In her book, The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman raises various concerns. She discusses the controversial topic of whether humanitarian aid is beneficial or if it actually prolongs wars. She tends to agree with a lot of Florence Nightingale’s ideas that humanitarian aid could be elongating the issue and making things worse in the long run. The general question arises: Is the principle of helping those in need more important than the consequences? Linda Polman gives her judgment on the issue, explaining how it is necessary to consider the consequences of humanitarian aid. When many people think of humanitarian aid, they often think of it as helping “the good guys”. However, they do not consider how this aid is also assisting the “bad guys” as well. Linda Polman guides us to see the detrimental effects of assisting those who are the conflict starters. She states in her book, “Striking bargains with parties to conflicts is sometimes referred to as shaking hands with the devil.” Linda Polman gives numerous examples of why humanitarian aid can essentially worsen conflicts. There are a few instances she discussed that particularly stand out to me.
First off, warlords tend to take advantage of aid organizations in any way they can. By setting up various locations labeled as “no access to war zones without payment”, this has allowed them to do just that. For instance, in Somalia, the entrance fee charged by warlords ran to as much as 80 percent of the amount the air supplies were worth. Also, according to the head of the UN mission in southern Afghanistan, Talatbek Masadykov, aid organizations in Uruzgan handed over one-third of their food aid and agriculture support to the Taliban. Linda Polman uses these few examples to argue the fact that it is costing these aid organizations a lot to get their supplies to their target destination. In the end, they have been stripped of much of the goods they brought, so is it even worth it?
Linda Polman also points out the fact that when entering another country, it is crucial to listen to their rules and regulations. If this is not followed, the safety of the aid organizations themselves can be put in danger. An example Linda Polman gives is in eastern Congo. The powerful leaders of the Hema people decided they would allow the arrival of international aid organizations only if they agreed to not give their enemies, the Lendus, anything. The Lendus were in more severe need of aid, however they were not allowed to assist the Hema’s competitors. In 2001, six International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) members went against this demand and helped the Lendus. These workers were murdered and in response to threats, MSF was forced to remove the work from the region. Linda Polman raises the issue that many people who are trying to help others are just putting themselves in danger. Why would we want to bring additional people to the area of conflict, if making one little mistake could end up with them being killed?
Sadly enough, another prominent issue in many countries is that their government cares about their own well-being, and only that. A Kenya-based director of the Inter Region Economic Network, an African think tank, explains how when an aid convey rolls into town contract fever strikes. Local governors promptly leave off governing. The director states, “All our policy makers do is strategize on how to get more aid money. The government workers are only concerned with what will be handed to them. Linda Polman tells the story about a wheelchair project in Liberia in which medical INGOs had arranged for a batch of wheelchairs to be flown in. The chairs ended up being used as ice-cream carts and mobile shops in the streets of Monrovia. Vendors in healthy conditions were using these chairs, while amputees continued on by dragging themselves on their hands and knees. Why spend so much time and money on gathering supplies if it is not for sure to reach the correct destination?
There is one particular line that Linda Polman says to sum up her view of aid organizations. She states, “Aid organizaitons are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa”. Mother Teresa spent her life working among the poorest of the poor, depending on God for all of her needs. Linda Polman makes this comparison because from the outside, aid organizations seem to be relieving the unfortunate of their troubles just as Mother Teresa did. However, she refers to them as being “dressed up” as Mother Teresa because although they come off as a lot of help, there are a lot of negative aspects associated with aid organizations. As these negative connotations are exemplified throughout my blog, there is another one I would like to discuss. Linda Polman explains how journalists are ecstatic and automatically approve of aid agencies coming in. Why are they so inviting to these unknown visitors? The aid programs manipulate the journalists by getting them to follow them because of the benefits they will receive. The journalists reporting on the aid campaign are financed, or at least accommodated, by one of the aid agencies taking part in the caravan. In my opinion this is the aid organizations way of bribing the journalists to report on them in a positive light. These aid organizations may not be as selfless as they may seem, considering one of their main aspirations is to be recognized by the rest of the world and praised for what they have done.
Linda Polman leaves the reader of her book, The Crisis Caravan”, with a lot to consider. She instigates many questions but does not necessarily answer them, leaving it up to her audience to come up with breakthroughs for the problems. What change can be made so that humanitarian aid can be seen as successful? What do journalists, the public, and governments have to do to make this possible?
She emphasizes the fact that there are no rules or agreements about ethical boundaries, and NGOs make decisions about where to work based not primarily on ethical considerations but on the availability of donor contracts. Linda Polman also points out how each aid organization specializes in its own small task within large aid operations. They do not feel they are a part of the whole. One organization often looks at another one and thinks: other organizations may get it wrong, but we are different. Think about how much more help organizations would be if they all worked together. The diversity of varying specialties, knowledge, and ideas brought together through different aid agencies, would be highly beneficial. In the past, solving this problem of unity among organizations has been attempted. The Sphere Project created a shared handbook of agreed standards. It contains recommendations, but not enforceable rules. Also, The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action was created in order to exchange the latest ideas on accountability. However, these organizations still have not been greatly affected by these establishments; more needs to be done. The government should not just make recommendations, but strict guidelines for how much aid can be given and where. There also needs to be policies and agreements about ethical boundaries. With this, the government then needs to be sure that NGOs make decisions about where to work based on these ethical considerations.
Linda Polman makes a valid point that it is necessary to ask aid organizations questions. I personally believe that this is a significant start in making an improvement. It is us, the public, who needs to make a change. Instead of donating and not knowing the details of where or what your money is going to, people need to ask questions. Aid organizations cannot flourish without donors. Therefore when asked questions, this will encourage the aid organizations themselves to follow up more and be more knowledgeable about the exact destination of their supplies. This will prevent more donations from going missing, or being stolen by local government workers, like the issue in Liberia. Each organization needs to hold up to the international laws of ensuring they are in complete control of the resources.
Journalists need to also alter their ways in order for humanitarian aid to become more successful. They need to become less biased due to the benefits they receive and base their reports more off of accurate facts. It is necessary for them to tell it how it is, focusing on not just the positive aspects but the negative ones as well.
Prior to reading Linda Polman’s book, I personally agreed with Henri Dunant’s views that aid should always be done, despite the harm that came along with it. However, I have grown to be more open to Linda Polman’s opinions. I believe the consequences of humanitarian aid need to be more closely evaluated. It is time to stop looking at just the principle of helping people, and look more at the consequences associated with the aid. When doing this, eventually humanitarian aid can be assessed more cautiously, and only be provided in areas that will not fuel conflicts further.