The Hidden Consequences of Global Humanitarian Aid Efforts

Organizations like the Red Cross make it their mission to distribute aid in a neutral and unbiased way, serving both sides of a conflict, and trying to remain as uninvolved in the political arena as possible. This stance is jeopardized however, when one side in a conflict uses the aid to benefit their cause, or withhold the same treatment from the enemy. When this occurs, the Red Cross plays an indirect, and yet crucial role in the direction in which a conflict plays out. Often times, the people that the aid is supposed to reach first and foremost, the civilian population, ends up receiving little if any of the supplies that they are intended to receive. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict often use humanitarian aid groups as free medical services, a source of food and clean water, and a means by which to continue fighting a war that might otherwise end, were it not for the aid projects that help to sustain the war effort. This indirect aid directed towards militaries and militias often causes prolonged and sometimes perhaps even worse suffering for the civilians in the war zone, as the conflict becomes more drawn out, and often times better funded. Polman discusses in The Caravan Crisis, how military groups often sell the aid that they either steal or coax out of NGOs, thus, increasing their war chests. This thievery allows militia groups to purchase weapons with the money they make from selling aid to those who need it, rather than simply allowing it to freely be distributed to the civilian population.

Aid is not always gender neutral, and it cannot be in an environment in which fighting men force their way into receiving aid above mothers and innocent civilians. Often times the systems are so corrupt that an extremely low amount of aid actually reaches its intended destination. Polman discusses how aid workers often have to bribe their way into the disaster areas and war zones, thus lowering the amount of aid they have to give. Then after being shaken down at checkpoints, the planes and vehicles that unload aid supplies are frequently robbed or subject to yet another checkpoint of bribery, until finally, whatever amount of aid is left reaches the civilian population. Polman describes one aid effort in Indonesia where, “Indonesian soldiers walked off with at least 30 percent of tsunami relief for the Aceh Province.” (Polman)

A crucial issue in the humanitarian aid world is the blurred line between development projects and immediate aid. The two are inextricably linked; it is impossible to begin development projects without the stability that comes from immediate aid, yet immediate aid often perpetuates instability by aiding and abetting corrupt governments and military groups. The difficulty that comes with this connectivity of these two kinds of aid is that it prevents NGOs from making long-lasting and creating a truly meaningful impact on the infrastructure of a country, because they cannot take the steps necessary to influence anything more than a temporary fix to a permanent problem.

It is not rare to find at the site of a recent disaster hundreds of aid organizations. Polman discusses in her TED talk that 10,000 aid organizations came to Haiti’s aid following its most recent natural disaster.  This outrageous number drives home the main issue that most donors have with humanitarian aid groups. As Janice Kopinak puts it in her article, Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability Impossible Dreams? “Many stakeholders believe that humanitarian aid has been unsuccessful in delivering on these promises through lack of coordination and duplication of services,” (Kopinak)


Some of the "Blue Helmets" that Polman describes in her TED Talk. Some of these humanitarian workers inadvertently brought Cholera into the disaster zone in Haiti where they were deployed, actually exacerbating the problems there. Incidents like these beg the question, are we often times doing more harm than good?

Some of the “Blue Helmets” that Polman describes in her TED Talk. Some of these humanitarian workers inadvertently brought Cholera into the disaster zone in Haiti where they were deployed, actually exacerbating the problems there. Incidents like these beg the question, are we often times doing more harm than good?

Humanitarian aid groups must constantly be seeking out contracts in order to stay in business, and this often leads them to look not necessarily for where they can do the most good, but rather where they are going to be able to maintain their operation the best. The world has a rather short memory when it comes to global crises. Humanitarian efforts have to focus on the disasters that are most present in their donors’ minds if they have any hope of raising the proper funding to create a substantial aid campaign. This mild form of corruption at the humanitarian level, is not helped by the vast amount of corruption at the hands of local government officials and military groups within the countries those campaigns take place. Military factions often steal or force themselves to receive the aid first, government officials use their power to ensure that they are well provided for, and then the little of the aid that is left finally reaches the people who truly need it the most. This system of aid must be amended if it has any hope of making a powerful impact on the areas that it deploys to. Part of this problem stems from an issue that was discovered in a study by John Mitchell of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Aid. Mitchell reported that the global humanitarian system, “lacked systematic means to evaluate collective performance.” (Pedroza) This lack of accountability on the part of humanitarian groups means that they have no solid means of tracking the benefits, or the harmful effects of the aid that they deliver. These results need to begin to be evaluated, so that the loopholes and problems with the global humanitarian aid effort can be solved.



Works Cited:



Pedroza, David. “Humanitarian Issues: How Effective is the Humanitarian Aid System” September 12, 2012. June 8, 2013.


Kopinak, Janice. “Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability an Impossible Dream?” March 10, 2013. June 8, 2013.


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

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 10, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    The resources you cite are spot-on and very useful to us as we further our understanding of these issues. Can you take the time to provide more information (or take a summarizing quotation from each?) as you proceed?
    The blurred line between immediate aid and development aid that you mention will be a continuing thread in this course. Keep watch.