All care, no responsibility
Deep Field: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Aid Relief from Pakistan to Kazan, the Punjab to the Pacific By Tom Bamforth Hardie Grant Books, 220pp, $26.95 “IT reads as if Don DeLillo had been sent to Darfur,’’ declares the endorsement for Deep Field from former Granta editor John Freeman. Perhaps Freeman was thinking about DeLillo’s view that it’s acceptable for a novelist to be a bad citizen: someone ‘‘writing against what power represents, and often what government represents, and what the corporation dictates, and what consumer consciousness has come to mean’’.
Tom Bamforth, an Australian aid worker, certainly does negativity. He is bitchy about officials and the media, and even his friends and colleagues in the field. His contempt is undiscerning except for the victims of poverty, war and disaster encountered in these dispatches.
Deep Field is a series of articles, cobbled together as a critique of humanitarianism, the ism of the post-Cold War age. It’s clear the pieces were written for other purposes. Some seem to be diary entries; others fragments of a university essay or a work report.
Bamforth can craft a nice turn of phrase. These become less attractive when recycled in different articles and suggest a certain literary pretension, reinforced by references to Tolstoy and Andrei Bely, Primo Levi and George Orwell. He is less good at telling a coherent story. His timelines are higgledy-piggledy; he assumes knowledge the reader does not have, such as which organisation he’s working for when; and his central argument is hard to grasp amid snippets of travelogue, analysis and contrariness. The preface, overloaded by long sentences, hints at the purpose of the book: a polemic on humanitarian aid. This theme comes and goes in the following dispatches, whose titles bear only a partial relationship to their subject matter. In the chapter on Pakistan we jump from hyperbole about aid to a history of Partition in the Indian subcontinent.
In part two, titled Darfur, we find ourselves in the Khyber Pass. After a few pages about a defiant joy ride in the North-West Frontier, Bamforth gets to his point: Afghanistan is the ‘‘Achilles heel of humanitarianism’’ because there aid agencies are being funded by the same governments that are prosecuting the war, and whose armies have co-opted development activity to support military goals.
As Bamforth says, many of these projects turn out to be white elephants. And yes, effective co-ordination of humanitarian aid remains elusive. And yes, the aid industry is marred by politics and bureaucratic bungles. And yes, the media cycle means much of the aftermath of war and natural disaster gets ignored. The problems of humanitarian intervention all get an airing in these dispatches. What about the solutions? Bamforth suggests we lower our expectations of humanitarian action, which has become ‘‘magically imbued with the rump of liberal causes and ideas … (and which) can somehow promote human and further social justice’’.
Instead, we should understand it as a technical response to people with immediate lifepreserving needs: ‘‘the provision of band-aids magnified to the thousandth degree’’. That may be right but should not preclude continuing the effort to turn those Band-Aids into more lasting benefit.
In Bamforth’s estimation, the aid industry is not up to the task. He is scathing about nearly all UN and international non-government organisation officials. While acknowledging that money is useful, he can’t find a good word to say about the $125 billion private philanthropists in the US have pledged. Instead he asks: ‘‘Who are they to make decisions for and on behalf of millions of others, solely on the basis of their private wealth?’’
He is outraged that government humanitarian aid is used to serve the national interest. And while his cruel account of a British parliamentary delegation to Pakistan may amuse some, it reflects little understanding of the realities of constituent democracy.
Bamforth wants to see humanitarian management go beyond the mere disbursement of cash to embrace the instincts of the common man … as in the Indian state of Kerala, he suggests. It’s not clear what he means. It would be naive to suggest Kerala is the model for democracies. While the Kerala development model has been influential in broadening measures of human development beyond gross domestic product, that’s a far cry from a solution to the administration of humanitarian assistance.
This is an aid junkie’s vent. Bamforth never comes off his high horse to reflect on his own experience in chasing disaster from one hotspot to the next. Why didn’t he stay in Pakistan to help those still suffering once the aid wagon had rolled on? The answer lurks in the dispatches. Being on the frontline is exhilarating. What a pity, having stayed in the game, Bamforth didn’t take the opportunity of a book contract to marshal his insider perspectives into a constructive contribution to the informed debate he rightly says we need.
While his dispatches may appeal to other iconoclasts wanting to get mud on their boots, his sneering superiority is hardly the embodiment of the humanitarianism he is advocating. Francesca Beddie is a freelance historian and researcher.
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