FRONTLINE Producer Sherry Jones: Was Fred an important
figure in your life?
MB: In all of our lives. He came in and out of an awful lot of refugee
emergencies, and there were a lot of young men and women who learned it from
Fred, and he obviously relished that role of elder brother to a lot of us.
FRONTLINE: And why was he so unique?
MB: He was an expert in a field of amateurs. The nature of the relief worker's
career is short, brief and exciting, but emphasis on the brief, in that it's
young men or women's work. If it's older people's work, they tend to very
quickly become "headquarters types" who make flying visits from Geneva or
Washington or somewhere. And, Fred was the great exception. Even when he was
a gray beard, he was still up for all those lengthy nights out in the field,
wherever the action was. So he really was a remarkable figure, with a sort of
dedication and presence in the field that others didn't have.
FRONTLINE: And why was he able to see things that other people couldn't see?
MB: This is a business which is defined by chaos, by people losing it, by the
inability to impose a very simple, straightforward logic on the chaotic events
swirling round. Fred's genius was, first, that capacity to think strategically
while everybody around him was thinking tactically, but second, through sheer
force of will, to impose that strategic vision on others.
FRONTLINE: In these situations, when he's dealing with governments, for
example, how did he convince them that he knew what was right?
MB: Well, these are big, big, larger than life problems. Hundreds of
thousands, and sometimes millions of people at risk, who, if they're not
rapidly and effectively helped, there'll be a huge loss of life. But in most
government structures, far from bringing out the best, it brings out the
pettiest. People retreat behind the bureaucratic ramparts and become more
process-driven than ever. Their imagination just can't get itself around the
sheer size of the human responsibility that they should be shouldering in a
situation like this.
And Fred cut through all that, and had an ability to bring the drama of the
crisis to people--either to government officials immediately in the field, or
to their bosses and their bosses' bosses back in capitals like Washington, but
also the national capitals where these refugee dramas were unfolding.
FRONTLINE: People have told me about Fred's idealism but that also just the
sheer adventure of this was a big part of what he loved and what drove him.
MB: Yeah, I think it was. He was a great, great adventurer, in that sense. And
he loved every moment of it. It was a great life at the professional level, in
the sense that you were doing really important work that was making a
difference, and time after time, you were in the midst of crises that were
consuming world opinion, however briefly the world noticed them. It was the
buzz of being at the center of a big story. But there was a much bigger buzz
of really seeing the difference you made. I think you have to set against
that, though, a very, very high personal cost. The reason the rest of us
stopped doing this when we were quite young was that we tried to make stable
family lives for ourselves: spouses, children. And these two things are not
FRONTLINE: How do you characterize his contribution to changing the way the
United States, specifically, and the West in general, looked at relief, during
the '70's and early '80's?
MB: The relief operation in Cambodia started in '79, so until then, he'd been
very much caught up in the world of natural disasters which are not complicated
in the same way. They're to do with, certainly, getting the relief chain
right, getting relief in a timely way; they're about dealing with the
vulnerabilities such as soil erosion and other preventive things you can do to
head off earthquakes and floods -- those kinds of natural things. But where he
became the consort of political people on the National Security Council or the
State Department and their counterparts at the U.N., really was in the '80's.
He took this sort of very professional, but technocratic, track record he'd
built in the '70's, and in the '80's, landed on the big stage by bringing this
kind of systematic way of looking at relief, as not just a series of boxes,
where you dealt with food, water, sanitation in separate ways, but took them
all together in a strategic plan, and hooked that strategic plan to a political
goal. And putting that puzzle together was his contribution in the '80's, and
it meant that he booted this thing up from something that, as I say, AID or
U.N. officials thought about, to something secretaries of state and joint
chiefs of staff and national security advisors talked about, because he
suddenly cast humanitarian emergencies in their language, as political,
strategic processes which could be influenced.
FRONTLINE: In general, how much was he listened to in Washington?
