What humanitarian aid is doing, and what it ought to be

Linda Polman’s work The Crisis Caravan examines the broken humanitarian aid system, as it exists today. Early in her book, Polman discusses the conflicting ideologies of Florence Nightingale and Henri Dunant. Nightingale was of the opinion that “aid fails in its purpose if the warring parties use it to their own advantage.” (Polman) Dunant on the other hand believed, “In the duty to help no matter what.” (Polman) This question was raised as early as the founding year of the Red Cross, and it continues to be a major source of disagreement in the humanitarian aid community today.

Polman describes what she calls, “ethical disaster” situations, such as Rwanda, where outside aid is desperately needed, but militant groups have also begun to use that aid as a tool of warfare. It is situations like these where the issues with the current humanitarian aid system are made particularly evident. Corruption on many levels, and the inability or lack of desire to change, is making an otherwise very noble and valiant effort more or less futile.

Humanitarian aid groups are entirely under the control of their donors. The donations that come into these groups determine whether or not an organization can begin a campaign in a country or not. A side effect of this relationship means that humanitarian aid groups must constantly be seeking out new contracts in order to essentially stay in business, something Polman describes in her chapter, “Contract Fever.” In order to continue gaining new contracts, aid organizations must appeal to their donors by following what for lack of a better word can be described as trends in the humanitarian aid community. The world has proven that it has a very short memory, and interest shifts quickly to whatever the new conflict, disaster, or tragedy of the day is, and with that shift in interest, comes a shift in where donors want their money to be sent. This forces aid organizations to work where their donors want them, and not necessarily where they should be which is where they can do the most good.

In Rwanda, Polman describes how the international aid coming into the country was frequently used by Hutu refugee soldiers to be fed and given medical treatment for free, so that they could continue their slaughter of the Tutus. Polman says that at night after receiving care from the humanitarian community, Hutu militias, “crept back over the border into Rwanda to go ‘hunting Tutsi.” (Polman) The Hutu government levied heavy taxes, and their militias stole aid supplies that they fenced in order to build up their war chests, which allowed the massacre to continue. It is in situations like these that we see the changes that must be made if the humanitarian aid community hopes to truly remain its stance of, “neutrality and impartiality.” As Rwanda proved to us, humanitarian aid does more harm than good when it is taken advantage of to strengthen a war effort, while others are forced out of receiving the same treatment. Aid organizations need to take measures that prevent them from being bullied into unintentionally taking a side in a conflict, because by doing nothing, those who could not stand up for themselves alone, as we saw with the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, find themselves in a prolonged and greater suffering as a result. If proper steps are taken to increase accountability on the part of aid workers, greater security is provided to distribution centers to protect against theft, and a timeline and plan of action is put in place to avoid overlap in services and a ensure reasonable exit strategy, then I believe that the problems facing the humanitarian aid community are not impossible to overcome.

A victim of the Rwanda conflict, bearing scars from a machete attack like the ones frequently perpetrated on the Tutsi people.

A victim of the Rwanda conflict, bearing scars from one of the many machete attacks perpetrated against the Tutsi people.

In Poland, there is outrage over the government’s decision to send aid to Syria. Polish citizens believe that aid should be spent within their own country before assisting others. This apathy toward others is perhaps the greatest threat to the humanitarian aid effort. Polish citizens had no complaints when receiving foreign aid during the time the country was under martial law from 1981 to 1983, but now many are vehemently against providing aid to those abroad while problems still exist at home. (Kasprowicz)

If steps are not taken to change what aid organizations are doing, to what they ought to be doing instead, then many donors may find themselves so disenchanted with the system, that they stop providing donations altogether. But perhaps even more importantly, we must examine our own sentiments more closely, would we be so opposed to aid efforts if it was our country that was torn apart by civil war? Would we be so callous and uninterested if it were our family and friends losing limbs to militias wielding machetes? Three of the major religious texts of the world feature countless passages about the importance of helping one another. For example the Bible says, “Therefore encourage one another, and let each one help to strengthen his friend,” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) the Quran urges that we should, “Help each other to goodness and heedfulness,“ (Surat al-ma’ida: 2) and the Torah states that we should always, “Relieve our neighbors of their burden.” (Ex. 23:5; Deut. 22:4)

Regardless of the problems or corruption within the humanitarian aid effort, we cannot become so self-centered that we abandon the notion that this global community relies invaluably on the help we provide one another in times of crisis.


Works Cited:

Kasprowicz, Kasia. April 5, 2013. June 10, 2013. http://worldcrunch.com/world-affairs/humanitarian-assistance-to-syria-poles-say-they-have-their-own-problems/polish-humanitarian-aid-pah-polska-akcja-humanitarna/c1s11331/

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

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999.

The Qur’an, Translated by Tarif Khalidi. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.

The Torah. (1 Thessalonians 5:11). New York: Feldheim, 2013. Print.

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  1. Posted June 13, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading about Poland’s situation. Definitely not something we want to see happen elsewhere.

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

    Your paragraph on how humanitarian aid organizations rely so heavily on current trends is well written. It’s nice to read a perspective that shows how donors could take a more active role to improve the process.

  3. Posted June 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I really liked the ideas you provided throughout the body of this post. Your conclusion was very thought provoking and didn’t leave me with the feel of wanting to just give up with the corruption but move past it.

  4. Posted June 12, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I liked how your conclusion caused me to think about the aid industry as if I were a recipient. I also liked how you provided examples from the three Abrahamic faiths- that shows that helping others in need is not simply a new Western idea.

  5. Posted June 12, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your assessment of Polman’s view on “ethical disaster” situations in which it seems more harm is being done than good. I also enjoyed your conclusion in which you remind us that we have a duty to help those in need. This makes me wonder if there is ever a situation in which doing nothing is helping those in need if bringing humanitarian aid only makes the situation worse.