To rescue Haitians, we need to take risks

The slow delivery of aid to Haitians suggests that even the noble mission of saving lives has been subordinated to the dictates of risk-aversion.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Since the beginning of time, catastrophes have represented a major challenge to our humanity. And history suggests that, most of the time, disasters bring out the best in us. People tend to come together and demonstrate kindness and solidarity to their fellow man.

During the past week, following the terrible earthquake in Haiti, there has been an outpouring of altruistic sentiment around the world and a great desire to help the victims of that disaster. But unfortunately, sometimes disasters also bring out the very worst in us – and there is a real danger that today’s altruism will be negated by contemporary Western society’s disorientation and failure of nerve. Increasingly, what should be seen exclusively as a humanitarian crisis in Haiti is being turned into a law-and-order problem, with many rescuers claiming they can’t venture out because of ‘violence and instability’.

Turning a crisis into a drama is now the routine cultural response to catastrophe. Following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, the vast majority of the stories about murderous gangs, widespread raping and mindless violence turned out to be just that: stories. Yet Western culture is fascinated by the drama of disaster. In recent years, the media and the entertainment industry have constructed a narrative of disaster through which people are encouraged to interpret disastrous events. So it is quite typical for real-world tragedies to be compared with movies about human depravity: an Australian aid worker who ‘survived’ the earthquake in Haiti said ‘she felt as if she was part of a nightmarish end-of-days movie’ (1).

As in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many officials, backed up by the media, are spreading alarmist stories about the breakdown of civilisation and law-and-order in Haiti. As one ABC reporter said: ‘We’re seeing some looting, we are seeing gangs, we are seeing the homeless taking matters into their own hands and dealing with people that they believe represent a threat.’ (2)

American military officials warn that looting and violence threaten to undermine relief efforts. ‘We are going to have to address the situation of security’, said General Ken Keen of the US Southern Command (3). The militarisation of this relief operation was legitimised by the United Nations, which announced that its peacekeepers will be joined by thousands of US soldiers to ensure that aid workers can get on with the job at hand.

No doubt there are many desperate people in Haiti who feel they have nothing to lose by taking matters into their own hands. But why on earth are the actions of the powerless being construed as a serious challenge to the UN, the American military and the numerous other international actors in Haiti? Yes, the situation is very difficult, and anyone involved in the rescue operation should not expect the niceties of an afternoon tea party. But, tragically, what is really hampering the rescue effort is not so much the violence and looting of Haitians as the fear and anxiety of aid workers and rescuers.

Numerous reports indicate that many aid workers and first responders are not going out to the poor and outlying areas of Port-au-Prince and beyond because their organisations are worried about their safety. Many doctors and aid workers are protected by armed guards, and some of them appear to be more concerned about their own individual security than the provision of relief. It seems that even when it comes to the challenge of saving lives, a powerful mood of aversion to risk has the upper hand.

These days, it is not any kind of aggressive foreign policy that fuels the tendency to transform humanitarian relief operations into military exercises. Rather, this trend for imagining that a country afflicted by an earthquake is a war zone, and that the rescuers are likely to need rescuing, is the logical outcome of the culture of risk-aversion that dominates Western societies. Even when it comes to the noble mission of saving lives, the ethos of banal risk management prevails.

Western societies have become so obsessed with safety that virtually every human experience comes with a health warning. It is not simply children’s playgrounds and schools that are now dominated by the ethos of safety for its own sake – even organisations like the emergency services, the police and the army are now subject to the dictates of health and safety. As Bill Rammell, the UK’s armed forces minister warned last week, ‘my fear is that we as a nation will become so risk-averse, cynical and introverted that we will find ourselves in inglorious and important isolation by default’ (4).

Even those two once-risky institutions of the police and the army have become increasingly risk-averse. One British journalist has noted that the British police rarely venture out these days, and even when they are confronted with a serious situation they rarely take risks. In one case, armed police stood for 15 days besieging a London home, only venturing in after the hostage had escaped by his own efforts and the lone gunman perished in a fire which he had started (5). The ethos of safety has become institutionalised within the military, too. Army commanders have to draw up risk assessments for every aspect of their soldiers’ training. Some have given up testing soldiers to the limit, lest they inadvertently contravene health-and-safety rules (6).

General Sir Michael Rose, former head of Britain’s elite special-forces regiment the SAS, has spoken out about the destructive consequences of risk-aversion and the ethos of safety for the morale of the military. He has denounced the ‘moral cowardice’ that brought about what he describes as the ‘most catastrophic collapse of military ethos in recent history’ (7). And if anything, the decline of the warrior ethos is even more comprehensive in the US military. One analyst believes that risk-aversion has undermined the effectiveness of the US military: ‘As emphasis on risk-avoidance filters down the chain of command, junior commanders and their soldiers become aware that low-risk behaviour is expected and act accordingly.’ (8)

Unlike some institutions in society, the military, emergency services and disaster-response teams simply cannot function without taking risks: they have to go to unstable places and go beyond the call of duty. When the behaviour of rescue teams is determined by a concern for their own security, as it seems to be in Haiti right now, then they inevitably become distracted from the humanitarian mission at hand. In such circumstances, the imperative of security, rather than of aid, wins out, and as a result the effectiveness of the mission is diminished. Worse still, it demoralises those involved in the job of saving lives, and threatens to turn humanity’s noble gestures into tawdry exercises in playing it very safe.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

(1) ‘Mothers were trying to shake alive their children’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 2010

(2) Chaos and lawlessness in Haiti, ABC (Australia), 18 January 2010

(3) Haitian violence hinders aid…crippled Haiti smells of death…al-Qaida group denies death of top Yemeni leader, 9&10News

(4) Risk-averse Britain may lose stomach for war, warns minister, The Times (London), 14 January 2010

(5) See A police state, without any police, by Mick Hume

(6) See the Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2004

(7) J’Accuse! Top General lambasts ‘moral cowardice’ of government and military chiefs, Daily Mail 12 April 2007

(8) R. Lacquement (2004) ‘The casualty-aversion myth’, Naval War College Review, vol.57, no.1,p.46.

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Topics Politics


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