MB: Well, in terms of Washington, you can't really say the name Fred Cuny
without saying Mort Abramowitz [then president of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace] and Lionel Rosenblatt [president of Refugees
International] in almost the same breath. Because these are the guys who open
the doors. These are the guys who raised this whole issue of relief from where
What has happened in Washington is, generally, some of the smartest people in
foreign policy in this town have brought the issue in from the kind of relief
ghetto where it was and mainstreamed it as an issue of high politics. And Fred
was able to ride on the coattails of that. And he was the substance person who
could backfill behind Mort's claims in this area. So in that sense, it was a
tag team effort. Between them, they've transformed the stature of this issue.
FRONTLINE: Fred had something of a life-long struggle against what he viewed as
too much caution at the UN, lack of creativity, that sort of thing. How right
was he to be so critical or was he just impatient?
MB: I think he was basically right in that these organizations are peopled by
people who are too cautious. It is an inherent problem. They're cautious
because they're answering to many masters and having to pick their way through
political mine-fields and they needed an external spur in the form of Fred.
But, at the same time, he was a polemicist particularly as he got more and more
involved in politics and like all polemicists, he made his case in black and
white. And I think you, therefore, do have to take some of his judgments of
individual officials with a big grain of salt.
The other thing where I found myself in latter years slightly diverging from
Fred and to be honest, diverging more broadly from a lot of the humanitarian
community is the problem about humanitarianism is that you come in with very
large western-financed and usually western-run operations into situations where
definitionally local, national government has broken down. That's why you are
there. So, you're a substitution for the local authorities. But the point is
you cannot, as outsiders, be some kind of permanent substitution. That
country's development is only going to resume when people, themselves, retake
responsibility for their own lives and restore their political structures.
So, I always felt that with these sort of 747 approaches to relief operations
where you throw anything you can - armaments, relief workers, as much
assistance as you can into the breach -- that you have to understand that there
is a backlash. There's a cost at the back-end of this because you are deferring
and postponing the moment when people are going to fix their own problems and
take control of their own lives again. So, in some cases there was a
legitimate caution for not doing something bigger, bolder, and more ambitious.
And I think Fred was often deaf to that.
FRONTLINE: And what about historic position that, that humanitarians, relief
people are supposed to be neutral. That was something that Fred, I gather,
increasingly disagreed with?
MB: Yeah. I left the refugee business.....I realized that this was the ultimate
bandaid business. I went through the same emotional journey that I think Fred
went through towards the end which was you just couldn't go into yet another
one of these situations, try to be the neutral ambulance men who tries to put
together the pieces, but then walks away knowing there's going to be another
road accident a day later either that place or somewhere else.
The fact is until the international community, the people who care about this,
can find ways of mobilizing political systems and governments and Congresses,
which would much prefer to pass by on the other side of the street, there will
be more of this. I mean I think to turn to the particular of Fred in Sarajevo.
I mean no journalist could go and see this lunatic Texan bending pipes in odd
directions and hiding water systems and converting swimming pools into leaching
water places, and not ask where the hell is the U.S. government? So, not only
was it a very valuable relief operation in its own right, but it allowed us to
build up this case that America wasn't where it should be
FRONTLINE: He had increasingly become expert at marrying something that helped
people with something that made a political statement.
MB: That's right. And it's the political statement that has to happen at two
levels. One, there's got to be a political statement which says, "This matters
to you outsiders." And, in that sense, it is a kind of communication
statement. And the second level to the political statement is we have a
solution to the problem. Because I think those of us who've been at this for a
long time feel that the fundamental weakness of the appeal to western
governments to engage in these situations has always been, "Help, there's a
crisis! Give us charity! Give us support!" And I think we've learned that
you can go to governments if you come with a solution.
So you can, in a sense, see the three phases of Fred's work. The first phase
was to put together water and sanitation and the food supply into a coherent
whole. And that is what he did in the '70s. In the early '80s, he started to
add this very plausible appeal to outsiders as to why help. He became a great
source for journalists, gave good interview when he came back to Washington.
And then in the high-Indian summer phase of Fred, he added this compelling
political logic whether it was Somalia or later Bosnia. He really added the
solution component. And that was both the high-summer but it was the beginning
of the end because the political solution involved taking sides.
