The recent claim that Band Aid famine relief money sent to Ethiopia had been used to arm rebels elicited a fierce response from Bob Geldof. He accused the BBC, which aired the allegation, of distortion and a failure to provide credible evidence. He also said that it would be a "tragedy" if people stopped giving to charity and requested that journalists "stop venturing palpably untrue statements dressed up as fact."
In effect, the BBC report said that Geldof's vision of humanitarian intervention, which had galvanized a generation, was - at least partially - a sham.
Exactly what took place in Ethiopia will probably never be established beyond doubt. After all, it was a war zone mired in chaos, desperation, and human misery. It may be, as Geldof insists, that the vast majority of the aid his charity raised reached its intended recipients and that none was used, contrary to the BBC report, to buy military hardware.
But, according to a new book by Dutch writer Linda Polman, such positive outcomes are the exception in the field of humanitarian aid. In War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, Polman argues that humanita nanism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers.
Since the end of the Cold War, the business of humanitarian aid has flourished. During the proxy wars fought by African and Asian states backed by the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, suggests Polman, aid agencies found it very difficult to gain access to war zones. But, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, says Polman, regions afflicted by war became something like charity enterprise zones, creating a massive expansion in the aid industry.
In 1980, there were about 40 INGOS International Non-Government Organizations) dealing with Cambodian refugees on the border of Thailand. A decade later, there were 250 of them operating during the Yugoslav civil war. By 2004, there were 2,500 involved in Afghanistan.
All too frequently, according to Polman, the result is not what it says in the charity brochures. She cites a damning catalogue of examples from Biafra to Darfur, including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims.
Perhaps the most striking case in her book deals with the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, in which the Hutu killers fled en masse across the border to what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). There, in Goma, huge 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 the refugees were Hutus. This meant that the killers who committed the atrocities received food, shelter, and support, courtesy of international appeals, while their surviving victims were left destitute.
Worse still, Polman believes that the aid enabled the Hutu extremists to continue their attempt to exterminate the Tutsis from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma.
"Without humanitarian aid," she writes, "the Hutus' war would almost certainly have ground to a halt fairly quickly."
Such perverse situations, according to Polman, stem from the issue of neutrality. Ever since Henri Dunant set up the Red Cross in the late 19th century, the role of the humanitarian has been to avoid taking sides in war. Dunant simply wished to ease the suffering of - and improve the care offered to - all victims of war, who at that time were mostly soldiers. In this endeavour he was opposed by Florence Nightingale, who argued that Dunant's compassionate vision was a charter for prolonging war.
In her book, Polman says that, when aid organizations don't actively discriminate, the most likely beneficiaries of aid in war zone operations are the powerful, not the most needy. …