Sunday, October 10, 2010

Accountability in humanitarianism?

Philip Gourevitch has a brief, thought-provoking, but ultimately unsatisfying article in the Oct. 11 issue of the New Yorker, titled "Alms Dealers" (only the summary is available online; full article available to subscribers, and also through sources such as LexisNexis).

The article's subheading is "Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts?" In it, Gourevitch discusses a new book by Linda Polman, the Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, which highlights the ways in which humanitarian initiatives — or even simply the possibility of attracting humanitarian interventions — may aggravate or perpetuate conflict situations and human rights crises.

As Gourevitch points out, Polman's polemic is not particularly new: it "leans heavily" on a number of important earlier books, published in the late 1990s or the first few years of this century. Gourevitch just lists the brief titles of these works; I reproduce the secondary titles as well, which underscore how similar the messages of these books are:

• Alex de Waal's Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa
• Michael Maren's The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity
• Fiona Terry's Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action
• David Rieff's A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

I have not yet read Polman's book, but Gourevitch's discussion does not make it sound as though she has any new ideas to add; on the other hand, it does appear that she offers some new stories and anecdotes from her own reporting. I look forward to reading the book for that reason.

Still, to quote Bob Dylan, "if there's an original thought out there, we could use it right now." It is not news that humanitarianism affects the calculations of participants in conflicts. Nor is it news that sometimes humanitarianism makes things worse rather than better. Nor should we be surprised, at this point, to learn of the evil human beings can inflict on one another, deliberately and with calculation.

Moreover, although it is true, as Gourevitch notes, that many humanitarians "readily deflect accountability for the negative consequences of their actions" this does not mean that the problem does not haunt many dedicated humanitarians. In fact, Terry continues to be active in humanitarian relief, and both De Waal and Maren were active in humanitarian initiatives before becoming disillusioned.

In my opinion, Terry's continuing dedication to humanitarian action, while being fully aware of the attendant difficulties, is what makes her book the most valuable of those listed here. It is easy to criticize the many ways in which humanitarianism goes awry, as Polman does; it is also easy to conclude that perhaps we are better off not getting involved, as some of the other authors (including Gourevitch) do, implicitly or explicitly. Gourevitch ends his article with an anecdote about a boy saved by humanitarian doctors in Zaire/Congo in 1996, wondering "If these humanitarians weren't here, would that boy have needed them?"

This is an excellent question, and one that must be asked, but to end with it is a bit of a cop-out; the real challenge is to think very carefully about the implications of humanitarian operations in a specific context, to weigh their costs and benefits, and then to decide how to proceed. Terry is willing to grapple with these questions, and that makes her book particularly valuable. Two years ago, she gave the Kenan distinguished lecture in ethics at Duke University, which offers a good overview of her approach. It is available on Youtube here, and is well worth watching (note: introductions take up the first 8+ minutes of the video).

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