In her book Crisis Caravan Linda Polman raises concern over the lack of oversight and accountability of independently operating NGOs. Polman describes a scene in Freetown: the capital of Sierra Leone where white Westerners who are ostensibly there to provide relief instead spend their time drinking expensive champagne and eating lavish meals while the local population suffered. She also describes how the aid workers often engage in harmful behaviors such as the solicitation of child prostitutes despite supposedly wanting to help improve the lives of children.
Polman also does not exempt MONGOs (My Own NGOs) from criticism. She describes MONGOs as being run by well intentioned people who see traditional aid organizations as ineffective and corrupt. MONGOs however have their own problems as the inexperience of their founders often leads to basic mistakes such as sending frostbite medicine to victims of tropical disasters and providing cloths that victims don’t actually need. MONGOs claim that they are more efficient than traditional NGOs because they are not tied up in bureaucracy but it is near impossible to verify this claim as official records of the actual work that MONGO’s do are few and far between.
Polman describes how most MONGOs are comprised of well meaning and often religious people who genuinely want to help those in need but have no experience or qualifications to do so. Their efforts often just end up making the situation worse such as in the case of Lonny Houk a retired health administrator from Kansas. Houk and his team of inexperienced medical students performed complex surgeries on war victims in Liberia that they were not even remotely qualified or prepared for. The root of the problem is lack of oversight by either their home governments or the governments of the countries they are operating in.
Polman also describes how aid can be used as a weapon of war when local warlords and rebel leaders force aid workers to either turn over a part of their supplies or pay them a sum of money in exchange for being allowed to help people. In Somalia warlords often charge up to 80% of the value of the aid workers’ supplies as an entrance fee. Polman then describes how the revenue generated from this type of corruption is then used to finance the warlord’s personal war effort. In Afghanistan a significant fraction of the aid funds and supplies ended up in the hand of Taliban warlords.
This type of dealmaking with local powerbrokers is often called “shaking hand with the devil” with good reason.The problem stems from the fact that there are no requirements or limits on who NGOs can make deals with. Failing to meet the demands of these local leaders can often be fatal as in the Congo where six Red Cross workers who refused to abide by the demand of the Hema leaders to not help the Lendus were murdered.
Businesses Dressed Up Like Mother Teresa
Linda Polman characterizes many NGOs as “businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa” because most NGOs do in fact operate like corporations. NGOs compete against each other to win contracts and donations while ostensibly operating as non-profits. This drive for profit inevitably leads to corruption as NGOs and especially MONGOs become consumed by their profit drive and forget their original purpose of helping people in need. So instead of operating like the humanitarian Mother Teresa (though i’m ignoring the fact that Mother Teresa isn’t a true humanitarian) they instead are run like businesses with profit being the primary concern.
What’s To Be Done
There needs to be greater oversight and regulation of NGOs by the governments of the countries that they’re based in and by the U.N Part of the problem is the vast number NGOs which makes it difficult to conduct proper oversight and incentivizes NGOs to compete against each other. The U.N needs to enforce international standards and codes of conduct for NGO workers and abusers need to be prosecuted. Because the operating practices for many NGOs are currently very opaque, both journalists and governments need to do a better job of probing into their practices. Journalists should stop giving NGOs a free pass and seriously investigate malpractice.