A conversation with Linda Polman and insights from the field

Posted on: April 12, 2018 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“Everybody inside the aid industry knows what should be done. Everybody knows how it could be better.  But to implement all those recommendations, that’s the problem. To think of how it should be better, how it can be better, is not the difficult part, it’s the implementation part.”

-Linda Polman


A conversation with Linda Polman and insights from the field

This semester I am again teaching a course on the humanitarian aid industry. Last week we had a special visitor to my class, Dutch journalist and author Linda Polman.  I have been using her book The Crisis Caravan in my class for the last five years and was pleased that she was able to take time this semester to talk with me and my students.

One of the biggest takeaways from our half hour conversation was that there is a chronic and perhaps intractable gap between broad stroke policy fixes to the aid sector and the actual implementation of those changes. This is not a new theme, of course.  Just the opposite, most veterans in the sector have had this very discussion more times than they can count. Here are a couple examples:

At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey there was much discussion about more aggressive movement toward ‘localization’ or ‘nationalization’ of the industry, but putting those lofty ideas fully into action is still, to be generous, a work in progress.  My recent research into Filipino and Jordanian aid workers sheds some light onto this issue.

A second example is the recent sector-wide reaction to the #oxfamscandal/#aidtoo controversies (see here for a curated bibliography of media coverage).  Here is the way one management level aid worker now in the Middle East describes this gap:

“As anyone who’s been following the post-Oxfam #aidtoo/#metoo fallout knows, internal reporting mechanisms that make sense in local cultural contexts (and are also effective), along with a contextually appropriate interpretation –> application of “zero tolerance” is the tough part of this issue for most field managers.

Easy enough for executive leadership to say “zero tolerance”, but what does that mean practically, in [MY LOCATION]? Does that mean I summarily fire the driver who commented on the propriety of what one of my female staff chose to wear to the field? (there seems to be a general sense on Twitter that zero tolerance = every accusation results in somebody being publicly fired).

Something that keeps coming up is that female staff are afraid to report because they are afraid of being killed, in some cases by their own families.

It goes to cultural assumptions about gender (obviously) and who is at fault when a man commits harassment or rape. The traditional view is that it is the woman’s fault. And so if an accusation of harassment becomes public, the default assumption will be that the woman “asked for it” because of how she dressed or acted, and is therefore tainted (and deserving of punishment, in extremes case up to and including honor killing).

We have field based accountability systems that (mostly) work well. If local authorities or aid workers (local or expat) abuse or coerce refugees in some way, that is usually picked up. And there are cases under prosecution across the humanitarian community here at this moment as the result. But aid worker on aid worker, especially when it’s local on local, can be very tough to get reported. And in those rare instances when it is reported they prove very difficult to investigate.

I have a small group on my team tasked to come up with recommendations for an mechanism for reporting aid worker on aid worker abuse/harassment that

a) make sense culturally (most INGOs have web-based anonymous reporting, or an international hotline which many, especially local staff, don’t trust)

b) that people will trust as actually anonymous

c) is gender-sensitive (most reporters are female)

d that is sensitive to allegation versus direct witness versus actual survivor (in most cases where reporting happens, it is via a third or fourth party)

e) after all of that, leads to the possibility of actual investigation whether internal or external…

We’ll tackle what “zero tolerance” means in actual practice next.”

Sector insiders know that there are few ‘one size fits all’ simplistic pathways to policy implementation and become, with reason, frustrated when outsiders come at them with a ‘why don’t you just’ comment. When those comments come from a donor who thinks in that Excel-driven M&E certainties should emanate directly from their offices to each particular instance in the field, well, that’s tough to hear, especially given that the purse strings are controlled, of course, by the donors.

“Fixing what is wrong with the aid sector” just not that simple. As Polman pointed out in her conversation with our class, the UN and the other ‘think tank’ organizations have solutions to offer but the reality is getting solutions put in place a constant challenge for practitioners all around the globe. Reflecting on data presented elsewhere in this blog and in Aid Worker Voices, I can say with some confidence that the vast majority of veteran aid and development professionals would agree.

Dunant versus Nightingale
The tendency for all of us to think in monochromatic, binary terms is natural. We want the world around us to make sense and we tend to reduce reality into simplistic language.

Aid sector binaries are many, and include ‘expat’ versus ‘local‘, ‘relief’ versus ‘development’, ‘HQ’ and the ‘field’, and, the most important, ‘Dunant’ versus ‘Nightingale’.  We talked about the ‘Dunant versus Nightingale’ issue as a class both separately and with Polman and came to the obvious conclusion that it is rarely that easy.  It is never as binary as ‘give aid to all who need it’ versus ‘only give aid when you know that it is not going into the war chest of one side or the other or is otherwise prolonging the conflict.’

