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Humanitarian aid agencies don't work for CIA

October 27, 2003|Steve Hansch

In his review of "Beyond Borders," Times critic Kenneth Turan rightly criticizes the film for being unrealistic to the point of cartoonishness ("No Getting Beyond Borderline Silliness," Oct. 24). But beyond being just silly, the movie does a serious disservice to the very subject it tries, in its own solemn way, to tackle: humanitarian aid work.

"Beyond Borders" implies that real foreign aid work is full of brawls, shootouts, chase scenes and helicopter rescues. It's not. Real aid workers do not kill local soldiers with their bare hands (as in the Cambodia scenes in the movie). Rather, aid work is about applying science, past lessons and creativity to ward off epidemics, achieve minimum human requirements of water and protection from rain and cold, and other strategic and tactical decisions that in many ways are more complex than military planning.

In many small ways, such as visual detail of famine camps, "Beyond Borders" is accurate, including the feeding centers, immunization of children against measles (a huge killer in refugee camps), well drilling for water supply, and the enormous administrative challenges that do indeed fall on the shoulders of just a handful of Americans asked to run such operations for tens of thousands of displaced persons.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
"Beyond Borders" -- The Counterpunch article in Calendar on Oct. 27, suggesting that "Beyond Borders" does a disservice to humanitarian aid work, should have stated that the writer, Steve Hansch, was a paid consultant on the movie before filming began.

But then the movie becomes dishonest and in the process threatens to unravel the decades-long trust between millions of Americans and the aid agencies they support. For dramatic effect, "Beyond Borders" portrays aid work as hopeless: well-intentioned but futile, with no resulting impact, no return on investment. In reality, humanitarian aid saves tens of thousands of lives, not despite of but particularly in the worst disasters, for just pennies spent per life saved.

Indeed, per-capita deaths from disasters have been declining sharply for the last 50 years, in no small part because of the work of aid agencies such as Los Angeles-based Relief International and International Medical Corps, and national organizations such as CARE, Catholic Relief Service and Partners for Development.

By popularizing an image of aid agencies working under instructions from the CIA, "Beyond Borders" may torpedo their real work in the field. The movie tracks one aid agency (known as an NGO, for nongovernmental organization) that bears little resemblance to any real NGO. None of the several hundred major NGOs based in the United States and involved in overseas relief work takes funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, nor is the CIA permitted by law to use them and endanger their staff in the way shown in the movie. But the more important point is that NGOs do not affiliate with the CIA or work under the aegis of the U.S. military because of a principle that is fundamental to the mission of NGOs: their need to be truly independent of political pressures, to be neutral in war zones and to be impartial in whom they help, so that they can help those most in need.

Hundreds of my friends and colleagues may well be put at risk now, because "Beyond Borders" gives credence to the notion that NGOs act secretly and repeatedly under contract to the CIA.

The irony here is that the film originally was inspired by and based on the life of the intrepid, globe-trotting American aid worker, Fred Cuny, who was tragically killed in Chechnya in 1995, in part because of Chechen and Russian paranoia that he might have been working for the CIA (which he was not).

It's disappointing that "Beyond Borders" follows in the path of so many movies before it by playing on -- and in the process reinforcing -- stereotypes and public misconceptions about the very work that millions of Americans sponsor, with their critical support to NGOs. Because it distorts our understanding of overseas crises and how we can help, the film may do more harm than good.

I hope it will not dissuade Americans from continuing to donate their services and financial support to humanitarian efforts around the world. For those of us in the real world of aid, this work is not about anger and scandal, it's about love and caring for people wherever they live.


Steve Hansch, a research fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration in Washington, has worked as a humanitarian aid worker in more than 100 refugee camps in 60 countries. He worked and was friends with Fred Cuny.

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