Modern Humanitarian-Aid Industry Complicit In Misery And Perpetual Conflict

Philip Gourevitch, writing in “Alms Dealers” for The New Yorker [subscription required], is persuaded. And persuasive:

Do doped-up maniacs really go a-maiming in order to increase their country’s appeal in the eyes of international aid donors? Does the modern humanitarian-aid industry help create the kind of misery it is supposed to redress? That is the central contention of Polman’s new book, “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” [link] (Metropolitan; $24), translated by the excellent Liz Waters. Sowing horror to reap aid, and reaping aid to sow horror, Polman argues, is “the logic of the humanitarian era.” In case after case, a persuasive case can be made that, overall, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good. The godfather of modern humanitarianism was a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant, who founded the International Committee of the Red Cross. Humanitarianism also had a godmother named Florence Nightingale, who rejected the idea of the Red Cross from the outset. By easing the burden on war ministries, Nightingale argued, volunteer efforts could simply make waging war more attractive, and more probable. Polman has come back from fifteen years of reporting in the places where aid workers ply their trade to tell us that Nightingale was right. The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them – no way to act without having a political effect. At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is, as Nightingale forewarned, that of a caterer: humanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of taking casualties, and supplying food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst, impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity. Polman takes aim at everything from the mixture of casual cynicism and extreme self-righteousness by which aid workers insulate themselves from their surroundings to the deeper decadence of a humanitarianism that pays war taxes of anywhere from fifteen per cent of the value of the aid it delivered to eighty per cent.

At Aid Watch, David Zetland comments:

What’s interesting in Polman’s book is the way that…warlords and crooked politicians are actively making poor people worse off, to raise their profile and increase the flow of “do something!” money funneled through the Angelina-Bono-Geldof-Sachs pipeline.

I covered a number of these issues, focussing on the discretion that middlemen (aid workers and bankers) have in choosing what actions to take and how much effort to exert in my Public Choice article, “Save the Poor. Shoot some Bankers” [open access], but I was not cynical enough to endogenize poverty. Polman’s claim that the people in the aid business are actively worsening things for aid recipients, to give themselves job security and more money, is dangerous and damning, but it is fair game for testing evidence for and against.

Even if we give the World Bank, USAID and NGOs a free pass as pure Baptists, then we still have to worry about cynical warlords and politicians who cut off arms and starve their people to keep themselves at the top of the news hour and as beneficiaries of well-meaning donors who want to do something.

From The Economist review:

Ms Polman makes several important points. The first is that conflict is increasingly being directed against civilians. Her claim (unsubstantiated, as are nearly all the statistics in this book) that 90% of deaths in war now are civilian looks high. Yet corpses from Srebrenica to Baghdad and Mogadishu support her view that it is the weak and defenceless who are being annihilated. Her second point is that there has been an explosion in the number of do-gooders descending on disasters since the Ethiopian famine in 1984. Too many of these groups, she argues, see aid as a validation of their order, rather than a service in itself. This is particularly true of American religious organisations.

The rise in satellite television and the internet has promoted and accelerated coverage of disasters, but the media industry’s losses have damaged the quality and depth of the reporting. Too many journalists now find themselves in hock to the charities that fly them around free. Emboldened, aid workers inflate numbers of the starving. Journalists go along—in the hope of getting a story into the paper. The complicity is worst with television; camera crews get footage of starving children, and charities an increase in donations.