Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

War Games by Linda Polman

Article by Gwilym John

Regular readers of VL may recall the first book I shared with the community. Written by the freelance Dutch journalist, Linda Polman, it followed the blue helmeted forces of the United Nations peacekeeping forces through the crises of the 1990s: the collapse of Haiti, the anarchic disaster in Somalia, reaching a bloody pinnacle with the Rwandan genocide. Criticism was levelled at many facets of the international community and its governments, and their failure to support military interventions which might have ended suffering. The human fallout which was – and still is – left by these calamities did not go unnoticed, however. A vacuum of basic human needs has been filled by the citizens of the world, spawning a colossal new industry of humanitarian aid that runs from the lush jungles of Rwanda and Sierra Leone, all the way across to the broken heart of Afghanistan. In her new book, War Games, Polman argues that this vast undertaking to alleviate human suffering is sometimes doing quite the opposite and in fact is only serving to perpetuate the misery.

The age of mass media has brought the suffering of far flung lands to the television screens of our front rooms. Filling our screens and pages, images of refugees and starving children follow the outbreaks of civil strife amongst the Asian and African poor, and with those pictures come appeals from the plethora of humanitarian organisations: UNHCR, Oxfam, MSF, DEC, and Christian Aid to name but a few. People reach for the wallet or credit card and pledge ten dollars here, or ten pounds there, moved by the message of misery to offer something for those less fortunate. Is that pledge to help misplaced? Have we been misled, knowingly or otherwise, into making that situation worse? Delving a little deeper into some of the most iconic images of charity appeals from the past fifty years, Polman finds that perhaps our aid money is indeed being spent not as we imagine.

Recalling her experience reporting on the genocide in Rwanda, we are taken to the refugee camps surrounding Goma, in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The refugee camp that sprang up on the volcanic hillsides was something of a mini metropolis. Food and materials distributed amongst the people was sufficient to provide micro economies away from the homeland, bankrolled by the aid dollars of NGOs and their donors. Those images of genocide and fleeing refugees had moved people to give what they could: a success for human hope perhaps? The truth was more telling: many of the refugees in Goma were ethnic Hutu, that group whose leaders had instigated genocide against their Tutsi countrymen. Soldiers and militiamen blended in with the displaced, the genocidal government set up shop in a nearby hotel. Fed and watered by the aid agencies, broadcasts of hate and calls to arms continued; soldiers regrouped and crossed the border into Rwanda, continuing the slaughter of innocent Tutsi and moderate Hutu. Mafia-like control of the camp by the Hutu extremists levied taxes on the residents; some of these gangsters were even in the employ of organisations like MSF or CARE. Some estimates reckoned that as much as 60% of aid was being handled by this quasi-government, raising tax dollars and food for an army that had caused this suffering. These truths never reached the televisions of generous donors in the West, however. The competition to secure a spot for their aid organisation left many of their officials silent and complicit. In Rwanda itself, there was virtually no help at all. The country was ransacked and pillaged during the retreat of the Hutu army and genocide militias now living on the bankroll of foreign aid, rebuilding for future continuation of carnage.

That potential for profit and protection under the cover of humanitarian aid has not gone unnoticed by other insidious leaders in conflict zones. Now enjoying the confines of his cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Liberian leader Charles Taylor had negotiated with NGOs that 15% of aid be paid to him directly, supporting his army and bulking out his own wallet. Those rebel groups he battled against made good use of their own control, imposing charges and demands on aid organisations moving around the country. Acquiescence to the demands of armed thugs is certainly understandable; it seems, however, that the competition between the multiplicity of aid agencies both large and small to pitch up and help leaves a free market for the cynical shakedowns of rebels and governments alike. A lack of communication, cooperation, or even adherence to common principles between the competing aid agencies means that in order to help, they collectively shake hands with the devil, over and over again. The obvious catch 22 in working amongst ongoing conflicts seems to be a small consideration for one aid agency in Sri Lanka:

We wanted to help the people affected; that was our aim. We didn’t worry too much about the fact that it meant financing the Tigers.

Rebel groups and paramilitaries can knowingly rely on aid agencies to cower in the face of force, submitting to theft and a multitude of arbitrary taxations. The separatist Serb forces in Bosnia routinely stripped UNHCR convoys of their loads at every roadblock. When convoys finally reached their destination, sometimes all that remained was flour and macaroni. Even when an aid agency holds a monopoly on their humanitarian zone and stands against theft and corruption, they cannot be successful. If and when they leave an untenable situation, other groups are almost certain to fill the void and engage with rebels on their terms of extortion. The moral grey area grows further when we consider that a void of aid may be filled by nefarious governments or organisations with agendas to exploit or convert desperate people. Just as in Goma, the humanitarian aid cannot distinguish between the genuine needy and the greedy villains.  Palestinian terrorist groups operated from Lebanon, Bosnian-Muslims struck out from their UN safe areas. Here it is unclear what to think; some rebel groups are fighting deplorable governments and we perhaps support the unseating of criminals such as al-Bashir in Sudan. In helping the civilians caught between warring parties, can we stomach some of our aid dollars fuelling the fighting? The principle of neutrality and aid for all enshrined by the Red Cross and Geneva principles are at odds with the reality of dispensing aid in warzones. Polman summarises it thus:

Imagine. It’s 1943. You’re an international aid worker. The telephone rings. It’s the Nazis. You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners.
What do you do?


