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When Doing Good Also Aids the Devil

New York Times

Published: December 25, 2005

ZIMBABWE, 2005 Agencies can feed the homeless - if they leave the city.

IN this season of generosity, of morality plays about Scrooge and the Grinch
and the global imperative to help those who are less fortunate, think a
moment about this question: what if your gift could relieve Tiny Tim's
misery for now, but risked perpetuating it - or even worsening it - in the
long run?

This is no theoretical exercise, and there is no easy answer. Just this sort
of dilemma is unfolding right now worldwide, in places like Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, more than a third of the 12 million population need donated
food to avoid malnutrition, or worse. More than 700,000 urban Zimbabweans
lost their homes this year as well.

The United Nations and nonprofit charities with global reach are, as always,
rushing to help. The World Food Program will distribute 331,000 metric tons
of corn and other staples in Zimbabwe by 2007, nearly a third of all the
donations it plans for southern Africa. The United Nations is building 2,500
shelters in Harare, the capital, to house the homeless.

Such generosity is welcome, but its subtext raises wrenching ethical issues.
For in the view of critics, these humanitarian gestures will not simply save
lives and ease misery, though they will surely do that. The critics say that
the aid also will bolster Zimbabwe's authoritarian regime, which razed and
burned the homes of those 700,000 citizens earlier this year, and commanded
them to move into the countryside.

President Robert G. Mugabe calls the demolitions slum clearance. Critics
call them a plot to disperse the same impoverished Zimbabweans who pose the
greatest threat to Mr. Mugabe's 25-year rule.

Most United Nations food aid is being funneled, at Zimbabwe's insistence,
into rural areas. While that need is great, the effect is to deny aid to
those poor who have lost their homes but who resisted being relocated to
rural areas. Zimbabwe's rulers have also refused to let the United Nations
erect tents or other temporary shelters that might make it easier for those
whose homes were razed to remain in the cities.

The world's aid to Zimbabweans is part of a devil's bargain, critics say:
save the poor from hunger and exposure, but at the price of aiding the very
rulers who are making them hungry and exposed in the first place.

Should such deals be struck? Implicitly and otherwise, they are struck all
the time: In Darfur, relief organizations might be said to have aided the
Sudanese government's ethnic cleansing merely by providing assistance to
refugee camps set up by the victims of that cleansing. While refugees are
fed and housed far away from their homes, the government can consolidate its
hold on their former territory.

North Korea demanded this month that international food donors leave the
country by year's end, ratcheting up its leaders' efforts to stop outsiders
from monitoring the delivery of food to its starving citizens. In Bosnia,
Rwanda and dozens of other crises, humanitarian agencies have been faced
with the prospect that their good deeds could redound to the benefit of
those who created the human suffering they sought to address.

Such moral dilemmas hardly overshadow the life-saving work that relief
agencies perform. But the dilemmas are not trivial. Since the cold war
ended, humanitarian responses to wars and political crises have mushroomed,
sometimes supplanting more muscular diplomatic and military actions of years
past. Sending aid, it seems, is easier, warmer and fuzzier than tackling the
root problems that led to the crisis at hand.

As relief has become a preferred response to problems like refugee crises,
dictators and warlords have become ever cannier at exploiting that aid. And
the dilemmas have become more common and thornier. "It's one of the
conundrums that humanitarian organizations face," Larry Minear, the director
of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University, said in a
telephone interview. Such tradeoffs, he said, have provoked debate over
whether there are times when "one should withhold assistance in the interest
of whatever overall objective there might be - including an end to the
particular conflict that might be creating the need."

Rarely, agencies do withhold assistance. After the Rwanda genocide of the
mid-1990's, the International Rescue Committee pulled its workers out of
refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo after concluding that
soldiers behind the genocide were using the camps to regroup for further

"We just decided we would not be complicit," George Rupp, the organization's
current president, said in a telephone interview. But, he acknowledged:
"That was a very complicated decision, one that continues to reverberate
around the I.R.C. The result was that there were people with real needs that
were not met."

In almost every case, agencies swallow hard and offer help anyway, arguing
that the greater good of saving lives and reducing suffering outweighs the
ignominy of being a handmaiden to oppression. The real question, perhaps, is
how that ignominy might be held to a minimum.

One option, experts say, is for relief agencies to publicize their devil's
bargains - to show the world how such blackmail works, and potentially to
shame those responsible for it. Another is to press wrongdoers, publicly and
in private, to stop rights abuses that humanitarians can document. Relief
agencies have historically been loath to do that for fear that angry
governments will bar them from helping victims of the abuses.

