Humanitarianism under fire

Tens of thousands of humanitarian aid workers are confronted with the same moral dilemma every day. They might help individual people in a crisis zone, but they can never be absolutely certain that the overall impact of their presence does more good than harm.

While their presence pricks the world’s conscience that ‘something must be done’ it simultaneously reinforces the delusion that humanitarian action can ever be enough. In reality they are just another part of the problem.

That’s Conor Foley ending The Thin Blue Line. A human rights advocate and aid worker for years, Foley reflects on the messy reality of humanitarian intervention. He looks back–usually from a first-hand perspective–at Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Darfur, and northern Uganda. Not all his facts are solid: the African cases, especially Uganda, are a little weak. But critical, pragmatic, sincere, this is one of the most intelligent tracts I’ve read on humanitarian aid.

My favorite line: the ICC is the liberal humanitarian version of military intervention.

But Foley doesn’t pass judgement on the new rights-based approach to aid and the increasingly political nature of humanitarian intervention; he slogs through the messy moral ground and doles out both criticism and praise. I learned a lot. He wants humanitarians to be both more modest and more ambitious in future, and I agree. Development, emergency, human rights, and military folk: check out the book here.