A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

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9780743252119: A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

Timely and controversial, A Bed for the Night reveals how humanitarian organizations are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose. Drawing on firsthand reporting from war zones around the world, David Rieff shows us what aid workers do in the field and the growing gap between their noble ambitions and their actual capabilities for alleviating suffering. He describes how many humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of neutrality, which gave them access to victims, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing. By calling for intervention, humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best - alleviate suffering - they must reclaim their independence.

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About the Author:

David Rieff is the author of eight previous books, including Swimming in a Sea of Death, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis; and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: The Humanitarian Paradox

You are the prosperous citizen of a prosperous country. In practice, this means you are almost certainly a citizen of the United States, Canada, Japan, or one of the countries of the European Union. It also means that, in global terms, you belong to a minority group, at most no more than a tenth of the world's population, and probably a good deal less. Of course, it is a minority of privilege, not of oppression. You, or, to be more accurate, we (I belong to this group too), have the habit of spending at least part of your mornings reading a decent broadsheet newspaper and part of most evenings watching your national television news program. The particular newspaper or TV broadcast is not all that relevant to the scenario that I am trying to construct. After all, when viewed from the perspective of Central Africa, or the slums of Rio de Janeiro, or the jungles of the southern Philippines, or the mountains of Afghanistan, the differences between The New York Times and Le Monde, CNN and TV España, don't amount to very much. What counts is that your habit of reading a newspaper and, above all, of watching the news on television means that you voluntarily expose yourself on a regular basis to at least some of the most horrible things taking place in the world.

If there is a refugee crisis in Burundi, a famine in Somalia, or a war in the Balkans, the fact that you are a faithful consumer of the news will lead to your being confronted by at least some tiny corner of them. To be sure, that exposure is usually both fleeting and superficial. To anyone who knows a subject in any depth, television news, even at its best, seems like reality doled out with an eye-dropper for someone assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. Nowhere is this more true than in the coverage of humanitarian crises, in large measure because no other story that gets any airtime or major newspaper attention at all is so dependably unfamiliar. Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan -- these are places that capture the attention of mainstream, nonspecialist journalists only when a disaster is taking place.

That in itself is a recipe for distortion and misapprehension. The idea that we live in a "global village" was first popularized by the Canadian futurist Marshall McLuhan and then repeated ad nauseam during the great stock market bubble of the 1990s in the form of paeans to globalization and the new "wired" world. This cliché is true and false at the same time. It is true that we have unprecedented access to information thanks to television and the Internet. But it is false that this information necessarily means we understand what we are seeing in any usable way. You can know that there is a famine in southern Sudan. You can wish that it weren't happening, and hope that something will be done about it. But what do you understand about southern Sudan from the images of horror and want that you see on your television screen? Just that there is horror and want, nothing else. You are watching something take place in southern Sudan, but apart from the fact that the people are black, how do you distinguish what you are seeing from something going on in Afghanistan, or East Timor, or Central America? There is horror, but no context, and therefore as much mystification as information results from this new way of accessing the world's tragedies.

The average international story on national television news in the United States lasts one minute and twenty seconds. On that basis alone, it appears almost inevitable that there will be misreporting, even if inadvertent, on the journalist's side and misunderstanding on the viewer's. In Europe, the rhythm is slightly less impatient and commercially driven, but even there such stories rarely clock in at more than three minutes. And what can one say in eighty or ninety seconds or in three minutes? Perhaps it is easier to predict what one cannot say. It is difficult to say something original; it is difficult to explain anything in depth; and it is difficult not to fall into the same clichés about humanitarian disasters that were employed during the last disaster, thus leaching the crisis one is covering of all its tragic specificity. You, the viewer, are not in Afghanistan, Cambodia, or Bosnia so much as you are in humanitarian-tragedy land -- a world of wicked warlords, suffering and innocent victims, and noble aid workers. And whether you know why or not, you have the distinct impression that you have been there before.

It could hardly be otherwise. Given the way humanitarian emergencies are covered, what other impression can the viewer retain but the feeling that out there in the poor world there is a planet of sufferers? The television camera operator's stock-in-trade in a famine or a war is the close-up -- the focus on the baby in the aid worker's arms, the child with flies lighting on her face, the vultures slyly approaching the rotting corpse of the dead militiaman. But the effect on the viewer is to encourage him or her to see this world in long shot. He or she becomes unable to differentiate one person in pain from another, much as someone standing on a high hill will have trouble making out the physiognomy of people in the valley below.

