Does humanitarian aid prolong wars? Yes, argues Dutch journalist Linda Polman in her new book War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, which was just reviewed by The Guardian.

War Games is just the latest addition to the booming cottage industry of criticizing aid, aid workers, and international activism related to humanitarian crises. It joins NYU economist Bill Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,  veteran war correspondent Rob Crilly’s Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War,  Zambian economist and former banker Dambisa Moyo’s widely misunderstood, but even more influential for it, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa, and an expanding anti-aid blogosphere.

If Polman’s Guardian interview is any indication, her book will be a huge hit for taking extreme positions and providing a wealth of quotable quotes. At one point, she is asked how she would describe the aid agencies that provided relief to Rwandan Hutus, many of them genocidaires but plenty also ordinary civilians, who fled into the now Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. Polman’s response? “Perhaps war criminals.”

International lawyers would probably disagree, but aid critics will no doubt seize statements like that and turn them into rallying cries.

Unfortunately, like many aid critics, Polman doesn’t seem quite sure of what her argument is. She thinks aid neutrality is among the causes of tragedies like the prolonged conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region. “Without humanitarian aid,” she says, “the Hutus’ war would almost certainly have ground to a halt fairly quickly.”

But she thinks a lack of aid neutrality is also a cause of conflict. In Afghanistan, aid agencies have worked too closely with coalition militaries, and this has tied their access to populations in need to the successes of one side in a complex war and emboldened the Taliban to directly target aid workers, she argues.

When Guardian journalist Andrew Anthony confronts Polman with the glaring contradiction in her arguments, she responds by saying, “Whether you’re being manipulated by the Sudanese regime or coalition forces in Afghanistan, you are always an instrument of war.

“The system as it is now, the humanitarian ground rules say that aid agencies are neutral and therefore not responsible for what other people do to their aid. I think that’s too easy. They should stop claiming neutrality, stop claiming that they’re above the law.”

That argument will be a hard sell to organizations like Medecins San Frontieres and other relief agencies, especially those specializing in medical relief, that insist on serving all those in need, including combatants from all sides in a particular conflict.

The charge that aid agencies claim to be “above the law” is also perplexing. Above what law? Aid agencies tend to have staff well-versed in international humanitarian law at their senior levels, and organizations like the International Rescue Committee put international law experts on the ground as well.

Polman makes a comment about wanting former US president George W. Bush arrested for war crimes and in the same breath says, “perhaps aid agencies can be held responsible for what they do as well.”

It seems Polman believes one of two things, and it’s unclear which; either current international law does not adequately consider the role of aid agencies in conflict and should therefore be changed to do so, or aid agencies are wantonly flouting existing law.

Like most aid critics, Polman also criticizes what she sees as the unethically glamorous aid worker lifestyle. She describes aid workers stepping over homeless Haitians to enter Port-au-Prince nightclubs and dining at the French restaurant L’Atmosphere in Kabul amid Afghanistan’s grinding poverty.

When Anthony points out that “most aid workers probably wouldn’t be quite so insensitive,” and “it’s neither shocking nor sinister that humanitarians are also human: they also need to relax after work sometimes in a bar,” Polman responds by not really responding at all, and instead accuses aid workers of far worse sins than indulging in the occasional war zone cocktail or salsa night.

“I think it’s shocking and sinister,” she retorts, “if aid workers engage in child prostitution or that aid workers visit brothels.”

It’s impossible to disagree with that statement, but also impossible not to recognize it as a blatant question dodge. Anthony didn’t ask about aid workers committing crimes. He asked about lifestyle.

“Aid workers should respect the fact that local people live in poverty,” says Polman.

They certainly should, but the reality is that aid agencies have a hard time keeping staff for six months in extremely insecure and infrastructure poor environments even when staff are provided with accommodations that places them at the same standard of living as local elites.

Appearances can also be deceiving. In Kabul, many organizations rent the most readily available properties marketed to foreigners – enormous, outlandishly gaudy houses disparagingly described as “narco-palaces,” “wedding cakes,” and “warlord chic” by aid workers and native Kabulis alike. But many of these mansions are poorly built, suffer constant plumbing and heating problems, and are at the mercy of power outages just like the older mud-brick homes that most Afghan families live in. Very, very few aid workers live in actual luxury, or even comfort, by developed world standards.  

