Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid By Peter Gill (Oxford University Press, 280 pp., $27.95) In the fall of 1994, James P. Grant, the executive director of UNICEF, sent a message in the name of his agency to the upcoming Cairo conference on population and development, in which he declared that the world had within its grasp the means to solve “the problems of poverty, population, and environmental degradation that feed off of one another in a downward spiral [bringing] instability and strife in its wake.” Grant was a great man, a giant of the development world.
With the fatuousness that has marked his administration from the outset, the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, has now issued a document called “Keeping the Promise,” timed to coincide with the 2010 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and the summit on the organization’s so-called Millennium Development Goals that is taking place simultaneously.
The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance—OFDA as it is known universally—is the department within the U.S. Agency for International Development that specializes in emergency relief, whether immediately, in response to natural disasters, or with long-running crises that have created large numbers of refugees or internally displaced people. Established more than 40 years ago, OFDA now has annual budget of $1.03 billion, which, while it is only a little more than 5 percent of the total USAID budget, makes it by far the best-funded emergency relief agency in the world.
Toward the end of Defying Hitler, his extraordinary memoir of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Sebastian Haffner describes how the Nazis had “made all Germans everywhere into comrades.” This, he argued, had been a moral catastrophe. This emphatically was not because comradeship was never a good thing. To the contrary, as Haffner was at pains to insist, it was a great and necessary comfort and help for people who had to live under unbearable, inhuman conditions, above all in war.
When President Obama named his cabinet, people harkened back to Lincoln and said that he had assembled a team of rivals. To put it charitably, this is an exaggeration. Lincoln brought not just his principal rival, William Seward, into his cabinet as secretary of state, he also brought in his two other main contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Salmon Chase, the party’s greatest and most uncompromising foe of slavery and an unjustly neglected American hero, was made secretary of the treasury, while Edward Bates became attorney general.
Does the Obama administration have any idea at all what it wants out of its development efforts? In a recent speech at SAIS at Johns Hopkins, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Washington’s new six-year, $63 billion Global Health Initiative. She was at pains to differentiate the administration from its predecessor—yet one more recapitulation of a by now familiar trope, but one that is particularly disingenuous in the case of global health, where the Bush administration’s record actually was very good.
There is an old Washington adage that the ultimate “man bites dog” story is one in which a politician tells the truth in public. Chris Matthews pointed out on his show recently that there was something almost uplifting about the response of the new senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, who, when asked whether he was demanding changes in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to protect the interest of the Boston-based State Street investment firm, replied that, no, it wasn’t just for them.
Independent humanitarian action, commonly if not entirely accurately thought to have begun with the so-called ‘French Doctors’ in Biafra in the late-'60s, was never as independent as either relief groups like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, or the International Rescue Committee, themselves liked to claim or as the general public assumed them to be. U.S. organizations in particular, despite their efforts to develop an individual donor base, were always and remain too dependent on American government funding for the claim to stand up to scrutiny.
From a policy perspective, I am not sure there is much to say about America’s war in Afghanistan that goes beyond the blindingly obvious. The invasion in 2001 had an intelligible goal—to destroy a regime that had become a kind of condominium between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, cemented in fine medieval style, according to some reports, by a marriage between one of Osama bin Laden’s daughters and one of Mullah Omar’s sons.
This is the most recent item in a debate about humanitarian intervention.