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"In case after case, a persuasive case can be made that, overall, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good. The godfather of modern humanitarianism was a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant, who founded the International Committee of the Red Cross. Humanitarianism also had a godmother named Florence Nightingale, who rejected the idea of the Red Cross from the outset. By easing the burden on war ministries, Nightingale argued, volunteer efforts could simply make waging war more attractive, and more probable. Polman has come back from fifteen years of reporting in the places where aid workers ply their trade to tell us that Nightingale was right. The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them – no way to act without having a political effect. At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is, as Nightingale forewarned, that of a caterer: humanitarianism 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 taking casualties, and supplying food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going."

- Philip Gourevitch, "A Critic at Large: Alms Dealers: Can You Provide Humanitarian Aid Without Facilitating Conflicts?" New Yorker, 10/11/10, p102 et seq, reviewing Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2010 12:12 am (UTC)
Anything which harms the US or Israeli imperialist war machine is a very good thing.
Oct. 11th, 2010 12:47 pm (UTC)
I'm assuming you don't live in either of these places or are not raising a family in either of these places. Wishing harm ON ANYONE is distasteful.
Oct. 11th, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
The US and Israel harming and committing genocide in imperialist wars are much more distasteful to me. Oppressed people have a right to fight back.
Oct. 11th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
"Oppressed people have a right to fight back." = GOSPEL.
Oct. 11th, 2010 12:32 am (UTC)
What do you think of the thesis that humanitarian aid does more harm than good?

I've gotten more dubious about the idea of refugee camps, not to mention the notion that success consists of refugees going back to where they were living.
Oct. 11th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
Ever since the Blackhawk Down incident, I've paid closer attention to UN and Red Cross intervention in African civil wars, and I think Polman is dead-on: these wars would end a lot quicker, one side would win and the other side would lose quicker, and therefore with a lot less bloodshed, if they couldn't count on the Red Cross to treat their fighters and the UN to feed their families. I agree with Polman (and Nightingale before that) that in a war zone during active hostilities, there is no meaningful separation between humanitarian aid and material support.

The rest of the article lays out that case in chilling example after chilling example, and goes so far as to argue in one of those specific examples that MSF and Red Cross personnel should be among those brought to justice for providing material and financial support to soldiers who were actively engaged in genocide, both in Rwanda and in the former Zaire.
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Oct. 11th, 2010 12:50 pm (UTC)
The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and others are going in to help the people, the innocents, the ones who have no say in the idiotic wars that their governments wage around them. In almost every circumstance, no matter which government wins, the needs of the people will be irrelevant in the outcome. Does anyone think that a new regime coming out of the fires of conflict will get to the business of feeding and treating the people caught in the crossfire? It may be their responsibility, but I would not trust that it would happen.
Oct. 11th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
I like to act locally. I know a number of people with various needs, and when I feel the urge to give money, I give some to them.
Oct. 11th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
If the only thing you can think to do is something that will make the situation worse? Then yes, don't do something, just sit there.

But I can think of at least two alternatives to "doing nothing" that aren't "pay 15% to 80% taxes to one or both of the warring sides and provide free food and medical care to their soldiers on top of it in hopes that they'll let you also treat and feed some of the civilians:"

1) Take a side and end the war by winning it. It's never my first choice, but it is, in fact, exactly what we did in the Yugoslav civil war, sided with the Bosnia and Croatian secessionists, and against the Serbian nationalists and the Macedonian secessionists. The result was a lot less death and suffering than if we'd left the war up to the NGOs, no matter how well funded they were; if we followed the ICRC/MSF model or (worse) left it up to missionaries, the ethnic cleansing by all sides would still be going on.

2) Get the refugees out of there, then tend to their needs, as we did with the Hmong in Cambodia. We've got millions of empty housing units in the US, and we're still a mostly-empty continent. If we want to end the suffering of the non-combatants in a war zone, we can take them in until the war is over and they decide to either go home or apply for citizenship.
Oct. 11th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
Ick, option number 2 is pretty awful. Our unemployment is already uncomfortably high, and now the option you present there is to transport those people into our country, put them up in surplus housing, and house them until they decide to apply for citizenship, which may put them on our dole, or go home, where we will probably wind up transporting them again.

Then again, I am not sure if that is less expensive than transporting goods and medicine to a country where it gets rerouted to an unintended party.
Oct. 11th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
If you're losing one-million people a year to disease and starvation, then you've got too many people. If you're losing tens of thousands of people to war, genocide and worse, then you've got too many people. If you've got enough fighters to kidnap, torture and hold a woman doctor for ransom, then you've got too much in resources.

Your essays on aid to Haiti have left an impression, Brad. All too often, we give out "gifts" with toxic strings attached.

However, there *is* something important to keep in mind here?

The Taliban is *not* a government. Nor is Al-Shabab, or any other group of religious fundies with more bullets than brains. They don't care about the people, so they won't be a drain upon their resources. Of course, they're more than happy to take full advantage of our medical aid, then kidnap the workers. So you're in a classic Catch-22.
Oct. 11th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC)
We're losing 40,000 a year to traffic accidents. Do we have too many people?
Oct. 11th, 2010 09:43 pm (UTC)
Too many cars.
Oct. 13th, 2010 05:01 am (UTC)
With or without the traffic accidents, we have too many people.
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
No title
User pentane referenced to your post from No title saying: [...] government people would revert to their "natural state" and get along, or something. points out [...]
Oct. 11th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
Yep, too many careless people.
Oct. 11th, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC)
Somewhat less incisive than Zizek, but same basic critique:

Oct. 12th, 2010 04:35 am (UTC)
Odd. I was just (and by just I don't mean "recently", I mean "almost concurrently") reading a post in this bizarre ultra-right-wing blog that makes almost the same argument regarding modern international law in general.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )