Cover image for A bed for the night : humanitarianism in crisis
A bed for the night : humanitarianism in crisis
Rieff, David.
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Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Simon & Schuster, [2002]

Physical Description:
367 pages ; 25 cm
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HV639 .R543 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Timely and controversial, "A Bed for the Night" reveals how humanitarian organizations trying to bring relief in an ever more violent and dangerous world are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose. Humanitarian relief workers, writes David Rieff, are the last of the just. And in the Bosnias, the Rwandas, and the Afghanistans of this world, humanitarianism remains the vocation of helping people when they most desperately need help, when they have lost or stand at risk of losing everything they have, including their lives. Although humanitarianism's accomplishments have been tremendous, including saving countless lives, the lesson of the past ten years of civil wars and ethnic cleansing is that it can do only so much to alleviate suffering. Aid workers have discovered that while trying to do good, their efforts may also cause harm. Drawing on firsthand reporting from hot war zones around the world -- Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, Sudan, and most recently Afghanistan -- Rieff describes how the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, CARE, Oxfam, and other humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of political neutrality, which gave them access to victims of wars, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing. This advocacy has come at a high price. By calling for intervention -- whether by the United Nations or by "coalitions of the willing" -- humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, thehumanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers, at times becoming a fig leaf for actions those powers wish to take for their own interests, or for the major powers' inaction. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best -- alleviate suffering -- they must reclaim their independence. Except for relief workers themselves, no one has looked at humanitarian action as seriously or as unflinchingly, or has had such unparalleled access to its inner workings, as Rieff, who has traveled and lived with aid workers over many years and four continents. A cogent, hard-hitting report from the front lines, "A Bed for the Night" shows what international aid organizations must do if they are to continue to care for the victims of humanitarian disasters.

Author Notes

David Rieff is the author of five books, including the acclaimed Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He continues to cover wars and humanitarian emergencies in many parts of the world. He lives in New York City.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Rieff, a journalist who has covered wars and refugee crises around the world, offers a controversial look at the effectiveness of humanitarian organizations, which have increasingly been drawn into the politics behind some of the disasters for which they provide relief. Rieff highlights the continued inequities in wealth throughout the world, despite the growing sense of connection provided by the Internet, a global economy, and mass migration. He also examines the endless stream of wars and conflicts that call on assistance from humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders. As the groups move beyond reacting to crises to attempting to prevent them, they have become ensnared with national and commercial interests, making it difficult to maintain their neutrality and effectiveness. Drawing on his own experiences in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other hot spots, Rieff struggles to maintain a balance between a critical examination of the efforts of relief groups and growing cynicism of their ability to help those in crisis. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Noted journalist Rieff (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West) presents a painful, urgent and penetrating discussion of a crisis most of us didn't even know existed and yet which cuts to the heart of the West's role in some of the most violent world events of the past decade. He will shake readers' complacency about the relief work done by organizations like Oxfam, CARE and Doctors without Borders, crushing the belief that humanitarian aid is a panacea for all the world's ills. Rieff rejects "the false morality play" that, in any given conflict, there are victimizers and innocent victims, and that it is always clear who is who. In Rwanda, for instance, he reports that aid workers went into refugee camps threatened with cholera-but the "victims" they helped, the Hutu refugees, were in fact the killers who had committed, and were planning to resume, the genocide of the Tutsis. Rieff's despair over such incidents is palpable, but his rage is reserved for the Western governments that fund, and exploit, the aid organizations. In his most potent chapters, Rieff excoriates the U.S. and its European allies for hiding behind a "fig leaf" in Bosnia and Rwanda, offering humanitarian aid in lieu of taking effective, i.e., military, action, to end genocide. Rieff shows how humanitarian organizations have colluded in their own exploitation by Western donor governments, as they have become confused about their mission and purpose. Originally, he explains, these groups were independent, politically neutral agents, with the limited goal of bringing relief in famine or war. But simply bringing relief-and making no change in the political and economic realities that create need-can be frustrating work. Hoping to increase their effectiveness, some aid organizations have espoused larger goals, such