A veteran foreign affairs journalist reports on the 21st-century crises confronting international humanitarian aid organizations.
To trace Osama bin Laden to his compound, U.S. intelligence enlisted a senior Pakistani health officer to initiate a phony campaign to inoculate citizens against hepatitis B. In Somalia, Bancroft Global Development trains local forces to fight against the al-Shabab insurgents and also, notwithstanding its NGO label, sponsors its own investment operation. The founder of International Relief and Development retired in 2014 after reports about his agency’s lavish compensation and overspending culminated in a Washington Post headline: “Doing Well By Doing Good.” As he relates these and other abuses, Gill (Famine & Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, 2010, etc.) embeds within his brisk, hard-hitting narrative the inspiring origin stories of three of our most revered aid agencies—The International Committee of the Red Cross, Oxfam, and Save the Children—and underscores the noble founding principles that animated each: independence, neutrality, and impartiality. With the honorable exception of the Red Cross, and relative newcomers like Médecins Sans Frontières, few organizations, including the U.N., remain faithful to this doctrine. Aggressive advertising and unbecoming concerns about institutional growth have helped transform modern aid into “a mighty, money-spinning industry,” but the war on terror has also placed peculiar strains on what should be the disinterested mission of alleviating human suffering. Gill’s informed, on-the-ground reporting from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria demonstrates how Western aid agencies have, through their increasing reliance on government funding, surrendered their independence. Understandably fearful for their own security, they’ve tied humanitarian efforts to the military and political goals of those same governments, arousing severe mistrust among Muslims in particular. Dreading falling afoul of counterterrorism laws, they’ve abandoned efforts to connect with the victims they should be helping. Gill’s reporting exposes an almost fatal falling away from first principles that the Western humanitarian movement must address to regain its effectiveness and its moral soul.
Tales of corruption and compromise, of interest to anyone who’s ever contributed to a humanitarian aid organization.