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 North Korean scenario is familiar. Critics of what Michael Ignatieff has described as ‘a vast, unruly humanitarian bazaar,’ are quick to point out that money is one of North Korea’s main attractions for relief agencies. Famine is a ‘growth opportunity’, Michael Maren argues, and ‘aid distribution is just another big, private business that relies on government contracts.’ The hypocritical, sometimes unscrupulous, and too often counterproductive activities of the uneasy coalition of UN relief agencies and the myriad NGOs which dispense the world’s food aid in times of emergency have become the focus of deepening controversy since the crises in Somalia and Rwanda; relief workers, scholars and journalists, insiders and outsiders, are now far more critical of an industry whose aggregate budget stands at around $8 billion and which has made a prophet of Henry Kissinger, who said 20 years ago that ‘disaster relief is becoming increasingly a major instrument of our foreign policy.’ Sometimes, it seems, this kind of aid is Washington’s, and by extension the UN’s, only policy.

The most thorough and objective attempt by the industry itself to address its successes and failures in an emergency was produced by the OECD-commissioned five-volume study, The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, published in 1996. British-based NGOs are now discussing the need for an Ombudsman to regulate the industry, while US-based NGOs are subject to growing scrutiny. The UN is abolishing its perennially lame duck co-ordinating office, the Department for Humanitarian Affairs, and like a bankrupt company closing only to re-open under a different name, has repackaged it as the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Except on rare occasions, the DHA lacked the prestige and power to impose its co-ordinating role on the independent-minded agencies, such as the UNHCR, the WFP and Unicef. Co-ordination and accountability remain rare within the UN system.

Both Michael Maren and Alex de Waal, the co-director of the London-based African Rights group, which published a provocative report in 1994 entitled ‘Humanitarianism Unbound’, take a jaundiced view of the aid industry. Both portray international aid as a highly competitive business, driven less by commitment to the recipients than by concern with expanding programmes, budgets and, too often, expatriate employees’ salaries. ‘The competition is for funds, not successful famine prevention,’ de Waal writes. The aid industry, in Maren’s view, has become ‘a self-serving system that sacrifices its own practitioners and intended beneficiaries in order that it may survive and grow.’ Both books suggest that the bulk of the industry should cease operations. ‘Most current humanitarian activity in Africa is useless or damaging and should be abandoned,’ according to de Waal; Maren argues that aid can ‘be worse than incompetent and inadvertently destructive. It could be positively evil.’

While aid workers will probably be irritated by the harsh and sometimes snide tone of Famine Crimes and The Road to Hell, many will agree with the criticisms they level at the industry. De Waal and Maren admit that aid programmes can and do save lives, and that they could be a force for desirable change if they were able to ensure that their activities empowered the people they were trying to save rather than compounding their difficulties. Both books are impatient with the notion that humanitarianism is a selfless attempt to save the world and both engage at times in aid-worker bashing. Maren’s description of drunk Europeans mingling with the prostitutes at Buffalo Bill’s bar in Nairobi is offered as a bitter metaphor for the industry as a whole. Yet aid workers may be no more morally corrupt than their counterparts in other professions – journalists (like Maren), for example, or human rights investigators (like de Waal). The danger is that their criticism will obscure the central idea, which is that even the best aid workers employed by the most sensitive aid agency can find their intervention damaging the people they are supposed to serve. It is a point de Waal concedes: ‘the problem is not the integrity or intelligence of agency staff ... but the institutional and political position that relief agencies find themselves in.’

De Waal’s is a broad analysis of famine and the industry which feeds off it, with case-studies on Ethiopia, the eastern Congo, Somalia and Sudan. Suggesting that South Asia is capable of preventing famine, he argues, centrally, that famine can only be overcome by good government, a free press and an open society whose members are politically mobilised. Under these conditions, it would be possible to establish what he describes as a ‘contract for the prevention of famine’ between the rulers of a country and its people. It is a rather obvious point, but, as de Waal notes, such a contract exists in very few African states. In those afflicted by what is known in aid jargon as a ‘complex emergency’ – a humanitarian disaster triggered by military or political conflict – famine has, in fact, become a strategic weapon and international relief the booty. Governments and armed movements which hold sway over significant numbers of civilians attract relief assistance from an international community too ready to substitute cheap food from subsidised Western farmers and transnational grain merchants for proper policy.

