Principal Concerns of the NGO
In her written work, Crisis Caravan, Linda Poleman brings to our attention multiple concerns that many of us never thought of in considering humanitarianism and aid organizations. In her chapter entitled, MONGO, she recalls her time in Sierra Leone, marveling at how while the majority of Sierra Leoneans were living in fear and desperately attempting to survive amid humanitarian tensions, aid workers, donors, and humanitarian organizations were living life lavishly. Many hailing from Western countries were eating expensive steaks at fancy restaurants while the people of Sierra Leone were struggling to find adequate food. While “advocates” of humanitarianism got their daily exercise from tennis lessons, the locals got their exercise by running for their lives. Poleman reveals a disturbing reality when she writes,
“I’ve known aid workers who care for child soldiers and war orphans by day and relaxed by night in the arms of child prostitutes”.
The reality is that these aid organizations are receiving benefits while engaging in “humanitarian work”. The scene that Poleman draws is one of imperialism in which white Westerners live lives of luxury while the black natives remain stagnated in poverty and hunger.
As for MONGOS, or “My Own NGO”, Poleman writes how these well-intentioned organizations that believe that they can do better than the traditional aid organization through their drive and passion to alleviate the sufferings of humanity, are doing no better in their humanitarian efforts. It has been the case that victims of tsunamis received “winter coats, polar tents, stiletto heels shoes, G-strings for women, and packets of Viagra”. In Goma, Hutus received ski gloves and rotten cheese. In Kenya children were offered dog food. Suffice to say, MONGOS send useless supplies to areas of crisis, justifying their actions by claiming that “large established humanitarian organizations make mistakes too”. MONGOs are independent individuals that provide a lack of studies on what they are doing and how effective it is. MONGOs are spardonic and lack a clear initiative, and only reestablish the narrative of inefficient humanitarian efforts.
Poleman also writes of how aid is also used as a weapon of war in many cases. She writes of how in order for aid organizations to have access to war zones they have to pay certain parties. Liberian president, Charles Taylor demanded 15% of aid from NGOs if they wanted to come into the country. In Somalia, organizations were charged as much as 80% of the aid that was coming in. In Afghanistan it became the case that the Taliban received a substantial portion of aid. Poleman notes that “wherever aid organizations appear, local, political, military, and business leaders suddenly drive around in expensive cars and building expensive houses”. Humanitarian territories start becoming more expensive and rent increases. Warlords and other perpetrators of crisis, genocide, and abuse turn to aid organizations as their source of income and end up being just as “lethal” as the big man himself.
Businesses Dressed up as Mother Teresa
Linda Poleman writes that aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa because they operate as though they are in competition, but do not appear so. Though many of them are nonprofits, they function as though they are a businesses with a drive for capital and a monopoly over the industry. We mistake many aid organizations as if they are “Mother Teresa” as though their efforts are strictly humanitarian and nothing more. Aid organizations are seen as a saving grace to areas of crisis when the reality is that they are not the intervening savior, but it is often the case that they are another character that benefits off of the narrative of human rights abuses and crises. Just as we need to be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, we need to beware of businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.
Reforming Humanitarian Efforts
In her Afterword, Poleman writes that it is time that we start being willing to criticize the sort of aid and NGOs that enter areas of crisis. Poleman urges us to contemplate where exactly humanitarian efforts start to become less humanitarian and more unethical. Is it truly humanitarian to assist not only victims, but perpetrators? Of course, human life is valuable, but Poleman argues that it is important for NGOs to identity who they are helping, and what side they are inadvertently aiding. She also writes that it is nearly impossible for humanitarian NGOs to take an apolitical stance, as each region in which they attempt to alleviate human rights abuses are intertwined with politics. Political tensions in areas of crisis are inevitable, and the sooner NGOs begin to recognize this, and not take on the neutral and independent stance that so characterized the Red Cross during the Holocaust, the more their efforts will be more effectively humanitarian. Poleman writes that if humanitarian organizations are to be more effective, it is important that they stop acting as though they are in competition with one another. The maintenance of human life is not a competition, but a collaborative effort in which these organizations need to be working together in areas of crisis. When they are in competition with one another, they are vulnerable to parties that directly perpetrate the crisis, as was the case in Rwanda, as well as Darfur.
Poleman writes that journalists need to begin to question the steps that aid organizations are taking in refugee areas, for example. When they are reporting, why is it that they do not criticize these NGOs as they do if it were insurance companies coming in to help with humanitarian efforts? In their reporting, journalists need to begin asking the right questions and not consider NGOs as holier than thou and above criticism.
As for the public, it is time that we start asking the right questions as well. Those of us that donate assume that our contributions to humanitarian aid are being allocated reasonably and ethically. We never consider that aid can be exploited by warlords and other perpetrators of human rights abuses, that we can be helping the abusive side and hurting the victimized side. So we need to be willing to ask the organizations that we donate to what their protocol is, who and where the aid is going to, and how these resources are being protected. We also have to be willing to have the “audacity” to consider whether giving aid is better than doing nothing. If we ask these questions and consider the potential consequences of humanitarian aid, then we will certainly be taking a step in the right direction.