The United Nation's "Millennium Development Goals" set out to halve the number of poor people in the world by 2015, without defining which half, or what would happen to the other half. Yet, twenty of the world's poorest countries still receive little or no aid. It is therefore important for a sceptical eye to be cast over what is happening to the aid funds that we contribute through taxes or collection tins, particularly for causes and crises in Africa.
This book by a Dutch journalist sets out to do precisely that, beginning by reviewing the creation of the concept of humanitarian aid in the middle of the Nineteenth Century with the foundation of the Red Cross with a presumed duty to relieve human suffering unconditionally. The author's case is that by doing so, the aid agencies put themselves at the mercy of the belligerents and the corrupt.
Using well documented examples, she demonstrates how TV and the Internet have raised awareness of crises, and how - as the news media cut costs - journalists have become passive processors of the agencies' publicity. The agencies themselves manipulate the media by highlighting or even exaggerating the worst cases of need to help them in the competition to raise money. That might be considered `fair game' were it not for the fact that insurgents and corrupt regimes deliberately worsen situations to attract attention.
Many of the smaller agencies are inexperienced and provide inappropriate assistance. Their multiplicity only serves to make the situation worse. If one refuses to help, there will always be another willing to step in to justify its existence, assisting corrupt governments which have maintained the crises in their countries to enable them to milk the agencies by taxing imported food and medical supplies or by ensuring that services available to them can only be provided by associates of the regime.
It is widely estimated that 60% (or more) of aid money is lost through corruption. The delegation of responsibility to sub-contractors makes it almost impossible to check whether money is being spent properly.
Inevitably, given the content, the book depends heavily on anecdotes and unattributed comments from agency staff, but there is enough hard evidence elsewhere, such as the US Auditor General's reports on aid to Iraq, and World Bank reports. The presentation in the book is aimed at giving pause for thought in an arena in which hearts rather than minds have too often influenced decisions. There is no easy solution to the problems she raises, but at the moment no one is talking about them. Perhaps this book will do a little to help to end the conspiracy of silence.