A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis
A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

Oct 2, 2002

Humanitaniarism is losing its traditional function of relief provision and is increasingly used for political purposes, often with disastrous consequences, warns David Rief.


JOANNE MYERS: It wasn't so long ago when humanitarian aid was more straightforward than it is today. Its main mission was to provide food, clothing, medicine, and shelter to aid the victims of natural disasters. Today, with civil and regional war proliferating at an unprecedented rate, humanitarian aid's mission has shifted. For our guest this afternoon this is very troubling, indeed. In A Bed for the Night, David Rieff states that the delivery of humanitarian aid in complex political situations provides a growing number of challenges which raise many questions. He argues that government inactivity has led to controversial relief efforts, and he believes that the aid workers themselves are often betrayed and misused and have increasingly lost sight of their fundamental purpose.

David's assessment of the state of humanitarian intervention is based on his direct observation in a number of disaster areas, drawing on ten years of reporting from the front lines of crises around the globe—whether in Bosnia, where he covered the siege of Sarajevo, on which he wrote in his acclaimed book Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the Western States; or whether reporting on the Rwandan genocide, describing the war-torn Congo; Somalia; Kosovo, or Afghanistan—David contends that leading humanitarian organizations have been greatly compromised by their deepening levels of cooperation with the major governments of the West and, as such, have lost touch with their original goals.

He concludes by saying that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best, which is to alleviate suffering, they must reclaim their autonomy and not allow themselves to be co-opted by government pressures. Some of you have read David's articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Nation, and The Times Literary Supplement. Perhaps others of you have read his widely acclaimed book which I just mentioned, Slaughterhouse. But he is also the co-editor of War Crimes and What the Public Should Know: A Primer on International Humanitarian Law.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest, David Rieff.


DAVID RIEFF: Ever since I started in Bosnia in the summer of 1992, I have spent the last ten years hanging around with humanitarian organizations—and any journalist, writer or individual who goes to these places very soon becomes dependent on aid agencies for logistical help, for companionship, for information. Aid workers and aid groups are free to talk in ways that obviously UN officials and officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are not, at least on the record, and indeed are more willing to talk, for all the obvious and appropriate reasons. To say this is not to attack either the silent ones or the noisy ones.

But ever since then—and my trajectory goes through not only the places that were just mentioned, but Grozny, Afghanistan, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, etc.—I have been increasingly troubled by both the role that humanitarian aid agencies are forced to play by governments, by the UN, by other international or supernational institutions, notably the European Union, and troubled by the change in role which they increasingly take on for themselves.

My book about the Bosnian war was a root-and-branch attack on the conduct of the United Nations and, secondarily, on the conduct of the Western powers.

This book is not an attack on the humanitarian agencies. My argument is an argument about dilemmas, or tragedy, if you like.

Hegel defined tragedy as "the conflict of two rights." When one is talking about humanitarian relief, one is talking about what is going on now in the crises in which humanitarian relief agencies act and are deployed. You are talking about tragic situations in precisely that setting.

This is not a book about villains. It is an opinionated book. It is a book where I criticize a certain optimistic view of global governance, a more optimistic view of the future based on international law, about which I am profoundly skeptical. But it is certainly not an effort to find villains.

Nonetheless, my experience in these places was one in which it seemed to me that the original, rather modest purpose of humanitarian aid was getting lost.

Relief starts in the West—and probably in the Islamic world as well, but I'm not knowledgeable enough about the Eastern religions traditions to speak with any confidence—in the Christian and Islamic traditions as an idea of charity. It's an idea of obligation of those who have things, the teaching that one should in some way contribute to the betterment of people less fortunate than oneself, and it is an element of religious proselytizing. The humanitarian impulse in the West is a handmaiden to the colonial enterprise. Indeed, it is a justification for the colonial enterprise.

If you look at debates in France, which is probably the country I am most familiar with, how does the Republic at the turn of the twentieth century justify its colonial mission? One is civilization in the broad sense. But the second is curing diseases, caring for orphans, etc. There is a French medical doctor, Father Jean Jameau [phonetic], whose slogan was "I will wake up Africa." His great battle was against sleeping sickness.

