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Two authors, two views:
does aid fuel conflict?

Imagine you are an international aid worker in a refugee camp and you learn that soldiers, who have been levying taxes on the rice, tents and other supplies being distributed, are using the proceeds to buy weapons. The soldiers then use those weapons to drive more people into the camp or to their deaths. What do you do? It’s with this provocative question that Dutch journalist Linda Polman opens her book, War Games, the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. Polman argues that humanitarian aid often prolongs conflict when it is misused or its delivery is manipulated by armed groups. RCRC spoke to Polman and to Fiona Terry, the author of the 2002 book Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. The two authors raise similar questions but come to very different conclusions.

Illustration ©Belle Mellor

Linda Polman

Journalist and author of War Games, the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times

RCRC: In your book, you argue that humanitarian aid prolongs the suffering caused by conflict. How so?
Polman: Aid organizations have made the analysis themselves several times since 1995, after the experience in the refugee camps in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. One thing they always come up with is that the weakest point is the lack of coordination. That lack of coordination makes aid organizations easy to manipulate by regimes who want to control the aid for their own benefit.

You also make the point in your book that there has been a massive proliferation of aid groups in recent decades and so it’s hard to have a united front. So, is the kind of coordination you’re seeking truly possible?
It’s possible, but only if we want that solution to work. It’s the same discussion we often have about the United Nations (UN). We all scream about how powerless the United Nations is. But the member states can make it as powerful as they want it to be.
The same thing goes with the aid world. If we all agreed that the UN, for example, should be the big coordinating body and if we gave them the power to fulfil that mandate, then it might be possible. The problem is the willingness of donors and aid organizations to compromise a little on sovereignty. They don’t want to let others make decisions for them. If only they would compromise on that, it could get better.

Right now in Haiti, they have this well-intentioned attempt for a cluster approach to coordinate aid organizations working on similar issues. These clusters could be a step towards improvement but as soon as one aid group has to give sovereignty to another, they will begin to withdraw.

You make the case that aid groups should withdraw their assistance if they see it is being abused. Can you give us a case in point?
One example is Darfur, where the lack of cooperation among aid organizations has essentially turned them into marionettes of the regime. There is little investigation into the quantity of aid being pocketed by the Sudanese government or by the rebel organizations inside the refugee camps. But if the aid organizations themselves agreed to make a combined stand against the abuse of aid, then probably they would have a better chance [to stop aid being misappropriated]. I’m not saying it would end, but it would be less easy for a regime or armed group to abuse the aid.

Aid organizations have to stand up against this and say to the regime, “We are the largest organizations on the planet, we are powerful NGOs with these large budgets and we will set our conditions”, and negotiate a better deal.

But if you pull out, wouldn’t that just punish those in need while causing very little impact on the course of the conflict?
This is the argument that organizations make: that it is our moral responsibility and our mandate to stay. But I believe there is also a moral question about the consequence of staying and one of the options is to say “no” or to leave. I believe the more important question is to make sure that the aid organizations themselves are in charge of their own aid supplies before they go. This is what should be negotiated, otherwise you should not go.



Fiona Terry

Author of Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action

RCRC: You’ve lived through and have been writing about the ethical dilemmas of humanitarian aid for more than two decades. What is your take on Linda Polman’s argument?
Terry: When I started my book, it was after the Rwandan refugee camps were attacked in 1994. There was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction from some journalists and analysts who said, “Now we must admit that the Rwandan refugee camps were helping people who were guilty of genocide to rearm and get control over the population. We must not allow that to happen again and we must stop all aid because aid is bad.”

That’s why in my book I really looked into what is the relative contribution of aid to the fighting machine. How important is it? We throw around words like “potentially prolongs war” but in my analysis, it is really not that important a factor. Aid can bring with it very serious negative side effects. But really prolonging war? It’s not often that an armed group depends on aid for its survival.

One of the points that Linda Polman makes is that some aid groups use the concept of neutrality as an excuse to not take a stand when aid is misused. What do you think?
I would not put this down to neutrality. I think neutrality is in fact a sophisticated position to take. What she is describing is more hiding behind a technical, bureaucratic response that says, “Well, it’s our job to deliver aid, so that’s what we’re going to do.” That’s not neutrality.

Some argue that fewer aid groups are adhering to this principle of neutrality, which is perhaps misunderstood and also difficult to put into operation. Do you agree?
In some circumstances you have to ask, “What is more important? We have to be perceived as neutral so we need to think about how each side is going to see this aid.” And sometimes I think you have to say, “Well, these people over here maybe do not need the aid as much, but since it’s really important for us to get access to those who need it most we also need to do something for the less needy folks as well.”

That was very much the case in Darfur. Some of the aid groups came in and said, “It’s the farmers who have suffered from the tactics of the government, so we are only going to aid the farmers.” So they went into the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps and only gave aid to one side of the conflict. By doing so, they ultimately had less access to needy populations.

In this case, I think the ICRC was smart. In the beginning, it set up the camps, but then also got out of them to reach people in rural areas. So it was able to help the farmers as well as identify the needs of the people in the nomadic groups who couldn’t access markets or who needed access to veterinary services. So the ICRC started providing veterinary services and digging water points. And in doing so, they made a better impression and therefore got access to more areas.

So I would disagree and say that neutrality is also an important tactic to get aid to the people who need it most.


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