But I also reread Linda Polman´s The Crisis Caravan (In Dutch: De crisiskaravaan. Achter de schermen van de noodhulpindustrie). The book paints a pretty depressing picture of the crisis aid industry. She shows how the interaction between aid organisations, victims, local powers and the press have changed since the early 1990s
|Me trying to organise Polman´s argument|
Of course this leads to frustration, lack of coordination, double work and cruel excess. Polman gives harrowing stories of American doctors flying in, picking up kids in refugee camps and operating on them and taking them home on crowd-funding trips or even for adoption (while their parents are still alive).
But the main effect has been that the NGOs need to put much more effort in PR to catch attention of potential donors. And this has put them at the mercy of the press, who need to have a reason to turn up. So the NGOs need to inflate the scale of suffering and their role in ameliorating it. Because unfamiliar people in far off places don't sell papers by themselves.
The press, mostly genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the victims and the work of the aid organisations, needs to inflate the level of suffering above that of the last crisis. And some victims are more newsworthy than others: cut off limbs and children's bellies swollen from hunger do better than forced labour.
Another development, which Polman doesn't touch on, but which I have just read about from the other side, is the increasing rationalisation of the news media, so that there is less and less time for research, fact checking and analysis. Nick Davies´ Flat Earth News shows this development in bold colours, and shows why the press in turn has become so dependent on the NGOs and so uncritical of the information they provide (review is coming up).
A secondary effect of the competition between NGOs is their lack of negotiating power relative to the local powers. For the war lords and local governments, the flow of aid provides fantastic opportunities for improving their position. They can also cream off part of the aid that reaches the victims. And in case they are losing in a civil war, they can use the refugee masses to hide in and recuperate for another round (as for example the fleeing Hutu's did in Goma in 1994).
Indigenous government organisations and warlords also sell access to the victims to the highest bidder (both press and NGOs). This has led to NGOs making compromises which put them on the wrong side of the ethical conundrum: do we help or does helping make things worse?
Finally, the side that Polman references to only in passing, but the victims themselves play an important role in all this. It is in their interest to lie, beg and steal to improve their lot. The books shows some examples of kids lying to get prettier protheses, to be taken to the U.S. or just to get more attention from reporters.
It is enough to turn cynical at the whole aid industry, but Polman says we shouldn't leave it at that. Sometimes we have no choice but to shake hands with the devil to save lives, but also sometimes, we need to decide that by providing aid, we are only prolonging the suffering and destabilising a country for a long time.