as human rights or even opposing oppressive governments-as in the war in Afghanistan, in which aid groups took orders from the U.S. and in effect became part of the military effort that brought down the Taliban. Much of what Rieff says will be unpalatable particularly to some on the left-for instance, his assertion that development aid creates dependency in recipient countries and that humanitarian aid is a latter-day version of the "white man's burden"; and his conviction that wars-including the war in Afghanistan-can be necessary and just. None of his criticism of humanitarian groups diminishes his admiration for those he calls "the last of the just" for their dedication and courage in aiding the needy. Still, he writes of the current state of the world, "I see little if any empirical basis for optimism." Readers may share his despair, but they will come away from this passionate, eloquent argument with a distinctly clearer understanding of the complex moral issues facing humanitarian aid in a world filled with brutality and suffering. (Oct. 10) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Rieff, a veteran journalist and author of several books (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West), has been a "witness" to several world human disasters (e.g., AIDS and the civil wars in Africa; ethnic cleansing in Bosnia) and has many doubts that the world can become an international community, such as Woodrow Wilson envisioned. His criticism of "independent humanitarianism" is that the movement is both politically nave and too vulnerable to political power. Humanitarian organizations respond to human rights concerns by applying the doctrine of political neutrality and ignoring the political context of world crises, which, Rieff argues, has often resulted in greater losses of life. He cites the Red Cross's efforts in World War II to save the lives of Allied and Axis POWs while ignoring the Nazi mass murder of Jews and other minorities. He also discusses in great detail the more recent genocidal campaigns in Somalia and Rwanda, demonstrating how efforts by the United States, the United Nations, and humanitarian organizations to lessen suffering ignored the cause of the killing "a government whose raison d'etre was the infliction of suffering." In addition, he analyzes the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and implies that were it not for NATO military action and U.S. support of this, the results would have mirrored the fiascos in Africa. Finally, he discusses the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the humanitarian effort accompanying it, and he concludes that without eliminating the Taliban, attempts to diminish human suffering would be at best irrelevant. An opinionated, provocative dissent from consensus views. For most academic and larger public libraries. Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



You are the prosperous citizen of a prosperous country. In practice, this means you are almost certainly a citizen of the United States, Canada, Japan, or one of the countries of the European Union. It also means that, in global terms, you belong to a minority group, at most no more than a tenth of the world's population, and probably a good deal less. Of course, it is a minority of privilege, not of oppression. You, or, to be more accurate, we (I belong to this group too), have the habit of spending at least part of your mornings reading a decent broadsheet newspaper and part of most evenings watching your national television news program. The particular newspaper or TV broadcast is not all that relevant to the scenario that I am trying to construct. After all, when viewed from the perspective of Central Africa, or the slums of Rio de Janeiro, or the jungles of the southern Philippines, or the mountains of Afghanistan, the differences between The New York Times and Le Monde, CNN and TV España, don't amount to very much. What counts is that your habit of reading a newspaper and, above all, of watching the news on television means that you voluntarily expose yourself on a regular basis to at least some of the most horrible things taking place in the world. If there is a refugee crisis in Burundi, a famine in Somalia, or a war in the Balkans, the fact that you are a faithful consumer of the news will lead to your being confronted by at least some tiny corner of them. To be sure, that exposure is usually both fleeting and superficial. To anyone who knows a subject in any depth, television news, even at its best, seems like reality doled out with an eye-dropper for someone assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. Nowhere is this more true than in the coverage of humanitarian crises, in large measure because no other story that gets any airtime or major newspaper attention at all is so dependably unfamiliar. Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan - these are places that capture the attention of mainstream, nonspecialist journalists only when a disaster is taking place. That in itself is a recipe for distortion and misapprehension. The idea that we live in a "global village" was first popularized by the Canadian futurist Marshall McLuhan and then repeated ad nauseam during the great stock market bubble of the 1990s in the form of paeans to globalization and the new "wired" world. This cliché is true and false at the same time. It is true that we have unprecedented access to information thanks to television and the Internet. But it is false that this information necessarily means we understand what we are seeing in any usable way. You can know that there is a famine in southern Sudan. You can wish that it weren't happening, and hope that something will be done about it. But what do you understand about southern Sudan from the images of horror and want that you see on your television screen? Just that there is horror and want, nothing else. You are