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The danger of do-gooders

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 01 September 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4585
  1. Jonathan Kaplan, war zone surgeon and writer, based in London
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    The intervention of humanitarian groups may actually exacerbate conflict, Jonathan Kaplan finds

    The Swiss humanitarian Jean-Henri Dunant looked in despair upon the carnage of the 1859 battle of Solferino. Forty thousand French and Austrian soldiers lay dead; a similar number were left to die from their wounds. With army medical services lacking, local villagers took the casualties to stables and churches. Dunant gathered together volunteers to care for the wounded of both sides without favour, mobilising a corps of society women to give of their time and compassion. Far from a reluctance to be involved, the biggest problem Dunant encountered was that of “enthusiasts” turning up with inappropriate help: “most of those who brought their own goodwill to the task lacked the necessary knowledge and experience, so that their efforts were inadequate and often ineffective.”

    In his native country he lobbied for the creation of a donor supported, professional, international voluntary organisation that would bring medical care to all victims of war while, “by reducing the number of cripples, a saving would be effected in the expenses of a Government which has to provide pensions for disabled soldiers.” Among the celebrities to whom Dunant turned for backing …

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