Rieff's 'Bed for the Night': The dangers of doing good

October 20, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | By Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, by David Rieff. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $26.

With the post-Sept. 11 world in turmoil -- Zimbabweans starving, Afghanistan in tatters, Israelis and Palestinians at continuing war -- David Rieff has written a timely tome on the relief workers who try to salve those huge collective wounds. But his work is no simple paean to heroes. Those who try to help in the face of disaster are, he says, being used.

Chronicling humanitarian efforts in crises from the Nigerian-Biafran war in the 1960s to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan last year, Rieff shows the evolution of international nongovernmental relief organizations from independent actors to advocates whose work is increasingly political, hand in hand with the policies of Western governments that in turn help pay for them to save lives.

There are good reasons for such "mission creep," and Rieff is adept at explaining them -- even as he ultimately disagrees. To aid workers, the intractable corruption, poverty and feeble infrastructure of the world's most desperate places make it nearly impossible to make a lasting difference. Instead of providing a bed for the night, why not make the world better?

But Rieff argues through examples, from Somalia to Rwanda to Kosovo, that ensuring human rights around the globe is simply beyond "the competence" of humanitarian agencies. When they try to go beyond what they know best -- easing immediate suffering -- relief workers, along with the governments that work with them, may end up making things worse.

Particularly thought-provoking is Rieff's depiction of the moral quagmire aid workers faced during the genocide in Rwanda, in which victims and murderers, both groups too numerous to count, switched places midstream. His chronicling of the irony of the U.S.-sponsored food drops in Afghanistan -- in yellow packages the same color as the bombs being dropped -- shows plainly how a humanitarian project can lose credibility when it provides sheep's clothing for a military operation.

With the important ideas it contains, it's too bad that Rieff's writing here is turgid and stiff, and that his conclusion lacks a blueprint for how relief organizations might use his argument for a better way of doing business.

While A Bed for the Night deserves a wider audience, it's likely to put off readers who aren't intensely interested policy-makers, aid workers or academics. Exhaustive reporting, while lending authority to Rieff's thesis, bogs down the text with too many characters, attributions and acronyms. Rieff spends too much time exploring the inconsistencies of the "language" of humanitarians who have branched into advocacy to improve the world, and not nearly enough on exactly how relief organizations should go about their work independently in an age of extremely conflicted loyalties.

Though Rieff notes that he spent 10 years researching the book in war zones around the world, his prose is strangely distant, often relying on after-the-fact reports. Voices of the people who live in war zones where humanitarian organizations have done their work, whose opinions should be of central interest in this debate, are absent. One longs for a more vivid picture of humanitarian dilemmas as they occurred, since hindsight -- especially in the field of relief work -- is ever so much clearer than vision in the fog of war.

Kate Shatzkin is a Sun reporter who has covered the working of nonprofit institutions. In her 12 years as a journalist, she has also written about courts, crime and social issues.

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