War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times
Linda Polman

ISBN: 9780670918966
RRP: $32.95

First, a little story.

In 1854 Florence Nightingale responded to a request from the British War office for volunteers to help care for sick and wounded soldiers from the Crimean War. Her experience of the intolerable conditions and the disregard the War Office showed its own troops led Nightingale to a lifetime of lobbying legislative bodies to improve conditions for injured soldiers and civilians alike. Five years later in Italy Henri Dunant witnessed the battle of Solferino and saw the 38,000 wounded soldiers left on the field after the armies had withdrawn. Dunant’s experience led directly to his founding the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Dunant’s organisation was founded on humanitarian grounds – aid was to be distributed wherever it was needed; a strict model of neutrality, impartiality and independence was championed. Nightingale was appalled. It was her view, she expressed to Dunant in correspondence, that an organisation like the Red Cross alleviated the responsibilities of warring governments. By providing aid on humanitarian grounds, on a voluntary basis and funded by charity, it would actually make it easier for armies to carry on killing one another.

In War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, Dutch journalist Linda Polman argues that the problems raised by Florence Nightingale in the nineteenth century are still central to humanitarian aid in the twenty-first.  In many cases the aid industry not only doesn’t help, it actually makes things worse.  If Polman is right then the implications are scary. Expressions such as ‘the pressing moral issues of our times’ are often bandied around – particularly by aid organisations and book reviewers – but in the case of humanitarian aid such hyperbole is not inappropriate. The idea that a human enterprise of the scale and moral certitude of the modern aid industry is failing on a massive, systematic level is surprising and shocking.

Polman’s list of grievances with the aid industry is long, but can be distilled into two essential points. The first is the moral dilemma faced by Nightingale and Dunant – that delivering aid on humanitarian grounds can lead to prolonging, supporting and even worsening the problem. In Ethiopia in 1984 the Mengitsu regime carried out a systematic program of terror in the rebellious Northern provinces – rape and murder, burning of grain, slaughtering of livestock, poisoning of wells. In the end more than £90 million was raised from private donors through Geldof’s own Solferino moment – the LiveAid project. The Mengitsu government forced all money spent in Ethiopia to be changed to local currency at an exchange rate of its choosing, using the profits to carry on its murderous program in the North away from the cameras.

The second point Polman makes is rather more mundane but almost as troubling. Polman blames much of the inadequacies she has witnessed in the aid industry on the very fact that it is an industry – that aid organisations are competing for contracts, fighting for access to ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘clients’ and battling for media attention.  These two factors, moral impartiality and free market competition, turn out to be a very bad combination. Let’s look at another example given by Polman. In 2002 US$150 million was set aside by donor governments for a house-building project in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province. The money was assembled by an aid organisation in Geneva, which – after taking 20% for its own use – then transferred the project to an organisation based in Washington. The aid organisation in Washington also kept 20% of the money, before transferring the contract onto another organisation, which then passed the contract on to a fourth aid group. The last group began the implementation of the program by using what money was left to buy a consignment of wood from Iran. The haulage company that delivered the wood was owned by the governor of Bamiyan province, and charged five times the regular fee. With the money now gone the wood arrived at the housing project, but when it got there it was discovered to be too heavy for use in construction of the traditional Afghan houses. In the end the timber was used for firewood.

One would hope that stories such as these were extreme examples, but it seems they are closer to normal than you would imagine. A Report by the British National Audit Office found that the Department for International Development (DFID) was failing to achieve ‘all or most of its objectives.’ DFID’s own subsequent report found that less than five percent of its projects were ‘value for money’ and only a quarter of them could be deemed successful. DFID programs in Afghanistan alone were worth £520 million at the time of the report.

Polman, a Dutch journalist, has covered most of the places that get a mention in War Games. She has published books about her travels in Africa, and UN interventions in Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti. With this long established interest in humanitarian interventions, it is unsurprising that Polman’s writing is filled with personal anecdotes and experiences, which merge seamlessly with wider analysis of the aid industry.

War Games is a deliberatively provocative book (the original title translates as Crisis Caravan, which I think is much better). Polman is clearly angry at the failures of the aid industry and she pulls no punches in her criticism. To begin with, this can seem slightly over the top, but as the figures and anecdotes accumulate it becomes easy to share her anger. How can this industry enjoy so much goodwill when it has done so much wrong? How can the same mistakes be made again and again? And how come we don’t read about these issues more often?

Clearly there are problems in the aid industry, and Polman rightly demands they be addressed. Interestingly, Polman the book by admitting she does not have the answers. Rather, she says, it is important to be asking the questions.

Rafiq Copeland is an itinerant television researcher.