Wednesday, June 02, 2010

NGOs--The New "Merchants of Death"

Recent stories about NGO involvement in the "Gaza Flotilla" call to mind Linda Polman's new book War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. Polman argues that so-called "humanitarians" are the new "merchants of death"--supplying warring armies with everything from tents, food and medicine to guns, grenades, and rockets in pursuit of money and power. I saw a copy of the book on sale in Daunt's bookshop on the Fulham Road in London on the day we returned to the USA. I bought it, and read it, fascinated, in a single sitting, just before news from Gaza confirmed every word Polman wrote. Her case studies are mainly in Africa, Asia, and Iraq. But the tragedy facing the Palestinians is touched upon...and the blame placed squarely where it belongs: with UNRWA and the NGOs that have turned a blind eye to murder and mayhem since 1948.

Here's what The Independent (UK) had to say:
Aid, she argues, can prolong conflicts and endanger the lives of the very people it is supposed to save. Wars attract aid, and as a rebel in the Sierra Leone countryside points out, the more violence there is, the more aid will arrive. "WAR means 'Waste All Resources'," he says. "Destroy everything. Then you people will come and fix it."

The aid industry – and it is an industry – deserves a large part of the blame for this. For decades we have been sold simple messages as if there are simple solutions. The complexities of aid have been deliberately ignored. Earlier this year, the BBC alleged that some of the money raised from Bob Geldof's Band Aid had been siphoned off by Ethiopian rebels and spent on arms. The allegation was vigorously denied, but to those who work in aid, this was not surprising. To deliver humanitarian assistance in warzones often requires making arrangements and cutting deals with armed groups. If a Congolese rebel group tells an aid agency they can deliver food in their areas only if they hand over 10 per cent to them, what should that agency do? Accept the compromise or pack up and go home? Neither option is straightforward.

This is a short book, 164 pages plus notes, and it would have benefited from a greater analysis of how aid agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have developed over the past decade. Many NGOs are no longer merely humanitarian actors. They are also advocates and campaigners. But working to save lives in a warzone while simultaneously trying to raise awareness of the causes of the conflict can lead to problems. Can the NGO working in Darfur criticise the Sudanese government which allows it to operate? Will NGO workers in Afghanistan be in danger if head office puts out a press release criticising the Taliban?

All of which has made the job of the humanitarian worker increasingly hazardous. According to Polman it has now become the fifth most-dangerous profession in the world, after lumberjack, pilot, fisherman and steelworker.

Polman has written a modern-day version of Mother Courage; a searing account of how aid can fuel the conflicts it tries to stop. But it is soured somewhat by what seems like a distaste for aid workers. With one exception, the aid workers she meets are portrayed as heartless men and women who tell disparaging jokes about the people they claim to help, while spending their evenings drinking bottles of expensive French wine and their days off playing rounds of golf.
I'm glad I bought a copy in London. For some reason, the book is not available under its British title in the USA. The American edition is titled "The Crisis Caravan," and won't be available until its September 10th release date. You can pre-order it here on