The Moral Dilemmas of Doing Good

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.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1999
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