Every so often a new book arrives with the force of a much-needed whack over the head.
That's the jolting effect of Samantha Nutt's Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, which is causing a sensation within the increasingly troubled world of humanitarian aid.
Written by one of Canada's most influential humanitarian activists, it's the clearest examination I've read in quite a while of the economic incentives — and our own Western inadequacies — that fuel the seemingly intractable violence in so many war-torn countries, particularly in mineral-rich Africa.
A medical doctor and the co-founder of War Child Canada, Nutt is someone who speaks with remarkable moral authority, after spending more than 16 years struggling to help the most vulnerable targets, children and women, in the world's most dangerous conflict areas.
As well, she spares few details in forcing readers to recognize just how sinister these perpetual inter-state, militia, ethnic and gang wars have become.
The use of boy soldiers, torture and pillage almost pales beside a war culture of indiscriminate rape, particularly in the eastern Congo.
"The sadistic rape of your girls, infants, mothers, and grandmothers is pervasive in the Congo," Nutt writes. "It has become a kind of national rot, decaying families, community marriages and the country's entire social structure."
Drowning in weapons
This is the world Nutt has come to know very well. "The fear in war is absolute," she writes, and yet she refuses to turn away from its victims.
Part of the book recounts Dr. Nutt's many frightening personal experiences working with local groups that were under attack from state forces or lawless militias, down roads where casual murder and rape are normal tactics of war.
But at the core of Damned Nations is her anger that we don't see how complicit our own society is in this violence — and how inept our efforts to help so often are.
In a world already drowning in weapons, nearly $1.5 trillion more are produced every year, most sold by rich nations to poor ones.
"For the past five years," Nutt says, "Canada, which is among the world's top 10 arms exporters, has had one of the lowest international arms transparency ratings."
According to her book, all but two provincial teachers' pension funds have invested in one or more of the world's top arms producers. Even the Canada Pension Plan, which we all pay into, has $200 million invested in almost two dozen arms makers.
As Nutt puts it: "When our national pension funds profit from this social malaise, and when our prevaricating governments — wittingly or not — would rather give a one-fingered salute than open the books on what, precisely, is being shipped to whom, we too have become part of a very sinister equation."
The failings of aid
Damned Nations, however, is almost equally hard on the persistent failure of traditional aid and development to get its priorities right, and to avoid the harm that "mere good intentions" can do to fragile societies.
The book sees ominous new trends in aid organizations, large and small, which make them less responsive to the real needs of those they seek to help.
Increasingly, she suggests, they seem to be serving their own fund-raising objectives rather than those in need.
I've noticed this myself, and many aid experts I've talked with also agree but are reluctant to speak out frankly, as Nutt does.
One element of this approach is that governments such as Canada have cut back their own foreign aid (as a percentage of GDP), while embracing a handful of large aid organizations and encouraging them to show solid corporate practices.
It all sounds reasonable but it tends to emphasize the need for quick results, to gain donor and government support, in an area where instant results are notoriously unreliable.
This inevitably puts the focus on the headline crisis of the moment, at the expense of lower-profile, long-term development, which can often produce real gain.
Competition by aid groups to star in a crisis role is what produces fiascos like the humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake, where unknown thousands of groups, from big to micro-sized, raced in, uncoordinated and in competition, to fight for slices of the action.
The appeal of neo-colonialism
On a still larger scale, Nutt warns of a growing trend towards aid competition that harms far more than it helps as the sector becomes dominated by two extremes.
At one end of the spectrum is "a virtual fiefdom of large aid organizations," while at the other is "an abundance of novelty start-ups … led by students, celebrities, and other assorted individuals" with little relevant training or experience.
Meanwhile, "the space between them is rapidly evaporating."
Some of her criticism will sting many of those who acted with the best intentions.
For example, she cites the current trend towards "volunteer tourism," in which high school, church and college groups spend a few weeks building schools or orphanages in an impoverished locale, as a classic case of good intentions breeding bad results.
These groups, she says, "make a spectacle out of poverty and expose overseas communities — especially children — to exploitation and abuse."
What's more, "a revolving door of unskilled workers on the ground in two-week increments is more a burden than a benefit to any community."
Other targets are the giant fund-raising charities that spend huge sums to promote "child sponsorship" through images that portray people as pure victims, passive recipients of charity.
"These are the vestiges of neo-colonialism, cloaked in altruism…. precisely why these appeals are highly effective."
One of Nutt's key points is that to donate at all is to assume personal responsibility. But to do that means we all need to learn more about humanitarian organizations and such things as the crucially different tasks of emergency response and long-term development.
After a bruising account of mistakes made in this field — and she admits to her own — Nutt recounts the remarkable successes many smaller organizations have been able to achieve when they don't try to inject themselves into the big problem-solving areas, but work alongside or behind local groups on specific projects.
Here's where the critical mass for change at the local level can really take off. Where women's rights are encouraged, children are educated, micro-financing is introduced, and long absent legal systems can be created to give some people their first sense of protection under the law.
Damned Nations is full of useful suggestions on how to help out and get involved, and it provides links to smaller organizations that are working successfully in a number of grassroots endeavours.
I found the book both alarming, and inspiring. But, overall, it's a useful guide to help point the way out of the moral and political confusion that so much humanitarian aid is trapped in.