In This Review

The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?
The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?
By Linda Polman
Metropolitan Books, 2010, 240 pp

This disturbing book raises a host of troubling questions about humanitarian aid as it is delivered in the real world. Suffering children shown on TV understandably evoke universal sympathy, compassion that is converted into both official and private donations of cash or goods. There the troubles begin. Polman, a Dutch journalist, has covered civilian victims in war zones for 15 years, and in The Crisis Caravan, she summarizes the reality of such donations at the receiving end -- in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia, and Sudan. For every dollar given, less than ten cents, she suggests, may actually reach the intended recipients -- and sometimes even that may do more harm than good if it requires effective follow-on treatment, which is often not provided. Warring factions learn to exploit the donors, both for sustenance and as cover for purchases and the delivery of arms. These days, the number of well-meaning donors in a given area can exceed 200, and their uncoordinated activities enormously complicate both the delivery and the effectiveness of the intended assistance. Worsening matters are journalists, often driven by compassionate sentiment themselves, who, Polman contends, too often suspend their critical judgment with respect to what is actually happening. She pleads for donor groups to ask serious questions about the unintended consequences of their actions and to review seriously the ethical dilemmas they pose.