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Q&A

The case against aid

The world’s humanitarian aid organizations may do more harm than good, argues Linda Polman

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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In 1859, a Swiss businessman named Henry Dunant took a business trip to Italy, where he happened upon the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle in the Austro-Sardinian War. Tens of thousands of soldiers were left dead or wounded on the battlefield, with no medical attention. He was so shaken by the experience that he went on to found what is known today as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Today, in the vocabulary of war, the ICRC and other aid organization like it are known as the good guys in a world full of bad guys. They swarm into refugee camps all over the world with tents, potable water, flour, and medicine, providing relief and disregarding politics.

But what if those relief efforts ultimately help fighters regain their strength and return to battle, prolonging a terrible war? What if such aid projects are hijacked by genocidal despots to swell their own coffers? What if cynical leaders have learned how to manufacture humanitarian disasters just to attract aid money? And what if the aid groups know all this, but turn a blind eye so that they can compete for a slice of a $160 billion industry?

“The Crisis Caravan,” a new book by journalist Linda Polman, joins a long tradition of exposes written by aid skeptics, many of whom are insiders to the business. Polman was not privy to the inner circle of any aid group, so she often relies on anecdotes told by unnamed sources to make her case. Nevertheless, she gives some powerful examples of unconscionable assistance: How the international community fed Hutu fighters who had committed genocide in Rwanda, and who then continued their violent campaigns from the UN-funded refugee camps; how the Ethiopian government manufactured a famine, and then used aid groups to lure people away from their homes toward a life of forced labor. In Polman’s world, these are not exceptions, but the rule in a world where aid workers have become enablers of the very atrocities they seek to relieve.

Polman, who is based in Amsterdam, spoke to Ideas by telephone from France, and later by telephone from Norway.

IDEAS: What made you so disillusioned by aid work?

POLMAN: I was living in Sierra Leone in West Africa in 2000, 2001, when the peace agreement was signed between the government and the RUF....I was a correspondent for a Dutch newspaper and Dutch radio, covering the war and the UN operations that [were] trying to lure the country out of the hands of the rebels. All the time I was there, the country was in total darkness. There was no electricity. There were no radios. With the peace accord, the aid budget was released for Sierra Leone, and with the release of the aid budget, the caravan of aid was released....In a very short time, there were over 200 NGOS moved into the country.

Everything changed. For the first couple of days, I was happy with that. I thought the country was going to be rescued. But because I knew the country quite well, I saw it was the people I considered the bad guys — the political elites who were responsible for the war — they were the ones who had access to the aid. I thought, this can’t be right. That’s when I started to research what happens in other countries. It is always what happens. It is always the elites and the strongmen who profit.

IDEAS: Your book says that food aid is always used as a weapon of war by the very fighters that create humanitarian disasters in the first place. Is aid always bad? Would the world be a better place without it?

POLMAN: I believe that aid could be given in a much more efficient and less dangerous way....After every humanitarian intervention, the aid organizations analyze what went well and what went wrong. Every analysis...says the weakest point is that the aid organizations are not cooperating well enough, which makes them vulnerable to abuse of the aid.

IDEAS: You don’t cite any examples of good aid projects. Is anybody out there doing it right?

POLMAN: I know of an orphanage in Haiti that has been there for the past 35 years. It has proved over the past 35 years that it is doing a good job. But if the humanitarian world decides en masse to move into one war zone where the bad guys are waiting for them with open arms, they should expect many problems and many instances of abuse.

IDEAS: You talk in your book about how Florence Nightingale eventually developed a philosophy that we should just let wars be as terrible as possible, so that people would stop having them. Would there be less war without aid?

POLMAN: We don’t know, because we never tried to stop aid and then count the amount of wars, or count the amount of days that wars go on. But the thoughts of Florence Nightingale make sense to me. The cost...of the war should be left in the hands of the people who want the war. She thought that if you make it easier for warmongers to have their wars, then you prolong them and make them more severe.

IDEAS: A central tenet of aid workers is political neutrality. In the book, you write that this is often a farce. Should aid take sides in a war? Would it be more effective if it did?

POLMAN: The reality is that aid is not being given a choice. Aid is being used by parties that are at war with each other. Even if aid wants to be neutral, the choice is made for them....If an aid organization cannot decide itself how to distribute aid, when to distribute aid, to whom to distribute aid, if the aid organization doesn’t have the power to make decisions about its own aid, you can do two things. You can say, “Well, that is just reality.” Or you can say, “We will not deliver the aid.”...Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] does it sometimes. Sometimes they make the moral stance, and sometimes they don’t.

IDEAS: What is the worst example of abuse of aid that you saw?

POLMAN: In Sierra Leone, I realized that the rebel soldiers who had been hacking off people’s hands and feet, they actually could explain to me how to manipulate the aid system....They explained to me that for 10 years, all those years they were fighting and the West didn’t want to hear about their war. It was only after they started to amputate people, more people and more people, that the international community was taking notice of their war. Those simple rebel soldiers in Africa could explain to me how that aid system works. That alarmed me....

A Security Council report this year concluded that up to half of the World Food program money — $485 million per year — for Somalia is diverted from the people who actually need it, to a web of corrupt contractors, Islamic militants, and local UN staff members who are also involved in this scheme. We can shrug our shoulders about $245 million a year, but in Somalia, this is a lot of money and it is fueling conflict, and it is fueling the wrong people.

Farah Stockman, foreign affairs reporter for the Boston Globe, also runs an educational program for street children in Kenya. E-mail fstockman@globe.com.