It is, in a sense, the moral warrant in the European imagination for the colonial enterprise. The modern humanitarian movement is partly involved with that and partly comes out of the movement that arises in the 1860s, in the person of Henri Dunant, to make war slightly less barbarous. That is the Swiss tradition of what would become the ICRC after many transformations.

Modern humanitarianism, whether in its governmental form, in agencies in the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance within US-AID, or ECHO in the European Union, or in the UN system, is increasingly dealing with relief.

And, indeed, one of the interesting transformations of humanitarian assistance is the degree to which agencies like the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program have increasingly become emergency relief agencies. In the case of the UNHCR, this has caused considerable unhappiness among old-line members of the organization, who tend to view protection as the principal duty of the UNHCR field officer and are skeptical of UNHCR's current direction, or at least the direction that obtained through the period of Seiko Noda's High Commissionership.

The modern humanitarian movement, though, has a second life, which is a life of secular agencies, what we call NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, many of which come out of—in Europe particularly, and Europe is where the modern humanitarian movement is forged—May 1968, a certain counterculture, out of a view of aid that views it to be as radical as the human rights movement was. People like Bernard Kouchner and Rony Brauman in France, some of the socialists in groups like Oxfam and Save the Children in the United Kingdom, view humanitarianism as a secular, leftist, transformative operation.

The place where this starts and takes shape is the Biafran war of 1967 with the deployment of members of the ICRC. They did their job, tried to bring relief impartially, were very discreet, wouldn't talk to the press, wouldn't make public declarations. Humanitarian relief workers perceived that we were facing another genocide. Now, whether that was actually true is an interesting question, because many studies in the last thirty years have suggested that, despite what was said at the time, there was no genocide in Biafra and the ICRC was actually right in its policies.

But out of what Rony Brauman, the former President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) France, has called that "productive mistake" has come modern humanitarianism, which aspired to much and, in effect, nominated itself as a saving idea, in much the way human rights and international law has nominated itself and stepped forward as a saving idea.

It is not accidental that both the human rights movement and the humanitarian movement arise as the full futility of the Communist experiment becomes clear. There is quite an important link historically. In France that's self-evident, in any case, and I suspect it is true in other places as well.

The second point that one might make about this heroic early stage of humanitarianism is that it also reflects a movement toward privatization, a movement away from thinking that governments can solve problems, a movement that you might call the saturation of the world. It is a view that says government is bloated, inefficient, corrupt, venal; what we need is the private sector.

Just as fifty years ago it would have been unimaginable that aid would have been given to a private company—which, after all, is what MSF or the International Rescue Committee or Oxfam are—it's part of the same process by which train services are privatized, electricity is privatized, a whole series of other privatizations that would have been quite unimaginable half a century ago.

So it is this strange combination of the privatization impulse, which is largely conservative, and the May 1968 radical impulse, which is a millinerian notion, which is clearer in human rights. If you look at the rhetoric of humanitarians, you will see that that millinerian strain is very present as well. It is a strange amalgam.

So far so good. In a way, you can say, "Why not? The way of the world is privatization." There is the notion that what we need is not just state actors but civil society, NGOs.

The problem is twofold. First, that at the beginning, the humanitarian enterprise seemed like an unmitigated good thing. What could be wrong about giving aid to people in war zones, starving children, etc.? What moral, decent person could possibly object to that?

For a long time, humanitarians who were criticized were in denial about the down side, the unintended negative consequences of their actions. In effect, they said: "We're trying to do good. Yes, our failures are considerable, but they're not really our failures, they're the failures of reality. We do what we can." But as time went on, it became clear that they were their own failures.

I'll give you the example of Sudan, a country I know relatively well. Some twenty-odd years ago it was decided to make a permanent humanitarian operation, a consortium of most of the mainline humanitarian agencies under UN auspices, called Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). It would be based in what was then a Kenyan border village, and it ran very considerable operations into southern Sudan. There was another part of the operation based in Khartoum.

