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.
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
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.
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
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