Category Archives: Assignment 4

Assignment 4: The Double-Edged Sword

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded by Henri Dunant in 1863. Florence Nightingale and her work inspired Henri Dunant’s establishment of the ICRC and the creation of first Geneva Convention. The Red Cross principle of neutrality, “Humanitarianism is based on a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally” (Polman 23), was closely realated to Nightingale’s belief’s on suffering. Her mindset, “Suffering lifts its victim above normal values. While suffering endures there is neither good nor bad, valuable nor invaluable, enemy nor friend. The victim has passed to a region beyond human classification or moral judgments and his suffering is a sufficient claim” (Red Cross 2013), became the foundation of today’s humanitarian aid. However, what a humanitarian aid is doing is not what its foundation ought to be.

The Red Cross emblem was officially approved in Geneva in 1863.

The Red Cross emblem was officially approved in Geneva in 1863.

There’s a clear gap between “is” and “ought.” In Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan, the Hutu government levied a war tax on all food rations from aid organizations. Furthermore, they used the collected tax to pay its army to keep hunting Tutsi (Polman 69). There are more examples where good intentions somehow became weapons of wars. In Liberia, warlords try to take off as large a proportion of the value of aid supplies at they can. In addition, “the president Charles Taylor demanded 15 percent of the value of aid, to be paid him in cash” (Polman 225).

It is a tragedy, but there’s an unintentional gap between “is” and “ought”. Based on the Red Cross principles of neutrality, the aid organizations in Goma were committed to help anybody they could (Polman 67). The conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu continued, resulting continued massacre of Hutu on Tutsi. Although it’s negative and illogical, people can argue and question the principle of neutrality of the Red Cross based solely on the result: “Has the compassionate neutrality killed extra Tutsi people?”

The ethical, social and cultural issues and dilemmas do not stop there. According to South Korea’s ministry of unification, South Korea has been providing a humanitarian aid to North Korea since 1995. In spite of North Korea’s nuclear test of 2009, and the attack of Yeonpyeongdo, where two civilians and two marines were killed, South Korea has provided the vaccines for novel influenza and the flood damage aids in 2009 and 2010 respectively (The ministry of unification’s administrative data 2013). South Korea is aware that their supports have not went directly to citizens in North Korea and South Korea is struggling facing the moral, ethical, and racial dilemmas toward North Korea.


The structure of humanitarian aid is not simple. The ICRC quoted, “well-intended but unwanted gifts that clog up airfields and logistical hubs” (Polman 123) emphasizing good hearts by themselves will not help anyone effectively. When I applied for Korea International Cooperation Agency as an international aid worker of Africa department last summer, I got rejected. Having various experiences of volunteer works, I couldn’t understand why I got rejected. I can answer this question with Jan Egeland’s quote: “You aren’t allowed to be amateurish if you are in the game of saving lives. The one human right that the poor and the vulnerable should have at the very least is to be protected from incompetence” (Polman 115). Balancing between humane neutrality and ability to look and perceive conflicts and issues keenly is a key to narrowing the gap between the is and the ought.


“Aid Project for North Korea Index.” Nara Index. The ministry of unification’s administrative data, 04 Apr 2013. Web. <>.

“Florence Nightingale and the Red Cross.” Historical factsheets. British Red Cross, 2013. Web. <>.

Polman, Linda. The Crisis Caravan. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. Print


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Giving Aid During a War

One of the biggest problems in humanitarian aid is making sure a donor’s money reaches the intended person. For example, there are a handful of charities where less than ten percent of donations actually go towards what they’re advertising for. The other ninety percent would end up funding workers and various extraneous groups. Instances like this are usually at the fault of the charity organization; many times though it is unavoidable. One major dilemma that plagues humanitarian aid is the use of these aid groups to help facilitate an ongoing war.

In her chapter entitled Aid as a weapon of war from “War Games,” Linda Polman discusses that many groups will go into countries with the best intentions of providing development assistance. Once entering warzones within the country, large portions of the money will actually go towards funding these groups that perpetuate the war within the country. At the beginning of the chapter, Polman discusses various negotiations with the INGOs in Liberia:

“Warlords try to siphon off as large a proportion of the value of aid supplies as they can. During the negotiations with the INGOs in Liberia, the then president, Charles Taylor, demanded 15 percent of the value of aid, to be paid to him in cash. The Liberian war victims weren’t the only ones who had to eat, after all” (89).

Furthermore, the groups who receive them then sell much of the donated goods for profit. These  groups will make pacts and contracts with higher-ups in society to unevenly distribute what they’ve received at a more widespread level. “Humanitarian territories” are areas in war zones where people agree on certain terms with the local higher-ups. Doing this is referred to as “shaking hands with the devil” (Polman 90). Locals taking humanitarian aid packages and selling them at their own benefit only widens the gaps between the rich and the poor, and completely restricts the people who can’t afford it from getting any at all.

Another problem that aid organizations face is the myriad of fees they find themselves paying when they enter certain regions, fees that go directly to the warlords and military regimes; “[they] deluge INGOs with taxes, often invented on the spot: import duties on aid supplies, fees for visas and work permits, harbour and airport taxes […] The proceeds go straight into their war chests” (Polman 91). There’s also the issue of living and working expenses rising substantially. When aid organizations arrive to these “humanitarian territories,” the prices they pay increase substantially throughout the region. For example, when local leaders sense an aid organizations showing up in their region, they raise the price of rent for any possible workspaces the organizations might work out of. Local leaders often take advantage of the arrival of these organizations because they are aware they have more money than all of the local organizations.

