Central Themes of The Crisis Caravan
Linda Polman’s problems with the current state of affairs in the aid industry, as expressed in her book The Crisis Caravan, are all founded in a lack of oversight, public scrutiny, and legal accountability. Emboldened by this ethical blank check and a false sense of absolute moral righteousness, aid organizations often behave recklessly, wreaking havoc across the globe, even with the best of intentions. A significant amount of damage is done through the exploitation of well-meaning aid organizations (and their journalistic co-conspirators) by military and political interests in the developing world. In the Goma refugee camps, the Hutu government in exile and the Interahamwe profited from the protection and material aid provided by a multitude of international NGOs. All the while, Hutus continued to slaughter Tutsis within the confines of the camp. A river of money flowed into Goma due to a misleading journalistic narrative of universal victim-hood being pushed in the West, designed to target guilt over Westerners having done little during the genocide. The haphazard, rushed bombardment of Goma with aid exacerbated the suffering of the Tutsis and ultimately led the Tutsi army to invade the camp. Similar stories of aggressive and poorly planned aid campaigns are ubiquitous in the developing world. A crisis begins, aid organizations migrate in like a caravan, set up shop, and begin ambitious projects before evaluating the complex political and social implications of their work. Ultimately, much of the aid money often goes to fund the very forces creating the humanitarian crisis, such as the governments of Ethiopia in the 1980s and Sudan in the 2000s.
Florence Nightengale noticed a related problem in the Crimean War, when her work as a nurse served only the militaries that sought to put the recovered men back into the line of fire. This stands in contrast the Red Cross’s Founder, Dunant, who believed any aid was good aid, regardless of the end result. Polman rightly criticizes the standard defense of this morally bankrupt and “apolitical”, “humanitarian” system, that being “It is better to help anyone somehow than nobody at all”. This justification leads to irresponsible allocations of resources that have damaging, real-world consequences. In Polman’s eyes, the aid must be subject to the same scrutiny as any other act of diplomacy or international business, lest aid actually worsen humanitarian crises. Political forces will stoop to abuse aid, so aid must rise up to proactively promote an ethical, political agenda to rectify the power imbalance.
“Businesses Dressed Up like Mother Teresa”
The facade that aid organizations present to the world is highly misleading. At the end of the day, even so-called “non-profit” aid organizations are involved in the transfer of wealth, so they are inextricably tied to their financial interests. Just like any other business, aid organizations exist in a competitive environment, fighting for capital and beholden to those who provide it. Just like any other business, aid organizations spend money on employees and outside goods and services, meaning someone always stands to profit from the NGO’s activities. The term “non-profit” is decidedly a misnomer. Furthermore, perks for elites (a status granted to whites in the developing world) are ubiquitous in the industry. As Polman articulates, the lavish, extravagant lifestyle promoted within by many INGO’s can exceed that offered by the corporate private sector. For example, Polman notes that the white aid workers in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere in Africa) drove luxury Range Rovers, ate expensive meals, collected generous per diems, and grossly out-earned their native counterparts. Very little of this waste every comes into the public eye or the eyes of donors, who carelessly throw money at the NGO’s as long as they can see pictures of smiling African children in the quarterly report. On top of the aforementioned problems, the industry supports an entire consultant class of with minimal investment in the long-term affairs of the target region. As is the case across industries, the short-term employment of such consultants is often an enormous waste of money.
How to Clean Up Aid
Aid can only be cleansed of its problematic elements through the coordinated effort of government regulators, an inquisitive public, and responsible journalism. Polman notes how attempts at self-regulation in the industry have failed. For example, the Sphere Project, created after the disaster of Goma, set up a large number of guidelines for aid, but none of the rules were enforceable. Such toothless agreements do nothing to improve the behavior of aid organizations. It is unreasonable to expect responsibility without accountability. The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Actions (ANLAP), itself a creation of several NGO’s, has continued to point out the exact arguments of the Polman’s book to the NGO’s it studies, but to no avail after over a decade of work. The take-away message is clear: regulation cannot come from within.
To build political will for external regulation, it will take quality journalism on the aid industry’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, as Polman notes, very few journalists are specialized in the industry, and most are content to be led around by the subjects they should be critically investigating. The apathetic culture of turning a journalistic blind eye to the mistakes of the “morally righteous” aid industry must end, and the muck must be raked to the fore. Only then will the public, which spends very little on aid, care enough to pressure politicians into action at the national and international levels. Though humanitarian crises will inevitably continue to arise, a great deal of suffering can be prevented through the responsible, efficient, and coordinated intervention of the international community. With an informed public and strong international regulatory mechanisms, political solutions and physical aid can be delivered in tandem, and the Wild West era for NGOs will (hopefully) come to a close.