BiafraThe Trouble With Aid was a formidable achievement on the part of its creators. An analysis of the rise of humanitarianism, it exposed the many incidents in which aid work has complicated rather than solving problems: from Biafra, where offerings of Westerners strengthened secessionist forces and extended the war, to Somalia, where charities called for troops to protect their convoys and were answered by American forces who promptly worsened the conflict.

A veteran of aid work commented that many saw their humanitarian efforts as being comparable to fighting in a war in which you did not have to kill anyone. Children of the 60s strode off into the third world to fight. Suffering was their foe, and food and funds were the materiel with which they hoped to battle it. It is striking, indeed, how their rhetoric could mirror that of warmongers: crises demanded an urgency that sometimes obscured the need for realism; enemies were so dangerous and appalling that attempts to construct nuanced analyses of their causes and forms was almost disreputable; arresting their consequences was a simple matter of trying to directly remove them.

These saviour narratives, however, could result in their blinding themselves to complex political and social realities. In Ethiopia, for example, the oppressive government made charities complicit in a brutal resettlement programme that masqueraded as humanitarian assistance. Estimates suggest that between fifty and a hundred thousand people died as the result of actions Bob Geldof somehow never had the time to say “fuck” over.

To the doubters, brash humanitarians like the almost Hitchensian Geldof had a blunt moralistic response: we’re trying to help starving kids; what are you doing? While many of the blunders of charities were consequences of well-meaning people being understandably ignorant of situations that had never been encountered there was also a streak of egotism running through them. A red-faced Bernard Kouchner yelled at the filmmakers that intervention in Somalia was worthwhile if it saved even one child. Hundreds of people, which doubtless included children, died in the violence that resulted from that intervention.

Things had become even more dangerous as the line between humanitarians and militarists disappeared. Aid workers, faced with rebels and dictators instead of famines and floods, presumed that Western military power was a convenient tool with which to solve crises. They soon realised, however, that it was impossible to control and liable to have an effect more comparable to a backhoe than a surgical instrument. The faith in the power of military intervention – which, I should admit, counted me among its believers for a short period years ago – persists in the celebrities whose eyes grow moist over Darfur and the teens who share indictments of Joseph Kony.

In New York a policeman became famous for buying a pair of shoes for a cold homeless man. The tramp, however, did not actually wear them. He feared that someone might kill him in an effort to steal them. If such apparently simple generosity can have such complicated underpinnings it should not surprise us that crises involving millions of people in societies with significant and often unfamiliar political and cultural peculiarities are hard to understand and dangerous to negotiate. The Trouble With Aid was a necessary reminder that the sentiment that inspires people to do good in our world must be allied to realism that ensures that good intentions do not in fact lead to harm.

A final thought. I wonder if the rise of humanitarian thought has focused our efforts on ameliorating conditions in places where the worst suffering can be found at the expense of the places where the most good might be done. Staggering resources have been expended in attempts to change some of the worst dictatorships and theocracies of the world but these are also places where it’s hardest to do good. In the meantime, stable if struggling nations risk being denied the ideas and support that could aid them in developing their economies, securing their resources, stabilising their demographics and giving future generations the chance for a better standard of life or, at least, a better chance of avoiding the sort of catastrophes that might inspire belated responses. Ultimately, micronutrient interventions and family planning might not sound as romantic as ending wars and toppling tyrants but they seem more liable to effect positive change.

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