In his book, “The Bottom Billion”, Paul Collier came up with four different reasons that poor countries are destined to always struggle with development. Collier calls them “poverty traps,” meaning the country or region is literally trapped in a state of poverty. The first one is “conflict” – a region involved in a civil war will cause the surrounding economy to plummet. “Civil war creates a vicious cycle – war causes poverty, and low income contributes to tension […] Conflict then destroys infrastructure and scares away investors” (Williams). Facilitating peace is the only way to tackle the issue of poverty from all angles.

Giving humanitarian aid in a region with a war going on around it is an extremely tricky situation. There is much too big a difference between who is receiving the aid and who should be receiving the aid. The imflated prices, absurd taxes, and aid black markets put a stranglehold on who benefits from these organizations. It’s almost impossible to reach everyone in a society, especially many of those who need it most. The only way to bring a region out of poverty is to first tackle the issue of conflict, and then start the development and aid.

image from the article included in my works cited


Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. Penguin. London. 2010. Print.

Williams, Jeremy. “Why Some Countries Remain Poor: Paul Collier’s Four Poverty traps.” Make Wealth History. Creative Commons, 8 Dec. 2008. Web.

Smith, Hannah L. “The Politics of Aid in a War Zone.” ASHARQ AL-AWSAT. 20 May 2013. Web.




What humanitarian aid is doing, and what it ought to be

Linda Polman’s work The Crisis Caravan examines the broken humanitarian aid system, as it exists today. Early in her book, Polman discusses the conflicting ideologies of Florence Nightingale and Henri Dunant. Nightingale was of the opinion that “aid fails in its purpose if the warring parties use it to their own advantage.” (Polman) Dunant on the other hand believed, “In the duty to help no matter what.” (Polman) This question was raised as early as the founding year of the Red Cross, and it continues to be a major source of disagreement in the humanitarian aid community today.

Polman describes what she calls, “ethical disaster” situations, such as Rwanda, where outside aid is desperately needed, but militant groups have also begun to use that aid as a tool of warfare. It is situations like these where the issues with the current humanitarian aid system are made particularly evident. Corruption on many levels, and the inability or lack of desire to change, is making an otherwise very noble and valiant effort more or less futile.

Humanitarian aid groups are entirely under the control of their donors. The donations that come into these groups determine whether or not an organization can begin a campaign in a country or not. A side effect of this relationship means that humanitarian aid groups must constantly be seeking out new contracts in order to essentially stay in business, something Polman describes in her chapter, “Contract Fever.” In order to continue gaining new contracts, aid organizations must appeal to their donors by following what for lack of a better word can be described as trends in the humanitarian aid community. The world has proven that it has a very short memory, and interest shifts quickly to whatever the new conflict, disaster, or tragedy of the day is, and with that shift in interest, comes a shift in where donors want their money to be sent. This forces aid organizations to work where their donors want them, and not necessarily where they should be which is where they can do the most good.

In Rwanda, Polman describes how the international aid coming into the country was frequently used by Hutu refugee soldiers to be fed and given medical treatment for free, so that they could continue their slaughter of the Tutus. Polman says that at night after receiving care from the humanitarian community, Hutu militias, “crept back over the border into Rwanda to go ‘hunting Tutsi.” (Polman) The Hutu government levied heavy taxes, and their militias stole aid supplies that they fenced in order to build up their war chests, which allowed the massacre to continue. It is in situations like these that we see the changes that must be made if the humanitarian aid community hopes to truly remain its stance of, “neutrality and impartiality.” As Rwanda proved to us, humanitarian aid does more harm than good when it is taken advantage of to strengthen a war effort, while others are forced out of receiving the same treatment. Aid organizations need to take measures that prevent them from being bullied into unintentionally taking a side in a conflict, because by doing nothing, those who could not stand up for themselves alone, as we saw with the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, find themselves in a prolonged and greater suffering as a result. If proper steps are taken to increase accountability on the part of aid workers, greater security is provided to distribution centers to protect against theft, and a timeline and plan of action is put in place to avoid overlap in services and a ensure reasonable exit strategy, then I believe that the problems facing the humanitarian aid community are not impossible to overcome.

A victim of the Rwanda conflict, bearing scars from a machete attack like the ones frequently perpetrated on the Tutsi people.

A victim of the Rwanda conflict, bearing scars from one of the many machete attacks perpetrated against the Tutsi people.

In Poland, there is outrage over the government’s decision to send aid to Syria. Polish citizens believe that aid should be spent within their own country before assisting others. This apathy toward others is perhaps the greatest threat to the humanitarian aid effort. Polish citizens had no complaints when receiving foreign aid during the time the country was under martial law from 1981 to 1983, but now many are vehemently against providing aid to those abroad while problems still exist at home. (Kasprowicz)

If steps are not taken to change what aid organizations are doing, to what they ought to be doing instead, then many donors may find themselves so disenchanted with the system, that they stop providing donations altogether. But perhaps even more importantly, we must examine our own sentiments more closely, would we be so opposed to aid efforts if it was our country that was torn apart by civil war? Would we be so callous and uninterested if it were our family and friends losing limbs to militias wielding machetes? Three of the major religious texts of the world feature countless passages about the importance of helping one another. For example the Bible says, “Therefore encourage one another, and let each one help to strengthen his friend,” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) the Quran urges that we should, “Help each other to goodness and heedfulness,“ (Surat al-ma’ida: 2) and the Torah states that we should always, “Relieve our neighbors of their burden.” (Ex. 23:5; Deut. 22:4)

Regardless of the problems or corruption within the humanitarian aid effort, we cannot become so self-centered that we abandon the notion that this global community relies invaluably on the help we provide one another in times of crisis.


Works Cited:

Kasprowicz, Kasia. April 5, 2013. June 10, 2013.

Polman, Linda. “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999.

The Qur’an, Translated by Tarif Khalidi. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.

The Torah. (1 Thessalonians 5:11). New York: Feldheim, 2013. Print.


