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October 18, 2010 / marios

The politics of humanitarian aid

There was a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker last week  about the unwanted side-effects of humanitarian aid to war-torn countries (“The Alms Dealer”, The New Yorker, October 11, 2010, p. 102). Like most people I suppose, I am a sucker for good causes. I regularly give money to Doctors Without Borders, I bought “Instant Karma” to aid the fight for peace in Darfur, but now I am doubting whether donating for these causes does more good than harm.

In “The Alms Dealer” Philip Gourevitch makes the case (by reviewing Linda Polman’s  book “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?”) that most humanitarian aid to countries in the middle of civil wars have unimaginable side-effects.

A stark example is the case of the Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone. The R.U.F. waged a war of extreme cruelty. They abducted children, stoned to death and hacked limbs off of people, raped women, and burned villages to the ground. But suddenly, in May of 2001 a truce was signed and the Blue Helmets started disarming the R.U.F., whose members started naming their territories as “humanitarian zones” and themselves as “humanitarian officers”. Evidence suggests that the R.U.F. deployed special “cut-hands gangs” that would go around and lop off civilians limbs in an effort to escalate cruelty from both camps, and force the international community, which up until then was turning a blind eye, to start paying attention and help find solutions for the problems of Sierra Leone. The gimmick worked: The U.N.’s involvement in Sierra Leone was at the time the most expensive per capita humanitarian aid operation in the world.

The article details several other examples of such potential ill consequences of organized humanitarian aid (for example, it makes the case that simply the presence of humanitarian camps in Rwanda protracted the war by more than a year, resulting in more deaths than the aid itself was able to prevent). Even if there is a sliver of truth in such stories, at what cost are we providing humanitarian aid?

From now on I will make sure to contribute only for helping people in need for causes other than war, at least until the politics of humanitarian aid are better studied and understood…

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