Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Aid and Intervention

with 3 comments

by apini

Humanitarian rhetoric has ramped up recently.  Do we have a moral duty to intervene on the behalf of those civilian populations in Libya being targeted by Qaddafi (or in Bahrain, or Yemen, or Egypt, or Cote d’Ivoire)?  Is it our responsibility to respond to the ‘humanitarian’ disaster following the earthquake in Japan (or New Zealand, or Haiti, or Chile)?

Accompanying this increased (over)use of ‘humanitarianism’ has been a growing reaction against it.  Pundits from Fox News to the Guardian who pointed to a humanitarian crisis before the intervention are now questioning its relevance – do we need to intervene because it is a humanitarian crisis?  Or is it a humanitarian ‘crisis’ because we need to intervene? And once we’ve intervened, what comes next?  State-building? Humanitarian relief? Regime change?

Linda Polman’s excellent book War Games (in some markets, The Crisis Caravan) highlights how humanitarian claims have in the past fueled increasingly inhumane wars in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.  In Libya, Qaddafi, an astute assessor of the Western and Arab press, claims that the primary victims of the campaign against his rule have been ‘children’s hospitals.‘  Parts of the press and the public seem willing to accept that humanitarian rhetoric is a bit tricky when it’s applied to situations that involve warring parties.  It is too easy for either side to use humanitarianism against one another.

However, most criticism of the humanitarian infrastructure is dismissed when it comes to natural disasters.  Felix Salmon’s somewhat aggressively worded op-ed about aid to Japan after the earthquake/tsunami is case in point.  Most of the commenters didn’t even appear to have read the article, which (despite its title) encourages people to donate generally but not specifically because earmarked funds are inefficient funds.  But after a natural disaster, in which no one is at fault, everyone feels like they should do something, anything, to help.

Again, though, I point to Polman’s book, and my own research on humanitarians in the 19th century.  The desire to help is completely worthy and understandable.  But the feeling that doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing is a little more complicated than pure motive would suggest.  Polman gives the example of the ‘salvation army store’ look across Africa.  Salmon gave the example of piles of socks mounting up in Japan.  This is also where humanitarian pragmatism comes in: the sense that ‘you do what you can’ in a situation.  So in Japan/Haiti/Christchurch you send in the Red Cross and provide what you can.  In a world convulsing with disputed elections, tyrannical regimes, and general unfairness, you target certain regimes to do what you can.  The problem is not the sentiment.  The problem is that humanitarian interventions – even emergency aid relief – rarely end with the intervention themselves, but go on for decades as state rebuilding, refugee placement, and capacity rebuilding take place.

Looking to the 19th century shows that humanitarian intervention has always faced these issues.  Those imperialists who used the abolition of the slave trade to justify carving up Africa in the 1880s were drawing on a still-deeper tradition of humanitarian intervention.  Setting up colonies for refugee former slaves (‘Liberated Africans’) in Sierra Leone, for instance, required vast expense from the British tax payer.  It was frequently challenged and several times (in the 1820s and the 1850s) nearly cut loose from British funding.  But there was a general feeling amongst the British population that something must be done about slavery.  Anything. This ongoing project had its share of ‘MONGOs’ (My Own NGOs – Polman’s term for humanitarian adventurers not tied to a large international NGO), manipulators of aid, and, especially, those who manipulated the budgets of the missions/governments that sent them to Sierra Leone: unaffiliated missionaries would show up with schemes for improving the lives of the ‘Liberated Africans’; savvy businessmen and women would exploit the ongoing slave trade, claiming to be ‘Americans’ so they could participate, only to seek British protection when their slave trading allies turned against them; Governors would use budgets designed for humanitarian relief to build themselves large houses in the hills.  Thomas Fowell Buxton even launched an expedition to teach Africans how to build European-style farming communities, full of consultants on tropical agriculture, medicine, and tradesmen for training those in need of ‘skills.’  (The expedition was a total failure – nearly everyone died of tropical diseases).

All of this is to be expected, of course: it’s what we’ve come to understand about colonialism.  What is harder to grasp is how similar it is to the present situation, and, much more pressingly, what can be done to change what is obviously the same paradigm for dealing with humanitarian crises in all but name.  Because if the parallels with the 19th century are extended, then what emerged after the liberal interventionist stage theorists (‘by inserting our modern know-how we can speed up their progress to ‘modernity”) were the Social Darwinists (‘we’ve tried and tried and our aid and intervention just doesn’t work because some people are superior to others’).  The danger in becoming cynical about aid and intervention is in repeating this fatalism.

Did the measures taken by investing in the Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone pay off?  They did help to abate the slave trade – sort of.  Domestic slavery actually increased as a result of interventions, but ultimately (nearly a century later) tapered out.  Meanwhile, what emerged was a British Empire in West Africa.  And a whole way of thinking about the world as those with skills (medical, educational, technological) and those without, that has shaped our dealing with humanitarian interventions ever since.


Written by apini

March 24, 2011 at 05:17

3 Responses

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  1. Great post!
    Although, I’m a bit loath to be quoting zizek too much, there is a couple of great paragraphs in his “violence” about this tendency that you exactly hit on. “Let’s think about the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence: in it, abstraction and graphic (pseudo) concreteness coexist in the staging of the scene of violence…There is a fundamental anti-theotrical edge to these urgent injunctions. There is no time to reflect: we have to act now. Through the fake sense of urgency, the post-industrial rich, living in their secluded virtual world, not only do not deny or ignore the harsh reality outside their area– they actively refer to it all the time.”


    March 24, 2011 at 12:06

  2. Thanks! Just read this (which agrees with your comment): ‘Helle Malmvig argues that the manner in which the discourse of intervention is framed involves a strategy whereby egregious humanitarian violations are portrayed in a way so that ‘they constitute the need to do something as evident’ and ‘work as justifications in and of themselves (2001, p.257) (from Aidan Hehir’s ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ p.77)


    March 24, 2011 at 12:58

  3. In practice: “Because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians – innocent men, women and children – have been saved,” Obama said.


    March 26, 2011 at 10:57

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