The Golden Fleece (book review)

I firmly believe that in our fast-paced development communication world of blog posts, TedX talks and nightly Twitter discussions and despite crisis calls from traditional publishers, books will continue to play an important role in reflecting on and learning about development. In many ways, The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action is a very good example of what’s right about today’s academic publishing industry.
There are two main reasons why I thoroughly enjoyed the book: First, the chapters and case studies come with a detailed historical framework – something that is all too often overlooked when making an argument for something ‘new’ or different or the latest approach on how to ‘solve’ a development-related problem.
Second, the book is well-edited – which is a tricky thing to achieve when you have a collection of 12 chapters and which quite a few books do not manage as they end up as published conference proceedings. But let’s look at the contents a bit more in detail:

Antonio Donini’s Introduction defines key terms, e.g. ‘instrumentalization’ ‘as shorthand for the use of humanitarian action or rhetoric as a tool to pursue political, security, military, development, economic, and other non humanitarian goals (p.2). And just as I was wondering whether this has not always been the case he clarifies the context of the project:

Our starting hypothesis was that although humanitarian thinking and practice have evolved significantly over the past 150 years, there never was a “golden age” when core humanitarian values took precedence over political or other considerations (p.3).
He also makes an important observation that some of the current challenges seem to be more pronounced because they are studied and published more nowadays.

The book kicks off with two historical reflections by Ian Smillie and Larry Minear – definitely two household names when it comes to academic engagement with humanitarian action. Smillie’s The Emperor’s Old Clothes is a historic tour de force from Somalia to Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Abyssinia, China, Japan and the Boer War. This is a great overview and a great resource for students and other potential newcomers to the industry (as are most of the chapters). Some of his conclusions seem fairly obvious at end of the overview, for example that Western donor governments ‘have always manipulated humanitarian sentiment and action’ (p.39) and that instrumentalization is actually not restricted to Western donors. But he also raises two additional conclusions, namely that the ‘explicitly Christian humanitarian zeal may have contributed directly to some of the more complicated humanitarian and political dilemmas that exist in the world today’ (p.40) and that instrumentalization can be an act of omission as ‘forgotten emergencies’ appear more to be ignored ones.

Minear’s Humanitarian Action and Politicization focuses on post World War II scenarios and he illustrates his reflections well, enhanced by 17 interviews with high-level humanitarian policy-makers, politicians and practitioners, about fundamental changes in the humanitarian landscape from states as primary actors to a complex set-up that has become 

‘increasingly populated with state and non-state actors, including military forces, counter-insurgency operatives, private contractors, diasporas and social media’ (p.63)
that we now know as ‘aid industry’.

Never-Ending Crises: Taking a long view comprises 6 major case studies from Afghanistan, Darfur, Somalia, Palestine, Pakistan and Haiti.
At first I was a bit worried that the case studies from well-known humanitarian crises may be a bit repetitive. But taking a historical approach has worked well for these chapters, too, and they all focus on the topic instrumentalization. Antonio Donini’s chapter on Afghanistan comes with a clear and unfortunately less than surprising conclusion: 

the international community does not learn, and apparently does not wish to do so. Despite ample evidence of the risks and consequences, the temptation to use humanitarian action to achieve political or military objectives – or more broadly, to incorporate humanitarian action in grand political design – has been a recurrent them in Afghanistan’s recent trouble history (p.86).
Donini is also very clear in his assessment of the integration/ coherence agenda: ‘it has blurred the lines, compromised acceptance, made access to vulnerable groups more difficult, and put aid workers in harm’s way’ (p.88).

In Diminishing Returns Helen Young engages with humanitarian action in Darfur. Her detailed review of almost 10 years of international engagement with the conflict is rounded off by conclusions that seem all too familiar and go beyond Darfur: The ‘early politicization’, the ‘failures to develop strategically and support local partnerships’, the ‘employment policies of international organizations [...] who were often recruited from rosters and lacked local knowledge’ and the ‘decrease in general information, clear commentary, and leadership [...], particularly by the United Nations and donors’ (p.107).

