Ethical Dilemmas in the Gift Relationship

by padraigcolman

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on November 6 but it has disappeared from their website.



Sophocles: “An enemy’s gift is ruinous and no gift”.

At its annual Berlin Humanitarian Congress, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) discussed  some of the ethical dilemmas it has faced over the past 40 years. The report, published this month,  is entitled  Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience.

Dutch journalist Linda Polman argued in her book War Games that humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers. She cites a damning catalogue of examples in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Polman believes aid enabled the interhamwe, Rwandan  Hutu extremists, from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma,  to continue their attempt to exterminate  Tutsis.

A number of people from the NGO world rushed to attack Polman but they failed to address substantively her central thesis. The May 2010 issue of Opinion, the journal of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, carried a long article by Matthew Foley intended to be a rebuttal of Polman’s book. Foley  complains:We tell donors that they’re not giving enough, while simultaneously telling ourselves that giving too much creates aid dependency… A lack of contextual knowledge, plus cultural insensitivity, often lead to inappropriate, unwanted or unsustainable projects. Displaced people are still herded into massive camps because delivering aid is easier and cheaper when they are in one place, despite evidence that camps are often incubators of disease and crime, and often develop into more-or-less permanent communities. At higher policy levels, we worry that humanitarian aid may become a substitute for the state, freeing governments of their responsibility to their own people.”

Fabrice Weissman, one of the co-authors of the MSF book was quoted as saying:

“In Sri Lanka in 2009, the government rounded up some 270,000 people it suspected of supporting Tamil rebels and then gave aid groups the job of providing the basic services. We did not want to be supporting a vast prison for an innocent civilian population which the state was unjustly labelling criminals, but we were also concerned about what would happen to the civilians if we didn’t assist them.”

Where did that crazy idea come from?! MSF adopted a more reasonable attitude on their website on September 24, 2009:


“The Sri Lankan Ministry of Health have mobilized significant resources from all over the country to provide health care in the camps; deploying doctors and nurses in 24 health structures, and therefore considers MSF medical assistance in the camps unnecessary. Some primary health care facilities have been set up in camp zones and a referral system has been implemented gradually since February. MSF teams are currently working in three hospitals outside the camps… Two of the Ministry of Health hospitals, Vavuniya General Hospital and Pompaimadu Hospital, are supported by MSF with extra human resources and some equipment. .. However, despite significant effort, the needs of a population trapped in conflict for so many years remain substantial and concerning. MSF is ready to scale up its activities to assist the Ministry of Health in their efforts to provide quality health care in the camps and during the resettlement process.”

When Henri Dunant set up the Red Cross, he was keen to stay neutral in any conflict. He wished to ease the suffering of all victims of war, which at that time were mostly soldiers. These days civilians are usually caught up, and even used as human shields, in conflicts. Dunant was opposed by Florence Nightingale who argued that Dunant’s compassionate vision was a charter for prolonging war. Linda Polman agrees with Nightingale that neutrality is as much of a problem as taking sides.

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business – at least $18 billion in 2008. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

During the Sri Lankan conflict  there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA? Athens-Clarke County in Georgia, home of REM, has 28.6% of its population living below the poverty line.

Giving humanitarian assistance directly to armed groups is another topic tackled in the MSF book. “Combatants are also human beings and sometimes they need humanitarian assistance more than civilians,” Weissman said. “When combatants are wounded we no longer consider them combatants.”

Considering the comments about the IDP camps, one wonders whether MSF were neutral when it came to those combatants known as the Tamil Tigers. Is Weissman expressing personal views or has the MSF, since September 2009, altered its stance and added to  the chorus of western lies about Sri Lanka?

I intend to write more later on the topic of aid.