What are the principal concerns Linda Polman raises in Crisis Caravan?
Linda Polman, author of Crisis Caravan and journalist, examines an ethical dilemma on whether it is better for aid organizations to “leave or continue providing aid at any price?”(2). Polman devoted her life to submersing herself in real world conflicts so she could bring light both the positive and negative aspects aid organizations really do have.
She is not the first or only person to examine this question. In fact, she outlines in her introduction that this is a conflict deeply historically rooted.
It started with Henri Dunant and Florence Nightingale. Dunant believed in “Tutti fratelli” meaning we are all brothers. And Dunant was strongly convicted of that belief. He convinced volunteers to help all the wounded men in the Franco-Prussian War despite their nationality. Soon every house, church and place was turned into a clinic for miles and miles. However, volunteers became exhausted resulting in aid to fail. But this is where his idea for the Red Cross, many trained nurses who were qualified bringing help to all, began. From this point onward, the Red Cross serves as an aid organization to all — no matter their side or stance in the conflict.
Dunant believed that reducing the number of cripples would save the government money and thus be more beneficial to countries as a whole. However, this is where Florence Nightingale disagreed with him. She thought that the higher the war expenses, the sooner it would end and by saving the government money (Dunant’s philosophy) the war would be prolonged.
Nightingale’s belief in this was a result of her own experiences. Her hospital for war victims was disgusting and many died there, but she couldn’t get anyone to help better the conditions.The reason she couldn’t get help is because the government wouldn’t present her results of how dirty and gross care conditions were because then it’d be harder for them to recruit new soldiers. She then devoted her whole life to getting the government, the only people who she believed were able to, improve conditions. Nightingale disagreed with Dunant’s attempt to “lessen the government’s burdens” because she wanted them to be more responsible.
“Humanitarianism is based on a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally. Aid organizations endorsing the humanitarian principles of the Red Cross promise neutrality (no cooperation with one side in preference to the other), impartiality (the giving of aid purely according to need), and independent (from geopolitical, military, or other interests). Humanitarian aid workers help wherever, whenever and whomever then can” (Crisis Caravan 7).
Nightingale was appalled by the beliefs stated by the quote above: she thought it was an incomplete and ignorant viewpoint to have. However, in present day 194 countries embrace and support the Red Cross. Though wars and humanitarian territories have changed, the Red Cross’ views have stayed the same. Polman writes, “Humanitarian aid workers still help wherever, whenever, and whomever they can, as a matter of principle, but by doing so they are at the mercy of the belligerents and become subject to their whims” (9). What Polman means by this quote is that by living up to this principle, humanitarian organizations are at risk of and do help the bad guys and hurt the victims.
Polman goes on to examine this question by traveling with readers alongside the fact that humanitarian “caravans” go to and from humanitarian territories without much thought. She asks the question that is the epicenter of her book: “If aid has become a strategic aspect of warfare, can the claim to neutrality made by humanitarian aid organizations still be justified?” (11). In other words, is neutral humanitarian aid effective in the real world today.
How does Polman answer this big question?
I believe Polman answers her question of whether aid should be given at all costs and be given neutrally by saying, “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa” (177). Polman first went to Sierra Leone to examine humanitarian conflicts and thought that initially they were great: they claimed to be helping people while restaurants opened up again, gas (a resource lost at the time) was given to them, nice places were being rented out for aid workers, offices were opened, and even golf courses were opened for aid workers. She was enthusiastic about this growth until she realized that the aid organizations were finding a connection with the political elite (guilty of causing the war and prolonging it) and giving them the most money and the actual victims would receive none of the aid money. She thought this was wrong because she always thought that aid was going to poor, the “Mother Teresa” disguise many of us believe to be true of aid organizations. She wanted to know more so she went to a multitude of other countries experiencing conflict and humanitarian aid to see if the same thing was happening — and it was.
Polman sums up this issue simply by saying aid is an industry. Amongst the 37,000 aid organizations that the UN have counted (they stopped counting at 37,000) they are not working together and this is where Polman finds a major issue. Since they aren’t working together, they can’t prevent the bad guys from getting the aid and instead are working for their own interior motives and connections.
The aid industry is a competitive, highly expensive industry. Polman says in her TedTalk,”What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? A Journalist’s Journey,” that $130 billion dollars per year (not included private citizens’ money that they donate) is put into the aid industry. This is an ENORMOUS amount of money. Because there is so much money involved, aid organizations want their specific organization to rise to the top and have the most money, thus shutting other organizations down. Aid organizations don’t go in with a communal plan (looking at what’s best for the citizens) but rather a plan catered to their own personal motives of money and success which often results in connecting with the elites who can give them money. But the catch is, the elites are almost always the bad guys. But honestly, this is not entirely the aid organizations fault. There are no precautions taken to make sure that they do not fall victim to this tragedy.
Watch Polman’s full TedTalk here:
Polman believes that for aid organizations to stop being a business or industry disguised as Mother Teresa they must work and cooperate together, to actually become an agency that gives help to those who need it most.
What do journalists, the public, governments have to do to make humanitarian aid successful?
So this is a pretty scary thought that something like the Red Cross, associated with so much good, can be prolonging or even fueling conflicts as a result of their competitive nature with one another. We must ask ourselves, what can we do?
Polman gives a few suggestions on this. First, in regards to journalism, they need to stop “automatically approving” (177) of aid organizations, supporting them wherever they go, and begin to question them. They must ask why aid is needed (and if it is in fact needed), how much money is being gained and who is gaining it, if aid workers have the right training to be giving aid, if they are paying the correct attention to the correct people/neighborhoods/environments, what post-care after their aid they are planning to provide, and whether the enemies would reap benefits. Polman claims that journalists not only should be asking these questions but have the responsibility to be asking them. Journalists see aid organizations as a good story but they must dig below the surface and get at the root of aid organizations in our world.
So what can we as human beings do? We must also ask questions. Polman suggests we must stop highlighting the principles of humanitarian groups and get at the effect of their consequences. We need to ask when their principles do not become ethical.
The government, and us as individual citizens, also must know that saying “no” to giving aid is an option. We need to ask if doing something is always better than doing nothing and find out who is truly receiving the aid.
Polman exposes a new identity of humanitarian groups that we must actively question and examine.
Take a look at the Red Cross in my blog’s focus country of Syria: