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Review of ‘War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times’ by Linda Polman

When first published, this was a work in progress, a review of ‘War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times’ by Linda Polman. It has now been published in DPR (Vol 28 No 6, Nov 2010 Pgs 771-5). Comments welcome.

Reading Linda Polman’s polemic on humanitarian aid feels dangerously, even thrillingly illicit. It’s like watching a cheetah bring down an impala on the Serengeti plain. Your sympathy is with the doe-eyed victim – but you can’t help admire the power and ruthless ferocity of the predator.

The argument is merciless, the detail wide-ranging, the narrative entertaining and rich in colour. Polman argues that humanitarian aid is rooted in high principle, but has in practice come to be sordid, commercial, exploitative and counter-productive. Specifically, humanitarian aid (HA):

  • Fosters conflict and encourages atrocities, as militias around the world escalate operations in a bid to ‘win’ attention from the outside world;
  • Protects the perpretrators of violence in so-called ‘refugee’ camps;
  • Funds the continuation of violence, through formal and informal taxies and levies, and through looting;
  • Is coopted by the security organs of donor countries, who use NGOs as camouflage in conflict;
  • Leads agencies to exaggerate and manipulate the media as they compete for contracts and donations;
  • Allows a proliferation of unqualified, unprofessional and unethical aid agencies and workers, who do very little good and often harm;
  • Undermines local economic development by creating high-wage enclaves; and
  • Degrades individuals and whole societies by importing inappropriate values and cultural norms.

All this is finely observed – in locations ranging from Rwanda, DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia and Northern Kenya, through to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Afghanistan. One piece of advice, though. If you are an aid worker relaxing after a hard day in the camp, or even a donor recovering from a day of government relations and donor coordination, and Linda Polman appears in search of a beer – well, be careful what you say, about the locals or the country or your mission, lest you find your words cited in support of one or other of her cultural critiques. Be especially careful if you are an evangelical Christian, toting your guitar to a refugee camp to offer ‘hope’, or sweeping up amputee children in Sierra Leone for treatment overseas.

The anecdotes are toe-curlingly plausible and delivered in uncompromising language. What are we to make, for example, of the ‘white women being taught water aerobics’ in the pool next door to a conference on ‘The Traumatized Child’ (Pg 45)? Or the ‘aid workers who cared for child soldiers and war orphans by day and relaxed by night in the arms of child prostitutes’ (Pg 47)? Or of the Government officials and donors who gather at a luxury hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2001, to celebrate the fact that the country has again been named the world’s poorest by UNDP, and will be eligible for special international aid programmes (Pg 148)?

Anecdotes are fine, of course, as far as they go, but to what extent do they prove a case, even when backed up with interviews and other sources? That’s one big question to ask about Polman’s work. The other big question is about the implications. What is to be done?

Humanitarians will be able to mount a plausible defence against some aspects of Linda Polman’s critique. They will argue that it applies mainly to a particular kind of humanitarian context, the conflict-related, rather than the natural disaster-related. They will say that some of it is dated (the Rwanda genocide, after all, was nearly twenty years ago, the Ethiopian famine nearly thirty). They will point to major improvements in the management of humanitarian work, by virtue of voluntary standard-setting, certification and training, as well as improved leadership by the UN system. They will say that the local and international politics might have become a little easier to manage, as a result of the recognition of the Responsibility to Protect, the creation of the International Criminal Court, and the establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. And they will say that there is something cheap about snooping on out-of-hours conversations among aid workers under stress.

However, humanitarians will also recognise the continuing truth of the essential dilemmas that Polman traces: the difficulty of engaging in conflict zones without making things worse; the need to protect and enhance funding by being visible in the right places; the risk of being coopted by security interests; the neglect of unfashionable ‘donor orphans’; and the difficulty of attracting staff without undermining local institutions. When Polman explores these issues using the observations of humanitarian luminaries like James Morris, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Sergio Vieira de Mello, or Jan Egeland, their words resonate not just for their own time, but also for ours.

What, then, is to be done? Here, Polman leaves us floundering. ‘I don’t have the solution’, she says,  . . . ’my argument is that we must stop avoiding the questions’ (Pg 158). In fact, the title of the final chapter is ‘Ask Them Questions’: hold humanitarian agencies to account; ask when humanitarian principles cease to be ethical; and ‘have the audacity to ask whether doing something is always better than doing nothing’ (Pgs 163-4). The clear implication is that the right answer to the last question is ‘No’.

Actually, to say that Polman leaves us floundering is not quite fair. Two historical figures introduce the book and point the way to alternative approaches. The first is Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross Movement, and the prototype humanitarian. The other is Florence Nightingale, who one might expect to be in the same camp, but who was in fact an opponent, according to Polman, arguing that reducing the cost of war would only prolong it, and that the views of the Red Cross were ‘most absurd’ (Pg 8).

These, however, are only two signposts to possible futures. The cross-roads has other options, and each road has its metaphorical gate-keeper.

On the first road stands, yes, Henri Dunant. Humanitarian aid is beset with difficulty and contradiction, but is a necessary cause. The principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality remain sacrosanct. International Humanitarian Law provides a framework. And the objective must be continual improvement, achieved by means of rigorous evaluation and investment in organisational learning. Many travel laboriously down this rock-strewn road.

