If there is any outsider worthy of the name, David Rieff has come to be seen by many of us as a kind of “fellow traveler” to the humanitarian movement, with its critical spirit and ethic of action. Rieff is an American journalist who rose to prominence covering the Bosnian war in the mid-nineties, particularly with the publication of his acclaimed book, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1996). For his new book, Rieff spent many years researching the major humanitarian actors, as well as visiting and writing about many of the contexts where humanitarians have long been active: Angola, Afghanistan, and Burundi, to name a few.
In many ways, the humanitarian movement is lucky to have Rieff among its expositors. His exceptionally eloquent and penetrating assessment of the nature and problems of humanitarian action will surely remain the standard account for the next few years. Although many others have presented cogent criticisms of the limits of humanitarian action (i.e., that we are a palliative not a curative, that we are impotent in the face of genocide, etc.), few if any have succeeded in embedding our practical shortcomings so deeply within the fabric of western history in so convincing a manner. This book thus forms the perfect complement to that of an equally original critic of humanitarian action, Alex de Waal, insofar as the latter condemns the internal mechanisms of the contemporary humanitarian machine, whereas the former situates these in relation to Western socio-political efforts to address suffering over the last few hundred years.
In broad lines, Rieff argues that humanitarian action causes more problems than it can realistically solve. In this way, he joins a chorus of critics who, besides de Waal, include Michael Maren, Bernard Hours, and Peter Uvin. The fact that he draws equally from franco- and anglophone humanitarian literature deepens his critical grasp of the issues, and illustrates points of overlap and difference between the two traditions. Yet there is something unprecedented in Rieff’s approach that distinguishes him from the chorus line. After all, the facile observation that humanitarian assistance is a futile enterprise whose shortcomings can be tragic and fatal for those it purports to save is certainly not new.
Truly novel in this work is the sustained and erudite attack on the marriage of emergency relief programs and advocacy initiatives, which is increasingly common among prominent humanitarian agencies. Such advocacy efforts range from demanding that international actors pressure local ones, to more general “awareness raising” campaigns. We commonly hear of medical teams on the frontlines claiming to “bear witness” to human rights abuses, and to collect data on IHL (international humanitarian law) violations and testimonies from victims. While Rieff makes a convincing case against humanitarian advocacy-that its utopian ideals expect the impossible-he comes at this thesis with a particular moral agenda which, while never explicitly stated, demands a response from the humanitarian community. Indeed, most of us will agree with his reading of events in Rwanda or Kosovo, for example, and of our shortcomings as humanitarians. Still, I wonder whether humanitarians can agree with the moral agenda behind his critique.
Humanitarians are a mixed bag: some of us work in full awareness of the limitations of humanitarian action, others still believe that large-scale transformation is possible through what we do (e.g., our advocacy work, such as MSF’s Access to Essential Drugs Campaign). But Rieff is an anti-utopian, and sees contemporary humanitarianism and its added advocacy component as riddled with utopian aspirations. By showing us our failures, he is defending a version of humanitarian assistance that is stripped of this idealistic baggage, and thus unencumbered by improbable causes and impossible ideals. More streamline and less idealistic would mean more saved lives-we should leave the project of addressing “root causes” and of transforming the human condition to politicians, military advisors, or other civil actors better suited to this task.
Thus Rieff argues that humanitarian agencies should drop the advocacy campaigns, the awareness raising, the concern with IHL and human rights, etc., because these give a false hope to our beneficiaries and donors that human suffering can be overcome through collective action. It is a hope against hopelessness, but that hope is unfounded. As he reminds us with sledgehammer regularity, the Realpolitik of armed or multi-national economic actors will never be vanquished by humanitarian advocacy, or “moralpolitik.” In fact, in no instance of human atrocity in recent history have our beloved human rights, our Geneva Conventions, or our appeals to the international community “kept a single jackboot out of a single human face.”
You can be an anti-utopian like Rieff, and still work happily as a humanitarian practitioner. Where you and he would part ways, however, would be over your commitment to the ethical imperative at the heart of humanitarian work. The humanitarian vocation is highly ecumenical, and yet there is at least one basic feature shared by all non-state humanitarian actors. I am thinking of the core of “humanitarian reason”: when faced with the suffering of others, near or far, silence and inaction are impossible to countenance. Thus is passivity indistinguishable from complicity, which explains the activist, interventionist nature of humanitarian logic. Of course, the humanitarian injunction against silence and passivity is not itself a solution to the suffering of others, but it captures the essence of the moral logic behind humanitarian action.
Lovely story, but this cannot change the fact that the suffering of distant others is not the compelling issue we believe it to be, and in this Rieff is right. For the average person in free-market democracies, starvation and misery in distant lands are banal, everyday realities that saturate the evening news and paralyze our sympathetic capacities. Evil and suffering have indeed become entirely banal, and most people are like Rieff, who find the prospect of immediate action absurd as long as there is no possibility of a long-term solution. Surrounded by this status quo of inaction, indifference, and cynicism before suffering, conflict, and political failure, one cannot help but recall the famous trial of Eichmann for Nazi war crimes, and Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” Complicity with the forces of oppression or extinction of human life need not be a bloodthirsty, despotic, or savage affair. It can happen while seated at a desk, behind a computer, or “doing good works,” as long as the forces that be are not contested but condoned. It could even happen under the guise of morally-sanctioned action, such as a response to suffering. Could the consensus around humanitarianism as today’s final hope for the world’s dispossessed be the site of such an evil?
And so we arrive at the hidden moral agenda of Rieff’s book: humanitarianism is the newest incarnation of the “banality of evil.” For the author, we are the Eichmanns of today because we delude distant populations and western publics into believing that help is on the way, that a solution to human suffering is at hand, when nothing of the sort will ever happen. We do this with our tired images of starving Africans (which obscure the real causes of suffering), our charity disguised as “emergency intervention,” and with our naïve presumption to transform the human condition. In this panorama of fallen heroes and shattered illusions, Rieff casts himself as the Arendtian superhero, the anti-Eichmann, who sounds the alarm on the false promise of humanitarian action.
The only problem with this story is that it is wrong. Humanitarian action is not an intellectual game, and for those whose lives are saved through our efforts, it is not an illusion. What else is real, besides the face of human misery, is the rule of indifference and apathy, of moral nihilism, so common in western societies. Moral fervor surrounding the “war on terror” is a cheap and easy commodity, but what about the Burundians and Somalis of this world? Consensual inaction and indifference to innocent human suffering-so visible in our governments and in our societies-constitutes today’s banality of evil. It is this indifference and inaction to which the moral logic of humanitarian action is diametrically opposed.
Being a proponent and practitioner of humanitarian advocacy for Médecins Sans Frontières, I am aware of its limitations and arguably quixotic nature. And I can attest that Rieff’s critique hits home in all the right ways. Our cries for help and for greater attention to forgotten conflicts are but wasted breath, when we appeal to such nebulous entities as “the international community.” If there is a future to this doubtful marriage of advocacy and humanitarian intervention, it will have to invent new strategies and critical tools. Otherwise, it will remain a fig leaf-a cheap way to satisfy our militant/activist frustrations in the face of ineradicable human suffering-as Rieff rightly argues in this important work.