Good Intentions Gone Wrong: Who Does Humanitarian Aide Really Benefit?



All aide organizations, big and small, seem to start their aide projects with good intentions. All aide projects are initially based on the simple principle of helping those in need. Aide organizations themselves are quick to explain how they have positively impacted suffering populations through pictures and statistics that can be found each of their respective websites. For example, on the UNHCR website, the primary purpose of this organization is explained to be “to safeguard the rights and well being of refugees” as well as “to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country” (UNHCR, “About US”).


UNHCR Workers help to distribute aide in a refugee camp.


Additionally, the UNHCR websites includes “facts and figures” about all the aide they provide. Currently, about 10.4 million refugees and about 15.5 million internally displaced people are “of concern” to UNCHR (UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance”). To fund these expansive projects, the received $4.3 billion in 2012, a record-breaking number for this aide organization (UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance). And although these statistics seems impressive, Polman argues that they are not entirely accurate. Specifically in the case of UNHCR, the organization fails to mention the vast number of soldiers who are residents at the refugee camps and subsequently are supplied with food and medicine, thus supplying and aiding the continuation of war (Polman, 99). Polman states that there is a small mention of these “refugee warriors” on the UNHCR website for political reasons (however, I could not find anything on the website that mentions them) (Polman, 99). If the organization’s main objective is to help those displaced from war, supplying soldiers so that war can be continued make their efforts seem almost counter-productive. With enemy soldiers living in their camp, how are refugees supposed to feel safe and protected? Why doesn’t UNHCR seems to be fulfilling what the  organization claims is it’s most basic intention? What is more important to the organization than helping their refugees? The answer is sadly quite simple: funds from donors. Polman explains that agencies such as UNHCR “can’t afford to lose contracts because bad ‘news’ has got out about the presences of refugee warriors in camps” (Polman, 100) Aide organizations are completely dependent on funds from public and private donors. The aide industry needs money to function, and therefore is mostly concerned about maintaining current donors and attracting new donors. This can mean altering statistics or reports to ensure their donors believe their money has been well spent. The emphasis on pleasing donors has a tremendous effect on where, when, and what aide is distributed across the globe.

In an attempt to please donors, aide is often distributed to areas that are popular in the media and not necessarily  the most deserving of aide. This affects both where and when aide is distributed. An example of this would be the camp for Sierra Leone’s amputees. Polman explains that “journalists from all over the world pounced on the story of the amputees”, and as a result the camp received more funding per refugee than any other aid operation in the world during this time (61). Many aide organizations, public figures, and other interested visitors come to take pictures of the amputees, exploiting their conditions for funding and publicity. Max Chevalier, the head of an NGO working in Sierra Leone, believes the influx of visitors to the camp is counterproductive in resorting the health and safety of the amputees (Polman, 66). The amputees have received an overabundance of prosthetics, medicine, second-hand goods, and media attention. When one man called Chevalier and asked about filming the camp for his respective organization, Chevalier replied “in this country three hundred and three out of every thousand children die before they reach the age of five, from malaria, diarrhea, and anaemia. Why not make a film about that?” (Polman, 66). Because the public is not interested in those children, the filmmaker is only interested in filming the amputees. Instead of equally distributing aide among the amputees and dying children of Sierra Leone, the amputees receive the majority of funding because they are of interest to the donors. Long after the amputees had received sufficient donations, donor interest prolonged the giving of aide to the camp. ultimately donors control the allocation of funds, and this dispersal of funds is often based on personal interest instead of necessity.

Donors can also dictate what kind of aide organizations distribute because, after all, it is their money that funds the organizations. Again, in the case of Sierra Leone, this does not always reflect positively on those receiving aide. The amputee camp has more than enough prosthetics for each amputee to have two. In fact, unused prosthetics can be found in piles all over the camp (Polman 66). Nevertheless, aide organizations continued to donate prosthetic limbs. In this case, money that could have been used to productively provide aide was spent on useless items. Polman also emphasizes the unique situation in Sierra Leone where donor interest resulted in the abduction of amputee children. An example of this would be Sam Simpson, the leader of an aide organization who came to Sierra Leone to take two children from the Sierra Leone camp on the basis that they did not have “any prostheses” and if they did have them, they were cheap and unattractive (Polman, 70). In America, Simpson adopted the girls and they made many appearances in the American media, including time on Oprah’s talk show. Oprah untied one of the girls, Damba, with her biological family on one of the shows episodes. Oprah’s website explains that “After six long years, Damba is finally reunited with her mother—and her new baby brother!” (“A Mother’s Love”).

An amputee adopted by an American family is reunited with her biological family from Sierra Leone.


However, a few weeks after the show, Damba’s family returned to Sierra Leone (Polman, 85). The case of Sam Simpson is not isolated as most of the camp’s children were relocated and adopted in other countries. The biological parents of these children unknowingly signed an agreement that enables their children to be adopted into another family, and most parents never see their children again. The children have no real medical reason to go to the United States, or other countries. Polman points out that the fact these children are poor is “no excuse to take them from their parents” (75). Even so, the wants of donors take priority over the real needs of the Sierra Leone victims.

Did the camp truly serve its purpose? Were the victims able to integrate back safely into their society? A report by Michelle Faul says no. Faul argues that “victims say they have been cast aside and left to beg on street corners by a society eager to forget the savagery” (Faul). Can anything be done to ensure that aide camps be more successful and that aide is distributed more fairly? Many argue that a governing body is needed that ensures victims receive quality aide that is untouched by unintended recipients, is used to help the basic needs of victims, and is distributed to areas of the world that need to most. Would this ever really work? It’s hard to say. There are so many blurry lines when it comes to aide. At what point is aide more harmful than helpful? Can you really remain unbiased in aide distribution? Who had the right to decide what areas of the world are “more in need” than others? Because these questions seem impossible to answer, corruption can easily work its way into the aide industry. However, one thing remains certain: the functionality of the aide industry must be reevaluated so that aide can be made more effective overall.



“A Mother’s Love.” Harpo Productions. Web. 09 June 2013. <>

“About Us.” UNHCR News. Web. 09 June 2013. <>.

“Figures at a Glance.” UNHCR News. Web. 09 June 2013. <>.

Michelle Faul. “Sierra Leone Amputees Feel Marginalized.” AP Online (2006): Newspaper Source Plus. Web. 9 June 2013.

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





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  1. Posted June 11, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with your conclusion. All of those questions are valid, and someone should be posing them to the aid industry. A solution to the obvious problems within the humanitarian aid world will only come with dialogue, and dialogue is sparked by questions like those.

  2. Posted June 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I especially enjoyed the part of your post where you discuss whether or not anyone can really decide which part of the world is more in need of aid than another. This question I think raises the concern about how aid agencies can stop catering to disaster areas of popular interest, and focus on the places that they can truly have the greatest impact.

  3. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Were you able to find any current data to update/further vet Polman’s thesis? Are things better or worse now in the aid industry?

    You end with a strong point about corruption. Can you give more and more current examples? Who are the whistle-blowers in this industry and how do they get the word out?