We need look no further than the current situation in Syria to see how muddy the waters are, chronically and acutely so.  Ms Polman makes this argument both in her book and in our conversation in support of a Nightingale approach:

“There are so many victims of wars and other disasters that never receive one cent of aid from us. We say no to aiding people all the time, we are just not talking about it, we all keep this charade up, that we are always there for all victims on this planet, but we’re not, we say no all the time.”

My response just now is, yes, but how can you look away?  Quite imperfectly and incompletely, I write about the humanitarian imperative here, noting that the tug of war between the Dunantists and the Nightingale supporters is never that simple, thus making me roughly the millionth writer/academic who has come to that conclusion.

If you have questions or comments you can contact me here.

Below is a transcript of our class conversation with Linda Polman.


Tom Arcaro:          Can we kind of start off with you giving a little bit of an introduction and a background and then maybe giving your blush on that very broad question, ‘what is the humanitarian imperative, and how should we look at that in 2018?’

Linda Polman:          Obviously, it is very deeply embedded in our Christian roots. It’s alms for the poor, it’s aid for people who don’t have anything. I’m sure you are familiar with the story of Henry Dunant and Florence Nightingale, who visited wars in 1850, 1860, and Henry Dunant was the establisher of the International Red Cross. He, by accident, stumbled onto a battlefield there, and he saw tens of thousands of guys dying in the battlefield who were left behind by their armies, because the armies did not bother to send medics with their armies, so he saw all those men dying in pools of blood, all really disgusting, and he decided to help them, he thought they were human beings and they deserved help, so he mobilized all sorts of people from the villages around the battlefield, he paid for that out of his own pockets, plasters and the oranges and the water, he all paid for them by himself. After that he asked himself “Why is there not a professional organization?”

Anyway, he established the International Red Cross, and international organization for humanitarian aid for the war of wounded, and it became very quickly a success because it is so deeply rooted in our Christian society, but from the very beginning, there have always been people against the imperative of the International Red Cross, and Florence Nightingale was the biggest oppose of this whole idea. She thought that aid, humanitarian aid, aid in war zones, should not be for anybody. She said that it’s really important to realize who you are giving aid to, who are those people laying their wounded? Are they the causers of human suffering? If they are, they you should not aid them, because you will only lengthen the wars that they are fighting. So, there has always been a debate about the humanitarian imperative. Should it be for everybody, because every human being deserves aid? Or should it always be attached to restrictions?

Tom Arcaro:             So, if Florence Nightingale had been at Goma, she would not have wanted to treat the Hutu coming in?

 Linda Polman:            Exactly.

 Tom Arcaro:               Yeah.

Linda Polman:            Exactly, yes. Because in Goma, many people were under the impression that all the aid that went to Goma after the genocide was for the victims of the genocide, but the aid actually went to the perpetrators of the genocide, so yes, Florence Nightingale would have been very much against this idea of aiding people over there. Also, because it actually did fuel the war, from all the UNACR camps, where the Hutus were being taken care of, and it was one of the biggest humanitarian aid operations at the time, the most money went there at the time. Thanks to the aid money, the Hutus were able to continue their war against the Tutsis, which were only a few miles away from where the Hutus were. So, I believe that still, even now, 22, 25 years later, we are still suffering the consequences from that period.

Tom Arcaro:               So, is it possible to have, I guess – how would Florence Nightingale have described the humanitarian imperative?

Linda Polman:            She said that responsibility should be where they belong. She says that wars are cost and fared by states, by ministers of war, and she said it’s their responsibility to pay for the mess that they created. Because you make them financial responsible for what they are doing to people, you will shorten wars, because they will have less money to spend on the wars.

Tom Arcaro:               Right, right. So, how do you see it, from your seat? How would you – are you in Henry Dunant’s camp, or are you in Nightingale’s camp, or neither?

Linda Polman:            I’m definitely in the Nightingale camp, definitely, yes. I also believe that it is important to – it all sounds very nice, that you are a humanitarian, and every human being deserves aid, et cetera, but if you look at the damage and harm that aid can do, if you look at the amount of wars that are being fueled by aid money, then I believe you should take responsibility for that, and there is a point where you will have to say no for aid, and we all make a big drama out of that, “You cannot refuse aid to people, because they are all human beings,” but we are saying no to people all the time. There are so many victims of wars and other disasters that never receive one cent of aid from us. We say no to aiding people all the time, we are just not talking about it, we all keep this charade up, that we are always there for all victims on this planet, but we’re not, we say no all the time.

