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Tom Bamforth’s Deep Field: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Aid Relief (Hardie Grant, 2014), reviewed by Harold Stone

All too often human disasters, particularly ones in Africa, serve as the setting for entitled European people to act out their exciting adventures.

Reading the blurb of Deep Field, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve picked up an action-thriller. The tale of one man finding himself surrounded by an ever-rising death toll, it ‘reads as if Don DeLillo had been sent to Darfur’. Of serious concern is the book’s front cover, a photograph of somebody apparently drowning in a flood.

All too often human disasters, particularly ones in Africa, serve as the setting for entitled European people to act out their exciting adventures. Beyond Borders, The Constant Gardener, Murder at Government House and The Impossible are some examples.

While Deep Field does contain its fair share of apocalyptic descriptions and thrilling anecdotes, it avoids making this its focus. Following the chronology of Tom Bamforth’s career in humanitarian relief, from Pakistan to Darfur to the Pacific Islands, it is a collection of stories and commentaries providing behind-the-scenes insights into the world of humanitarian aid and the global politics from which it is inseparable.

Written with self-criticism and a refreshing level of honesty, it tells of the tension between timid UN organisations and self-righteous NGOs, internal arguments over responsibilities, branding and turf, and the discreet ‘game of survival’ in which the careers of aid workers are secured—‘individuals on short-term emergency contracts were making connections for their next “gig”’.

There are no pulled punches. Bamforth recounts the jaw-dropping incident where, in the midst of the Darfur crisis, the global head of the UN World Food Programme demanded a yogurt. The elite philanthropy of Bill Gates (embodying a privatisation of compassion) is rightly condemned, as is the Orwellian status of AusAID as an ‘independent, neutral, impartial’ body of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.

Deep Field also serves as a history book, or at least a book about global politics. For every featured disaster there are chapters’ worth of extensive historical political introductions, outlining the complexity of ongoing causes. This is done with a clear sense of purpose:

As I contemplated, with a sense of deflation, the reality of a media interview that did not end in an appeal for funds, it occurred to me that this had not been a waste of time. Rather, the absence of an appeal was part of something that I think is of longer-term importance, at least in the West—informed public discussion and understanding of history, politics and current events that is not necessarily reducible to an appeal for cash (useful as this is).

While Bamforth engages with this discussion, he declares himself (as a frontline humanitarian aid worker) essentially apolitical. He argues that humanitarianism cannot change the political, social or cultural landscape in which it works, ‘no matter how appalling the situation’. For Bamforth, humanitarian relief is a pragmatic ‘attempt to make things less worse’. This distancing has led to the accusation of being ‘all care, no responsibility’, something that Bamforth does not necessarily deny.

Notably quiet within the book are the voices of people affected by disaster and humanitarian actions. Those who feature do so fleetingly and remain nameless. This is not so much an omission on the part of Bamforth as a reflection on a system of aid in which affected people are (perhaps inevitably) predominantly voiceless. With humility Bamforth reiterates that the majority of humanitarians are not aid workers but those directly affected by disasters. After them he identifies the state as the second humanitarians, with the nebulous international community and its aid workers following in third place.

There is a wealth of commentary and criticism in Deep Field, showcasing Bamforth’s understanding of humanitarian work and global politics. The book is however not a thesis on humanitarianism but a collection of dispatches promoted as an action thriller. For Bamforth, writing this book has no doubt been a process of making sense of the chaos that is humanitarian relief, and it will be interesting to see what he writes next.

Action-thriller aspects aside, Deep Field is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the politics of Pakistan, Darfur or the Pacific Islands. It is written with unreserved criticism, passion and exasperation. Above all, however, it is its level of honesty that provides its greatest insights.

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