Book review: War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times

WAR GAMES: THE STORY OF AID AND WAR IN MODERN TIMES by Linda Polman Viking, 218pp, £12.99

•Sudanese refugee children are pictured at the Djabal Camp, southern Chad

A FEW months ago, I gave a lecture in St Andrews about emergency aid. I argued that the reality of international aid is often deep corruption, and that it frequently causes more problems than it solves. I firmly believe that, while there are major problems, the charitable impulse is something to treasure; some in the audience, however, thought me impossibly cynical.

If they didn't like me, they'd have hated Linda Polman. The distinguished Dutch journalist tears into the international aid establishment with unrestrained savagery. From Goma (Congo) to Sierra Leone, from Biafra to "Afghaniscam", Polman presents a withering catalogue of corruption, incompetence and an aid industry that lives in unholy symbiosis with politicians and the military. This devilish partnership involves the manipulation of aid by armies involved in civil wars, such that the aid feeds one side and causes economic havoc for the opposition, and also sees the overt use of food versus starvation as a form of blackmail by, for example, America (and us, their allies) to force Afghans to do as we wish.

The indictment is a long and ghastly one. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was not even a pretence of humanitarian neutrality. Colin Powell spelt it out: "Just as surely as our diplomats and military… NGOs (non-governmental organisations] are a force multiplier for us, an important part of our combat team." Indeed, there are many examples that Polman doesn't find room for; I recall that the US government avoided the issue of planning reconstruction in Iraq partly by lining up 80 NGOs who waited in the wings in Jordan prior to the invasion, where they were fully briefed by the defence department.

Polman's catalogue has an appalling fascination, and I'll quote just one of scores of examples: a budget of $150 million for house rebuilding in Afghanistan which, after endless intermediaries had taken their cut, was just enough to buy roof beams. These, when delivered, proved to be too heavy for Afghan mud structures – and so were used as firewood.

If you enjoy justified anger, this is an exhilarating book. It does contain certain problems, however. Polman starts by comparing the philosophies of Henri Dunant (founder of the Red Cross) with Florence Nightingale. Dunant declared that we should give aid in a neutral and unqualified manner, wherever there was need, as an imperative. Nightingale had no time for this, retorting that aid that in any way prolonged a war was worse than useless. It is an argument that still rages, and the majority of humanitarian organisations follow Dunant's lead, saying that even if they have to pay out huge sums to obtain permits to enter a war zone, and even if that money is spent on more armaments, it is worth it if some lives are saved. Polman will have none of this, siding firmly with Nightingale.

But she cannot entirely dispose of Dunant's ideal merely by calling it outmoded. Civilian populations are often caught behind front lines. Very likely, the arrival of Mdecins sans Frontires (MSF) paying to get access puts money in the hands of rebels – but what should one do about those civilians? Is it morally acceptable to back away? Polman has no answer. MSF themselves are well aware of the risks, and have an avowed policy of speaking out. In Ethiopia, almost alone among agencies, MSF protested against the extortions and warmongering of the government – and were thrown out of the country for their pains.

Polman cites the problem of refugee warriors. Very often, when refugees gather in large camps (fed by western donors), those camps become armed bases for troops raiding back across borders and prolonging wars. She gives vividly awful examples from across Africa and Asia. But not all her examples work. In Burma, for instance, the Karen people have been fighting for survival against the Burmese for half a century. Large numbers of Karen live in armed villages along the Thai border, defended by their own soldiers. Polman implies that these are western-run and fed camps, lumping them together with the Hutu gnocidaires of Rwanda. This seriously misrepresents the Karen situation, where displaced people are defending themselves against a Burmese army that would cheerfully enslave most and kill many. What does Polman expect them to do – sit and wait for the Burmese? Of course the Karen defend themselves: wouldn't she?

Polman bludgeons her way through the argument without much subtlety, pouring scorn on the "MONGO" ("my-own-NGO"), the tiny, sometimes single-handed, freelance do-gooder, often of scary incompetence, who crops up everywhere. But some of the most successful aid interventions have been small or single-handed, notably David Werner and his Hesperian Foundation, which transformed health care for villagers in a part of rural Mexico, chiefly by means of having the villagers run it for themselves.

Nor is Polman's account entirely reliable, in particular when she implies that the present situation is a recent one. Conflict and aid to Darfur date from well before 1998, as she (perhaps unintentionally) implies. The phrase "aid angels" dates back at least to Ethiopia if not Karamoja (Uganda 1981). There were baroque aid projects long before Linda Polman: in Cambodia in 1979, for example, William Shawcross discovered the US La Leche League offering to send a Boeing 747 filled with lactating American mothers ready to suckle Khmer orphans. Her account of "Afghaniscam" is wonderfully awful, but readers of Norman Lewis's account of Naples in 1944 will recall how Italian bandits ambushed and purloined entire trainloads of US army supplies. Really, what does she expect to happen?

Meanwhile, her Dutch perspective is sometimes skewed. She interviews Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan who have never left their bases: "Walls and the screen of my laptop are all I ever see," complains a Dutch corporal. Tell that to the people who line the streets of Wootton Bassett every time a British soldier's coffin comes home. Personally, I wish we were out of Afghanistan tomorrow, but Polman cannot say that British troops sit tight in their camps out of danger. Nor, indeed, the US army, however disastrous one may think their policies.

But Polman is little interested in niceties; her wrath is terrible and – in general – unanswerable. It is a measure of the force of her attacks that the aid establishment gets so angrily defensive, viz the recent rantings of Bob Geldof, threatening to sue the BBC who dared to suggest that Live Aid money in Ethiopia had been used to buy rebel armaments. Such accusations were not new; they were raised by the Spectator a decade ago in an article called "What happened to the f***ing money?", and they won't go away for all Geldof's bluster.

But what is to be done? Here, for all the force of her case, Polman has not much to offer, other than urging us to ask embarrassing questions. Of course, she is right. We should not be showering unconditional money into aid; it can be dreadful in its effects, especially when magnified by a pliant media. But who can ask those questions without information supplied by the media? In 2000, MSF published a critique (World in Crisis) which ran onto the same rocks: the crisis (said MSF) is in large part caused by the media – and the solution? More, and somehow better, journalists.

&#149 Jonathan Falla is a novelist who worked for aid agencies in Indonesia, Uganda, Sudan, Burma and Nepal.