The trouble is that as humanitarians themselves, they realized before long that they were becoming logisticians to the war effort of the belligerants, that in effect what Operation Lifeline Sudan was doing, whilst doing a great deal of good by saving lives, the humanitarians were in effect allowing the war to continue, because both the government of Sudan, and the then two major insurgent groups in the south, the one controlled by John Garang and the one controlled by Rick Machar, were saying, "Okay, you are our social service arm. The people are hungry. Surely you, United Nations and OLS, will feed these folks. And we, whilst you are feeding them, will go about our merry way, slaughtering each other, and, incidentally, quite a few of these civilians you are trying to feed while we are at it."

There was a crisis of conscience among sensible humanitarian agencies. Now, there are many examples of this, some even more malign—notably, the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, in which humanitarian relief was used as a pretext for the forcible displacement of millions of people and several hundred thousand people died. Several humanitarian agencies still insisted that this was correct, that they had to be there. And yet, they are at least accomplices, however unwitting, in the deaths of these people. Their names were used to placate Western governments. Their credibility was invoked by the government of Ethiopia. The people themselves imagined that if they were there something better would happen.

Again, we are talking about the law of unintended consequences. There is an analogy in UN peacekeeping. People saw blue flags over a town in Rwanda during the genocide. The UN peacekeeping operation had been meant to enforce the Arusha Accords before the genocide.

People went to these towns because they thought, "Oh, there's a UN battalion there." By having this peacekeeping deployment, people who might have tried to get across an international border or fled into Burundi stayed put because they imagined that under that flag they would be protected.

Now, the humanitarians themselves were aware of this, but they were, and still are, unable to quite figure out what to do. While the lesson has been learned, the answers that have been given, which are largely to combine humanitarianism—that is, the practice of giving relief—and human rights practice—the practice of the insistence upon international legal norms, protection of noncombatants, laws of war above all, the sanctity and viability of civilians and civilian institutions—are not really a solution.

I agree that it might be a solution in places where there are military interventions. But the number of places where one can think seriously that there will be any forcible intervention-whether under UN auspices, coalition of the willing, a neighboring state—are very small.

Whilst it is perfectly true that in an intervention—whether it be UN peacekeeping, or a country that decides to do it on its own, as the British did at least in southern Sierra Leone—may occur, these are exceptions that prove the rule that I am trying to delineate, not emblems of a better future, as, say, Bernard Kouchner and to some extent the UN Secretariat have suggested.

We could very well end up having the worst of all possible worlds in which the basic function of humanitarianism—which is charity, which is to give relief—is lost in the name of a better politics, but the politics, the political new dawn, never arrives. That's my fear, and that's why, polemically at least, my idea is to protect humanitarianism from its friends to the limited extent that I am able to.

The only group that takes this position is MSF France. There are five MSFs. The other four would disagree with this view, but MSF Paris would certainly take the same line I am taking, people like Jean-Hervé Bradol and Rony Brauman. The contemporary generation of MSF people are more or less of this view.

That is why, to some extent, inside MSF, interestingly, there is talk about secession from the humanitarian movement, that in order to keep humanitarianism in some independent and honorable state, it has to be done this way.

Now, the second problem, which in many ways is almost as bad as this is the way in which the prestige of humanitarianism has made it attractive to state power.

There was a survey done in Catalonia in 1996 in which young Catalans between eighteen and twenty-five were asked what profession they admired most. Humanitarianism came in first. Approximately 20 percent of respondents named humanitarian workers as the most admired single group of people professionally.

Governments are not unaware of this. And also, in the West at least, we live in a time when most governments—the Bush Administration may be the exception here—are extremely reluctant to talk in the cold terms of national interest.

Let me use the example of Kosovo. It would have been possible for Prime Minister Blair or President Chirac to have said: "Slobodan Milosevic has messed around with us long enough. We're tired of having this little fascist revolution in a European backland. We screwed up in Bosnia. We screwed up in Croatia first, then we screwed up in Bosnia. But look, Kosovo is one too many. So we're going to thump him, period, end of story." It would have made perfect sense.