 Tom Arcaro:               Right, right, and so, I immediately think about Syria, and the response there, you know, if we look at the Jordanians and the Turks and the Lebanese and the Iraqis, actually, that are taking in the Syrians, where are they on this academic debate between the Dunants and the Nightingale people? Whose responsibility is it to respond to those Syrian refugees? And how should they be responded to in a way that Nightingale would agree?

Linda Polman:            Well, for the large part, I think those neighboring countries of Syria never had a choice. People just poured in. And also, actually, the history of Syrians in those neighboring countries, they already had families there, they already had friends there, so it would – and they didn’t need visas, they just came, and by the time, I believe, that those countries woke up to the fact that there’s more and more coming, it was already too late. In the end, they did close their borders. Many people are now camping just on the outside of the border, on the Syrian side, hoping that they can still get in, but they cannot. So, for the large part, they didn’t have a choice. Also, they were promised, especially by the European community, that the European community would come and help, financially, that they would share the burden of all those refugees, because the European community has a large interest in keeping refugees in there, in the region, so they promised to send money, which they did only in very small amounts, but that was the deal between the neighboring countries and the European Union.

Tom Arcaro:               Right. We’re asking a question about the follow-up on the Europeans in general, in the Syrians, and of course, that’s happened in various ways, in various degrees. Let me go to a big global question, if we look at the percentage of GDP that the United States puts into humanitarian aid, and I’m looking specifically at the response in Yemen, where our – I think it was $87 billion, pales in comparison with the $500 billon that the Saudis are giving, and if you look the list of countries that are given that have pledged, this last Tuesday, to the UNHCR response to Yemen, the United States is way down on the list, and if you factor in percentage of GDP, we are even farther down on the list. So, my question, I guess, is what is your take on that disparity, and is there anything that the international community can or should do to help equal out the proportion of aid being pledged by different governments?

Linda Polman:            Well, in general, I would say that disaster areas are, most of the time, the responsibility of the superpower that is closest by. America has its own backyard, Europe has its own backyard, and so does Saudi Arabia. It’s in the backyard of Saudi Arabia, so it’s only logical that Saudi Arabia should be the largest aid giver there. But, to be more specific, I believe it was the intention of Saudi Arabia to be the biggest aid, to be the biggest donor in Yemen, because it gives them a lot of power in Yemen. It is not like the Saudi money is going to all the victims, the Saudi money is going to victims that are of use to Saudi Arabia, they are – the aid goes, for the most part, to government forces, for example. A big priority in the aid of Saudi Arabia is patching up wounded government soldiers, the absorbs a lot of aid money. It is also buying followers, it is buying supporters, by sending the aides to areas where Saudi Arabia has allies or has people that are sympathetic to the Saudi course. So, for Saudi Arabia, giving aid to Yemen is very much a weapon of war. They use it to keep people calm, or to buy supporters.

Tom Arcaro:               So, if I heard you correctly just now, you’ve essentially repeated, with different examples, much of what you’ve described back when you published Crisis Caravan, or War Games, as it’s called over there.

Linda Polman:            But that is so much the core of international aid, especially in warzones. It is not given out of charitable feelings, it is not given out of feeling sorry for people, it is not given out of feeling that justice would be done. International aid, humanitarian aid, development aid, is very much an instrument in the foreign policy of our governments. That goes for United States, through US Aid, as a sort of contract with American NGOs, saying if they do not serve the American political agenda, the foreign policy agenda, then they are not getting any American money, any government money. They have to follow the American foreign policy. The same thing goes for European aid organizations. If they do not follow the EU foreign policy agenda, which is abysmal, the anti‑immigration agenda, then they’re not getting money from the European Union. And that has always been the case. International aid has always been an instrument in foreign policy, it is not something that we do out of charity.

Tom Arcaro:               So, you know, we talked about this when we had our test call, the place that people like you, as an outsider, and maybe people like me as academics, outsiders kind of studying it, as we look at the tables in Geneva and maybe Vienna and New York, do those tables appropriately include seats or people like you that have a more objective – you’re not connected to a government, you’re not connect to any INGO, are there seats at the table for people like you, and if not, is that a goal that we should work toward?

