Tony Waters (2001): Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan: The Limitations to Humanitarian Relief Operations.
Waters's is an ambitious and original book that, in its very expansiveness, is more bricolage than integrated whole. Through its fragmented sections, subsections, chapters, and addenda, it aspires to three ends: to be an aid worker's critical memoir; to recount the international refugee relief regime's emergence, successes, and failures; and to provide a prescriptive, social scientific account of this regime's dysfunctions. Waters succeeds well on the first two fronts, chronicling his experience and providing important historical perspective. As sociology, however, the book fails to integrate the text's chapters and sub-topics into a persuasive, linear explanation.
With extensive experience in both Asia and Africa, Waters effectively describes the perceptions, conflicts, and frustrations facing individuals charged with extending the international community's mercy to the world's refugees. In doing so, he readily reveals his own fascination and fears when facing unconscionable realities and impossible tasks: stringing a net to catch genocide victims tumbling over a waterfall, while succoring Hutu refugees presumed of complicity in the killings, for example. This 'worm's eye view' provides an important, humanizing corrective to external critiques that often ignore the pressures on those charged with performing the honorable and necessary, under unfamiliar and trying circumstances.
The book's description of the international refugee relief regime's evolution, capacities, and dysfunctions, from Second World War Europe to contemporary Africa, stands alone as a valuable primer. Although Waters might have made more of relief efforts in the former Yugoslavia, where the UNHCR dramatically extended its coordinating and political functions, there are potent briefs on western and eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and an elaborate review of assistance programs in western Tanzania. Combined, these illustrate the inherent challenges that diverse, politicized, and unpredictable environments present for the bureaucratic machinery needed to provide relief on a massive scale. While generally congratulatory--millions of lives have been saved since the Second World War--Waters also draws attention to the regime's failures and the structures behind them. The dependence on media-driven politicians, he maintains, results in too many cases when needed aid simply does not arrive. In others, host governments make refugees suffer in hopes of eliciting international sympathies and moneys.
Waters argues that even when action is taken--initially as a deluge of funding and expatriates--its effects are typically not ideal. Faced with fickle donors and the unfamiliar complexity surrounding contemporary humanitarian emergencies, professional aid workers quickly establish routines privileging short-term goals, when what is called for is long-term strategic planning. The need to retain the media's gaze, and journalists' subsequent accounts, produce a Manichean mindset in which refugees are either pitiable (i.e. camera-friendly) victims or aggressors supporting the violence they have just fled, or subverting the relief efforts themselves. Both dehumanize refugees and lead to sometimes disastrous policy decisions, most notably the forced repatriation of vulnerable populations.
Even with Waters's accurate factual descriptions and plausible explanations, the book's causal logics and mechanisms are too underspecified and fragmented to form a convincing sociological work. Its origins help explain, but do not excuse, this shortcoming. As Waters admits, he did not originally set out to test hypotheses, but rather, and quite legitimately, conceived this project as a post hoc analysis. While attempting to do this by combining 'traditional historical narrative' with a 'comparative sociological analysis' (p. 9), the comparisons appear largely anecdotal. The result is a critical, but not synthetic, review of events and impressions. The inclusion of eight 'background essays' after the main text further fragments the narrative and causal reasoning. Although the study's unpredictable subject does not lend itself to experimental methods, a rigorous framework and more careful editing would have yielded a more persuasive and probing product. Even brief consideration of his prescriptions helps reveal the inconsistencies and potential hazards of his current reasoning.
Waters's primary and seemingly paradoxical solution to the relief bureaucracy's shortcomings is, surprisingly, further bureaucratization: 'The solution is to strengthen bureaucratic rationality, and not delegate authority to the necessarily emotionalized popular press, which is pursuing other ends than the delivery of rationalized services to refugees' (p. 11). Instead of the current regime, he envisions a technocratic, goal-oriented, and depoliticized relief administration. This requires that agencies cease involvements with issues 'like the administration of justice, promotion of reconciliation, and promotion of voluntary repatriation', as these inescapably comprise 'the central goals of refugee relief and protection' (p. 225). This initially makes sense as a post hoc conclusion. One can quite easily look back and see what should have been done and how properly trained experts, free of the capricious media, could have been both more effective and efficient. As a programmatic recommendation, however, it must be approached with considerable trepidation.
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, a goal-oriented bureaucracy relying on pre-established standards and modalities may simply not have the capacity to navigate the dynamic conditions in which it most frequently operates. As Waters notes, redundancy and flexibility are key to extending mercy quickly and effectively in volatile socio-political environments. Maintaining such capabilities means granting field officers considerable discretion, something that may well undermine the kind of rationalization Waters demands. Indeed, strictly defined goals and operating procedures may serve as cognitive blinders that exacerbate one of the conditions he hopes to overcome. If effective, relief is premised on first understanding the host country's political climate and a refugee populations' social complexity, who is more ill-equipped than a highly rationalized bureaucracy staffed by engineers, logistics personnel, demographers, epidemiologists, and nutritionists? Exclusive focus on technical issues may save lives, but risks reinforcing disparities and power structures that provide incentives and motivations for continued violence. Such a strategy could sacrifice both short-term protection and retard long-term resolutions. These are difficult compromises that must be debated in context, not categorically dismissed.
One is also left wondering if shielding the relief apparatus from public scrutiny and political pressures is as desirable as Waters first makes out. Although his mandate to create 'the powerful bureaucratic mechanisms needed to extend mercy to the hurt and hungry lying on the world's highways' (p. 245)--a kind of standing humanitarian army--is noble, it may publicly raise fears of an uncontrolled and unaccountable United Nations. Given Americans' general suspicion of 'big government' and reluctance to extend foreign aid, a solution that heightens popular perceptions that tax dollars are supporting a bureaucracy beyond elected officials' control is likely to backfire. Indeed, limiting the public's ability to influence relief processes may raise suspicions while dulling Samaritan impulses, succoring those seeking further cuts in aid and relief appropriations. Should this occur, the result will be a rationalized and technically competent relief regime that is hamstrung and ultimately ineffective.
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
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|Publication:||Journal of Asian and African Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2004|
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