War and Aid: does humanitarian intervention help or hinder?

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

It is time for yet more soul searching for the international aid industry. Hot on the heels of Bob Geldof’s spat with the BBC over the exact whereabouts of cash raised for Ethiopia in the 80s, comes Linda Polman’s new book War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times.

If you couldn’t be with us for this event, you can watch the whole thing here:

Polman argues that humanitarian aid prolongs wars and props up corrupt regimes, and that aid workers and the media are complicit in upholding the status quo. Speaking to a packed audience at Frontline on Tuesday she said:

Aid is like a lottery. You have 25 equally desperate countries taking part in this lottery every week. 24 will lose. You have to produce the images we demand…the starving babies.

As a victim you do not exist without media attention. Journalists need to rethink how they approach reporting these issues. We have a serious problem.

The other panel members took issue with many of Polman’s claims, despite agreeing that there was a "problem" within the humanitarian industry. Conor Foley, whose own book The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War assesses the effect of humanitarian intervention on the poorest countries, went so far as to accuse Polman of fabricating some of her claims. "There is no empirical evidence that aid prolongs conflict," he said. "There are a series of misconceptions and half baked ideas that need debate." He added:

Getting into humanitarian zones is messy and complicated but if you don’t do it people will die. We understand the problems but what do we do about it?

Sarah Bailey, a research officer for ODI Humantarian Policy Group, summed up the billion dollar aid industry as:

A messy system [of NGOs, donors, the UN etc]. It is absolutely a system that for all its noble ambition to help people came about haphazardly. One of the big questions is how do we work within that system?

Amani Abouzeid, human security policy coordinator for Action Aid, recognised many of the faults within the industry identified by Polman, but took issue with just who was at fault. She argued that the idea that every aid agency can fit under one umbrella and be called an industry was "problematic".

Abouzeid also questioned the relationship between the "white west" and the "passive recipient" and its influence on the current debate. While many would argue – and did last night – that such an image has little to do with reality, it is depressing that humanitarian aid is ‘growing’ industry.

It means that a future where stable and self sufficient government in huge swathes of the world is far, far away. And the well being of the poor and vulnerable in the developing world will be decided, not by their own governments, but by agencies with head quarters in Europe and America.