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Mission Possible?


In northern Afghanistan earlier this year, the chief of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mazar-e-Sharif complained to me that the “humanitarian space” was shrinking. The local warlords were fighting, and this made it difficult for his teams to deliver food and medicines to the population south of the city. When the Red Cross went to complain, the local warlord didn’t seem to get the point. For him, humanitarianism wasn’t supposed to be neutral and impartial. It meant foreign aid workers would feed his own people while denying food to his enemies.

Humanitarian space” is a big idea in the aid business, but it is in big trouble. Aid agencies are supposed to occupy neutral and impartial ground between armed factions, between ethnic groups in conflict, and between states. Aid agencies should not represent governments even though they may get their funds from them; they serve victims and represent “civil society” back home. Aid agencies thus create a space in zones of conflict in which ordinary people from one society can help ordinary people in another, safe from government interference.

So much for the theory. In practice, this humanitarian space is shrinking so rapidly that it raises a question about whether it ever existed. Humanitarian access in zones of war is always under the control of the men with guns, while in zones of peace, access to victim populations depends on the permission of governments. So the idea that humanitarians have some entitlement to a space of their own is an odd one. Even governments with some sympathy for humanitarian action have not respected the idea. During the 1990s, Western states and their armies marched into the space that aid agencies thought was their own. For example, during the huge refugee outflow from Kosovo into Macedonia in late March and early April 1999, NATO troops almost entirely occupied the humanitarian space, at least at the beginning, flying in tents and setting up camps to shelter the refugees. I remember watching the NATO Chinook helicopters with huge bundles of tents hanging from their underbellies lowering them down into a refugee camp. A nurse from a Scandinavian aid agency almost wept with dismay. “This is a humanitarian space,” she said. “There is no place for military here!”

At the time, I thought she was crazy. How else were ten thousand people supposed to be given shelter for the night? Only the NATO military engineers had the logistical ability to respond. The NGOs were overwhelmed. Why did she care about keeping soldiers out of refugee camps, when the only people who could build a refugee camp quickly were soldiers? This was true enough, but then again, she and her agency hadn’t volunteered for the NATO war effort. It was as if she were being asked to put a NATO armband on the sleeve of her nurse’s uniform.

It’s not just that soldiers are performing functions once reserved for aid workers and aid workers are having to work under soldiers’ orders. It’s also that the word “humanitarian” is being used to justify war. Calling the Kosovo campaign a “humanitarian intervention” made some aid workers blanch. How could a word supposed to stand for impartial delivery of assistance to populations in danger end up justifying air strikes? Yet for every aid worker who thought humanitarian intervention was an Orwellian contradiction in terms, there were others who had witnessed the Serbian military assault on Kosovar villages during the summer of 1998 and had come to the conclusion that delivering humanitarian aid had just become a way of helping the population endure more punishment. For these aid workers, the only solution was a war to defeat the Serb forces and drive them out of Kosovo. Even so, calling for intervention made them uneasy: it meant abandoning neutrality and impartiality. Moreover, the idea that war can ever be justified in humanitarian terms is and ought to be problematic.

As humanitarian space is attacked from without, by states and warlords, the watchwords of “impartiality” and “neutrality” are being questioned from within, by the aid workers themselves. What actually is the point of remaining neutral between the people of a state and its oppressive government or impartial between a victim population and an ethnic cleanser? Neutrality and impartiality here may quickly shade into collusion with evil. Most humanitarian agencies believe that the people of a country shouldn’t have to suffer just because they have an oppressive, corrupt, or persecutory government, so they step in and provide basic services. But is this always the right thing to do? Doesn’t that make them accomplices of derelict systems? During the Taliban times and before, most of the Kabul population survived on food handouts from international agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross. While the agencies themselves often pointed to this operation as an example of how effective they were, many aid workers asked with reason whether it wasn’t actually a sign of failure that a government could have transferred its obligations to its people onto the shoulders of the humanitarians.

The deeper problem with humanitarian action is that it can relieve symptoms but not treat causes. The aid business can prevent a shortage of food supplies from turning into a famine, but it can’t do anything much to make the local agriculture self-sufficient if the local government is corrupt, if international lenders won’t chip in, and if international terms of trade are systematically adverse to local production. The water engineers can clean the wells and restart the irrigation, but if the local village council and the central government can’t maintain them, the good work doesn’t last. In war zones, aid workers can house refugees, treat the wounded, evacuate the sick, but they can’t stop the killing. Bosnia was the Waterloo of the international aid business, an attempt to create a humanitarian space in the middle of a three-cornered ethnic war, while Western governments stood by and did nothing effective to stop the killing, at least not between 1992 and 1995. The dilemmas faced by aid agencies in Bosnia were terrible: if they removed populations faced with attack, they colluded in ethnic cleansing; if they helped to keep them in place and fed them, as they did in Sarajevo, they appeared to be fattening them up for slaughter.


