Author Linda Polman is a Dutch journalist with personal experience with war zone charities since 1993, starting with Somalia, then Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and others. The "Crisis Caravan" is the outgrowth of her and others experiences involving the contradictions of providing aid in conflict areas, and the results of money raisers neither accountable to lenders nor voters.
An estimated 37,000 international aid organizations compete for shares of the $120 billion/year spent on disaster and refugee aid administered through NGOs. That early revelation in "The Crisis Caravan" immediately alerts readers that there are serious problems in the aid industry, beginning with duplication of effort and overheads, continuing with inflation of need statistics, and the likely overstatement of accomplishments. Other problems include soldiers demanding money for everything aid organizations bring in, including food and medicine for those in need, and taking part of donated supplies - both for their own use, and partly to sell to obtain money for more arms. Thus, some thoughtful aid representatives end up wondering whether they are doing more harm than good; many of their more worldly-focused focused leaders, however, are simply concerned with boosting publicity, contracts, revenues, and donations so they can continue living in lavish quarters while raking in big salaries. Unfortunately, American politicians often contribute to the problems. Attempts by a few INGOs to combat abuses are ineffectual because rival donors fill the void.
Florence Nightingale confronted analogous problems during her 1854 et seq experiences in the Crimean War, sensing that she and her co-workers were simply filling in for services that the government should have provided and making war easier to start and pursue; afterwards she argued against aid organizations, instead focusing on ensuring authorities provided the required help. Today, per Polman, almost all wars are civil wars and 90% of the fatalities are civilian; the problems of excessive numbers of aid organizations are reportedly more severe in these 'civil' conflicts. Worst of all, however, are natural disasters - new earthquakes, famines, and tidal waves can attract 1,000 aid organizations.
Some estimated 15-20% of the people in refugee camps are refugee warriors that prosecute the war between meals and medical treatments; the combatants also recruit from the refugee camps, while some warriors park their families there.
The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates every major disaster attracts, on average, about 1,000 aid organizations. Supposedly there are about 3,000 in Kabul, with several thousand aid projects reportedly under way at any given moment. (Given the dangers of travel in Afghanistan, it is difficult to image much being accomplished.)
Readers also cannot help but be affected by the repetitive location of man-made 'tragedies' (that's putting it mildly) within Africa - civil wars in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Chad, Congo, Darfur, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Zaire. Then there was the starvation in Ethiopia and then Nambia. In Nambia local merchants knew the harvest was down 11%, bought it all up ($7.50/sack), and sold it back ($53.00+) later when the aid monies arrived. Non-crisis aid is another problem - over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion in aid has been sent to Africa, yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s.
Start-up costs in distant crisis-hit countries are high - they include recruiting and hiring local staff, renting and furnishing housing and office space, bringing in materials and equipment (vehicles, supplies, computers, air-conditioning, generators, satellite dishes). Recouping these costs requires that they stay as long as possible, winning income-producing contracts to also fuel their ability to respond to the next crisis. Unfortunately, contracts are typically awarded to the best proposals, not necessary the best projects - thus, the importance of aid organizations having access to a good proposal writer. The cost of a Land Cruiser is about what would be required to build an orphanage; a tank of gas costs about what is required for a year's operations. Unwanted gifts frequently become a problem - examples include Bibles in Afghanistan, traveling evangelists, medical surgery (sometimes botched) without the provision of aftercare.
Author Polman also reports that these traveling aid groups are likely to ignore the 30% of children in Africa dying by age five from malaria, diarrhea, anemia - other disasters are more appealing to donors. Then there were visas and travel to the U.S. provided to obtain high-tech prostheses (the recipients already had low-tech ones) that the home country was unable to take care of; those traveling to the U.S. returned to resentment because of their special treatment. Several Liberians reported that about 80% of the children in their orphanages were not orphans - simply children used by the owners for their personal gains. Many of the facilities were substandard.
Saddam Hussein reportedly gained about $250 million in 1992 alone by forcing aid dollars to be exchanged into Iraqi currency at rates that he set. Other despots have similarly profited. Kabul rents are higher than those in N.Y.C. - $5,000/month gets a hovel; landlords often use the money to fund militias or train Taliban - 30% of aid for 'Afghaniscam' is estimated to end up in Taliban hands.
"Phantom" aid is another big problem - this occurs where money never leaves the donor nation, instead is used for lobbying, recruiting expert consultants, soliciting. Other wastes include requirements to source in the donor nation. Polman believes rebuilding Iraq could have been better accomplished for 90% less money by using local sources. Sending foreigners to the site adds expensive accommodation and provisioning expenditures. Contractor fraud is particularly acute - layers of contractors, high security costs, phony invoices etc. The World Bank is another problem - its requiring ending subsidies, cutting government employment usually make the situation worse; only 2% of its projects in 2000-05 were audited.
Haiti offers current evidence of additional problems not covered by Polman. After the earthquake hit Haiti on 1/12/2010, about $10 billion was pledge for reconstruction, including $1.15 billion from the U.S. Less than 15% has arrived so far - none from the U.S. (tied up in bureaucracy and lack of urgency). Almost $900 million was money already promised before the quake. [...]
Bottom-Line: Some aid providers endure extreme hardship and are killed for their efforts - witness the Taliban's recent killing of 8 working for a Christian medical charity in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, not all aid providers and organizations are so heroic and altruistic. Aid organizations have no motivation for success, often are not objectively evaluated, and well-meaning individuals such as Bono choke off debate on their efficacy. Polman's "The Crisis Caravan" depicts a need for rethinking approaches.