Skip to main content

25th November 2013

Interview: David Rieff

American author, polemicist and war reporter David Rieff tells Sam Dumitriu why he is a humanitarian fundamentalist

What gives a humanitarian institution in London or New York the right to go into someone else’s country and say they know what should be done?

It was this question David Rieff attempted to answer when he gave the annual public lecture at Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. The question is not merely academic for Rieff, who as a journalist throughout the nineties covered almost every major humanitarian disaster, from Rwanda and Congo to Bosnia and Kosovo. If Rieff was in your country in the nineties, the odds were good that something bad was happening.

“I think there are a bunch of questions that need to be asked that we take too easily for granted about humanitarian action.  What gives it its legitimacy? People start in the middle when they talk about this question. They talk about what should be done, which is entirely appropriate. But, what gives a humanitarian institution in London or New York – or for that matter Rio De Janiero or Cape Town the right to go into someone else’s country and say they know what should be done?”

Rieff is correct; when we see the suffering on our TVs caused by super typhoon Haiyan, our first response is how can we help. Questions of legitimacy never enter into the equation.

“Kofi Annan’s favourite saying, which was taken from Edmund Burke was ‘the only thing needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing’. But, wanting to do something and knowing what to do are two different things. Saying something should be done and saying you have the right to do it, are not the same things.”

One aspect of humanitarianism where the question of legitimacy has come up is humanitarian intervention. Earlier in the year, when intervention in Syria was floated the public, along with MPs, broadly opposed it.  The optimism for intervention in the wake of Kosovo seems to have disappeared; Rieff has shifted with the public from optimism to scepticism. Why have the public fallen out of favour with humanitarian intervention?

“Humanitarian intervention and humanitarian action are two different things. What we mean by humanitarian intervention is humanitarian war, or war in the name of preventing massive war crimes. That is one extreme side of the humanitarian world.

“I don’t find it surprising that large majorities are against intervention in Syria because nobody knows what they would do there. I think there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse about Libya. Lots of things were promised by France and the US about what would happen if Gaddafi was overthrown and for the most part it doesn’t seemed to have worked out rather well.

“I don’t find that surprising at all, but let me be clear, to condemn that is not to condemn all humanitarian action, the things that Oxfam does, the things that Doctors without Borders do.”

Crises like Syria seem unsolvable; any action we take can seem futile in the face of all the suffering that will happen regardless. Is there a sense of pessimism challenging to humanitarian action?

“Did it live up to all of its promises? No. But what does. The relief organisations do a lot of work, think of medical relief work, of public health work, of famine relief. All that has been very successful, there used to be a famine every 30 years in some places in the world. Now, when there is a famine, at least in the last 15 to 20 years, fewer people die.

“If you look at just the vector of Somali famines in the past 100 years, you’ll see horrible as they are, tragic as they are, that actually they are stopped more quickly and efficiently. I don’t think there’s some general disenchantment.

“I think that’s what true is that in the first decade after the cold war that is in the nineties, the humanitarian actors seemed like magicians and a lot of hopes were vested in them that they couldn’t possibly have fulfilled. They were thought to be ten feet tall, and then there was a period where everyone was disenchanted. But I don’t think in 2013 that people still having the fantasies they did about Doctors Without Borders in Bosnia in 1994. That was 20 years ago.”

Various critics of humanitarian action have questioned the way we portray the subjects of humanitarian action. They argue that the way we portray victims of genocide and famine fails to respect their agency. Rieff is highly sceptical of the idea.

“What would agency for someone who is starving to death mean? I know people use these words but I don’t know what they mean. Humanitarian action is an emblem of social failure, political failure, state failure. Remember emergency relief isn’t the same as development aid. In development, I think those questions are very legitimate, to talk about agency, to say that big development agencies in the global north and in the UN system should listen more and lecture less. But when people are dying of hunger, if they could do something for themselves they would.

“Obviously when a crisis is over, then whether the relief agencies always do the right thing is in question and there is a problem with relief agencies exaggerating the disaster and the helplessness of the people suffering.

“Evangelical agencies that have been accused of trying to convert starving people, obviously that’s outrageous. But if somehow there’s an idea that this could be made into an equal partnership between the starving and the non-starving.  I think that’s wishful thinking.”

The popular view in humanitarian circles suggest that humanitarianism derives its legitimacy by being a part of political action as well as just providing aid. Oxfam International, for example, alongside helping the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan actively campaigns for governments to take action against climate change.

“My view of humanitarian relief is that it does a limited number of things. It’s palliative it is not transformative. There are people within the humanitarian world who think of themselves as part of some larger solution. But there I agree with the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata who said ‘There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems’.

“I’m a sort of humanitarian fundamentalist, in the sense that humanitarianism does a comparably small, important, restricted thing very well. But no, it’s not an Archimedean lever to change the world.”

Rieff illustrates his fundamentalist view of humanitarianism with reference to his 2003 book A Bed for the Night, which is based off a Bertolt Brecht poem.

“He tells a story of a guy in New York at the height of the depression, who gives homeless people a bed for the night. The poem says the man won’t change the world, he won’t bring social justice, but for a night people won’t have snow falling on their heads. “

For Rieff humanitarian action derives its legitimacy from its limited scope. When humanitarianism becomes merely part of a broader political project we face problems, most importantly that people disagree. Rieff’s fundamentalist humanitarianism gives us reason to keep helping even when we lost faith in our political projects.

For more information on upcoming events hosted by the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute you can visit thier website:

More Coverage

UoM’s new society ‘Diversify Politics’ on diversification, inclusivity, and campaigning on campus

Meet UoM’s newest society, Diversity Politics, who are seeking to bring about positive changes on campus

Inside Manchester’s Diplomatic Community: Interviews with Sarah Mangan and Kazi Ziaul Hasan

Manchester’s diplomatic community rarely finds itself in the news despite it being the second largest in the country. Kazi Ziaul Hasan, the Bangladeshi Assistant High Commissioner, and Sarah Mangan, the Irish Consul-General, explain the work of the city’s diplomatic missions and their relationship to students in Manchester

So, where are you from? Experiences of a “Third Culture Kid” at university

The UK is used to used to different languages, accents, and cultures. But ‘third culture kids’ represent a unique demographic. Who are they? Why do young people who grow up in several parts of the world feel isolation, even at Manchester?

From Our Correspondent: Almería, ‘The Indalo Man’, and the fight to preserve Spanish cultural heritage

For our next edition of ‘From Our Correspondent’, we turn to Almería, where our writer discusses the figure of ‘The Indalo Man’ as a symbol of locals’ struggles to preserve lesser-known aspects of Spain’s rich cultural heritage