In A Bed for the Night1, David Rieff2 explains his frustration at the lim- itations and Rieff frequently gives in to his penchant for extreme positions. He dis-. A Bed for the Night has ratings and 36 reviews. Alisa said: Ok, so I did not give this book four stars because I thought it was much fun to read. Had. David Rieff’s A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis is an emotionally raw and deeply personal argument that humanitarian organizations must be free.

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A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis – David Rieff – Google Books

Rieff is an American journalist who rose to prominence covering the Bosnian war in the mid-nineties, particularly with the publication of his acclaimed book, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West For his new book, Rieff spent many years researching the major humanitarian actors, as well as visiting and writing about many of the contexts where humanitarians have long been active: Angola, Afghanistan, and Burundi, to name a few.

In many ways, the humanitarian movement is lucky to have Rieff among its expositors. His exceptionally eloquent and penetrating assessment of the nature and problems of humanitarian action will surely remain the standard account for the next few years. Although many others have presented cogent criticisms of the limits of humanitarian action i. This book thus forms the perfect complement to that of an equally original critic of humanitarian action, Alex de Waal, insofar as the latter condemns the internal mechanisms of the contemporary humanitarian machine, whereas the former situates these in relation to Western socio-political efforts to address suffering over the last few hundred years.

In broad lines, Rieff argues that humanitarian action causes more problems than it can realistically solve. The fact that he draws equally from franco- and anglophone humanitarian literature deepens his critical grasp of the issues, and illustrates points of overlap and difference between the two traditions. After all, the facile observation that humanitarian assistance is a futile enterprise whose shortcomings can be tragic and fatal for those it purports to save is certainly not new.


Truly novel in this work is the sustained and erudite attack on the marriage of emergency relief programs and advocacy initiatives, which is increasingly common among prominent humanitarian agencies. While Rieff makes a convincing case against humanitarian advocacy-that its utopian ideals expect the impossible-he comes at this thesis with a particular moral agenda which, while never explicitly stated, demands a response from the humanitarian community.

A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis by David Rieff

Indeed, most fot us will agree with his reading of events in Rwanda or Kosovo, for example, and of our shortcomings as humanitarians. Still, I wonder whether humanitarians can agree with the moral agenda behind his critique.

Humanitarians are a mixed bag: But Rieff is an anti-utopian, and sees contemporary humanitarianism and its added advocacy component as roeff with utopian aspirations. By showing us our failures, he is defending a version of humanitarian assistance that is stripped of this idealistic baggage, and thus unencumbered by improbable causes and impossible ideals.

Thus Rieff argues that humanitarian agencies should drop the advocacy campaigns, the awareness raising, the concern with IHL and human rights, etc.

It is a hope against hopelessness, but that hope is unfounded. You can be an anti-utopian like Rieff, and still work happily as a humanitarian practitioner. Where you and he would part ways, however, would be over your commitment to the ethical imperative at the heart of humanitarian work.

The humanitarian vocation is highly ecumenical, and yet there is at least one basic feature shared by all non-state humanitarian actors. Thus is passivity indistinguishable from complicity, which explains the activist, interventionist nature of humanitarian logic.


Of course, the humanitarian injunction against silence and passivity is not itself a solution to the suffering of others, but it captures the essence of the moral logic behind humanitarian action.

Lovely story, but this cannot change the fact that the suffering of distant others is not the compelling issue we believe it to be, and in this Rieff is right. For the average person in free-market democracies, starvation and misery in distant lands are banal, everyday realities that saturate the evening news and paralyze our sympathetic capacities.

Evil and suffering have indeed become entirely banal, and most people are like Rieff, who find the prospect of immediate action absurd as long as there is no possibility of a long-term solution. It could even happen under the guise of morally-sanctioned action, such as a response to suffering.

A Bed for the Night

Niight this panorama of fallen heroes and shattered illusions, Rieff casts himself as the Arendtian superhero, the anti-Eichmann, who sounds the alarm on the false promise of humanitarian action. The only problem with this story is that it is wrong.

Humanitarian action is not an intellectual game, and for those whose lives are saved through our efforts, it is not an illusion. What else is real, besides the face of human misery, is the rule of indifference and apathy, of moral nihilism, so common in western societies. It is this indifference and inaction to which the moral logic of humanitarian action is diametrically opposed.