers—for transportation, lodging, food, and companionship as well as information—and Polman worries that they come away with a distorted view of natives as people who merely suffer or inflict suffering, and of white humanitarians as their only hope. Most damningly, she writes: “Confronted with humanitarian disasters, journalists who usually like to present themselves as objective outsiders suddenly become the disciples of aid workers. They accept uncritically the humanitarian aid agencies’ claims to neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above journalistic skepticism.”

. . . ‘Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi. . . .’

Read the whole article at the New Yorker: Alms dealers: Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts? by Philip Gourevitch, 11 October 2010.

Thanks to Jeremy Cherfas, of Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, for pointing to this article.

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