It probably was much closer to the truth than the actual rationales being given, since the immediate result of the NATO intervention was the creation of 800,000 refugees. The question of whether that many would have been expelled had NATO not intervened is very much open. As I understand the story, the Serbs would have expelled some portion of that population, but I don't think they would have gone for broke in that way.

And that is certainly the view of the German Intelligence Service, which issued a report on this plan, and the Serbian government. It is not the view of friends of mine in the Greek Government, who remained on good terms with the regime in Belgrade throughout the war.

So, on the face of it, a humanitarian justification would seem very improbable. And yet, people like Chirac and Blair are really domestic politicians. They understand their own electorates extremely well. They knew that you needed this moralizing justification; you needed humanitarianism.

So the justification from the beginning of the Kosovo operation was humanitarian and was based on notions of human rights. It was a split human rights/humanitarian intervention, depending on which official was talking.

Again, one can be very skeptical about the realities of this. One mustn't be completely cynical about it, because certainly some people in both of those governments undoubtedly shared those views. But in large measure it testified to the inability of governments simply to declare the decision to go to war to be based either on realpolitik or on a calculation that "we don't like this guy, we think he's the devil."

It makes war fighting extremely difficult, because not only is it difficult to inflict casualties—because you open yourself to the question: if this is a humanitarian war, why are all these civilians in Nish being blown to bits by cluster bombs?-but you also open yourself up to the problem of taking casualties on your side-because people say: "Wait a minute. If we're just doing this out of good motives, if we don't have any interests here, why are our relatives getting killed?"

The larger the operation, the more impossible it is to carry out the operation with either elite troops or mercenary troops, like the French Foreign Legion, or from the air, or with local levies, the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Northern Alliance. The war becomes more problematic in terms of fighting any enemy who is likely to shoot back at you.

The more important element is that humanitarianism then risks becoming the moral warrant for whatever states want to do.

There are two problems. The first is the sheer challenge of mounting humanitarian operations in combat zones or zones of famine. Poor countries without infrastructure, where you may be shot at, means that you increasingly need vast sums of money. The only people who can provide those vast sums of money are rich governments, whether directly or through the United Nations system. It is difficult to imagine that it can work any other way.

A few agencies raise limited funds-MSF France is a good example of this-but nobody, even at MSF France, would claim that they have the possibility of raising enough money for the whole operation. And there is some hypocrisy in denouncing a humanitarian system that you don't want to be part of, but without which you couldn't deploy.

Then there is the question of logistics. There are, in fact, only NATO and the Russian Federation that are really capable of deploying rapid logistical assistance, even in health emergencies à la eastern Zaire, as it then was, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. You need NATO planes, or Russian planes; you rent planes from the detritus of the Red Army.

The agencies are, in effect, dependent. And, while it's all very nice to imagine a world in which governments would act out of humanitarian priorities, the reality is that the more dependent these agencies become on the U.S. and the nations of the European Union, the more 00 as the old Texas expression about the Golden Rule goes - "The man with the gold makes the rules."

There is no evidence that that will change. There is great evidence that it is only getting worse.

The two great examples of this are Kosovo and Afghanistan, where in both instances most of the mainline humanitarian agencies, for the first time, affiliated themselves with one side of the conflict. The humanitarian agencies in Kosovo were implementing partners of one side of a war effort. The one agency that tried to become an implementing part of the Serb side, the Greek section of MSF, found itself thrown out of MSF.

In Afghanistan, although agencies were very unhappy with the conduct of the war and many people within these agencies opposed the war, the fact of the matter was that they were dependent, and indeed collaborative with governments.

What you have in the humanitarian movement is the extension of the American tradition of humanitarianism, which has always been collaborative with government, always been conformist, always seeing no great problem in collaboration of agencies, with a couple of exceptions, the American Friends Service Committee being the most obvious one. Because of the practical constraints, that has become the norm in humanitarian action.

JOANNE MYERS: I will open the floor to questions now.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I don't agree with much of what you have said. Is your idea that all this is rotten and nothing should be done?

DAVID RIEFF: No. My conclusions are implicit in what I have said, which is that if humanitarianism is to survive as anything but an adjunct of state power, it must regain its independence, even if it means it will do less.

