The Third World is a heap of severed limbs, the aid the First World offers but the smallest of Band-Aids: so argues journalist Rieff in this lucid polemic.
“Any adult who does not understand that the world is an unjust place, even in its treatment of catastrophe, is a fool or a dreamer.” Thus Rieff (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, 1995) establishes the tone of his emphatically unstarry-eyed look at relief efforts in places such as Rwanda and Kosovo. Rieff’s argument follows provocative lines: humanitarian relief organizations working in such places are in crisis, as even its most committed proponents recognize, in part because they have been co-opted by the major powers, which in turn have made human rights central to foreign policy. In the theater of aid-as-realpolitik, relief too often plays into the wrong hands, propping up corrupt governments and creating a pattern of infantilizing dependency; as one aid worker observes, “aid too often does nothing to alter—and very often reinforces—the fundamental circumstances that produced the needs it temporarily meets.” Rieff urges, among other things, that we shed fairy-tale views of a world of tyrants and oppressed; as he observes, many of the Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda in 1994 had merrily slaughtered their Tutsi compatriots before packing their bags, which does not lessen their need—only their supposed status as innocent victims. Just so, he argues, the UN’s insistence that all sides were villains in the Balkans, “while false in the instance”—the Serbs, in his view, having been the clear aggressors—“was right about any number of conflicts in the world, from Tajikistan to Burundi.” All of which is not to say that the West should stop trying to ease the world’s suffering. But, Rieff urges, humanitarian NGOs can do their stated jobs only if they act independently, not as arms of the new world order, and the major powers would do better to remove tyrants at gunpoint than deliver powdered milk to faraway places.
A sober treatise, burning with righteous indignation. Rieff makes a solid if impious case for humanitarian reform, one that ought to generate much discussion.