The LRC on Humanitarianism

The latest issue of the Literary Review of Canada has an interesting essay-review on two new books about humanitarianism. The writer, Ian Smillie, is the co-author of his own thoughtful book on international aid. As a long-time admirer of Médecins Sans Frontières, I was struck in particular by Smillie’s criticisms of that well-known organization. They occur in the context of Smillie’s discussion of Imperfect Offering, a book by former MSF president James Orbinski: 


In humanitarian circles, MSF is respected but not always loved. It has a tendency to arrogance, is often self-righteous and sometimes ignores or fails to understand the broad context in which it works. Its fractious nature can lead to the establishment of two or three independent MSF operations in a single country — one from France, one from Holland and perhaps another from Germany. It usually arrives after an emergency starts and it pulls out as soon as it has decided its work is done. Others — UN agencies, CARE, Oxfam and the like — may have been in a country such as Sierra Leone or the Congo for years before a conflict began, and will remain for years afterward as relief efforts turn to reconstruction and longer-term development. But before and after are not the business of MSF, and so it is sometimes easier for doctors without borders, fresh off the plane, to speak out on what appears to be humanitarian compromise, co-optation and hypocrisy.

MSF’s very creation was based on precisely this kind of anger, in what Orbinski calls a case of “mistaken judgment.” Bernard Kouchner, who is today the foreign minister of France (and who comes off very badly through several appearances in this book), served with the French Red Cross during the Biafran war in Nigeria. Appalled by what he saw as genocide, and by the strict Red Cross notion of neutrality (and silence), he and other doctors broke away to form an organization that would not be bound by political borders, or by a neutrality that was indifferent to victims of war crimes.

This kind of “witness” and the outspoken defence of victims of conflict have been the hallmarks of MSF ever since. But in its first instance, it was predicated on a mistake. Orbinski explains early in An Imperfect Offering that the Biafran authorities had refused to allow a humanitarian road into the enclave, using starvation as a media prop to assist in the cause for Biafran independence. It was actually worse than that: humanitarian agencies purchased locally grown cassava and other crops with hard currency at vastly inflated rates of exchange, providing Biafra with its only means of buying weapons during some of the worst months of the war. “MSF would later recognize its error in judgment,” Orbinski says, “but the organization would not reject its commitment to speaking out.”

Criticisms like this are sometimes seized on by aid-bashers as a reason to give up on humanitarianism altogether. That view strikes me as short-sighted. The real value of Smillie-style critiques, I’d say, is to make NGOs better at what they do. In the case of Smillie’s critique, it raises the possibility that sometimes MSF’s less long-term, more-outspoken approach will be the right one to adopt, but in other situations, the more-long term less-outspoken approach of CARE and the other agencies Smillie mentions will be the better way to go. 

Another interesting nugget from Smillie’s essay:

If there is a failing in Orbinski’s book, it is his inability to explain clearly how humanitarians can work with unfettered independence in an enterprise where all money — even $10 donations — has strings. Individual donors gave generously to victims of the tsunami, for example, but it is harder to raise money for Darfur, and almost impossible for the Congo, where the death toll has exceeded that of the tsunami by a factor of six, if not eight.

Anyone interested in correcting the imbalance between the amount of aid given to the Congo compared to other crises zones can watch the following video, which describes the effort to rebuild the American University of Kinshasa. 

More information about the AUK rebuilding effort is here. And when it comes to charitable giving in general, don’t forget the organization with the greatest name in the history of humanitarianism.


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