How 'aid' can be anything but

For all their noble intentions, global humanitarian agencies often help oppressors above victims


The road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. The peacemakers at Versailles thought they were creating a Europe free from war; all that they succeeded in doing was to prepare the continent for a conflict even bloodier than the one they believed they had brought to a conclusion.

The peacemakers of 1945 believed that, in replacing the failed League of Nations with the United Nations, they had learned from the league's mistakes. Instead, they had given birth to a considerably more expensive talking-shop with faults even greater than those of the body it replaced - and which has turned out to be much more corrupt.

In her new book, War Games: The Story of War and Aid in Modern Times, the Dutch journalist Linda Polman teaches the same lesson. Polman is a well-informed cynic. Her previous publications have included a brutal assessment of the role of the UN's so-called "peacekeeping" operations in Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti.

In War Games, she uses the examples of Somalia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Sudan to ask another brutal question: does international humanitarian assistance to war-torn countries do more harm than good?

The charitable endeavours have not relieved suffering but rather have prolonged war

Through an analysis of what she has had the courage to identify as the global humanitarian aid "industry", Polman demonstrates that, in spite of their lofty ideals, the charities that have insisted on intervening in these ravaged lands have meddled - from the best of motives, one hopes - in matters that they simply did not understand.

Often, as a result, all that their assistance has achieved has been to prolong conflict and the human misery that it has spawned. For instance, in Goma (Democratic Republic of Congo), supplies of food and other necessities to a refugee camp simply enabled Hutu terrorists to regroup and resume their terrorising activities against the Tutsis. "Without humanitarian aid," Polman concludes, "the Hutus' war would almost certainly have ground to a halt fairly quickly."

More generally, according to Polman, the net result of such charitable endeavours is not - as the charities claim - to relieve suffering but rather to prolong wars and to reward those responsible for the suffering.

There are, I believe, even broader and even more unpalatable lessons that can be learned from Polman's analysis. As she demonstrates, charitable endeavours are rarely if ever politically neutral, even if those running the charities genuinely believe them to be so. The Palestinians' 60-year-old obsession with their own victimhood has been sustained by variety of factors. One of them has certainly been the readiness of international aid agencies to minister to and even encourage this sense of victimhood while insisting that their overriding aim is merely to alleviate distress.

The problem is not simply that, over the decades, much of the money raised by aid agencies in the Middle East has found its way into the pockets of corrupt leaders (notably the late Yasir Arafat and his disciples). Much more serious has been the bolstering of false hopes that this charity has, in effect, purchased. We can see this clearly in the cases of Gaza and of the Palestinian "refugee" camps that litter Lebanon. If no aid agency were permitted to operate in the Lebanon, the Lebanese government would be faced with a stark choice: let the refugees starve to death, or lift the restrictions on them and permit them to integrate into Lebanese society.

Whatever suffering there is in Gaza is being prolonged through so-called international humanitarian assistance. No Hamas regime there is going to ask Jerusalem for peace terms - still less agree to them - while this assistance continues to be forthcoming. Indeed, in Gaza, the problem is being compounded through the manner in which this humanitarian assistance is being delivered: not directly to those who need it, but indirectly under the direction of the Hamas administration.

Using her own case studies, Polman insists that "famine rarely results from food shortages. It arises far more often because people are denied their right to food." This denial is at someone's behest - some identifiable person or group, in other words, decides who shall eat and who shall not. Aid agencies are far too trusting when they cede to belligerent regimes the right to distribute the supplies they buy with your money and mine.

In Gaza, no less than in Goma, the net result has been to reward and legitimise intransigence, and thus to prolong the suffering of the innocent.

    Last updated: 10:49am, July 9 2010

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