African governments, increasingly accountable to Western financial institutions rather than their own people, find in the humanitarian international ‘the human face’ of neo-liberalism being imposed on Africa by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. ‘This process of internationalisation,’ de Waal writes, ‘is the key to the appropriation of power by international institutions and the retreat from domestic accountability in famine-vulnerable countries.’

Scepticism about the work of the humanitarian international goes back to the Nigerian civil war, a forerunner of the live disasters of the satellite television age. Encouraged by the Biafrans’ exaggerated claims of genocide and starvation, the relief agencies mounted an extraordinary operation comparable to the Berlin airlift. Critics like de Waal believe that it also gave new life to the Biafrans’ doomed military cause and quite probably prolonged the war, at the cost, according to some estimates, of 180,000 lives. Much the same has been said of Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola and, latterly, Rwanda. The dilemma which confronts humanitarian workers of all persuasions in modern conflict first became apparent with the attempted secession of eastern Nigeria. Food assistance undoubtedly saves lives in the short run, but in the longer term it is just as likely to prolong hostilities by becoming entangled with the war economy. ‘Most thoughtful relief workers see humanitarian action as a neutral stop-gap,’ de Waal writes, but ‘for the victims of famine, it can act less as a brake on the juggernaut of famine, and more as an element in the fuel that keeps the monster moving.’ This problem, which is not new, was outlined in War and Hunger: Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies (1994). The concluding chapter questions the very basis of international relief in countries affected by complete social breakdown:

The erosion of the subsistence asset base creates a growing pool of impoverishment, the loss of a skilled and educated middle class to run the economy and education and health services, the loss of capacity at government and policy-making levels, and the emergence of alternative and extra-legal forms of survival. Unless such issues are tackled, present relief strategies that focus on the delivery of commodities and, at best, on physical repair, will simply continue to feed the emergency.

The well-worn argument that humanitarian assistance can be ‘neutral’ in complex emergencies is built on false assumptions. ‘Neutrality’ is a chimera, as the International Committee of the Red Cross discovered in World War Two, when it learnt of plans for the genocide but decided to remain silent about them so that the ICRC could continue to work on both sides. Since then, the lesson of Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Sudan and Liberia, among others, has been that the military forces of one side or the other, or both, will benefit from relief, irrespective of the ‘neutrality’ of the suppliers.

In Mozambique, the major international providers of relief directly assisted the Government’s counter-insurgency efforts in the strategic province of Zambezia in the early Nineties. As soon as the Army forcibly moved civilians from rebel-held areas to government-controlled camps, aid agencies moved in with food and medical care, and thus actively contributed to the depopulation of wide swathes of land. At the time, most of the agencies argued that they were only helping people whose dire circumstances were caused by forces beyond their control. But there is no doubt that the aid earmarked for ‘displaced’ civilians encouraged the government army to displace them, and thousands died in the camps of measles, cholera and other diseases. Similarly, in 1994, the UN negotiated a deal to feed the city of Kuito, in Angola’s central highlands, which was besieged by Jonas Savimbi’s Unita rebel movement. Under the agreement, half the airlifted food went to the inhabitants of Kuito and the other half directly to a major Unita warehouse, where it was used to feed Savimbi’s army. The effort saved thousands of lives, but it also allowed Unita to continue the siege.

Both Maren and de Waal regard the crisis in the eastern Congo following the Rwandan genocide as evidence of a humanitarian international run amok. In the name of caring for a million Hutus who fled Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide, a significant minority of whom feared retribution for their part in it, UN and private relief agencies fed, armed and clothed a new monster. Maren and de Waal believe that the remnants of the genocidal regime were counting on the international aid community to come to their rescue – and that is what happened. Relief agencies, including UNHCR, worked through the political structures of the former Hutu regime, which proceeded to levy taxes on the food aid and salaries of those, including some who had taken part in the genocide, employed by the aid organisations. Weapons were purchased and sometimes ferried in planes hired by the aid agencies. Throughout this time, extremists associated with the ancien regime in Rwanda used their liaison role with the relief industry to tighten their political grip on the rest of the camp-dwellers. The camps became recruiting and training grounds for the extremist Hutu militia, the Interaham-we, for deployment back in Rwanda. The humanitarian imperative asserts that everyone in need has the right to assistance, but the spirit of the Geneva Conventions says that aid should not be given without assurances that it will not be abused.

