Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

By Christopher J. Coyne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Political Competition Replaces
Market Competition

STATE – LED HUMANITARIAN ACTION cannot promote societal economic progress due to the planner’s problem. It can, however, accomplish the relatively simpler task of delivering relief to those in need. Despite this possibility, however, there is no shortage of examples illustrating the many problems with the provision of basic relief goods and services.1 Consider a recent report by Doctors Without Borders, which discusses the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. Among other things, the report indicates that the “Lashkargah hospital is piling up with advanced medical equipment—digital x-rays, mobile oxygen generators, scialytic lamps—donated by a range of states including the US, China, Iran, and India or through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). This equipment is usually dropped off with little explanation and no anticipation of maintenance; most of it sits in boxes, collecting dust, unopened and unused.”2 Another report by the World Health Organization notes, “In the Sub-Saharan Africa region … a large proportion (up to 70 per cent) of equipment lies idle due to mismanagement of the technology acquisition process, lack of user-training and lack of effective technical support.”3

Along similar lines, a study of drug donations in the post-tsunami Banda Aceh province in Indonesia found that 70 percent of the drugs had foreign labels that could not be understood by local workers and were therefore unusable. The study also found that 60 percent of the donated drugs were not relevant to those affected by the tsunami, and, moreover, 25 percent of the donated drugs had either expired or had no expiration date listed. To store these drugs, humanitarian workers had to sacrifice office space and patient rooms. In total, the report noted, approximately six hundred tons of medicine had to be destroyed at a cost of $3 million. Adding to the sad irony of this situation is that the Southeast Asia region, where these wasted drugs were sent, produces a significant amount of the generic medicines used in other humanitarian

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