Monday, October 27, 2008

The Krusty the Clown theory of humanitarianism

Michael Williams takes up (verbal) arms against humanitarian organisations working in conflict-hit countries:

Once on the ground, humanitarian organisations are often there promoting western values, although they proclaim to be neutral. In realty, very few modern day humanitarian organisations are neutral. Instead, they are multimandate. This means in addition to providing humanitarian assistance (food, shelter, etc) they also work on programmes promoting the rights of women, literacy for children and sex education.

Horror of horrors.

Norm sighs at how Williams appears torn “between these concerns being a personal preference of his, and being the sort of thing you'd expect to find amongst upper-middle class white people, and being the product of 'western values'”.

Williams is clear that these concerns are, in one form or another, one that he holds dear, but hesitates to recognise their validity beyond ‘the West’: “I… believe in the rights of women, but one needs to keep in mind the cultural modernity of many of these countries where the west is involved.”

I’m not entirely sure what a ‘cultural modernity’ is, but I daresay that Afghanistan’s, for instance, would involve the fact that there are plenty of armed men there who oppose women’s rights. Whether this fact makes defending these rights more or less urgent will depend on whether keeping in mind the place’s cultural modernity is your top priority.

It seems that the ethos being proposed here is that we should (as upper-middle-class white Westerners) feel strongly and care deeply about women’s rights and the rest, but that this should not influence our actual behaviour in the countries where women find their rights the most sorely limited by a repressive (and often anything but modern) cultural modernity.

It reminds me of Krusty the Clown (from The Simpsons), who told his daughter, on declining to play with her:

I’m not really the kind of dad that does stuff, or says things, or looks at you – but the love is there.

Another oddity of Williams’s piece comes when he says:

these [humanitarian] organisations line up for government cash that further legitimises the conflicts especially in places like Iraq, even if they disagree with the focus or rationale for the intervention. Instead of challenging government about the legitimacy of their actions, they are complicit in the crime.

But hold on! I thought humanitarian organisations were supposed to stick to the food-and-shelter basics and not get involved in politics, picking sides and promoting values. Yet here Williams urges them to do just that. The difference, I suppose, is that it’s OK for them to do this when the baddies are the monstrous US and UK governments, but not when it’s just the Taliban or Saddam Hussein whose behaviour is less than ideal.


Anonymous said...

A nice piece. It used to be a standard view on the left that aid on its own is not sufficient and that it is essential to address the root causes of poverty. Now it seems that
large sections of the left see this as a neocon position.

John B said...

I wonder, if a gang of crooks hadn't used the concept of 'humanitarian intervention' as a way of buying liberal-public acceptance for their part-imperial, part-self-enriching wars, whether liberal writers in the west and the developing world alike would be less edgy about it?

Anonymous said...

I have read Conor Foley's book that Williams was reviewing and it is a depressing manifesto for inertia. In fact, the more I think about it the more reprehensible it gets.

Anonymous said...

Inertia Bob - are you serious!!!

The New York Times called it "poised to influence debate as we make the turn into a post-Bush world."

It is clearly not against humanitarian aid. It is against tying this to militarism and illegal invasions. I have not met a single humanitarian aid worker who does not agree with the sentiments contained within it.

Now we may be all wrong, but could you try and explain to us why that is, rather than imputing views which we don't have.