A theologian in Geneva, Hugo Slim, believes that this fear is overrated;
even evil rulers, he says, are usually reluctant to do much more than hector
those who bring aid. Mr. Slim, the chief scholar at the Center for
Humanitarian Dialogue, said in an interview that relief agencies can be
creative in expressing themselves, perhaps by persuading moral authorities
further removed from the crisis to speak for them.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the World Food Program and the United Nations
Development Program have said little about the constraints imposed on them.
But top United Nations humanitarian and housing envoys have been scathingly
critical of Mr. Mugabe's slum-demolition program and have demanded that
relief agencies be given wider leeway to aid its victims.

Humanitarian organizations can also be subversive. Even if they are sharply
limited in their own efforts, relief workers can strike quiet alliances with
local activists, leverage their influence with sympathetic government
insiders and educate those they are helping about their rights.

If all else fails, Mr. Slim, Mr. Minear and others agree, the last resort -
halting aid and withdrawing - remains. Even then, Mr. Slim said, it is vital
to explain the decision to the needy and seek their "informed consent." Such
efforts shield aid agencies from charges of desertion, and preserve the bond
between benefactor and recipient that is at the heart of humanitarian

All those are long-term strategies. But they hold the prospect of reducing
the humanitarian world's complicity in long-term problems.

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Africans must denounce Mugabe

Sunday Nation, Kenya

      Publication Date: 12/25/2005
            As a Kenyan who lived under the bad old single-party days, and
who is today enjoying freedom of speech and rising economic prosperity in
our pluralistic democracy, I am angered by Africa's reluctance to speak out
against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

            Dictatorship has been the principal factor keeping Africans
poor. It is no longer any good for Africa to pretend that openly criticising
an African dictator is somehow betraying the "black race". After all it's
the black Zimbabweans who are suffering the most, and starving the most.
It's not a race matter but a right versus wrong issue.

            If anything civil liberties are in retreat in the West and I
feel sorry for them. For example, detention without trial is back in force
in Britain and the US is now spying on its own citizens without court

            If I was charged with instituting land reform in Zimbabwe,
instead of destroying productive farms that are now lie fallow (waiting for
the fertile topsoil to be washed away forever), I would have turned the
farms into companies and given the landless black peasants shares in them
that they would not be allowed to sell for at least 10 years (say a 50-50
split so that both sides must work together for either side to profit).

            That way white Zimbaweans could retain an incentive to keep on
farming, whilst black Zimbabweans would get the money to send thier children
to school and have the time to learn, accumulate capital and eventually farm
for themselves.

            That would have been a much more constructive way of moving
forward than destroying the nation's economy. Talk about cutting off your
nose to spite your face. If the African Union is ever going to be better
than the OAU, and if Thabo Mbeki's "African Renaissance" is ever going to be
more than yet another empty slogan, then we must not be afraid of denouncing
Mugabe's dictatorship.

            A. Gombe,


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Zimbabweans line up for petrol in Musina


December 25, 2005, 16:30

With thousands of motorists crossing the Zimbabwe border in both directions,
filling stations are now congested at Musina and the Beitbridge border post
in Limpopo.

Many drivers were filling up empty containers with petrol, citing the high
cost and lack of fuel in Zimbabwe.

Eric Libert, a filling station owner in Musina, welcomes the added demand.
"We are all profiting from them. I think this is a big input in Musina and
our business community, especially with the fuel situation in Zimbabwe. They
are filling up containers and cars and our business is booming this time of
the year."

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Zim prison guards charged with assault


          December 25 2005 at 10:16AM

      Harare - Twelve prison officers have appeared in court in Zimbabwe on
charges of assaulting 18 South African mercenaries released from jail
earlier this year, state radio reported Sunday.

      The 18 were part of a group of 70 South Africans arrested in Harare en
route to Equatorial Guinea in March 2004. The men were accused of plotting
to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea and sent to jail.

      Sixty-nine were released in May, but ringleader Simon Mann remains in
prison in Harare.

      The 12 prison officers have been charged with common assault, the
radio said.

      "The allegations are that three of the suspects were in a hall at the
prison when the officers assaulted them using open hands and batons,
inflicting injuries," the radio said.

