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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."

But while the critiques can be helpful and often quite brilliant, they contradict one another and leave readers groping for a take-away. Having criticized the aid groups for operating while Western governments did nothing in Bosnia and Rwanda, he then seems to bash them for operating while Western governments did something in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He seems to be suggesting that humanitarianism once was, and again can be, apolitical. Yet he would be hard-pressed to offer historical examples of pristine, apolitical humanitarian work. Was the Red Cross really neutral in World War II when it went ahead and inspected concentration camps and then kept silent? Was it an act of neutrality for the United Nations to give the Bosnian Serbs 70% of its relief deliveries in return for access to Muslim territory? And, in Afghanistan, before the Taliban's fall, which organizations were behaving neutrally: those that supplied food to agents of the Taliban regime or those that stomped back home to protest the persecution of women?

When confronting most crises, whether historic or contemporary, aid agencies generally muddle along on a case-by-case basis. They weigh insufficient information, extrapolate somewhat blindly about long-term pros and cons, and reluctantly arrive at decisions meant to do the most good and the least harm. By choosing to be involved, most of these organizations have long ago eschewed the possibility of neutrality. And surely the best test of their performance is not a cookie-cutter demand that they avoid consideration of human rights but Rieff's worthy (and not at all neutral) inquiry as to whether they have "kept a single jackboot out of a single human face."

Part of the confusion in "A Bed for the Night" stems from the fact that Rieff claims to be taking aim at aid workers when in fact it is Western governments that are the main target of his ire. It is the United States and its allies that have most contributed to the blurring of roles, by first leaving aid workers to tackle political problems and then, belatedly, undertaking humanitarian tasks for geopolitical reasons. While Rieff blames the aid organizations for pulling governments into humanitarianism, he knows that it was not a humanitarian summons that led Western governments to bomb Yugoslavia or Afghanistan; it was the major powers' strategic concerns.

It is true that many Western relief workers welcomed these bombing campaigns, which enabled them to intensify their relief efforts. But the views of NGOs neither influenced NATO planning nor rendered the aid workers more vulnerable to retaliation than they would otherwise have been as NATO nationals. The NGOs may wish to do more to distance themselves from governments. But they will be powerless to stop determined governments from appropriating the humanitarian mantle.

Rieff sounds sorry when he writes, "What Afghanistan demonstrated was that humanitarianism was too important a matter to be left to humanitarians." But if he regrets Western military involvement in humanitarian missions, he need not worry. The Kosovo and Afghanistan interventions are exceptional, and it is unlikely that NATO will spend the coming decades clamoring to assume roles traditionally performed by Doctors Without Borders.

The tragic reality is that American and European leaders are generally determined to steer clear of those causes that are "merely" humanitarian. The vast majority of NGOs thus operate in obscurity, with neither television cameras nor Western soldiers present to confuse or attempt to control them. Today's sufferers of AIDS, genocide and politically induced famine can be heard wishing out loud for Al Qaeda operatives to infiltrate their neighborhoods so that the mighty might cast a glance or a buck their way.

Under such circumstances, it should not be surprising that humanitarianism will remain in a state of perpetual crisis. What is surprising, in light of the impossibility and thanklessness of the tasks they face, is that the humanitarians remain at all.

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