Post #6: Linda Polman – Crisis Caravan

Transitioning from human rights into humanitarian aid is not a far stretch.  In this post, I hope to change speeds from discussing Cuba to discuss Linda Polman’s book The Crisis Caravan and her outlook toward humanitarian aid.  Polman’s book is about her personal experience in the humanitarian aid realm, and she has many vivid examples for what she is discussing.


Linda Polman

What were the principal concerns Linda Polman raised in her book?
The Crisis Caravan is a very blunt and personal look into the humanitarian aid world.  Polman gives both a truthful, and oftentimes hopeless seeming account of what really happens when Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, attempt to help in the time of need.  She questions whether the humanitarian operations are even effective, and whether or not they can really be neutral.  She takes the issues and looks at them from both sides, and mainly focuses on shedding light on the truth of how these organizations work.  Her book raises the concern of whether or not NGOs should continue trying to help in times of crisis, or if this is indeed causing more harm than good, perpetuating hurt and suffering in order to save.  Turning a blind eye to genocide or other horrible acts seen when they are deployed to help, and still helping those causing the pain and suffering, is seen as a form of helping perpetuate it.  Quoting her from her book: “Humanitarianism is based on a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally” (p. 7), yet “No matter how often the Red Cross rules may be trampled underfoot…the humanitarians persist in brandishing their Red Cross principles and accept no responsibility for the abuse of their aid” (pp. 10-11).  She also focuses on her concerns with how many of these NGOs have become so entwined in the profit and business world, and how they often use the horror of crisis, asking journalists to cover the atrocities around them and include their organization’s name when reporting as being at the site helping, in order to their benefit to gain more donors – which is obviously morally objectable in many people’s eyes.


Why does she say “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa” (p. 177)?
When Linda Polman says “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa”, she is referring to the concerns she is raising in regards to the NGOs being wrapped up in business and profit, instead of virtues they supposedly live by.  Mother Teresa was a nun and missionary that founded the Missionaries of Charity, who helped many poor, sick and homeless through aid, education and programs.  They vowed chastity, poverty, obedience, and to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”  She even won the Nobel Peace Prize and became a saint.  Mother Teresa was very well known for her compassion and her charitable actions.  In comparison, NGOs have become organizations driven by profits and recognition, as opposed to being driven by moral and ethical selflessness and need to help any and all in need.  I think Polman’s quote was mainly pointing out that while NGOs work as though they are only there to help anyone in need, they are often trading good reviews for help navigating the area with journalists, who perpetuate their “saintly” appearance, while allowing them to maintain the ability to do shady things, like fight over donors, use funds to pay off “necessary evils”, and hide the misused money or money given to one side – usually the provoking party of the crisis – to be able to help.


What do journalists, the public, governments have to do to make humanitarian aid successful?
Linda Polman does a great job of showing us the dark side of humanitarian aid, which honestly I believe surprised many who would rightly assume that an organization developed strictly to help those in need would not be plagued with such unpleasant issues. Linda brought many important points and aspects to light, and she says in the afterward that she does not have the answers for how to make humanitarian aid successful, and that it would even be difficult to come up with only one solution, as every case can differ greatly.  She did say, however, that the point of her bringing up these points was that there needs to be discussion and criticism drawn to this area.  That way, it will be more difficult for such fusion of profit and aid, hopefully.  Journalists, it should be suggested, would be very focused on keeping with their journalistic integrity; remaining independent and neutral like the NGOs are supposed to be as well.  By helping to get help, they are indeed hurting the situation.  This obviously makes it much harder to solve the problem of how to get them to and around places needing coverage to get donors in an objective way.  The public needs to do their research, learn what they can and make sure that if they donate they do their part to make a responsible decision about who to.  Governments need to create laws and figure out how to enforce them in order to allow NGOs to operate without the need for paying off locals and fearing for themselves.    It is also the government’s responsibility to help those in need, so they need to be sure they are doing their part without looking at it politically, but humanely.


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