“Is” vs. “Ought”

A survey of  94 Ugandans displayed that they were anything but dismayed when the Dutch government decided to cut aid donations, with 82% of them supporting the budget support withdrawal.


 Their reasoning? They believe aid money led to corruption in their country.

International humanitarian aid is deeply, profoundly broken. In her book, War Games, Linda Polman posits that humanitarian aid is an industry that encourages competition for donations rather than collaboration in a way that has crushingly negative consequences on aid beneficiaries. Furthermore, she suggests that by the aid sector’s dedication to neutrality, aid groups actually perpetuate war and other conflicts by padding the pockets of corrupt governments or warlords and byhiding and aiding warriors under the guise that it is “serving those who need to be served.” A complete absence of accountability by the press, civilians and government enables the continued corruption of the aid system and results in a waste of the outpouring of resources supposedly dedicated to aid provision to those in need.

The largest problems that Polman identifies with humanitarian aid lies at the systematic level, with the actual organization and distribution of humanitarian aid presenting some of the most fundamental problems. The present system encourages competition between aid groups, rather than cooperation. There is an absence of collaboration between aid groups and minimal delegation of roles, as each organization holds steadfastly to the opinion that “…other organizations may get it wrong, but we’re different” (Polman 160).  Each of the over 37,000 INGOs and countless MONGOs (My Own N.G.O.) are in competition with one another for acknowledgement by donors and yet accomplish little to actually empower the beneficiaries of aid. There were over 10,000 NGOs that set up camp in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and despite this, each year after, the country continued to become poorer because of lack of cooperation and coordination between groups. Another negative outcome of the high level of competition between aid groups is that, even if one aid organization stands up to the leaders of the areas being served and does not fall prey to heavy taxes and restrictions, another is willing to swoop right in and pay those taxes and follow the restrictions. “As an aid organization, you are very much dependent on who is in charge of the area where you go. It could be a military government or a rebel group or the Taliban… You always have to negotiate your way into the camp or into an area and it depends on who is in charge there, how high the entrance fee is,” Polman discusses on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. An outcome of this is that money that could go towards anything else beneficial goes to players who have intentions of extending the circumstances that led to the crises being addressed. Illustrating this, Polman continued on to say that, “More than 200 million of those dollars [of international aid] are actually disappearing straight into the pockets of warlords in Somalia.”

As far as distribution is concerned, “…donors select countries and regions where they have political interests, or places thought of as high profile that offer a fair chance of positive publicity,” says James Morris, the head of the World Food Programme. He continues on to say that, “Ninety percent of the people who die of hunger and malnutrition don’t die in a high-profile situation” (Polman 146). The current aid system today supports idea that, “the humanitarian claim of political neutrality is a fiction: humanitarian action always has a political consequence, and one cannot deny responsibility for it” (Gourevitch). This contradicts the basic statement of mission that it is “…aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during the aftermath of emergencies” (Global Humanitarian Assistance) and, beyond that, contradicts the Red Cross’s notion that aid needs to be distributed to all in a politically neutral manner. Areas that are desperately in need of aid, such as the victims of famine in Namibia in 2004, received nothing, whereas Afghanistan received over $15 billion from more than sixty donor governments between 2001 and 2008, because of the increased political benefits of using aid as a weapon of war in Afghanistan. Governments do not hold aid groups responsible or accountable for these deadly decisions because they, as donor governments, are the ones calling the shots.

But all is not doomed, according to Polman, though she does not give us much beyond basic guidelines for future action that would aid our broken aid system.

She begins with describing basic tenets of an aid system that ought to be based on,  emphasizing increased cooperation and accountability.

In her discussion with Jon Stewart, Polman addresses INGOs and says, “If you would work together as donors, and as aid organizations you could make a fist against the abuse and against the theft and against the corruptions. What’s happening now in Haiti… is there are 64 different donors and ten thousand aid organizations all doing their own thing. …Not putting money together, not defining central goal, … they all do their own thing.” Aid groups ought to begin entering humanitarian territories with a singular, defined goal and then designing a corresponding set of goals to strive for once the initial benchmark has been attained.

Polman also believes that this spirit of collectivity also ought to enable humanitarian groups to stand up to regimes, military groups, political groups, etc. in order to avoid such astounding statistics as Indonesian soldiers making off with “…at least 30 per cent of tsunami relief for Aceh Province,” aid groups need to band together and demand that the bulk of aid is being used efficiently and effectively within the populations it is designated for. “…The ‘humanitarian community’ is so spineless in its dealings with the [Sudanese Bashir] regime. If there was some collective spirit, we might be able to avoid becoming in effect sub-branches of the Sudan state,” said an NGO employee stationed in Darfur (Polman 161).

Polman highlights that there is a startling lack of accountability within the world of INGOs. There is a lack of self-accountability, accountability by the press, governments and the public. INGOs and MONGOs use corruption within local governments as a scapegoat for missing funds or an absence of efficient solutions to problems. The press needs to stop fawning over humanitarians and instead hold them accountable by all means possible. This will force NGOs to better track where aid goes, and perhaps allow lesser reliance upon distributing money from NGO, to contractor, to NGO, etc. in what is called “phantom aid.” “It is possible to track who the primary recipients of USAID funds are, yet on what are these NGOs and contractors spending the money?” Jake Johnston and Alexander Main wrote in a report on Aid Transparency and Accountability in Haiti. “What percent goes to overhead, to staff, vehicles, housing, etc.? What percent has actually been spent on the ground in Haiti?” There needs to be a basic requirement that puts it upon aid organizations to designate a system that places competent bodies in charge of money distribution and ensure that aid money is being used properly. Aid organizations should not be immune to the prying eye of journalists, but rather ought to be held to a greater degree of public accountability due to the dire nature of their line of work. This will dissuade corruption, excuses and hold aid organizations, INGOs and MONGOs alike, to a higher standard of achievement.

