The Spoils of Humanitarianism

Karl Maier

  • Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa by Alex de Waal
    James Currey/Indiana, 238 pp, £40.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 85255 811 2
  • The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren
    Free Press, 302 pp, US $25.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 684 82800 6

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in North Korea are succumbing to starvation, perishing ‘silently and painfully’ in the words of an aid agency official. Eighty-five per cent of the country’s children are malnourished, and in some towns at least, the story goes, ‘corpses line the streets.’ Rumours of cannibalism are rife. Only an immediate response from the United Nations and the battery of private foreign relief agencies can prevent the death toll from rising. Tear-jerking advertisements appear in major Western newspapers appealing for cash and credit card donations. ‘A generation could be lost for ever,’ the UN Children’s Fund warns; ‘one to two million dead’, World Vision US adds; ‘a silent famine’, the UN Development Programme claims. While circumstantial evidence points to malnutrition and food shortages in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it is impossible to know for certain: the authorities control all movement of foreign personnel; nutritionists, aid workers, food monitors and journalists (the very few who are allowed in) can work only where they are permitted. No one has been able to carry out a satisfactory assessment of the situation.

‘Humanitarian’ crises are not as prevalent as they were and the aid agencies are suffering – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has announced plans for significant layoffs and a 1998 budget which will be $400 million less than its $1.4 billion peak in 1996. Perhaps this is why the international aid community has warmed to the North Korean crisis. But in the process, UN and private relief agencies have violated the generally accepted conventions of humanitarian response by pushing ahead without any independent assessment of emergency needs having been made and without adequate monitoring of the effectiveness of food distribution once underway; they have also used distortion and deception to mobilise public support. The serious and well-documented failures of the ‘humanitarian international’, Alex de Waal’s memorable phrase for the global relief industry, are quickly forgotten. Massive amounts of food aid have gone to an utterly discredited regime in the absence of any real knowledge of the needs of the civilian population and of any guarantee that it will reach those who are deemed to need it most. It is business as usual, and famines, real or not, are good for business, especially in those places where the United States, the world’s biggest food donor, has a special interest. North Korea represents the UN World Food Programme’s biggest emergency operation, and for the Clinton Administration, the food shortages provide a foot in the door of an unaccommodating Communist country.

Concerns that the aid may be going astray have been dismissed by the World Food Programme, which last September claimed – falsely – that ‘food distribution is monitored by international staff to ensure it reaches the vulnerable and is not siphoned off by the military or political élite.’ The WFP could not monitor food distribution because the government in Pyongyang would not allow it to. The United States played its role in the subterfuge. When a North Korean submarine ran aground in the South in 1996 and the remains of a label from a can of beef distributed by the Mennonites of Virginia were found on board, the Clinton Administration suppressed the information.

Others have also been guilty of distortion. World Vision US’s vice-president Andrew Natsios warned in September that ‘at least half a million people have died, probably closer to one to two million.’ The basis for his claim, which was transmitted around the world by CNN, was a World Vision US survey along the Korea-China border of four hundred people who had recently been in North Korea. Only 33 of them completed the questionnaire. From that rather slender statistical base, World Vision US surmised that 15 per cent of the population in several towns and villages had died since the beginning of 1997. One of the organisation’s press releases put the total number of Koreans ‘threatened with starvation’ at 23 million, a figure slightly higher than the entire North Korean population.

The agencies and press reports largely attribute the famine to a combination of natural disasters – floods, a tidal wave and drought – and dwell less on the main reason for North Korea’s trouble: the cut-off of massive subsidies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the support of the Eastern bloc, the economy has buckled under the weight of public works projects, a sophisticated national welfare system and food distribution network, and a standing army of 1.1 million, which consumes a quarter of the GNP. Since 1990, the economy has shrunk by 30 per cent, shattering the late Kim Il Sung’s dream of self-reliance. His son, Kim Jong Il, holds the reins of power in league with the Armed Forces, and both need the food aid to maintain their positions. The United States, not for the first time, is substituting ‘humanitarian assistance’ for foreign policy. Is the food aid going to the Army? What effect will it have on local agriculture? Is it reaching beyond the provinces immediately surrounding the capital? Is it sustaining a regime that would otherwise be in a state of collapse? Few of the private aid agencies which have bothered to look closely, with the notable exception of Save the Children UK, have seemed troubled by the consequences of such assistance.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in