One-Minute Book Reviews

May 1, 2011

When Is Humanitarian Aid Inhumane? ‘The Crisis Caravan’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:04 pm
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The abuses of international aid go beyond the Three Cups of Tea scandal

The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? By Linda Polman. Translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters. Metropolitan/Holt, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Shock and outrage greeted the recent claims that Greg Mortenson made up or embellished stories he told in Three Cups of Tea about building schools for girls in Afghanistan. The Crisis Caravan makes clear that such rogue idealists – or outright charlatans – find the conditions they need to thrive in a humanitarian-aid industry that operates largely without oversight even if its actions prolong genocide or civil wars.

Linda Polman doesn’t mention Mortenson in this indictment of the abuses of aid but focuses on titans such as CARE, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. All of those groups showed up when the Hutu perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda fled to refugee camps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and their aid workers stayed when Hutu leaders levied “taxes” on the distributed food rations so they could pay they soldiers to slip back over the border and kill more Tutsi. During the civil war in Sudan, the army took food intended for the victims, which helped to enable it to keep fighting instead of seeking ways to end the bloodshed. Humanitarian groups reportedly gave one-third of their food and agricultural supplies to the Taliban in one region of Afghanistan and paid warlords an “entrance fee” of up to 80 percent of the value of donations for Somalia.

Similar examples of ethically perverse practices have been well documented in books such as Michael Maren’s The Road to Hell. But Polman writes with an unusual vigor, clarity and moral urgency that result in part from 15 years of living in and reporting from war zones. She makes perhaps the strongest case yet that journalists abet the abuses by accepting free trips and other favors from aid groups and by exempting them from the close scrutiny they give to other businesses.

Polman’s greatest contribution is to show why the question “Should we just do nothing?” is too simplistic when television screens show starving children, tsunami victims or war refugees. All parties who support humanitarian organizations — the United Nations, the U.S. and other nations and private donors — have options besides withholding money or allowing groups to turn it over to tyrants. Those alternatives include insisting that aid organizations to work together in troubled countries, which would help them resist local corruption, instead of continually fighting for contracts that promote their own survival. The U.N. and others also need to hold aid organizations accountable for violations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, which require each group “to ensure that it is in full control of its resources, including supervision and distribution of relief items.”

“As far as I’m aware, no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes,” Polman writes. She wrote those words before the Montana attorney general began investigating Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and may make them obsolete. But she is right to ask: When humanitarians become “involuntary collaborators” with oppressors, should they remain above the law because some of their actions relieve great suffering?

Philip Gourevitch, author of the acclaimed book about the Rwandan genocide We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Families, made a similar point in a review of The Crisis Caravan in The New Yorker.

“Aid organizations and their workers are entirely self-policing, which means that when it comes to the political consequences of their actions they are simply not policed,” Gourevitch wrote. “When a mission ends in catastrophe, they write their own evaluations. And if there are investigations of the crimes that follow on their aid, the humanitarians get airbrushed out of the story.” He added, in a comment abundantly supported by The Crisis Caravan: “There can be no proper accounting of such a history as long as humanitarians continue to enjoy total impunity.”

The Crisis Caravan doesn’t deal with ratings services such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator that guide many Americans in their decisions about charitable giving but leaves the strong impression such gatekeepers often give people a false sense of security about how aid groups use their money. An implicit message of this important book is: Relying on even the best ratings service may resemble installing smoke detectors in every room of a burning house.

Best line: “As far as I’m aware, no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes.”

Worst line: “ … Chevalier snarled” and “He growled,” characterizations of the speech of an aid worker and an African president, respectively.

Recommendation? Highly recommended. The Crisis Caravan deals with the inappropriate aid given by some American religious groups and would be an excellent choice for many book clubs sponsored by churches and synagogues.

Published: September 2010 (first U.S. edition)

Furthermore: An excellent interview withPolman ( appeared in the Observer when The Crisis Caravan was published in England under the title War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. Read a transcript of a Sixty Minutes report on Mortenson.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Polman is an award-winning Dutch journalist who wrote We Did Nothing, a book about the failures of U.N. peacekeeping missions. An excerpt from and praise for The Crisis Caravan appear on the site for her publisher. Jon Stewart interviews Polman about the book on The Daily Show.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter ( or Quora ( Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. She does not accept free books, galleys or other promotional materials from publishers.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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