Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Dutch journalist Linda Polman, author of “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?”
Polman says Haiti is an example of a place where a lack of coordination has hampered aid distribution.
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Marco Werman: In Haiti yesterday, President Michel Martelly met with two of his most controversial predecessors. He got together with both former exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and former dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Martelly says he’s trying to get Haiti to get over its troubled past and move forward. That’s going to be hard in a country still suffering from the devastating effects of last year’s earthquake. Thousands of non-governmental aid organizations are still in Haiti to help and billions of dollars in recovery aid have been pledged, yet much of that money hasn’t materialized and what has is not being spent efficiently. Dutch journalist Linda Polman is the author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? She says there’s been a lack of coordination among aid organizations in Haiti.
Linda Polman: After the earthquake the aid world came together in New York in March 2010 because they realized that the unaccountability and the disorganization and the lack of coordination, they all realized that that is a big problem. So they came together and they established the Clinton Commission. It combines the donors and the Haitian government, and the commission was going to be the nucleus of this entire aid operation. Everybody who came to bring charity to Haiti would all go to the Clinton Commission and ask look, where is it the best place this time to spend our money? And everybody applauded and they called it Aid 2.0. Everybody was happy and as soon as the commission was established it was largely ignored and it is being ignored until today because both donors and aid organizations prefer to be the boss of their own money. And they want to be in charge of how to spend it, where to spend it, and if to spend it at all.
Werman: Who’s role is it traditionally in a disaster, a famine or civil war, to vet the NGOs and keep the incompetent ones out?
Polman: Well, nobody has that role. They do give bits of permission to the United Nations to try and get some coordination into those really large international aid organizations, so United Nations thought up a system where aid organizations meet with each other and where they talk each other’s projects over, and they sort of try to establish that their projects don’t overlap, etc. But that whole system is not obligatory so it is a very loose thing and that again, has to do with the fact that both donors and aid organizations prefer to be their own boss.
Werman: Ms. Polman, I want to know what you think. Who should be coordinating this?
Polman: Well, I know that aid organizations and donors are very sensitive towards the public opinion. They hate to be exposed as wasting money and fraudulent stuff. So I think there’s a big job for journalists. There should be a lot more journalists seriously investigating what the aid industry is actually doing with what agenda and in what extent are they accountable? So there’s a task for journalists, but there’s also a task for people who donate money to organizations. I think they should take that responsibility too, it is your money, do your homework and try to find the least damaging and most accountable organization or project that you could possibly find.
Werman: I want to get back to the UN. I mean the UN has UNICEF, it has UNHDR, the high commission for refugees, the food and agriculture organization. Why can’t the UN be the main aid agency or at least be the umbrella coordinator and would that avoid some of the pitfalls you’ve been speaking of?
Polman: The UN only can do what its member states allows it to do. The UN can come with recommendations and then it’s up to the member states to say yes or no to those recommendations. It is a totally voluntary thing and there’s nothing that the UN can do against that.
Werman: Obviously, humanitarian aid is a complex and messy business. But standing by in moments of crisis doesn’t seem really to be an option either. Isn’t compromised aid work better than none at all?
Polman: Aid is a very emotional thing and it’s very difficult to be rational if you are confronted with those pictures of starving children. There’s always this micro picture of this one human life being saved, but there’s also a macro picture that we don’t often get presented about damage that aid can do and about the political and military agendas behind aid operations and behind donors. Aid is not necessarily choosing the weakest and the poorest on this earth. Most of the time it is sort of on our own agendas, and I believe it is the duty of journalists to expose that and to make it known to the public.
Werman: That’s journalist Linda Polman, and the author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? Thank very much.
Polman: You’re welcome.
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