“Is” vs. “Ought”

A survey of  94 Ugandans displayed that they were anything but dismayed when the Dutch government decided to cut aid donations, with 82% of them supporting the budget support withdrawal.


 Their reasoning? They believe aid money led to corruption in their country.

International humanitarian aid is deeply, profoundly broken. In her book, War Games, Linda Polman posits that humanitarian aid is an industry that encourages competition for donations rather than collaboration in a way that has crushingly negative consequences on aid beneficiaries. Furthermore, she suggests that by the aid sector’s dedication to neutrality, aid groups actually perpetuate war and other conflicts by padding the pockets of corrupt governments or warlords and byhiding and aiding warriors under the guise that it is “serving those who need to be served.” A complete absence of accountability by the press, civilians and government enables the continued corruption of the aid system and results in a waste of the outpouring of resources supposedly dedicated to aid provision to those in need.

The largest problems that Polman identifies with humanitarian aid lies at the systematic level, with the actual organization and distribution of humanitarian aid presenting some of the most fundamental problems. The present system encourages competition between aid groups, rather than cooperation. There is an absence of collaboration between aid groups and minimal delegation of roles, as each organization holds steadfastly to the opinion that “…other organizations may get it wrong, but we’re different” (Polman 160).  Each of the over 37,000 INGOs and countless MONGOs (My Own N.G.O.) are in competition with one another for acknowledgement by donors and yet accomplish little to actually empower the beneficiaries of aid. There were over 10,000 NGOs that set up camp in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and despite this, each year after, the country continued to become poorer because of lack of cooperation and coordination between groups. Another negative outcome of the high level of competition between aid groups is that, even if one aid organization stands up to the leaders of the areas being served and does not fall prey to heavy taxes and restrictions, another is willing to swoop right in and pay those taxes and follow the restrictions. “As an aid organization, you are very much dependent on who is in charge of the area where you go. It could be a military government or a rebel group or the Taliban… You always have to negotiate your way into the camp or into an area and it depends on who is in charge there, how high the entrance fee is,” Polman discusses on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. An outcome of this is that money that could go towards anything else beneficial goes to players who have intentions of extending the circumstances that led to the crises being addressed. Illustrating this, Polman continued on to say that, “More than 200 million of those dollars [of international aid] are actually disappearing straight into the pockets of warlords in Somalia.”

As far as distribution is concerned, “…donors select countries and regions where they have political interests, or places thought of as high profile that offer a fair chance of positive publicity,” says James Morris, the head of the World Food Programme. He continues on to say that, “Ninety percent of the people who die of hunger and malnutrition don’t die in a high-profile situation” (Polman 146). The current aid system today supports idea that, “the humanitarian claim of political neutrality is a fiction: humanitarian action always has a political consequence, and one cannot deny responsibility for it” (Gourevitch). This contradicts the basic statement of mission that it is “…aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during the aftermath of emergencies” (Global Humanitarian Assistance) and, beyond that, contradicts the Red Cross’s notion that aid needs to be distributed to all in a politically neutral manner. Areas that are desperately in need of aid, such as the victims of famine in Namibia in 2004, received nothing, whereas Afghanistan received over $15 billion from more than sixty donor governments between 2001 and 2008, because of the increased political benefits of using aid as a weapon of war in Afghanistan. Governments do not hold aid groups responsible or accountable for these deadly decisions because they, as donor governments, are the ones calling the shots.

But all is not doomed, according to Polman, though she does not give us much beyond basic guidelines for future action that would aid our broken aid system.

She begins with describing basic tenets of an aid system that ought to be based on,  emphasizing increased cooperation and accountability.

In her discussion with Jon Stewart, Polman addresses INGOs and says, “If you would work together as donors, and as aid organizations you could make a fist against the abuse and against the theft and against the corruptions. What’s happening now in Haiti… is there are 64 different donors and ten thousand aid organizations all doing their own thing. …Not putting money together, not defining central goal, … they all do their own thing.” Aid groups ought to begin entering humanitarian territories with a singular, defined goal and then designing a corresponding set of goals to strive for once the initial benchmark has been attained.

Polman also believes that this spirit of collectivity also ought to enable humanitarian groups to stand up to regimes, military groups, political groups, etc. in order to avoid such astounding statistics as Indonesian soldiers making off with “…at least 30 per cent of tsunami relief for Aceh Province,” aid groups need to band together and demand that the bulk of aid is being used efficiently and effectively within the populations it is designated for. “…The ‘humanitarian community’ is so spineless in its dealings with the [Sudanese Bashir] regime. If there was some collective spirit, we might be able to avoid becoming in effect sub-branches of the Sudan state,” said an NGO employee stationed in Darfur (Polman 161).

Polman highlights that there is a startling lack of accountability within the world of INGOs. There is a lack of self-accountability, accountability by the press, governments and the public. INGOs and MONGOs use corruption within local governments as a scapegoat for missing funds or an absence of efficient solutions to problems. The press needs to stop fawning over humanitarians and instead hold them accountable by all means possible. This will force NGOs to better track where aid goes, and perhaps allow lesser reliance upon distributing money from NGO, to contractor, to NGO, etc. in what is called “phantom aid.” “It is possible to track who the primary recipients of USAID funds are, yet on what are these NGOs and contractors spending the money?” Jake Johnston and Alexander Main wrote in a report on Aid Transparency and Accountability in Haiti. “What percent goes to overhead, to staff, vehicles, housing, etc.? What percent has actually been spent on the ground in Haiti?” There needs to be a basic requirement that puts it upon aid organizations to designate a system that places competent bodies in charge of money distribution and ensure that aid money is being used properly. Aid organizations should not be immune to the prying eye of journalists, but rather ought to be held to a greater degree of public accountability due to the dire nature of their line of work. This will dissuade corruption, excuses and hold aid organizations, INGOs and MONGOs alike, to a higher standard of achievement.

In the end, in order to save humanitarian aid, it may require an abandonment of the globally accepted conviction of Henri Dunant of “tutti fratelli,” or that “we are all brothers” (Polman 4). Instead, Polman hints that in order to assume a global system of aid that benefits well-deserving beneficiaries, there needs to be a greater amount of discernment with aid distribution and that all of us, as citizens need to lead this charge before the crisis caravan does more irreversible damage than good.

Works Cited:

“Defining Humanitarian Aid: Global Humanitarian Assistance.” Global Humanitarian Assistance. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/data-guides/defining-humanitarian-aid>.

Gourevitch, Philip. “The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/11/the-moral-hazards-of-humanitarian-aid-what-is-to-be-done.html>.

Johnston, Jake, and Alexander Main. Breaking Open the Black Box: Increasing Aid Transparency and Accountability in Haiti. Rep. Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2013. Print.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Sapa-AP. “Haiti’s $1.15 Billion Aid Largely Went to US Groups, Only 1% to Haiti Companies: Study.” The Times Live. Times Media Group, 06 Apr. 2013. Web. <http://www.timeslive.co.za/world/2013/04/06/haiti-s-1.15-billion-aid-largely-went-to-us-groups-only-1-to-haiti-companies-study>.



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