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Complex Emergencies

David Keen
Polity Press, 293pp

Complex EmergenciesI must confess that before coming across this book I had not consciously heard the term 'complex emergency'. It is, however, used by the UN, and refers to one of the most pressing issues the world faces today. David Keen, Professor of Complex Emergencies at the LSE, defines complex emergencies (CEs) as 'humanitarian crises that are linked with large-scale violent conflict - civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide'. They are, in other words, the label for much of the tragedy that often fills our television screens and newspapers.

And yet, as Keen also points out, these situations are also regularly hidden from us - apparently in June 2005 the combined networks of CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, ABC and CBS ran 55 times as many stories on Michael Jackson's trial than on genocide in Darfur! Even when the media does report CEs part of our problem, as Keen highlights in his chapter on information, is that it generally give us updates rather than an understanding. 'Television is better at consequences than causes, not least because you can photograph a consequence more easily than a cause'. The great value of this book is that - as it covers issues related to war, greed, famine and aid - it enables understanding of the causes of CEs. It provides powerful, detailed analysis of many specific instances from across the globe: Sudan, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and others.

Perhaps the central message of the book is that these emergencies are indeed complex and that the often simple frameworks and solutions we have are therefore inadequate and even dangerous. One of these is the dualistic approach that blames everything on 'evil people' and sees all war simply as a contest between conflicting parties and/or the collapse of society into chaos. Challenging these views is, however, uncomfortable as it means 'there is not necessarily a huge disjuncture between the perpetrators of violence and the rest of us'. That is, of course, an understanding that should be quite acceptable to those who hold a traditional Christian doctrine of sin but it is still one we draw back from accepting. Once we discard simplistic approaches we need to ask - as Keen very powerfully does - why CEs occur, what functions they perform and which groups and individuals benefit from them.

In answering these questions, Keen challenges many other common (mis-)understandings. He offers a sustained critique of Paul Collier's analysis of CEs simply in terms of 'rebel greed' and also warns about pressing for moving quickly to democracy as the solution, citing research that shows that in 1811-1980 'the danger of war (external and internal) was greatest when states were moving rapidly towards democracy'. He memorably warns that 'power does not like to analyse itself' and so he steps in to do his own analysis. He does so in large part by listening to the victims caught up in CEs and ruthlessly uncovering such realities as collusion between opposing parties in civil war (because of the benefits of such war to both 'sides') and the distorted accounts that sometimes come from aid agencies. Following Foucault in a manner which Christians should welcome, he warns that we often shut out the voices of disaster victims and that 'a key task for the researcher and the policy-maker is to bring to light these hidden or excluded views and visions' even if that process is threatening to some.

Listening to victims and reflecting on power is most memorable in one of several theological and religious references in the work. Keen describes how when rebels attacked a community in Sierra Leone a Christian preacher pleaded, 'Please God, spare my life!' only to hear the reply, 'There is no God here. We are God. Because if there is a God, he would have saved you by now'. Here, more than anywhere, we may think we see the truth in the 'evil men' hypothesis and yet it is also Sierra Leone - in the words of a UN worker - which gives another central (and thoroughly evangelical) message of the book: 'In a way, what young people want, including rebels, is to be loved'. In writing this Keen is not naive. He is very much a realist, as seen especially in his lengthy chapter on 'peace' which criticises the popular 'security approach' and argues that peace needs to offer alternative routes to what war offers. As he puts it in his conclusion, 'Perhaps the most pressing challenge for those attempting to facilitate peace is to try to nurture a society where normal human desires can be met without resort to violence and where, as a result, those who would try to manipulate these desires for violent ends are denied the space in which to operate'.

Keen's work, though heavy (in content and at times in style) and detailed (both conceptually and factually) also has its light touches such as his account of a train journey with a half-German, half-Croatian and half-drunk 'genocidal maniac' whom he suspects might have a copy of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations in his back pocket and his admission that he cannot claim to solve these problems because 'someone who has difficulty organizing his own desk is not necessarily in a position to lecture those with years of operational experience in complex emergencies!'. Though not an easy read in any sense of the phrase, Keen's book provides those who read it a whole range of illuminating new perspectives on CEs and in so doing enables greater insight into the phenomena he discusses and much material for serious Christian reflection, prayer and action.

Andrew Goddard