The dangers of international aid

A new book exposes the problems with Third World aid missions, but ends up replacing NGOs’ black-and-white view of Africa with its own.

This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Over the years, the international aid industry has suffered many PR setbacks and high-profile critiques. For instance, there was Graham Hancock’s 1989 book Lords of Poverty, an exposé of the ‘power, prestige and corruption of the international aid business’; Daniel Wolf’s 2000 investigative TV series The Hunger Business; Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, published last year; and, this year, Martin Plaut’s radio documentary Aid for Arms in Ethiopia.

Now, we can add to the list of aid-industry exposés War Games, by Dutch journalist Linda Polman, who draws on decades of experience of reporting from wartorn disaster zones to deliver 200 pages of unflinching blows to humanitarian aid organisations.

Polman takes her readers on a journey through overcrowded refugee camps, famine zones and bombed-out villages – from Rwanda to Afghanistan, Sudan to Kosovo. Here, United Nations agencies, international charities, religious groups, community arts associations and amateur aid workers representing so-called MONGOs (‘My Own NGO’) compete for space, resources and media attention.

Polman does not doubt that this assortment of rescuers genuinely wants to alleviate human suffering. Aid organisations may litter project proposals with buzzwords (Polman provides a dictionary of ‘aid speak’ at the end of her book) to align their agendas with those of donors, yet this is not purely a cynical exercise. There is a genuine commitment amongst aid workers to things like empowerment, capacity building, strengthening civil society and encouraging gender equality.

The question Polman wants to raise – and the one she urges aid workers, journalists reporting on aid operations and the governments and individuals who donate money and resources to ask – is if Doing Something is always that good when attempts to do right can go so wrong. War Games suggests that international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have exacerbated tensions, poured money into the coffers of war lords and rebels, prolonged conflicts and contributed to entrenching an image of the ‘Third World’, particularly Africa, as a basket case for the wealthy nations. Reading War Games, never has the expression ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ rung more true.

If Polman’s critique makes for uncomfortable reading even for non-NGO workers, it surely should lead to some serious soul-searching within the aid industry. Polman describes white women taking water aerobics classes at the height of the Sierra Leone civil war while in a nearby conference hall their colleagues attended a seminar on ‘The Traumatised Child’. While victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami were navigating their way through the rubble of their homes, charities delivered crates of stiletto-heeled shoes, G-strings, Father Christmas costumes and Viagra pills. Bosnians received packets of Prozac that were past their sell-by dates; Cambodian refugees were given food that a San Francisco zoo had declared unfit for animals; and a New Zealand manufacturer once offered Kenyan children canned dog food. ‘The children are hungry, but not that hungry’, a Kenyan government spokesman said, declining the gift.

But Polman reserves most of her indignation for how aid organisations form unholy alliances with rebel war lords, what she calls ‘génocidaires’, and dictatorial regimes, signing contracts with the devil in order to get resources, money and food over to anyone who can be deemed to be suffering. Pity is a dangerous emotion indeed; action spurred by pity more often helps to ease the conscience of Westerners and aid workers than repair the infrastructural and emotional damages suffered by impoverished people.

However, though it may not be her intention, in her eagerness to expose the reprehensible and irresponsible side of humanitarian interventions, Polman unthinkingly replaces one black-and-white narrative with another. Where the aid industry sees perpetrators and victims, Polman sees misguided do-gooders and corrupt warmongers.

For all her efforts to challenge the image of the Third World as one dusty, victim-littered blob of land, and for all her insistence that there is more to Africa than AIDS, Kalashnikovs and Nelson Mandela, Polman actually ends up perpetuating her own dangerous stereotypes. In War Games, aid workers are naive and self-interested, while Africans and others are either cunning, bloodthirsty savages with no regard for human dignity or mutilated, starved and raped victims.

Take Polman’s description of the 1980s Ethiopian civil war and famine. She repeats the well-known account of how Mengistu’s Derg regime manufactured a humanitarian disaster by driving villagers in the rebel-sympathetic north towards the government-held territories of the south in order to weaken the rebels and to manipulate aid, siphoning off much of the money to boost the government’s war efforts. As we know, international organisations and pop stars were stirred into a charity frenzy, accepting the official narrative that the drought in the north necessitated a mass evacuation of people to the south.

Polman claims that ‘government soldiers sealed off the northern region and went to work. They raped and mutilated women and girls. They flung infants on to fires alive. They set schools and clinics ablaze, slaughtered livestock, burned grain stores and poisoned water sources with human corpses and dead animals.’ No doubt Mengistu led a cruel, oppressive and undemocratic regime in Ethiopia. But here, as elsewhere in the book, Polman diverts from the journalistic responsibility to provide sources or eyewitness testimonies. Unfortunately, such emotive dramatism calls into question the credibility of other sections of the book.

Polman’s central – and highly believable – contention is that aid has become a strategic aspect of warfare and that, in their stubborn insistence on upholding the principle of neutrality, adopting a ‘see no evil’ approach to relief efforts, aid organisations are dishonest and irresponsible about how their presence impacts on local geopolitics. Aid, Polman rightly insists, is political.

For INGOs, the enduring quandary is whether to provide aid at any price, even if it ends up in the wrong hands and even if, in the long-term, it could conceivably do more harm than good. Polman traces this dilemma back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the Swiss Henri Dunant and the Briton Florence Nightingale took very different approaches to war relief work. Dunant insisted on the duty to help no matter what, while Nightingale thought that aid fails if warring parties use it to their own advantage.

Later, Dunant helped set up the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the ‘humanitarian principles’ adopted by it became entrenched in the Geneva Conventions. These principles outline a duty to ease the human suffering of whomever, wherever, whenever. ‘I need hardly to say that I think its views absurd’, Nightingale said of the ICRC, ‘just such as would originate in a little state like Geneva, which never can see war’.

Neither Dunant nor Nightingale could have foreseen just how absurd relief work would later become. Take the American evangelists who bring African amputee children to the US, parade them on Oprah, and put them up for adoption even though they are not orphans. And imagine just what kind of events could have led to one rebel in Freetown telling Polman that WAR stands for ‘“Waste All Resources.” Destroy everything. Then you people will come and fix it.’

Aid is indeed Big Business today. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of INGOs has mushroomed. In the 1980s, around 40 were active in Cambodian refugee camps set up by the Thai border. Today, by contrast, the ICRC estimates that each major disaster attracts around 1,000 national and international aid organisations. In 2004, some 2,000 organisations descended on Afghanistan.

It is the somewhat luxurious job of journalists to raise tough questions without having to provide any solutions. But considering how willingly journalists generally go along with accounts of war and famine provided by INGOs, and how much they have abandoned their job of investigating, questioning and interrogating the complexities of conflicts, then we should welcome the publication of Polman’s book, or at least parts of it, as an example of when Doing Something is very worthwhile.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

War Games: The Story of Aid in Modern Times, by Linda Polman, is published by Viking. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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