watching something take place in southern Sudan, but apart from the fact that the people are black, how do you distinguish what you are seeing from something going on in Afghanistan, or East Timor, or Central America? There is horror, but no context, and therefore as much mystification as information results from this new way of accessing the world's tragedies. The average international story on national television news in the United States lasts one minute and twenty seconds. On that basis alone, it appears almost inevitable that there will be misreporting, even if inadvertent, on the journalist's side and misunderstanding on the viewer's. In Europe, the rhythm is slightly less impatient and commercially driven, but even there such stories rarely clock in at more than three minutes. And what can one say in eighty or ninety seconds or in three minutes? Perhaps it is easier to predict what one cannot say. It is difficult to say something original; it is difficult to explain anything in depth; and it is difficult not to fall into the same clichés about humanitarian disasters that were employed during the last disaster, thus leaching the crisis one is covering of all its tragic specificity. You, the viewer, are not in Afghanistan, Cambodia, or Bosnia so much as you are in humanitarian-tragedy land - a world of wicked warlords, suffering and innocent victims, and noble aid workers. And whether you know why or not, you have the distinct impression that you have been there before. It could hardly be otherwise. Given the way humanitarian emergencies are covered, what other impression can the viewer retain but the feeling that out there in the poor world there is a planet of sufferers? The television camera operator's stock-in-trade in a famine or a war is the close-up - the focus on the baby in the aid worker's arms, the child with flies lighting on her face, the vultures slyly approaching the rotting corpse of the dead militiaman. But the effect on the viewer is to encourage him or her to see this world in long shot. He or she becomes unable to differentiate one person in pain from another, much as someone standing on a high hill will have trouble making out the physiognomy of people in the valley below. To point this out is not to blame either the media or the audience, let alone the aid workers, whose symbiotic relationship with the media is one of their greatest challenges. These crises are far away and difficult to understand, and human beings are not solidarity machines or professional carers, however much we might wish it otherwise. It is not even clear that if the media were given more time and resources, were permitted to be more deliberate and more serious, people could cope psychologically or morally with the reality of the poor world in all its horror, rage, and complexity. To sympathize in the way that the television images invite us all to do is not difficult. It is with the question of how that sympathy can be translated into action that the problems arise. Does having seen images of starving babies really allow people to come to any kind of informed view about whether there should be an airlift of food, or political engagement, or even a military intervention? And even assuming that the atrocious images of famine do provoke a military intervention, as was the case in Somalia in 1992, is it not inevitable that the public will be utterly unprepared for that intervention to have costs other than financial ones? In Somalia, this battle of images was soon joined. First there were the images of the famine. As Philip Johnston, former president of the relief group CARE USA, put it in his memoir, Somalia Diary, "Television brought home the urgency of Somalia's tragedy, translating a faraway crisis into a story of human beings who were days, perhaps hours, away from death." As an example of this, he cited an ABC report in which the reporter described a young Somali girl who was "little more than a walking skeleton." As Johnston writes, the point of the story was clear: "As long as marauders kept food from reaching those who needed it most, relief workers would have nothing to offer the most vulnerable." Johnston's own role in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia was extraordinarily important. Some aid workers believe that he was the driving force behind the militarization of the humanitarian aid effort in the country and the eventual decision by the U.S. government to send in military forces. At the time, he said that if necessary we would "have to fight the Somalis themselves" to make sure the aid got delivered. But what is noteworthy about Johnston's account is something that has become an integral part of the humanitarian repertory, even in crises where there is no question of military force being deployed. His account of the media's role in helping make the American public aware of the crisis is largely devoid of historical context, geographical specificity, and even any real personalization. There is a starving girl, unnamed; there are marauders, unidentified; and there are relief workers, also unspecified. When Johnston speaks approvingly of the media's ability to turn a faraway crisis into a story of human beings, it is hard not to feel that he means human beings in the generic sense. After all, there are no real individuals in the story - only victims, victimizers, and relief workers who want to help and urgently need the means, which for Johnston at the time meant military force to escort the relief convoys and fight the Somalis who preyed on them. Johnston was successful in persuading the United Nations to take a more militarized approach to the crisis, and in getting the administration of George Bush senior to commit U.S. troops. And the result was almost inevitable: He who lives by the image, dies by the image. Because of the sympathy these images Johnston approved of had evoked, the American public supported