Since Biafra, humanitarianism has become the idea, and the practice, that dominates Western response to other people’s wars and natural disasters; of late, it has even become a dominant justification for Western war-making. Biafra was where many of the leaders of what de Waal calls the “humanitarian international” got their start, and the Biafra airlift provided the industry with its founding legend, “an unsurpassed effort in terms of logistical achievement and sheer physical courage,” de Waal writes. It is remembered as it was lived, as a cause célèbre—John Lennon and Jean-Paul Sartre both raised their fists for the Biafrans—and the food the West sent certainly did save lives. Yet a moral assessment of the Biafra operation is far from clear-cut.
After the secessionist government was finally forced to surrender and rejoin Nigeria, in 1970, the predicted genocidal massacres never materialized. Had it not been for the West’s charity, the Nigerian civil war surely would have ended much sooner. Against the lives that the airlifted aid saved must be weighed all those lives—tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands—that were lost to the extra year and a half of destruction. But the newborn humanitarian international hardly stopped to reflect on this fact. New crises beckoned—most immediately, in Bangladesh—and who can know in advance whether saving lives will cost even more lives? The crisis caravan rolled on. Its mood was triumphalist, and to a large degree it remains so.
Michael Maren stumbled into the aid industry in the nineteen-seventies by way of the Peace Corps. “In the post-Vietnam world, the Peace Corps offered us an opportunity to forge a different kind of relationship with the Third World, one based on respect,” he writes. But he soon began to wonder how respectful it is to send Western kids to tell the elders of ancient agrarian cultures how to feed themselves better. As he watched professional humanitarians chasing contracts to implement policies whose harm they plainly saw, he came to regard his colleagues as a new breed of mercenaries: soldiers of misfortune. Yet, David Rieff notes, “for better or worse, by the late 1980s humanitarianism had become the last coherent saving ideal.”
How is it that humanitarians so readily deflect accountability for the negative consequences of their actions? “Humanitarianism flourishes as an ethical response to emergencies not just because bad things happen in the world, but also because many people have lost faith in both economic development and political struggle as ways of trying to improve the human lot,” the social scientist Craig Calhoun observes in his contribution to a new volume of essays, “Contemporary States of Emergency,” edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (Zone; $36.95). “Humanitarianism appeals to many who seek morally pure and immediately good ways of responding to suffering in the world.” Or, as the Harvard law professor David Kennedy writes in “The Dark Sides of Virtue” (2004), “Humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be.”
Maren, who came to regard humanitarianism as every 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.”
*I stole the phrase “humanitarian imperialism” from this Noam Chomsky article, which is also worth your time.