All care, no re­spon­si­bil­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Francesca Beddie

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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