QUESTION: Do you consider the ICRC as an adjunct of state power?

DAVID RIEFF: That's a complicated question. In a financial sense, objectively, it is. The United States, for example, gives 25 percent of the budget to the ICRC, and the ICRC is terrified that the situation in the Middle East and the stances it has taken may threaten those funds. In Geneva at the moment, there are anguished conversations about whether one can make certain kinds of demarches because the Americans will get too angered, and the Americans not only give 25 percent of the money but, unlike their European counterparts, they give the money in an unrestricted term.

The problem with the ICRC is the same problem that existed in Theresienstadt in 1942. The ICRC is unwilling to go public with certain kinds of information. It requires its operation to be discreet and to make compromises with evil. As such, those problems that the ICRC faced in Germany in 1942 were structural. Despite the anti-Semitism of a certain part of the Swiss elite, and the fear of Switzerland being invaded, I take the view that people were operating out of decent and responsible motives, by and large, and that the problem was institutional.

We had the same problem with the ICRC in Banja Luka in northern Bosnia in 1992. Both journalists and officials of the UNHCR-were told to mind their own business, this was an ICRC matter.

The ICRC is, by definition, limited in its activities. Having said that, the ICRC's notion that humanitarian action can't do everything, and that to do some things well one has to limit what one does, is as sound now as it was 100-odd years ago, and indeed humanitarian agencies need to come closer to that.

That is the basis of my critique of the marriage of humanitarianism and human rights. It is not based on the idea of saying, "I'm trying to piss on human rights." It is simply not true, morally or philosophically, that all good objectives can be reconciled.

My own view is that humanitarianism is a limited activity and it must accept its own limitations. So, to return to the main point, the thrust of your question like the people at MSF France, is that humanitarianism must set limits on itself. It must insist, as Rony Brauman has put it, on a right of abstention as much as a right of intervention where it feels it will do more harm than good.

And it must to some extent leave certain kinds of operations to governments. There is no reason why aid always has to be given by NGOs, or, for that matter, by the ICRC. The only reason, to be blunt, is institutional self-interest and the competition for funds.

Yes, there are fields of expertise-the ICRC's knowledge of prisoners, to use an obvious example; MSF's medical competence; Action Contre la Faim's competence in famine issues-that may be required for the operation. But a refugee camp? The American military or the French military can run a refugee camp perfectly well.

That was the problem in Afghanistan. Why couldn't the NGOs have said, "You want to run these camps? You guys do it. We don't want our name, humanitarianism, implicated in this now."

So yes, I am arguing for a radical cutting back of what humanitarians do, to do those things better.

QUESTION: You answered part of this question. Let's address the NGOs. From some of the things that I have learned, the competitiveness is very strong among the different NGOs, and that they will vie for going into an area because they want to be seen, they want to be noted.

That then leads to the point of their fund-raising and political affiliation and being prominent in that area as a saving factor. So, therefore, there could be omissions-a lacuna, if you will-in the humanitarian rendering because of the competitiveness, that each is fighting for a turf to make them more known, more obvious.

Could you give us some examples from your own experience?

DAVID RIEFF: One example of late: Reynold Levy was a cultural bureaucrat within AT&T and then very creatively rescued the 92nd Street Y from financial ruin. He then was named President of the International Rescue Committee, the largest mainline American private humanitarian agency, because they thought they were going bankrupt and they needed a good front man. He was entirely innocent of any familiarity with humanitarian activities.

Reynold Levy arrived and he said, "I want the IRC represented in market share."

Now, Reynold Levy is a particularly vulgar version of this, but I would submit that anyone who was in Goma [Democratic Republic of the Congo] in 1994 knows that everybody was after that.

I'll give you another example. At the time of the Goma emergency, the field teams of Oxfam recommended to their headquarters in Oxford that Oxfam not deploy in Goma. Oxfam's board in Oxford said, "We won't get the fund-raising dollars this Christmas if we don't." And Oxfam went in.

This story can be replicated across the board.