FRONTLINE: And was he increasingly frustrated at his inability to effect the
MB: Yeah, I think so.
FRONTLINE: Was he getting to be an old man for the business?
MB: Well, he'd been an old man for the business for quite a while. Fred,
forgive me, but I suspect there was a sense in him that, he'd been there, seen
it, done it before with a lot of this stuff.
FRONTLINE: And why was he not coming out of the field? Why wasn't he going to
work for the International Crisis Group?
MB: Well, this was a guy who'd found what he was best at in life and he wanted
to give it his all for as long as he could. And, you know, being out of the
field would have been second best.
I know you have heard in your investigation, the degree of myth that attached
to Fred's life. But here was a man dealing with very big things, surrounded by
people whose way of dealing with very big things was to cut it into small
pieces that they could handle. And he, instead, rose to the challenge and
tried to be larger than life. And allowed myth to build around him and as you
allow myth to build, you yourself start to lose a little bit of control over
what exactly happened and what didn't. And through the haze of that campfire
the legend grew and you can say that it was a little fraudulent, that somebody
who'd started a lot more modestly than he let on, allowed the legend to grow.
But as far as I was concerned, he'd built some of the biggest construction
projects in the world, flown some of the biggest planes and I suspect neither
were absolutely accurately the case. But the point is it was a legend that
allowed him to do the things he could do and allowed him the oomph and the get
up and go each morning to do what he did. And in that sense, it allowed him to
walk on water. I mean who's to take that away from somebody?
FRONTLINE: In terms of the state of humanitarian relief today, how do you
analyze it? What is at the heart of the debate that's going on?
MB: It's at something of a crossroads because we are seeing that the global
change we're going through -- the end of the Cold War, the way it froze a lot
of regional politics, the way that economic change is creating new classes of
winners and losers, new pressure points, the way in which environmental,
population and other constraints are bearing down on particular societies -
these changes are creating whole new patterns of conflict. And the more global
change there is--and I say this as someone who is totally in favor of global
change -- the more breakdowns and accidents there are going to be. And, it's
not all of them are going to be in places like the Horn of Africa, they're be
a lot more Bosnians, where sophisticated urban populations get caught up in
these breakdowns as well. And, you know, there is no evidence that politically
we are maturing sufficiently to begin to be able to handle these things. And,
in fact, when you look at some of the so-called big international successes,
they continue to look very fragile--Cambodia, or Bosnia, even the West Bank.
FRONTLINE: Roy Williams at the International Rescue Committee has said
humanitarian relief has become big and powerful and that both the "good guys"
and "bad guys" have figured out how to use the system to their own advantage.
The good guys use humanitarians as their fig leaves, and the bad guys know they
can always count on the humanitarians to come in and clean up their mess. What
dilemmas does that reality present?
MB: Relief incentivizes bad behavior as much as it incentivizes good behavior.
And there's no getting around that but you have to balance that against the
need to help dying people, to not forget the basic humanitarian mission which
is, you're in the business of saving lives. So, you've somehow got to use the
right combinations of carrot and stick to save lives without subsidizing bad
politics. And doing it is very, very difficult. Particularly when you have a
series of major government players who are in and out of these problems, based
on their own national interests, rather than some absolute humanitarian
But, Fred's people are still up and fighting, and I think people should analyze
theoretically what this is all about and they're going to see that there are
some fundamental questions we've got to answer about humanitarian roles and
functions and codes of behavior. It's leadership, leadership, leadership,
filling the room is what it's all about. And the other element to leadership
is quality of judgment, calling these shots right. And Fred, for a long time,
called them right. In Chechnya he probably didn't and he paid mightily for
FRONTLINE: What's his legacy?
MB: I think it's several dimensional. One, a huge and perhaps least, but very
importantly a major contribution to the professionalization of one of the last
areas for the gifted amateur. Secondly, really having shown this marriage of
operations, strategy and politics. And third, Fred's people. All of us who were
touched by him are better at this business because of it. And there are still
quite a few of us around.
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