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Samantha Nutt of War Child

There is something almost as extreme, as grotesque and as impious about criticizing Samantha Nutt as there would be in spitting into a baptismal fount. Nutt is a distinguished relief worker, a public-health physician who has worked in many of the most hellish places on Earth from Somalia, Congo and Liberia to Iraq and Afghanistan. She is also one of the founders of War Child, an international charity that, since its founding in the 1990s, has dedicated itself specifically to furthering both children's rights and opportunities in conflict zones, work that it has pursued with courage, determination and, given the odds against it, more success than rationally could possibly have been expected.

But passion and commitment, and outrage, all of which Nutt has in super-abundance, are, to put it bluntly, not necessarily good bases for analyzing the terrible problems our world faces, and certainly not sufficient ones for writing a book that is in large measure a tract calling for the abolition of war.

In fairness, Damned Nations is really two books. The better one chronicles Nutt's experiences in the field – she writes particularly movingly of Somalia, which is unsurprising since, as she puts it, the experience of that country "had the most permanent, psychically shattering effect on me."

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It also offers an extremely perceptive and original anatomization of both the virtues and vices of international non-governmental relief organizations from the global north working in the war and crisis zones of the global south. This is Nutt at her best and, not incidentally, her most sophisticated, most specific and least sanctimonious and self-indulgent. Humanitarian action, she writes, needs never to lose sight of the need for "critical reflection concerning our own actions and deeds."

Had she chosen to frame her book as just such a critical reflection, and eschewed naive pontifications about the feasibility of ending war as we know it, as when she writes in her introduction that war "is not so entrenched that it cannot be undone," the work would have stood out as one of the basic "revisions" of the humanitarian story, and a blueprint for a more coherent, less paternalistic and more beneficiary-driven conception not just of emergency relief but of long-term development work as well. Nutt deftly skewers the pretensions, complacencies and, often disturbingly, imperial assumptions of the aid world.

Of course, Nutt is far too experienced ever to forget that, as she rightly puts, "aid is an imperfect response to a violently imperfect world," adding that the ways in which aid can "be manipulated to prop up corrupt, oppressive regime or become a form of political and cultural imperialism is not even in debate." She is also admirably alert to what she aptly calls the NGOs' tropism toward "hyper-branding every crisis and overplaying their hand" – a phenomenon that manifested itself most recently in post-earthquake Haiti where, as Nutt notes, atrocious as the casualty figures were, the NGOs chose to put out statistics that exaggerated a tragedy that needed no exaggeration, presumably out of the anxiety that without this "hyper-branding," contributions would fall off.

Nutt is also very good on what the historical significance of NGOs has been in this age where in all rich countries including Canada (which, in fairness, has a milder form of this mindset than most of its fellow Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members), the role of the state has been radically scaled back.

The logic of Nutt's argument is that while most international NGOs are sincerely and passionately committed to reducing poverty and human suffering and, indeed, do just that, and with a lot of success, NGOs as an institutional totality are part and parcel of the radical privatization of government functions that began under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and, despite the global financial crash, have yet to be rolled back significantly.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on this history, on her very interesting analysis of the many self-criticisms and reforms the aid world has undertaken over the past decade, and on her own lucid and entirely realistic prescriptions for furthering these improvements, Nutt spends more of her book arguing that while of course self-evidently local militias and tyrannical governments in the global south are to blame for the war, slaughter and refugee flight that they visit on their own countries, it is arms shipments from the global north – often by companies in which pension funds representing teachers unions and other generally progressive professions hold considerable stakes – that allow these wars to reach the level of horror that they so often do, and that Nutt has witnessed throughout her career.

"Peace, development, and security will remain stubbornly out of reach," she writes, "for any population choking on weapons fed to them by countries with eighty times their GDP."

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Nutt is right to demand that Western arms exports to countries with abusive governments be monitored and limited, or, preferably, curtailed. But the idea that these wars would not take place were it not for these arms deliveries is utter nonsense, wishful thinking at its sentimental worst. The Rwandan genocide of 1994, the worst mass slaughter in recent memory, was largely carried out with machetes and petrol cans, not automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades.

For someone as alert (as allergic) to the humanitarian paternalism of international NGOs, Nutt is being awfully maternalistic herself here, perpetuating the stereotype of the global south as helpless, innocent victim. Such an approach robs people of their agency, of their existence as adults with political opinions and loyalties, instead infantilizing them: If only we in the global north would stop selling these weapons, wars would end, or never start in the first place.

To make this claim, Nutt must maintain that for all intents and purposes there are no just wars (though she would presumably concede that there are just UN peacekeeping missions). "War is mass murder," she writes. True, but it is many other things as well, and dismissing the political causes of groups like al-Shabab in Somalia, the Bashir government in Sudan, the Taliban and other movements she loathes is either ignorance or wishful thinking, or both.

However much Nutt may wish this were not the case, many people in Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan support these groups, and all have profound roots in their countries. To write as if this were not a central part of the problem is to not write seriously, let alone usefully, about the problem of war and slaughter in our time. Nutt may believe that the human-rights paradigm either is or eventually will be accepted by all decent people everywhere, but this kind of progressivism is childish, and more to the point, completely stipulative. Perhaps this is why many have called human rights our time's secular religion. But Nutt's pieties, honourable as their motives are, are actually prophylactics against understanding.

David Rieff is the author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. He is currently finishing a book on the global food crisis.

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