Linda Polman:            Well, I have often been invited, after the publication of my book, to come and join forums, to come and join think tanks, for example, and often, it stays with one invitation, after that, I’m not longer welcome. [laughter] The critical voices are not very much appreciated. It’s difficult for them to accept criticism, and it is very, very difficult – even if they agree to the criticism, it is very, very difficult for them to change anything inside that system. Humanitarian aid and development aid is an industry, it’s a gigantic operation involving dozens of donor governments, involving tens of thousands of aid organizations, and involving agenda, foreign policy agendas. It is so difficult to change even small things there, so to have critical voices inside there makes it extra painful for people that want to do good, for people that do want changes, because it makes them realize more of the change is so difficult to establish, so there are opportunities for independent voices to speak, but most of the time, only once, and then, they are no longer invited.

Tom Arcaro:               Right, not invited back, right. And so, that leads to a related question about the Sphere Standards, and the Core Humanitarian Standards, and the Core Humanitarian Alliance, and other efforts like that, that have overarching entities that look at the whole sector and make – you know, come up with guidelines for how to administer aid, and how to involve the affected community. Do you think those efforts are going in the right direction? Are they enough? Is there a place for an additional one or two, you know, bridge kind of organizations that can serve the function of being more critical, and serve the function of making positive change?

Linda Polman:            Well, the thing with all the – Sphere is also like a think tank, you have very many of those bodies inside the aid industry that are called think tanks, and they come with advice for policies, et cetera. But, again, it is so difficult for the aid industry to change itself. Everybody inside the aid industry knows what should be done. Everybody knows how it could be better.  But to implement all those recommendations, that’s the problem. To think of how it should be better, how it can be better, is not the difficult part, it’s the implementation part. So, all those think tanks inside the aid industry come with wonderful recommendations, and the next year, they come with the same recommendations, and et cetera, but the implementation is the problem.

Tom Arcaro:               Right. Well, let me counter that with maybe – yeah, I get your opinion on this. If we look at Turkey a couple of years ago with the World Humanitarian Summit, there seemed to be some rhetoric, at least, around, for example, nationalizing and localizing and moving the economic power from the head offices in Geneva and New York and so on, moving the powerbase more toward the regional and national centers. So, you know, are the summits, like what happened in Turkey, do those produce policy changes going in the right direction? And again, my example is the benchmarks created for more nationalization and localization of aid?

 Linda Polman:            In fact, I was there at that summit in Turkey, and the press releases were a bit different than what actually happened on the ground. [laughter] Like, for example, this whole big thing that it should be more from bottom-up, less Geneva and less NGO CEOs who decide where the money should go to, but more to local organizations and to small organizations. And everybody agreed, and everybody has happy press releases. And, since then, it didn’t change. Since then, there is not more money going to local organizations. So, again, I am making the same point here, to think of solutions is a lot easier than to implement them. It is very, very difficult. And, you see, the problem is that most solutions, or most improvements, inside the aid industry, would involve aid organizations and donors to give up a lot of their sovereignty, a lot of their power. It is now the donors and the large aid organizations who decide where the money goes to, how much money, and what it is spent on, et cetera. And, to improve things, they should let go of that sovereignty, they should let go of that power of their money, and they are not prepared to do that.

Tom Arcaro:               Right.

Linda Polman:            Donors and aid organizations still believe that they are the only ones who know what’s best for people over there, so it’s very difficult for them also to give more power and more money to small, local organizations, but they know it would be better, but they won’t do it.

Tom Arcaro:               Right, right. And so, which leads us in the same spot, things will keep going in the same direction. Let me refer back to the research that I did, and the survey that I did on aid workers, I asked them basically the same question, you know, “What do you see about the future of the sector, and what can be done to improve it?” And some of the more cynical but maybe accurate answers had to do with global neoliberalism, and how that is spreading certainly, you know, in the United States and certainly in much of Europe, with what’s going on. You know, we seem to have no grasp of responding to neoliberalistic tendencies, and a lot of the respondents that I read there, their comments, a lot of the respondents basically pointed out that unless we change the fundamental nature of an economic system which benefits from this low regulatory kind of governmental policy, then nothing is going to change. The analogy that one of them used is that, “We’re just putting out fire, but the fires will continue to be started, because the fundamental system is going to generate those fires.” And so, I guess I’m asking kind of the neo-Marxist question, is it possible to imagine a non-neoliberalistic economic system globally?