Much of the aid community at the time was unhappy with this state of affairs, and a handful of NGOs refused to work in Goma. De Waal concedes that the aid agencies were put in an extremely difficult position by the international community’s failure to take action earlier to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, and when it started, by its decision to pull out the UN peacekeeping troops. The humanitarian response became a substitute for policy. The agencies ‘felt they had no moral choice but to respond to massive human suffering, even though it meant sup-porting the extremists’ strategy’, de Waal writes: ‘the moral complexities were hidden away and a simple charitable imperative (Give!) was presented through the media.’ De Waal and Maren see the media in a symbiotic relationship with the humanitarian international, sharing many of its assumptions, exaggerating disasters to win headlines and failing to perform its job as a watchdog.

More than a hundred private aid agencies turned up in Goma to cash in on the emergency as a way to promote their own organisations, wearing stickers and flags to advertise themselves to television audiences at home. The need to attract funding gave rise to a belief that they had to ‘be there or die.’ Agencies badmouthed each other, set up high-profile but often inappropriate projects and duplicated each others’ work. When the camps began to collapse under pressure from Laurent Kabila’s rebellion in late 1996, the agency spokespersons reported wildly inflated levels of malnutrition among refugees. Although at the time, some aid workers believed their estimates were accurate, de Waal regards the exaggerations as a crude attempt – in effect a repeat of the Somalia fiasco – to secure more outside donations and invite Western military intervention to protect their work. When the refugees began to go home, they found few signs of the malnutrition which senior UN and private NGO officials had been trumpeting. ‘Either it was a spectacular failure of competence in nutritional and demographic science compounded by a failure of political intelligence, or it had been a highly cynical exercise throughout,’ de Waal concludes. While some relief workers and international political figures, particularly Emma Bonino, the outspoken European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, paid lip-service to the need for an outside military force to disarm the Interahamwe in the camps, they must have known that no foreign government would commit troops to such a difficult and dangerous task. The Western power most ready to act was France, but in the end it was politically discredited by its links with the former extremists in Rwanda and widely suspected of wishing to use a humanitarian intervention in eastern Congo to shore up its old associate, Mobutu Sese Seko.

The precursor to Rwanda was Somalia, and in a superb chapter entitled ‘Creating Dependency’, Maren describes how food aid delivered in the Eighties by such giants as Care and UNHCR did not simply intensify the famine but was actually responsible for it. The catalyst was the former President, Siad Barre. The man Somalis called ‘Big Mouth’ nimbly skipped across the Cold War divide and proved adept at using food aid to undermine his clan rivals and destroy small-scale agriculture, which was replaced with export-oriented plantations owned by his cronies. Food aid, Maren writes, transformed ‘Somalia from a self-sufficient exporter of food to an aid-dependent klepto-cracy’. Nomadic Somalis fleeing the war in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region in the late Seventies were corralled into refugee camps inside Somalia and their numbers inflated threefold. Over the years, Siad Barre’s army recruited in the camps and re-sold two-thirds of the food aid to arm sympathetic militias, as a rift opened between the Ogaden refugees and their less well-fed hosts from the Hawiye and Isaaq clans. The ground was being prepared for Somalia’s fratricidal civil war.

Maren’s account of the Ogaden refugee operation, pieced together from his experience as a USAID food monitor in Beled-weyne in the Eighties and later as a muckraking journalist, is a devastating portrayal of aid agencies drunk on government largesse and indifferent both to actual needs and to the impact of their assistance. The reports he sent to Mogadishu detailing theft and waste were filed away. Years later, ensconced in a basement in Geneva poring over UNHCR internal documents, he discovered that none of them discussed the obvious solution: repatriation of the refugees to the Ogaden. In the meantime, aid agency staff were living well. Care had spent two million of the $16 million it received from the UNHCR on expatriate salaries.