the decision to intervene. Such sympathy may license actions that cost money; it never licenses actions that cost lives. The American public thought its troops were in Somalia on a humanitarian mission - that is, to do good, not to kill, and certainly not to get killed. And yet to the leading Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, the U.S. troops were there to thwart his effort to seize power. From his perspective, their mission was political - that is, to attack him. And attack they did. But while Aidid could never match the military power of the United States, his fighters in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, soon proved that they were more than a match for the Americans in resolve and determination. On October 3, 1993, they responded to the attempt of American elite forces to seize two of Aidid's lieutenants by shooting down two American helicopters, killing eighteen U.S. soldiers and wounding seventy-seven others. That evening, American television viewers were shocked to see jubilant Somalis dragging the naked bodies of two American helicopter pilots through the dust of Mogadishu. That image far outweighed the images of starving babies. Americans wanted no part of war; they had thought their troops were there to do good. As Johnston - still, it seems, uncomprehending - puts it in his book, "Sadly, in all of this, the plight of the Somali people became lost." Aid workers like to say, in moments of crisis when they are trying to persuade the Western public to support action, that there are times when there is a moral imperative to act. They are not wrong. Where they err is in imagining that either Western governments or the Western public will be willing to sacrifice as well as sympathize in response to images of nameless victims and fables of innocent, apolitical civilians. (Was it really safe to assume that none of these starving people had any politics, or that it was impossible to be, simultaneously, an Aidid supporter and a victim of the famine in Somalia?) Somalia proved the error in this sort of thinking. President Bill Clinton's idealized account of the mission was that the United States "came to Somalia to rescue innocent people in a burning house." It begged the question of how many people it is acceptable to kill in order to be able to save the people in that burning house. But even taken at face value, it made sense only as long as there were no casualties, as Clinton himself would later demonstrate, first by claiming he had never been properly briefed about the military operation to seize Aidid and then by deciding in the aftermath of the debacle to negotiate with Aidid and withdraw U.S. forces. And if the President of the United States was confused, how could the general public not be confused when the image of the American pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu seemed to trump the images of the starving Somalis? Americans had been fed a benign fairy tale, and when malign reality intruded, public as well as political pressure to get their soldiers out of this unexpected danger as quickly as possible was only to be expected. And despite other humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia (after four years of war), in Kosovo, and in East Timor, the same confusions repeat themselves over and over again. Only when humanitarianism is melded with national interest, as has been the case for most Americans with regard to the war in Afghanistan, is there likely to be any tolerance for casualties. It is for this reason that humanitarians' reliance on the power of images, and on the utopian fantasy of a global village of moral concern, is such a trap. For in reality, few people have as yet become so committed or so conscience-stricken that they are willing to sacrifice their loved ones' lives or even much of their own material comfort to aid strangers. Those who believe themselves bound by these moral imperatives - and they are the best among us - tend, if they are not actively engaged already, to get up from their chairs, turn off their television sets, and go work for a relief agency or a charity. But for all the talk of the "new" activism, and of the rise of what is rather misleadingly called civil society, such conscience-stricken people are still rare. They influence events more than in the past, but their influence is often overstated, by activists anyway. For the most part, the norm remains the same as it has been since we began to understand the limitations of the power of images. The viewer or the reader is hard pressed not to slot the sound bite from the reporter in, say, Afghanistan today into the continuum of sound bites from scenes that he or she has seen since Biafra in the 1960s; or Cambodia at the end of the 1970s; or Ethiopia in the 1980s, when the rock singer Bob Geldof's Live Aid project for the first time made celebrities of humanitarians; or Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo in the 1990s. These tragedies have not lost their power to shock, but they have become familiar, almost as if they were scripted, which in a sense they are, since the reporters who cover them, the aid workers themselves, and, perhaps, the Western public as well, have all been through these stories before. In the end, it is less a question of motives than of structures. Continue... Excerpted from A Bed For The Night by David Rieff Copyright © 2002 by David Rieff Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Section 1 Designated Consciences
1 The Humanitarian Paradoxp. 31
2 The Hazards of Charityp. 57
3 A Saving Ideap. 91
Section 2 Dreams and Realities
4 Bosniap. 123
5 Rwandap. 155
Section 3 The Death of a Good Idea
6 Kosovop. 197
7 Afghanistanp. 231
8 Endgame or Rebirth?p. 267
Conclusionp. 303
A Note on Sourcesp. 337
A Note on Major Humanitarian Organizationsp. 343
Humanitarian and International Organizationsp. 347
Acknowledgmentsp. 349
Indexp. 353