Linda Polman writes an in depth look at the effects of humanitarian aid across the world in her book The Crisis Caravan. Polman discusses whether humanitarian aid organizations prolong wars through their efforts because often the warlords or dictators receive many benefits from the aid. In fact, the economies of many war-stricken areas that aid workers enter are entirely reliant on the humanitarians. Rent skyrockets after humanitarian organizations enter a town and people scramble for the new jobs created by the aid organizations. All the while, warlords and local armies profit off the aid by spontaneously creating taxes and stealing some of the food. In The Crisis Caravan, Polman writes that the “dictators and rebel leaders turn the international aid industry into what the Nazis made the ICRC: involuntary collaborators.”
The problem is that in order for aid organizations to receive access to a war zone they must provide payment. Polman personally experienced one chief who only required a ballpoint pen, but other chiefs ask for extravagant things like a shopping trip to the capital in a UN helicopter for the chief’s wife. These requests don’t end there. As previously mentioned, soldiers charge different taxes at checkpoints and often take food – food intended to go toward the innocent civilians affected by the war. All of this leads to less donations of money, food and supplies going toward the intended people.
Polman poignantly states that “aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.” On the outside, aid groups appear to be caring, selfless organizations whose only goal is to help the hungry and suffering (much like Mother Teresa). People giving donations do not know any different because journalists “automatically approve” humanitarian groups and rarely ask them questions about financing or their real effect in an area. Journalists are often financially supported by an aid group and therefore only see things that support the narrative that humanitarian organizations are inherently good. This bias is problematic because Polman says we must be allowed to critique the system of humanitarian aid if we want it to improve. In addition, there are simply too many aid organizations and not enough oversight to prevent abuse.
After Goma, the Sphere Project was created which was a handbook of agreed standards, but these were only recommendations and not enforceable rules. A decade later the problems remained, so many INGOs created the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). The ALNAP’s regular publication called “Review of Humanitarian Action” suggested two changes to the aid system: creating a process that assesses performance and having aid groups work together instead of against each other. This would allow different aid organizations that have different goals to work together in order to create change.
I agree with Polman that the actions suggested by ALNAP would help humanitarian aid system actually create positive change in war zones. For example, instead of each humanitarian group bargaining with chiefs and soldiers for access, the aid organizations would work together and have bigger bargaining power. In addition, I think journalist need to feel more comfortable critiquing aid groups. Like Polman said, just because you criticize actions by aid organizations that doesn’t mean that you think doing nothing is a better choice. It’s the job of journalists to be the watchdog of the government, organizations, etc., so humanitarian groups should not be any different.