The Humanitarian Aid System: It’s Own Worst Enemy

I think that before anyone starts pointing fingers, we must acknowledge the incredible things aid workers around the world have accomplished.  From the barren plains of Africa to the shaken streets of Haiti, aid workers have been in the trenches combating suffering and illness for years.  It is clear that without their contributions millions of people would be far worse off than they are right now.  Yet Polman spends her entire book picking apart these groups bit by bit, and with good reason.  These aid organizations have countless problems, and the worst part is they bring half of them on themselves.

I think that the corruption of NGOs was driven home incredibly well by Polman.  The inefficient spending and contract hopping are clear signs of people just in it for the money.  This, in my opinion is just as much an issue of donor participation and research as it is of actual corruption.  As I posted about previously, I think a far larger issue is this childish notion that aid must be impartial.  It boggles my mind that, for instance, aid workers in Nepal must provide emergency care to Maoist rebels even though these same groups have been harassing them and extorting villagers for years.  This idea that suffering has no political stance or ideology does not justify not taking a stand against a particularly vicious group. (IRIN News).  We must treat the source and alleviate the symptoms.

This brings us to what I think is another major issue, and thats the toothless nature of humanitarian aid organizations.  These groups cannot continue to be a source for further problems in regions they set up in.  Whether its Hutu leaders that use camps to stage raids or Somali warlords that charge nearly 80% of the value of goods just to let them land, these groups only cause more problems and do so on the NGOs dollar (Polman 1459).  If this kind of inefficient allocation of funds was present in a Fortune 500 company it would likely be belly up and looking for a new CEO, so why do we tolerate it?

Despite my previous statements, I do think that NGOs have a lot of good aspects, and many powerful tools at their disposal.  Human empathy has led to vast funds that are available to help those in need.  As Polman mentioned in her Ted Talk, during the earthquake in Haiti there was a massive showing of humanitarian support.  Billions of dollars were available to help these people in need, and hundreds of organizations were there to pitch in.  This multilateral support is the strongest tool these groups have and must be preserved (Polman Ted Talk).  Furthermore, the vast number of NGOs allows for multiple different ways to approach a crisis and a specialization that can seriously help a system, if it can be refined.  Last, and certainly not least, is the ever present media.  The media plays the vital role of bringing the tragedy home, making it seem real.  This gets people invested in the crisis and solicits more interest and aid to keep the machine going.

So how can we fix the glaring problems facing the aid system?  I think the greatest help would come from the most broad change; people need to become more invested in what happens in the world and they need to follow through with their actions.  This culture of slacktivism, of sharing a video, changing a profile picture, or throwing a few dollars to a cause needs to end.  We allow these NGOs to get away with the corruption and inefficient practices because we don’t research before we donate.  I had no idea the aid system was this bad until I read this book.  If we have the knowledge, we can dictate policy with our pocket books.

While I do hope people become more involved in the workings of the world, I know it is a tall order.  But its not the only step that can be taken.  NGOs need to step up and address the inefficiency in their system.  They happily trot the globe, ignoring and even aiding the sources of suffering, content to provide blankets and bandages while their money fuels munitions purchases.  The worst part is they wear this impartiality, this neutrality like a badge of honor when it is their greatest failing.

Yet going up against these violent groups is not exactly the easiest proposition.  In 2006 17 french aid workers were killed execution style in Sri Lanka for their work their. In an effort to curb violence against their workers, the aid coalition InterAction established Minimum Operating Security Standards (MOSS).  “MOSS has five components: organizational security policies and plans; resources to address security; human resource management; accountability; and a sense of community.”  These other parts include establishing protected safe rooms and talking with other organizations to highlight potential threats.  These are steps that should be implemented, and should have already been implemented across all NGOs (Security Management).  Yet I would go a step further still.  Aid groups should always, always have a security force of appropriate size with them.  Its is baffling to me that it is not common practice already.  A potential fix could be much more tightly controlled camps, perhaps with the UN spearheading it.  I understand the issues of state sovereignty that such an approach creates, yet I stand beside it and believe that all UN member states should allow for such camps if they are necessary.  If we are to snuff out suffering, the aid system must take a stand against its underlying factors and drop this childish notion of impartiality.  Without such actions they will continue to cause as much harm as good, and that is frankly unacceptable.

Works Cited

Harwood, Mathew. “Rendering Assistance to Aid Workers.” Security Management. Security Management, n.d. Web. 11 June 2013.

“Humanitarian News and Analysis.” IRINnews. IRIN News, 3 May 2007. Web. 11 June 2013.

Polman, Linda. “The Crisis Caravan: Linda Polman En TEDxCanarias 2012.” YouTube. Tedx Canarias, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 June 2013.

Polman, Linda, Liz Waters, and Linda Polman. The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.


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One Comment

  1. Posted June 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I really liked reading about the new MOSS initiative because I had been wondering the whole time I was reading Polman’s book why something like that hadn’t been implemented already, or if it had been, why it wasn’t made more up to date to provide greater safety for aid workers.