The Common Good
July-August 1999

The Moral Dilemmas of Doing Good

by Pearl Sensenig | July-August 1999

Everyone wants to aid refugees. But humanitarian work in the midst of war raises some hard questions---and carries the risk of unintended consequences.

In 1994 hundreds of thousands of Rwandans poured across the border into Congo (then called Zaire), turning pristine mountains and valleys made famous in the film Gorillas in the Mist into squalid refugee camps. Through extensive TV coverage, village names like Goma and Bukavu came to worldwide consciousness, becoming synonyms for death and dying as cholera swept through refugee camps there. Viewers were moved by compassion, and millions of dollars flowed into aid agency coffers. Now, some five years later, a critical look is being taken at how aid agencies used that money and how aid agencies were manipulated by armed forces.

Genocide and refugees were in the news that spring. However, the refugees were not necessarily victims fleeing from genocide. Among them were heavily armed Hutu men responsible for genocide, intent on further violence. "Hundreds of international humanitarians [were] being openly exploited as caterers to what was probably the single largest society of fugitive criminals against humanity ever assembled," wrote Philip Gourevitch in his 1998 book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda.

Trying to do good in any situation is difficult, and on hearing Gourevitch’s charges, a relief worker who had assisted in Rwandan refugee camps remarked that these critical statements are the product of "armchair hindsight." Any intervention, no matter how well intended, will have some unintended, even negative, consequences. And yet how can Christian humanitarian agencies, especially pacifist ones, follow the biblical mandate to feed the hungry while wisely distributing aid in a way that promotes peace and reconciliation, not further hatred and violence? The question seemed particularly relevant this spring as the world watched yet another mass refugee exodus, as Kosovar Albanians fled to neighboring regions.

The messy dilemmas that swirl around aid work are not new. Peter Dyck, a relief worker in post-World War II Europe, declared there is "no such thing as clean hands and clean consciences." In 1946, Dyck was caring for refugees in the American sector of Berlin, Germany. He had no choice but to ask the U.S. military for housing, which was quickly supplied. However, he soon learned the military had commandeered the houses by evicting occupants with only 24-hours notice.

If Vietnam was where America lost its innocence, the same was true for many idealistic young aid workers. In 1966, Pat Hostetter Martin arrived in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam, to serve with Vietnam Christian Service. Appalled by the needs around her, she eagerly helped organize a feeding program for destitute refugees. But within six months she began to ask, "What am I really doing?" U.S. B-52 bombers were strafing the province, and U.S. military personnel were systematically removing civilians. Huey helicopters dropped into remote villages; terrified inhabitants were herded aboard and transported to the provincial capital where they were looked after by humanitarian agencies.

"By caring for refugees, it looked like we were cooperating with the forces that had made them refugees in the first place," Martin recalled. The U.S. military agreed. One officer told the aid workers, "Our first job is to kill V.C. [Viet Cong], but it’s important that at the same time we carry out programs of social and economic reform. Here’s where organizations like your own fit in." It was not a comfortable fit.

UNLIKE THE RWANDAN refugees of 1994, the current Kosovar Albanian refugees appear to be unarmed civilians. However, their ordeal at the hands of Serb militia has fueled the fires of revenge and hatred. Doubtless many Kosovar Albanian men are relieved to hand the care of their families to aid agencies so they can return to Kosovo to fight.

The latest refugee crisis illustrates the increasing "local complexion" of wars, as aid administrator William Reimer termed it. The end of the Cold War has brought smaller, regional wars, often focused around ethnic or religious, rather than geopolitical, aims. These local conflicts are fueled by a thriving global arms trade that has unleashed a flood of affordable, high-powered weapons. Conflictive areas are becoming increasingly dangerous, complicated arenas in which to do humanitarian work. At the same time, communications technologies are bringing instant, worldwide attention to problems. CNN beams pictures of suffering into Americans’ living rooms, and they want to help. A plethora of new international aid agencies is multiplying to take their donations and do their bidding.

Add to this mix the fact that media may even define humanitarian crises. One of Africa’s longest wars—Sudan’s civil war, which has raged on and off since 1983—festered out of sight for years. Then in March 1998 two aid agencies finally persuaded journalists to visit northern Bahr el-Ghazal province. John Ashworthy, who has been involved with relief and development in Sudan since 1983, pondered that it must have been a slow news week because suddenly "pictures of starving babies hit the world’s TV screens; literally hundreds of other journalists followed; a media-driven emergency was born," he wrote. Millions of dollars followed and Ashworthy and other relief workers were expected, "almost overnight, to absorb huge sums of money with little preparation, planning, or even accountability." The situation proved galling as they had struggled for years to do famine-prevention work, hampered by inadequate budgets.

As more and more aid agencies enter increasingly chaotic situations under the media spotlight and resulting high- donor expectations, what questions should be considered?

Is the aid helping one side over another? Most humanitarian disasters are created due to conflict, and in the midst of competing interests, aid agencies must struggle to be evenhanded in their assistance, focusing on need as the only criteria. Neutrality is not a new issue for aid agencies, and it can be an unpopular stand to take. In the 1940s Peter Dyck ran a feeding program in Holland. A commotion ensued one day as local staff blocked a woman from receiving food. Someone whispered in Dyck’s ear that the woman and her family had collaborated with the Nazis and should be in jail. "She has nothing so let her have food," Dyck replied. Today as an 84-year old retiree, he says he would make the same decision again.