David Rieff, an American writer based in New York, first addressed the crisis of humanitarian action in Slaughterhouse, his fierce denunciation of Western policy failures in Bosnia. Since then, he has spent more than ten years on the road, talking to aid workers in Central Africa, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, particularly those who work for the Nobel Prize–winning agency Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). His new book, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, is both a history of humanitarian action—going back to the missionaries of the imperial high noon—and a moral critique of its current state. He gives a clear and useful account of the rise of humanitarian assistance from modest beginnings to the enormous logistical operation it became in the 1990s. Aid agencies are at once more powerful and better funded than ever before, but in his view they are more compromised than ever by their surrender of humanitarian space to governments. Rieff’s book is both a searching exploration of the dilemmas of humanitarian action and a scathing critique of a movement that Rieff believes has lost its soul.

As an exercise in reporting, the book is curious. Although based on Rieff’s firsthand experience in the field, it contains little reportage and hence lacks a sense of conditions on the ground, so that the humanitarianism he is talking about remains strangely disembodied, a phantom of the seminar room rather than a gritty reality. The book leaves one asking: What do aid workers actually do? You wouldn’t know from reading it, for example, that in many of the world’s failing states, in such African countries as Sierra Leone, humanitarianism is no longer focused on emergency relief. It has been forced, some would say trapped, into providing basic, long-term services—medical care, vaccinations, child health programs, water sanitation, and long-term food supplies—for entire populations essentially abandoned or deserted by their governments. Rieff does not touch on the institutionalization of humanitarian relief in poor countries and the way such relief relieves bad governments of their obligations.

A Bed for the Night is not the first broad criticism of humanitarianism in crisis. It builds on the work of Alex De Waal, Fiona Terry, Hugo Slim, Rony Braumann, and Mary B. Anderson. They have all sought to understand both the exponential increase in humanitarian action and its growing crisis of self-confidence. But Rieff is certainly the most rhetorically charged critic of humanitarianism as a response to the injustice and violence of the world. He takes his title from a poem by Bertolt Brecht about a well-meaning philanthropist who gets beds for the night for the homeless and hungry of New York. Brecht concludes that while it may be good that a few people have a bed for the night, “it won’t change the world.” It certainly “won’t improve relations among men.” It “will not shorten the age of exploitation.”

Brecht is not necessarily the best place to start from, since his Marxist ironies mask a deep and cruel complacency. That some destitute people have beds is always better than that they have none. Rieff acknowledges this and accepts that humanitarianism doesn’t pretend to have a solution to the problems of hunger, injustice, and oppression. It is just concerned to help the victims and as such it is always a wager against despair and futility. Rieff rightly praises the devotion of those who labor in a place like the Congo, trying to find beds and food and medicine for the millions of people caught in a savage and mostly unreported war.

Yet while praising their devotion, Rieff believes it is his job to stop them from believing that they are doing anything other than providing a bed for a night or meals and med-ical care by day. It’s not clear to me why aid workers need Rieff to tell them that. Every aid worker I have ever met knows this full well. Nevertheless Rieff has a holy rage against any form of optimism that rises to the level of belief. He wants to disinfect the humanitarian enterprise of anything that smacks of the secular equivalents of incense, altars, and incantations. He wants to cure it of its faith in itself. I’m not so sure it needs this cure.

Likewise, Rieff wants to cure liberal internationalists of their pious delusions. No word is used here more dismissively than the word “liberal.” Kofi Annan, whom Rieff sees as the secular saint of the liberal elite, comes in for particular scorn, as a purveyor of the hopeful illusion that there exists an “international community” which, through timely humanitarian intervention, neatly combining military force and aid, can stop sovereign despots from despoiling or harming their people. This is an illusion, Rieff believes, first because such interventions will always be confined to the easy cases, Kosovo, for example, rather than Chechnya. Second, the very notion of “intervention” he finds deceptive. What liberal optimists like Kofi Annan are really calling for, though they won’t say so explicitly, is war, and war, Rieff feels he must remind us, is always hell. Third, liberal optimism believes in a fiction called the “international community.” There is no such thing, only the clash of national interests and the waxing and waning resolve of great powers, above all the United States.

Finally, there is the illusion that there has been “a revolution of moral concern” on the part of rich countries toward poor ones, and on the part of populations in zones of safety like America and Europe toward populations in zones of danger like the Congo. This reviewer is particularly taken to task for promoting the illusion of growing moral concern, and it is only fair to point out that when Rieff excoriates the sentimental pieties of liberal internationalists, he has me—among many others—firmly in mind. It is his view that despite all the loose talk of “international community” and the moral universalism of human rights, rich and poor remain as divided as ever, and pitilessness rather than compassion is the lingua franca of the new world order. All liberal optimists, Rieff believes, need to acquire a richer sense of tragedy. We must be cured of our illusions of progress. The world is getting worse, not better, and we had better wake up to this fact. Here the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin is wheeled on stage to remind his fellow liberals that people cannot have all good things—justice and stability, liberty and order—at once, and that doing good requires hard, even agonizing, compromises with evil.

