Belmont Club

Doing some good

The new focus on irregular warfare at the Pentagon, driven in large part by the wars on terrorism have made non-kinetic operations very important. Reconstruction and rehabilitation — both in their political and physical dimensions — are now recognized as imporant in themselves. Saddam’s army was defeated by kinetic forces within weeks. But it was largely the lack of a political and reconstructive plan which made what followed harder to handle.

Steve McGregor also writing at the Small Wars Journal, addresses the question of what happens when humanitarian aid becomes, in effect, part of the war effort. The US military is now becoming one of the primary providers of aid.

Humanitarian aid is increasingly becoming more important to US military operations—not only because the military works more closely with aid agencies than ever before but because the military now implements great amounts of aid.

The civilian humanitarian community — the international relief organizations and the NGOs — are bound to resent this, not only because it provides professional competition but because it threatens to sully the ‘purity’ of humanitarianism with a military association. Some anthropologists and social scientists have criticized colleagues who have worked in Afghanistan and Iraq as sell outs who have prostituted themselves to the Big Green Machine.

But as Steve McGregor points out, humanitarianism has long been politicized and even its insiders have become uncomfortable with what it has become. “David Rieff, when speaking before the Carnegie Council in support of his book A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, argues that in Sudan aid organizations were “logisticians to the war effort of the belligerents, 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.” In another article, anthropologist Alex de Waal charges the aid community with over-estimating damage, creating false need, and unnecessarily complex programs” The editorial reviews at the Amazon site have summaries of Rieff’s basic point, which is that by separating humanitarianism from its causes, aid workers very often wind up either prolonging wars or becoming co-opted by one side or the other — it doesn’t matter which because they continue to be funded either way.

Noted journalist Rieff (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West) presents a painful, urgent and penetrating discussion of a crisis most of us didn’t even know existed and yet which cuts to the heart of the West’s role in some of the most violent world events of the past decade. He will shake readers’ complacency about the relief work done by organizations like Oxfam, CARE and Doctors without Borders, crushing the belief that humanitarian aid is a panacea for all the world’s ills. Rieff rejects “the false morality play” that, in any given conflict, there are victimizers and innocent victims, and that it is always clear who is who. In Rwanda, for instance, he reports that aid workers went into refugee camps threatened with cholera-but the “victims” they helped, the Hutu refugees, were in fact the killers who had committed, and were planning to resume, the genocide of the Tutsis. Rieff’s despair over such incidents is palpable, but his rage is reserved for the Western governments that fund, and exploit, the aid organizations. In his most potent chapters, Rieff excoriates the U.S. and its European allies for hiding behind a “fig leaf” in Bosnia and Rwanda, offering humanitarian aid in lieu of taking effective, i.e., military, action, to end genocide. Rieff shows how humanitarian organizations have colluded in their own exploitation by Western donor governments, as they have become confused about their mission and purpose. Originally, he explains, these groups were independent, politically neutral agents, with the limited goal of bringing relief in famine or war. But simply bringing relief-and making no change in the political and economic realities that create need-can be frustrating work. Hoping to increase their effectiveness, some aid organizations have espoused larger goals, such as human rights or even opposing oppressive governments-as in the war in Afghanistan, in which aid groups took orders from the U.S. and in effect became part of the military effort that brought down the Taliban. Much of what Rieff says will be unpalatable particularly to some on the left-for instance, his assertion that development aid creates dependency in recipient countries and that humanitarian aid is a latter-day version of the “white man’s burden”; and his conviction that wars-including the war in Afghanistan-can be necessary and just.

Nevertheless, Rieff wants to maintains the firewall between humanitarianism and nation building. While humanitarianism cannot be a substitute for moral diplomatic and military action, he argues that it cannot become part of it. At the heart of the problem discussed by McGregor is the question of whether humanitarian aid can and should be used as part of the stabilization process. McGregor points out that humanitarian aid in Iraq is not given because it is a good per se but for a definite purpose. “Humanitarian aid implemented by the US military in Iraq is reinforcing stability and quickening the peace”

This purposeful nature is in stark contrast to the general altruism of humanitarianism, “which is charity, which is to give relief,” as defined by David Rieff. According to Rieff’s perspective, this charity is so inviolate that modern humanitarian aid suffers from the interference of state organizations and private interest.
However, the direct approach of the army provides for long-term stability in a way that aid organizations cannot. Task Force 3-187 incorporated its projects into a coherent strategy as opposed to isolated acts of goodwill and, consequently, avoided succumbing to potential pitfalls of aid organizations described by Rieff and De Waal.

Conversely, aid organizations struggle with creating false need. De Waal observes, “The population and family-planning agencies, for example, locate a crisis of population almost everywhere they cast their institutional gaze. Environmental agencies are comparable. The food aid business is a classic example of a solution searching for problems.” Providing aid was not 3-187’s primary or justifying purpose so there was no encouragement to create false need. Aid was simply a means to an end.
In one instance, the Task Force initiative to clean irrigation canals through American funded projects was met with resistance by the local government Irrigation Director. He claimed the Ministry of Irrigation would clean canals if three local sheiks would sign paperwork agreeing to safeguard the digging machines. The Task Force agreed to support the Director—saving thousands of American dollars but delaying the canal cleaning by almost a year. Still, it was an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. Even though the Task Force was only a passive contributor and received no credit, Rohling considers this one of 3-187’s greatest achievements during the deployment because it empowered the Iraqi Ministry of Irrigation.

Part of the difference in attitudes might be attributed to a dissimilarity in incentives. Aid agencies have a long-term monetary interest in the continuance of a crisis. Military organizations have an incentive to end the crisis so their soldiers can quit dying and go home. My guess is that both traditional humanitarianism and relief in the furtherance of combat operations will continue to co-exist because they can serve two different sorts of needs. There are many crises in the world (caused by natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones and the like) which are purely humanitarian in character. Military Forces are not appropriate for these. Moreover, the effects of natural disasters are eventually overcome with time and there is less of a chance of humanitarisnim in such cases becoming perverted into a self-sustaining business. Irregular wars are another matter. In such situations, the control of the aid pipeline is a fundamental factor in combat operations. Civilian humanitarian organizations may not want to become deeply involved in these conflicts because there is no way to stay neutral in wars of this type.

One place where these hypotheticals may soon be put to the test is Darfur. President-elect Obama’s nominee to the Ambassadorship of the United Nations has been an advocate of a forceful solution to the genocide in the Sudan. Should any forceful solution eventuate, destroying any force Khartoum can field will be less of a problem then what happens afterwards. But the distinction will be far from neat because man himself is far from simple. Do you deny food to a child because doing so will aid the enemy? Do you provide food for a child who is training to become a killer for an African gang like the Lord’s Resistance Army? Alexander Solzhenitsyn, quoting Dostoevsky, posed the question clearly without providing much of an answer.

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

…If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Most everyone, Alexander. Most everyone.