The Somalis were quick to master the art of the aid rip-off. The Government became addicted to food aid and millions were made on illegal land deals, as plummeting market prices forced small farmers out of business and allowed government ministers to buy up their property for very little to grow bananas for export. One small entrepreneur even used the proceeds from the excess food aid he bought up and sold on the market to buy a second wife. He called her his Care wife. By the late Eighties, the supply of donated food aid was outstripping demand by a factor of 14; it brought local agriculture to its knees. Society unravelled. The traditional methods of avoiding famine, advocated by clan elders, were swept away in the flood of cheap, or even free food, which also encouraged the rise of the gun-toting street kids, the Mooryaan.

It followed that when the famine of 1991-92 hit, Somali gunmen would see the new influx of food aid in terms of loot, and political power. Maren and de Waal regard much of the clan fighting of the period as a struggle over the spoils of humanitarianism. The most successful operations were carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross, for the simple enough reason that it was attentive to local views and worked closely with the Somali Red Crescent. The UN lost its chance to help Somalia resolve some of its problems when Boutros Boutros Ghali, then the Secretary General, dismissed his special envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, who was widely respected by Somalis because he listened to them.

When the Bush Administration and the UN launched Operation Restore Hope, which de Waal calls ‘an extraordinary experiment in philanthropic imperialism’, only one NGO, Save the Children UK, opposed it, again because it listened to a senior Somali on its staff. But theirs was a lone voice, and despite the fact that the famine was fading, the US-led and UN-sanctioned intervention forces stormed ashore to widespread international acclaim.

Cheering them on were the vast majority of aid organisations, some of whose aggressive rhetoric made it clear that the troops were there to guarantee not the safety of the Somalis but the agencies’ right to deliver food aid. ‘We have to fight the Somalis themselves,’ said Philip Johnson, president of Care-US. ‘There’s plenty of food and the agencies are willing to deliver it. But we have to dodge firefights to do it, and deal with those Somalis who want to rip off the system and deprive these children.’ After UN Operation Somalia (UNOSOM) forces, then in pursuit of General Mohammed Farah Aideed, attacked Digfer Hospital on 17 June 1993, de Waal asked the US Provost Marshal if they felt constrained by the Geneva Conventions. He wasn’t given an answer but the next day the UN issued an order that ‘if this individual’ – de Waal – ‘is seen in UNOSOM facilities, he should be detained.’ De Waal cites a Chicago Tribune story that quotes an unnamed UN official saying: ‘The normal rules of engagement do not apply in this nation.’ De Waal also cites the explanation given for the killing of 60 Somalis when a helicopter gunship opened fire on a demonstration: ‘There are no sidelines or spectator seats – the people on the ground are considered combatants.’ In effect, de Waal concludes, the UN forces were not constrained by the Geneva Conventions and enjoyed, in his words, ‘impunity for war crimes committed in the name of the humanitarian community’. Typically, Maren is more direct: ‘Somalia is not a story of how a humanitarian mission became a military adventure. It’s about how the people running a humanitarian mission became so dedicated to their cause that they started to see strafing, bombing, and killings as humanitarian acts.’

Famine Crimes and The Road to Hell raise unsettling questions about an industry suffering a crisis of legitimacy, though many of them are already the subject of debate within the agencies themselves. But, as the books stress, the lessons of past mistakes were not learned by the time of the Congo crisis, and the current relief operation in North Korea suggests that they remain to be learned. De Waal argues for changes in international law which would make actions by governments and insurgencies that lead to famine punishable crimes, and the emphasis here is on the right to freedom from violence and poverty rather than the rights of agencies delivering international assistance. Both writers, meanwhile, echo the call of many people inside and outside the aid industry for an independent body to monitor the humanitarian international at a time when it is easier to set up an NGO than it is to obtain a New York taxi licence.