Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame

Samantha Power’s book Chasing the Flame is about an extraordinary man’s humanitarian service amid conflicts in Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, and Iraq. A Brazilian and career United Nations officer, Sergio Vieira de Mello was, in the words of a U.S. diplomat, “the personification of what the UN could be and should be but rarely is.”

Vieira de Mello lived to be in the field, mixing it up with peasants, soldiers, jungle rebels, and presidents alike. He had a knack for charming them all. He took risks to get things done. He was propelled by ideals but could be ruthlessly pragmatic. He was resilient against setbacks, adapting to whatever worked when theory and practice collided. He made mistakes, then learned from them.

Here is a sampling of Vieira de Mello’s assignments:

  • You need to safely repatriate 400,000 Cambodians back into, among other places, land controlled by those responsible for The Killing Fields.
  • You need to provide humanitarian relief in the former Yugoslavia while multiple sides are at war, and your own forces barely can defend themselves, much less the population.
  • You need to create the government of East Timor—including the political system that elects the government—from the smoldering ruins of a brutal occupation.

These kinds of challenges, which no country would touch individually, are what UN humanitarian operations are for. However, UN actions are largely constrained by the funding and politics of donor countries. As Power quotes former Secretary-General Kofi Annan:

Our system for launching operations has sometimes been compared to a volunteer fire department. But that description is far too generous. Every time there is a fire, we must first find the fire engines and the funds to run them before we can start dousing the flames.

Even Annan’s correction is generous. It implies that resources are the only issue. He omitted the part about needing to get consensus from UN Security Council countries about how to fight the fire. That consensus was often lacking, so Vieira de Mello’s marching orders often came with a straightjacket that all but assured failure. Everyone would then blame the UN for being ineffective.

That said, the UN caused many of its own problems. Vieira de Mello was constantly at war with the UN bureaucracy, which had many of the foibles of “big government” without actually being a government. For example, Vieira de Mello could only use his budget for UN personnel and equipment; he could not pay a country’s civil servants or bankroll the repair of an electric grid. As Power notes, “In the economic sphere, these rules ensured that the large UN peacekeeping and political mission managed to distort local economies without being able to contribute to development.”

But for all the UN’s problems, Vieira de Mello loved the organization for its mission. He saw the UN as the main vehicle for nations to collectively do the right thing. Even if that happened infrequently and inefficiently, what exactly was the alternative when masses of people were dispossessed and dying?

Vieira de Mello was widely regarded as a future UN Secretary-General. That destiny died in 2003 when a truck bomb detonated into UN Iraq headquarters, killing Vieira de Mello and 21 others—a final tragedy in a life that swam upstream against torrents of human tragedy. He was 55 years old.

With Chasing the Flame, Power delivers a compelling biography, braided with deft analyses of what worked, what didn’t, and what can be learned from Vieira de Mello’s efforts on behalf of humanity.

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