Aid is big business. The wealthy donor governments that belong to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development together give around $120 billion annually. In addition to the United Nations, there are a growing number of both international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) competing for a piece of this sizeable pie — but very little popular debate over how they spend it.
In her new book “War Games,” Linda Polman seeks to redress this omission through a savage critique of the aid industry. The veteran Dutch journalist accuses aid organizations of continuing the cycle of violence in the countries they are supposed to be assisting, as aid is appropriated by various militias in conflict zones and used to further their own, often bloody, ends.
In Rwanda, for example, Polman claims that the Hutu extremists would not have been able to murder up to a million Tutsis, based from their UN camps in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, without the humanitarian benefits they received as refugees. “Without humanitarian aid, the Hutus’ war would almost certainly have grounded to a halt fairly quickly,” she states.
Polman also touches on the issue of bribes, the morally questionable kickbacks that aid organizations often have to offer local militias in order to be able to safely deliver aid in some of the most lawless places in the world. It’s something the people involved want to keep a lid on: “Aid organizations and donors usually prefer to keep silent about the aid to war-torn countries that is extorted or stolen, and there’s no collaborative attempt to quantify the damage,” says Polman.
Polman argues that ignoring politics when delivering aid is murderous. “Humanitarian crises are almost always political crises, or crises for which only a political solution exists. When donors, militias and armies…play politics with… aid, NGOs cannot afford to be apolitical.”
“War Games” offers a strong argument for aid organizations to engage with their context. But simultaneously, it also unknowingly provides a counter argument as to why aid organizations should be wary of dabbling in politics. What if they get it wrong, or misunderstand a complex situation, as Polman does several times?
For example, in criticizing UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, for supposedly allowing the creation of militant breeding grounds by providing shelter and services to the civilians displaced by the creation of
Israel, she makes the following statement: “When Sabra and Shatila… were attacked by Phalangist militia units in 1982, half the world was incensed, saying the militia had massacred innocent people, while the other half believed the attack was justified because the camps were in fact military bases.” If Polman had done even the most basic research she would know that the armed members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had left the camp and that the massacre was carried out on an unarmed civilian population. Polman also makes no mention of the Israeli Army’s collaboration in the massacre.
So, what if aid organizations get it wrong politically? Polman argues convincingly that by not engaging they are getting it wrong anyway. The question is not whether we should simply do nothing at all — rather, donors and NGOs need to ask themselves where the balance lies between the positive effects of aid and its exploitation by warring parties. At what point do humanitarian principals cease to be ethical?
Despite the many faults of this book, Polman delivers a stirring polemic that does ask important questions about the aid industry today. Whether aid organizations will seriously take on the debate raised by “War Games” is yet to be seen.