Economy-class humanitarianism


I recently finished reading Arundhati Roy’s book, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, which covers a number of themes including US imperialism and the ‘war on terrorism’, the political economy of mega-dams (an Indian government ‘speciality’), and communal violence in India. It was a good read, and her skills as a novelist came to the fore on a number of occasions evoking images that the majority of ‘academic’ writers would struggle to produce (or not want to produce!). A particular favourite of mine was the passage describing the ‘humanitarian’ food drop in Afghanistan by the US air force in 2001. At the time, cynics saw this as little more than a public relations exercise after the intense bombing by US forces was drawing criticism for the ‘collateral damage’ it was causing. The food drop, amounted to one meal for 37,000 of the several million in dire need of food, and each packet was decorated with the US flag. Inside was rice, peanut butter, bean salad, strawberry jam, crackers,

As Roy puts it, after three years of unremitting drought, ‘an air-dropped airline meal’ beggars belief for its ‘cultural ineptitude’ and lack of sensitivity to what months of relentless hunger and grinding poverty really mean. She presents us with a counter-scenario to illustrate the point:

“Imagine if the Taliban government was to bomb New York City, saying all the while that its real target was the US government and its policies. And suppose, during breaks between bombing, the Taliban dropped a few thousand packets containing nan and kababs impaled on an Afghan flag. Would the good people of New York ever find it in themselves to forgive the Afghan government?”
(Roy 2002, p. 251).