Today We Drop Bombs, Tomorrow We Build Bridges (book review)


It is the 2016 World Humanitarian Day today and publishing a review of Peter Gill’s Today We Drop Bombs, Tomorrow We Build Bridges: How Foreign Aid Became a Casualty of War is a fitting contribution to a rapidly changing humanitarian aid environment.

Gill’s book is an engagingly written hybrid: Not academic, but reflective and well-sourced; more than long-form journalism from conflict zones around the world, but not a ‘war correspondent tells all’ memoir; excursions into the history of the humanitarian system with plenty of contemporary insights and food for thought for the future.
It is a very good resource to discuss the changing nature of the humanitarian system and at the same time accessible to ‘civilians’, aid workers or students who are looking for supplementary reading on the realities and complexities of the humanitarian aid system in ‘the field’.

The end of the white savior
Gill opens his book with a chapter from the Turkey-Syria border, identifying new actors and forms of engagement. The chapter follows a British-Syrian surgeon who started his own NGO to deliver medical relief in Syria funded through diaspora networks. New actors and new forms of funding and engagement are increasingly involved in protracted crises or wars where traditional NGOs struggle with access, staff security and fluidity between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. Like many of his
vignettes and stories the changing nature of aid under the ‘war on terror’ emerges as one of the overarching story lines.

Aid in Afghanistan-the never-ending story of our generation

The strong opening chapter is followed by insights from Afghanistan-and quite frankly, in my line of work/research/reading/teaching I am a bit ‘Afghanistaned-out’. The fact that the U.S. troops have been using money as their most important ammunition in the war (p.31) or that DfID admits that their involvement have been focusing on ‘stabilization’ rather than poverty reduction (p.33) have all been well-documented. He concludes that actors are successful
because they have gained enough local trust to overcome the hazards of alignment. Their success is defined by human factors such as cultural sensitivity, experience on the ground and fine leadership (p.50)
It is certainly worth repeating these insights and yet they also appear at bit shallow and risk focusing on ‘better management’ alone rather than on major political and economic discourses that have been failing Afghanistan for years and decades.

Gill continues his engagement with Afghanistan in the following chapter and as thoughtful, community-focused and well-managed the projects of Mercy Corps or Save The Children may be there is a sense of helpless when the journalist meets the NGO manager:
Despite the Talibanisation of much of the countryside in Helmand, we have trained thousands of young women (pp.66-67).
Schools, women empowerment and a vague promise of a better future; this was in 2013/2014 and as the refugee situation in Europe demonstrated shortly thereafter, many young Afghans, often minors, voted with their feet and made the perilous journey out of their country.

A slow erosion of humanitarian standards
Moving to Pakistan, Gill reminds his readers of an important moment in recent humanitarian history:
Hiring Dr Afridi to run a sham vaccination programme to help catch Osama bin Laden was just one intelligence operation among many. It was also a grave affront to the humanitarian ideals that the United States espouses and proclaims (p.89).
The erosion of humanitarian standards and the lack of accountability is another central theme of the book and these shifts concern more than just diplomatic conversations or humanitarian law workshops. Gill argues that ‘Western aid-givers has been frozen out of a significant humanitarian disaster’ (p.104) (the 2013 earthquake). Aid is now more political than it probably ever was.

When even MSF has to pull out

Moving to Somalia and the ‘war on terror’ Gill turns his readers’ attention to a truly protracted crisis situation, including militarized Islamic insurgents, refugees and IDPs, famine and a ‘textbook’ failed state. Somalia is an important example how shifting dynamics of conflict and new complexities of aid need to be put into a context of a more ‘peaceful’ world (meaning less casualties on battlefields) and nuanced reporting from the fringes of ‘Africa rising’.
If one of the boldest and most resourceful of Western aid agencies was beating such a retreat (pulling out Kenyan staff out of Dadaab), the prospects for other Western humanitarians staying close to the front line in the war on terror seemed very poor indeed (p.141).
Gill likes MSF as he makes that very clear throughout the book-and there is nothing wrong with it per se.
The fact that MSF is outspoken, willing to discuss critical issues with authors like Peter Gill and not afraid to do seemingly unpopular but principled decisions has been part of MSF’s humanitarian engagement beyond simply ‘delivering aid’. So the surely deserve their space in the limelight, but they are also not representative of ‘the’ humanitarian sector.
Gill dedicates chapter 14 (‘French lessons’) to the history of MSF and its critical engagement with the theory and practice if humanitarianism.

The market knows best
There is a nice contract between Gill’s visit to Geneva and a more historical excursion into the ICRC and its engagement with humanitarian issues and chapters 10 and 11 when the ‘beltway bandits’ of Washington, D.C. enter the stage. The story of IRD – International Relief and Development – sheds light on U.S. government contractors, large quasi-companies disguised as ‘non-profits’, and their growing engagement in ‘post conflict’ work in Afghanistan or Iraq. At some point IRD was awarded a USD675 million contract for a ‘Community Stabilisation Program’ in Iraq. Entangled in ‘waste, fraud, and abuse of American taxpayer funds’ (p.202) IRD was suspended from bidding for new USAID contracts and narrowly escaped the end of its operations.
Gill also introduces Bancroft, a hybrid between an investment fund, military training company and aid implementer. So at the end of chapter 11, Gill identifies yet another ‘mega trend’ of the industry:
Bancroft’s emergence and growth underline a broader truth about modern aid-that this mighty, money-spinning industry now accommodates the widest variety of organizations and approaches. (…) That leads to such a close embrace between official funders and the charities they underwrite that a further cost in incurred to humanitarian independence (p.212).
Between moral high ground and flexible responses-how to maintain ‘one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world’?
Tie-ups with industry, hard-core advertising, more and more funding from government: this is modern aid charity at work. (…) But a price is paid, sometimes in reputation, sometimes even in in principle. (p.251).
Gill dedicates the final part of his book to the challenges of the humanitarian system. He avoids any ‘how to fix a broken system’ narrative and points out some of the key challenges from weak UN peacekeeping missions (as currently seen in the context of South Sudan) to an erosion of humanitarian principles (as currently seen in the context on Saudi Arabia’s engagement in Yemen or NATO’s role in bombing hospitals in Afghanistan). It highlights the timeliness and relevance of his book as a reminder that some of these detrimental developments have been going on for some years now.
Independence, impartiality and neutrality are not just abstract concepts. They provide the best approach to even the worst of contemporary conflicts. They do not themselves provide access behind the lines, still less any guarantee of safety, but they offer the moral confidence to make an attempt.
(…)
Humanitarian aid has to be much more than an adjunct to foreign and security policy (p.288).
These are aspirational, but important wishes for the future of the humanitarian aid system.

Gill’s very good blend of journalistic insights, reflections on the past and present of the humanitarian system and a measured appeal for a sustainable future of aid round off a book I can recommend highly as in introduction into the complexities of modern conflict and the growing repertoire to respond to the need of suffering human beings.

Humanitarian aid is still an ‘imperfect offering’ and maintaining our humanity will be challenged, whether its is from greedy contractors, the Saudi Arabian air force or governments pursuing their own ‘war on terror’ agenda.


Gill, Peter: Today We Drop Bombs, Tomorrow We Build Bridges: How Foreign Aid Became a Casualty of War. ISBN 978-1-783-60122-6, 310 pages, 19.99 USD, Zed Books, London, 2016.

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