The second road is guarded, yes, at least on this evidence, by Florence Nightingale. Putting words into her mouth, the argument might be that States have duties in conflict and that piling in with aid relieves them of their responsibilities. It is not easy to see this argument playing well in the remote forest havens of the world’s most cruel militias, but we can imagine Florence Nightingale approving of the ICC, as a vehicle for holding the worst offenders to account, and perhapspour encourager les autres. But this road to disengagement is certainly less-travelled: grassy, as Robert Frost would have it, and wanting wear.

At the mouth of the third road stands Bernard Kouchner, currently Foreign Minister of France, but known as the man who defected from the humanitarian consensus and founded Medecins Sans Frontieres, as a vehicle for a new and outspoken humanitarianism, unafraid of political controversy and prepared to take the consequences – expelled, for example, from Ethiopia, Sudan and Sri Lanka. Although impartiality and neutrality feature in its mission statement, MSF also says that ‘when MSF is witness to massive and neglected acts of violence against individuals and groups, we may speak out publicly based on eyewitness accounts, medical data and experience’. This stand earned MSF a Nobel Prize in 1999, but only limited followers. There is not too much traffic on this road.

On the fourth road stands George W Bush, representing those who believe that the subordination of the humanitarian to the political is inevitable and probably desirable, certainly in conflicts where the big powers have made their presence felt. Some contemplating this road believe that humanitarian NGOs should be actors in the fight on terror; others believe that they cannot avoid being seen as such, when they come from countries at war, are staffed by nationals of those countries, and often depend on protection by troops or police who take sides in the conflict. The Oxfams, SCFs, World Visions and CAREs often find themselves threatened by this trap. Even the UN is now caught, seen as an agent of outside intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. Is even the ICRCInternational Committee of the Red Cross still able to preserve its essential neutrality? This is not a popular road, dark and beset by menacing shadows. There is, however, a surprising amount of traffic, and not all of it neo-conservative: some respectable humanitarians find it difficult to maintain enthusiasm for complete separation of the humanitarian and political spheres.

At the entrance to a fifth road stands watch a paternal yet stern figure, the Regulator – Eddie George, perhaps, Governor of the Bank of England, or Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. No traffic yet on this road, but the signage is unambiguous. A permit is needed to proceed, the qualifying criteria are demanding, and inspection is rigorous. The larger and more professional NGOs are likely to be welcome here, along with the UN and the best private sector businesses working in the field. However, the small and unprofessional will be less likely to succeed, those founded on individual initiative, the ones Linda Polman terms MONGOs (‘My Own NGO’). Humanitarian Aid will continue to be a market, but like the post-crisis financial market, much more heavily managed than before.

Finally, a sixth road has Bill Gates standing ready: a man experienced in running a global industry with few competitors, a consolidator with the ability to set global standards, a powerful force, but in principle accountable. Gates here is a metaphor for a humanitarian industry with fewer players, operating globally and resourcing the whole range of humanitarian emergencies with impartiality. The ICRCInternational Committee of the Red Cross would be present, and the UN. Perhaps some carefully selected NGONon-governmental organisation or private sector partners to manage the last mile logistics. But most existing humanitarian agencies would fall by the way-side. This is a road to be travelled by the few, not the many.

Dunant, Nightingale, Kouchner, Bush, Bernanke or Gates. These are the options facing humanitarians in the future. They may not always be mutually exclusive, and some actions will be common to all. Further, place and brand identity both matter. What works for the ICRCInternational Committee of the Red Cross in the Nuba Mountains, for example, or for the UN in Myanmar, may not work for Oxfam in Afghanistan or CARE in Iraq. As Polman rightly says, solutions will vary from case to case (Pg 158). Nevertheless, some choices will be necessary.

The best humanitarians will continue to argue for change, as they have done vociferously, at least since Goma in 1994. Among the shared priorities:

  • More forceful intervention on the political and peace-keeping side, to reduce the number and civilian impact of lethal conflicts;
  • More attention to the donor orphans like Western DRC, in order to ensure fair distribution of humanitarian coverage;
  • Recognition of humanitarian principles by military authorities;
  • Weeding out the incompetent, by better standard-setting for NGOs and other actors, like the SPHERE standards or the World Economic Forum and OCHAOffice for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN) Principles for private sector enggement;
  • More ethical fund-raising and public affairs management by NGOs and the private sector;
  • More sophisticated advocacy when human rights are at risk, using both private and public channels; and
  • Better embedness in local economic development, including working with Government agencies to build long term programmes;

Beyond these, the roads begin to diverge. For example, those in favour of a more centralised system would favour greater power for the UN in coordinating and funding relief operations, building on the success of the cluster system of agency coordination and the creation of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). Those in favour of greater regulation would extend voluntary standard-setting to more formal quality control and certification. Those in favour of speaking-out and bearing witness would raise the public profile of human rights abuse. And those in favour of developing country Government leadership would move quickly from special project funding to general budget support, even in post-conflict situations.

None of these roads is Florence Nightingale’s, but nor exactly are they Henri Dunant’s. Others will help to shape the itinerary and determine which road is taken. And as Robert Frost concludes, taking the right road makes all the difference.

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