The Realities of Humanitarian Aid

The function of humanitarian aid is to neutrally provide assistance in a crisis situation–whether this situation is a man-made crisis or a natural one. Overall, humanitarian aid agencies seek to provide a solution to human suffering, to save lives and to preserve human dignity. An essential part in being a humanitarian aid organization is that they act individually, are separate from governments although it is where most of their donor money comes from (as discussed by Polman in the video for this assignment) and they seek to remain neutral, even when this means taking care of armies so they can continue to fight. According to Polman, “…the most powerful link between humanitarian aid agencies is that of commercial competition. Wars and disasters generally attract a garish array of individual organizations…” (Polman 37). From Polman’s insight, we are shown that humanitarian aid organizations actually compete like corporations for donator’s money in order to provide aid in the first place. What these agencies want is to save and improve lives globally, but many are unaware of the negative impacts they create themselves.

Where aid is focused depends on where these organizations’ donors want them to be. In War Games, Polman discusses the true nature of humanitarian aid organizations in that they manipulate the media to cover the disasters they want them to and a huge chunk of the money given to them by donors is “devoted to ‘press as publicity'” (Polman 39). According to George Alagiah: “Relief agencies depend upon us for publicity and we need them to tell us where the stories are…We try not to ask the question too bluntly: “Where will we find the starving babies?” And they never answer explicitly. We get the picture just the same” (Polman 39). In other words, these aid agencies need public attention on war zones and disaster areas in order for people to see a situation at its most extreme and give money for the agencies to use. At times, the situation is made to look worse than it even is because in reality, less than half of one percent are child soldiers, affected by the famine, or died of AIDs (Polman 42). At some point in our lives, we have all been told how the media lies, how “reality shows” are not reality, how ads are targeted at specific demographics and again we find it heartbreaking when we find out that organizations aiming to do good are manipulating us for our dollar as well. In the proceeding paragraphs, I will provide some modern examples of aid agencies at work.

Below I have included an article about the only international organization to come provide aid for those impacted by the tornadoes throughout Oklahoma, IsraAID. I believe that this is a good, modern example of the media working for aid agencies, and I do not think that it is just a coincidence that the Israel-based aid organization was covered and promoted by The Jewish Press, which is promoting a religion at the same time of trying to earn donor’s dollars:


Below is a link to the lyrics “That Was The Week” by Tom Neilson, which I felt related to this topic of where media chooses to aim its focus and turns our views a certain way

One humanitarian aid agency, AmeriCares (, was known for being the first on the scene after the military at Kuwait. However, Marsh argues that “…the amount of aid AmeriCares delivers dwarfs the shipments of many relief shipments of many relief agencies…AmeriCares aggressively seeks media coverage and appears to design its missions to benefit conservative political causes” (Marsh).  According to reviews of previous employees of AmeriCares, “The company feels more focused on pleasing donors than having a positive impact…some of the donation practices are questionable. There’s a lack of expertise among the leadership” (“AmeriCares Foundation Reviews”). The stress on competition between aid agencies has created many organizations to lose focus on what they originally convened for–to bring aid to those in need.

AmeriCares in Somalia

AmeriCares in Somalia

Because of the media pressure on aid organizations, these agencies hear calls for help and swoop into too urgently without an understanding of what the problem is, and how exactly help should be executed. Many local communities are even kept out of touch with the aid organizations, and Polman shares her experiences with the Western staff of the aid agencies: “Only a minority of those involved in aid programmes are local people, and they’re mostly interpreters, nannies or drivers…As a rule, Sierra Leoneans in Freetown can barely even get close to the white humanitarians” (Polman 46). Shouldn’t locals be more involved in helping the people in their area because they can better understand the context of the situation than others? Aid agencies rush from scene to scene trying to help the world, where they can make their job much easier by asking for local help in what they need, in what they have seen, and in how they can create long-term good instead of short-term benefits.

As I discussed before, a good portion of aid agencies’ money goes towards the media. However these organizations need to work better with the countries in which these crisises are happening and there is “No access to war zones without payment, whatever form it may take…Warlords try to siphon off as large a proportion of the value of aid supplies as they can” (Polman 89). Not only do they take a portion of aid as a tax for the organizations to enter the war area, but they continue to steal supplies after they enter as well. Water, food, shelter and protection is offered to these refugee warriors, and they continue to fight their wars, fueled by aid organizations (Polman 99). A problem with trying to create order here, which Polman outlines in the video that we were given to watch, is that people are entering a war zone, and there are no rules in war.

