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What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?

Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, Metropolitan Books, 2010; 229 pp.

What’s wrong with humanitarian aid? The short answer to the question posed by Dutch reporter Linda Polman in the subtitle of her book is “everything.”

When Smedley D. Butler called his 1935 pamphlet War is a Racket, he knew what he was talking about. He had fought as a Marine Corps officer in Nicaragua, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, and concluded that he had been nothing but a “high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street, and the bankers.”

Likewise, Miss Polman knows what she is talking about when she says foreign aid is a racket. She has tramped through countless refugee camps in Africa, interviewing aid workers, refugees, African government officials, and rebel leaders. What she found is one of the biggest con-games of our time.

That there is genuinely terrible suffering, disease, poverty, and violence across much of Africa and Asia she does not question. That western humanitarian and development aid is the answer, or even part of the answer, she does question. She thinks all it does is perpetuate poverty, fund corruption, and foster dependence. To the question “So we should do nothing then?” she answers that that would be better than what we are doing now.

Miss Polman is not the first reporter or chastened aid worker who has come to that conclusion, yet every year the money spent on humanitarian and development aid increases — she says the idea of donor fatigue is a myth — and what she calls “the crisis caravan” rolls on. Why? The short answer is money.

The biggest players in the aid game are the international non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, which get money from governments and private donors. There are tens of thousands of them; no one knows how many. On average, 1,000 of them descend on a humanitarian crisis zone, along with 10 United Nation agencies, and at least twice as many government aid organizations. With their flags and tents, and white Land Cruisers, relief camps are like a traveling circus.

Each year governments spend $120 billion on humanitarian and development aid, but an average of 60 percent never leaves the donor countries. It’s called “phantom aid,” and is spent on salaries, conferences, publicity, transportation, and contracts for Western businesses that make or deliver aid supplies. Miss Polman says the Americans are the worst offenders; an estimated 70 to 80 percent is phantom aid.

The outright stealing begins after supplies and money reach the target country. Corrupt local governments “tax” aid, by demanding payment either in cash, or in relief supplies, which they sell on the black market. In Somalia, aid organizations paid warlords 80 percent of the value of all aid supplies. In Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami, they paid 30 percent to the Indonesian Army. Sometimes officials or rebel commanders tax aid organizations according to the number of patients they treat or people they help. These deals are often made with the very thugs who are committing atrocities and mayhem. This is called “shaking hands with the devil.”

Aid workers also must bribe soldiers and officials just to move about in a relief area. There is “no access to war zones without payment, whatever form it may take,” writes Miss Polman, “especially if you’re a humanitarian.”

Aid organizations also provide jobs, and disburse lucrative contracts to local companies, which are usually started up for the sole purpose of getting aid money. The scramble for this business is called “contract fever.” The aid agencies keep poor records of how their money is spent, and when the local economy becomes wholly based on aid — which it usually does — it is called NGOism.

Because the agencies are independent, and compete for money and publicity, they cannot take a common position against corruption. If just one agency refuses to pay off a corrupt general, another 10 will step in and grease his palm.

Miss Polman says that most journalists cannot be trusted. Often their travel expenses are paid by NGOs, and they are wholly dependent on aid workers for food, lodging, transportation, and protection. As a result, their reporting is superficial and biased. Miss Polman calls their work “churnalism;” they just churn out what they are told.

The refugee camps in Goma,Congo, that operated from 1994 to 1996 were subject to the typical whitewash; the media covered them as an epic humanitarian response to a flood of Hutu refugees who fled war in neighboring Rwanda only to be stricken with cholera inside the Congo. In fact, this flood of Hutu included the entire Rwandan Hutu army and militias that had just helped murder more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. They were fleeing from a Tutsi army that had invaded Rwanda from Uganda, and Miss Polman calls them “refugee warriors.” She gives other examples of soldiers and fighters posing as refugees in order to rest up before resuming the killing.

