Humanitarian vanity and blues
: Most aren’t aware of it, but humanitarian and international development groups have been embroiled in a major debate for years now over their own effectiveness. Which aid programs work? Which don’t? Will sending tons of food to a famine-stricken area relieve short-term suffering but also cause long-term harm by destroying
market incentives for local farmers to grow food? Does providing humanitarian assistance to one group in a conflict merely make it stronger to fight another day? And another darker question is being asked: Are various groups (i.e., NGOs -- non-government agencies) merely becoming self-promoting, make-work-for-idealists machines?
With all of that in mind, the article on the humanitarian movement
in this morning’s “Ideas” section of the Globe is both timely and relevant. Unfortunately, the focus of the piece, David Rieff, author of the controversial “A Bed for the Night,” doesn’t really contribute much to the debate.
Oh, sure, Rieff brings up a lot of tough points, but his own past and present views are full of contradictions. Yesterday, he was all for partial, muscular intervention in places such as the Balkans and Afghanistan. Today, he says aid groups are becoming too partial and aligned with Western governments, and then declares: ''Humanitarianism is neutral or it is nothing.'' But the best observation in the article comes from Michael Ignatieff, the Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard, who is quoted as saying: “I sometimes think that what David is really interested in showing you is that he's the only person aware of the agony of moral choice.''
For those interested in the subject, Hub Blog suggests forgoing Rieff’s self-absorbed moroseness and instead check out Mary B. Anderson’s “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace -- or War.”
Anderson is also president of the Collaborative for Development Action
in Cambridge, Mass.
: Here’s another article in this morning’s Globe, in which aid workers make dire warnings
of a humanitarian disaster in Iraq if the United States launches an attack against Saddam. Two questions: A.) The aid workers making these predictions sure don’t sound like they’re aligning themselves with the “imperialistic” United States, now do they? B.) Weren’t similar predictions made before the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan?