THE FRONTIERS OF AID
Humanitarian aid is distributed in murky places run by the powerful. Should we accept any moral compromises made as necessary to save lives?
In the First Epistle of John it says:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:17)
As usual, the logic of scripture is searching and unsparing. If we claim to love God we should demonstrate this in action. John’s words speak of personal responsibility but it is only by acting together that we are able to make a significant difference, which is why the work of aid agencies is so valuable. Once we act globally, however, the moral dilemmas grow as we encounter people and politics which makes it harder to keep clean hands.
The aid industry has expanded rapidly in the last three decades. In 1980 there were around forty NGOs (non-governmental organisations) dealing with Cambodian refugees on the Thai border. By 2004 there were 2,500 involved in Afghanistan. During the nasty proxy wars of the Cold War era it was hard for aid agencies to get near the action. Recent allegations that Band Aid money was used to arm rebels in Ethiopia rather than feed the starving in 1985 has caused controversy and met with a characteristically implacable response from Bob Geldof. A lot is at stake in a debate like this, because the symbolism of Band Aid has guided the moral thinking of a generation.
Another example of moral ambiguity is found in the Rwandan genocide. After the Hutu militia had massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsi, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) chased them into neighbouring Congo. The genocide in Rwanda was not captured on film and most people found it hard to believe what they were being told about the scale of the massacre. By contrast, the mind-boggling exodus of 1.2 million Hutu refugees into Congo in just two days and the resultant makeshift refugee camps were caught on film. When cholera spread it became clear the world had a major humanitarian crisis on its hands. The following initiative saved the lives of many of the Hutu killers, enabling them to regroup against the RPF. So was the humanitarian effort right or wrong? Should humanitarian relief be ‘blind’ to whom it is assisting in the way the law is supposed to be ‘blind’ in the administration of justice?
Dutch journalist Linda Polman has recently produced a fiercely sceptical critique of the modern aid industry in War Games: the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. She contends that when aid organisations do not discriminate between those they might assist that it is the powerful rather than the needy who benefit because the nature of the war zone favours their malice and opportunism.
I am not highlighting these issues as a way of inhibiting our sense of duty to those in need. The humanitarian impulse, rooted in our God-given human character, is a wonderfully creative, life-giving and moving instinct. Without it our world would be a profoundly darker place. Yet we also have a Christian responsibility to understand, as far as we are able, the causes of the symptoms we are treating so that we are wise stewards of the resources God has given us, furnishing the best care we can in a murky world.
It would be unattractively self-regarding of us not to give aid because some of it lands in the wrong hands when we know that most of it saves lives. Yet in raising funds for aid in war zones we would be disingenuous if we claimed none of it is siphoned off. The humanitarian industry is evolving rapidly and we should offer critical friendship over the development of its structures as well cheerful generosity in its resourcing. Faced with the bewildering and insidious nature of evil and suffering we all need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?