:: Article

A Marketplace of Compassion

By Max Dunbar.


War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, Linda Polman, Viking 2010

The cliché is true, it is better to give than to receive. There is the happy moral jolt in the chest, the increased status in the eyes of peers, the realisation that you are in a position to give. Charity can prevent scrutiny. When The Observer broke a story about a prominent Tory candidate who set up hostels to exorcise demons from gay people and alcoholics, Andrew Brown on the sister paper defended the candidate on the grounds that she had also worked in night shelters. The gay-purge Conservative was ‘morally better than a candidate who has never done anything either to harm gay teenagers or to help the homeless ones.’ The careers of Mother Teresa and Jerry Falwell also illustrate the moral blank cheque we write for anyone who’s put a few pennies in a poor-box.

During the Rwandan genocide, tens of thousands of refugees fled the border roads into Tanzania and Burundi: ‘the biggest, fastest and least understood exodus in the history of humanitarian relief.’ On the TV screens, these people looked like survivors and victims. Dying of cholera on Goma’s streets, the Rwandans made a heartbreaking sight. Donations to relief organisations surged when the sick and homeless refugees hit the news. Aid agencies descended.

In fact these were not innocents fleeing genocide but government army and civilian militias planning a tactical withdrawal. The idea was to rest and regroup in border refugee camps before going back into Rwanda to continue the slaying. A Hutu told a Reuters journalist that ‘Until we go back to Rwanda, the cockroaches can rule over a graveyard!’

The city of Goma in what is now the DRC became to Polman the ultimate case study of humanitarian failure. The entire Hutu government relocated to Goma’s refugee camps, where they quickly re-established old hierarchies. From Rwanda they had brought furniture, livestock, building materials, books, vehicles – property taken from murdered Tutsis. In no time the camps became luxurious gated communities with thriving businesses and bars.

Aid agencies abided by strict Red Cross neutrality rules, pledged to help anyone. Journalists did not report the political context. All donors saw was Africans who needed food. The result was that distribution of billions in aid became directed by the Hutu politicians who ran the camps. Supplies were stolen by militias and sold to camp civilians at inflated prices. Hutu extremists demanded admin and manual jobs with international NGOs, and creamed off a percentage of their salaries for the government, which was still making the occasional sortie into Rwanda to kill more Tutsis and steal more property.

Weapons came in from abroad. The Hutus paid with cash, or bartered with stolen aid supplies. Aid workers became disillusioned with the camp mayors’ arrogance and sense of entitlement. Polman recalls a bar conversation with several angry and exhausted NGO staff. ‘Nothing but complaints… We’re given orders to deliver firewood of exactly sixty centimetres of length in future. Let AIDS take care of them!’

While the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide enjoyed the largesse of donor governments, Tutsi survivors could barely scrape together a meal in their ruined and gutted country. There was no electricity or water supplies, and the rivers were clogged with corpses. UN commander Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire complained that he couldn’t get more than a few thousand dollars for aid in Kilgali, supplemented from his own salary. When the world finally became interested in Rwanda, Dallaire would treat delegations to a meal of expired military rations on which he and his officers had been subsisting for weeks.

I dwell on Polman’s Goma chapter because it summarises almost all the problems she highlights with humanitarian aid. Ninety per cent of conflicts occur within countries rather than between them. Often the only stable power is the regime doing the killing. Aid agencies must work through them to gain access and get anything done. This means that a great deal, or even most, of the aid money is looted by despots, bandits and warlords. Perpetrators know the system and exploit it. Polman tells us that a bombed-out shack in Kabul is hired out to foreign aid workers at the rental rates of an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Underneath all the euphoria of Live 8 and Make Poverty History was a cynical suspicion that all we were doing was funnelling cash into some tinpot dictator’s Zurich bank account.

Another problem is that aid is selective, depending on media coverage, subject to political and sentimental considerations of donor governments and their citizens. It took an earthquake to put the desperate poverty of Haitians on the rich world’s map. Aid agencies must act as businesses, ducking and diving in the marketplace of compassion. The business mentality filters down to the recipients themselves. Polman has a chapter on Sierra Leoneian amputees who compete for coverage on American talk shows. It reads like a black farce.

There is a terrible dilemma here. Polman encapsulates it with characteristic elegance:

Imagine. It’s 1943. You’re an international aid worker. The telephone rings. It’s the Nazis. You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners.

What do you do?

Humanitarians have grappled with the paradox ever since. Polman does not even try to untangle the Gordian knot. ‘When a message is painful,’ she writes, ‘we always want a quick, ready-made solution to numb the pain.‘ War Games offers not a programme for action but a vivid portrait of the entanglements of charity and killing and a plea to observe more about this world we live in.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 15th, 2010.