Post #6 – When Aid Hurts

All over the world, people need help. There’s civil war in Syria, drought in Somalia, and  famine in South Sudan.

Luckily, all over the world, people willing to help. International Non-Govenmental Organizations, companies, and individuals each give their time, money, and belongings to help improve the lives of others.

We like the idea of supplying aid and assisting people in need, but what if it doesn’t help? What if it can actually make a situation worse?

The Crisis Caravan

Linda Polman is critical of the current humanitarian system in place. She doesn’t believe aid should never be given, but she does raise important questions of what our aid does and where it goes.

The title of her book, The Crisis Caravan, paints an image of the thousand aid organization that come in droves during some crisis. Throughout the book Polman argues a few things: that aid doesn’t always go to the right people, aid that is given is often not needed, and aid organizations aren’t held accountable enough.

Linda Polman, author of The Crisis Caravan

Aid doesn’t always go to the right people

Most people view humanitarian groups as flawless, life-saving projects that bring peace and hope to every country they visit. NGOs do have the capability of saving lives, but they’re also bureaucracies that can also inadvertently prolong a conflict that puts lives in danger. Polman even describes aid organizations as “businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.” This may seem harsh, but consider the following.

When a country is undergoing conflict, warlords, rebels, or even governments will often demand payment from humanitarian groups in exchange for access to war zones. This payment can be made in supplies or cash and can range from 15-80% of the overall worth of what you’re bringing into the country. Instead of going to the afflicted population, these large amounts on money and goods go to the “bad guys” which helps them fund and fuel further conflict.

Governments also create red-tape for organizations that won’t benefit them and sparks competition between the ones that will. With the free-market, if one government or donor says no, there will be others to say yes. Groups get “contract fever” and rush to obtain access to countries despite the potential conflicts that may arise.

NGOs aren’t proud of their potential conflicts of interests and inadvertent fundings to enemy groups because they affect the group’s image. Yet, as hard as they try to cover up their short-comings, people have caught on and are critical.

Aid given is often not needed

The people aware of the flaws in the NGO system have responded by creating their own aid organizations. MONGOs (“My Own NGO”) have become a way for the average citizen to handle a crisis in a more efficient, cost-effective way. While these groups mean well, they, like NGOs, have faults.

The biggest problems with MONGOs is that they’re often not fully aware of the needs of an area and that they’re not always qualified to help. Polman gives countless examples in her book.

Out-dated pharmaceuticals, used or unusable (winter coats in a dessert country) clothing, and expired food have not only sent, but have been sent in surplus. This is due in part to the fact that there are 150,000 registered, licensed MONGOs in the US alone and even more across the world that we have no idea about. When disaster strikes, there is almost always an army of groups ready to give: for better or worse.

A city in the Ukraine declared a surplus of aid and asked convoys to stop sending goods

People and MONGOs that actually go out of their way and visit the afflicted location do just as much damage. Many countries don’t require documents to do work in a country; they can simply show up and get to work with a tourist visa. This can encourage unqualified work.

Most notorious is the frequent, unlicensed medical work performed by school nurses, retired hospital administrators, and med-school residents. Often times, these people go into countries thinking, “Unless we do something, no one will.” They view the little medical knowledge they have as a gift and a potential way out for those in crisis. If it goes well, great! If it doesn’t, they were probably going to die anyway, but at least we tried.

They also forget that they’re plenty of other people out there doing the exact same thing they are, and often with more professional experience. Visiting physicians might mis-diagnose a patient because they’re unfamiliar with local disease and in some regions, an afflicted individual could be seen by three separate “doctors,” each not knowing what the previous one had diagnosed or prescribed.

Overall, MONGOs mean well, but should we really assume that they’re better than establish organizations?

Aid organizations aren’t held accountable enough

NGOs and MONGOs each have their faults and we need to start pointing them out. Not to publicly shame, but to encourage progress. Journalists, the public, and governments need to be willing to ask the tough questions.

First, we much ask if aid is needed. That might sound harsh, but, in some situations, not intruding or giving aid might be the best option if it prevents becoming an involuntary collaborator to the wrong side.

If we decide aid is needed, we need to ask even more questions: what was done, why was it done, how much money was given and to whom, what is required of the workers, who’s being helped, what’s the maximum amount of missing aid an organization regards as acceptable, and what are they doing to follow up with the crisis.

Polman ends her book with a note of encouragement and a shift of focus:

If we don’t ask these questions for our own benefit, then we should ask them for the sake of the people who’ll see our next caravan move in.



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