The Corruption of Humanitarian Aid

Linda Polman’s War Games exposes the various shortcomings of the current humanitarian aid structure.  Her goal is to shed the manufactured façade of the aid industry and educate readers as to how humanitarian operations truly function.  The major theme of problems throughout this book is corruption.  Each level of the supply chain includes some form of dishonesty or distortion.  An industry perceived as altruistic containing this much dishonesty seems ridiculous in today’s connected world.  How does this happen?

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Polman touches on a few factors that perpetuate this false front; the humanitarian aid organizations, politics, local governments and the media all contribute.  The aid organizations themselves mostly have grand, well-intentioned goals like “reduce world poverty” or “provide malaria medication to every child in Ghana.”  This idealistic, top-down approach is part of the problem.  These types of abstract goals, ones that lack step-by-step specifics and attainable goals foster an environment of corruption.  Where is the accountability? There are reasons investors in publicly traded companies demand transparency: investors spend money and want to know how it’s being used and how that will further the company’s success.  This is one of the biggest disconnects that jumped off the page: why, in an industry where preserving human life is the goal, is there less accountability and less transparency than literally any publicly traded company? Not surprisingly, the answer is political, local governmental and media dishonesty.

 

Political contributions to the corruption of the aid industry are readily apparent. Polman reveals one such example with her “Afghaniscam” discussion.  Humanitarian organizations attempt to remain neutral in order be able to enter countries that might traditionally be hostile to their host nation.  This way people from an opposing nation can still help those in need.  However, this lofty ideal has been repeatedly pulled back to earth.  The fact that the US used humanitarian aid as a ‘force multiplier’ not only puts those humanitarians at risk for helping the military, but also ruins their perception as neutral in the eyes of other local governments that hold they key to opening the door for local aid.  Local governments can then use this as additional leverage to essentially charge tariffs for delivering aid to their domain. Polman clearly describes how local governments have siphoned off additional resources even after these entry charges.  All of these local and general political influences further corrupt and degrade the entire process.  This still doesn’t answer the question of why this entire process hasn’t been reworked even though it is so clearly broken.

 

The media, a supposed bastion of objectivity, is the yet another step in this vicious cycle of deceit.  Polman writes of how amputees take off their prosthetics, look downtrodden and exaggerate their stories at the direction of the media.  Why would the media do this? First, these sensational stories garner more attention. Second, and this is mainly my conjecture, not Polman’s, is that the steady stream of stories provided by embedded reporters in these aid groups provides more value to the media than a large story exposing corruption in an industry most perceive as selfless.  These factors, from the humanitarian organizations themselves to the media, are all interconnected and foster such a corrupt, broken process.

 

The essay to this point has only touched on the “is,” the current situation.  The “ought” is where I’m most disappointed with Polman.  Exposing corruption and revealing the truth will certainly help the public demand more accountability, but without a plan, or at least some potential solutions, where does that leave us? I hoped Polman would take the final step and propose not just her “ought,” but how we can actually get there. At the end I can’t help but compare her in a manner with these same organizations she critiques.  Polman has these lofty visions of how the aid industry ought to look, but falls short of actually proposing a plan.  The aid industry is broken, but what would tearing it down without a plan accomplish? Where would that leave us? I’d argue that is just as untenable as doing nothing at all.

 

 

 

Kopink, Janice. Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability Impossible Dreams? The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. March 10, 2013. Web. June 11, 2013.

 

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

 

Anthony, Andrew. Does humanitarian aid prolong wars? The Guardian. April 24, 2010. Web. June 11, 2013.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted June 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with you that Polman falls short of providing solutions to the problems she makes note of within the aid industry. I was somewhat disappointed by her lack of specifics when she turns to the “ought” part of War Games. It was disheartening to get to the end of the book and not be provided with plausible steps to take to “fix” the state of humanitarian aid. It makes it easy as a citizen then to want to give up on aid altogether.

  2. Posted June 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    In your post I believe you give aid groups too much of a bad name. I do agree that they will sometimes perpetuate a false front in order to gain attention and popularity, and I agree that the media plays a definite role in the corruption. Many of the reasons aid comes off inefficiently are directly related to the decisions made by these organizations, they are often out of the control of the organization. I believe that before we renounce an entire industry’s honesty and call them falsely altruistic, first we need to take into account the fact that many of the problems they contribute to are latent dyfunctions, meaning problems these NGOs couldn’t/didn’t see coming.

  3. Posted June 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Your points on corruption were very thoughtful. I thought your point about the impact of journalists was especially important. They play a large role in the corruption of the aide industry by not reporting the truth. They too should be held accountable for their negative influence on humanitarian aide.