During the current Kosovo crisis, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an international relief and development agency, publicized its plans to help both victims of NATO bombings in Serbia as well as Kosovar Albanian refugees victimized by the Serb military. In response, one irate caller to the agency’s Pennsylvania headquarters announced he would send his money elsewhere. This decision also has ramifications in the field. NATO troops in Albania were helping humanitarian workers stake tents and distribute food for refugees while at the same time their colleagues in combat were dropping bombs on Serbia. While some relief workers saw NATO as a wonderful tool for logistics, MCC relief workers and some others were leery of NATO’s help. "How would our partners in Serbia feel if they saw us working side-by-side with the people who are bombing them?" an aid worker wondered.

Is aid being given in a way that supports local efforts to help? In the 1960s Pat Hostetter Martin drove a truck loaded with donated blankets into a Vietnamese refugee camp. Fights quickly broke out as people scrambled for the prettiest or warmest quilt. Hansuli Gerber, MCC’s Europe program director, recently recounted a similar scene in Albania where an aid worker threw loaves of bread to grasping crowds of refugees—"like feeding ducks," he said. Relief supplies can be distributed more equably and with more dignity when international agencies join their efforts with local church or community groups.

Gerber re-interprets the biblical story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. "People think that story is about a miracle, but it could be about brilliant logistics," he asserted. "People sat in small groups and shared their food. Maybe that’s how so many people could be fed. When international agencies distribute aid through local church and service groups, the bread and fish are multiplied."

Every disaster happens in a context, and local people are more likely to understand the dynamics than newcomers who fly in from abroad. However, coordinating with local groups can mean less visibility for an international aid agency. When journalists come to report on a story, visuals of relief workers sitting in coordination meetings will have less appeal than dramatic life and death pictures of aid workers feeding malnourished children. Despite difficulties, as conflicts becoming more regional, it will be even more crucial for aid agencies to put aside organizational egos and base their response on the wisdom and advice of local people.

Is aid being given in a way that empowers rather than re-victimizes recipients? Many refugees have been forced abruptly from their homes and have little control over their lives. Aid should be given in a way that gives recipients opportunities to participate in decisions that affect them, even small decisions. In an emergency, relief agencies are tempted to focus only on the big picture—how many people to feed, how many latrines to dig, etc. But systems to deliver aid should avoid an industrial, assembly- line approach, and should instead be designed to take individuals into account.

"Relief on the scale that is happening here can have the inadvertent effect of re-traumatizing refugees," MCC refugee workers Dan and Evanna Hess wrote in a recent e-mail message from Albania. Some refugees have been resettled in other countries, with apparently little knowledge of where they were going. Dan, a trauma counselor, pointed out that even refugee families who remain intact face the trauma of not having control over even the most everyday functions. "If the distribution is macaroni day after day, or alternated with rice, even the choice of what to eat and how to prepare it has been taken away," he wrote. In earlier Yugoslav wars one of the most treasured relief items MCC sent was canned meat—not only because people appreciated good meat, but with it women could fix their traditional meat pastry dishes that brought a touch of home to their uprooted lives.

Refugee groups always include a pool of enterprising, skilled people who can help set up housing and food distribution. Aid workers are generally amazed at how quickly schools spring up in refugee camps. Within a day or two of crossing into Albania, Kosovar refugee teachers were organizing activities for refugee children. Refugees who are given space to take their destiny into their own hands can ward off the boredom and depression that often characterizes refugee life.

Individualizing services includes listening to people’s stories—this helps aid workers tailor their assistance to what people say they need. In Serbia, Bread of Life, a social service organization of Belgrade’s evangelical churches, routinely interviewed refugees who came weekly for food parcels. Staff saw this as part of their ministry—and as a way of helping them effectively assist refugees.

Could a portion of donated money go to address longer-term issues so future crises could be averted? Every crisis has a history of danger signs—in the case of the former Yugoslavia, one that stretches back centuries. The gulf between Serbia and Kosovo, however, deepened in 1989 when Serbia stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status. Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, Kosovars struggled to keep their outlawed language and culture alive, running an underground health and school system. Over the past years Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a peace initiative of Mennonite, Brethren, and Friends, received repeated pleas for assistance from Kosovars who were using nonviolent methods to struggle against Serb domination. CPT, like most peace organizations, was strapped for resources and couldn’t respond. Then in late March 1999 as violence erupted and haggard refugees staggered out of Kosovo, the world opened its heart and wallet. Within days millions of dollars again streamed into aid agencies, who were again acting in a crisis mode.

Would it be possible for relief agencies to set aside 10 percent of the money that pours in for disaster response, and then use these funds for peacemaking efforts that could prevent disaster in the first place? Would donors find this an acceptable way to use the funds? In 1992 MCC successfully launched an "Africa peace harvest" in which U.S. farmers were invited to donate corn for Mozambique and Sudan, two war-torn countries. MCC publicity stated 10 percent of the corn gathered would be sold and the money used for peacemaking. Staff felt this would not only help provide funds for low-key, yet essential programs, but would also help donors understand the clear link between war and food shortages. Could this type of "peace tithe" be part of every disaster response?

Perhaps in the end these questions provoke more questions than answers. And perhaps in the end, Christian aid agencies have to humbly echo the words of Henri Nouwen in Road to Peace. "Jesus left no doubt that the help he offered was only a sign of a much greater renewal," Nouwen wrote. "However, he never let that truth prevent him from responding to the concrete and immediate concerns of the people he met."

PEARL SENSENIG has worked as a writer and photographer in Mennonite Central Committee’s communications department since 1991. She also teaches writing at a Pennsylvania community college. MCC is the international relief and development agency of North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, currently working in some 52 countries.

For more on Kosovo and the relief situation see:

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