Friday, 10 December 2010

The Culpable Innocence of Humanitarian Aid

I attended the Commonwealth Educational Ministers Conference in Lagos in 1968 to persuade the ministers to make a TV film like “Nigeria: Culture in Transition” for each of their regional English literatures. Such a library would make a solid foundation for a globally involved International English curriculum. Alas, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate to be, who MC-ed that film and who I wanted to appear at the screening at the American Embassy, had just been incarcerated for taking the Biafran side of their Civil War. (I had met him at the First International African Arts Festival in Dakar in 1966).

And I had been using this film as well his own work as I began to internationalize my traditional Am Lit course. I had also discussed my plans with Chinua Achebe whose novel “Things Fall Apart” had been the most successful work in my expansion plans for International English literature. He was a Biafran who fled to America because of the Civil War, the first in Africa since they decolonialized. Now, as Nigeria celebrates its 50th anniversary of freedom, I learn that the war started because oil rich Biafra wanted to be free. That continuing fracas around Port Harcourt still enfeebles the largest nation in Africa.

There was a decent audience at the Embassy Aud for the screening. But as I wrapped up the meeting, I saw a cluster of people at the exit. I inquired who they were, and the Embassy rep said they were all critical of the showing! I was soon to see why! A reporter from the Lagos daily offered to drive me back to the Federal Palace Hotel. He didn’t say his vehicle was a motor bike, and that machine plus Lagos traffic makes my hands still sweat every time I see a showoff performing solo.

What a surprise awaited me at the hotel. Three CID (that stood I soon learned for Criminal Investigation Division) detectives followed me upstairs to my room. The first thing they did was turn on my Uher tape recorder: they suspiciously asked why the tape played Major General Gowon, the head of state! “It’s the speech he gave to open the conference!” I explained, dumbstruck.

They riffled around the many papers I had collected, and wanted suspiciously to know what the ten rolls of film contained. “Conference events. And Lagos shots. For the film I am planning.” In short, they confiscated the recorder and camera, as well as the tapes and films. Then they said I had to talk with their lieutenant and led me to their cruiser.

It was dark by then, and there were no car lights nor street lights, because of the war. I suddenly remembered the BBC-TV stringer who offered to buy my gear the day before. I began to speculate that they were out to swipe the gear. I was never so happy to be taken into a police station! The lieutenant was bright enough to see I was only a professor from London where I taught that year. But he took my gear and tapes. The next day, the Canadian ambassador shamed them into returning my gear, but it was six months before I got the tapes and films back in London, developed.

Dr. Springer, the conference exec, explained the Paranoia: He had told me I could go anywhere at the conference—as long as I didn’t get in the way. When they announced an airplane trip to Kano, the Muslim quarter in the North, I signed up. At flight time, there was one seat free. So I went. A few minutes after we flew off, the Ghana education minister arrived, pissed that he had been bumped by an American! That eventually morphed into the charge that I was a CIA plant! Imagine! The CIA conceivedly might have been spooking me. Never vice versa.

But what I have now belatedly learned is that humanitarian aid has been co-opted by the warriors, beginning with Biafra: Philip Gourevitch spells it all in the New Yorker (November 5,2010) in ”Alms Dealers: The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Aid” , a splendid review of Linda Polman’s new book,The Crisis Caravan (Metropolitan Books, 2010). She mocks the proliferation of NGO’s as MONGO’s (My own nongovernmental Organization!) Basically it is a call to NGO’s to accept critical scrutiny. It’s not enough that they’re idealistic or pretending to be. She insists on asking questions to which they have no acceptable answers. How is it, for example, that there have been 10,000 NGO’s in Haiti in the past 50 years and the people are poorer and poorer.

Polman starts with the London tab, The Sun, which ran photos of starved Biafran children, “withered little wraiths”. It awakened the same Americans who were complaining to LBJ about the Vietnam War. It was the first war covered by TV. LBJ pleaded vis-a-vis Biafra: ”Get those nigger babies off my TV set.”

And yet aid to Biafra was miniscule: total expenditures was less than three days cost of taking lives in Vietnam, or 20 minutes of the cost of the Apollo 11 flight. Still the UK, with an eye on Biafran oil supported the blockade by sea. And Nigeria insisted “Starvation is a legitimate weapon, and we have every intention of using it.” Night flights were used, the greatest short of the Berlin Airlift. The most enduring legacy was the human rights watch.

By the time Sierra Leone was embroiled in a civil war, hand amputations became the crime of the day because it triggered the most sympathy. When we “started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us.”Sowing horror to reap aid, and reaping aid to sow aid. An evil new system. And war lords started “taxing” NGO’s. Liberia’s Charles Taylor was satisfied with 15%. Ethiopia and Somali went as high as 80%! Christian NGO’s saved Sudan slaves only to discover that raised their value on the slave market.

Linda Polman's book describes the founding of the Red Cross. Henri Dunant observed the Battle of Solferino on 6/24/1859. 300,000 were killed that day. He returned to Geneva to found Red Cross. Frances Nightingale took a different lesson from her involvement in the Crimean war. To reduce the cost of wars to her seemed to make them more attractive. So our efforts to be more sensibly humanitarian remain a major global responsibility. It’s going to be harder than modernizing a curriculum. But those humanities must include self criticism for the idealistic. Together, we better become responsible international citizens.

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