Sunday, October 05, 2008

Book: With Friends Like These (De Crisiskaravaan)

" Imagine receiving a phone call from the Nazis: You may deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much goes to the staff and how much to the prisoners. What do you do? Linda Polman starts her book with a bang with this dilemma. It is the question that humanitarian organizations wrestle with, whether to remain neutral or to withdraw if wrongful use is made of their assistance, especially now that the majority of today’s war victims are civilians.

Combining reportage, analysis and discussion, the author lays bare the disconcerting contrast between the aid organizations’ noble declarations of intent and the practicalities of their work in areas of conflict. Most remain neutral as a matter of principle, simply ignoring the complicated context they are working in, often with dramatic results. One illustration is Polman’s visit to a refugee camp in Goma, where Hutu extremists, sustained by humanitarian aid, regrouped to terrorize the camp’s inhabitants.

Polman illuminates countless aspects of the flip side to the aid industry, such as amputees in Sierra Leone being deluged with artificial limbs by competing aid organizations or forced to consent to adoptions. She explodes myths surrounding catastrophes, stories about the famine in Biafra, for example, where local rulers decided whether or not to allow food distribution, thereby determining whether people fled or stayed put. ‘Famine rarely results from food shortages. It arises far more often because people are denied their right to food.’ The appalling security situation in Afghanistan means projects are outsourced, and enormous sums of money disappear along unaccountable chains of contractors and subcontractors. Recipients make improper use of funding. ‘Aid groups are happy to allow themselves to be financed three times over. After all, donors don’t come here to check,’ an Afghan accountant tells her.

The aid industry, the world’s fifth largest economy, ‘are businesses in a market of supply and demand dressed up as Mother Teresa, but that’s not the way we see them,’ writes Polman. Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, spoke of ‘the human desire to lighten a little the torments of all these poor wretches.’ Polman’s book makes clear that the recipients of humanitarian aid are not necessarily well served by this desire. " (English) (Dutch)

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