To point this out is not to blame either the media or the audience, let alone the aid workers, whose symbiotic relationship with the media is one of their greatest challenges. These crises are far away and difficult to understand, and human beings are not solidarity machines or professional carers, however much we might wish it otherwise. It is not even clear that if the media were given more time and resources, were permitted to be more deliberate and more serious, people could cope psychologically or morally with the reality of the poor world in all its horror, rage, and complexity. To sympathize in the way that the television images invite us all to do is not difficult. It is with the question of how that sympathy can be translated into action that the problems arise. Does having seen images of starving babies really allow people to come to any kind of informed view about whether there should be an airlift of food, or political engagement, or even a military intervention? And even assuming that the atrocious images of famine do provoke a military intervention, as was the case in Somalia in 1992, is it not inevitable that the public will be utterly unprepared for that intervention to have costs other than financial ones?

In Somalia, this battle of images was soon joined. First there were the images of the famine. As Philip Johnston, former president of the relief group CARE USA, put it in his memoir, Somalia Diary, "Television brought home the urgency of Somalia's tragedy, translating a faraway crisis into a story of human beings who were days, perhaps hours, away from death." As an example of this, he cited an ABC report in which the reporter described a young Somali girl who was "little more than a walking skeleton." As Johnston writes, the point of the story was clear: "As long as marauders kept food from reaching those who needed it most, relief workers would have nothing to offer the most vulnerable."

Johnston's own role in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia was extraordinarily important. Some aid workers believe that he was the driving force behind the militarization of the humanitarian aid effort in the country and the eventual decision by the U.S. government to send in military forces. At the time, he said that if necessary we would "have to fight the Somalis themselves" to make sure the aid got delivered. But what is noteworthy about Johnston's account is something that has become an integral part of the humanitarian repertory, even in crises where there is no question of military force being deployed. His account of the media's role in helping make the American public aware of the crisis is largely devoid of historical context, geographical specificity, and even any real personalization. There is a starving girl, unnamed; there are marauders, unidentified; and there are relief workers, also unspecified. When Johnston speaks approvingly of the media's ability to turn a faraway crisis into a story of human beings, it is hard not to feel that he means human beings in the generic sense. After all, there are no real individuals in the story -- only victims, victimizers, and relief workers who want to help and urgently need the means, which for Johnston at the time meant military force to escort the relief convoys and fight the Somalis who preyed on them.

Johnston was successful in persuading the United Nations to take a more militarized approach to the crisis, and in getting the administration of George Bush senior to commit U.S. troops. And the result was almost inevitable: He who lives by the image, dies by the image. Because of the sympathy these images Johnston approved of had evoked, the American public supported the decision to intervene. Such sympathy may license actions that cost money; it never licenses actions that cost lives. The American public thought its troops were in Somalia on a humanitarian mission -- that is, to do good, not to kill, and certainly not to get killed. And yet to the leading Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, the U.S. troops were there to thwart his effort to seize power. From his perspective, their mission was political -- that is, to attack him.

And attack they did. But while Aidid could never match the military power of the United States, his fighters in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, soon proved that they were more than a match for the Americans in resolve and determination. On October 3, 1993, they responded to the attempt of American elite forces to seize two of Aidid's lieutenants by shooting down two American helicopters, killing eighteen U.S. soldiers and wounding seventy-seven others. That evening, American television viewers were shocked to see jubilant Somalis dragging the naked bodies of two American helicopter pilots through the dust of Mogadishu. That image far outweighed the im...

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Descripción Simon Schuster Ltd, United Kingdom, 2003. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Timely and controversial, A Bed for the Night reveals how humanitarian organizations are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose. Drawing on firsthand reporting from war zones around the world, David Rieff shows us what aid workers do in the field and the growing gap between their noble ambitions and their actual capabilities for alleviating suffering. He describes how many humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of neutrality, which gave them access to victims, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing. By calling for intervention, humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best -- alleviate suffering -- they must reclaim their independence. Nº de ref. de la librería AAV9780743252119

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Descripción Simon Schuster Ltd, United Kingdom, 2003. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.Timely and controversial, A Bed for the Night reveals how humanitarian organizations are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose. Drawing on firsthand reporting from war zones around the world, David Rieff shows us what aid workers do in the field and the growing gap between their noble ambitions and their actual capabilities for alleviating suffering. He describes how many humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of neutrality, which gave them access to victims, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing. By calling for intervention, humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best -- alleviate suffering -- they must reclaim their independence. Nº de ref. de la librería AAV9780743252119

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Descripción Simon & Schuster. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Paperback. 400 pages. Dimensions: 8.5in. x 5.5in. x 1.0in.Timely and controversial, A Bed for the Night reveals how humanitarian organizations are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose. Drawing on firsthand reporting from war zones around the world, David Rieff shows us what aid workers do in the field and the growing gap between their noble ambitions and their actual capabilities for alleviating suffering. He describes how many humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of neutrality, which gave them access to victims, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing. By calling for intervention, humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best - alleviate suffering - they must reclaim their independence. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Nº de ref. de la librería 9780743252119

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