In the end, in order to save humanitarian aid, it may require an abandonment of the globally accepted conviction of Henri Dunant of “tutti fratelli,” or that “we are all brothers” (Polman 4). Instead, Polman hints that in order to assume a global system of aid that benefits well-deserving beneficiaries, there needs to be a greater amount of discernment with aid distribution and that all of us, as citizens need to lead this charge before the crisis caravan does more irreversible damage than good.

Works Cited:

“Defining Humanitarian Aid: Global Humanitarian Assistance.” Global Humanitarian Assistance. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

Gourevitch, Philip. “The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

Johnston, Jake, and Alexander Main. Breaking Open the Black Box: Increasing Aid Transparency and Accountability in Haiti. Rep. Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2013. Print.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Sapa-AP. “Haiti’s $1.15 Billion Aid Largely Went to US Groups, Only 1% to Haiti Companies: Study.” The Times Live. Times Media Group, 06 Apr. 2013. Web. <>.



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The Humanitarian Aid System: It’s Own Worst Enemy

I think that before anyone starts pointing fingers, we must acknowledge the incredible things aid workers around the world have accomplished.  From the barren plains of Africa to the shaken streets of Haiti, aid workers have been in the trenches combating suffering and illness for years.  It is clear that without their contributions millions of people would be far worse off than they are right now.  Yet Polman spends her entire book picking apart these groups bit by bit, and with good reason.  These aid organizations have countless problems, and the worst part is they bring half of them on themselves.

I think that the corruption of NGOs was driven home incredibly well by Polman.  The inefficient spending and contract hopping are clear signs of people just in it for the money.  This, in my opinion is just as much an issue of donor participation and research as it is of actual corruption.  As I posted about previously, I think a far larger issue is this childish notion that aid must be impartial.  It boggles my mind that, for instance, aid workers in Nepal must provide emergency care to Maoist rebels even though these same groups have been harassing them and extorting villagers for years.  This idea that suffering has no political stance or ideology does not justify not taking a stand against a particularly vicious group. (IRIN News).  We must treat the source and alleviate the symptoms.

This brings us to what I think is another major issue, and thats the toothless nature of humanitarian aid organizations.  These groups cannot continue to be a source for further problems in regions they set up in.  Whether its Hutu leaders that use camps to stage raids or Somali warlords that charge nearly 80% of the value of goods just to let them land, these groups only cause more problems and do so on the NGOs dollar (Polman 1459).  If this kind of inefficient allocation of funds was present in a Fortune 500 company it would likely be belly up and looking for a new CEO, so why do we tolerate it?

Despite my previous statements, I do think that NGOs have a lot of good aspects, and many powerful tools at their disposal.  Human empathy has led to vast funds that are available to help those in need.  As Polman mentioned in her Ted Talk, during the earthquake in Haiti there was a massive showing of humanitarian support.  Billions of dollars were available to help these people in need, and hundreds of organizations were there to pitch in.  This multilateral support is the strongest tool these groups have and must be preserved (Polman Ted Talk).  Furthermore, the vast number of NGOs allows for multiple different ways to approach a crisis and a specialization that can seriously help a system, if it can be refined.  Last, and certainly not least, is the ever present media.  The media plays the vital role of bringing the tragedy home, making it seem real.  This gets people invested in the crisis and solicits more interest and aid to keep the machine going.

So how can we fix the glaring problems facing the aid system?  I think the greatest help would come from the most broad change; people need to become more invested in what happens in the world and they need to follow through with their actions.  This culture of slacktivism, of sharing a video, changing a profile picture, or throwing a few dollars to a cause needs to end.  We allow these NGOs to get away with the corruption and inefficient practices because we don’t research before we donate.  I had no idea the aid system was this bad until I read this book.  If we have the knowledge, we can dictate policy with our pocket books.

While I do hope people become more involved in the workings of the world, I know it is a tall order.  But its not the only step that can be taken.  NGOs need to step up and address the inefficiency in their system.  They happily trot the globe, ignoring and even aiding the sources of suffering, content to provide blankets and bandages while their money fuels munitions purchases.  The worst part is they wear this impartiality, this neutrality like a badge of honor when it is their greatest failing.

Yet going up against these violent groups is not exactly the easiest proposition.  In 2006 17 french aid workers were killed execution style in Sri Lanka for their work their. In an effort to curb violence against their workers, the aid coalition InterAction established Minimum Operating Security Standards (MOSS).  “MOSS has five components: organizational security policies and plans; resources to address security; human resource management; accountability; and a sense of community.”  These other parts include establishing protected safe rooms and talking with other organizations to highlight potential threats.  These are steps that should be implemented, and should have already been implemented across all NGOs (Security Management).  Yet I would go a step further still.  Aid groups should always, always have a security force of appropriate size with them.  Its is baffling to me that it is not common practice already.  A potential fix could be much more tightly controlled camps, perhaps with the UN spearheading it.  I understand the issues of state sovereignty that such an approach creates, yet I stand beside it and believe that all UN member states should allow for such camps if they are necessary.  If we are to snuff out suffering, the aid system must take a stand against its underlying factors and drop this childish notion of impartiality.  Without such actions they will continue to cause as much harm as good, and that is frankly unacceptable.

Works Cited

Harwood, Mathew. “Rendering Assistance to Aid Workers.” Security Management. Security Management, n.d. Web. 11 June 2013.

“Humanitarian News and Analysis.” IRINnews. IRIN News, 3 May 2007. Web. 11 June 2013.

Polman, Linda. “The Crisis Caravan: Linda Polman En TEDxCanarias 2012.” YouTube. Tedx Canarias, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 June 2013.

