The Corner

Heartless Cynics’ Corner

I’ve just been reading Philip Gourevitch’s article “Alms Dealers” in the current New Yorker. It is mainly a review of Linda Polman’s book The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid. I haven’t read the book, but from Gourevitch’s account it sounds like the perfect Christmas present for the heartless cynic you love.

The only cause-effect dynamic that occurs to most of us when we hear the phrase “humanitarian aid” is: (1) Horrors happen somewhere, (2) They get publicized, (3) Aid workers go in, and (4) Alleviate suffering. In fact there’s much more going on than that. Polman (says Gourevitch) argues that in some cases humanitarian aid abets, or even causes, the horrors.

And then there’s what happened in Sierra Leone after the amputations brought the peace, which brought the U.N., which brought the money, which brought the N.G.O.s All of them, as Polman tells it, wanted a piece of the amputee action. It got to the point where the armless and legless had piles of extra prosthetics in their huts and still went around with their stubs exposed to satisfy the demands of press and N.G.O. photographers, who brought yet more money and more aid … Officers of the new Sierra Leone government had only to put out a hand to catch some of the cascading aid money.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of the villain in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, of whom a critic observed: “The kind of man always welcome in a tight spot, Merrick slowly comes to seem … more like the man who brings the tight spot with him.”

This passage in Gourevitch’s piece strained my credulity:

[Michael] Maren [author of a different aid-skeptical book], who came to regard humanitarianism as ever bit as damaging to its subjects as colonialism, and vastly more dishonest, takes a dimmer view: that we do not really care about those to whom we send aid, that our focus is our own virtue. He quotes these lines of the Somali poet Ali Dhux:

A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.

He works more tirelessly than even you,

But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever.

“O come on!” I thought to myself, “You made that up!” When I went looking for this Ali Dhux character on the web, I turned up this.

Doqonkii Ogaadeen ahaa Doollo laga qaadye Loo diid Dannood iyo hadduu degi lahaa Ciide Nimanbaa dalkoodiyo xukuma labadi daaroode …

Now that’s a splog if ever I saw one.

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