The Naiveté of Humanitarian Aid

Having read the Polman readings, I can honestly say that my eyes have been opened about the realities of humanitarian aid and the relief system we have in place.  The excess and inefficiency that she highlights is eye opening in the extreme and surely worth a read for anyone that calls themselves a global citizen.  I was absolutely floored by what I read in the introduction and 1st chapter.  I had no idea that the Red Cross and other aid organizations make an effort to be impartial and neutral in their aid giving.  To me, it seems the epitome of naive to throw money at a problem without being able to objectively identify and work against whatever is causing it.

And now for a bit of personal history.  In 8th grade, my history class participated in National History Day, a national competition that has students in middle and high school prepare a paper, presentation, or other form of media about a time in history relating to a theme.  This particular year’s theme was triumph and tragedy, and I chose to write a paper on the Rwandan genocide.  I made it through the local and state rounds and before heading to nationals I tried to give my paper a boost.  I was fortunate enough to meet with Immaculee Ilibagiza, a woman who survived for 90 days in a tiny bathroom with seven other women.  She told me her story and said she might be able to put me in contact with some government officials.  A week later my mother pulled me out of school and told me that I was to meet with Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda and general that stopped the genocide.  During my nearly hour long interview I talked with him about the trials he had faced in retaking and rebuilding Rwanda.  He was proud of how far they had come and was hopeful for the future.  Overall it was an incredible experience and one I will never forget.

I bring this up because while I covered the refugee camps post genocide in my paper, it was not my focus.  Reading Polman’s account of the ordeal made me realize how misguided good will can often be, a theme that clearly runs through the book.  What horrified me most was that while the genocide was occurring, while 800,000 men, women and children were being cut down in their homes with machetes and axes, the West debated over whether it was genocide or not.  And when this horrific killing stopped, we quickly sprang to action to help the killers.  The support given to them perpetuated a vicious cycle.  It gave the still intact Hutu government and militias a staging ground for their attacks not only in Rwanda, but against Tutsis in the DRC and other neighboring nations.  Furthermore, the aid given strengthened the Hutus, which in turn allowed them to continue shaking down the humanitarian groups for more money and goods.  (Polman)  All of this in the name of impartiality.


As Polman writes, this abuse of aid occurs all over the place.  A paper by Kristian Harpviken points out that it is a serious risk in any refugee camp.  These concentrated population centers often serve as breeding and recruiting grounds for militant and terrorist groups (Harpviken).  Not only are they given food and medicine, they have access to numerous new recruits and are protected by the presence foreign aid workers.  This happens because of this childish notion of impartiality.  These aid organizations come in and dole out food and medicine, and when the militias come knocking, they bend over.  We need to make an effort to stop this, to prevent refugee camps from being a political tool.  If aid workers concentrated on the actual victims as opposed to patching up every person running their way we might be able to accomplish this.  Another step could even be arming the aid workers or pushing for more UN support, anything to stop goods from entering the hands of militant groups.  As Lydia Poole highlights, the more money going into a conflict region, the more conflict increases.  This is because it only strengthens the fighting parties (Poole).  If humanitarian aid groups really want to help people, they need to take a close look at their policies and who they are helping.  Without a more controlled approach to aid they will only do more harm than good.

Works Cited

Harpviken, Kristian B. “GSDRC: Display.” GSDRC: Display. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 09 June 2013.

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

Poole, Lydia. “Humanitarian Aid in Conflict: More Money, More Problems?” Global Humanitarian Assistance. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2013.


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  1. Posted June 10, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    You are unfolding ever more levels of the policy and ethical dilemmas faced when one examines humanitarian aid. Good job.

    I would love to hear more about your interview with Kagame. Did this get recorded, perhaps?

  2. Posted June 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Your personal story gave real insight for what we are all realizing while reading Polman’s book. I think you also make a very interesting point when saying that the West merely debated if “genocide” or not, when action could have been taken. If people are going to get involved with what is happening and take a stance, they definitely need to understand the entire situation.

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