Polman, Linda, Liz Waters, and Linda Polman. The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.


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Is the aid industry who it says it is?

Neutrality ~ Impartiality ~ Independence

The international humanitarian aid community adheres to these three principles. “Aid organizations endorsing the humanitarian principles of the Red Cross promise neutrality (no cooperation with one side in preference to the other), impartiality (the giving of aid purely according to need) and independence (from geopolitical, military or other interests).” (Polman 7)  These principles are nice, but as the system functions now, they are only functional in a dream world where everyone plays by the same rules.  We know that they don’t, creating a gap between what humanitarian aid “ought” to be and the reality of what it “is.”  In her book War Games, Linda Polman breaks down how most INGOs and NGOs violate each of the principles they promise to abide by on an almost daily basis.

The principle of neutrality has been challenged several times in recent history.  During the 1980s, rebels were being driven out of their villages by the Ethiopian government using tactics such as forced migration.  This included the murder of men and women, contamination of water by throwing slaughtered animals in streams, and the burning of food and grain stores.  All of this was intended to forcibly move the Ethiopian people to the south.  After the destruction, the Ethiopian government called the press in to document distressing “drought” and famine footage.  Aid organizations flowed into Ethiopia to set up camps in the south, blind to the fact that the Ethiopian government had planned the drought and famine.

Time Magazine cover from 1987 showing how the media perceived the famine in Ethiopia.

Time Magazine cover from 1987 showing how the media perceived the famine in Ethiopia.

As in countless other countries, the local government decided how much aid came in, where it would go, and who it would go to.  In this process, the government manipulated the aid industries.  The Ethiopian government ordered aid workers to shut down their food aid camps in a region if the people there became resistant to deportation.  They would eventually become hungry and continue moving south.  An estimated 600,000 people went south during this mass migration- 100,000 of them starved along the way, even though there was plenty of food aid.  No longer allowing itself to be a part of the tragedy, MSF France left Ethiopia in 1985 when local regimes kept aid out of a region, causing unnecessary starvation.  The Dutch Red Cross was among the organizations that remained in Ethiopia to provide aid.  Some in the international community rebuked the remaining aid organizations, saying that by providing aid in regions specified by the Ethiopian government, they were siding with the Ethiopian government and helping with their side of the war.  Many who were on the ground in Ethiopia, and in other humanitarian territories around the world facing the same issue, are frustrated by this kind of comment.  Said the head of international affairs of the Dutch Red Cross, “Politics evades its responsibility and then humanitarian aid organizations are reproached for keeping the war going?!” (Polman 116).

A situation with similar consequences occurred in Sudan in the 1980s.  The Sudanese government went on a campaign of terror throughout southern Sudan that was intended to forcibly move all of the rebels.  Eventually, these rebels were cornered into what the Sudanese government called “Peace Villages.”  INGOs were allowed to provide aid to these villages, but only on the government’s terms.  In what was called “Operation Lifeline Sudan,” aid was only allowed to be delivered by airdrops and only in regions specified by the Sudanese regime.  “Controlled as it was by the Sudanese regime, the operation resembled nothing so much as the management of a hydroponics greenhouse, where the grower determines which plants get water and how much by opening or closing the drip system.” (Polman 117).  As you can imagine, if a region’s peoples were disagreeable to the Sudanese government, they went on a diet for a while.  Although that is lightly said, the consequences of these actions were quite heavy.  “When the regime imposed a ban of several months on dropping aid anywhere in the southern region of Bahr el Ghazal, an estimated 60,000 people starved to death.” (Polman 118).

A World Food Program airplane drops aid supplies as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan

A World Food Program airplane drops aid supplies as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan

In addition to controlling where the aid industry couldn’t drop supplies, the Sudanese government also ordered where and how much of it would be dropped.  In Sudan, and all over the world, the governments and militias of countries receiving aid use much of that aid to feed themselves.  For example, in the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, the government reported that they needed food to feed four times the population of that region.  This excess was presumably used to feed the Ethiopian army.  A spokesman for the World Hunger Program said, “In any war, the last ones to die of hunger will be the soldiers.” (Polman 119).  When the delivery of aid is directed by the recipients, or groups in opposition to the intended beneficiaries, the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence are thrown out the window.  Aid brings a huge influx of money into a war torn country and can be used as a military financing tactic, and expecting warring parties to leave it alone and not try to get some for themselves is unrealistic.

On another note, NGOs are sometimes expected to act as arms of their respective governments, promoting their national foreign policy agenda.  After 9/11, “…[American] NGOs had to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to US foreign policy and making it clear that they [were] ‘an arm of the US government.’” (Polman 129).  A research director for MSF Foundation in Paris, Fabrice Weissman, said, “NGOs and UN agencies thus abandoned the independence essential to providing independent aid and modeled their priorities on those of the new regime and its Western allies, who were still at war with the Taliban.” (Polman 133).  This influence of government in the dealings of humanitarian aid organizations directly conflicts with their claim to be independent from government and other influences.  “Nevertheless INGOs cling, apparently unperturbed, to their claim to a neutral, ‘non-governmental’ status.” (Polman 133).

Dangerous humanitarian territories cause aid workers to want to stay within the safe confines of their offices.  This is due to the danger from rebels and the Taliban.  This results in millions of dollars being sucked from their intended humanitarian projects.  “Neither the donors nor their INGOs dare to visit the projects they finance.  The result is an unfathomable channeling of aid billions that is highly susceptible to fraud.” (Polman 134).  I was shocked by how many times money changes hands before a job is even started.  In 2002, $150 million dollars was earmarked for house-building in the Bamiyan Province of Aghanistan.  The money was shifted around to at least five different organizations, each of which took a portion of the money before even being used to buy wooden beams for the houses. “The systematic lack of control of aid funding is called ‘Afghaniscam.’  Afghan racketeers can rake off aid money unhindered, and in areas where the Taliban has regained control, their fighters are able to use unsupervised aid funding to strengthen and expand their popular support.” (Polman 136).  In this way, humanitarian aid money is unintentionally funding the Taliban.

