Marks out of 10 - The politics of giving

18th June 2010 at 01:00

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times

By Linda Polman

Viking, pound;6.99

As teachers, we are committed to passing on humanitarian values such as compassion, empathy and charity to children. Many schools have long-term links with individual charities, and many more respond to specific disasters such as famine, tsunami and war with prodigious money-raising efforts. After reading Linda Polman's book, they might be a little more wary of doing so, aware that donating might actually prolong the very ills that they are hoping to cure.

In the blisteringly uncomfortable preface to the catalogue of aid disasters that is War Games, she poses a question: "Imagine. It's 1943. You're an international aid worker. The telephone rings. It's the Nazis. You'll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners. What do you do?"

Your answer will depend on whether you fall into the Florence Nightingale school of thought or that of Henri Dunant, founder member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Nightingale recognised that humanitarian actions can actually prolong the conflicts they try to help. Dunant argued that the role of the ICRC was to provide impartial humanitarian aid to ease suffering unconditionally. The result of this thinking, argues Polman, frequently makes a bad situation considerably worse - and at a very high financial cost. "There's a market for good works and it's big business. Call it the moral economy if you like," Nicholas Stockton, a former executive director of Oxfam, told Newsweek magazine.

But just how moral is this economy? Polman devotes her opening chapter to the refugee camps at Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1994 - "a total ethical disaster". World aid poured in to help refugees who were assumed to be the victims of the genocide in Rwanda. In fact, the Hutus in the camps and on the TV screens were the perpetrators of the genocide, not its victims. Housed in the refugee camps, the Hutus regrouped, were fed and received medical attention. Their government moved in and militias ran the camps, which became so dangerous that aid workers feared to go there. Raids were carried out over the Rwandan border. When international aid finally ceased, the camps were razed to the ground by the Rwandan army. Rwanda itself had received no aid - all the money had gone into the camps for the Hutu genocidaires.

The core principles of the humanitarian argument are neutrality, independence and impartiality. How do these stack up when aid is being increasingly politicised by both warmongers and donors? In some of the most gruelling sections of the book, Polman provides ample evidence that warmongers actively seek aid because they need the money it brings with it. To ensure it arrives, they pursue deliberate policies of starvation and mutilation. Nothing brings in donor money as fast as TV footage of starving children and amputees.

"When we started cutting (off) hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us," said a witness in Sierra Leone. "Do you know what war means?" asks a rebel in the same country. "W-A-R means Waste All Resources. Destroy everything. Then you people will come and fix it."

On the donor side, aid is seen as a political weapon. "I believe in development, and I believe with all my heart that it truly is an equal partner, along with defence and diplomacy, in the furtherance of America's national security," said Hillary Clinton, after being appointed President Obama's Secretary of State. With such blatant manipulation and politicisation of donor money evident on both sides, does the humanitarian argument still hold water? If not, what are the alternatives?

Polman does not, she says, have all the right answers, but she certainly poses all the right questions. In country after country and case after case, the author provides compelling and detailed evidence that aid has been abused. Yet aid organisations seem accountable to no one except themselves, their affairs are little scrutinised and few journalists have done more than rely on them as providers of tickets into disaster zones. The difficult questions need to be asked. "The option of doing nothing must be available," Polman argues.

War Games is a brilliant polemic and a provocative text. It would make a fine unit of study in any number of courses at sixth-form level. It should also make schools examine the issues more carefully before they launch their next emergency charity appeal. The politics of giving have never seemed so complicated - or so important.



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