Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails


In 2010, Haiti was ravaged by a brutal earthquake that affected the lives of millions. The call to assist those in need was heard around the globe. Yet two years later humanitarian efforts led by governments and NGOs have largely failed. Resources are not reaching the needy due to bureaucratic red tape, and many assets have been squandered. How can efforts intended to help the suffering fail so badly? In this timely and provocative book, Christopher J. Coyne uses the economic way of thinking to explain why this and other humanitarian efforts that intend to do good end up doing nothing or causing harm.

In addition to Haiti, Coyne considers a wide range of interventions. He explains why the U.S. government was ineffective following Hurricane Katrina, why the international humanitarian push to remove Muammar Gaddafi in Libya may very well end up causing more problems than prosperity, and why decades of efforts to respond to crises and foster development around the world have resulted in repeated failures.

In place of the dominant approach to state-led humanitarian action, this book offers a bold alternative, focused on establishing an environment of economic freedom. If we are willing to experiment with aid-asking questions about how to foster development as a process of societal discovery, or how else we might engage the private sector, for instance-we increase the range of alternatives to help people and empower them to improve their communities. Anyone concerned with and dedicated to alleviating human suffering in the short term or for the long haul, from policymakers and activists to scholars, will find this book to be an insightful and provocative reframing of humanitarian action.


doing bad by doing good builds on my previous book, After War: the Political Economy of Exporting Democracy. in After War, I developed the economics of reconstruction to analyze the ability of foreign occupiers to establish liberal democratic political and economic institutions in post-conflict situations. My analysis excluded broader notions of humanitarianism (short and long-term aid and assistance, peacekeeping and security, and so on) to assist and protect those in need. Given my focus, I made only passing mention of state-led humanitarian action, when I noted that the implications of my analysis did not “necessarily preclude the use of military force … for humanitarian reasons abroad.” the purpose of Doing Bad by Doing Good is to pick up where After War left off by exploring the economics of state-led humanitarianism. the topics in the two books are clearly related, especially as humanitarian action has over time become increasingly intertwined with the broader military and foreign policy objectives of governments. Therefore, the two books should be read as complements for a broad understanding of the viability of state-led foreign interventions.

I should provide a few caveats so as not to mislead the reader. For those looking for either a “how to” guide for carrying out humanitarian action or steadfast rules of when governments should, or should not, assist others, this is not the book for you. Instead, the purpose of this book is to explore the ability of governments to assist those in need. Many discussions of state-led humanitarian action, especially those by politicians, focus on the moral responsibilities of governments to proactively aid those who are perceived to be in need. Consider, for example, the following from President John F. Kennedy in 1961: “[T]here is no escaping our obligations: our moral obligations as a wise leader and good neighbor in the interdependent community of free nations—our economic obligations as the wealthiest people in a world of largely poor people … and . . .

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