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A Bed For The Night: Humanitarianism in an Age of Genocide: Humanitarianism in Crisis (A Vintage original) Paperback – 7 Nov 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Paperback Printing edition (7 Nov. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0965752089
  • ISBN-13: 978-0965752084
  • ASIN: 0099597918
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.4 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 187,374 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Thoughtful and eminently readable" (Washington Post)

"An achievement of profound intelligence and courage of conviction" (Nadine Gordimer)

"A Bed for the Night provides an excellent antidote to the hollow cliches and generalizations that often blur and distort the horribly real problems of helping the world's most afflicted people" (Brian Urquhart, former Undersecretary General of the United Nations)

"An absorbing and thoughtful book. David Rieff has taken a great subject - exile, in this case the exile of Cubans in Miami - and been fully responsive and responsible to it. Paradise lost is a great theme.and David Rieff has treated it with Miltonic assurance. It is a book to be savoured and reread" (Larry McMurtry)

Book Description

A powerful and engaging book that asks the fundamental question: Is humanitarianism a waste of hope?

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

By Wenchin Lung on 28 April 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Amazing book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 15 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Disappointing 3 July 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I found this book both disappointing and frustrating.
The author will make an important point about the current state of relief work, but a coherent argument or discussion with cited sources never follows. Instead, we get the kind of sweeping, undocumented statements - "in countless academic studies," . . it was crucial to the survival of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Afghans," etc.- found in the brochures of the very relief organizations that Rieff is criticizing. No footnotes, no bibliography, but lots of opinions. In fact, this book would have been much more appropriate and effective as a series of newspaper editorial columns rather than passing itself off as a carefully documented and well-developed critique of foreign aid and relief organizations. For the latter, I would recommend Alex de Waal's Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa as a better alternative.