The strongest argument for aid agencies changing their approach to housing in Afghanistan and other insecure locations (and I do believe the prevailing approach needs to be changed) is a security one; a few large guesthouses clustered together are simply higher profile targets than many smaller homes spread throughout local neighborhoods.

Appearances matter of course, and the appearance of aid workers living in narco-palaces is a very bad one, but nuance matters too. As can never be repeated too often, the truth is seldom black and white, and this is perhaps no truer anywhere than in places at war.  As a veteran of many relief operations in many conflicts, Polman should understand this.

Yet, she provides, with no context, the repellant image of aid workers stepping over homeless people on their way into a nightclub. She might as well have been describing my Thursday night two weeks ago. Entering a local restaurant with some friends, I walked past a boy who could not have been older than six or seven years old begging in front of the door. According to my friends, the same child has begged outside that restaurant for several years. Foreigners and Afghans tried to help in various ways, but nothing has worked, and so the boy still stands outside begging into the early hours of the morning.

On my way out of the restaurant, the child rushed up to me and I embarrassedly handed him my change.

My friends and I may go to that restaurant again, and others undoubtedly will. Journalists passing through town will describe callous, rich foreigners (they won’t recognize the Afghans among us as Afghans; they never do) pushing haughtily past impoverished local children on their way to dine on overpriced cuisine with other callous, rich foreigners.  But, again, reality is rarely so simple, and aid workers are certainly aware of the hypocrisies within their community.

Asked what changes she would make to aid work, Polman responds: “I would force aid agencies to combine in the interests of the people they claim to be helping. That means you go to an area and assess what is best for the people, not what is best for the organisation or the system of aid. In Darfur, the aid agencies say, ‘If only we could work together, we could make a fist against the Sudanese government that is now manipulating us.’ You’re in the business of saving lives. Do it in a way that you can save the most lives or for the cheapest price. That can mean sometimes, you don’t go to an area and you choose other victims in areas that we don’t see on TV. Go to where you can save the most people for the same money. Stop the system of rewarding bad behaviour. If your aid is being manipulated, don’t give aid to those doing the manipulation.”

That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start with the recommendation that aid agencies band together to defy repressive governments.  I just don’t see how, in practical terms, the aid agencies in Darfur could have resisted their expulsion last year even if they had been completely united. Am I missing something?

Saving the most people at the lowest cost isn’t simple either. There’s no mathematical equation for that. I believe most aid agencies do try to reach as many people as possible, but sometimes circumstances intervene. New conflicts begin, old conflicts flare up again, diseases spread faster or slower than expected, nature wrecks havoc when human-made disasters are already straining existing resources.  Humanitarian relief has become more professional in recent decades, but it’s not a science, nor will it ever be one.

Polman argues that aid shouldn’t go where it will be manipulated: “If your aid is being manipulated, don’t give to those doing the manipulation.” What Polman frames as a no-brainer is a painfully serious ethical dilemma that aid agencies run up against. I remember a former colleague, a man who worked in UN peacekeeping during the Balkan wars, once telling me how he got into an argument with a woman representing a large medical relief organization during the Bosnian war. My colleague told the relief official that a substantial portion of her organization’s supplies were being stolen by combatants, and asked why her organization was playing into the hands of war criminals. The woman responded by asking him if he’d instead have war criminals set the rules.

Aid agencies must abide by international humanitarian law, but they are not responsible for its enforcement. That duty falls to other actors. If some aid agencies choose to continue relief operations where aid is being stolen, the parties ultimately at fault are those stealing the aid, not the aid agencies. Aid agencies do not exist to shorten, end, or win wars.  That’s simply not what they are for.

There is a lot about the way aid is delivered worldwide that could be improved, and the humanitarian community is continuously discussing ways to do what it does better. Linda Polman’s suggestions, however, contribute nothing helpful to that conversation.


Image: Afghan war graffiti in Kabul, author’s own photograph

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