When Help Becomes a Problem | Freedom House

When Help Becomes a Problem

The Wall Street Journal By Adrian Karatnycky
The humanitarian impulse is as old as man, and little wonder. The world is rarely without famine, malnutrition, poverty or violence. The innocent suffer, and a desire naturally arises among people, and nations, to do something. But what, exactly, is to be done?

That question is at the heart of "A Bed for the Night" (Simon & Schuster, 367 pages, $26), David Rieff's withering, thought-provoking study of the many ways in which today's humanitarian efforts, however well-intentioned, exceed their reach and find themselves beset by problems of their own making.

Too often, Mr. Rieff believes, humanitarian groups muster public support by simplifying complex ethno-political conflicts. They paint a picture of innocent victims pursued by evil persecutors when in truth among those "innocent" victims are perpetrators of their own atrocities. What is more, aid workers use the rhetoric of human rights -- including "social" and "economic" rights -- to justify their cause, when it is all but impossible to enforce such abstractions in the dire circumstances where aid is needed. Worst of all, relief organizations allow themselves to become entangled with governments and their self-serving political agendas.

Mr. Rieff is especially critical of the relief community's role in Kosovo, where humanitarian groups were used to justify a massive military intervention in Serbia and, he charges, surrendered their independence by uncritically carrying out the instructions of the West and its militaries. He also castigates humanitarian groups in Rwanda in 1994 for providing moral cover for Western governmental inaction: A rapidly accelerating genocide was portrayed for far too long as a mere humanitarian problem.

Mr. Rieff would prefer that aid groups be truly neutral, that they serve limited ends and, most important, that they separate themselves from any grand moral claims and from governments.

Such a view is at times compelling, but Mr. Rieff almost fetishizes the idea of humanitarian neutrality and independence. He seems to believe that all governments -- including democracies -- are mere networks of cynical calculation, self-interest and amorality whose true purposes are masked from the naive do-gooders who act with their support. From this perspective, to cooperate with a government -- particularly with the U.S. -- is to diminish the moral clarity of humanitarianism and compromise what limited good it can do.

But this argument goes too far. Mr. Rieff ignores the morally compelling case for democracy as a mechanism for preventing human disasters, and he ignores the salutary trend in global affairs toward political openness. In recent decades a zone of democratic stability has grown beyond Western Europe, North America and Japan to include swaths of East Asia and Africa and much of Latin America and East Central Europe.

As Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, has argued, democratic societies foster the kind of accountability (and transparency) that prevents the emergence of man-made catastrophes. It is Mr. Sen's belief that democracies are unlikely to breed famine or to permit the violent abuses that require humanitarian intervention in the first place. A strong case can be made that democratic governments, in the struggle to better mankind's condition and alleviate suffering, are natural allies of the nongovernmental groups that supply aid. But for Mr. Rieff such an alliance merely betrays humanitarian principles.

Leo Cherne, one of America's most important humanitarian activists in the years of the Cold War, took quite a different view of collaboration with democratic governments. He is now the subject of "Rescuing the World" (SUNY Press, 223 pages, $26.50), an engaging biography by Andrew F. Smith.

True, Cherne (who died in 1999) fiercely defended the independence of his own group, the International Rescue Committee, but he was really the quintessential American insider. Mr. Smith shows how Cherne cajoled friends in the corridors of power to help open America's doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Such advocacy mirrored Cherne's famous efforts in 1956, when he emerged as the principal advocate for refugees fleeing the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution.

Cherne, the son of Moldovan Jews, founded one of the first companies to produce economic and tax analysis (the Research Institute of America) before establishing the rescue committee. Under Ronald Reagan and George Bush, he served on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. And he was for many years a fixture on television and elsewhere in the media, holding forth on global politics and predicting international trends without reserve. In short, he was unapologetic about taking political stances on key issues and working closely with the U.S. government to advance the humanitarian agenda.

Shaped by two great wars and the twin scourges of fascism and communism, Cherne knew that humanitarian efforts were powerless without government backing. And he believed that the U.S. and other democracies -- despite occasional missteps and indifference -- were a global force for good.

Mr. Karatnycky is president of Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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