If you conform to the practices of the humanitarian aid industry, you’ll deliver the supplies.

What has been seen above, exposed with solid research and experience by Polman, leaves us at that moral crossroads. It is disappointing then that the book has little to offer in terms of answers. Certainly it is beyond her expertise to propose solutions, but for all the truths that do come from the book it can be worrying to think that aid might be dropped altogether by a worried reader. Reform is needed, no-one can argue with that; but how do I help before then? Polman urges us to dig that little bit deeper. Ask questions, read your charities’ policies; chase the facts behind the news and perhaps put your purse towards groups that are not constrained by operating within the chaotic laws and evil necessities of war. Although I was disappointed by the lack of solutions, I am encouraged by this exposé. We can hope for it to act as an accelerant for NGOs to work together in combating their exploitation, and certainly anyone who reads it will take that extra time to consider the truth behind a story. Asking the hard questions of where the money goes is not just right for our own conscience; it is right for the sake of those innocents caught up in the maelstrom.

War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times
Linda Polman (translation Liz Waters)
Viking/Penguin, London (2010)
978-0-670-91896-6

7 comments on “War Games by Linda Polman

  1. Jackie
    June 30, 2010

    What a timely topic. I do recall the previous review, but didn’t realize it was the same author. I think she’s very brave to continue digging into this topic & exposing what is going on. The newspapers have reported some of the stolen aid in some areas, but I didn’t realize it was so widespread. It’s a betrayal and will probably serve to make some people quit giving to charity altogether, especially those who trumpet the term “deserving poor”, but that’s another avenue altogether.
    I do wish the author had proposed solution to this problem, but maybe those must come from within the organizations, depending on how they operate? Or perhaps she thought the ball was in their court now?
    Hopefully, exposure will help some of the NGOs look for solutions or make them reconsider their practices. It’s frustrating that even when money is available, that it’s still not reaching the people who need it most.

  2. Gwilym
    June 30, 2010

    One interesting addendum to the book is a glossary of the terms used in the world of international aid. As you rightly say, accusations of corruption are frequently levelled at the governments of Africa and it transpires that is only a half truth, too.

    Countries such as Italy, Spain, and the United States have much bigger problems with corruption, even refusing to release figures for transparency audits. The aid money that goes to the iconic cases of “failed states” suffers from a free for all approach to taking contracts and the real corruption occurs with this need to be seen delivering aid at any cost, leading aid workers to cut deals with unsavoury characters at high prices.

    The exposure hopefully will work, Jackie – I know for one the British press have given high praise to this new book by Polman and it is on the recommended list of both the Sunday and Financial Times. One thing Polman certainly is clear on is that the original principles that formed the Red Cross (and Crescent) of helping all on a neutral basis, though a noble idea, looks outdated in the modern world where the actors in a conflict are ill defined, compared to the strong states of the old wars in Europe.

    There are great books out there on how we can make better use of the aid and I considered mentioning them here, but after such a heavy lesson in this troubling subject I figured economics could be something for another day 😉 If anyone is interested, there is an excellent and readable (if sometimes dense) account by an economist called “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier.

  3. Jackie
    July 1, 2010

    Glad that this book is getting lots of attention in the UK at least, but it’s something that any country involved ought to read. With both natural disasters & man made ones, this is only going to be a continuing need & organizations really ought to make the money more effective. The idea that aid groups methods & motivations ought to evolve is a startling & intriguing thought, but seems quite necessary.

  4. Pingback: One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #76

  5. Hilary
    July 4, 2010

    Oh my goodness, Gwilym – your excellent, clear review is essential reading, let alone the book. Thank you so much for bringing it to our attention. How little we know, and how little I think.

  6. Gwilym
    July 4, 2010

    Thank you for your kind words, Hilary.

    It is quite startling to read what happens with our money. I don’t begrudge any charity my support when I can give but it’s nice to get the peace of mind that comes with true transparency.

    If anyone is on twitter, by the way, Linda Polman posts often about her work and like good old fashioned journalists is in deep with her subject –

    http://www.twitter.com/linda_polman . Be warned, some of her tweets are in Dutch, so you might need a friendly translator on hand!

  7. Hilary
    July 4, 2010

    Thanks, I shall follow her – and take my chance with the Dutch tweets!

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2010 by in Non-fiction, Non-fiction: current affairs and tagged , , , , .

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