Linda Polman has somehow been writing for years, ever so quietly, about the glaring problems within the humanitarian aid industry. War Games, as the sub-title informs, is the story of aid and war in modern times. Polman is at it again with her writing on conflict zones. This book hasn’t been released in the US, although it is available used on Amazon. I ordered it from a used book store, although the cover on my book is different than the one I grabbed for this posting.
As with the last book of hers I reviewed, this text was originally published in Dutch, and then translated. It traces the nature of the aid industry (sometimes called the “crisis caravan” by Polman), starting all the way back with the inception of the Red Cross by Henri Dunant. Polman contrasts Dunant and his principle of neutrality against Nightingale, who was convinced that aid betrays itself if conflict parties can use it to their own advantage. The rest of the book follows the aid industry as it develops and follows an ostensible creed of neutrality, happily paying visa and import duties to corrupt regimes, allowing warlords to skim aid, and so on.
In December 1994 MSF [doctors without borders] France nevertheless did decide to leave Goma. In a newsletter sent out to its individual donors the organization wrote: ‘Far from contributing to a solution, aid only perpetuates the situation in Goma [where the Hutus have fled after instigating the Rwandan Genocide of 1994].
Let me say that I agree with basically everything within this book — the tone of the book rings true to me. Some of the exact details, mostly quotes, do not. It may just be her writing style, where she will leave out expository information that explains how she got somewhere, and how she got to know someone, and the mundane things they said before the world’s most perfect quote came out of nowhere, but in the way this book is written Polman seems to always be in the right place at the right time to hear the perfect quote. To me, it sort of reads like fiction. Again, I want to stress, the book is translated from Dutch, and I think my problem might be able to be ascribed to her writing style being something I am not used to, but to me the book has a “3 Cups of Tea” feel to it — I don’t think anything in the book is BS, but it has a bit of a feeling of embellishment used to punctuate points.
Also slightly annoying to me is that the book does cite a certain number of statistics, but there is no formal reference for the sources of citations. I am left simply having to trust Polman’s numbers. I much prefer to be able to find the original source.
“In a plane from Nairobi to Khartoum I sat next to a bunch of American Christian hippies with guitars. They’d been given money by their church so that they could go and spend three weeks in Darfur bringing ‘hope’,” a member of a Norwegian NGO in Sudan told me in 2005.
This is a good book to consider reading. If you want to do aid work, especially on conflict zones, read this book.