Following the aid money with Linda Polman

May 19, 2010

As political leaders wrangle over how best to deal with warring factions in hot spots around the world, enclaves of humanitarian aid workers grapple with how best to help innocent victims of violence.

Author and journalist Linda Polman proposes in “War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times” that since the end of the Cold War, there is much more at stake than the simple distribution of billions of dollars in aid money each year to fix crisis situations. Aid agencies relegated in the past to the peripheries of war zones and refugee camps now play a very different role.

An estimated 37,000 international non-governmental organisations follow the flow of aid money and compete with each other for billions of dollars, Polman writes, reporting that Organisation of Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) donor countries contribute $120 billion (84 billion pounds) a year for developmental cooperation and an estimated $11.2 billion for emergency humanitarian relief. Some $6 billion a year is channeled into humanitarian aid out of the combined tax revenues of the world’s richest countries, she says.

Warring factions use money and supplies intended for humanitarian purposes for their own gain.

“In some wars aid capital is decisive,” Polman writes. “Under certain circumstances trading in aid supplies may be the most important economic activity around, and money and goods from NGOs are weapons in military strategies, including those of our own armies.”

Between 2001 and 2008, more than 60 governments allocated more than $15 billion to aid for Afghanistan but “where the money ended up is unclear. Neither the donors nor their INGOs dare to visit the projects they finance. The result is an unfathomable channelling of aid billions that is highly susceptible to fraud.”

“The majority of western INGOs never venture outside Kabul,” says Polman. “Instead they subcontract local and other international NGOs to implement their projects, who in turn engage further subcontractors.”

This lack of control over aid funding in Afghanistan is referred to locally as “Afghaniscam”.

Polman, who over the past 20 years has filed reports as a freelance journalist from such countries as Afghanistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Darfur, spoke to Reuters at Penguin Books headquarters in central London.

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