The Inhuman Side of Humanitarianism

Philip Gourevitch is a writer for the New Yorker, and a student of foreign affairs, including wars. In the Oct.11 issue of the magazine, he published a stunning piece, “Alms Dealers,” which demands the attention of every one who ever wanted to give money or time to help someone in distress far away, or even nearby. It is especially salient and urgent for Quakers concerned with the transfer of cash from US Quaker groups to churches and projects in Kenya.

In the article, Gourevitch charts the rise of the “humanitarianism industry” from modest beginnings before the late 1960s, to its multi-billion multinational heyday, which happens to be right now. He does this by reviewing several books by international journalists which take a close and critical look at this industry.

There are many shocking stories in these accounts; the all-too common theft and embezzlement that so preoccupy queasy Friends like myself are the least of it. Much more sinister, even deadly, are the reports of many occasions when “refugee camps” run by NGOs or the UN near war zones have been infiltrated by warlords and turned into havens for militias planning more warfare and terror, and turning the “humanitarian” sponsors into captive cash cows, supporting the preparations for war under the guise of relieving its ravages. Furthermore, the books, and the review, both point out that this huge “industry” is entirely unregulated and unsupervised.

Such charges as these in the pages of as prestigious a journal as the New Yorker are bound to elicit responses, and on the magazine’s website, the feedback is fast and furious. Gourevitch has a major response, with links to some critical letters, here.

As Gourevitch notes,

. . . humanitarianism is an industry. So we should examine it and hold it to account as such. To treat humanitarian or human-rights organizations with automatic deference, as if they were disinterested higher authorities rather than activists and lobbyists with political and institutional interests and biases, and with uneven histories of reliability or success, is to do ourselves, and them, a disservice. That does not mean—as the many books I reviewed, and many more still, make clear—taking a hostile stance toward N.G.O.s. It simply means not accepting their hostility to critical scrutiny. It means not letting them claim to do our work for us. It means insisting on asking the questions for which they may have no good answers.

On our vastly smaller scale, Quakers can make no less searching demands of those who ask us to send our limited funds far away, in order to do good, and fulfill the claims of the gospel.

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