Also, this book is further marred by the author's self-identification and uncritical admiration of MSF. Even though Rieff trashes the book Touched By Fire as being "hagiographical," I thought it did a better job of examining the various dilemmas and internal inconsistencies and problems faced by MSF.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Humanitarianism is *not* human rights-- learn why not. 23 Feb. 2004
By Kimberly Allen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The cover of this book says, "A withering, thought-provoking study." That sums it up quite well. David Rieff knows a lot about humanitarian efforts because he has spent many years living with humanitarian groups like Doctors Without Borders, The International Red Cross, and Oxfam as they worked in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. This book gives a rare inside perspective on their evolution since the Biafra crisis a few decades ago.
I came to this topic nearly a complete newcomer. Rieff's book was my introduction to humanitarianism at a deeper level than what Americans get from popular media. I had a lot to learn.
First of all, I didn't realize that there is a large difference between humanitarianism and human rights. It seems subtle and puzzling for much of the book, then comes into sharper and sharper focus. Humanitarianism means helping victims of wars, famines, and natural disasters without regard to larger issues, especially political ones. It is a pure offer of help without judgment or agenda. Human rights is by definition a judgmental term-- it means defending a group's dignity, sovereignty, or health because they are deserving of such rights. It implies that others may not be deserving. It is totally different from humanitarianism.
Humanitarians may find themselves giving aid to murderers, as they did in Rwanda when the same Hutus who had slain so many Tutsis became victims themselves in a reverse genocide. Humanitarians may also act to prop up dictators by giving aid to the people the dictator is repressing, making the situation look less dire (and giving him little reason to throw scraps to his subjects to avoid revolution). Applying the concept of human rights in these situations might change the way aid is distributed. Pure humanitarians would be unconcerned with the political details.
A Bed for the Night chronicles the slow but inexorable creep of the humanitarian movement from the early, "pure" form to a much more politicized form that became mixed with human rights, military peacekeeping, and even government agendas. Rieff makes a fairly convincing case that this shift was nearly inevitable. Humanitarianism could not have remained in its original form given the pressures and realities of our world.
Why not? Because humanitarians want to do good, and hence had no choice but to pursue paths that empowered them to do better than they were doing. Ignoring such paths amounted to a shirking of duty. The problem was that these paths coincided with a corruption of their basic mission. Humanitarians found themselves collaborating with soldiers and trying to exert influence at the level of the UN. In pursuing more funding for their projects, NGOs found themselves deploying slick marketing techniques and then becoming beholden to their largest donors in ways that were not objective. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy.
And then the humanitarians began to be manipulated by others who had no pretenses of purity. When NGOs began consorting on the world stage, governments could use them as excuses for taking action, or for not taking action. They became pawns in issues of power and, yes, human rights. Now the two terms-- humanitarianism and human rights-- are used so interchangeably that even a somewhat intelligent citizen like me did not realize there is a difference.
Rieff shows in excruciating detail how this process was a slippery slope. At each step, with each new crisis, the new entanglements seemed logical and even necessary. No one set about this decades-long transformation as a grand plan. It simply happened-- probably with a lot less effort than if it had been a grand plan. That is not to say it didn't bring resistance, division, bitter words, and disillusionment with it; far from it. But changing NGOs from neutral to politically involved was easier than many would have guessed.
Rieff tries to come to a positive conclusion about how these transformations are just normal signs of changing times. But he even fails to convince himself of this, and consequently ends on a down note, a hanging question mark about the future of humanitarianism. As the cover said, "A withering, thought-provoking study."
My main complaint is that A Bed for the Night could have been much shorter. Rieff is not concise. He says the same thing many times over, which, although it hammers the point home soundly, gets tedious early on. And his writing is floppy in the sense of exploring a point by taking a random walk across it rather than laying out the issues logically. The impression is that Rieff is writing a long tirade in his diary.
If you can plow through the writing, this book contains many useful lessons. If you can't, just read the Introduction. That will give you 75% of the content. Because more people should understand the history Rieff lays out, it rates high on the "need to know" list for intelligent people.
28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Bias Can be Bad - Unfounded Pessimism 29 April 2003
By Kindle Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
--The reviewer is a peace operations analyst in Washington DC.--
David Rieff admits he wrote this book in the shadows of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Having covered some of the world's greatest humanitarian disasters, featuring ethnic cleansing and genocide, it should be acknowledged that Mr. Rieff is an impressive character. On balance, however, this book can leave a reader thinking it may not be such a good idea to let people like Mr. Rieff write books until they've unwound a bit in some nice little corner of the world.
Nevertheless, this is a good book for people interested in humanitarianism and peace operations in general. Many people in those fields probably will not like the book all that much, but it is a good thing to read books that annoy you--they make you think. This book is successful at both tasks. The concerns with this book should stem from what seem to be passionately held but nonetheless shaky arguments and logic. All too often, Mr. Rieff arrives at conclusions that mystify, often in the midst of otherwise thoughtful discussion.
One of Mr. Rieff's main contentions is that humanitarianism has made a mistake by seeking to support solutions to the crises that afflict humanity. In others words, Mr. Rieff seems to think it is a bad idea to try working within the reality of any given situation. Humanitarian organizations should instead presumably go on working to help the victims, but should not worry about trying to find solutions to the problems that created the victims. A reasonable person might quibble with that. Has it not always been the human endeavor to work to better our conditions?
A reader will no doubt ask what kind of sense does it make to avoid solutions? Humanitarians have done a grievous harm to their cause by abandoning their neutrality, Mr. Rieff says. In truth, though, neutrality is pretty useless in conflict resolution, and I am not sure it has much more use in humanitarian relief. Impartiality is probably a better choice-avoid taking sides, but uphold the rules of the game. And there should be rules. It may be that we as a global community (a concept Mr. Rieff seems quite skeptical of) are moving only fitfully toward rules on a global basis. So what? Does that mean we should not try? And if trying is the right thing to do, than humanitarian organizations are doing the right thing. They may not be doing it well, but far better to look for a permanent solution than to keep putting band-aids on wounds.
Rieff has experienced many of the bad things humans do to one another. That's a powerful thing, but it is also a bias. A better book would have made points without resorting to emotional arguments and logic malformed by perhaps excessive passion.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Thoughtful Contrarian 11 Feb. 2003
By David Shorr - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Rieff casts himself as a reluctant pessimist who doubts that humanitarian relief aid can do anything more than attend to the immediate needs of the tempest-tossed. Given that reality, Rieff feels that a traditional, neutral humanitarianism is the only option. He shows all the pitfalls of humanitarian action that adjusts to the political dynamics of local conflicts or aligns itself with donor governments. Rieff's perspective is a challenging one and a warning against humanitarian hubris. Still, while we must avoid thinking we can solve the world's ills, humanitarianism that deals purely with symptoms is even more prone to unintended consequences than aid efforts tailored to the realities on the ground.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An important book about an important problem 18 Jun. 2004
By Megami - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Pulling no punches, Rieff has written a damning insight into the current humanitarian care industry (and it has become an industry) has lost its way in the modern day. While showing great admiration for people who believe they are doing the right thing, Rieff exposes the problems with the current methods and thinking behind humanitarian intervention and aid, especially the loss of neutrality and the growth of advocacy for military intervention.
This is a fascinating book, and one that should be read by those who hold beliefs on either side of the humanitarian intervention debate. While this reader came to this book in the context of studying International Security, including the issue of humanitarian intervention, it would be of interest to anyone who has thought about the continuing humanitarian crises throughout the world and what should be done about them. Occasionally Rieff comes across as hyperbolic, and he almost loses the reader's sympathies, but he has the facts and experiences to back up what he is saying. Covering a breadth of organizations, situations and viewpoints, this is a powerful book that at the very least will make you think next time you hear calls for peacekeepers to intervene or are asked to donate to one of the multitude of relief organizations at work today.
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