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The victim industry

A few days ago I was soaked in a torrential downpour in Florida. The first thing I thought about was all the people living outside or in tents in Haiti. After I got myself nicely showered and dry I sat down and read this post from Carole DeVilliers on her second trip to Haiti in which she stresses the point that three months on from the earthquake, people still remain without ‘the most basic necessity – a roof over their heads.’

‘The rains have started early and downpours are frequent. Again and again I hear the same comment: The government doesn’t do anything for us. I cannot stay doing nothing, even though my modest means may provide only a patch on the wounds of destitution and distress. Through PATCH-Haiti (Photography in Aid To Children of Haiti), a programme I started long ago, and with the proceeds of a photo sale fundraiser I organized in Albuquerque, I was able to buy and bring eight dome tents to provide emergency shelters to the most needy I meet on my visits… People are excited and another woman asks me to come and see where she lives. I go and look. A small and flimsy tarp is attached on poles no higher than three feet. “When it rains I sleep on the small table with my daughter, underneath the tarp. Otherwise I sleep right there on the pavement,” she explains to me. She sells some small items, such as candies and cookies, displayed in a flat basket on a bucket.’

One of the most recurring themes in the reports from Haiti is that thousands still remain without shelter, food or medical help. In addition, women are vulnerable to rape as they sleep. The question ‘where is the money?’ keeps cropping up. Take this investigative documentary on the work and monies collected by the American Red Cross [ARC] in Haiti, How did the Red Cross spend $106 million?

‘The American Red Cross issued its three month report on expenditures in Haiti recently, but people are asking, where’s the American Red Cross in Haiti? After a recent trip to Haiti, Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida also had her doubts about Red Cross efforts in Haiti. The lack of a visible presence of the Red Cross even prompted the congresswoman to question whether she could recommend that citizens donate to the group. “I wouldn’t say that,” she said when asked if the Red Cross was the best place for [people] to donate.’

The ARC has collected $409 million. They claim they spent $110 million on food, shelter and health and that they had reached 2 million people. But Haitians say they do not see evidence of this money being spent and that many people have received no shelter or food. Three questions arise: Where is the remaining two-thirds of the money collected? Why have only half those in need of shelter received anything? And why are people receiving vaccinations for illnesses they may never contract when emergency medical health should be the priority? The video report is essential viewing and goes into detail about claims and realities on the ground. The ARC also came under harsh criticism for its handling of emergency relief during Hurricane Katrina and elsewhere, and there is a possibility of a class action suit being filed by the Friday Haiti Relief Coalition.

The actions of the ARC raise concerns over the politics of humanitarian intervention and the motives of aid agencies such as the Red Cross and Christian Aid.  In an article NGOs and the Victim Industry Bernard Hours writes:

‘The ideology behind humanitarian aid depends on three principles. There must be universal human rights – a worthy premise, but problematic. You create victims whom you can save. Then you assert the right to have access to these victims.’

What is interesting here is the notion that universal human rights are problematic. They are problematic only in the sense that universal human rights have failed and in doing so they feed the aid agencies to the extent that the sector has become a globalized million-dollar industry built on social injustice and inequality. The victims – in this instance Haitians – become the objects of an NGO industry which is based on the premise that a disaster or a conflict will enable them to step in and ‘save’ the situation. This in turn is driven by adverts of helpless, hapless people as victims of something that is disconnected from the financiers of the NGOs themselves and Western financial interests. Kali Akuno describes humanitarian aid as ‘a key ideological and strategic tool of neolibereralism’:

‘Despite how well-intentioned this concept sounds, it is a tool developed through the auspices of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], under the guiding hand of the US government, to be executed through the UN to allow the imperialist powers to legally and morally interfere in the domestic affairs of weaker nations. Stated plainly, it is colonialism dressed in fine linen.’

In a new book, War Games: the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, Linda Polman goes much further and presents a strong argument that the business of humanitarianism – the NGO industrial complex together with global media – has ‘formed an unholy alliance with warmongers’. To give an idea of both the competition between these agencies and what she calls ‘charity enterprise zones’, she cites the growth of the industry over the past 20 years:

‘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 organizations] 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.’

The numbers are problematic for a number of reasons – the local resources they consume; duplication and competition which add to the chaos; overemphasis on fundraising for which they have to court the media; and the focus on marketing their ‘product’. All of this is detrimental to those they are supposed to be helping. (See the January 2010 Lancet report Growth of aid and the decline of humanitarianism.) All of these also contribute to the INGOs often directly or indirectly supporting the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims and survivors. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, the country was flooded with INGOs and MONGOs (‘my own non-governmental organizations’). Many of these are an assortment of religious missionaries with their own motives behind their supposedly humanitarian aid – the group who were caught removing children from Haiti is an excellent example. And there have been reports of missionaries putting religious conditions on their aid. The MONGOs can be even more dangerous because as small groups run by a few people there is less accountability. I can no longer count the amount of times people have suggested to me that I start ‘my own’ NGO as a way of getting funds (a proposition I find abhorrent) and from my own experience of some small organizations there is a huge gap between what they say they are doing and what they are really doing – which is often very little. This is not to say there are not many NGOs and MONGOs that are transparent and doing excellent work, but one has to be extra vigilant in exposing those behaving badly and more discerning about whom to work with or support.

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