Mark Bradbury and Robert Maletta’s chapter When State-Building Fails addresses famine, counterterrorism and the politicization of humanitarian action in Somalia. Like many of the case studies it is a sobering read with slightly depressing conclusions:

By coopting humanitarian assistance in support of political security agendas, the United Nations and donor governments in Somalia lost sight of the principles that guide humanitarian assistance and donor engagement with fragile states. [...] Ultimately, the causes of the famine in Somalia in 2011 remain the same as those that produced famine twenty years earlier in 1992: they are political (p.132).
Diana Buttu’s conversation with Peter Hansen, the former Commissioner-General of UNRWA on Palestine: Sixty Years of Instrumentalization is obviously timelier than ever given the current developments in Palestine and Israel. It makes for a depressing read again, but the format of a long interview at least breaks up the sad stories from an editorial point of view. Peter Hansen’s account reminded me of other UN managers (e.g. Dennis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck and Jutta Burghardt) who left the UN system over debates between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘political’ agendas.

Politics, Rhetoric, and Practice of Humanitarian Action in Pakistan by Marion P├ęchayre delivers a good overview focussing on the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods and is slightly less depressing than some of the previous chapters. In essence, P├ęchayre creates a slightly more positive, or less deterministic picture of aid instrumentalization:

The lesson here is that as long as they do not let instrumentalization happen to them passively, aid actors should be able to determine when instrumentalization is an unavoidable trade-off that allows them to implement their won strategy (p.168).
Mark Schuller wraps up the second part of the book. Haiti’s Bitter Harvest focuses on the latest big humanitarian ‘theatre’ in the ‘republic of NGOs’ as he labels it. In some ways it is an indirect response to the previous chapters and underlines the inability of the humanitarian system to learn, as he points out right at the beginning of the chapter: ‘Primary among the problems were an ineffective coordination system, a reward structure imposed by donors but adopted by NGOs themselves that worked against collaboration and local participation, and a long-standing dismissal of any role for the Haitian government’ (p.172). All in all, the chapter is a good recap of the post-earthquake response by the international community.

I found the final two thematic chapters on food assistance and protection the weakest of the book. That is not so much the fault of the chapters themselves, but by now there is a slightly repetitive momentum building up. But Daniel Maxwell’s “Those With Guns Never Go Hungry” makes an important point that ‘manipulating aid rarely works to anyone’s significant political or strategic advantage’ (p.215) and he suggests that this may be an important argument to focus (food) aid on humanitarian rather than political objectives.

Antonio Donini and Peter Walker contribute an excellent conclusion (So What?) to the volume that is really the ‘must read’ part of the book. Among the things they highlight is the

‘worrying disconnect between the inertia of a humanitarian establishment intent on reproducing and expanding itself, and the daily reality of the physical and structural violence faced by those it purports to help. [...] the humanitarian theatre remains stubbornly self-referential and built around systems, practices, and reward structures that often value growth, if not turf, over principle and effectiveness’ (p.245).
On a theoretical level, they are also very outspoken about the ‘bio-political’ power of the humanitarian enterprise:
Because it is now center stage rather than at the margins and because of the resources and influence that it mobilizes and moves, humanitarian action has crossed the threshold of power. It has transitioned through growth and institutionalization from a powerful discourse to a discourse of power, from mobilizing myth to overpowering enterprise (p.247).
A final point that I find noteworthy because it often comes up in debates is about ‘better training’ of humanitarian professionals. Donini and Walker are less enthused about this area:
The emphasis on the technical – training and creating a profession – unless complemented by efforts to increase the independence of the enterprise and free its agencies from the dominance of the global North by delinking competence and employability from nationality, has the potential to reinforce instrumentalization (p.259).
All in all, the book is an excellent resource on contemporary humanitarian debates and particularly useful as a teaching and learning resource in universities. The only things that I felt were missing was maybe one slightly more ‘positive’ case study (if they exist at all...) as there are a lot of ‘heavy’ stories about humanitarianisms’ short-coming and failures. I was also wondering whether 1-2 case studies from ‘forgotten’ crises would have been interesting to compare them to the well-known and documented case studies this book features. But these are small caveats that should not distract from the powerful historical, technical and theoretical insights this book offers to the reader.
Donini, Antonio: The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, ISBN: 978-1565494886, 318 pages, $29.95, Kumarian Press

Full disclosure: I know Antonio through various professional encounters and asked Kumarian Press for a review copy which they provided in October 2012.


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