Aid Work is Political: This is Not News

KABUL, Afghanistan – The debate over whether aid workers are angels, super-villains or mere mortals rages on. In an essay titled ‘Alms Dealers’ New Yorker writer Philip Gouretvich just reviewed Dutch journalist and aid critic Linda Pollman’s new book, “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid?” (previously discussed here under its other title: “War Games: The Story of Aid in Modern Times”). Like Pollman, Gouretvich is firmly convinced aid and those who deliver it are the true monsters of our era, knowingly prolonging ruinous wars and thwarting political progress by providing relief.

Gouretvich writes:

At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is, as [Florence] Nightingale forewarned, that of a caterer: humanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of taking casualties, and supplying food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst, impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.

When Nightingale made that argument, it made much more sense than it does today. In Nightingale’s time, wars were generally fought between states with uniformed, similarly-structured armies and directed from offices and palaces in capital cities. Governments actually considered the costs of waging wars financial and administrative burdens. But you can’t have administrative burdens if you don’t have administration. And conflicts paid for through state treasuries are vastly different than those financed by looting and smuggling.

Today’s wars are fought between weak governments and rebel groups, military coalitions and rebels, rebels and rebels, and combinations of these. Rebel armies often disregard the needs of their own fighters beyond survival essentials and consider civilian needs an afterthought at best. The same can be said of many weak governments. If there is empirical evidence that aid prolongs conflict, I haven’t seen it. And certainly many horrific conflicts rage for decades while aid provided to suffering civilians is insignificant when measured against the scale of need. The truth is, most aid is a drop in the ocean, and the only people who understand that better than aid workers are the majority of conflict-affected civilians who never receive help.

One point I agree with Gourevtich on is this: “The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them – no way to act without having a political effect.” Aid workers know this well, from hard-learned lessons and losses in the field. So, why do Gouretvich and Pollman patronizingly write as though they are informing an entire profession of this fact for the first time?

The efforts of organizations like MSF to emphasize their impartiality are a response to what they see as the over-politicization of aid in armed conflicts, and, more specifically, in the wars fought by the United States since 2001. Not all organizations, and certainly not all individuals, agree with the MSF line. The debate over the political role of aid rages on, with no end in sight, wherever aid workers gather, from coordination meetings in UN compounds to candlelight potluck dinners in remote field offices.

The choices NGOs face in war zones are painfully difficult. They require careful consideration of a daunting array of factors and possible outcomes, competing ethical schools of thought, professional standards, and national and international law. Extreme, soundbite-friendly ‘solutions’ for the challenges facing aid are fashionable at the moment, and they are pushing book sales. But on the ground, where the context is always a dense weave of local realities, they appear shallow and opportunistic at best, and dangerous at worst.