The Crisis Caravan by Linda Polman

8101105Nonfiction — print. Metropolitan Books, 2010. 240 pgs. Library copy.

As you might have gathered from the subtitle, Polman begs the question of what exactly is wrong with humanitarian aid to her readers. After all, humanitarian aid is meant to provide assistance to the most desperate among us, those who live in war-torn regions or have survived natural disasters. The problem, of course, is that humanitarian aid rarely appears to accomplish what it set out to do. Survivors of the tsunami in Sri Lanka received clothing neither suitable for their climate or cultural norms while survivors of the earthquake in Haiti are still living in tents despite the out pour of humanitarian assistance.

Without a focus on the economics of humanitarian aid — a focus that is often rife with political biases — Polman attacks the very ethics of humanitarian assistance. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) claim to be neutral actors in conflict, merely followers of need. Yet the most egregious example against this argument, as Polman explains, is the massive humanitarian aid provided to perpetrators to genocide in Rwanda who resettled in camps just outside the Rwandan border. This aid was used to nourish and treat soldiers of the genocidal Hutu army with the excess sold or traded for weapons used to continue the genocide. In this case and others around the world, aid has become a strategic aspect of warfare so that the claim to neutrality made by humanitarian aid organizations can no longer be justified.

Polman states that NGOs knew exactly what was happening to their aid products in Rwanda but were too afraid to leave the area least their funding sources dry up over the decision. Contrary to popular belief (or, at least, the belief I had), NGOs do not receive the bulk of their funding from donations but rather governmental contracts. If governmental efforts are contracted in one area in particular (think nation building in Afghanistan) or public opinion is swaying public officials to focus largely on one area (think post-earthquake Haiti), the abundance of government contracts mean the procession of NGOs must move there as quickly as possible to shore up financial support and donor contracts. Thus, areas are abandoned with haste even before goals of aid have been accomplished simply because the attention and, therefore, the money are no longer there.

“Far from worrying mainly about how the local population will survive when a contract runs out, the contract system means aid organizations are forced to worry instead about how they’ll survive themselves.” (pg. 41)

I try to avoid donating to religious organizations on principle (I don’t believe you should have to pray to a god you do not believe in for a piece of bread) but I was glad to see that Polman manages to question the ethics of all organizations, religious or not. I often find myself falling into that trap, and I think it would have hurt her argument for a wider audience. Polman does not offer alternatives to the issue, only that we should stop donating to such organizations in general. The only alternative I could think of was to donate to organizations with a particular emphasis on an area, but Polman even managed to show how that idea is not particularly attractive. Organizations founded to help in Bosnia have resurrected in Darfur and Haiti, for example. Polman paints a rather bleak picture, forcing her readers to reach a rather sad realization — one that does appear to be solved any time soon.

The Honors Project:

I read this book for The Honors Project, my own personal challenge to read more books about economics, food, and/or geography in preparation for writing my honors thesis. My goal for this project is to learn as much as I can about these topics so I can formulate better questions and, in turn, produce a better honors thesis. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.


  1. I guess it’s important to recognize the drawbacks to humanitarian aid, but I have a hard time bringing myself to read books like this one that seem to take such a wholly negative view. Even if the effectiveness of aid is less than ideal, would it really be better to sit back and do nothing?

    A book that I enjoyed and thought was very well balanced about the benefits and limitations of aid is Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, though it focuses on sustained anti-poverty measures, rather than crisis aid.

    I always enjoy your honors project reviews!


    • Thanks! I’m glad someone enjoys the Honors Project as much as I do!

      I’ve always struggled with humanitarian aid. I want to do so much but so much seems to do so little. I’ve also enjoyed Poor Economics and would recommend that book for anyone interested in learning more way before I’d even mention this one. I think this book, despite it’s negative view, still has a lot of interesting points that are necessary for a healthy and productive dialogue. I have three people in mind that I would love to discuss this book with. I just have to convince them to read it!


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