Powerful expose on culture of international aid (IANS Book Review)

August 2nd, 2011 - 1:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Book: “International Organizations and Civilian Protection”; Author: Sreeram Chaulia;

Pages 263; Publisher: I.B. Tauris

This is a devastatingly powerful book. Wherever there are wars, conflicts and other disasters, international organisations, some well known and others not so, move in to provide services so very vital to the suffering mass of men, women and children in the Third World. Haven’t many of us quietly applauded and appreciated their selfless nature?

Sreeram Chaulia, one of India’s most prolific commentators on international affairs who has served as a rights activist in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, rips through the culture of international aid. In this seminal work that is sure to trigger a global debate, the scholarly Chaulia argues how, in the post-Soviet world, global markets helped catapult humanitarianism “as a new colonizing principle”.

Breaking new ground in political science, he says: “Aid agencies and development organizations strode the Global South like mini-colossuses that derived their authority not from moral power but the donor power of capitalist states and international financial situations.”

As Horace G. Campbell of Syracuse University says in his forward, Chaulia “has broken the silence on the criminal actions that often get disguised as humanitarian acts”. Having spent three years in war zones and with ordinary people who always bear the brunt of all conflicts, Chaulia realised that it was far more important to support organised local activism than the “colossal” racket called international humanitarian aid.

Backed with empirical evidence, Chaulia says that aid agencies enable donor states and their military industrial complexes to penetrate and weaken radical movements in countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines, shrinking thus the local activist’s capacity for civilian protection. Humanitarians, he goes on, often turn their backs when approached by local activists to assist in protecting the ordinary civilians. Their ideological affinity with the donor states even spur them to call for military interventions in the name of restoring “peace” and “development”.

The biggest myth of liberal humanitarianism is that aid agencies save lives. But ironically, says the author, “for most humanitarian IOs (International Organizations), the business of saving lives does not include protection of civilians from violence and abuse”.

There is more. “As key actors in war zones, humanitarian IGOs (Inter-governmental Organizations) and INGOs (International Non-governmental Organizations) not only turn a blind eye to sexual violence on civilians but also sometimes take undue sexual advantage of the perilous circumstances in which civilians find themselves.” This is a charge as serious as it can get.

Some IOs, the book details, were partners in the militarisation of parts of the Philippines (by the US) and in Sri Lanka’s northeast (by the military). This is/was done ostensibly to get access to the war zone. All through the book, Chaulia points out the huge gap between the rhetoric and reality as far as IOs go. In his view, UNDP in Sri Lanka was the worst culprit.

Chaulia shows that international humanitarians often shun local activists while showing great dependence on expatriate (read Western) ‘experts’ who may actually be far removed from reality.

“The mainstream ICRC culture is to distrust local activists and organizations and keep a safe distance from them.” In the name of danger to their field activists, OXFAM, he says, failed to monitor and report abuse of civilians in remote places in Sri Lanka. The lesson from the book is that humanitarian aid is an ideological ally of Western liberal imperialism with “global consequences for war-torn societies, and not merely a sop to pacify public opinion in Western donor agencies”.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at narayan.swamy@ians.in)

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