Since the end of the cold war, the business of humanitarian aid has flourished. During the proxy wars fought by African and Asian states backed by the Soviet Union, China and the USA, aid agencies found it very difficult to gain access to war zones. But with the end of the Soviet Union, suggests Polman, regions afflicted by war became something like charity enterprise zones, creating a massive expansion in the aid industry. Back in 1980 there were about 40 INGOs (international non-government organisations) dealing with Cambodian refugees on the Thai border. A decade later, there were 250 operating during the Yugoslavian war. By 2004, there were 2,500 involved in Afghanistan.
All too frequently, according to Polman, the result is not what it says in the charity brochures. She cites a damning catalogue of examples from Biafra to Darfur, and including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Perhaps the most striking case in the book deals with the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in which the Hutu killers fled en masse across the border to what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). There, in Goma, huge refugee camps were assembled and served by an enormous array of international agencies, while back in Rwanda, where Tutsi corpses filled rivers and lakes, aid was not so focused. The world was looking for refugees, the symbol of human catastrophe, and the refugees were Hutus. This meant the militias that had committed the atrocities received food, shelter and support, courtesy of international appeals, while their surviving victims were left destitute.
The problems, she says, is that while aid agencies may recognise their failings they are unwilling to address them because of the pressures of competition. Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business and if one charity pulls out of an operation, be it from moral or strategic concerns, there are plenty of others who will fill their place and solicit their funding. Recent years have also seen a large growth in smaller organisations, set up to negate the bureaucratic practices of the larger aid agencies. They can be run by just a handful of people – hence they've been named MONGOs (my own non-governmental organisations) – but Polman believes that while they may cut through red tape, they only add to the sense of chaos and competition in the field."