This provocative book by Linda Polman, published in September of 2010, traces the rise of humanitarian aid from the time of the Biafran war in Africa in 1968 (the first war with daily televised images of starving children) to the present. In it, Polman makes a convincing argument that humanitarian aid has often contributed to suffering by virtue of its sustenance of the power infrastructures that created the deplorable conditions in the first place.
In the Biafran war, for example, Nigeria pursued a deliberate policy of maiming and starving children. Polman traces how the images of this clash, broadcast in the West, resulted in an explosion of aid to Biafra, an outpouring of Western aid which gave rise to the huge NGO’s and to the basic shape of humanitarian relief as we know it today. In the case of Biafra, aid from these NGO’s enabled the resistance movement to last longer, but eventually Biafra was forced to concede and be re-absorbed by Nigeria. Following defeat, the feared retaliations and genocides never happened, leading observers to wonder if the humanitarian aid had enabled a losing battle and, by virtue of its enablement, caused even more suffering than if the war had ended earlier.
The same type of story has been oft repeated since.
Polman follows that thread, examining humanitarian aid through subsequent wars and events such as Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Using concrete examples, she illustrates her theory that western aid organizations often have been shrewdly manipulated by parties to violent conflict, with aid deliberately leveraged by parties as a means of increasing power. In case after case, Polman makes an argument that humanitarian aid has done as much harm as good, by propping up or supporting power structures which fail the societies which inhabit them.
A review by Phillip Gourevitch in New Yorker magazine places this book on the same shelf with an long list of books by former aid workers *(see list, below) which argue, in effect, that humanitarian aid may be as damaging as colonialism, by virtue of its ethnocentric export of western values and western solutions to problems.
Gourevitch quotes Kennedy from The Dark Sides of Virtue: “Humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be.” Gourevitch also references scathing critique from Marin, to the effect that donors may care less about the effect of their aid than their own sense of virtue: perhaps we give not because of the effect of aid on the person we are helping, but rather to further our own sense of virtue.
To my way of thinking, these books, singly or in combination, are a must-read not only for those who donate aid, but also for anyone who is involved with cross cultural negotiation and conflict resolution. Anyone involved in cross cultural exchanges intended to benefit an “other” needs to be concerned not only with ensuring first that no harm is done, but also with making transparent the larger power structures and influences that contribute to (or take away from) peace and justice.
* This list includes:
- Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism (2005),
- Fassin and Pandolfi, Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Aid (2010),
- Terry, Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (2002),
- Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2003),
- Maren, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (2002), and
- De Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (1998)