Foley is an experienced humanitarian worker who has served with a variety of non-governmental agencies in disaster and war zones in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In this book, he breaks down some of what has helped and what has harmed in the various international forays into war-torn and/or disaster-struck countries over the last 20 years. He is not confident that much good has been achieved, but this book certainly provides a lot of context about these civilian interventions.
British and other internationalists have more nuanced categories for thinking about these issues than people in the United States. I had trouble at first disentangling Foley's terminology. Here's what I figured out: when he writes of "humanitarianism," he means non-governmental organizations that devote themselves to the immediate needs of suffering people and that usually have taken up some rhetoric and practice aimed at sustainable development: think Oxfam or CARE. Writing of "human rights," he means proliferating efforts to bring principles of international law to states and people in distress: think Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In most of the world, the most significant non-governmental organizations of both types are various United Nations bodies -- in this country we remain largely oblivious to the UN, except when our rulers congratulate themselves on obtaining the fig leaf of UN assent to adventures such as the current war in Libya.
Foley begins by sharing one of humanitarianism's dirty and little discussed insights: the 1970 campaign to feed starving Biafrans in Nigeria's southeast separatist corner -- an intervention that set the template for much subsequent non-governmental work in conflict areas -- was badly ill-conceived and executed.
One trouble is that relief organizations have to spotlight human suffering and then make their own work highly visible within any disaster context in order to persuade donors to fund their efforts. Any of us who've raised money for a non-profit know this well. In the immediate aftermath of a calamity that happens in a place without major prior ongoing conflict, this necessary dramatization may not have such bad consequences. Foley holds up the response to the 2005 Pacific tsunami as such a relatively benign intervention.
In war zones, efforts that Foley has seen and worked within haven't gone so well, especially those that tried to go beyond relieving immediate suffering to promotion of human rights. Most visibly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. invading armies made no secret that NGO work was welcome as a "force multiplier" -- a cheap means of providing some benefits to win over occupied populations. The occupied people were not so happy about that; conflict zones have become death zones for "humanitarian" workers who were too often viewed as just more invaders.
NGO's understand the problems; they work hard to transfer their work to local, native country, staff. That means training them in the values of international human rights -- and that process often has an Alice in Wonderland quality as the norms prescribed have so little to do with the experience and society into which agencies are trying to plant them. Foley recounts the response of Kosovan co-workers to a training on children's rights.
So much for facile assumptions of universal values.
Foley is very skeptical of the International Criminal Court -- and not only because the United States has undermined it at every turn, refusing to allow any possibility that possibly criminal actions by our own military might ever be subject to review by an international body. (That's the content of our beloved "American exceptionalism" in the real world: impunity.) Without genuine assent from all the world's great military powers, the ICC remains a backwater functional only "for dealing with mid-level thugs and warlords or retired dictators" -- yet too often the threat of punishment from this ineffectual body only makes ending local conflicts more difficult.
Even some people in Britain and other parts of the rich world who might be expected to be friends of NGO aid work rather lightly refuse to engage imaginatively with the implications of Annan's question. Foley laments
The UN intervention that didn't happen in the Sudan's Darfur region in the last decade -- despite the diligent urging of some humanitarian organizations that the refugee crisis there amounted to "genocide" -- provides Foley with an example of what he considers culpable political incapacity on the part of humanitarian organizations.
Yet despite these dangers, there remain the suffering people; in response, aid agencies inevitably undertake compromised missions, at least some of the time.
The Thin Blue Line was published in 2008. Reading the book in 2011, I wondered what Foley thought of the current NATO/US campaign in Libya. He is someone who might have a nuanced view. Fortunately, he's told us what he thinks in a post at Crooked Timber. On March 22 he wrote:
I wonder whether Foley still looks at the Libya intervention the same way. I've lost any hope I had in the project, in good part because I am watching our president make up transparently flimsy legal excuses for violating our own principles of government in order to carry it out. If jumping in encourages bad conduct here, I tend to think it is not likely to bring good fruit in someone else's country. But maybe I ask too much moral clarity.
The Thin Blue Line concludes by reinforcing that even the most dedicated humanitarians end up living with moral ambiguity.
Long term humanitarian workers have to be made of tough moral stuff.