Humanitarian Aid’s Global Problem

Your money is being wasted. It was wasted a decade ago, it’s wasted now and it will continue to be wasted for the foreseeable future… unless you stand up and demand accountability.  This is the age of transparency; emails are hacked, confidential memos are exposed and whistle-blowers seem to be more numerous by the day. So how does a high profile, multi-billion dollar industry elude mainstream scrutiny?  Each election cycle there are countless hours of debate and media attention covering national debt, the education system and wealth distribution, three seemingly broken areas that cost taxpayers’ money.  The failure of the humanitarian aid industry struggles to reach this level of awareness because of money, corruption and geographic separation.


You may be asking yourself, “Why should I care about what happens on the other side of the world?”  If you care about your money being wasted then you should keep reading.  The USAID budget request for 2014 is $20.4 billion dollars.  Everyone knows about the national debt crisis at home, so wouldn’t it make sense to make sure taxpayer money is spent efficiently and effectively? USAID money goes to a variety of organizations across the globe, yet so many of these organizations lack accountability, underperform and in some cases prolong conflicts in other nations.  However, ill-advised spending isn’t the only reason you should care about the welfare of foreign peoples.  We are in an age of emerging global citizenship.  Limiting carbon emissions, conserving resources and protecting those who cannot protect themselves are only a few examples of how nations are acting together to better humanity’s place in the world.  Modern technology now gives individuals the ability to affect global welfare in a way never previously possible.  You can donate your time or money to the cause of your choosing, yet the reach of your resources and your nation’s resources are held back by the failings of the humanitarian aid industry.



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 missions, 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.  Why, in an industry where preserving human life is the goal, is there less accountability and less transparency than literally any publicly traded company?


Political contributions to the corruption of the aid industry are readily apparent. 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 the 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.  Imagine you donated 1 dollar to humanitarian aid, but the local government charges you 25 cents just to get your money into the country. Linda Polman describes in her book, War Games, how local governments siphon off additional resources even after these entry charges.  All of these local and national political influences further corrupt and degrade the entire process.  Money is being wasted, but more importantly so is the ability to help those in need. So how have these corrupt practices escaped mainstream attention?


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 foreign photographers.  Why would the media do this? First, these sensational stories garner more attention. Second, the steady stream of stories provided by embedded reporters in these aid groups provide more value to the media than a large story exposing corruption in an industry most perceive as selfless.


I don’t know how to fix global humanitarian aid, but I do know that it is broken.  We need to demand more accountability from these organizations and the government.  I don’t like having my money wasted, and I certainly don’t like when those doing the wasting are fully aware of the problem and doing nothing to fix it.   This is an issue that affects every taxpayer, not just those that choose to donate.  We need to make this a mainstream issue before more of our money is squandered.



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


Arcaro, Tom. Exemplary Global Citizens: Training for Trusteeship Address 2011. Elon University, September 2011. Web. 5 June 2013.


Israel, Ron. “Global Citizenship: A Path to Building Identity and Community in a Globalized World.” The Global Citizens Initiative. Web. 5 June 2013.


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.

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