U.N. Dispatch: Humanitarian Aid, a Warmonger’s Best Friend?


Categorie: Afghanistan, Relief, Una in Afghanistan, Una Moore |

Afghanistan 2010 41

David Axe photo.


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.

Read the rest at U.N. Dispatch.


4 Responses to “U.N. Dispatch: Humanitarian Aid, a Warmonger’s Best Friend?”

  1. Prestwick says:

    Much of what Polman says is overhyped and frankly harsh but on the case of the lifestyle of NGO workers, an interesting example would be to read Guy Delisle’s “Pyongyang” where he observes the perculiar NGO circuit in North Korea and where in a city stricken by power cuts, famine and a brutal police state you have various western aid workers partying it up on “NGO Fridays” in the Diplomatic Quarter of the city. Letting their hair down or not, how some behave is frankly insenstive and ignorant bordering on the extreme.

    And on the case of Rwanda, I’m sorry but would aid agencies have happily treated members of the Einsatzgruppen or death squads fleeing amongst genuine and innocent German refugees coming from German Prussia during WW2? Of course not.

    So what exactly makes the Rwandans guilty of genocide different in this case? I’m puzzled that Una and UN Dispatch feels so sure that the courts would throw such a case out of court.

    I wouldn’t call the aid workers who are accused of treating purpetrators of genocide “war criminals” but I would say that they suffered a serious failure of judgement nay common sense.

  2. Graphomaniac! says:

    On the NGO lifestyle; Prestwick’s point is echoed in “Emergency Sex And Other Desperate Measures” by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson. That said, focusing on that surely is a dangerous generalisation.

  3. Prestwick says:

    It may be a dangerous generalisation but we have to face the fact that there are some bad apples which are ruining the show for everyone else.

    In a world where charities organise themselves increasingly as corporate entities and pursue ever more extreme ways of fundraising in a cut throat market (in the UK for example, NGOs and Charities aggressively pursue people who may donate and any claims they may have in the wills of the recently departed) it is also the NGO’s job to communicate better with the public about what they do, how they do it and what difference they make in the scheme of things.

    They need to be more transparent, they need to be more frugal in how they spend their money (and I’m talking about plush offices in London while their staff freeze to death in squalid conditions out in the field) and they need to rediscover their sense of humility.

    For all the harrumphing and the sneers, NGO staff tend to end up being screwed just as much by their bosses as those bad ol’ Mercenaries who suffer equally dangerous generalisations.

  4. Graphomaniac! says:

    +1; preaching to the converted, buddy.

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