Blinded by Humanity (2015)

Interested in international development, NGOs or the United Nations? Martin Barber's "Blinded by Humanity: Inside the UN's Humanitarian Operations" (2015) provides insight on the challenges and lessons learned.

On good intentions:

  • "…if there is one message that I would pass on to young people wanting to do good in the world, it is this: be passionate, but know your world. Everybody can have good intentions, and indeed, most people do. If you fail to understand the context in which you are working and the people you are working with, and if you do not assess, with infinite care, the likely impact of your actions on them, you may find that you will do more harm than good." (218)
  • "Supplies and equipment had already arrived in Vientiane, and the team was on its way. We could have to find something else for them to do. We did but it was not enough to keep them fully occupied… There would be many times in the future when I could recall this story, either to myself, or in discussions with colleagues anxious for a quick fix or a high-profile gesture which would show the world that we were 'doing something', even if what we were doing was a diversion, more for show, for publicity, than to meet a defined and realistic objective. It was an early introduction to the idea that good intentions are not enough." (17)

On politics:

  • "… should UNHCR have insisted that the Hmong refugees at Ban Vinai be moved to a site further from the border? And should UNHCR have sought to identify people who were using the camp as a base for resistance activities in Laos and had them excluded from the camp? Of course, we should have. But, if UNHCR wants to put pressure on a government to changes its policy, it needs allies among the governments of other countries… in that Cold War theatre, the US was quite happy to turn a blind eye to resistance efforts in Laos by the Hmong and others; and so the support for UNHCR to insist on compliance with principles was not forthcoming. For idealistic young staff of UNHCR in Thailand, this was an early lesson in realpolitik and in the toothless nature of our organization." (33)

On priorities:

  • "…we had the greatest difficulty persuading any of the many NGOs to provide us with sanitation engineers. The president of one of the very best of the American refugee NGOs came to my office in Bangkok to tell me that his NGO would be able to provide three fully equipped medical teams. I told him that was great news, but I would be grateful if he could swap two of them for sanitation teams. He didn't think he could do that, but he would try for one. A few days later, he called from the US to say that he had tried his best, but that he could not persuade the donors of any of the medical teams to spend money on sanitation instead. It was just no sexy." (45)
  • "During the many years I spent working on Afghanistan, the projects I felt were most successful were those with the least involvement of international staff and the greatest 'ownership' by Afghans." (214)

On celebrities:

  • "At first sight, VIP visitors may not appear to achieve much. But they bring the work of the agency to the attention of the most senior people in the government of the affected country. They also attract media coverage. The main beneficiaries of such visits are often the national officials acting as counterparts to the UN agency. It gives them face-time with their most senior leadership and allows them to advertise the programme's achievements in the press. Handled well, such visits can have a very positive impact on the relations between the UN agency and its national counterparts." (27)


  • "Overnight my income had multiplied by ten. I was not longer required to eke out my existence on the modest VSO allowance or an equally miserly research grant. This included the first of what would be a series of losing battles with my conscience over the ethics of being well paid in very poor countries for doing work that I considered essentially charitable." (19)

Our common humanity:

  • "In the face of appalling things happening in their country, how did the Lao themselves react? I suspect the answer is, 'Much like almost everybody does, all over the world'. They felt anger, but soon discovered there was little to be gained from it. They felt compassion for the victims, but they had few resources to share with them. Above all, they felt confusion – why was this happening in their country? And because their politicians seemed to be the pawns of bigger powers whose leaders were so remote, they felt powerless to do anything about it." (15)
In Canadian Association of Food Studies Newsletter
The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957)

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