The pattern for most problems with aid organizations seems to be a lack of information proceeded by a rush to act. However another issue, which has not seemed to be touched by Polman’s book thus far, is the issue of gender within these contexts. People who are involved in war areas are changed. In World War II, American women were encouraged to go into the workforce to support the male soldiers abroad, which was a dramatic change from pre-war times. After the war however, men came back and insisted that women should go back to how things were before so men could have their factory jobs back. But the damage had been done, women knew that they could perform the work they were kept from before. Likewise we can apply this to other war areas, where women’s and men’s roles are changed from their daily context. Because soldiers will target men and boys to fight in wars by portraying war as a “manly” duty, women are left with families and forced to make their own means, similar to World War II, they often have to go to work (Bridge and Institute…6). 

Gender roles within each of these societies are not only affected by their new-found roles in war, but can also be changed by these aid agencies. For instance, “HA [Humanitarian Aid] workforces can be very gender segregated, for example peacekeeping forces or mine sweepers can be made up of exclusively male teams. It is important to ensure that both women and men are trained…in order to avoid the macho culture that can arise in such all-male environments” (Bridge and Institute… 10). As I have briefly touched on before, in some African countries many young men and boys are manipulated into being soldiers because they have certain ideals of what a male should be and intensifying gender construction (Bridge and Institute… 6). If not carefully monitored, an all-male team of aid workers can have the same influence and effects as the rising number of male soldiers. In Polman’s book we also see that refugee soldiers (people who are given aid in refugee camps and use this help to continue on the war in that area) will often use aid camps to recruit more people to their cause, which relates to this idea of gender in war areas and the affects that agencies have as well (Polman). 

Nikolic-Ristanovic ties the ideas of gender and media together, saying that the Western media had a “lack of interest” towards the refugee women who fled to Serbia and were treated as “UNPEOPLE” and “non-existant by the Western media and aid organizations” (Nikolic-Ristanovic 105). She argues that women have their own experience and that the media portrays them incorrectly (Nikolic-Ristanovic 106). From these points you can sense the need for understanding the relationships between the gender roles, as well as understanding the gender roles themselves. When aid agencies come into these areas, they are introducing new and different culture and gender ideas, and going outside of a culture’s typical gender roles can lead to exclusion or bullying by other members within that culture. Just think about how kids in America grow up, for example. Girls that act more masculine are called tom-boys, and boys that act more feminine are called sissies. Being called a sissy in our society is much more severe than being called a tom-boy because it is more teasing than a statement of fact. Gender issues are often overlooked in the midst of countless other issues, but all are linked together in a web, and all are important to understand.

In the end, a solution to the problems with Western humanitarian aid is still unclear. Below I have attached an interview between Jon Stewart and Linda Polman, where he makes clear her desired plan of simply “working together” is unlikely to happen:


Works Cited:

“AmeriCares Foundation Reviews.” Glassdoor. N.p., 1 June 2012. Web. 06 June 2013. <>.

Avraham, Rachel. “IsraAID Brings Relief to Victims of Oklahoma Tornado.” The Jewish Press. N.p., 5 June 2013. Web. 06 June 2013. <>.

Bridge, and Institute of Developmental Studies. Gender & Humanitarian Aid. N.p.: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, 2008. Print.

Marsh, Ann. “Americares’ Success Hailed, Criticized.” Hartford Courant. N.p., 11 Aug. 1991. Web. 06 June 2013. <>.

Nikolic-Ristanovic, Vesna. “Refugee Women in Serbia. Invisible Victims of War in the Former Yugoslavia.” Feminist Review. Palgrave Macmillan Journals, 2003. No. 73, pp. 104-113. Print.

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

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  1. Posted June 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I think that the quote you provide from the AmeriCares Foundation Reviews really helped to shine a light on how those who work for INGOs are uneasy with their inability to effect positive change in the countries they are working in. It is not just us, as outsiders, who are not happy with the turn that aid has taken, but it is those who are involved as well, which indicates the great need for aid reform.

  2. Posted June 10, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Great comments/observations; you appear to be drilling down into the pith of the crisis in humanitarian aid.
    I would love to hear m ore detail regarding the Gender & Humanitarian Aid article. can you go deeper?