Can We Really Feed the World?

The problem with humanitarian intervention.

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity
By Michael Maren
The Free Press; 302 pages; $25

The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention
By Stanley Hoffmann, with contributions by Robert C. Johansen, James Sterba, and Raimo Väyrynen

University of Notre Dame Press; 128 pages; $25 cloth, $14.95 paper

Africa’s hungry children are both pathetically weak and astonishingly powerful. Alone on the parched plains of Somalia or the Sudan, they lack the strength to lift even a kernel of precious grain. But one blink of a starving boy’s hollow eyes, captured on videotape and broadcast to North America and Western Europe, can galvanize the emotions, finances, and armies of the greatest nations on earth.

In Michael Maren’s view, this is not only a paradox but a perversity. Far from demonstrating the good will of Western governments and charitable organizations, the last decade’s missions of mercy to places such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Rwanda have compounded the crises there. Maren–a former Peace Corps volunteer and U.S. Agency for International Development worker, and a freelance journalist in Africa–has seen Western aid programs up close. He has come to view aid and charity “as an industry, as religion, as a self-serving system that sacrifices its own practitioners and intended beneficiaries in order that it may survive and grow.” Sometimes, Maren contends in The Road to Hell, aid can be “positively evil.”

Maren may seem hardhearted, but he has a point. While a few of the West’s massive relief operations–Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda–have ended short-term suffering, many more have failed to root out the violence and corruption that gave rise to famine and anarchy in the first place. If international humanitarianism is to preserve its legitimacy, both governments and private humanitarian organizations must confront critiques such as Maren’s.
Maren views humanitarian intervention as an instance of what economists call “moral hazard.” The classic example of moral hazard comes from insurance: Because you have it, you feel protected against your own mistakes and behave in a riskier manner, increasing the chances that you will suffer a loss. Fire insurance increases the chance your house will burn down; for those inclined toward fraud, it even raises the incentive to burn the house down.

In the sphere of international aid, it is pretty clear that the infusion of Western food and cash has often undermined the determination and capacity of developing states to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Maren reports the lament of his friend Chris Cassidy, a CARE worker who nearly went mad trying to teach Somali refugees to adopt irrigated cash-crop farming: “How the hell am I going to convince these people to get out there and dig if they get more food than they can eat free from CARE?”

Western help also cushions venal Third World governments from the consequences of their own actions–or enables them to pursue destructive policies. In the mid-1980s, Maren reports, CARE continued to supply food to Somalia despite mounting evidence that donated goods were being appropriated to further then-President Muhammad Siyad Barre’s takeover of parts of neighboring Ethiopia. Meanwhile, ostensibly destitute Somali refugees led lucrative secret careers as black-market merchants of relief supplies. Siyad Barre’s military misadventures generated tens of thousands of refugees, destroyed previously self-sufficient nomadic cultures, and got the Somali economy hooked on cheap foreign grain and foreign currency. Maren shows how this previously underreported history set the stage for the 1992 famine and the subsequent ill-fated American military intervention.

Withering as Maren’s anecdotal indictment is, he doesn’t clinch the case for abolishing international assistance entirely. The appropriate response to his horror stories is, “Yes, but.” Yes, arson-for-profit plagues the hazard-insurance business, but we still need insurance. Yes, domestic welfare programs are riddled with perverse incentives, but we still need a social safety net. Yes, international aid is frequently both corrupt and corrupting, but surely, well-designed aid programs or foreign intervention can ameliorate or prevent some humanitarian disasters.

Of course, that means coming up with guidelines that preserve the moral purpose of humanitarian aid and intervention while addressing Maren’s critique. In The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention, the eminent Stanley Hoffmann, professor of French civilization at Harvard, takes on this task. Hoffmann tries to define the components of what we consider “good causes” and then to set up “a hierarchy of concerns” to deal with the often contradictory demands of trying to honor “sovereignty, self-determination, democratic government, and individual rights.” What he comes up with is specific and nuanced in its prescriptions, but not altogether satisfying.

Hoffman places sovereignty first. For him, it’s OK to link economic assistance to the democratic inclinations of a recipient government. Aid to a democratic government facing a rebellion is also acceptable. So is counterintervention to help such a government repulse foreign invasion. But when it comes to unilateral intervention, Hoffmann is skittish. A powerful nation should intervene on its own, he says, “only if licensed by the UN” or a relevant regional organization, and then only after noncoercive remedies have been exhausted.

This near-doctrinal aversion to unilateral intervention is puzzling. It fetishizes the national sovereignty of half-baked multiethnic congeries (such as Somalia, ex-Yugoslavia, and Liberia) whose collapse into tribal warfare suggests they may not really be organic “nations” after all.

It also fails to recognize that sometimes, the only effective option is the swift, quasi-imperial intervention of a powerful outsider. As James Sterba points out in another essay in the book, Hoffmann’s criteria would rule out much of a role for leadership by the United States (or, for that matter, France). Wouldn’t we all have been better off, Sterba asks, if the United States, on its own, had dispatched a few warships to stop the Serbian barrage of Dubrovnik before it spiraled into the all-out war in Bosnia? And, I might add, hasn’t the United States’ noninterference in its colonial stepchild Liberia served mainly to prolong that country’s agony? Hoffmann, in a counterresponse to Sterba, concedes the point. But as a result, sovereignty no longer stands as Hoffmann’s chief organizing principle, and his final list of policy “maxims” reads less like an antidote to the current confusion than an eloquent recapitulation of it.

Maren also has trouble fitting sovereignty into his analysis. On the one hand, he is particularly good at documenting the phenomenon of the aid worker who mutters scornfully about his household servants. In almost every frustrated development professional, good intentions mutate into unbounded, quasiracial contempt. Some of those who “do development” tend to blur the distinction between assisting the African poor and dominating them. “It was difficult to sit back and watch the village leaders taking money from the farmers who worked so hard to pay their children’s school fees,” Maren writes of his Peace Corps stint in Kenya. “Yet the only thing I could have done would have been to get involved politically, to take power, to lead, ultimately to rule.” He suggests the consequences of that impulse are always dangerous. Just look at what happened to the U.S. military when it briefly succumbed to the temptation in Somalia. On the other hand, he writes at another point, “Humanitarianism is political. It takes commitment. And it comes with risks.” But this formulation would suggest that U.S. intervention in Somalia was not too aggressive but too timid.

Maybe what humanitarian intervention requires is a stronger element of, shall we say, behavior modification–“tough love” sent abroad. All financial assistance to the developing world should be contingent not only on economic reform in recipient countries but on political freedom as well. When military intervention proves unavoidable, we should be less fastidious about national sovereignty, and all the more determined to set right the underlying political conditions that led to disaster.

If American troops, on their arrival in Somalia–their moment of greatest strength–had arrested warlords and destroyed their heaviest weapons, the United States might not have been drawn into bigger factional problems later on. The overly respectful way the United States and its allies handled the tribal warlords in Africa sent an enormously harmful signal to the authentic democrats in Yugoslavia and Liberia. This kid-gloves treatment reflects our ostensible reluctance to involve ourselves in costly overseas conflicts, and our ostensible respect for the national sovereignty of the foreign countries. But once we’re in, we’re in. Better, perhaps, to sort things out thoroughly in the short run, and to prevent even greater devastation for all concerned down the road–even if that means suffering a few casualties, or opening ourselves up to the charge of imperialism.