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Crisis Caravan

What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?

By Linda Polman
13-minute read
Audio available
Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? by Linda Polman

The Crisis Caravan (2011) is about the complexities and pitfalls that come with delivering humanitarian aid to conflict zones. Though aid is usually provided with nothing but good intentions, there are political, social and economic obstacles that can cause it to do more harm than good. These blinks outline the reasons aid work often fails, and offer advice on how we can improve it.

  • Students of politics or conflict studies
  • Anyone who has donated money to a humanitarian organization
  • People thinking of working in humanitarian aid

Linda Polman is a journalist with over fifteen years of experience reporting from war zones. She is the author of We Did Nothing: Why The Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When The UN Goes In, which was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.

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Crisis Caravan

What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?

By Linda Polman
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? by Linda Polman
Synopsis

The Crisis Caravan (2011) is about the complexities and pitfalls that come with delivering humanitarian aid to conflict zones. Though aid is usually provided with nothing but good intentions, there are political, social and economic obstacles that can cause it to do more harm than good. These blinks outline the reasons aid work often fails, and offer advice on how we can improve it.

Key idea 1 of 8

Modern aid organizations often fail to stick to humanitarian principles because they’re now commercial enterprises.

What first comes to mind when you hear the term “humanitarian aid”? Probably, you think of the ICRC – the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Founded in 1863 by Henri Dunant, the Red Cross was the first Western humanitarian aid organization, and countless other aid organizations have sought to emulate its commitment to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.

Unfortunately, however, today’s organizations often fail to uphold these principles. This became clear in 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, when Hutus slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.

When armed Tutsi forces tried to fight back, thousands of Hutus fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 250 aid organizations provided them with medical care, food and shelter in refugee camps in Goma. The organizations present included various UN groups, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Oxfam and several branches of Caritas and CARE.

These refugee camps effectively served as strategic centers for the armed Hutu forces, who then carried out further killings of the Tutsi people. The extremist Hutu government simply relocated to Goma and continued the genocide.

The aid organizations knew about it, too, and failed to stick to the principle of neutrality by siding with the Hutus.

This happened largely because humanitarian organizations are now commercial enterprises.

Consider what happened when an Irish aid organization tried to cut down on supplies in protest of Hutu violence. When they stopped giving out extra soap and mattresses, another organization swooped in and started giving them out.

Aid organizations, instead of working together, are often in competition. They incur sky-high costs, so once they set up in a crisis zone, they try to earn back as much of their investment as possible, which they can only do by winning donor contracts. In the competition for donations, humanitarian principles are often set aside.

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