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Help which can be harmful

–"Humanitarian industry" has known for decades, what needs to be done to make life better. With each project, tons of studies and assessments are created that will eventually become useless because humanitarian organizations opt for self-interest and the interests of donors rather than the victims. We should compel those institutions to do better, we need to control them. This is our task - Linda Polman said at the Fourth Lemkin Debate.

Full video record in multimedia library.


On May 29th 2012, in the Library of the Warsaw University there was a debate "Who needs humanitarian aid?", organized by the Professor Bronislaw Geremek Centre Foundation and the Polish Humanitarian Organization. The meeting was the next part of a series of debates, commemorating the character and achievements of Raphael Lemkin - a Polish lawyer and criminal law specialist, the creator of the term "genocide" and the draft Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was signed on December 9th 1948. The discussion was attended by:

Linda Polman – Dutch journalist, reporter, author of The Caravan of crisis. Behind the scenes of the humanitarian aid industry

Patrick de Saint-Exupéry – French journalist, former correspondent of "Le Figaro" in Liberia and Rwanda.

Grzegorz Gruca – member of the Management Board of Polish Humanitarian Action, participated in the establishment of foreign missions of PHA in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

The meeting was chaired Konstanty Gebert - a journalist, commentator, journalist and director of the Warsaw office of the European Council of Foreign Affairs.

Discussion generally focused on the issue which drew the attention of Linda Polman in the book The Caravan of  Crisis. Behind the scenes of the humanitarian aid industry. This work became famous in the international public opinion, while the basic thesis of the reasoning proved to be a permanent element of the description of the pathology of humanitarian aid, which became the industry (aid industry), turning billions of dollars in the fight for the largest share of the market. The Caravan of Crisis, accurate, yet shocking analysis of international humanitarian aid from the Balkans to Darfur and from Somalia to Afghanistan.

            The author of The Caravan of  Crisis stated that the world probably will not stop to help each other and the discussion over whether to end the international aid is actually irrelevant. The problem is rather how to discuss the necessary changes in the practice of humanitarian aid. People take this issue emotionally, yet help must be quantified and rationalized - civilian victims of conflicts and crises deserve it.


One of the most dramatic examples of the total humanitarian aid disaster was the situation in Rwanda, in the 90s of the twentieth century. Despite all the data that were gathered before the outbreak of the conflict and in spite of actual media coverage, when genocide had already begun, the western countries did not intervene at all. Journalists quickly left the country, there were not too many witnesses of the mass murder. Millions of dollars were collected to help the victims, but the executioners benefited from the money as well - it is estimated that approximately 50% of the funds were in the pockets of extremists who brought to these events. When the torture was over, nearly two million Hutus, fearing revenge, fled across the border into Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire. Hutu militia thanks to the international money - passed without any rational management - could continue its policy of hatred

Patrick de Saint-Exupéry - trying to answer the question of the typicality of the Rwandan disaster example of international organizations - agreed with the arguments of Linda Polman. Noble mobilization, triggered by reflex of sympathy for the victims, who were being shown by the world media in dramatic relationships, led to the scandalous situation - to the further extermination in the refugee camps. It is to bear in mind that ethical dilemmas have accompanied the humanitarian campaigns almost from the time of their occurrence. The idea of this type of commitment was born in France, with the beginning of activities of the organization Médecins Sans Frontières - doctors, who in the 70s of the last century, decided to provide medical assistance to people in combat zones, were transferred to the Republic of Biafra, along with shipments of weapons. This is the ambiguity of  humanitarian aid: a political gesture allows for support, but it is also a symbolic act to extend the military intervention. The same was in the 90s of the twentieth century in Sarajevo: the involvement of humanitarian organizations was a signal of continuation of hostilities to the civilian population.


Grzegorz Gruca emphasized that it is difficult to precisely differentiate between when the aid helps and when it reinforces the conflict. Without a doubt, despite a series of mistakes, humanitarian organizations are trying to draw conclusions and reflections of their own actions. Minimizing the pathology can be difficult in view of "CNN syndrome" - a number of institutions make sure to follow the people's needs, not the television cameras. Therefore a thorough recognition of these needs seems to be essential. International aid cannot, after all, generate a refugee professionalization process.

Responding to a question about an alternative to aid, which becomes a source of pathology, Linda Polman took forward the use of international humanitarian action for war. It may seem that humanitarian involvement should not be more harmful than helpful, but even here, the organizations do not implement reasonable solutions, relying on the principle of providing assistance wherever it is supposedly needed. Do not forget that the result of many years of humanitarian practice is the ability to manipulate the alleged victims. Organizations must avoid situations where the use and abuse of all sorts of collected funds - aid cannot reach only the areas, where donors or the world media decide. This puts the humanitarian aid in an open war into question. Therefore, one way to reduce abuse would be a co-operation between aid institutions - but how to force organizations to cooperate?

Patrick de Saint-Exupéry expressed doubt as to the prospects for global cooperation between different organizations. The difficulty lies not in the very idea to ​​help, but rather on its deviations - it happens sometimes that the best and noblest intentions are simply harmful. Gregory Gruca agreed with this opinion, noting that the limits of compromise must be clearly indicated here. Certainly one of the indicators of abuse of powers is human dignity - its degradation as a result of assistance offered  should mean the end of the activities in the area.

In a discussion with the audience participants in the debate considered the issue of circulation of information about humanitarian aid, control and transparency of their activities, the role of journalistic accuracy, diplomatic pressure as an effective tool to reduce the negative effects of military conflicts and ambiguity of co-operation of aid institutions with the army and even the use of the image of humanitarian organizations to support the authority of the occupying forces of the conflict area.

Jacek Głażewski