The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? Paperback – Aug 30 2011
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“Particularly timely just now… Polman finds moral hazard on display wherever aid workers are deployed. In case after case, a persuasive argument can be made that, over-all, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good… Her style is brusque, hard-boiled, with a satirist's taste for gallows humor. Her basic stance is: J'accuse.” ―Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker
“A reporting tour de force, devastating.” ―The Sunday Times (London)
“Marvelous, cool, brusque, fearless.” ―The Guardian (London)
“Ms. Polman's prose is scorching.” ―The Economist
“A disturbing account…Raises profound questions not just about the palliative efficacy of aid, but whether it fuels and prolongs conflict.” ―Financial Times
About the Author
Linda Polman is an Amsterdam-based journalist who for fifteen years has reported from war zones for a range of European radio stations and newspapers. She is the author of We Did Nothing, which was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.See all Product Description
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The book is a very quick and easy read. It consists of a series of chapters that talk about one particular negative phenomenon associated with foreign aid. Chapters that stand out for me include:
the one about how the victims of forced amputations in Sierra Leone have become a magnet for aid that they frequently don't need, want, or can use while other deserving souls go without
-one about how the Governments of Sudan and Ethiopia have manipulated aid organizations into subsidizing murderous campaigns against their own people
-one about how the aid community responded to the genocide in Rwanda by deluging the Hutus who had perpetrated it against the Tutsis with aid while the Tutsis went without.
The book is not perfect however. I found myself disagreeing with her on several arguments she made:
1. The US dropping food aid along with bombs in Afghanistan in 2001: The author seems to share the belief that some NGOs expressed about this that such action blurs the difference between armed forces and humanitarian groups. My rejoinder on that is that given the US was in the process of occupying Afghanistan, it had obligations under international law to take care of the population there.
2. The fact that the US and EU make NGOs taking their money conform broadly to what the US and EU would like to see happen in Afghanistan: The author argues that this makes the aid workers targets of the Taliban, who see the aid workers as an arm of the US and its allies. To that, I'd say that NGOs expecting to get large sums of money from governments with no strings attached is totally unrealistic. As for the Taliban targeting the aid workers, I'd argue that it has a very elastic definition of what being an arm of the US and its allies are.
3. Claiming the US tried to starve out the city of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004: The author argues that this is an example of deploying hunger as a weapon. I'd respond to that by saying that by the time of second Battle of Fallujah most civilians had left the city and that "food aid" was likely to wind up in the hands of the insurgents.
4. Madeleine Albright's stupid comment about deaths in Iraq supposedly caused by sanctions: The author cites Albright's unbelievably foolish statement that the supposed deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children from sanctions "was worth it" as another example of using the "food weapon." Albright was wrong to say that because the number of Iraqi children who died because of the sanctions is very much in dispute and that those who did die, died mostly because of the intransigence of Saddam's regime.
But despite these four flaws, "the Crisis Caravan" is an outstanding book and very enlightening about the darker aspects of something that normally gets dressed up as something utterly noble and beyond reproach.
The author intends to provoke soul-searching by the "humanitarian industry" of the western world. In a long series of disturbing anecdotes, she demonstrates that humanitarian projects have increased famine and lengthened wars. Oxfam, Bob Geldorf's Band Aid, Bill and Melinda Gates, Madeline Albright, the International Red Cross--no one escapes this book's indictment. Anonymous aid workers are derided for living in a style unimaginable to the local population with Land Cruisers, drivers, interpreters, expensive meals and exploitation of children. "Wherever aid workers go, prostitution instantly soars." Journalists come off no better, depicted as co-conspirators overeager to glorify and propagandize the aid effort, while averting their eyes from deleterious effects.
