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The Crisis Caravan

What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?

Linda Polman


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ISBN10: 0312610580
ISBN13: 9780312610586

Trade Paperback

240 Pages


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A vast industry has grown up around humanitarian aid: a cavalcade of organizations—some 37,000—compete for a share of the $160 billion annual prize, with "fact-inflation" sometimes ramping up disaster coverage to draw in more funds. Insurgents and warring governments, meanwhile, have made aid a permanent feature of military strategy: refugee camps serve as base camps for genocidaires, and aid supplies are diverted to feed the troops. Even as humanitarian groups continue to assert the holy principle of impartiality, they have increasingly become participants in aid's abuses.

In a narrative that is impassioned, gripping, and even darkly absurd, journalist Linda Polman takes readers to war zones around the globe—from the NGO-dense operations in "Afghaniscam" to the floating clinics of Texas Mercy Ships proselytizing off the shores of West Africa—to show the often compromised results of aid workers' best intentions. It is time, Polman argues, to impose ethical boundaries, to question whether doing something is always better than doing nothing, and to hold humanitarians responsible for the consequences of their deeds. The Crisis Caravan is a controversial exposé of the financial profiteering and ambiguous ethics that pervade the world of humanitarian aid.


Praise for The Crisis Caravan

"Particularly timely just now . . . Polman finds moral hazard on display wherever aid workers are deployed. In case after case, a persuasive argument can be made that, over-all, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good . . . Her style is brusque, hard-boiled, with a satirist's taste for gallows humor. Her basic stance is: J'accuse."—Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker

"[journalist Linda Polman] gives some powerful examples of unconscionable assistance . . . a world where aid workers have become enablers of the atrocities they seek to relieve."—The Boston Globe

"Ms. Polman's prose is scorching."—The Economist

"This disturbing account of the multibillion dollar juggernaut that is today's global humanitarian aid network raises profound questions not just about the palliative efficacy of aid, but whether it fuels and prolongs conflict . . . deeply troubling."—Financial Times (UK)

"Marvelous, strange, and profound . . . carries echoes of the African writings of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and in a tone that is both disillusioned and fearless."The Guardian (UK)

"Essential reading. If this book can serve as a rallying cry to more radical, redistributive humanitarian alternatives, then it will have more than fulfilled its function."The Times (London)

"Unflinching . . . The intrepid Polman is a reporter of conspicuous courage . . . a tour de force."—The Sunday Times (London)

"A blood-boilingly good polemic that should knock a few halos off a few heads."—The Sunday Telegraph

"Vivid, concise, the pages of this necessary, contentious book burn with a righteous moral anger . . . a timely reminder that noble intentions and humanitarian motives are often stretched to, and beyond, breaking point in the febrile world of modern-day war."—Daily Telegraph

"A withering catalogue of corruption, incompetence, and an aid industry that lives in unholy symbiosis with politicians and the military . . . The account of 'Afghaniscam' is wonderfully awful. This is an exhilarating book."Scotsman

"Dutch journalist Polman here contends that humanitarian aid agencies are unable to act impartially and independently in response to crises. Heart-wrenching examples abound: Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, aid agencies strengthening Hutu refugee warriors who then continue genocide against Rwandan Tutsis; Sierra Leone's child amputees serving primarily as arresting visual appeals to foreign political and religious funding; and aid siphoned off from allocated projects in Afghanistan. The book, originally published in Dutch in 2008, predates Haiti's recent earthquake, but connections may be made to those aid circumstances as well. Polman expertly compels readers to consider how, when, and at what cost humanitarian aid is provided. This is a strongly recommended addition for readers in current global affairs."—Catherine C. McMullen, MLIS, Portland, Oregon, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


The humane desire to lighten a little the torments of all these poor wretches . . . creates a kind of energy which gives one a positive craving to relieve as many as one can.—Henri Dunant, humanitarian aid worker and founder...

About the author

Linda Polman

Linda Polman is an Amsterdam-based journalist who for fifteen years has reported from war zones for a range of European radio stations and newspapers. She is the author of We Did Nothing, which was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.

Patricia Hofmeester

Linda Polman

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