Sandwiches at the Gates of Hell

One of the camps in Dadaab, Kenya

When you tell UN and NGO people that that you’re going to Dadaab the reaction is usually sympathetic:

“Really?” they commiserate,  “For how long?”

We were in and out.  I can’t say that I’m looking forward to returning.    

Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp.  It is Kenya’s third largest “city” and by far its most miserable.  The population of the camps is almost entirely Somali.  The first refugee camps in Dadaab opened in 1991, when Somali strongman Siad Barre was overthrown, triggering the first wave of chaos in the country.  With Ethiopia’s recent (re)incursion opening a third front in Somalia’s conflict, we can be assured that the refugee population of Dadaab will not be declining anytime soon.

It was dusk when we arrived.  On the way from the dirt airstrip to the UN / INGO compound we passed lots of unsmiling people and evil looking storks picking at piles of rubbish.  The sunsets are incredible in Kenya’s northeast, unspoilt by pollution or buildings.  But, you can only look at the sky for so long before lowering your gaze to the wretchedness on the ground.  Life is hard in Dadaab and recently it has gotten a lot more dangerous. 

Since the summer, Kenya’s northeast has seen a significant spike in kidnapping, ambushes and clashes with police & military, including at least 8 separate improvised explosive device attacks.  The kidnap of two Spanish women working for Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) in Dadaab on October 13th garnered significant international attention; it also scared the shit out of the UN and INGO community in Kenya’s northeast.  On October 16th Kenyan forces entered southern Somalia.  Active combat has been ongoing since.            


Sometimes in this job I have crises of faith.  Is the UN helping?  When you visit long-term humanitarian hubs like Dadaab you are smacked in the face with this question.  As a field security officer, I am UN support personnel.  The point is the program – the UNHCR shelter project, the WHO inoculation drive, the UNDP microfinance campaign.  My job begins and ends with the program.  Get people in, let them do their work and hope the program is worth the effort.  It’s easy for UN field security personnel to throw their hands up, “Hey, I did my bit, the program is their business.”  I’ve felt the urge to succumb to this line of reasoning more often than I care to admit.  But, I could not dedicate my professional life to an institution that I did not believe in.  In War and Peace Tolstoy put it thus: 

Don’t you understand that either we are officers serving our Tsar and country, rejoicing in the successes and grieving at the misfortunes of our common cause or we are merely lackeys who care nothing for their master’s business.   

I yell at the T.V. screen when I hear (mostly right-wing American) commentators being intentionally dishonest about the United Nations.  One area that detractors of the organization are especially disingenuous about is expectations of UN humanitarian aid operations.  Which brings us back to my original question about the UN in Dadaab: are we helping?      

It has been said that the goal of any humanitarian aid operation should be to make itself unnecessary.  By this bar, UN operations in Dadaab have not been successful: 1991 – 2011 is a long time for refugee camps to be running.  But, housing, feeding and protecting refugees addresses the results of instability, not the causes of it.  The causes of instability in Somalia require political solutions.  In the absence of political empowerment in the form of a firm Security Council (SC) resolution, the agencies of the UN are left with humanitarian action.  Conventional wisdom dictates that humanitarian action is always a good thing.  I’m not convinced.  Interestingly, the word “humanitarian” is only mentioned once in the UN Charter:

“To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion;”*

The international community’s assistance to Japan in the wake of that country’s recent disaster is a good example of humanitarian action uncomplicated by political crisis.  The agencies of the UN do this type of humanitarian response very well.  Criticism of the organization’s humanitarian responses tends to focus on actions in places suffering political crises, usually war.  During the Bosnian conflict the UN was accused of distributing food, but not stopping civilians from being slaughtered.  Or, as French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy put it, “passing out sandwiches at the gates of Auschwitz.”**  But, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was simply fulfilling the terms of its SC mandate, which was essentially to “freeze” the battle lines and allow UN aid agencies to keep people civilians alive.  So the question really is, should the UN conduct humanitarian operations in places where it is not empowered to make itself unnecessary?    

Journalist Linda Polman asks questions like this about humanitarianism the way Economist Thomas Sowell does about “Affirmative Action,” – with no bullshit.  Is humanitarian action always a good thing?  Are there instances when humanitarian action is actually counterproductive?
The humanitarian community is awash with examples of aid being used as a weapon in war.  During the conflict in Liberia, former President Charles Taylor demanded 15% of the value of aid, to be paid to him in cash.  In Somalia “entrance fees” charged by warlords have reached as high as 80% of the worth of aid supplies.  In 2006 aid organizations in southern Afghanistan handed over at least one third of their food aid to the Taliban. ***

What’s worse than handing out sandwiches at the gates of hell?  Giving those sandwiches to the demons. 

The desire to ease human suffering unconditionally is a noble undertaking.  But, is it necessarily always a logical one?  If “the greatest kindness in war is to bring it to a speedy conclusion,” then doesn’t blindly impartial humanitarian aid just prolong the misery?

Again, Linda Polman:

Imagine.  It’s 1943.  You’re an international aid worker.  The telephone rings.  It’s the Nazis.  You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners. 
What do you do? 

If you conform to the practices of the humanitarian aid industry, you’ll deliver the supplies. ***       

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the forerunner of every modern humanitarian aid organization; it prides itself on its utter impartiality and independence from political interests.  The UN is not the ICRC.  The UN takes sides – a “Chapter VII Peace-Enforcement” mission is the ultimate example of this.  Organizations like the ICRC have their place, but I’m glad that, as a political organization, the UN accepts responsibility for abuse of its largesse.  

Saving lives or fueling conflict – no one said this type of work was going to be easy.  Or guilt free.    

* Charter of the United Nations, Chapter 1, Article 1, Section 3.

** “A Balkan Gyre of War, Spinning Onto Film” New York Times, March 12, 1995


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