Attrition: The Cost Of Good Intentions

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May 16, 2013: Worldwide the number of internal refugees (from various forms of violence) rose nine percent last year, to 28.9 million. The largest concentration of these refugees (ten million) is in Sub-Saharan Africa, where half the world’s wars can be found. In the Americas there are five million in Colombia, the side-effect of a decade-long campaign against drug gangs and leftist rebels. The recent civil war in Syria has produced three million just in the past year and Iraq still has over two million refugees from the years of fighting between Sunni and Shia terrorists. In addition to the internal refugees, there are 15.2 million refugees who fled their country to escape violence.

This refugee problem is a rather recent phenomenon, as it was not until the last century that the international community became capable of rapidly mobilizing food and medical resources to keep large numbers of refugees alive. Before that, people driven from their homes and regular supplies of food would die in large numbers. If the weather turned bad, starvation, disease, and exposure could kill half or more of the refugees.

But now there are many international aid organizations and military forces ready to rush in with life-saving aid. In many nations there is a nation-wide system for mobilizing emergency aid. But there’s a dark side to all this, that most frequently shows up in poor countries with little in the way of organized government.

In Africa foreign aid organizations, usually invited in by the government, find that the process of bringing in aid, especially food and distributing it, is corrupted by local warlords as well as bandits, thieving businessmen, and corrupt officials. Using force, intimidation, and bribes, food aid programs are plundered to the point where over half the aid is stolen. Some of the stolen aid went to supply warlords, who use it to feed their followers and sell off much of it to provide cash for weapons and other goods. The conduits for this theft were often the local contractors who were hired to transport and distribute the food. These businesses collaborate with the warlords and bandits to pull this off, threatening aid workers (local and foreign) with kidnapping, beatings, or death if they complained to UN inspectors. For many refugees there wasn't much choice between a quick death from an outlaw’s bullet or a slow one from starvation or malnutrition related illnesses.

A further complication occurs when word of the wholesale theft of food gets out. As a result of that, the aid groups (including the UN) have a hard time getting nations to donate more food and other aid. Why donate food or cash, when it's common knowledge in the aid community that much of the food is stolen. Worse still, the UN has to pay millions of dollars each year in bribes to get armed groups to allow food aid in. Even that isn't always possible. Islamic radical organizations will sometimes block food aid because all the free food makes it difficult for local farmers to stay in business. This is often the case, although bankrupt farmers are less newsworthy than starving refugees.

Historically, a portion of the population would die of starvation during these droughts (or other natural disasters) and the survivors would prosper for a bit. But free food from international aid organizations has upset this cycle, often keeping populations dependent on the food aid indefinitely. The population also grows, putting more stress on inadequate resources.

 


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