By Samantha Nutt. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011.
I second the comments by Stephen Lewis, Canadian politician and founder of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, about Samantha Nutt’s first book, Damned Nations: “This is an extraordinarily riveting book. The anecdotes are heart wrenching, the analysis is trenchant, principled, uncompromising … I read Damned Nations in one sitting and I regretted that it came to an end. It’s filled with emotional and intellectual power.”
A public health specialist and a family physician as well as the founder and executive director of the advocacy organization War Child, Samantha Nutt has worked in some of the most war-torn corners of the world, witnessing the ravages of conflict and the role of the international community. She sets the tone of the book describing her experience of being caught in a crossfire with armed groups while working with the United Nations. The book is rife with adventure, near-death encounters—stories both awful and awe-inspiring—during her sixteen years working in international humanitarian relief.
Interspersed with her personal anecdotes are hard facts about the world’s growing militarization and the failures of current aid and development models. According to Nutt, “annual global military spending now exceeds $1.5 trillion ($225 per year for every living person), the highest level in more than sixty-five years … yet terrorism remains stubbornly impervious to Western military intervention.”
Moreover, right here in Canada, our pension system is placing bets on a boom in the weapons industry, with the Canada Pension Plan investing some $200 million to the world’s top arms manufacturers. Likewise, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, with 284,000 teachers as members, has over $90 million invested in Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest military producer.
The book also expresses wide-ranging concerns, such as the role of business in resource-rich Africa where the sale of minerals used for many electronic devices helps fuel conflict by financing armed militia groups. Nutt proposes to revise the International Criminal Court statute to include the jurisdiction to prosecute corporations whose activities can be linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
While military spending and unethical investments have increased, contributions in aid and development, referred to as Official Development Assistance (ODA), have either decreased or simply stagnated. Canada’s commitment to ODA, for instance, is at around 0.3 percent of the country’s Gross National Product and was capped indefinitely by the Harper administration in 2010. Though Nutt acknowledges that “aid is an imperfect response to a violently imperfect world,“she balances this skepticism with a firm belief that, when done right, aid can create “more peaceful, just, and equitable societies.”
Nutt provides a clear and refreshing assessment of current aid and development models while providing her own recommendations. She takes particular issue with well-intentioned but na´ve humanitarian actions: individuals and non-governmental organizations which, with the best of intentions, attempt to develop their own programs or take part in charitable actions without a full understanding of the social, political, and economic contexts that they are delving into. In her view, “the best, most successful humanitarian programs are respectful and consultative, and are driven by the priorities of local stakeholders” and not our own desire for fulfillment and meaning.
The pages of Damned Nations are full of views of war from the side of the victims—the side we seldom hear about. It is concise, powerful, and deeply enlightening.
When speaking about her humanitarian involvement, Nutt declares: “hopefully I’m not nearly done yet.” I heartily echo that hope.
Reviewed by Shirley Farlinger, a Toronto activist.