As you can see, the principles of humanitarian aid organizations, admirable as they are, are not realistic in the world we live in.  Whose role is it to fix these obvious problems?  Some would say it is the role of the aid organizations themselves, as they are part of the problem.  I agree that aid organizations all over the world are being manipulated as part of military and political strategies, but I do not agree that it is the aid organizations’ responsibility to resolve this.  Although their principles are not working in practice right now, they might work if governments would communicate to find solutions.  Polman makes the point that we should be more critical of aid organizations.  “Ask questions!” she says.  For any change to happen within the aid industry, we must inquire into the practices of INGOs and NGOs.

Polman’s final words in War Games pack a punch: “If we don’t ask these questions for our own benefit, then we should ask them for the sake of the people who’ll see our next crisis caravan move in.” (Polman 164).  Our duty to our fellow global citizens is to ensure that they can receive fair humanitarian aid when they need it.  If aid organizations are not truly neutral, impartial, and independent, we must find and take the necessary steps so that they can be as they ought to be.


Works Cited


“9 Events That Have Shaped the Humanitarian Industry.” WanderLust: Notes from a Global Nomad. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda, and Liz Waters. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Taylor-Robinson, S. “Operation Lifeline Sudan.” Journal of Medical Ethics 28.1 (2002): 49-51. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

“The Seven Fundamental Principles.” IFRC- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <—-les-7-principes/>.

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The Cycle of Corruption

In Polman’s book, War Games, she depicts the numerous problems with humanitarian aid. They appear in many different forms, but none are more evident than corruption. Corruption rears its ugly head throughout all channels of the aid effort – governments, media, humanitarian aid organizations, donors, all the way to the people receiving aid. All of them manipulate the positivity of the effort and use it for their own personal gain. For example, Polman states:

“Humanitarian crises are almost always political crises, or crises for which only a political solution exist. When donors, militias and armies, not least our own national or NATO armies, play politics with humanitarian aid, NGO’s cannot afford to be apolitical” (Polman 159).

The predictability of the humanitarian organizations in responding to the need of aid leads to governments, or militias, being able to manipulate the system for their own gain. They are able to create a false need of aid or use humanitarian aid as a war strategy. In Rwanda, the Hutu’s were receiving aid while they were the actual group attempting to stamp out the Tutsi’s. The Hutu’s were able to strategically retreat to Goma and humanitarians responded incorrectly by providing aid. The Tutsi’s were left with the rotting corpses after the attempted genocide was stopped and the Hutu’s were defeated. The predictability of humanitarian aid allowed to Hutu’s to strategically retreat and rebuild while receiving aid. The Hutu’s were prospering, financially and physically, while the Tutsi’s remained crippled in Rwanda. The media coverage in Goma portrayed the situation incorrectly and supported aiding the Hutu’s in Goma.

When it comes to coverage of humanitarian aid efforts, the media steers away from their obligation as unbiased reporters. They accept the opportunity to cover the stories presented to them by humanitarian organizations, which commonly cover the costs or a great deal of the expenses of the trip, without questioning specifics. They want to report the tragedy presented to them like the suffering Hutu’s in Goma, without first finding out the whole story. The humanitarian organizations use the media as their own personal advertisement to boost the donors supplying their effort.

Humanitarian aid organizations utilize the media to take their cause to the public. They use the publicity as advertisement to attract donors to support their cause. They in turn use this as their influx in cash, without restrictions or accountability to where or to whom it goes. A good example of this is Afghanistan, where the humanitarian aid organizations would subcontract work out, but not before siphoning off a portion for themselves. This would continue until the final product, if it reached the intended source at all, would only be but a fraction of its intended value.

People receiving aid, some not all, have caught on to what is “profitable” and what it takes to get the media there. Donors typically want to be associated with the current effort in the media. They are able to dictate where their money goes, at least in part. This need for recognition leads to the money being put towards the most publicized aid effort, which is not always the one that needs it the most.

The end product turns out to be a vicious circle of corruption. Humanitarian aid organizations are not the only responsible party in this circle, but they benefit without accountability and without factoring in the total impact it will have.


Works Cited:

N.d. Graphic. n.p. Web. 11 Jun 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Walker, Peter, and Daniel Maxwell. “Confronting Corruption in humanitarian aid: Perspectives and options .” U4 Brief. 3 (2009): n.       page. Web. 11 Jun. 2013. <>.

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The Corruption of Humanitarian Aid

Linda Polman’s War Games exposes the various shortcomings of the current humanitarian aid structure.  Her goal is to shed the manufactured façade of the aid industry and educate readers as to how humanitarian operations truly function.  The major theme of problems throughout this book is corruption.  Each level of the supply chain includes some form of dishonesty or distortion.  An industry perceived as altruistic containing this much dishonesty seems ridiculous in today’s connected world.  How does this happen?


Polman touches on a few factors that perpetuate this false front; the humanitarian aid organizations, politics, local governments and the media all contribute.  The aid organizations themselves mostly have grand, well-intentioned goals like “reduce world poverty” or “provide malaria medication to every child in Ghana.”  This idealistic, top-down approach is part of the problem.  These types of abstract goals, ones that lack step-by-step specifics and attainable goals foster an environment of corruption.  Where is the accountability? There are reasons investors in publicly traded companies demand transparency: investors spend money and want to know how it’s being used and how that will further the company’s success.  This is one of the biggest disconnects that jumped off the page: why, in an industry where preserving human life is the goal, is there less accountability and less transparency than literally any publicly traded company? Not surprisingly, the answer is political, local governmental and media dishonesty.


