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First, Do No Harm

A BED FOR THE NIGHT: Humanitarianism in Crisis, By David Rieff, Simon & Schuster: 384 pp., $26

October 06, 2002|SAMANTHA POWER | Samantha Power, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, is the author of "'A Problem From Hell': America and the Age of Genocide."

"If Auschwitz were operating today," said Rony Brauman, the former head of the Nobel Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders, "it would probably be described as a humanitarian emergency." It was the tired perspective of a tired humanitarian.

In the public imagination, "humanitarians" emerged from the chaotic and bloody 1990s as saintly antidotes to the ethnic chauvinists, dictators and other spoilers who got in the way of the "end of history." College applicants declared their aim of becoming "relief workers." Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into humanitarian organizations, which put the money to noble--if not always efficient--use, tackling crises in Bosnia, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo, Sudan, Chechnya and the like. And by the end of the decade, even Western governments were latching on to the appeal of the humanitarian epithet. War, it seemed, was obsolete; henceforth, the just, bloody battles fought by the West would be sanitized and spruced up as "humanitarian interventions."

For all of the presumed righteousness of the humanitarian enterprise, detractors have long abounded. Some government officials turned up their noses at those they envisaged as Scandinavians in Nelson Mandela T-shirts engaged in squishy and expendable "social work." But none have been as critical as the humanitarians themselves: the men and women who worked within nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and suffered their bureaucratic foibles and donor-driven turf warfare. Those, like Brauman, who found themselves proffering food, shelter and medicine when confronted with mass murder, rampant disease, starvation and enormous refugee flows, suffered grave existential doubts, knowing that the source of misery was political rather than humanitarian. Nongovernmental groups could attempt to treat symptoms, aid workers knew, but only powerful governments could tackle causes.

David Rieff, a journalist and author of four previous books, including "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," has become a category of critic unto himself. He spent the last decade roaming the world's conflict zones and refugee camps, often with the aid of the aid givers themselves, making himself the most forceful and, in the nongovernmental aid world, influential exposer of the institutional contradictions, hidden agendas and confusion of roles among those who have enlisted in what fellow critic Alex de Waal has called the "Humanitarian International."

Rieff understands that life is hard for low-paid relief workers (whom he calls "the last of the just"), that political support and financial resources are often spare and that their day-to-day choices are unenviable. But these realities must not shield the self-styled altruists from criticism. Rieff is an outsider's insider, one who can identify the perverse consequences of and the dangerous hubris behind humanitarian intrusions in needy societies but who doesn't bring the defensiveness of a stakeholder.

In his provocative new polemic, "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis," Rieff offers us the big picture--and oh, what a dispiriting picture it is. Rieff writes that the apparent "triumph" of humanitarianism in the 1990s--the decision by frustrated aid workers to urge governmental intervention and of governments to dabble in humanitarian work--has proved "both morally and operationally, to be a poisoned chalice." The meaning and mandate of humanitarian relief work has been so distorted by mission creep that the aid industry stands "verging on cognitive and moral meltdown." The rescuers, Rieff suggests, are in dire need of rescue, less from the world's evil-doers than from themselves.

Rieff argues that relief workers emerged from the 1990s punch-drunk and transformed into politicized advocates. In Bosnia and Rwanda, aid organizations saw they were being manipulated and degraded by timid Western statesmen. In Bosnia, beginning in 1992, the United States and Europe used the delivery of humanitarian aid as an alibi to avoid military action. Unwilling to stop genocidal attacks on civilians but under pressure to "do something," the major powers gave the United Nations more than a million dollars a day to feed civilians under threat or in flight. Then they gallingly turned around and said they could not undertake much-needed military action because doing so would interfere with the life-and-death feeding operations.

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