The question posed by the Dutch journalist Linda Polman is not whether these "humanitarians" save lives and mitigate suffering. They do. What concerns her in this short book is the unintended consequences of their efforts. By pouring money and goods into devastated regions, foreign aid workers sometimes compound the disruption and debauch the survivors. That is not simply a matter of the wrong sort of help — such as unsaleable food or the polar tents, court shoes and G-strings sent by one charity to the survivors of the Asian tsunami. Nor is it the bullying white Land Cruisers triple-parked outside bars and restaurants amid the ruins, or the colossal electricity generators that I remember roaring outside UN villas in the pitch-black streets of the Mansur district of Baghdad before the last war.
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From Florence Nightingale in the Crimea and the creation of the Red Cross by Henri Dunant in following the Battle of Solferino, aid has always been fraught with challenges. Does healing soldiers prolong conflict? Should aid be given regardless of the culpability of the recipient? She was the pragmatist, he the idealist. There are now 37, aid organisations worldwide.
Every disaster attracts around 1,, with double that figure in Afghanistan. In Sierra Leone after the war, I along with everyone else, desperately wanted aid to help fix our shattered nation. After five years I wanted to send the aid workers home. How so? Because aid is a scam of global proportions.
Accounts of just how much aid is siphoned off by the warlords of places like Somalia and Sudan have recently begun to emerge. Polman cites these examples and more: how the Tamil Tigers levied a 25 per cent toll on reconstruction aid in Sri Lanka; 30 per cent of tsunami donations for Aceh Province in Indonesia went to the army; in the former Yugoslavia, Serb forces helped themselves to a third of emergency supplies.
The Dunant principle of giving aid where it is needed without asking questions makes agencies heedless of the complexities of war. In Ethiopia in the Eighties, food aid was used by the government as bait to lure villagers into camps, from where they were forcibly march to state farms in the south.
One-hundred thousand perished along the way. Repressive regimes turn aid on and off like a tap to determine who lives and who starves.
More shocking somehow is the inside track on the aid industry. By the time the warlords get their hands on the bounty chest most of the money has been spent. Most of the rest goes on paying consultants. In Goma, competing NGOs refused to co-operate and fought for space, literally ripping off the insignia of rival projects to be replaced with their own.
Other journalists, not just Polman, have accused the aid agencies of grossly exaggerating the levels of disaster to make us reach for our wallets. Meanwhile being an aid worker can be good fun. Land Cruisers are triple parked outside nightclubs, prostitution soars. War Games is a polemic and a blood boilingly good one, which should knock a few halos off. Collier is also the author of The Bottom Billion and he rejects aid as the solution.
Aid should be used to fund prospecting, which at present is left to private companies who then make deals to exploit them for gain. Combined with corrupt or ineffective government, scarcely any benefit reaches the people. Rights to these natural resources should be sold by auction and a proportion of the profits set aside for future generations, the rest used to fund local infrastructure — which the IMF mind-bogglingly does not presently encourage.
Once infrastructure is in place and aid money can help with this private investment should be encouraged. Growing populations in developing countries need cheap food and cheap food means large scale commercial agriculture and an open mind on GM foods. Collier also demolishes the new holy cow of food miles. It uses less carbon to grow food in the most conducive climate and fly it here. If it all sounds easier said then done, the devil is in the detail. Take it from me that Collier and his team have researched the detail, exhaustively analysing every possibility from the macro to the micro of local systems of taxation.
What needs to come before all else is a paradigm shift away from aid and towards economy building. So if you want to help the world stem your bleeding heart and tell your broker to switch your funds to Emerging Markets Africa.
War Games: The Story Of Aid And War In Modern Times