War Games

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, by Linda Polman, Viking £12.99, 218 pages, FT Bookshop price: £10.39

In an age when calls for donations to yet another emergency aid appeal come thick and fast, what is one to make of the war of words raging over how best to help the world’s poor out of war, disease and famine?

Last year, Dambisa Moyo argued in her book Dead Aid that decades – and billions of dollars – of assistance from governments and multilateral agencies had perpetuated poverty and corruption in Africa. It earned her a storm of criticism from the aid community, not least from the economist and leading aid proponent Jeffrey Sachs.

More recently, a BBC World Service documentary reported that large amounts of the money raised by the Band Aid organisation in the 1980s to combat famine in Ethiopia ended up in the hands of armed rebels. Cue an angry tirade from Bob Geldof, the driving force behind Band Aid and its successor campaigns.

Now comes a book from the Dutch writer and journalist Linda Polman that shines a light on the multibillion dollar juggernaut that is today’s global humanitarian aid network. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times is a disturbing account that raises profound questions not just about the palliative efficacy of aid – but whether it fuels and prolongs conflict.

As Polman points out, the scale of the humanitarian aid business has become vast. The sum made available for emergency relief by member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2008 was $11.2bn, she reports – not including fundraising by private organisations.

Since the end of the cold war, the number of international non-governmental agencies (INGOs) through which much aid is disbursed has mushroomed. About 40 INGOs were active in Thailand to aid Cambodian refugees in the 1980s; by 2004 there were some 2,000 in Afghanistan; the UN Development Programme estimates the total number of INGOs worldwide now exceeds 37,000.

Polman traces the genesis of today’s aid culture to the mid-19th century. Two contemporary humanitarians, the Swiss Henri Dunant and the Briton Florence Nightingale, were prompted by the horrors of war to take action. But they had very different outlooks.

Nightingale was determined that governments and executive authorities responsible for conflicts should be forced into taking responsibility for the consequences – they should not be allowed to duck those responsibilities because voluntary organisations were prepared to step in to offer care and succour to victims of war.

Dunant, by contrast, lobbied for international volunteer organisations to help – without conditions – wounded soldiers (in those days, the victims of war were overwhelmingly combatants, not civilians). In 1863, he founded the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to offer aid based on the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Nightingale dismissed it as “absurd”. But it is those founding principles of the ICRC that have come to dominate the world’s aid industry.

Polman argues that this “see no evil” approach on the part of aid agencies has led to them being cynically exploited by political regimes round the world, with the result that many conflicts have been made worse, not better, by their presence. This has been exacerbated, she says, by the growing and fierce competition between agencies, which face a constant struggle to stay in the public eye and to attract donations and win contracts from government and multilateral donors.

Nor does she spare the media from criticism, especially television, which all too eagerly accepts the assistance of aid agencies to get access to a story that is then framed in simplistic, emotional terms. She quotes BBC broadcaster George Alagiah in 1992 about the famine in Somalia. “Relief agencies depend upon us for publicity ... We try not to ask the question too bluntly: ‘Where are the starving babies?’ And they never answer explicitly. We get the pictures just the same.”

The charge that aid agencies inadvertently perpetuate conflicts is deeply troubling. But the examples Polman cites are certainly telling. From the Biafran war in Nigeria in the late 1960s to conflicts in the Horn of Africa throughout the last few decades – including Ethiopia in the 1980s – governments and factional leaderships have clearly exploited food shortages either to extract fees and taxes (extortion in other words) from aid programmes or to suppress hostile populations – or both.

“Famine is rarely caused by a lack of food. It far more frequently occurs because people are denied the right to food,” writes Polman.

She also attacks the aid agencies for allowing a blurring of the lines between their humanitarian programmes and western government policies – most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the US portrays the NGOs as “force multipliers”, used to deliver development projects alongside military campaigns in these countries, it is not surprising they become targets, forced to deliver programmes through layers of local contractors. “The result is an unfathomable channelling of aid billions that is highly susceptible to fraud.”

The natural response from the aid community to this kind of criticism is – pace Henri Dunant: “Oh! Should we simply do nothing at all any more?” Polman admits she doesn’t have a simple answer to that. But she insists that just sticking by the Dunant principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence won’t do. She is surely right when she says the aid system must be subject to criticism; and it has to provide a better response to the issue of exploitation by warring factions than another stream of expletives from Bob Geldof.

Which brings us back to the question of what an individual is to do faced with such troubling issues. Last year, I was persuaded by The Life You Can Save, a passionate, if flawed, plea for more personal giving by the rich world to the poor by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, to increase our rather modest family charitable donations. Should I now reverse that in light of books such as Polman’s and Moyo’s? I don’t think so. But I certainly will be very discriminating about which agencies get my cash.

Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s executive editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.