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The agonizing complications of charity

Are international aid workers inadvertently creating a culture of dependency among their beneficiaries?

By Peter I. Rose / October 31, 2002

A few people have a bed for the night

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For a night the wind is kept from them

The snow meant for them falls on the roadway

But it won't change the world

It won't improve relations among men

It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

These words by Bertolt Brecht are evocative, depressing, and, according to David Rieff, realistic. They offer a terse summary of the thesis of this new book on the paradoxes involved in providing aid to the dispossessed.

Rieff is a journalist and a perceptive sociologist. His earlier reports from the field include "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World"; "Going to Miami: Exiles"; "Tourists and Refugees in the New America"; and a devastating critique of foreign policy, "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West." Now, with the publication of "A Bed for the Night," Rieff tackles the dilemmas of humanitarian assistance.

He begins by stating an unpleasant truth: No matter how pure their motives, aid workers, in trying to do good, may quite unwittingly do considerable harm. He asks his readers to ponder such questions as: "Are they [the aid givers] serving as logicians or medics for some warlord's war effort (as they probably are in the Sudan)? Are they creating a culture of dependency among their beneficiaries? And are they being used politically by virtue of the way government donors and UN agencies give them funds and direct them toward certain places while making it difficult for them to go to others?"

Such queries address the unintended consequences of social actions. Along these very lines, Rieff notes that many promoters of humanitarian intervention fail to realize that in their noble efforts they often inadvertently turn adult victims into children and then turn those infantilized adults into saints. This apotheosis is both misguided and disingenuous. As he rightly says, people fleeing from political conflict may be victims, but they are not necessarily innocent victims.

Rieff's book is set in the context of an old debate about the politics and morality of aid policy, in which realpolitik is often in conflict with altruistic proclivities. The dilemma is resolved only when the two converge, as in the recent response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and America's swift action in Afghanistan. Most of the time, however, politics and economics trump humanitarianism, or bend its agents to the will of politicians.

Rieff details the deep cultural roots of the notion of charity and the motivations for giving and helping, tied both to religious obligations and the sort of imperialistic sense of noblesse oblige so starkly stated by Kipling in "The White Man's Burden": "Fill full the mouth of Famine/ And bid the sickness cease/ Watch Sloth and Heathen Folly/ Bring all your hope to naught."

Modern efforts to bring succor, salvation, and enlightenment - and, more recently, democracy - to Asians and Africans in the postcolonial era indicate the still-operative legacy of intertwined ideologies.