Humanitarian Aid: Where is Our Money Going?

“Text “Haiti” to 90999 to give $10 to the American Red Cross Relief for Haiti.”

We’ve all seen this message or ones like it, and maybe we’ve even felt the immediate satisfaction of sending this aid from our armchair.  But where does this $10 go?  According to Linda Polman, author of 2010’s War Games, up to 80% of humanitarian aid money that is being poured into humanitarian zones, such as the refugee camps outside of Rwanda, is being siphoned off by the militias and governments who are perpetuating the conflicts.  International non-governmental aid organizations (INGOs) face a tough choice:  Swallow the consequences and continue delivering aid resources to a region where they know a chunk of it will be taken and sold for profit by warring parties, often elongating the conflict?  Or should they halt aid shipments altogether so as to not be a part of the problem, even though this will cease the delivery of aid to those in need?

MSF (Medicins Sans Frontieres AKA Doctors Without Borders) staff provides aid in a refugee camp outside Goma

MSF (Medicins Sans Frontieres AKA Doctors Without Borders) staff provides aid in a refugee camp outside Goma

The International Committee of the Red Cross has guiding principles that outline their policy on aid, and most, if not all, other INGOs follow their principles.  In War Games, Polman states, “Humanitarian aid is based on a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally.  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).  However, she goes on to say that expecting other factions to abide by these rules is simply unrealistic.  “The tragedy of the admirable Red Cross rules is that they are unenforceable.” (Polman 9).  Researchers at the University of Utrecht and Cordaid in Afghanistan agreed, saying, “In this kind of war, calling on, or expecting, the parties to respect humanitarian principles is like calling on a gang of muggers to fight by the rules of boxing; it’s not just laughable, it’s irrelevant.” (Polman 9).

Although the manifest, or primary, function of humanitarian aid is to provide aid wherever, whenever, and to whomever possible, many other unintended consequences come about.  The exploitation of humanitarian aid is a war tactic in many areas, whether we like it or not.  Polman told Jon Stewart in an interview in 2010, “Aid money is actually helping war lords to fill their war chests.”  By charging an “entry fee” including made up taxes and the like, local governments tap into the billions of dollars of aid money that is being brought into the area.  Many times they use this money to continue funding their wars.  In this way, INGOs and the aid they bring can indirectly sponsor continued violence in war-torn countries.  “The number of organizations and the amount of money they come to spend in countries with no other sources of income turn the aid industry, supposedly neutral and unbiased, into a potentially lethal force the belligerents need to enlist.” (Polman 97).  Aid can also be a war tactic in ways other than financing.  Those in power get to decide if aid is allowed into a region, and usually this is a political choice.  “If those in power locally gave aid organizations permission to distribute food aid in a particular region, it was because populations had to be persuaded to stay put.  In areas where permission was denied, the purpose of the ban was to force people to leave.” (Polman 110).  Through both of these tactics, we can see how the implementation of humanitarian aid is taken advantage of by warring factions.

So what do humanitarian aid workers do?  What do the organizations themselves do?  What can our governments do?  And what should we as global citizens do?  The answers to these questions are still up in the air.  Polman has opinions on the matter.  “If aid has become a strategic aspect of warfare, can the claim to neutrality made by humanitarian aid organizations still be justified?” (Polman 11).  An interesting point Fiona Terry made regarding medical aid in Goma was, “Should we respect conventional medical ethics, treating anyone who needed it, regardless of their history, or should we recognize our wider responsibility?”  (Polman 30).  Most aid organizations provide basic resources to war-torn regions, such as food, water, and shelter.  Bosnians in 1992 during the Bosnian War yelled at humanitarian aid workers, “Your food aid and medicines only allow us to die in good health.” (Polman 104).  They were making the point that although aid helps restore the health of populations, oftentimes it means nothing, as they will die in the conflict anyway.  Would it be better for INGOs to try to fix the problem at its source instead of applying a kind of Band-Aid to the situation?

Is it the place of humanitarian aid organizations to play God and judge who deserves aid and who doesn’t?  Personally, I don’t think so.  There is no denying that many conflicts could be resolved and millions of lives could be saved if certain people ceased to be in power or even exist at all.  However, who are we to say where that line is?

Right now, we are not in a position to deny aid to an area because of corrupt leaders.  There are thousands of NGOs and INGOs, and if one withdraws from an area, another will take its place.  To begin to fix this problem, we all have to start working together.  Governments must communicate and cooperate with the INGOs and vice versa if any truly effective aid is to be given to those in need.  Finding out what we can do to stop the stealing, sky-high taxation, etc of humanitarian aid resources will ultimately help us understand how to effectively help in humanitarian territories.  Last Friday, June 8, the UN requested $5 billion for aid in Syria.  How much of that will actually go where it is intended- to help civilians- and how much will unintentionally help to further draw out this already three-year long regional conflict?  How does the direct good from the resources weigh against the indirect harm from siphoned off resources to fund arms and finance armies?  These are difficult questions that require an analysis of the humanitarian aid industry itself, perhaps even its complete restructuring.


Works Cited


Cumming-Bruce, Nick, and Rick Gladstone. “UN Makes a Record Appeal for Aid to Syria.” Boston Globe, 08 June 2013. Web. 09 June 2013. <>.

“Displaced Again: People Take Shelter in Camps After Fighting in Goma.” Medicins Sans Frontieres – Doctors Without Borders. N.p., 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 09 June 2013. <>.

Harayda, Janice. “When Is Humanitarian Aid Inhumane? ‘The Crisis Caravan’.” OneMinute Book Reviews. N.p., 01 May 2011. Web. 09 June 2013. <‘the-crisis-caravan’/>.

“Linda Polman.” The Daily Show. N.p., 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 09 June 2013. <>.

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

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  1. Posted June 11, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Your opening line is striking and the texting quip really draws readers in.

    On another note, you ask the question if it is the place of humanitarian aid organizations to play God and determine who is most in need of receiving aid. I am also struggling with this now. I think it may also be less the aid organizations determining this though and more donor governments providing funding for aid and then directing where it should go. But even if it was entirely the aid organizations determining where aid should be distributed, there would be an unjust focus on sending aid to countries that could lead to increased funding for the INGOs. That being said, who or what body should be in charge of deciding where aid should go and when?

  2. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you that major changes need to happen in the world of humanitarian aid. The fact that so much money, time and resources are wasted, stolen or actively helping sustain situations that create the need for aid in the first place is ridiculous. Objective studies need to be done to help remedy this problem.

  3. Posted June 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Like you, I am beginning to see that the aid industry might need to be completely reconstructed. Although many questions seem impossible to answer, aide organizations do need to take responsibility for their funding of wars and violence. I believe that including examples of when aide industries faced such problems might help a broader audience understand the real dilemma faced by the aide industry.

  4. Posted June 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I think the questions you posed in the first paragraph were very realistic and ones that should be taken into consideration. Obviously we are going to want to keep helping as much as possible by sending aid, but the negative consequences that come with it make you stop and think twice. Is there any sort of balance between sending aid and shipments and not having the money be sold for profit? Unfortunately, I do not think aid shipments will ever be sent directly where it needs to be without any conflicts.

  5. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Well researched and written essay! You are beginning to see the depth of the problem. Like you, I am concerned about the money going to Syria and wonder for what purposes it will actually be spent.