sgwordy's resident humanitarian is back from the field and brought this article to my attention. It highlights a book by Linda Polman regarding the ineffectiveness of aid organizations and posits that they contribute to prolonging war conflicts. The article correctly identifies the book as a polemic but doesn't do much to point out the one-sided nature of the book's arguments (to review: polemic:).
Like many books of its kind it points out some very real problems but then acts like these problems are the norm (rather than the exception) and that the parties involved are unaware and uninterested in solving these problems. That is patently false in many cases and certainly in this one regarding aid organizations. The problem of effective delivery of aid, and prevention of that aid being abused, is a very real problem that aid agencies work hard to resolve in each and every crisis. But remember, it's a crisis! Each situation is different and there are no hard and fast rules. The point is to reach victims and agencies do everything they can to appropriately react to a crisis and coordinate their efforts with local organizations to reach victims.
The book makes no distinction between development aid (which receives the bulk of donor funds if I remember correctly) and humanitarian/crisis aid. It also states outright that ngo's crisis hop for personal gains completely disregarding the years that many organizations spend in locales. These years often precede a media-hyped crisis and continue after the media have moved on. It's been pointed out that much of Polman's field experience has been with media-hyped crises so she may have limited experience in the more on-going projects.
It's one of those books that focuses only on extreme cases that do not reflect the the day-to-day activities of aid organizations. Worse, it's pointing fingers but giving no real solutions. The only solution given is that if you think aid is being abused by those with the power to do it then you [aid agency] should leave. Oh that's productive! Aid agencies want to reach victims. It is their first, last, and only goal. They will seek out every alternative to leaving in their goal of helping victims of all crises (not just political crises). If an agency finds that they can not effectively reach victims then they do leave but to use that as a first response is not an option. Or if it is, then maybe aid agencies are a thing of the past. Why show up at all if you're not willing to face the hard realities of a crisis situation? These are not easy problems.
I think what I found most offensive was her lumping of all aid workers into a category of selfish individuals enjoying the high-life whilst surrounded by low-wage/poverty conditions. What bullshit! My blood is boiling just thinking about this so I better stop while I'm still coherent.
It's a shame the book is so fatalistic and unproductive because it does make several good points. One in particular is that agencies ought to practice more critical oversight of themselves and each other. Even better if this can be done in the public eye. The good news is that agencies are doing this. The process has begun and, hopefully, will continue and help to improve effectiveness.
Two parting thoughts:
1) While I remain convinced of the good that aid agencies are capable of doing it's vital that you know and trust agencies to whom you choose to donate. Do your homework! Don't forget that dollar votes are the most important so make sure your dollar is going to someone you trust and support.
2) I'm interested in the topic of humanitarian relief and try to remained informed but I am ultimately an outsider. I welcome any views, especially insider views, that can shed more light on any issues I bring up as my goal is accurate information always!