At the end of a natural disaster, or some tenuous respite reached in the chaos of a violent conflict, and a newsreader calmly announces that humanitarian aid is on route to the affected regions, the casual observer usually assumes the worst is over, help is on the way. As international journalist Linda Polman asserts in her new book War Games, this is wildly, horrifically inaccurate.
Polman details how, and to what extent, ruthless warring parties exploit aid agencies for their own gain. Over and over again, perpetrators of genocide and civil unrest lure Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) into their country by generating publicity for refugees (often hiring professional PR agencies to do it for them). They then take the aid agencies for all they’re worth, levying enormous taxes on transit and currency exchange, hijacking supplies and selling them for a profit, siphoning off the donor cash flow and forcing agencies to employ their members on massively disproportionate salaries.
In addition to racketeering, they also harness aid activity for more sinister purposes, such as using it to gather a large number of refugees in one area where they can then be massacred. Polman’s overriding concern is just how responsible aid agencies are for their part in human suffering, when they doggedly persist in assisting corrupt and murderous regimes in order that no victim is ignored.
The majority of people in the West have never directly experienced humanitarian aid, and tend to think of it as one massive unseen force for impartial good. Polman depicts a world of aid camps which operate like business fairs, resplendent in colourful logos, populated by attractive female ‘aid angels’ and disaster groupies. Rather than collaborating with each other to provide the best possible help for those in need, most of the time these NGO’s are in fierce competition with each other for new aid contracts, with all the profit and publicity they bring.
The industry is made up of literally thousands of individual organisations, from giants like Oxfam to local church groups who send over five hippies and a guitar to raise morale in Rwanda. More often than not, these smaller groups do more harm than good, the best example being ‘Feed My Lambs International’, a group of American medical students who descended on Sierra Leone, performed a lot of unlicensed, inadequate surgery and left feeling good about themselves.
Much of the book is focused on conflicts and aid in Africa, and while this may lead to a slightly regionalised account of the aid industry, it allows for Polman to utilise her own first-hand reporting throughout. She manages to stay mostly objective, as all good journalists should, and the times when her outrage at what she is observing does break onto the page, it’s completely understandable and already anticipated threefold by the reader.
Reading War Games is like having your own contemporary road-to-Damascus moment; why didn’t I know this? How come this has never been reported before? It challenges all conception of impartial charity and will leave you bewildered at what goes on in the 21st century under the banner of humanitarian aid.