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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .

War, Money and Survival: Forum Series
ICRC: Gilles Carbonnier and Sarah Fleming (eds.)

Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 2000
110pp. Sfr 20.

This is the second in ICRC's new Forum series which brings together a variety of writers to address a humanitarian issue of the moment. The first was on water. This one is on the political economy of war and humanitarian assistance. And its editors, Gilles Carbonnier and Sarah Fleming, deftly step through the minefield of 1990s humanitarians' great discovery - "war economy".

As a genre, the Forum series is rather bizarre. They look and read like a sort of humanitarian Vanity Fair with serious analysts writing in a glossy format interspersed with excellent photographs. I kept expecting to turn the page to find an advertisement for Rolex with a picture of the UN's Sergio Vieira de Mello saying why he would never go into a war zone without his!

But this glossy format is perfectly suited to its subject matter because the contributions in this book are all about the grisly meshing of slick global capitalism, vicious local violence and racketeering humanitarian NGOs. It is indeed a credit to ICRC that they should leave the safe territory of conventional humanitarian response to delve into the capitalist drivers which cause, structure and exploit today's post-modern conflicts. It is good to see them addressing economic protection and leading on livelihoods as well as lives - all concerns affirmed as humanitarian in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols and now taken up by ICRC's new Economic Security Unit.

The book is in four parts. Part one is a global view with, amongst others, a sharp piece by Zaki Laidi on globalisation and war. There is a section on the economics of war at national and sub-national level with interesting pieces on corporate behaviour and responsibility in war and a good look at transnational security companies (TSCs) by Kim Richard Nossal. David Keen struts his stuff about the "rationality" of civil war - a view that has helped many of us in the 1990s think more clearly about the economic functions of violence. There is a fairly conventional section about how people cope and survive in and around war by living by their economic wits - legally or illegally.

Finally, there is a section arguing that NGOs and the new breed of corporates providing humanitarian assistance are just in it for the money. NGO-bashers (and some people in ICRC) will like this bit best. Those who deplore the crowded field of humanitarian action will find satisfaction in having the majority of NGOs portrayed (once again) as shameless profiteers who often do more harm than good. And to this end, Robin Davies puts the boot in well. But it is a boot with generalisations for toe-caps and cliches for heels.

So what should we make of it all? The political economy of war and humanitarian response is a hugely important subject that has come along way in the 1990s. Its analysis must now be central in all humanitarian and peace work. But economics is not the whole story and it would be disastrous for conflict studies and humanitarianism if they became dominated by a theory that said that it was. This is why my favourite piece in this book is by Thandika Mkandawire who takes apart the excessive "rationality" of some of today's political economy theorists. He warns as much against imposing a total economic logic as a wholly chaotic logic on the extreme personalised violence of these terrible wars. A wise man.

Hugo Slim
Senior Lecturer in International Humanitarianism

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