When is some help worse than none? When it creates more problems than might have been there without it. While that is easy to say, determining the line between helpful and harmful is less clear.
If your help saves a life, that seems good. If your help saves lives but creates or supports a system that destroys others, when do you decide to stop helping or to change the help you offer?
This is what Linda Polman raises and a key issue in her The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? (2010, Metropolitan Books; first published in 2008 in Dutch by the title, De Crisiskaravaan).
Linda tells of a huge problem in the humanitarian aid industry (yes, it is one even if its primary purpose is to provide care for traumatized and displaced peoples). She puts the challenge this way in regard to providing humanitarian aid for those in warzones,
You do what you can for the victims, but soldiers exploit your efforts. They demand money for ever well yo dig and levy sky-high taxes, imposed on the spot, on all the sacks of rice and tents and medicines you arrange to have flown in. They consume a slice of your aid supplies and sell another slice. Among the items they buy with the proceeds are weapons, which they use to drive yet more people into your refugee camps or even to their deaths.
What do you do? Do you conclude that it is no longer possible to cling to the principles of the Red Cross, pack your bags, and leave to help war victims elsewhere? Or do you remain true to your convictions, believing that even if you save only one human life, some relief is better than none? (p. 1-2)
The first 2 chapters detail the problems of the international aid provided to Goma, DRC between July/August 1994 and 1996 when the Rwandan government used their soldiers to force the mass of Hutu refugees and former genocidaires back into Rwanda rather than allow the camps be locations for regrouping of the militias that would try to return to fight the new Rwandan government.
A couple of her observations
1. Not all refugees are the same. Some are truly in need. But a large number of the refugees in Goma brought a treasure trove of materials looted from their own country. Thus, they were less likely pushed there and more likely going there to reconstitute a machine against the RPF in a safe place.
2. The international community came in droves, almost seeming to try to make up for the failures in Rwanda for the past several months. But they didn’t understand that many of these folks were either perpetrators or related to them.
3. Not all of the deaths reported as due to cholera were in fact illness related. There were many that were killed for failing to be loyal enough to the Hutu extremist groups
4. NGOs have to market themselves and thus spend lots of money to get contracts to help more
5. NGOs hide the fact that many of their stuffs were taken by Hutu leaders so the NGOs would raise the number of people they were helping in order cover up that they lost a large percentage of materials/food to theft and corruption
6. Journalists are more likely to get their way paid to cover a crisis by an NGO, thus raising questions about the images they send back. Likely not going to be as objective.
Now, none of this suggests we shouldn’t provide humanitarian aid to refugees in warzones. But it does remind us that our help can also hurt others. Being wise as serpents and harmless as doves is a lot harder than we might expect.
Given our trip to the region next month, I have to remember that our good intentions are not always enough. I’m not sure how our help can hurt but if we don’t ask the questions, we won’t know either. Here are some open questions
1. Does short-term trauma recovery efforts start a healing process but fail to keep it going thus encouraging more hope than discouragement?
2. Does bringing people together to talk about trauma unintentionally trigger trauma or feelings of rage (we won’t know if some people are considered the “wrong kind of people”)?
3. How does taking pictures or filming any part influence the “data” we think we are collecting?