Some thoughts on and from `The Crisis Caravan’

I picked up The Crisis Caravan recently (War Games in the UK), Linda Polman’s full-on assault on the neutrality of the humanitarian aid industry.

Polman’s basic thesis is that even if humanitarian aid workers and other NGOs adhere to the basic tenants of neutrality (noting that they often don’t, their lack of selectivity often leads to:

  • The direct prolongment of conflict, by keeping the `losing’ side in the game long (Biafra, the old Ethiopian government, the remnants of the Hutu regime in Goma)
  • The indirect prolongment and  exacerbation of conflict, inducing the players to make war nastier in order to raise their profile and bring more aid during the cease-fire cash in (Sierra Leone).
  • Their association with other parties which inevitably damage their claims of neutrality (e.g. being directly or indirectly controlled by coalition forces in Afghanistan).
  • Nasty situations in which the people they are helping aren’t really victims in the traditional sense (the heavy, heavy NGO presence in the Goma refugee camps after the Rwandan conflict, where the genocidier regime had relocated after being driven out by the RPF).

For the aid critic, Polman’s book is a pretty entertaining read and I find many of her arguments convincing. That said, the book is rife with anecdote – much of the information she presents is gleaned either from first-hand observation or discussions with (often anonymous) members of the humanitarian aid industry.

This opaqueness is amplified by imprecise and unsubstantial remarks: she often makes statements like “Most of the NGOs in the world do this” or “the majority of the money went here.” These statements not only often lack quantification, but they also lack footnotes, which brings us dangerously close to Dambisa Moyo territory. There’s also an odd focus on Dutch-based aid (Polman is based in the Netherlands), so often the viewpoints isn’t entirely representative of the average donor.

There’s some pretty damning stuff on food aid during the war in Ethiopia. This isn’t to be confused with the Bono-BBC punch-up, that was over direct diversion of food aid for other (war-related purposes). What Polman is suggesting is that the government used the distribution of aid for its own means, to help drive people out of the rebel-contested north:

Thousands of Western aid workers and journalists flew in along with the money. They were forced to change their dollars for local currency at rates favorable to the regime, and this alone helped to keep the Ethiopian war machine running. Food aid from INGOs was used as bait to lure starving villagers into camps. They were held there awaiting deportation to the state farms in the south. A life of forced labor lay ahead. They government army that guarded the camps took a share of the food aid and even requisitioned trucks from aid organizations to move people out.

The compulsory trip southward took an average of five days. About six hundred thousand people were moved, and an estimated one hundred thousand of them perished on the way. In November 1985, the Irish Times put that figure to the initiator of Live Aid, Bob Geldof. The singer shrugged. “In the context [of the famine], these numbers don’t shock me,” he told the reporter……

In some camps where deportations met with resistance, government troops shut the INGOs’ food distribution centers, so that people became hungry again and changed their minds. In other camps, INGOs were forbidden to feed the starving children of parents who put up a struggle. When around six thousand children died of starvation in one camp in late 1985 even though there was enough food for them, MSF France could bear it no longer. Comparing Ethiopia to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the organization left the country.

Also, less surprising but still pretty grim are the dire inefficiencies of aid in Afghanistan:

Another example was given by Clare Lockhart, adviser to the United Nations in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2005. She investigated a house-building project in Bamiyan Providence. It began in the summer of 2002 with $150 million in the kitty. First the money was transferred by donor governments to an aid agency in Geneva, which allocated 20 percent to its own organization and then handed over implementation of the project to an organization in Washington, D.C. That agency also kept 20 percent for itself and passed the job on to another organization, which kept 20 percent and subcontracted the task of implementation once more. With the money that was left, the final organization in the sequence bought a consignment of wooden beams in neighboring Iran. It was delivered to Afghanistan by a transport company owner by the governor of Bamiyan Province for five times the normal freighting fee. When at last the beams arrived in the villages selected to receive the aid, they turned out to be too heavy for the loam walls of Afghan houses. The villages decided the best thing to do with the timber was to chop it up and use it to fuel their cooking fires.

Despite the lack of bibliographical rigor, I’d still recommend picking up the Crisis Caravan if you are interested in this sort of thing – just be wary of some of the claims being made here. It would be better if there was an open debate about Poleman’s assertions (some of them are even empirically testable). Thoughts from others?

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on and from `The Crisis Caravan’

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    February 17, 2011 at 12:54pm

    Nice summary. I’ve not read the book, but it seems to be aimed almost like a popular ‘shock read’ rather than as analytical piece of work.

    Is there any evidence presented to back up the claims of the second bullet? I somehow find it hard to believe that war is becoming even more violent and evil because of the possibility of getting aid when it’s over.

  2. Matt

    February 17, 2011 at 2:04pm

    For the second bullet – just the musings of an RUF leader named Mike Lamin from an interview he gave Polman near the end of the war. Lamin pointed out that it was through amputations that they were getting the international attention, but it is Polman who makes the leap that the lure of aid is what generates more maiming. I find it her least persuasive argument.

  3. ewaffle

    February 17, 2011 at 6:12pm

    The surprising thing about Polman’s Afghanistan story is that any of the aid wound up in the hands of the intended recipients instead of being diverted to the Karzai family, local warlords or the Taliban taking it a gunpoint (unlike the Afghan government officials who don’t need guns).

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