Mini Teaser: David Rieff's frustrations show in his effort to make sense of post-Cold War humanitarianism.

by Author(s): Alan J. Kuperman

David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 384 pp., $26.

"Blurbing" is the publishing world's term for soliciting advance reviews from an author's colleagues for inclusion on a trade book's back cover. Since only favorably disposed colleagues are solicited, the vast majority of "blurbs", unsurprisingly, are raves. Warning flares should therefore go up whenever blurbs are decidedly lukewarm, as they are for David Rieff's A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. Three of its five blurbs are anything but rave endorsements. "I do not agree with all of Rieff's judgments", says Brian Urquhart, former UN Undersecretary General and widely acknowledged as a creator of UN peacekeeping. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer says, "I disagree with some of his conclusions", and longtime human rights advocate Aryeh Neier invites the reader to "agree or disagree with Rieff."

When such critiques are the most favorable comments a publisher can solicit, there is usually a reason. And in this case there certainly is: despite saying very little--and saying it with mind-numbing repetition--Rieff manages to contradict himself so often that it leaves the reader shell-shocked in confusion and muttering in complaint. The only message that comes through clearly is that David Rieff is a frustrated fellow. He claims to be frustrated by the state of humanitarian intervention, something that in theory could be improved. But most readers will see that the roots of Rieff's frustration actually lie in the stubborn realities of human nature and international politics, which are not likely to be ameliorated anytime soon.

Rieff's main thesis is that there is a contradiction between "humanitarianism" and politics--even liberal politics motivated by human rights concerns. Thus, for Rieff, the growth of humanitarian intervention over the last three decades, and especially the 1990s, may have been a triumph of liberal politics, but it has left humanitarianism as a vocation essentially dead. This is an outcome he deeply mourns.

Readers may be forgiven for asking what in the world Rieff is talking about. The last decade has witnessed more humanitarian intervention, more funding for such efforts, and more claims of an international right (even a responsibility) for such intervention than ever before in human history. But, for Rieff, this is not humanitarianism because it has become entangled with politics. The key to understanding this puzzle is Rieff's definition of humanitarianism--which he never sets out in one place, but which can be gleaned nevertheless from the text. Pure humanitarianism exists when individual citizens, of their own volition and using their own funds, give medical assistance or food to people who need it without consideration of the politics in either their own state or that of the recipients. As he puts it, "Aid should be fundamentally apolitical and should have no other agenda than service and solidarity."

Rieff's most useful contribution here is to provide a typology and evolutionary history of humanitarian organizations. He divides these organizations into three categories, based on the extent to which they fit or stray from his definition of pure humanitarianism. Closest to his humanitarian ideal is a single organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Although the ICRC was established by a political act--specifically by multilateral government action in the Geneva Convention of 1864--it satisfies Rieff's definition of humanitarianism in most other respects. Specifically, it maintains a strict political neutrality, providing food and medical care wherever it is needed regardless of political considerations, and it refuses even to share information with the media or national governments about the political conditions it observes during the course of its work.

By contrast, both of Rieff's other categories comprise organizations that focus not merely on treating human suffering but also on identifying and ameliorating its root political causes. The first type consists of groups, typically European, that have traditionally maintained strict independence from their own governments but have spoken out about the political causes of humanitarian suffering. Within this category, Rieff describes great variation in the willingness of European groups to engage in politics. Britain's Oxfam, he says, has always had an explicit socialist political agenda. The French group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), on the other hand, has engaged in politics reluctantly as a last resort. It was driven in this direction, Rieff explains, by cases in which pure humanitarianism was obviously ineffective or counterproductive in that it sustained the underlying political causes of human suffering by propping up oppressive governments or supporting inhumane rebel groups.

Rieff's final category is defined by groups that act in support of their national governments' humanitarian activities--which for Rieff are not really humanitarian at all by dint of their political genesis. These groups are typified by American refugee organizations during the Cold War such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which he disdains as little more than the "humanitarian arm of America's anti-Soviet struggle." He notes that European aid workers shared this view, deriding the organization as IR-CIA.

Starting from this typology, Rieff proceeds to blame the demise of humanitarianism on three trends that entangle the media, human rights advocacy and state interventionism together into an ugly, dysfunctional knot. He alleges that humanitarian organizations have made a devil's bargain with the media, starting with the Biafran war of the late 1960s. To garner resources for that relief effort, he says, the humanitarian organizations hit upon a formula that they have honed ever since. They package stories and images of human suffering for the Western media, who broadcast it back home. This, in turn, generates donations for the humanitarian organizations, thereby enabling them to provide relief and send representatives to the next crisis, where the cycle starts all over again.

The problem with this seemingly virtuous circle, Rieff points out, is that the tail has begun to wag the dog. Humanitarian organizations used to pick the conflicts in which to get involved based on an assessment of human suffering. But as media attention and funding for humanitarianism grew, the number of organizations proliferated rapidly, resulting in a Darwinian struggle among them for prominence and donations. The consequence of this process, says Rieff, is that aid efforts now tend to be focused on those conflicts that fascinate the Western media and public, not necessarily those where the need is most pressing. For instance, most relief work in the 1990s went to alleviate comparatively mild suffering in the Balkans--where the victims were white and threatened to flood the rest of Europe with refugees--while millions of black Africans died in conflicts from Sudan to Rwanda.

Rieff's second villain in the decline of humanitarianism is the West's increasing emphasis on human rights in its foreign policies. This is likely to confuse those who believe that humanitarianism and human rights advocacy are essentially the same thing, or at least closely related--as they in fact are. According to Rieff, however, the promotion of human rights is antithetical to humanitarianism because it calls for imposing sanctions against recalcitrant states to compel them to treat their people better. Such sanctions block trade and development aid (although usually not emergency relief), and thereby may increase human suffering in the short run. This Rieff characterizes as directly contrary to the humanitarian ethos. In Afghanistan, for example, he charges that post-Taliban nation-building efforts "made a mockery of humanitarian principles by in effect holding aid to victims hostage to the good behavior of states." Thus, by partnering with human rights groups and even adopting their discourse in media campaigns, humanitarian organizations have made a second Faustian bargain: they may bolster their fund-raising, but only at the cost of undermining the humanitarian essence of their work.

The final straw in the demise of humanitarianism, as Rieff sees it, is the increasing involvement of states themselves in humanitarian intervention. Contrary to most liberals, who applaud the advent of Western governments finally providing the financial and even military resources necessary for emergency relief, Rieff bemoans a distorted humanitarianism. Because states have now become the primary funders of major relief efforts, even formerly independent humanitarian organizations--the ICRC, Oxfam and MSF all included--have been reduced to suckling at the teat of the state, making them "effectively subcontractors of donor governments."

The problem is exacerbated, Rieff argues, by the fact that states have begun to label nearly all their interventions as "humanitarian", when invariably they are motivated by interests such as national security, reducing immigrant flows and promoting abstract and often ill-defined human rights--none of which satisfies his definition of humanitarianism. "These interventions invariably reveal mixed motives and hidden agendas", Rieff writes; as long as Western states pay the NGO piper, he implies, they will call a tune other than humanitarianism. Even when these military interventions support humanitarian objectives, Rieff insists that they still undermine the very soul of the enterprise: "A humanitarianism that supports the idea of war carried out in its name is unworthy of that name." The resort to force, he argues, is a "perversion of humanitarianism, which is neutral or it is nothing. . . . [I]magining that just wars can be joined with humanitarian imperatives is delusional and antihistorical."

Essay Types: Essay