      Fifteen mercenaries were assaulted on another occasion, it added. The
report said the prisoners were forced to take off their clothes before they
were beaten. - Sapa-dpa

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Lessing cleans off desk -- skillfully

San Francisco Chronicle

Reviewed by John Freeman

Sunday, December 25, 2005

  Time Bites

  Views and Reviews

  By Doris Lessing

  HARPERCOLLINS; 376 Pages; $27.95

  These past few years have been tough ones for humanists. Torture, war, tax
cuts for the wealthy, corporate greed, drilling in the Arctic, rampant
consumerism and a cutback in certain civil liberties have all been defended
as key ingredients to keeping "the American people" safe from an unseen
and -- to this day -- still uncaught enemy. In such an environment, it would
seem there is nothing quite so decadent as a collection of old book reviews.
  And yet to pick up Doris Lessing's "Time Bites" is to remember why a mere
whiff of that hoary liberal humanism is so compelling. Here are Lessing's
essays on Tolstoy and Austen, on the wholesale rape of Zimbabwe's economy by
Robert Mugabe, and the traditions of Sufism. In different circumstances,
this jumble would send a red flag -- the sign of an older writer clearing
her desk, which she is doing. But running through each essay is a passionate
belief that humans can overcome their ignorance and cruelty if they simply
compassionately apply their minds to the task.

  Lessing's roundabout pathway into becoming a writer seems to give this
idea greater ballast. Born in 1924 in what would later become part of the
"Axis of Evil" (now Iran, then called Persia), she grew up on a farm in
southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father had moved the family in
hopes of making a living from tobacco and corn. By the time she moved to
London in 1949 with her young son, she had been twice married and divorced,
once a secretary, now a writer.

  None of the pieces in "Time Bites" date back quite this far, but the pinch
of postwar poverty hangs about them. Lessing takes nothing for granted,
including the luxury of having something to read at all. In "Books," a short
piece published to mark the opening of a library in Cairo, she writes about
a trust that sends donated novels and volumes of poetry to villages in
Africa. The response is astonishing.

  "These villages may have no electricity, telephone, running water, but
they beg for books from every visitor. ... In a bush village far from any
big town, or even a little one, such a trestle with 40 books on it has
transformed the life of the area. Instantly study groups appeared, literary
classes -- people who can read teaching those who can't -- civil classes,
and groups of aspirant writers. A letter from there reads 'People cannot
live without water. Books are our water and we drink and we drink from this
spring.' "

  One might say the same about Lessing. Ornery in her dislikes, comfortable
with the imperfect, she possesses the open-minded curiosity of an
autodidact. "Time Bites" contains essays on Woolf, Austen and Simone de
Beauvoir, as one might expect, but there are also reviews of lesser-known
work such as "The Past Is Myself," by German writer Christabel Bielenberg, a
new translation of the Arabic classic "The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan," and
"The Ice Palace," by Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas.

  Like John Updike, Lessing never frets over whether or not she is
entitled -- or well enough informed -- to enter these texts. Political
correctness to her is a language experiment gone awry, and reading the
equivalent of a passport; it can take you just about anywhere. As does
Lessing's prose, which limps and grumbles along with all the grace of a 1974
Volvo -- sturdy and inelegant, but trustworthy because it is so homely.

  She is not one for humor, though. The one chuckle-making moment in the
book comes when Lessing is forced to be self-conscious, which is a different
thing than writing about one's self. A biographer has tracked her down and
will not let go, at least from afar:

  "It is evident from the letter's tone, which is that of a happy chipmunk
who has just found a stash of hallucinogenic mushrooms, that it has not
crossed her mind her victim might not welcome spending what is bound to be
weeks if not months in the company of someone she has never met and
certainly would not have chosen, sharing intimate details of her past and
deep thoughts about life in general."

  Given her matter-of-fact tone, Lessing is sometimes at her best when
addressing not books but the world at large with the chop-chop rhythm of an
opinion columnist. A series of pieces written after Sept. 11 address the
attacks with an empathic equanimity that was often lacking during those
strident times. " 'Ignorant armies' like the Taliban are not terrorists,"
Lessing writes. "Saddam Hussein is not a terrorist, he is a brutal dictator.
... Terrorists are those highly trained ruthless groups waiting in the
United States and the countries of Europe to murder, poison and destroy. Let
us catch them, if we can. In order to understand them we must learn the laws
that govern cults, and brainwashing."

  It is strange here that Lessing neglects to mention terrorists in Latin
America or the Middle East, who have been just as lethal, if not more so -- 
especially on their own populations. The lesson, one supposes, is that we
all have our blind spots. Overcoming them, one book or experience at a time,
is what Lessing celebrates in this thoughtful and engaging collection.
Whoever said that humanism couldn't fight terrorism?

  John Freeman lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in the Wall
Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

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