Linda Polman has somehow been writing for years, ever so quietly, about the glaring problems within the humanitarian aid industry. We Did Nothing tells the story of Haiti, Rwanda, and Somalia, from the point of view of Polman’s travels to these locales as a Dutch journalist. She carefully traces the metaphorical handcuffing of UN troops, as security council members create and pass resolutions to respond too late to crises, and then fail to send enough troops, fail to fund or properly supply those troops, and lock them into a mandate of non-intervention, even in the face of genocide.
“Do not fire, except in self-defense, and never on host country authorities. Not even when those host country authorities start slaughtering thousands of people under blue helmet noses? Not even then.”
Let me say that I agree with basically everything within this book — the tone of the book rings true to me. Some of the exact details, mostly quotes, do not. It may just be her writing style, where she will leave out expository information that explains how she got somewhere, and how she got to know someone, and the mundane things they said before the world’s most perfect quote came out of nowhere, but the way this book is written Polman seems to always be in the right place at the right time to hear the perfect quote. To me, it sort of reads like fiction. Again, I want to stress, the book is translated from Dutch, and I think my problem might be able to be ascribed to her writing style being something I am not used to, but to me the book has a “3 Cups of Tea” feel to it — I don’t think anything in the book is BS, but it has a bit of a feeling of embellishment used to punctuate points.
“Apart from 450 African blue helmets, all UN troops were rapidly withdrawn from Rwanda. Five weeks and an estimate 980,000 dead later, the Security Council decided, at the urgent request of France, to restore and then increase the number of blue helmets in Rwanda.”
The last 20 pages of the book are intensely harrowing, and really serve to drive home the impossible job that UN soldiers face. When I bought this book I thought it would be a scathing account of the failures of UN peacekeepers. After reading this book I know it instead to be a scathing indictment of those who either out of incompetence or perhaps cynical political ambition half-heartedly send peacekeepers to do impossible tasks.
If you get a chance, you should read this book. If you are interested in doing aid work in conflict zones, you should definitely read this book.