Humanitarian aid has always been widely publicized as a global force for helping those less fortunate. However, this industry has become just another industry. For a course that I am currently taking , I have been asked to read Linda Polman’s book The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? The book poses several different issues about humanitarian aid in today’s world. A quote from the book, from page 177 specifically, states “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa…” Unfortunately, much evidence supports that claim.According to the preceding sentence that the quote follows, Polman states “But when it comes to aid agencies, journalists automatically approve. (page 177) However, Polman offers a more realistic view of practices and experiences with humanitarian aid.
I have read chapters one, two, three, and five. Each of these chapters gives a new perspective as to how aid has become a business. Chapter one is a hard-hitting chapter that describes life in Goma which is a Hutu refugee camp in Zaire or present day Democratic Republic of Congo. It described how the camp was surrounded with mines so as to slow down advancing opponents and how the government was located in a nice hotel on the outskirts of the city of Goma. However, the state of the refugee camp has significantly improved since the camp’s founding. The Hutus had brought a lot of books and other materials from Rwanda that allow multiple facets of civilized life. At the start, journalists and aid agencies were swarming the camp. However, as the camp started to become a city, aid to Goma was terminated in November of 1996. An inventory count listed in the book says that there are 2,324 bars, 450 restaurants, 590 shops, more than 60 air salons, 50 pharmacies, 30 tailors, 25 butcher’s shops, 5 blacksmiths, 4 studios, 3 cinemas, 2 hotels, and a slaughterhouse. (Pg. 33)
Chapter two started to explain the complexity of the situation at Goma. The opening quote says it all as: “For the aid organizations in Goma it was a matter of feed the killers or go under as an organization.” (Pg. 36)This chapter hit home that the conflict between moderate Hutus and Tutsi vs. extremist Hutus didn’t stop when they left Rwanda. The chapter’s sub theme was the Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers disappeared although they were in an organization’s medical unit. However, organizations also would hire Hutus as staff or faculty leading to many disappearances. Some of them were found murdered a few days later. “Some journalists called it a “Second Genocide”. (Pg. 18) Hutus would also steal supplies by a number of methods and some were just taken under arms. This violence and crime were consequences of “The battle for contracts that went between organizations was paramount, and among other things it prevented them from joining forces to combat Hutu violence and the theft of aid supplies.”(Pg.37 )Within chapter 3 MONGOs, Polman explains how ineffective and how drastically many of them aren’t qualified for the work they do. She criticizes them for people who just start a MONGO or (My own Non-Governmental Organization) on a whim without becoming totally invested within the NGO. She tells a story about a surgeon MONGO who only spent a short time in the countries he served. He would perform operations that he wasn’t qualified for and would leave before any ramifications could be felt. Simply put, MONGOs tend to be incompetent, unreliable, and not well established financially.
Chapter five is about how governments, especially repressive ones, take most of the aid which only causes more pain and suffering within the country. “Irrespective of the consequences for the length and ferocity of the of wars, INGOs and MONGOs -and indeed journalists-are free to make agreements,pacts,contracts, and deals at their own discretion with wannabe presidents, tribal chiefs, warlords, troublemakers, rebel leaders, headmen, insurgents, terrorist cells, child generals, splinter-group king pins, militia leaders, bosses of factions, transnational terrorist commanders, regime bigwigs, mercenaries, freedom fighters, and underworld figures reincarnated as paramilitaries, at village, regional, or national levels.”(Pg.97) Another quote to drive home the modern reality reads thus: “Nowadays, if the world bank says no to a proposed project, then an Islamic financier will say yes, and if Europe doesn’t respond quickly enough, China will already have offered its services. ” (page 103) Thus this is the reality of modern day humanitarian aid. It has become a business industry and has created rivalries amongst various organizations. Ultimately, its become petty and corrupt, and has lost sight of helping people its become a game almost. ” The recipients of aid have become adept at exploiting rivalry within the aid industry.”
Polman’s main thoughts about Humanitarian Aid are that it has become corrupt, inept, incompetent, and has become superficial rather than actually helping anyone or changing anything. In fact, it may allow for more of the same as much of the material is either stolen, siphoned off, or goes to the oppressive governments within the country fueling more of the same. The situation has become so complex that it is hard for significant progress to be made in actually helping the region that an organization goes to.Not all is horrendously wrong but it isn’t what it seems to be on the TV or reports. This is very significant to general globalization and needs to be considered when making decisions on a national and international level. Its a very complex issue without a clear answer to the “what should be done to better human aid?” question.
In my opinion, rather than blindly giving resources to refugees, I would want to strengthen governments and help create more just systems within the countries. This will eliminate most of the taxes and corruption taking away from the bounties that were brought. This will also indirectly help to address bandits or the Polman’s theme of “second genocide” as the governments will be stronger and will be able to help the organizations to effectively administer their various services, resources, and aid. This would make me sound like I side with Nightingale’s stance of governments should be held responsible for certain things in terms of humanitarian aid. If its a more instable government, however, perhaps some military guards from the UN are needed to help protect the organizations supplies from bandits or other violent or potentially violent groups that are interested in them. As for MONGOs, I would support the addition of new NGOs but I think that qualifications must be clearly established before administering treatment and an establishment or a stronger government would help catch unqualified MONGOS and NGOs from their domain. Lastly, I would propose that MONGOs and NGOs treat it more as a unified effort and forget appearances and profits. This should help to create a more unified front to the recipients of the aid which will make it tougher to pit one organization against another. Its a really tough situation with many variables but I do believe that this would help the efficiency of humanitarian aid and helping people rather than temporarily addressing their needs. It is comparable to the quote “give a fisherman a fish, you feed him for a day, however, if you teach a fisherman to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”But I would need to gain experience in the field to gain a true sense of the situation in order to better the aid in quality and amount.
All pictures, in order of appearance: