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Bookends: An Incisive look at world problems and relief efforts January 18, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, News, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: An Incisive look at world problems and relief efforts

By Dan Davidson

June 28, 2016damned-nations

– 866 words


Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies, and Aid

by Samantha Nutt

Signal (Random House Canada, Incorp.)

240 pages



“There are certain rules about war, and rule number one is that young men die. And rules number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one”

-Col. Henry Blake to Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H


There are all sorts of problems with our international aid systems, and Samantha Nutt, who has been involved with these systems since her inaugural experience as a 25-year-old medical school graduate back in 1995, delineates a lot of them in this book. It is, as most of the really gripping books of this nature are, a combination of personal memoir and impassioned, sharply reasoned argument.

Nutt has been a regular feature on several of the CBC’s panels on the National since this book appeared in 2011. She is also the founder of War Child (with branches in Canada and the USA), an international humanitarian organization with a particular focus on how children and families are affected by conflict.

This book alternates between personal experiences and analysis, beginning with her very first mission in Somalia.

“Goats, burned out cars, and a few spindly trees interrupting a expanse of copper sand: this was what the landing strip outside Baidoa, Somalia, looked like from 3000 metres in 1995. Baidoa: the City of Death. Where three years earlier 300,000 people succumbed to starvation and disease. Now, a new wave of famine was failing to rouse any degree of outside interest.”

Famine wasn’t the only problem. There were armed gangs running around with that favorite of Third World weapon, the nearly indestructible AK-47, and Nutt would find herself on the wrong end of one before her stay was over.

The curse of arms sales is a theme in this chapter, poignant in light of our nation’s own recent deal with the Saudis.

“…Availability of cheap weapons in fragile impoverished states is an invitation to war. Even Mikhail Kalashnikov has expressed regret that he did not invent a lawn mower instead.”

Of course, the rising death toll in America tells us that too many weapons, too easily acquired, anywhere just might be a bad idea.

Chapter two, “Chaos Incorporated”, takes us to the Congo, and a discussion of rape, kidnapping and the sale of mineral resources to finance conflict. Diamonds aren’t the only substance you can put the word “conflict” in front of.

The chapter ends with a tense encounter near a transit centre for supposedly former child soldiers. When it emerges that she has no money to give to a boy who raps on her vehicle’s window demandingly, he looks at her and says, “The next time you come here without any money, we’re going to rape you, pour gasoline on you, and set you on fire.”

“Winning Wars, Losing Peace” is a chapter that deals with the aftermath of the misguided and disastrous invasion of Iraq by America and its Coalition of the Willing, the military action which probably has the most to do with the rise of ISIS a decade later.

“Paved with Good Intentions” is, of course, a reference to what the road to Hell is paved with, and offers a number of examples of well meaning efforts that have turned out badly. Some of these efforts have been attempted by internationally known charitable organizations that have gone in with the wrong message, the wrong approach and the wrong emphasis.

She cites the biggest problem as being the focus on emergency relief, when what is needed is a less fraught, but more consistent, steady, regular aid. While the response to a crisis is generally pretty effective in the short term, most of the problems around the globe are more intractable than that.

Consider Liberia, Haiti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi, and other such places. In all of them there is an inefficient duplication of effort, an emphasis on making sure that the brand of a particular agency is seen to be doing things, and an assumption that the arriving “saviors” know more about what needs to be done than the locals who are actually suffering.

Nutt believes that a focus on sustainable development would be of more use than the many rescue missions which are now the standard practice, which the next chapter defines in its title: “Pack Your Bags, We’re Going on a Guilt Trip.” Humanitarian programs run the great risk of becoming a kind of disaster tourism if not carried out properly.

The final chapter, “A Just Cause”, offers a short list of issues that need to be tackled: the gender divide and inequality of opportunity; the burden of poverty and unemployment; legal aid (to deal with rape, war crimes, etc.); alternative solutions to the business-as-usual attitude to international and internal conflicts.

She concludes the chapter with a very useful list of common sense things to think about when planning to donate to the various organizations that regularly appeal for you to loosen your cheque books and credit cards. It’s a good list, and I was pleased to find we were already doing most of those things.





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