Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are typically regarded in the public limelight as some of the purest, most philanthropic, and most impactful institutions in the world. Whether it’s promoting education in developing countries or providing relief to victims of war zones or natural disasters—there’s sure to be some kind of NGO providing aid. Whenever a crisis breaks out, there seems to be a flood of aid that pours into the afflicted zones. In more recent memory, countries like Haiti which was ravaged by hurricane Matthew or war-torn Syria with all of its refugees, have all received aid after a wave of news reports crashed into the American main stream media and a flurry of NGOs stormed into action. This response seems like the “right thing to do” –the typical humanitarian course of action that should warrant praise, but if one delves deeper into where all of that aid goes, it reveals a much more sinister reality. This reality is what Linda Polman tries to reveal in her book, The Crises Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid?, in which she exposes the terrible truth behind the exploitation of foreign aid by both the receivers of aid and the NGOs themselves.
Often the foreign aid that is collected by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), like the Red Cross, is perceived to do exactly as it’s advertised: help the victims of disaster and the impoverished. Too often do Americans fall victim to donating to the organizations that invoke their empathy through pity commercials and new stories without questioning where exactly their donations are going. Polman explicitly reveals the cost of providing aid to war zones in her book. She explains that even if the NGOs aren’t corrupt, typically the countries that they are handing aid out to are. Warlords and dictators, like Charles Taylor of Liberia, often charge entrance fees of 15-80% of the aid that NGOs are trying to provide just to let them into the country. On top of the entrance fee, Polman states that often these corrupt leaders will even charge “taxes for the ‘use’ of INGOs of children for vaccination and casualties for rehabilitation” (Polman 99). Of course, all of the funds that these corrupt leaders take are either poured into their own bank accounts or used to further fuel the conflict that NGOs are trying to provide relief from.
Often the case is that the less developed countries receiving foreign aid are corrupt, but almost as frequently there are NGOs that are just as corrupt (or completely negligent) as the countries they provide the aid. Polman recounts her experience in Sierra Leone with members of prominent INGOs providing aid there; while they are at dinner, she marvels at the fact that the steaks they are eating cost a half month’s salary of each waiter and she asks how the citizens manage to live there. A member of the European Commission that she is with replies, “Juju! (sorcery)… Come on, let’s pop another bottle of wine, guys” (Polman 50). It’s from that point on no surprise when Polman reveals that many of the government officials that work with or for INGOs often redirect aid funds to supplement their own salaries.
Of course, there are wealthy individuals who recognize this corruption—or at least believe the bureaucratic mess of huge INGOs is too slow to respond—and take matters into their own hands. These people often create “my own non-governmental organizations” or MONGOs. While it may seem that what these individuals and the organizations they are create are doing is great, the reality is that many of these MONGOs are completely negligent in the aid that they give. Essentially, what this means is that the aid that they are giving out is either completely useless to the people they are trying to help, or even inadvertently harmful to those victims. Polman describes MONGOs plainly as organizations that give “well-intended but unwanted gifts that clog up airfields and logistical hubs” –which can be detrimental when they are needed in real crises. She gives the example of the Greek Orthodox Church organization that donated Christmas costumes, fur coats, and skimpy women’s underwear to victims of the Indonesian tsunami back in 2004. She also describes the horrifying story of Lonny Houk, who created a MONGO to provide medical aid to LDCs, but who essentially treated it as a hobby and was not at all qualified to perform some of the procedures he was performing. Polman implies that MONGOs have increased in number due to the advent of new communication technology and media that spread the news of a crisis quicker than ever before. The issue is that many people in developed countries that create these MONGOS do not understand the gravity of the situation or care to do research into the actual needs of the people they are trying to aid.
Polman creates a very pessimistic view of NGOs in general in her book. That said, she does not imply that people should completely stop creating and supporting NGOs. In the Afterwords section of her book, Polman explains why NGOs have essentially become “businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa” (Polman 177). She blames corrupt governments who exploit foreign aid, journalists who take advantage of the access NGOs provide them into restricted countries, and finally the individuals who turn a blind to where their billions in foreign aid go. Polman suggest that the only way to ensure that NGOs shed their competitive and corrupt nature to become the true benefactors that everyone assumes they are is if people “demand they explain what they think they’re going to achieve and how they’re going to do it” (Polman 179).