Political contributions to the corruption of the aid industry are readily apparent. Polman reveals one such example with her “Afghaniscam” discussion.  Humanitarian organizations attempt to remain neutral in order be able to enter countries that might traditionally be hostile to their host nation.  This way people from an opposing nation can still help those in need.  However, this lofty ideal has been repeatedly pulled back to earth.  The fact that the US used humanitarian aid as a ‘force multiplier’ not only puts those humanitarians at risk for helping the military, but also ruins their perception as neutral in the eyes of other local governments that hold they key to opening the door for local aid.  Local governments can then use this as additional leverage to essentially charge tariffs for delivering aid to their domain. Polman clearly describes how local governments have siphoned off additional resources even after these entry charges.  All of these local and general political influences further corrupt and degrade the entire process.  This still doesn’t answer the question of why this entire process hasn’t been reworked even though it is so clearly broken.


The media, a supposed bastion of objectivity, is the yet another step in this vicious cycle of deceit.  Polman writes of how amputees take off their prosthetics, look downtrodden and exaggerate their stories at the direction of the media.  Why would the media do this? First, these sensational stories garner more attention. Second, and this is mainly my conjecture, not Polman’s, is that the steady stream of stories provided by embedded reporters in these aid groups provides more value to the media than a large story exposing corruption in an industry most perceive as selfless.  These factors, from the humanitarian organizations themselves to the media, are all interconnected and foster such a corrupt, broken process.


The essay to this point has only touched on the “is,” the current situation.  The “ought” is where I’m most disappointed with Polman.  Exposing corruption and revealing the truth will certainly help the public demand more accountability, but without a plan, or at least some potential solutions, where does that leave us? I hoped Polman would take the final step and propose not just her “ought,” but how we can actually get there. At the end I can’t help but compare her in a manner with these same organizations she critiques.  Polman has these lofty visions of how the aid industry ought to look, but falls short of actually proposing a plan.  The aid industry is broken, but what would tearing it down without a plan accomplish? Where would that leave us? I’d argue that is just as untenable as doing nothing at all.




Kopink, Janice. Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability Impossible Dreams? The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. March 10, 2013. Web. June 11, 2013.


Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. Penguin. London. 2010.


Anthony, Andrew. Does humanitarian aid prolong wars? The Guardian. April 24, 2010. Web. June 11, 2013.


Neutrality: Widening the Gap Between the IS and the OUGHT

A fundamental principle at the heart of almost all aide organizations is the concept of “neutrality”. On the American Red Cross website , the organization explains that “in order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Red Cross may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature” (“Mission & Principles”). Therefore, when it comes to providing aide, this means that the American Red Cross “makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavors to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress” (“Mission & Principles”). Based on these principles, anyone that seems fit and deserving of aide shall receive it. But what if providing aide means feeding soldiers that kill innocent people by night? What if providing aide means paying a tax that supply war lords with weapons? What if providing aide means that the murder, rape, and dislocation of people will continue? Can we then decide who and when to give aide? As Polman points out in her book War Games, humanitarian aide money often finds its way into unintended hands. Even so, the aide industry sees no reason to reform its policies. In attempting to provide help to those in need, humanitarian organizations continue to supply wars, allow for violence, and finance corrupt leaders. Instead of turning a blind eye to these negative consequences, aide organizations ought to look at the bigger picture and access if their work is actually more harmful than helpful.


Humanitarian efforts in Goma highlight the fundamental ethical, social, and cultural problems with the concept of “neutrality”. After 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were murdered by Hutu extremists, a Tutsi army from Uganda was able to put an end to the genocide (Polman 16). This caused thousands of Hutus to flee Rwanda, many of which ended up in the refugee camp in Goma. Once the mainstream media got footage of the camp, specifically the outbreak of cholera within the camp, aide organizations rushed to the scene and created the largest aide gathering “together in a single ‘humanitarian territory'” (Polman 20). But what the media failed to highlight was that many refugees were not killed by the cholera outbreak, but instead by the orders of Hutu militia. In fact, the Hutu’s had moved to Goma as a “tactical withdraw” (Polman 24). They had come to the camp for free supplies, access to medicine, and collect “tax” money for their war fund. And the plethora of aide organizations at the camp happily provided those needs and more. Hutu extremists had access to jobs, great schools, restaurants, bars, bakeries, theaters, and other luxuries that the Tutsis in Rwanda would never see. Polman explains that the “entire extremist Hutu government had relocated to Goma” to regroup (Polman 24). And as the Hutu extremists were planning their next move against the Tutsi’s back in Rwanda, they were also murdering any Hutu in the camp who seemed to disagree with their plan of action. Hutu extremists would even leave the camps to kill Tutsis in surrounding areas. Polman explains that this violence was allowed to continue as the “Hutus went unpunished” (Polman 26).

A picture of the camp in Goma that provided aide to Hutus.


In reflecting on the Humanitarian aide work in Goma, it is hard to believe the aide provided was truly “neutral”. Aide organizations not only supported a group of extremists who participated in genocide on a horrific scale, but also funded their plans to continue to killing Tutsis. Workers in the camps were aware of the violence, but seemed to simply ignore it. Fiona Terry, a doctor in the camp, recognized the problems the aide was creating. Terry wondered if we should “respect conventional medial ethics, treating anyone who needed it regardless of their history, or should we recognize our larger responsibility?” (Polman 30). The truth seems to be that the principle of neutrality is simply not realistic for humanitarian aide.

