How humanitarianism became political and went off to war…(2)

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), pp. 13-14.

Western public opinion has a short attention span and humanitarian organizations involved in advocacy will always face problems trying to maintain public interest in particular crises. The probable solution to the Darfur crisis will be either a decisive military victory by one side over the other or a negotiated settlement involving mutual compromise. Exaggerating the scale of the atrocities committed or portraying the conflict as a Manichean struggle between good and evil will clearly do more harm than good, but downgrading it to just another horrible, messy African civil war lessens the moral pressure on the general public to care about such situations, or to make donations to aid agencies trying to relieve the suffering. For humanitarian organizations that rely on fundraising appeals to carry out their work, this dilemma has some obvious practical consequences.

In April 2003, shortly before I went to Afghanistan, I attended a meeting in London involving most of the major international humanitarian NGOs with British offices. The war in Iraq was ending and attention turning towards the post-war reconstruction effort. A high-ranking official from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) gave an off-the-record briefing about what this would entail. He announced that the British government had earmarked £210 million for the reconstruction of the country and that it would be encouraging bids from humanitarian agencies. A shocked silence ensued as it dawned on everyone that this amount was double DFID’s entire humanitarian relief budget of two years previously. The silence was followed by embarrassed shuffling as people started to speak. The world’s second-largest potential producer of oil is not a natural candidate for humanitarian assistance and everyone knew there were far greater areas of need elsewhere. We also knew that this assistance was being given for political reasons: to shore up support for a controversial invasion. Nevertheless, virtually no agency wished to rule itself out of receiving project funding, as they began to make clear in their presentations.


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