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'The Crisis Caravan': Charity's Road to Hell?

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In 1967, after a vicious round of Nigerian coups, counter coups, and ethnic massacres, an Ibo military governor declared independence for his people, whose land held big oil reserves. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu proved more charismatic than gifted at winning a civil war. The Republic of Biafra was swiftly surrounded.

Images of starving toddlers with gaping eyes and distended bellies filled the world's media when the BBC's Frederick Forsyth and a horde of reporters came to cover what they called genocide. International nongovernmental aid organizations (INGOs) hastened to collect money for emergency food shipments. Celebrities pitched in. (Here, Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez chat at a 1968 benefit for Biafran refugees.) Ojukwu was forced to flee in 1970 after a million deaths. He lives in Nigeria, comforted by a worshipful wiki page and Forsyth's first book, The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend.

Linda Polman has some things to add to Ojukwu's legend in The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? The veteran Dutch journalist says Ojukwu charged the relief agencies loads of money to let them send food and supplies via his little air force - shipments that fed his troops. Indeed, she says, the fact that they were accompanied by arms and munitions is what caused the Nigerians to ban the aid missions. "He fled," Polman says, "with his wife, children, 6,600 pounds of luggage, and his white Mercedes-Benz ... [to live] happily ever after."

In many ways, the Nigerian Civil War was a template for subsequent relief efforts. Oxford-educated Ojukwu hired a publicist. Medecin sans Frontieres (MSF a.k.a Doctors Without Borders) was born in 1971 when it broke from the International Committee of the Red Cross because the ICRC had balked at aid that might benefit the rebels. In lieu of Red Cross participation, dozens of INGOs charged into Biafra. Ever since, aid agencies - including the ICRC - have raced to run up their banners in crisis zones.

The Crisis Caravan is a hard-boiled portrait of how good intentions can make things worse in distant, scary places we hope aid money will make nicer. The book begins with the revelation that humanitarian heroine Florence Nightingale opposed the Red Cross' creation on grounds that volunteers should not make war cheaper or easier for governments to wage. She lost the argument: The ICRC's Geneva Convention is now accepted by every nation in the world.

That doesn't mean it's honored. According to analysts at Development Initiatives, the humanitarian sector is a big business that in 2008 amounted to $18 billion, with almost 300,000 employees. They must reach victims quickly and prominently, then generate reports, results, news, and images for fundraising. Financially strapped media organizations try to embed journalist with NGOs that can provide food, transport, and exposure to compelling news. Reporters, Polman says, "become the disciples of aid workers."

Aid agencies face terrible ethical choices. In 1997, the ICRC apologized for having said nothing about the Holocaust during World War II because speaking out would likely have prevented it from helping prisoners of war and refugees -- work that solved huge logistical problems for both Nazis and Allies.

Polman presents lots of detail. Sections that offer accounts from her work as a war correspondent stand out, starting with what she personally witnessed following the genocide in 1994 of 800,00 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Some 250 INGOs raced to help 750,000 Rwandan refugees - some with cholera - streaming into the Congolese town of Goma. As the world watched, four giant camps were built, with restaurants, bars, tailor shops, hair salons, movie theaters, and hotels.

The problem? Residents were mainly Hutus governed and policed by mass-murdering extremists who demanded jobs and collected fees and shares of all aid. Having started the crisis at home, they slaughtered residents they didn't like and continued raiding Rwanda. Polman quotes Fiona Terry, then project leader of MSF France, describing Goma as "a total ethical disaster." After six months, MSF France quit Goma. Two years later, Rwanda's Tutsi army swept in to shoot up and shut down the camps.

A vivid chapter called "Donor Darlings" describes a camp for Sierra Leone's amputees, victims of a civil war in which both rebels and government soldiers cut off civilians' limbs. The residents are such a hot draw for journalists that victims who were merely maimed in explosions or accidents are driven out by those who were intentionally chopped. Then come waves of MONGOs (as Polman calls private NGOs, for "My Own NGO"). Now kids whose huts are full of limbs they don't wear because they wreck photo ops are flown to the U.S. or Germany for state-of-the-art prosthetics that can't be maintained in Sierra Leone. Many never return; they are adopted, notwithstanding that they have parents.

The coup de grace comes when Polman interviews rebel leader Mike Lamin, who explains that the world's acceptance of a state of permanent civil war had inspired the amputations. "Without the amputee factor you wouldn't have come," he says, bitter that his side's surgical innovation hasn't brought its fair share of donor money and food.

The book's charges include that Sir Bob Geldhof's 1984 Band Aid helped fund and provide cover for the Ethiopian government's effort to forcibly resettle hundreds of thousands of dissident northern peasants on southern plantations. Africa, currently being hailed as "a dealmaker's paradise" for its high level of international corporate takeovers, is an aid zone that keeps on giving to ever-more competitive INGOs. And to the public and private sectors: Good Fortune -- an excellent, affecting documentary about how global development aid enabled Kenyan officials and international companies to snatch up urban and rural property already in productive use -- can be streamed free through Oct. 12 at PBS POV (trailer here).

More recent crises get shorter shrift in The Crisis Caravan. A chapter entitled "Afghaniscam" explains that working as a humanitarian aid worker ranks 5th on the list of most-dangerous occupations; they are perceived by both sides as "force magnifiers" for the West, even as they insist they are independent. Does this make them legitimate targets for the Taliban?

Polman says most of the money they bring goes to maintain Western lifestyles or is dispersed among contractors and subcontractors. She cites a house-building project whose $150 million left 20% with the originating aid agency, a further 20% at a Washington-based contractor, and an additional 20% with a third organization, which then hired a subcontractor. The payoff: Wood beams imported from Iran turned out to be too heavy for Afghani homes, so the villagers used them as firewood.

Polman's complaints about agencies in Darfur seem limited to the Sudanese government's insistence that agencies hire its partisans and cough up millions in fees and taxes.

The suspense builds as Polman's jeremiad approaches its lively closing glossary, "Aidspeak," complete with an entry on "Bono and Bob." (Watch them join in Ricky Gervais' very funny satirical video about their efforts.)

Don't all such books have to offer solutions?

Polman tries. She says we should ask more questions about where public and private contributions are going. She wants donor governments and agencies to better coordinate dealings with war parties so aid isn't used to help one side oppress and kill more victims. Jon Stewart was left blinking sympathetically when Polman visited The Daily Show. "Good luck with this," he concluded politely.