There is much in Rieff’s polemic to make a liberal optimist pause and reflect. The growth and influence of the humanitarian industry would be unthinkable without a revolution in moral concern, exemplified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the extension of the protection of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 to civilian populations at war. I would still maintain that this revolution has occurred, but Rieff has grounds to argue that its impact has been shallower than I believe. I agree, moreover, with his scorn for the phrase “international community.” The world of nations is many things, but it is not a community. The phrase really functions as a way to dignify the national interests of leading states and to silence the objections of smaller ones. Rieff also makes some telling criticisms of what he calls “the new humanitarianism,” a strand of thinking, evident in relief circles in England, which holds that the delivery of material aid ought to become conditional on basic human rights observance by governments. When Robert Mugabe’s government abuses its people, aid to Zimbabwe should be cut off. Rieff believes this would leave the Zimbabwean people ever more at the mercy of their dictator. In the debate between those who think you should stay and help and those who think you should get out and protest, Rieff tends to side with the stayers, on the grounds—which seem right to me—that leaving amounts to desertion, masked as principle.

So there is much in Rieff’s book that illuminates the real dilemmas faced by aid workers and by people who espouse humanitarianism in general. But his writing is sometimes more effective at creating his own persona—as gloomy scourge of conventional wisdom—than at making clear arguments which would show us what he would do differently. The chief weakness of the book is that he wants to be on both sides of some central arguments. He keeps defending the idea of neutral and impartial humanitarian space, while acknowledging that, in actual practice, such an idea often proves unenforceable or unrealistic. He repeatedly condemns humanitarian action as worse than useless, yet concludes wanly, “Let humanitarianism be humanitarianism.” He praises CARE and other agencies for their work and then wonders aloud why they don’t close their field programs and work for debt relief instead. He excoriates the idea of “humanitarian military intervention,” while also supporting NATO’s use of force in Bosnia and Kosovo. He raises the chimera that Kofi Annan and other liberal internationalists are in favor of endless humanitarian wars, while he also acknowledges that the real problem is getting Western governments to do anything at all. He criticizes American intervention in Afghanistan, yet admits that it rid the Afghans of an odious government and might even have opened the way for sustained Western reconstruction.

Rieff doesn’t like it when governments use humanitarian rationales for military operations, but he applies this criticism equally to the Kosovo and Afghan cases, which were quite distinct. The intervention in Kosovo was indeed justified as a humanitarian intervention, but that was never the main justification for the attack on Afghanistan. Here Rieff has confused casus belli with ex post facto rationalization. The casus belli in Afghanistan was an attack on the United States, and the justification in law, successfully advanced at the UN, was Article 51 of the UN Charter, the state’s right of self-defense, in this case against al-Qaeda and the government that harbored it. Ex post facto, the Bush administration asserted that there would be favorable humanitarian consequences—liberation of women, reconstruction, an end to hunger—but it never asserted that these consequences were the justifying rationale for the US attack.

Apart from this, Rieff faces both ways on the ethics of military intervention. He both supports war in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, and insists that “wars involve, centrally, the slaughter of innocents,” and that “war always is a descent into barbarism.” This makes it impossible to draw any ethical distinction between precision bombing and ethnic cleansing, between real barbarism and concerted attempts to minimize casualties. You don’t have to be a prisoner of Pentagon press handouts to know that modern air operations by the United States and its allies do seek to minimize civilian casualties. None of this excuses mistakes—indeed mistakes become more culpable when avoiding casualties is claimed as an explicit aim—but there is a difference between error and deliberate mass destruction of civilian life.

Rieff cannot regard such distinctions as casuistry, because he knows that they matter. He could not have supported intervention in Kosovo, Bosnia, or Afghanistan had he actually believed that war “centrally” involved the killing of innocents, and that it was indistinguishable from barbarism. Having supported combat operations in Afghanistan, he then tells us that it broke his heart to talk to Afghan victims of American bombing. When he says this, it is as if he believes he is the only supporter of these operations to have seen what military intervention practically always entails—the death of innocent civilians as well as of unwilling conscripts. But the choice to intervene is misdescribed if it is seen as simply the decision to callously disregard consequences. The ethical challenge is to understand that there are moments when one must choose a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one.

The greater evil in Bosnia was to sit back and watch the Serbs cleanse their way to a greater Serbia. In Kosovo the greater evil would have been to watch Milosevic proceed to crush the Kosovar people. In Afghanistan it would have been to stand by while the country was used by al-Qaeda as a base for international terrorism. If you want to avoid those evils, humanitarian action will not be enough. You will have to take military action. We shouldn’t beautify warfare by calling it humanitarian, but whatever we call it, war can sometimes be justified as a lesser evil. To insist, over and over, that war will always cause the death of the innocent, as if this is a new insight, is not really to display a tragic awareness of the agony of moral choice. It is to confuse what the choice is.

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