Many of us only reluctantly accept one of life’s toughest lessons. In the course of doing our very best to make a better world–decades all blood, sweat and tears in the face of hideous odds–we may discover we really fouled up things this time. The road to hell, etc., etc.

Never realizing our mistakes, however, is a far worse fate. No course correction or critical realignment is otherwise possible. And the march below can be made double time when those more wily than we–recognizing our errors in judgment and failures in character for what they are–use our self-serving self-righteousness to their advantage.

There are still uglier routes. The humanitarianism industry, for one, fighting cholera in Haiti here, housing Sudanese refugees there, consciously thrives on just such contradictions. Acquiring access to disasters and the cash flow to mount operations in response typically includes accepting the premises underlying the oppression that produces many of the victims on which the industry subsists.

Anything to save a life, goes the explanation, even at the price of hypocrisy and an off-hours cynicism. But accepting the premises that permit such access also endangers the lives one intends to save, a cost no amount of canteen booze can wash away. 

Incredibly, the logic underlying the moralistic sophistry takes a turn of still greater dementia. As Philip Gourevitch’s review of Linda Polman’s new book on The Crisis Caravan makes clear, humanitarianism can logistically prop up oppressive regimes or even help them annex power in the first place.

Polman’s examples are mind-boggling:

  • Revolutionary United Front rebels and the Sierra Leone government soldiers they fought agreed on a cruel calculation. To finally attract enough fickle international attention and attendant humanitarian aid to their impoverished country, both armies began a campaign of cutting off civilians’ limbs.
  • Christian aid groups buying Sudanese slaves their freedom primed the market for more captives.
  • Government armies fed on expropriated food aid were only then able to attack starving populations in Somalia and Ethiopia.
  • Refugee camps on the Thai and Congo borders fed and housed fugitive armies making raids into Cambodia and Rwanda, respectively.
  • For access, aid groups have paid war taxes of 15% to 80%, subsidizing warlords, delegitimizing recipient governments, and fortifying the arms trade at the expense of traditional economies.

Surely Polman mustn’t mean that Oxfam or UNICEF is a part of the dictatorships and marauding militia in the countries they serve?

She means exactly this, if not by the organizations’ (unaccountable) intentions then by their day-to-day words and deeds, which are, in the end, all we possess when we interact with the world. In the wreck of disaster and forced migration higher-order humanist ideals are only as good as their means.

As Gourevitch writes,

The scenes of suffering 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. 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 sustaining casualties, and supplying the food, medicine, and logistical support that keeps armies going. At the worse–as the Red Cross demonstrated during the Second World War, when the organization offered its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to–impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.

Such principia are meaningless to a well-oiled machine chugging away, a contract already lined up with each new disaster,

Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.


Any such criticism is spun as heartless or dilettantish or, if from those very people whom humanitarian groups claim to serve, mere Machiavellian agitation by a faction aiming for power. A cynical characterization given its source.

The United Nations blamed recent Haitian demonstrations organized in anger at the response to a cholera outbreak, and a rumor the virus originated among UN troops, on political agitators inflaming tensions before the national election.

Doctors Without Borders medical advisor David Olson wrote somewhat more circumspectly,

Where the cholera strain arose from may never be known and is a moot point, given that the priorities should be treating the patients now in the [cholera treatment centers or] CTCs and the prevention of further cases…

As cholera infections continue in Haiti, protests from the population in some areas have led to delays or cancellations in setting up new CTCs. The panic and frustration from local populations are understandable. Even with the “simple” medical solutions of oral and intravenous rehydration, our CTCs are busy, as we deal with issues of space, human resources, and a moving epidemic. Support from other aid actors is urgently needed to fully cover other aspects of cholera control, namely safe water distribution, health promotion, oral rehydration points, and waste management and disposal.

The opprobrium in the UN’s characterization and between the lines of Olson’s call to arms misses the point of the demonstrations. They didn’t arise solely from “panic and frustration”, electoral jockeying, or a willfully misconstrued disease etiology. They were at their core a rejection of the UN military occupation and its humanitarian allies, who have postured much and delivered little.

In the earthquake’s aftermath nearly a year ago, before the tolls of 250,000 dead and a million homeless were tabulated, public health experts warned of cholera and other diseases that arise when a nation’s infrastructure collapses, even in a country already as poor as Haiti. And lo and behold, despite the fair warning, even from the aid organizations themselves, cholera, absent from Haiti for a hundred years, was allowed to emerge nonetheless.

Passing the buck onto other “aid actors” isn’t the issue either. The sources of Haiti’s problems have long been political in origin than merely a matter of logistics. An imperialism–from colonial to neoliberal–wrung Haiti dry over the course of its independence until, its resilience decimated, the country buckled under the kind of catastrophe many other places have been able to slough over however great the difficulty. Chile, suffering 800 deaths in comparison, is largely back on its feet after its own earthquake a month later.

Now those nations which bled Haiti send soldiers of misfortune to apply band aids that, as Michael Maren has pointed out, have as much to do with putting virtue on parade as saving lives. More than washing imperial hands, however, such theater also recasts the earthquake’s damage as an act of nature alone. Cleaning up extends to the disaster’s very causality.


There are analog perversions in humanitarian agriculture and epizootic control.

  • Efforts to compensate smallholder coca farmers for voluntarily eradicating their crops or planting alternatives have enraged farmers who grew legal crops all along without such subsidies. Must they grow (or stop growing) coke for a payday?
  • When governmental compensation for poultry infected with bird flu lowballs market prices, long-suffering small farmers cover up their sick birds. When compensation exceeds the market, farmers have an incentive to deliberately infect their flocks.
  • There is an array of socio-economic causes for the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak among British livestock. Among them, some farmers surreptitiously pooled their herds in round-robin fashion increasing each farmer’s census (and governmental subsidy) on inspection. The grassroots scam, or charity depending on one’s view, spread FMD farm to farm.
  • Farmers aren’t the only sources. I have it on good authority an international survey team investigating the spread of avian influenza H5N1 across farms in one epicenter accidentally spread the virus it was investigating.
  • As described in our previous post, in response to bird flu outbreaks of their own making, agribusiness supports national efforts to institute new biosecurity standards only the largest companies can afford, at the expense of their smaller domestic competitors.

Such perversions will arise in any and all complex societies characterized by many multiple, and often contradictory, objectives. But in the extent to which a civilization can adjust, even in the face of its  primary directives, lies the difference.

A capitalism bent on surplus value at all costs, even should children’s hands be chopped off along the way or a billion lay dead from influenza, displays little flexibility or resilience save in the service of its owners. To that aim, the rest, at the market’s mercy, are at best able to sell their minds and bodies, their beliefs, and even their very senses to the highest bidder, whiting out what is right before their eyes, including their own complicity.

This is an attack on no individual’s good heart or bravery. Millions of people over many decades have poured their life force and hard-earned dollars into helping others in dire need. This is no sociopathic put-down. We offer here instead a critique of philanthropy’s political economy guiding, or misguiding as it were, all that loving effort. It’s an important difference I’m sure a surfeit of endowed chairs can obfuscate for the right price.

This is neither a counsel of despair. When we wend our way through the baroque mechanics by which our best instincts conspire or are used against us, we can finally begin to exercise a free will. Only then can we better match the means to make the world a better place with our most profound hopes for humanity.

UPDATE. It now appears United Nations troops were indeed the source of Haiti’s cholera despite repeated UN denials. The new finding shouldn’t take away from the structural causes of the outbreak–Haiti’s infrastructural collapse before and after the quake–but it refutes the flippant dismissals aimed at demonstrators angry at humanitarian efforts gone awry.

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