Is the aid industry who it says it is?

Neutrality ~ Impartiality ~ Independence

The international humanitarian aid community adheres to these three principles. “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)  These principles are nice, but as the system functions now, they are only functional in a dream world where everyone plays by the same rules.  We know that they don’t, creating a gap between what humanitarian aid “ought” to be and the reality of what it “is.”  In her book War Games, Linda Polman breaks down how most INGOs and NGOs violate each of the principles they promise to abide by on an almost daily basis.

The principle of neutrality has been challenged several times in recent history.  During the 1980s, rebels were being driven out of their villages by the Ethiopian government using tactics such as forced migration.  This included the murder of men and women, contamination of water by throwing slaughtered animals in streams, and the burning of food and grain stores.  All of this was intended to forcibly move the Ethiopian people to the south.  After the destruction, the Ethiopian government called the press in to document distressing “drought” and famine footage.  Aid organizations flowed into Ethiopia to set up camps in the south, blind to the fact that the Ethiopian government had planned the drought and famine.

Time Magazine cover from 1987 showing how the media perceived the famine in Ethiopia.

Time Magazine cover from 1987 showing how the media perceived the famine in Ethiopia.

As in countless other countries, the local government decided how much aid came in, where it would go, and who it would go to.  In this process, the government manipulated the aid industries.  The Ethiopian government ordered aid workers to shut down their food aid camps in a region if the people there became resistant to deportation.  They would eventually become hungry and continue moving south.  An estimated 600,000 people went south during this mass migration- 100,000 of them starved along the way, even though there was plenty of food aid.  No longer allowing itself to be a part of the tragedy, MSF France left Ethiopia in 1985 when local regimes kept aid out of a region, causing unnecessary starvation.  The Dutch Red Cross was among the organizations that remained in Ethiopia to provide aid.  Some in the international community rebuked the remaining aid organizations, saying that by providing aid in regions specified by the Ethiopian government, they were siding with the Ethiopian government and helping with their side of the war.  Many who were on the ground in Ethiopia, and in other humanitarian territories around the world facing the same issue, are frustrated by this kind of comment.  Said the head of international affairs of the Dutch Red Cross, “Politics evades its responsibility and then humanitarian aid organizations are reproached for keeping the war going?!” (Polman 116).

A situation with similar consequences occurred in Sudan in the 1980s.  The Sudanese government went on a campaign of terror throughout southern Sudan that was intended to forcibly move all of the rebels.  Eventually, these rebels were cornered into what the Sudanese government called “Peace Villages.”  INGOs were allowed to provide aid to these villages, but only on the government’s terms.  In what was called “Operation Lifeline Sudan,” aid was only allowed to be delivered by airdrops and only in regions specified by the Sudanese regime.  “Controlled as it was by the Sudanese regime, the operation resembled nothing so much as the management of a hydroponics greenhouse, where the grower determines which plants get water and how much by opening or closing the drip system.” (Polman 117).  As you can imagine, if a region’s peoples were disagreeable to the Sudanese government, they went on a diet for a while.  Although that is lightly said, the consequences of these actions were quite heavy.  “When the regime imposed a ban of several months on dropping aid anywhere in the southern region of Bahr el Ghazal, an estimated 60,000 people starved to death.” (Polman 118).

A World Food Program airplane drops aid supplies as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan

A World Food Program airplane drops aid supplies as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan

In addition to controlling where the aid industry couldn’t drop supplies, the Sudanese government also ordered where and how much of it would be dropped.  In Sudan, and all over the world, the governments and militias of countries receiving aid use much of that aid to feed themselves.  For example, in the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, the government reported that they needed food to feed four times the population of that region.  This excess was presumably used to feed the Ethiopian army.  A spokesman for the World Hunger Program said, “In any war, the last ones to die of hunger will be the soldiers.” (Polman 119).  When the delivery of aid is directed by the recipients, or groups in opposition to the intended beneficiaries, the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence are thrown out the window.  Aid brings a huge influx of money into a war torn country and can be used as a military financing tactic, and expecting warring parties to leave it alone and not try to get some for themselves is unrealistic.

On another note, NGOs are sometimes expected to act as arms of their respective governments, promoting their national foreign policy agenda.  After 9/11, “…[American] NGOs had to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to US foreign policy and making it clear that they [were] ‘an arm of the US government.’” (Polman 129).  A research director for MSF Foundation in Paris, Fabrice Weissman, said, “NGOs and UN agencies thus abandoned the independence essential to providing independent aid and modeled their priorities on those of the new regime and its Western allies, who were still at war with the Taliban.” (Polman 133).  This influence of government in the dealings of humanitarian aid organizations directly conflicts with their claim to be independent from government and other influences.  “Nevertheless INGOs cling, apparently unperturbed, to their claim to a neutral, ‘non-governmental’ status.” (Polman 133).

Dangerous humanitarian territories cause aid workers to want to stay within the safe confines of their offices.  This is due to the danger from rebels and the Taliban.  This results in millions of dollars being sucked from their intended humanitarian projects.  “Neither the donors nor their INGOs dare to visit the projects they finance.  The result is an unfathomable channeling of aid billions that is highly susceptible to fraud.” (Polman 134).  I was shocked by how many times money changes hands before a job is even started.  In 2002, $150 million dollars was earmarked for house-building in the Bamiyan Province of Aghanistan.  The money was shifted around to at least five different organizations, each of which took a portion of the money before even being used to buy wooden beams for the houses. “The systematic lack of control of aid funding is called ‘Afghaniscam.’  Afghan racketeers can rake off aid money unhindered, and in areas where the Taliban has regained control, their fighters are able to use unsupervised aid funding to strengthen and expand their popular support.” (Polman 136).  In this way, humanitarian aid money is unintentionally funding the Taliban.

As you can see, the principles of humanitarian aid organizations, admirable as they are, are not realistic in the world we live in.  Whose role is it to fix these obvious problems?  Some would say it is the role of the aid organizations themselves, as they are part of the problem.  I agree that aid organizations all over the world are being manipulated as part of military and political strategies, but I do not agree that it is the aid organizations’ responsibility to resolve this.  Although their principles are not working in practice right now, they might work if governments would communicate to find solutions.  Polman makes the point that we should be more critical of aid organizations.  “Ask questions!” she says.  For any change to happen within the aid industry, we must inquire into the practices of INGOs and NGOs.

Polman’s final words in War Games pack a punch: “If we don’t ask these questions for our own benefit, then we should ask them for the sake of the people who’ll see our next crisis caravan move in.” (Polman 164).  Our duty to our fellow global citizens is to ensure that they can receive fair humanitarian aid when they need it.  If aid organizations are not truly neutral, impartial, and independent, we must find and take the necessary steps so that they can be as they ought to be.


Works Cited


“9 Events That Have Shaped the Humanitarian Industry.” WanderLust: Notes from a Global Nomad. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

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

Taylor-Robinson, S. “Operation Lifeline Sudan.” Journal of Medical Ethics 28.1 (2002): 49-51. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

“The Seven Fundamental Principles.” IFRC- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <—-les-7-principes/>.

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