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A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis Hardcover – October 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Noted journalist Rieff (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West) presents a painful, urgent and penetrating discussion of a crisis most of us didn't even know existed and yet which cuts to the heart of the West's role in some of the most violent world events of the past decade. He will shake readers' complacency about the relief work done by organizations like Oxfam, CARE and Doctors without Borders, crushing the belief that humanitarian aid is a panacea for all the world's ills. Rieff rejects "the false morality play" that, in any given conflict, there are victimizers and innocent victims, and that it is always clear who is who. In Rwanda, for instance, he reports that aid workers went into refugee camps threatened with cholera-but the "victims" they helped, the Hutu refugees, were in fact the killers who had committed, and were planning to resume, the genocide of the Tutsis. Rieff's despair over such incidents is palpable, but his rage is reserved for the Western governments that fund, and exploit, the aid organizations. In his most potent chapters, Rieff excoriates the U.S. and its European allies for hiding behind a "fig leaf" in Bosnia and Rwanda, offering humanitarian aid in lieu of taking effective, i.e., military, action, to end genocide. Rieff shows how humanitarian organizations have colluded in their own exploitation by Western donor governments, as they have become confused about their mission and purpose. Originally, he explains, these groups were independent, politically neutral agents, with the limited goal of bringing relief in famine or war. But simply bringing relief-and making no change in the political and economic realities that create need-can be frustrating work. Hoping to increase their effectiveness, some aid organizations have espoused larger goals, such as human rights or even opposing oppressive governments-as in the war in Afghanistan, in which aid groups took orders from the U.S. and in effect became part of the military effort that brought down the Taliban. Much of what Rieff says will be unpalatable particularly to some on the left-for instance, his assertion that development aid creates dependency in recipient countries and that humanitarian aid is a latter-day version of the "white man's burden"; and his conviction that wars-including the war in Afghanistan-can be necessary and just. None of his criticism of humanitarian groups diminishes his admiration for those he calls "the last of the just" for their dedication and courage in aiding the needy. Still, he writes of the current state of the world, "I see little if any empirical basis for optimism." Readers may share his despair, but they will come away from this passionate, eloquent argument with a distinctly clearer understanding of the complex moral issues facing humanitarian aid in a world filled with brutality and suffering.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Rieff, a veteran journalist and author of several books (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West), has been a "witness" to several world human disasters (e.g., AIDS and the civil wars in Africa; ethnic cleansing in Bosnia) and has many doubts that the world can become an international community, such as Woodrow Wilson envisioned. His criticism of "independent humanitarianism" is that the movement is both politically na‹ve and too vulnerable to political power. Humanitarian organizations respond to human rights concerns by applying the doctrine of political neutrality and ignoring the political context of world crises, which, Rieff argues, has often resulted in greater losses of life. He cites the Red Cross's efforts in World War II to save the lives of Allied and Axis POWs while ignoring the Nazi mass murder of Jews and other minorities. He also discusses in great detail the more recent genocidal campaigns in Somalia and Rwanda, demonstrating how efforts by the United States, the United Nations, and humanitarian organizations to lessen suffering ignored the cause of the killing "a government whose raison d'etre was the infliction of suffering." In addition, he analyzes the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and implies that were it not for NATO military action and U.S. support of this, the results would have mirrored the fiascos in Africa. Finally, he discusses the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the humanitarian effort accompanying it, and he concludes that without eliminating the Taliban, attempts to diminish human suffering would be at best irrelevant. An opinionated, provocative dissent from consensus views. For most academic and larger public libraries. Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 068480977X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684809779
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #339,087 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I found this book both disappointing and frustrating.