Linda Polman:            Imagining that is the only thing that keeps me going. I think you need idealism to make a better world and to want a better world And I’m an old hippie, you know, I think things can be better if we only want it and we only do it. I spent quite a lot of time inside the building of the United Nations in New York, for example. I did a travel story about being in that building, and I traveled around that building for about three weeks, going up and down the escalators, going into offices, and seeing what’s happening there, talking to people in the canteens, et cetera. And there was a certain stage where I walked into a meeting hall, and there was a remembrance service for an economic advisor who was on the payroll of the United Nations, and he had died, and people were giving speeches about him, they were remembering him. And then, I realized that inside that hall, there were about five or six Nobel Prize winners, and they were all on the payroll of the United Nations, they were wonderful minds, you know? So, there’s a lot of people who know how things can be better. The United Nations has all of the solutions the world needs to be a much nicer place. The only thing that we need to do is take those solutions off the shelves and implement them.

 Tom Arcaro:               Right.

Linda Polman:            Without being too nasty, this decision coming, for example, now, the whole thing in Yemen, it’s arms dealers, the fact that Saudi Arabia is able to do what it’s doing in Yemen without anybody commenting on it, it’s because it’s a very good customer for our arms dealers, for our arms industry. Then, you get into big oil business, you get into the people smuggling business, so yes, the world could be a much nicer place, if we would be much more of a hippie. [laughter]

Tom Arcaro:               [laughter] Well spoken, well spoken. My inspiration for thinking along those lines comes from the opportunity I have had to study and then visit the Zapatistas down in Chiapas, Mexico. If you read what [Subcomandante] Maros has written, and others have written, he talks about the capitalistic hydra and how it needs to be recognized and addressed at a fundamental level. I think the people like that, who are speaking with and for the indigenous communities around the world, I think they might have a different perspective that we can learn from, and I think your answer to that would be, “Yes, but we need to listen, and we need to have a resolve to continue to demand answers to fundamental questions.”

Linda Polman:            Yeah.  One of the recommendations I would like to give to the younger generation, people who are much younger than me, be much more political, be involved in the politics of your own country, you know? Don’t believe that the change should be there. You should change the foreign policy and the local policy with your own government. Be political. Join a political party. Join lobby groups. If we want Saudi Arabia to behave better, if we want it to stop murdering people, then we should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, but we do not. We sell billions and billions. So, part of the solution for Yemen is, in fact, inside the United States. Part of the solution is also inside of the European Union. Europe is the second biggest arms dealer to Saudi Arabia. So, we all lick the heels of Saudi Arabia, because they spend billions of dollars in our economies. So, that is the way forward, to influence our politicians, to influence our politics lots of things that are wrong in the world, hunger in the world, poverty in the world, the solution lies within the United States and within the European Union. If we behave better, if we are more honest, if we are more willing to share with the rest of the world, then the world will be a better place, so be political, influence your own policy team.

Tom Arcaro:               Right. And I’m hearing and agreeing with what you’re saying, but at the same time, we see a wave of populism, both in our country, here in the United States, and even, to a certain extent, in the UK, with the BREXIT decision. How do you respond to those populist movements, and have a more humanitarian and positive perspective? How do you persuade people to go in that direction, rather than the populist direction?

Linda Polman:            I’m sure that more souls can be won, but I also know that that movement, the humanitarian movement, is so big already. Look at the globalist movement. Look at the movement that young people in America have in their fight against NRA [National Rifle Association], for example. And as far as Europe goes, I will never forget in 2015, that summer, when hundreds of thousands of refugees walked into Europe, they walked through Europe. Official aid organizations, nor governments, were there to do anything for them, they just ignored them. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them barefooted, you know? No money, nothing to drink, nothing to eat, all of them had routes that were several thousands of kilometers long.  There were civilians, there were tens of thousands of civilians there, waiting for those refugees, feeding them, giving them warm hats to wear, giving them shoes to wear, giving them water, putting them up, there were tens of thousands of ordinary people helping those refugees. More than a million of the refugees were accepted into Europe, and they found friends here, they found people who are willing to help them and were willing to mix them into the local population. So, the movements of people who wanted to better the world is big. Look at the natural environments movements. There are so many people who wanted better worlds. So, yes, there are populist movements, but there are also a lot of common sense movements, and people who want the best for other people.

Tom Arcaro:               Thank you for that, thank you for that. Last chance for questions. Linda, I feel – I very much appreciate your time. It was just an absolute gift to be able to talk with you for a bit, and I appreciate very much this time and the insights that you shared with the students, so thank you, thank you.

Linda Polman:            You’re very welcome, and I hope that my skepticism does not put people down. I hope that everybody will get involved, that people will go for this better world. Don’t listen to me. [laughter]  Do your thing, and do what is best for other people. Think, be political, and do your best. So, don’t let my cynicism or skepticism drag you down.




Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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