Chris Blattman

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.

4 Responses

  1. I also found it to be an incredibly illuminating read, but agree that it was hard to finish it with any concrete take-aways. It recognized that non-neutral humanitarians (or the degree to which humanitarians are non-neutral/less neutral than the ICRC) risk jeopardizing the effectiveness of their core mission, but also that sticking to core humanitarian values never leads to resolution of complex (political) crises. Maybe that's the sign of a good book? But I would hope that there are more concrete conclusions, such as the need for strengthening advocacy efforts that are not led by humanitarian groups (but that do nonetheless employ nuanced, locally-sensitive approaches).

  2. You could be right. I covered Africa in the thematic chapters rather than as country case-studies and that meant taking a broader brush on some of the specific conflicts.

    Since posting a link to the above on my facbook page I have realised that we have a few friends in common. Did you work for IRC?

  3. The book (and my notes) are still in Liberia, but I think my concern was the use of a number of journalistic sources that are not terribly reliable, and a characterization of the LRA and the events of the war that is often repeated, but easily challenged. Some of Tim Allen’s other work, as well as that by his student, Mareike Schomerus, give a very different account of the LRA. So does the work of Sverker Finnstrom.

    It’d be easy to discuss in more detail once the book is back in my hands in a week or so. Feel free to email me: It would be good to have your contact info.

  4. Thanks Chris, a nice review. Just for my own reference what was the issue you had with me on Uganda?

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