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?

The lost pact to end poverty porn

As early as 1994, at the start of the genocide in Rwanda, several of the world’s largest aid organizations signed on to a code of conduct intended to govern communication with the press and the public. It was compiled by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Signatories to the code agreed that in their briefings, publicity and advertising they would acknowledge victims of disasters to be “dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

That’s Linda Polman in her book on humanitarian aid, The Crisis Caravan (War Games in the UK). Expect a review sometime in the near future.

The list of signatories to that code are here, comprising nearly 500 NGOS, including many organizations we’re familiar with today (like MSF). It’s disheartening, but not surprising, that so many signatories went on to ignore this part of the code – I fear the fundraising incentives are a little too strong for this one.

If only you knew the power of nagging

Give quiche a chance

I’m naturally a bit skeptical of ground-level interventions that don’t involve cash, needles or textbooks. Anything that involves dubiously-titled training or “empowerment”¬† sets off my very cynical alarm bells. However, I’m beginning to be persuaded by the evidence that targeted information campaigns work.

First there was Pedro Vicente and Paul Collier’s study on a randomised anti-violence campaign staged prior to the 2007 Nigerian elections, showing significant reductions in the treated districts. Then there was the Heckle and Chide’s study of minibuses in Kenya: a random treatment group were given posters advising passengers to speak up if the minibus drivers drove dangerously (which is pretty much what minibus drivers are born to do). The treatment group saw sizable declines in insurance claims, including those for injury and death.

Now there is a soon-to-be-published paper by Martina Björkman and Jakob Svensson, offering a unique randomised intervention:

  1. Assess local health providers and inform the communities on their relative performance using ‘report cards’,
  2. Encourage these communities to form groups to monitor local health performance.
  3. Sit back and see what happens.

A year after the intervention, a repeat study revealed that the treated communities had: harder working health providers, higher rates of immunization and significantly reduced rates of child mortality and underweight children, all with the same levels of funding.

The best part of the study was the lack of investigation into what the communities were doing to make changes – (there is some rough evidence that the communities were more active in electing and dissolving the local provider management committees). My guess is that a fair amount of nagging was involved.

I’ve come to believe that a crucial part of development is strengthening the accountability link between citizens and their government (not to be confused with enforcing accountability externally), especially when the citizens face a trade-off for enforcement (in this situation, that trade-off is time spent hassling health workers).

A few questions remain:¬† is it persistent (or would health workers become more resistant to this informal accountability over time?) Is this scalable? Which part of the intervention was key: the information transfer allowing for yardstick comparisons between district, or the “empowerment” workshops? My hunch is the former.

(Bonus points to those that got the Red Dwarf reference).