How to Help Zaire and Albania? First, 'Do No Harm'

By Cobban, Helena | The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

How to Help Zaire and Albania? First, 'Do No Harm'


Cobban, Helena, The Christian Science Monitor


In Europe and Central Africa, two countries are imploding. The prospects - for 3.3 million Albanians, 35 million Zaireans, and the neighbors of both - are grim. Has the international community learned anything from the experience of political implosion in Somalia or elsewhere that might help make the situations in Albania or Zaire less terrible?

These two countries share some similarities. Both spent decades during the cold war in the grip of rulers who never dared open the countries to political participation - or even to any meaningful development of their national infrastructure. In both cases, too, there are now real fears that a descent into full civil war could further destabilize broader regions that have long found themselves in an existing sinkhole of political and military chaos (the Balkans and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, respectively).

What should - what can - the international community do to help? And what should be the role of the relatively distant United States government? A first rule of thumb, too often overlooked, should surely be some version of the Hippocratic promise to "do no harm." This means being very aware that all actions in such crises, but especially those of outsiders, can have consequences widely at variance with their original intention. All too often, things can get unintentionally worse. Does this mean that outsiders should be paralyzed by the fear of causing harm? No. But outsiders - whether governments, inter- governmental bodies, or private organizations - do need to take two vital steps to lessen the dangers: *Place a high premium on the advice of people most knowledgeable about the politics and societies of the countries concerned. *Be aware that, just as politics is an inevitable part of war, so too is it an ever-present dimension of any humanitarian effort. However much we wish it otherwise, there is no such thing as a nonpolitical, "purely" humanitarian intervention. (Just ask the Kurds.) If another country even does something as innocent as sending food or blankets to help victims of a disaster, it is inevitably strengthening some local networks at the expense of others, as well as having unavoidable effects on the longer-term operations of the local food production and marketing systems. …

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