Equally frank is the "Aidspeak" chapter in the appendix. While the book is primarily focused on Africa, this section explains why those of us concerned with the 1999 Kosovo war observed the KLA coercing Albanians to leave Kosovo. Refugees must be outside their home countries to command major international aid. Of course, there were other tactical and propaganda reasons as well. And that is the shocking story this book details--the unintended but crucial assistance by humanitarian organizations that helps violent actors achieve their goals. "If you use enough violence, aid will arrive, and if you use even more violence, even more aid will arrive."
It's not pleasant to learn how badly our efforts to help may turn out, but closing our eyes is no solution.
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.
It is especially powerful coming from a European. Europeans, lacking the American ability to project power through military force, enthusiastically project "soft power" through humanitarian means. Or so-called humanitarian. Linda Polman investigates the effectiveness of aid in crises throughout the world, but especially in Africa. She is especially harsh on the Africans themselves, from whom little has ever been expected, except that they be perennial victims, but who by her account even invent more and more monstrous atrocities because, perversely, it generates more aid.
The author thoroughly and critically catalogues the abuses of aid, how difficult it is to identify the true victims, and how much aid money gets siphoned off by the aid organizations themselves, the dysfunctional governments, and the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes which the aid is intended to ameliorate.
It is beyond the scope of this book, but a good subject for a subsequent work would be an analysis of the motivations of the donors, those good churchgoing people in the rich world, those Bob Geldorf and Bono concertgoers who somehow imagine that they are doing un-alloyed good works, when in fact they are throwing money into a deep pit in which there are few enough bona fide successes and very little accounting. It is this charitable impulse which powers the entire, rather smarmy industry which she describes. Charity is compounded by the political interests of heavyweight players and donor countries; Bill Clinton who loves to be photographed with African orphans, Congressman who demand visas for Liberian amputees who will look wonderful in campaign photos. Christians who have a completely non-introspective conviction in their own righteousness and their right to assert their will on the primitives whom they would convert.
In this vein, readers will find on my website, following the link "Volunteering," a humorous and sobering account of my own experience with a church group in Haiti a few years before the earthquake. Ukraine, where I live, is crawling with representatives from USAID, UNAIDS, and myriad charities dedicated to taking care of orphans and cleaning up after Chernobyl, which disaster after 25 years is getting a little long in the tooth. This book feeds my cynical ruminations about whether they are more dedicated to serving Ukraine or themselves. Most live nicely by local standards.
Polman appears to be ahead of the curve. This Economist magazine of November 13, 2010 has an article entitled "Faith, hope, and charities" that goes to the same point. Charities have a high level of public trust, but most of them are quite beyond accounting. Their records are confused, and their recordkeeping procedures so inconsistent that comparisons are very difficult.
Bottom line - a well-written book, well focused, and especially well translated. Congratulations to Liz Waters!
As insightful and sharp as the author is in pointing out everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong -- I really hoped that the author might point a way forward beyond "let us start asking the tough questions". We ought to, of course. But for the many donors and well-intentioned aid workers, asking questions without a glimmer of hope can be paralyzing. As a private person, I found myself doubting my monthly donations to Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and a number of other aid organizations. I found myself pessimistic about the future of my self-initiated aid work (though not giving up). Does the stinging critique offered by this book exposes all the wrong paths so we renew our commitment to find a good one ... or does it remove all visible paths so that there does not even appear to be one?
There are two other books, one old and one new, that had offered some "the way forward" ideas. Both are coming from the Christian perspective and may not necessarily suit everyone. But they are at least examples of critiques moving into solutions (and these solutions are not easy).
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor ... or Yourself
by Fikkert and Corbett, 2009
Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life [Hardcover]
Donald P. McNeill (Author), Henri J.M. Nouwen (Author), Douglas A. Morrison (Author), Joel Filártiga (Illustrator), 1982
A special note on the second book: this was a textbook for many Notre Dame students during their "service" course, co-written by one of the most beloved Christian writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. I thought it was a beautifully written and thoughtful book that reaches far beyond Christians, including ideas such as we are too bound by "clock time" in our modern world or that we are "bombarded" by negative news and crisis (ideas which the most recent books on international aid all point out.)