David Rieff, Skeptical on Forcible Humanitarian Intervention in Burma

David Rieff, Skeptical on Forcible Humanitarian Intervention in Burma

My dear friend and sometimes co-author, David Rieff, has an opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times, evincing great skepticism about calls for outside military intervention to deliver aid in Burma. “Save Us From the Rescuers, LA Times Opinion, May 18, 2007.

The piece is closely related to Kevin’s post citing John Boonstra’s concerns that the meaning of “responsibility to protect” is being shifted in the current discussions.

David has many concerns, some about forcible humanitarian intervention generally, some about R2P, and some about the nature of aid groups. David never hesitates to speak his mind – he is the most forthright public intellectual I know – but I don’t suppose everyone is going to be very happy about his views of the aid groups:

Surely, to oppose this sort of humanitarian entitlement is a failure of empathy and perhaps even an act of moral cowardice.

This has been the master narrative of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. It has dominated the speeches of officials and most of the media coverage, which has been imbued with an almost pornographic catastrophism in which aid agencies and journalists seem to be trying to outdo each other in the apocalyptic quality of their predictions. First, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, without having left the city, told reporters that though only 22,000 people had been confirmed dead, she thought the toll could rise as high as 100,000. A few days later, Oxfam was out with its estimate of 1.5 million people being at risk from water-borne diseases — without ever explaining how it arrived at such an extraordinarily alarming estimate.

In reality, no one yet knows what the death toll from the cyclone is, let alone how resilient the survivors will be. One thing is known, however, and that is that in crisis after crisis, from the refugee emergency in eastern Zaire after the Rwandan genocide, through the Kosovo crisis, to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the 2004 South Asian tsunami, many of the leading aid agencies, Oxfam prominent among them, have predicted far more casualties than there would later turn out to have been.

In part, this is because relief work is, in a sense, a business, and humanitarian charities are competing with every other sort of philanthropic cause for the charitable dollar and euro, and thus have to exaggerate to be noticed. It is also because coping with disasters for a living simply makes the worst-case scenario always seem the most credible one, and, honorably enough, relief workers feel they must always be prepared for the worst.

But whatever the motivations, it is really no longer possible to take the relief community’s apocalyptic claims seriously. It has wrongly cried wolf too many times.

We should be skeptical of the aid agencies’ claims that, without their intervention, an earthquake or cyclone will be followed by an additional disaster of equal scope because of disease and hunger. The fact is that populations in disaster zones tend to be much more resilient than foreign aid groups often make them out to be. And though the claim that only they can prevent a second catastrophe is unprovable, it serves the agencies’ institutional interests — such interventions are, after all, the reason they exist in the first place.

With respect to the bona fides of aid groups, I both respect them but also think that they benefit from a remarkable intellectual ‘pass’ by scholars and analysts with respect to public choice theory, their incentives and disincentives. If one percent of the intellectual skepticism deployed, quite rightly, by the academic and policy community toward the business world were deployed toward the aid industry, the nonprofit world, foundations and philanthropy, their sources of funding, their ideological predilections, conflicts of interest, forms of governance, accountability, etc., well, the scholarly enterprise, at least, would look quite different. One need not envision conspiracy theories to understand, and think it worth study, that all these groups have interests which ought plainly to be stated and studied.

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