The Many Problems of International Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian aid is simply about helping those in need, or is it? I barely knew anything about this subject before preparing for this assignment, and the complexities, corruption and sheer number of unexpected problems comes as a bit of a surprise.  A question like ‘how is it determined where and when aid is given’ involves many factors I wouldn’t have originally included.  A global citizen, one that wants to preserve life and minimize suffering, would like for aid to go to those in need when they need it.  However, INGOs’ decision making process can vary greatly from this ideal.  Today’s 24/7 media cycle can make yesterday’s news seem like last year’s news.  These organizations generate funds through individuals, governments and other organizations donating money.  One would hope those within the organization, those with the expertise to know and want to go where hey can be most effective, would have the biggest influence.  Many times these INGOs simply go where the media presence will be largest; this way their efforts will be publicized, more donors will be generated and the cycle will start again.


This process of just going where publicity will high raises many ethical, logistical and social problems.  For example, Polman describes


victims of a civil war in which both rebels and government soldiers cut off civilians’ limbs. The residents are such a hot draw for journalists that victims who were merely maimed in explosions or accidents are driven out by those who were intentionally chopped. Then come waves of MONGOs (as Polman calls private NGOs, for “My Own NGO”). Now kids whose huts are full of limbs they don’t wear because they wreck photo ops are flown to the U.S. or Germany for state-of-the-art prosthetics that can’t be maintained in Sierra Leone. (Hall)


This is awful.  Ethically this behavior is abhorrent.  Civilians injured in a conflict shouldn’t be treated differently just because the nature of how they received their injury will generate more publicity.  I can see how some may argue that more publicity turns to more funds and so on, but the point of these organization should be to help those in need; if you aren’t going to help those right in front of you then when will you start?  This doesn’t even touch on the fact that money is wasted providing prosthetics for these high profile patients that already have them, prosthetics they can’t even use because there isn’t the infrastructure in place to help maintain them.  Logistically, so many INGOs rushing to the same high profile area causes problems.  There is an overlap of duties, a lack of cohesion and vying to provide the most media savvy story, not to provide the most help.


Corruption on both sides of the aisle is apparent in international aid measures, as well.  The organizational corruption I previously mentioned, but the local area corruption is a major problem, as well.  Local governments or warlords have exploited political situations to manipulate INGOs into essentially bribing them to be able to provide aid in their territory.  The corruption doesn’t stop there, though.  The money or aid resources that could have gone to those in need could now be in the hands of the very person that started or perpetuates the reason for aid.  Down the line local aid deliveries are taxed or stolen, as well.  The aid meant to help alleviate a terrible situation could now be going to the oppressors.


The inability of developed countries to make a dent in the problem, despite spending billions of dollars each year, is what economist and noted aid skeptic William Easterly calls the “second tragedy” of global poverty. But a recent study takes this skepticism to a whole new level, suggesting that food aid not only doesn’t work, but also can prolong the violent conflicts it’s meant to help resolve. (Keating)


This article actually mentions Polman’s Caravan Crisis.  Aid can be sold to help pay for weapons and ammunition.  I need to continue to learn about this topic, but it’s abundantly that work needs to be done to solve this aid crisis.  Perhaps some of the aid money that’s being siphoned off on so many levels would be better spent solving this truly global issue.


Aid being given out. You can see how easy it would be for a local power to take what should be going to civilians.



Hall, Peter Christian. “’The Crisis Caravan’: Charity’s Road to Hell?” Huffington Post. October 11, 2010. Web. June 9, 2013.


Keating, Joshua E.  “Please, Don’t Send Food.”  Foreign Policy. July/August 2012. Web. June 9, 2013.


Linda Polman. “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” Macmillan Publishers. New York. 2010.

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  1. Posted June 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I was just like you without really having any knowledge of complexity of humanitarian aid coming into this book. This book opened my eyes to the utter disorganization, terrible ethics, lack of regulation, and corruption involved in humanitarian aid. I know this is just one perspective, but it does make the question, ‘how is it determined where and when aid is given’ seem very important. It also leads to many other questions and makes me wonder why there aren’t clear objectives, statements, and strategies laid out before aid is given followed by an independent evaluation of the results.

  2. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Easterly is very critical of the way current international aid is handled; after doing this assignment I can clearly see why. He thinks these massive “top down” approaches to foreign aid are simply stop gaps, and poor ones at that. Basically, organizations that have goals like ‘raise nation X’s per capita income by 50 cents by 2015’ not only don’t work, but waste money and can have negative effects on the local area. Easterly argues that “Economic development happens, not through aid, but through the homegrown efforts of entrepreneurs and social and political reformers.” He calls for scientific studies to analyze specific international aid efforts to help make aid efforts more effective.

    Here is one of Easterly’s essays for those who want to understand his views more in depth:

  3. Posted June 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I really like the last point that you made about aid money siphoned off being used to actually solve the problem. I would definitely agree, because then this money would at least be going to a decent cause. If it is not being used directly for aid, it should be used in some way involving aid.

  4. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    You are clearly digging down deep into these issues (good use of hyperlinks!) and show a good understanding of many of the key issues. You mention Easterly; can you give us more of his perspective?