by UNA MOORE
Does humanitarian aid prolong wars? Yes, argues Dutch journalist Linda Polman in her new book War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, which was just reviewed by The Guardian.
War Games is just the latest addition to the booming cottage industry of criticizing aid, aid workers, and international activism related to humanitarian crises. It joins NYU economist Bill Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, veteran war correspondent Rob Crilly’s Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War, Zambian economist and former banker Dambisa Moyo’s widely misunderstood, but even more influential for it, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa, and an expanding anti-aid blogosphere.
If Polman’s Guardian interview is any indication, her book will be a huge hit for taking extreme positions and providing a wealth of quotable quotes. At one point, she is asked how she would describe the aid agencies that provided relief to Rwandan Hutus, many of them genocidaires but plenty also ordinary civilians, who fled into the now Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. Polman’s response? “Perhaps war criminals.”
International lawyers would probably disagree, but aid critics will no doubt seize statements like that and turn them into rallying cries.
Unfortunately, like many aid critics, Polman doesn’t seem quite sure of what her argument is. She thinks aid neutrality is among the causes of tragedies like the prolonged conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region. “Without humanitarian aid,” she says, “the Hutus’ war would almost certainly have ground to a halt fairly quickly.”
But she thinks a lack of aid neutrality is also a cause of conflict. In Afghanistan, aid agencies have worked too closely with coalition militaries, and this has tied their access to populations in need to the successes of one side in a complex war and emboldened the Taliban to directly target aid workers, she argues.
When Guardian journalist Andrew Anthony confronts Polman with the glaring contradiction in her arguments, she responds by saying, “Whether you’re being manipulated by the Sudanese regime or coalition forces in Afghanistan, you are always an instrument of war.
“The system as it is now, the humanitarian ground rules say that aid agencies are neutral and therefore not responsible for what other people do to their aid. I think that’s too easy. They should stop claiming neutrality, stop claiming that they’re above the law.”
That argument will be a hard sell to organizations like Medecins San Frontieres and other relief agencies, especially those specializing in medical relief, that insist on serving all those in need, including combatants from all sides in a particular conflict.