Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan deals in many complicated ethical issues, but it mostly attempts to accomplish one thing. The book’s principal concern is to format a critical understanding of aid organizations and humanitarian aid in order to examine how humanitarian aid can solve its big problems. She goes on to identify these problems with a great deal of expertise and detail, and demonstrates the problems of non-government organizations in foreign countries and how deeply complicated and well-rooted those problems are.
Among the problems she identified is the clashing between non-government organizations and international non-government organizations that often leads to competitions between the aid groups over who can help the most people. The root of this problem comes from the fact that many organizations see proportional increases in their funding based on the number of people they can claim to have distributed aid to, and that leads to organizations inflating their own statistics to help get more donations and continue to operate in a given region. Polman argues, I wholeheartedly agree, that aid organizations with the goal of helping people in need should not be forced to use their support and aid in the political game of fundraising and organizational pride. Instead, more organizations should be collaborating and working together to help solve the problems in the best ways possible.
Polman also discusses deeply the political problems with an NGO claiming that they are neutral and intend to give aid to whoever needs it. This can lead to a chain reaction of different events which compromise the organizations neutrality and, in some cases, even prolong the humanitarian crisis that the organization is trying to prevent. Polman discussed cases where NGOs gave supplies to the antagonists of a conflict, which helped them to commit further atrocities. Obviously this is a cut and dry example of where NGO politics turns chaotic. But she also discussed how donations are not appropriately distributed to the people who need them. She suggests that less than 10 percent of every dollar donated gets to the people for whom the money was intended. The money can sometimes be siphoned off to local militias, which go on to do things and act on beliefs which the NGO may not condone. In these cases, the NGO gets put in a tough situation, because they are forced to either continue giving aid to a militia who can go on and do whatever they please with the supplies, or they are forced to drop their veil of impartiality and make ethical distinctions about who gets supplies and who doesn’t. Polman contends that the most ethical decision is to drop any claims of impartiality because it ends up creating more grave ethical dilemmas that could be avoided if NGOs gave supplies based on who deserved them.
All of the above arguments are why Polman writes at the end of her book that “Aid organizations are businesses dress up like Mother Teresa.” Admittedly, I think this is an overly critical statement and a generalization, but she makes a strong point in this comparison. She exposes the gap between how an aid organization actually functions and the purpose it claims to serve. Many aid organizations claim to be pure-hearted, sanctimonious organizations that use their money for good as a combatant of evil. But in reality, aid organizations, especially large ones, must make logistical and practical decisions about how they allocate resources, and sometimes those decisions end up benefiting the organization while hurting the people they claim to help. And when an organization does that, it should be criticized more freely.
And that, Polman argues, is the role of journalists. She says that journalism must be unafraid to expose unethical humanitarian aid organizations, just as they would any unethical government organization, because that criticism will encourage NGOs to evolve, improve their resource distribution and cut out any unethical policies. Currently, Polman believes that journalists reflexively avoid questioning the work of aid agencies, and it ultimately hinders both the journalists’ and the NGOs’ credibility. She also calls on the public to be more demanding and transparent of aid organizations, and she calls on governments around the world to assist in creating infrastructures that NGOs can safely operate in so that the NGOs do not have to do it themselves in places where they otherwise would have to.