The Hutu refugees continued their campaign of murder right in the camps. The Hutu doctors and nurses who staffed the camp hospitals would murder any newly arrived Tutsi patients, as well as Hutus suspected of disloyalty. They would dispose of the bodies, and bring in Hutus to fill the empty beds. A common Hutu saying was “Crushing a cockroach [a Tutsi] isn’t murder, it’s a hygiene measure.”

One aid worker estimated that the Hutu militias stole 60 percent of the aid that went to Goma, which they sold for cash or traded for arms. One aid worker called Goma “a total ethical disaster.” The truth was never reported in the Western media.

Miss Polman was in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in 2001. The United Nations Development Program had just declared it the poorest country on earth. That meant the crisis caravan would soon arrive, and everyone was celebrating. As Col. Vandamme of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) explained, “The white man are soon gonna need drivers, security guards, and houses. We’re gonna provide ’em.”  He added that “NGO wifes” (“wives” — aid workers are seen as submissive wives) had already arrived and wanted to count how many children and sick people were in the area. He said aid workers would have to pay him before they did that.

Miss Polman also spoke to the leader of the RUF, General Mike Lamin. His men had been battling the government for ten years in a brutal civil war that left more than 200,000 dead. His troops were long known for scorched-earth tactics, but only recently for “amputation squads,” which hacked off the arms or legs of women and children.

General Lamin confirmed the rumor Miss Polman had heard: The sole purpose of the amputations was to attract media attention and aid. He explained that although the war had gone on for a decade, “you people looked the other way all those years.” He said he had not tried to negotiate a cease fire with the government because “there was nothing to stop for.” As he explained:

Everything was broken and you people weren’t here to fix it. All you cared about was the white man’s war in Yugoslavia and the camps in Goma [Congo]. You just let us go on fighting . . . . [But] when we started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us. Without the amputation factor you people wouldn’t have come.

As she left the interview, a young RUF gunman shouted a question: “White woman! Do you know what war means?” “Fighting and killing?” she offered. “Wrong! Waste All Resources! Destroy Everything! Then you people will come and fix it.” Miss Polman calls this the “logic of humanitarian aid.” Since suffering brings aid, and more suffering more aid, why not wreak havoc in order to cash in?

While Miss Polman was in Sierra Leone, she discovered that Americans from religious organizations with names such as Gifts of Limbs and Noah’s Ark were taking children and teenage amputees from the camps, driving them over the border to Guinea, and flying them to the United States for adoption. Here, too, she found the same deceit, corruption, and perverse idealism that characterize all foreign aid.

First, the organizations were telling donors that the children were without prostheses, did not have medical care, and were orphans. None of this was true. The children had custom-fitted European prostheses, regular medical care, and at least one parent. Miss Polman found out these groups always left the children’s medical records behind, to make the children seem more pathetic and their actions more heroic.

Why was the American embassy in Freetown approving visas for children who had parents and were getting medical attention. “For political reasons,” explained an embassy official:

Amputee children have been politicized. Recently I had some member of Congress on the phone from Washington demanding I tell him what the fuck was the problem with the visas for a group of amputee children. Pretty remarkable, since those visas hadn’t even been applied for yet. Get the picture?

The Sierra Leonean government was taking bribes to let the children out of the country, and Miss Polman found organizations were either bribing or tricking the parents into giving up their children. She heard one American tell a woman that in America her child’s missing limbs would be magically regenerated. It is clear that despite humanitarian pretentions, these allegedly Christian groups were stealing children for naive whites who wanted to adopt a black baby from Africa.

Miss Polman writes that veteran aid workers harbor few illusions about their business. Over drinks, they admit that development aid is a racket, that aid merely perpetuates  poverty and corruption, and even that the recipients of aid are hardly worth saving. So why do they stay? Miss Polman explains that “the salaries, and per-diems, and danger and discomfort bonuses . . . make working in the established aid sector highly attractive.” Even in the most hellish countries, there is a secure capital with swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, discos, five-star restaurants, and prostitutes. Aid workers live like colonial administrators of old, perhaps even better.

Miss Polman leaves no doubt that the entire business of aid is morally, as well as politically and intellectual corrupt, but that’s what it is: a business.