A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, by David Rieff Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2002) Price: $26.00
During the 1990s, the world bore witness to a startling number of atrocities, from the much-publicized massacres in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda, to the lesser known civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sudan, which themselves claimed millions. To David Rieff, author of books such as Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West and an experienced journalist who extensively covered Bosnia and Rwanda, the world is a place where literally billions suffer with little reason for hope. "Human rights" and "international community" are ideas with good intentions, but with little substance or weight behind them. For Rieff, the aid worker is one of the last remaining noble forces amidst this brutality. The aid worker brings food, care, and hope to both innocent and guilty alike in the worst of circumstances. Quoting one aid worker, Rieff defines traditional humanitarianism as "an effort to bring a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist." (1)
Because he holds the principles and acts of humanitarianism in such high regard, Rieff is deeply disturbed by the increased politicization of humanitarianism and the military interventions undertaken in its name in the 1990s. David Rieff's A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis is an emotionally raw and deeply personal argument that humanitarian organizations must be free from the constraints of the demands of donor governments and the broader ideological concerns of the human rights or "good governance" movements. Humanitarianism must be free to simply aid those in need. In making this argument, the book provides a view into the politics and subculture of humanitarian aid organizations, from the International Red Cross (IRC) to Doctors Without Borders (MSF); it takes as its examples the humanitarian crises of the 1990s, from Bosnia to Afghanistan.
By the end of the Cold War, many in Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, viewed humanitarianism as "the last coherent saving ideal." (2) The almost religious belief of humanitarianism's adherents is that, despite all the cruel evidence in the history of the world to the contrary, human beings are not meant to suffer. However, while humanitarianism may be a noble ideal, it lacks coherence as a moral or political system. The reality is that aid enables a person to survive...