The author will make an important point about the current state of relief work, but a coherent argument or discussion with cited sources never follows. Instead, we get the kind of sweeping, undocumented statements - "in countless academic studies," . . it was crucial to the survival of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Afghans," etc.- found in the brochures of the very relief organizations that Rieff is criticizing. No footnotes, no bibliography, but lots of opinions. In fact, this book would have been much more appropriate and effective as a series of newspaper editorial columns rather than passing itself off as a carefully documented and well-developed critique of foreign aid and relief organizations. For the latter, I would recommend Alex de Waal's Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa as a better alternative.

Also, this book is further marred by the author's self-identification and uncritical admiration of MSF. Even though Rieff trashes the book Touched By Fire as being "hagiographical," I thought it did a better job of examining the various dilemmas and internal inconsistencies and problems faced by MSF.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Kimberly Allen on February 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
The cover of this book says, "A withering, thought-provoking study." That sums it up quite well. David Rieff knows a lot about humanitarian efforts because he has spent many years living with humanitarian groups like Doctors Without Borders, The International Red Cross, and Oxfam as they worked in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. This book gives a rare inside perspective on their evolution since the Biafra crisis a few decades ago.
I came to this topic nearly a complete newcomer. Rieff's book was my introduction to humanitarianism at a deeper level than what Americans get from popular media. I had a lot to learn.
First of all, I didn't realize that there is a large difference between humanitarianism and human rights. It seems subtle and puzzling for much of the book, then comes into sharper and sharper focus. Humanitarianism means helping victims of wars, famines, and natural disasters without regard to larger issues, especially political ones. It is a pure offer of help without judgment or agenda. Human rights is by definition a judgmental term-- it means defending a group's dignity, sovereignty, or health because they are deserving of such rights. It implies that others may not be deserving. It is totally different from humanitarianism.
Humanitarians may find themselves giving aid to murderers, as they did in Rwanda when the same Hutus who had slain so many Tutsis became victims themselves in a reverse genocide. Humanitarians may also act to prop up dictators by giving aid to the people the dictator is repressing, making the situation look less dire (and giving him little reason to throw scraps to his subjects to avoid revolution). Applying the concept of human rights in these situations might change the way aid is distributed.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Kindle Customer on April 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
--The reviewer is a peace operations analyst in Washington DC.--
David Rieff admits he wrote this book in the shadows of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Having covered some of the world's greatest humanitarian disasters, featuring ethnic cleansing and genocide, it should be acknowledged that Mr. Rieff is an impressive character. On balance, however, this book can leave a reader thinking it may not be such a good idea to let people like Mr. Rieff write books until they've unwound a bit in some nice little corner of the world.
Nevertheless, this is a good book for people interested in humanitarianism and peace operations in general. Many people in those fields probably will not like the book all that much, but it is a good thing to read books that annoy you--they make you think. This book is successful at both tasks. The concerns with this book should stem from what seem to be passionately held but nonetheless shaky arguments and logic. All too often, Mr. Rieff arrives at conclusions that mystify, often in the midst of otherwise thoughtful discussion.
One of Mr. Rieff's main contentions is that humanitarianism has made a mistake by seeking to support solutions to the crises that afflict humanity. In others words, Mr. Rieff seems to think it is a bad idea to try working within the reality of any given situation. Humanitarian organizations should instead presumably go on working to help the victims, but should not worry about trying to find solutions to the problems that created the victims. A reasonable person might quibble with that. Has it not always been the human endeavor to work to better our conditions?
A reader will no doubt ask what kind of sense does it make to avoid solutions?
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By David Shorr on February 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Rieff casts himself as a reluctant pessimist who doubts that humanitarian relief aid can do anything more than attend to the immediate needs of the tempest-tossed. Given that reality, Rieff feels that a traditional, neutral humanitarianism is the only option. He shows all the pitfalls of humanitarian action that adjusts to the political dynamics of local conflicts or aligns itself with donor governments. Rieff's perspective is a challenging one and a warning against humanitarian hubris. Still, while we must avoid thinking we can solve the world's ills, humanitarianism that deals purely with symptoms is even more prone to unintended consequences than aid efforts tailored to the realities on the ground.
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