February 26, 2003: Reading Room

Itinerant journalist
David Rieff ’78 examines the role of humanitarian aid workers in war-torn regions

Photo: Rieff has written widely on war, genocide, human rights, humanitarian aid, the United Nations, and immigration.

Although journalist and political analyst David Rieff ’78 has for the past decade covered one bloody conflict after another — Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, Sudan, and Afghanistan — he says he has nothing interesting to say about a battle. “But

I do have something to say on the aftereffects of battle on human beings. So I’ve written about refugees and people on the run and people under siege,” he says.

While reporting from hot spots around the world, Rieff spends most of his time traveling with humanitarian aid workers. Although he has great admiration for relief workers from agencies such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, and CARE — he calls them “the last of the just” — he criticizes those agencies for straying from their original goal of alleviating suffering in a politically neutral way.

In his latest book, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster), he points out that humanitarian agencies, particularly since the mid-1990s, have radically overreached their missions. Instead of simply providing relief to victims, argues Rieff, they are trying to address the root causes of the conflicts, which are usually political, by tying their relief efforts to human rights advocacy, as agencies did in Kosovo, or by encouraging the international community to intervene militarily to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing, as agencies did in Bosnia. The aid workers have neither the competence nor wisdom to do that, he says.

By developing closer ties with Western nations and the U.N., relief agencies have been exploited and manipulated by the major world powers, he argues. In Kosovo and Afghanistan, he writes, governments used humanitarian relief efforts as a fig leaf for actions they took to advance their own interests. During those conflicts, he argues, Western nations tried to create a humanitarian rationale for military action. And both the humanitarian agencies and the Western powers began seeing the military mission and the humanitarian one as part of the same campaign.

Ultimately, Rieff maintains, there is only so much that humanitarianism can do, and in order to carry out the vital but limited mission — “putting Band-Aids on” no matter who needs help — it must reassert its independence. If it doesn’t, he says, “what’s valuable about their enterprise will be lost.”

Rieff doesn’t sugarcoat his work. A contributing editor of the New Republic and Harper’s, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, and author of Slaughterhouse, Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995), Rieff paints a bleak picture of the world — unending wars and suffering — but he makes no apologies for that. “My job is to tell the truth as I see it. . . . I’m very unimpressed with people who see the same horrible reality as I see and try to put some positive spin on it.”

Rieff feels comfortable wandering from one tragedy to another. “It gets in your blood,” says Rieff. “I have some ability to be in these places without being completely paralyzed by fear or disgust. . . . I’m comfortable being this sort of weird gypsy.”

By K.F.G.


Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon — Justin Martin (Perseus). This biography of Ralph Nader ’55, public advocate and former third-party presidential candidate, focuses on his private as well as public life. The author covers Nader’s childhood in small-town Connecticut, his days at Princeton and Harvard Law School, as well as his years in the political spotlight, including the 2000 presidential campaign. Martin is the author of Greenspan: The Man Behind the Money (2001), a biography of Alan Greenspan.

Organization Smarts: Portable Skills for Professionals Who Want to Get Ahead — David W. Brown ’59 (AMACOM). Brown offers advice for professionals who, in today’s dynamic job market, need to be able to adapt quickly to different work environments. Brown explains what he calls “organization smarts,” skills such as cooperation and an “inquiring and strategic mindset.” Brown is a professor of professional practice at the New School’s Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy.

Good Beyond Evil — Eva Gossman (Vallentine—Mitchell). In her new memoir, Princeton’s former associate dean of the college tells the story of living in hiding in Nazi-occupied Europe, and pays tribute to five individuals who risked their lives to save her Jewish family. Gossman retired from Princeton in 1996.

By Jeanne Alnot ’04

Return to Books Main Menu

Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary