THE CRISIS CARAVAN – LINDA POLMAN
Broadly, Polman discusses the two different philosophies of international aid work that inform how workers decide who to help. Do you treat everyone indiscriminately? Or do you treat people strategically, in an effort to avoid wasting resources or prolonging a conflict? What those questions really get at is whether aid organizations should remain neutral in conflicts. Polman argues that that neutrality has negative effects on conflicts, in some cases prolonging them. She uses her experience in the humanitarian aid crisis in Goma as an example. In some cases, much like in journalism, aid workers don’t realize they are showing their biases through the choices they have to make. So Polman argues that they just give up the charade of pretending to be neutral to begin with.
I don’t think she makes a strong enough case for that though. Her argument relies on anecdotes about her observations in Goma, in which I found her not particularly credible enough to take her thoughts as absolute truth. For one, her argument lacks specificity. This book is too generalized of an argument, lacking in academic rigor and specificity. So in that sense, it makes the book more appealing to an average reader who would maybe be interested in a hot take on aid organizations and enjoy it as an entertaining argument. But I think in general this piece does not provide a thoughtful and academic of an argument.
Toward the end of her book she writes “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.” This is a fairly typical catchy and provocative statement for a journalist, making you think about something generally thought of as positive like aid organizations in a more critical way. But again she’s dealing in generalities. She argues in this passage about how journalists don’t question aid organizations as much as they would a business. I think that this may be valid for some journalists working in international conflict zones in particular. As a journalist parachuted into a conflict zone, an NGO or aid organization from your country would be a comfortable place to start. You would have an easy access point to sources, filtered through people who understand both you and hopefully the context of the culture you are reporting in. However that filtering process is what she points to as problematic. However, her assumption that journalists often stop there and fail to question or investigate that organization’s work is unsubstantiated. It’s definitely a bias that many journalists must work around – automatically not trusting anything that anyone tells you. But it’s a fundamental part of the job, and on that I think most journalists understand and strive to practice. So since she cannot possibly know the motivations/work habits of all journalists working in all conflict zones all over, one can only assume she is speaking from personal experience. So that furthers my distrust of her as a journalist and a truth teller.
She also points out that sometimes journalists are not as independent from aid organizations in these kinds of situations too: “often the journalists reporting on an aid campaign are also financed, or at least accommodated, by one of the aid agencies taking part in the caravan.” While this may be true anecdotally in her life experience, she does not prove that empirically. As a reader, I don’t have any reason to necessarily trust her anecdotes, and she fails to build that credibility in her writing.
I agree with Polman that we the public and we journalists must remain vigilant and critical of humanitarian aid in order to ensure that it is effective. I think governments can also play a role in this in setting specific legal requirements for aid organizations funding in the same way that many push for stricter oversight of political campaign funding. Transparency is the biggest key to success for aid organizations: transparency with journalists so they can relay the truth of the work and its effectiveness to the public and transparency with the governments the organizations work with.