What does this mean for current crises in areas of the world like Syria? Will it have a similar fate as Goma? According to USAID, the United States alone has contributed more than $385 million to the crisis in Syria (“Syria”). However, their is still no way to ensure all of this funding is used for its intended purpose. After the money has been spent, there is no governing body that checks where the money actually went and how it was spent. Michael Landler and Mark Gordon reported in The New York Times that “President Bashar al-Assad’s gains on the battlefield have called the United States’ strategy on Syria into question, prompting the Obama administration to again consider military options, including arming the rebels” (Landler and Gordon). As the United States can decide to take sides, based on what it believes is best for the people of Syria (or more likely what is best for the United States itself), should humanitarian aide organizations do the same? There seems to be no way to escape bias in this situation. However, it is clear that the aide industry needs to look at their long term effects and decide if they are truly helping the people of Syria, or simply helping prolong crisis. If the latter is true, maybe it would be best for humanitarian aide to leave the crisis until they can be sure their efforts are truly benefiting the people of Syria. Humanitarian aide in Syria needs to accurately report the consequences of their efforts so the can effectively access how to move forward with the situation in Syria. 

Syrian refugees receiving humanitarian aide.


Can an aide organization really ever be completely neutral? Does our emphasis on neutrality actually bring harm to those receiving aide? Does the idea of neutrality seem to block the larger picture of what is going on? It seems that our current focus on neutrality is not helping aide organizations reach their primary goals. Instead, wars are prolonged, violence is encouraged, and actual victims never see the benefits of the millions of dollars. Aide organizations ought to shove aside their concern with neutrality and public image and focus on the true needs of victims.



Landler, Michael R. Mark Gordon. “As Rebels Lose Ground in Syria, U.S. Mulls Options.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 June 2013. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

“Mission, Vision, and Fundamental Principles.” Mission & Principles. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

“Syria.” Crisis in. USAID. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

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Assignment 4

After reading War Games, it appears that Linda Polman’s main thesis or purpose for writing the book is to uncover the truth about humanitarian aid organizations and expose to the world what really goes on with aid organizations and their true motives behind the work that they do. Many people who are naive to the subject of humanitarian aid probably think that it is a great service offered by people from around the world with big hearts wanting to help people in need. Polman points out in her book that quite often this is not the case. Humanitarian aid seems to be a selfish endeavor by the people involved with these organizations. It is almost as if they provide aid to make themselves seem like a hero and look better in the eyes of others. However, War Games makes it seem as though people are just seeking for attention from the media, and one way to do this is certainly by going to another country and helping people who have lost something valuable to them. It also appears that humanitarian aid organizations around the world compete with each other so as to make their country seem superior to everyone else. I could definitely see how there would be competition in regards to this subject amongst nations because everyone is so greedy these days and everyone wants to look like a god in relation to the rest of the world. I think that Polman worked hard to discover all the truths associated with humanitarian aid and crack the surface of the “act” that these organizations put on when talked about in the media. This way the rest of the world who is not involved with an organization will think what they are doing is some kind of heroic act.

The media is another topic I want to touch on because as a broadcast journalism major, I am encouraged to be watching the news on a regular basis and I have learned about unbiased journalism which seems to be something mentioned by Polman. In War Games, it is stated that “coverage of disasters on television and in the newspapers is crucial to humanitarian operational management, and that donor governments would take no action if images of a crisis were not broadcast (Polman 39); however, later in the book it is mentioned that Dutch MSF exaggerated the misery of the eviction of refugees from camps in Goma when they reported about it (Polman 42). It is also stated that the media paid children to look sad and wave their amputated limbs on camera without their prosthetic arms, legs, etc. to make the situation look worse than it really was (Polman 63). I find this very interesting that the media plays up crisis situations and essentially lies to the public about what is actually going on. A lot of people already do not trust the media and think what they report is a lie, and this just gives them another reason to stick by that opinion. It leads me to believe that pictures like the one below are staged or Photoshopped in some way to appear more dramatic than they really are.


Polman talks about what “is” really happening in other countries in regards to crisis situations and the humanitarian aid that is given to these people who are suffering. To my surprise, and I’m sure many others who have read War Games, what we think is happening really isn’t. As mentioned in the first paragraph, humanitarian aid organizations act like they are helping others out of the goodness of their hearts and because they truly want to help others. This appeared to be true for some organizations but for most of them, unfortunately, it seemed to be false. War Games made it a point to mention that during a certain crisis clothes, food and medicine were sent to an area by a humanitarian aid organization. However, the clothes were not suitable and things like stiletto high heeled shoes were delivered, along with medicine that was past its’ expiration date, and in one case rotten cheese was sent. But when reports of this show up in the media, it is definitely not mentioned the specifics of aid packages that were sent. The media would only report something like “Clothes, Free Medicine and Food Sent as Aid Packages to Victims,” or something along those lines. So what “is” really going on? Certainly not what we think. In the picture below the box being delivered to people in another country is labeled “USAID from the American people,” but what is really in the box of so-called aid? The people look happy to be getting help from the U.S. but who’s to say that what is actually inside will help them at all?


As human beings on this earth, we “ought” to reach out to those in need and actually mean it and want to do it because it is the right thing. Not because someone will praise us for doing a good deed. According to a news report from July 19, 2012, about 62 million people around the world needed humanitarian aid help (UN News Centre). With over seven billion people in the world (U.S. Census Bureau), that leaves a large number of people who can help the other 62 million in their time of need. We “ought” to have a responsibility to make sure that each life on this earth is valued the same as the next person and that each person gets the care they need to live a healthy life. More people need to reach out because humanitarian aid organizations are apparently not doing the job we all thought they were.


“Number of People Needing Humanitarian Help Globally Rises to 62 Million – UN.” UN News Center. UN, 19 July 2012. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

“Population Clock.” Population Clock. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Penguin, 2011. Print.

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