“Everything We Did, We Did For Us”: Diplomacy and Humanitarian Aid

I am just listening to my NPR Fresh Air podcasts this afternoon, and would like to share some quotes from the very interesting interview with Peter Van Buren, a veteran Foreign Service officer who “was sent to Baghdad as part of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team, where he was in charge of a group trying to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and economy.” His new book is called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. You can listen to the whole interview here, and I highly recommend that you do.

His descriptions of the American military presence in other countries is disheartening for someone like me who believes that the US is capable of doing a lot of good without being careless as it attempts to do so. But he goes on to discuss a number of other challenges that confront the diplomatic corps. Below are some choice quotes.

We were never able to do things on a large enough scale to make a difference, because the thinking was never long term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one-year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we had to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments, and pictures of smiling Iraqis, and metrics of charts. It was impossible under these circumstances for us to do anything as long term as a water and sewer project.

We rarely thought past next week’s situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn’t flashy enough to involve photographs or maybe bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good.

One colonel that I worked with decided that the best way to win hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture, and the project was called HA, Humanitarian Assistance. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might’ve given a family of four a meal or two, it was nothing special, nothing elaborate. He would load up these food bags, drive out to some village, and hand them out to people.

What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagine yourself as a camera and you focused very closely, you saw happy smiling soldiers handing food bags over to young children or women who were smiling as they accepted them. If you zoomed out a little bit, you found that the soldiers who weren’t in camera range were probably not smiling. You zoomed out a little further, you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us kind of hard stares. This is a country where pride, where self-image is very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country and in many cases caused damage and violence around them, was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride.

Chances are your listeners thinking about this constitutes the only time anything was evaluated, what we did there. The entire process was one of improvisation, of “please do something, because something might work.” There was never anybody who said “Hey, that’s not working, let’s not do that again” or “This seems to have promise, let’s keep doing that.” What we did was never examined, never looked at. There was no sense of output. Everything we did, we did for us… The sense was it wasn’t about the Iraqis, it was about us.

Van Buren raises tons of issues that concern humanitarian assistance and the ethical dilemmas associated with it, including lack of understanding of local context, local knowledge, and local economies – from accidentally driving entrepreneurs away from their businesses to collect garbage, to mistakenly applying the notion that chicken should be packaged rather than being bought live in a market, to buying $5 million worth of a water purifier that ended up being useless in Iraq because of the salt content of the water.

Personally, I think all of this coming after an invasion and war adds all kinds of extra problems. Van Buren, in fact, refers to embassy work as the “benign side of empire.” But it strikes me that in one interview Van Buren can touch on so many of the issues I’ve seen raised since I started following the #SmartAid discussion just over a year ago.

What do you think? Do any of these issues resonate with you and the problems you come up against in aid work? One of the problems Van Buren identifies is that the system encourages individuals to follow procedure, do what they’re told, and not rock the boat. But structure is important. So how do we get around these structural barriers when something needs to be done differently, and how do you ensure that an alternative strategy will not also find alternative ways of screwing things up?

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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2 Responses to “Everything We Did, We Did For Us”: Diplomacy and Humanitarian Aid

  1. aidnography says:

    I also took the article as a starting point for a brief comment on my blog (http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2011/09/books-id-like-to-read-we-meant-well-how.html),HT’ed (?) you accordingly and look forward to reading the book soon!

    • Yes; I too had a kind of “same old story” reaction, but found Van Buren’s account interesting on a number of levels. On top of which no matter how many versions of this story I hear, I never cease to be baffled by them. Thanks for the shout out. 🙂

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