Linda Polman brings up multiple flaws of Non-Governmental organizations (NGO’s) in her book The Crisis Caravan. Some of the main ones are the absence of rules, regulation and governance in humanitarian aid. There is a rather wide and free market type of thinking amongst these organizations where there’s a lot of reliance of personal judgement, which many times is not helpful.
In Chapter 3, she discusses about “My Own NGOs” or MONGOs for short. The talks about how MONGOS often have lack of knowledge and experience. Henri Dunant was one of the first people to establish a professional humanitarian aid organization, which is the Red Cross.
“Whoever feels like it can establish an organization and start collecting money”
Though the Red Cross is a large and successful NGO, NGO’s still function in a free market world and Polman argues how that can be very problematic. One of the issues brought up is how many NGO’s have good intentions but end up being more of an annoyance. A lot of the supplies brought overseas are full of defective or broken equipment and drugs that are often expired. Clothes is also another problem as theres many places where a surplus clothes is shipped to that much of the clothes is thrown away. Shipping is a huge cost and theres a huge inefficiency when a lot of the goods being shipped are completely unusable.
Another example of the consequences of this free market of NGOs is that there are huge and disastrous mistakes that are made by large NGOs. Such as when the European Commission sent supplies of food that contained radioactive contamination.
“Whenever aid organizations appear, local political, military, and business leaders suddenly start driving around in expensive cars and building splendid houses”
Polman says, “There’s no rules, no limits, and no requirement to have any understanding for the local balance of power or to coordinate with other parties involved.” This is huge issue as there are many times where NGOs are actually giving money to troops or the government. Polman recounts the time where she had to pay a fee to enter a warzone. This is not uncommon as there are many warlords who require a fee or some percentage of the NGOs income to enter the war zone and help aid war victims.
The reason why there is no regulation in war zones is because after wars there is no chance of fair competition as explained by Polman. It will take years for a peace accords to be written and because there is usually no government in place, there is no regulation leaving the international NGOs (INGO) to be freely controlled by the warlords and commanders that are still in power.
In Northern Sri Lanka, it would have been nearly impossible to provide aid and help with reconstruction if they did not negotiate with the rebels, the Tamil Tigers. The humanitarian aid organization Caritas had to set up in their territories and paid a large sum of money to the Tigers. This is problematic as Tigers are seen as a terrorist group by many Western countries. Caritas justified their negotiations with the Tiger by saying that they were able to aid the people in need even though they are financing the Tigers.
This is an issue between saying no and doing nothing or trying to help but knowing that there is possibly more harm caused. Polman explicitly states that she does not offer a solution but there needs to be an option to say no. She wants to make sure that the system itself needs to be criticized and there needs to be some sort of regulation on top of a free market. There is the question of whether or not the balance of aid is outweighing the negative and harm. The question of when does humanitarian aid “cease to be ethical.”
NGOs and other aid organizations are often put under a veil of innocences and heroism. That is why Polman describes them as businesses dressed up as Mother Teresa. Businesses are seen as independently own and only for profit, which is really apparent in many NGOs and INGOs. Because they are independently owned and non-government regulated, there is no rules for what they can or cannot do. The reason they are described as dressing up as “Mother Teresa” is because they are in a disguise of being aid and humanitarian organization. This means that the media automatically assumes that there are absolutely no flaws in these organizations when in reality there is many flaws that need to be address.
What Polman is calling for is for journalists, the public and governments to not solely rely on the free market world of the NGOs because there needs to be regulation and there needs to be criticism. There is a huge lack of criticism because of the stereotype that NGOs are 100% dedicating their time for good when they could very well be causing more harm. Journalists need to report and investigate a lot more on the actions of aid organizations. The public needs to be able to start an outcry and start a movement if necessary so the government should hopefully create regulations and laws that will indirectly make sure that NGOs (though ironic now) will actually be aiding instead of harming.