I'm always defending MSF, but let me not pretend they are not also guilty. In Kosovo after the war, arguably, MSF really had no particular expertise to bring to these issues. I asked them, "Why are you going in? you've been complaining about this and that." "Well, we have earmarked funds," they said. But it was more than that. They wanted MSF to be there.

During the Venetian Empire, when Venice conquered a city on the Italian mainland, there was a ceremony called "planting the lion," which was the emblem of the Republic of Venice. That's what the agencies do. They want to plant their emblem.

You're MSF, you're Oxfam, you're the ICRC—you think you're doing a good job. You think your stuff is great. If you have to make a few compromises, what's the problem? You say, "Yeah, maybe this program is not really as good as it should be, but in the larger scheme of things it's worth doing."

But the compromises have eaten up the substance. The more important element here is a notion, which is somewhat hubristic on the part of the agencies, that somehow this very small tail can wag the dog of great nation states, that somehow these agencies—this is particularly pronounced among American NGOs—will persuade governments to do what they want, and that in the end governments will be logisticians to agencies, agencies won't be subcontractors to government. That seems to me a monumental case of either hubris or self-deception or both. And they are never happy with the results.

The obvious example is Somalia, where most agencies demanded that there be a military intervention. Philip Johnston, then head of C.A.R.E., I believe it was, campaigned ceaselessly and tirelessly, and played a very considerable role.

In my view, if you ask the soldiers in, the soldiers are going to run the deal. That seems to me increasingly the problem. And you run the risk of confusing your own institutional interests with the good or the right—which is the mistake the ICRC has made time and time again—or the failure to see what you are unleashing by calling for radical solutions. These are the kinds of real-world tragedies that this kind of ethos can provoke—not always, but more often than one likes to admit.

QUESTION: You argue that humanitarian interventions tend to prolong conflicts. So isn't the answer to try to tie humanitarian intervention to peace movements? Surely they could start to link aid to simple ideas like cease-fires or food-for-arms.

DAVID RIEFF: I entirely agree with that practice in post-conflict areas, and I wish there were much more. This usual happens when the UN is deployed—Central America is a good example where this was done very successfully.

If you are talking about the presence of agencies on the ground, if that's what you mean by "humanitarian intervention," then you present a much more difficult choice, because what if they say no? What if the people die? You didn't join the humanitarian agency necessarily to change the entire system. You might think, for example, that in some places you will not succeed.

Let me give you a perfect example that's on everybody's mind at the UN: Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe it seems quite clear that the famine that has been coming is the result of President Mugabe's horrible policies. But why should a peasant outside of Harare pay for President Mugabe?

This "cruel to be kind" ethos rubs me a the wrong way. Again, that's where I come back to the limits of what humanitarianism can do—and, paradoxically, where I feel much closer to the ICRC—because I do feel one must deploy everywhere one can do some good, that what should be the issue is what is the calculus about in the real world of how much harm one is doing, not a calculus about how in an ideal world one might do a lot better.

That to me means that you help Mugabe, the people in places like Zimbabwe, even if you know that if there were an international intervention and Zimbabwe became a UN protectorate for a time, people would be better off. But in the absence of that, or in the run-up to that, it is extraordinarily brutal to say that people with no power to change their own lives must put up with more suffering which you could alleviate if you want.

Politics is a tricky business. In the UN, combined operations have an increasing political component.

In Sierra Leone, for example, the UN Special Representative—this was when Foday Sankoh, the RUF, was still in relatively coherent form—kept ordering humanitarians out of areas so that certain political goals might be accomplished and officials might be pressured by the absence of aid, knowing full well that aid is a commodity. In the absence of a proper intervention, these political pressures will just hurt innocent people.

There is a wonderful Anglo-Chilean UNHCR official, Fabrizio Hochschild, who ran the Sarajevo airport in the bad days, the early part of the war, and now is UNHCR's number two in Belgrade. He was in Goma in the killing time. And yes, in an ideal world it would have been a huge army that would have gone in and separated the genocide there from the people who were the victims both of the Tutsis and of the genocide. But those soldiers weren't coming. Should people have gone and let them kill another 30,000 or 40,000 people in the name of some possible radiant future? I don't buy it.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for being with us this afternoon.

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