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Killer aid

Book>> War Games: The story of aid and war in modern times • by Linda Polman • Penguin Books • Rs 399

 
By Utkarsha Deshpande
Published: Tuesday 15 June 2010

imageIn the 1980s, when civil war was at its peak in Cambodia there were about 40 international non-profits dealing with Camb-odian refugees on the Thai border.

About 15 years later, there were 250 operating during the Yugoslavian war. By 2004, there were 2,500 in Afghanistan. In War Games Dutch journalist Linda Polman shows how humanitarianism has become a billion dollar industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers.

Polman is a bit of a war veteran. She has covered conflicts in East and South Africa, Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia. She suggests that with the breaking up of the Soviet Union, regions afflicted by war became something like charity enterprise zones, drastically expanding the aid industry. It is a development she does not quite like; for, aid is most often manipulated by those in power.

As evidence, Polman lists examples from Biafra to Darfur, including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid helped prolong wars or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims.

A striking case in the book deals with the ethnic conflict in Rwanda. Killers from the Hutu community took advantage of the political naiveté of aid workers. After the genocide, they fled en-masse across the border to Goma in what was then Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo. There refugee camps were assembled and served by an enormous array of international agencies, while back in Rwanda, where Tutsi corpses filled rivers and lakes, aid was not so focused. The world was looking for refugees, the symbol of human catastrophe, and they were Hutus.

So the militias that had committed the atrocities received food and shelter while their surviving victims were left destitute. The aid enabled the Hutu extremists to continue their attempts to exterminate the Tutsis from the refugee camps in Goma.

Such perverse situations, according to Polman, stem from neutrality. “Without neutral humanitarian aid, the war in Rwanda would almost certainly have ground to a halt fairly quickly.” But Polman is not always on sure ground when it comes to neutrality. In Afghanistan, she castigates aid agencies for working closely with the US and allies. This, she argues, has tied their access to populations in need of aid.

There is another contradiction in her reading of humanitarian aid. “Aid as it is given can be improved. Read the reports by the agencies themselves. They know what’s going wrong,” Pol-man says at one point. But she also recognizes that solving the problems is easier said than done: aid agencies may recognise their failings but are unwilling to address them because of the pressures of competition. If one charity pulls out of an operation, there are plenty of others who will fill its place in this billion dollar industry.

Deshpande has worked with non-profits, including Amnesty International

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