Less than three days after a massive explosion in Beirut killed nearly 200 people, injured several thousand and devastated the city, the head of the World Food Programme, the largest UN relief agency, flew into the Lebanese capital and drove to the site of carnage. Standing in front of the towering, hollowed-out hulks of the port silos, through which 85 percent of Lebanon’s wheat passes every year, he recorded videos for his Facebook and Twitter platforms. He walked around in a vest and headgear emblazoned with his agency’s insignia surrounded by colleagues and security guards. He later promised to help 1 million Lebanese overcome the aftermath of the explosion, including food shortages. His agency later made an appeal for US$245 million to undertake this mission, nearly 50 percent of all the funds sought by UN agencies for operations related to the aftermath of the explosion.
Over my 13 years of service in the United Nations, I organized similar trips for heads of aid agencies in Kabul, Baghdad and even in Beirut. We did help millions of people hit by conflicts and natural disasters receive food supplies and other basic needs to survive extremely difficult conditions. But the agencies I worked with were not driven primarily by humanitarian empathy or legal mandates, especially in the early days of a disaster. Just as with the senior humanitarian official who flew to Beirut and posed for the world’s media, there is a rush for funds when a crisis hits.
Humanitarian aid organizations have long understood that most of these crises are man-made or political in nature, yet their interventions have become largely charitable and mostly devoid of any serious consideration of the social and political causes and ramifications.
A senior aid official once told me as we flew into Baghdad in May 2003, just a few weeks after the US toppled the rotting regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, that aid organizations behave like vultures: they circle slowly overhead before swooping down on their prey. We were circling over Baghdad airport waiting for our turn to land when he concocted this metaphor.
Most aid agencies started preparing for a war in Iraq in late 2002, months before Washington launched the invasion. The World Food Programme, where I was working at the time, sent an $800 million contingency plan to the US administration. The plan was internally shelved after objections from senior agency staffers, who were concerned the agency would appear publicly to be part of the overall US military strategy. When a massive humanitarian operation took place in the spring of 2003, the WFP was budgeted to receive $1.5 billion, or 75 percent of the Iraq humanitarian appeal that year. Protection and human rights operations received a mere 0.2 percent, or $4.7 million.
The Lebanon crisis began last summer as a man-made catastrophe in a country reaping the follies and blunders of its corrupt sectarian elites over the past 30 years or more. Since January, the Lebanese lira has plummeted 70 percent against the dollar, and the country is no longer able to service its massive debts. The dollarized economy is almost paralyzed, while retirees, depositors and others with savings in Lebanese banks no longer have real access to their funds. Protests that broke out in October were largely dissipated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are now back, as hundreds of thousands of people directly affected by the explosion are demanding answers and accountability. Lebanon might be approaching a massive implosion.
The UN and other aid agencies which are now clamoring for funds and describing the Lebanese situation as a humanitarian crisis are obfuscating reality and indirectly helping the corrupt and incompetent regime they will work with to bring aid into the country. After the WFP’s executive director beat his peers to the global stage of media attention and an image of compassion, other humanitarian officials worked hard to join the photo-op procession in the wreckage of what used to be the most vibrant city in this region.
These agencies all behave like corporations looking at the bottom line, at how much money they raised, at how much they have grown in size and how they can become even bigger. WFP raised $1.7 billion in 2000 and then $3.6 billion in 2003 (the year of the US invasion of Iraq). They surpassed $8 billion last year and sources say the agency is set to reach a record $10 billion this year. In this light, the explosion in Lebanon becomes an opportunity.
This self-centered approach by most large aid agencies became apparent in Iraq in 2003, in Syria for the past 10 years and now in Lebanon. These organizations are no longer primarily motivated by a humanitarian imperative but rather by the prerogatives of self-perpetuation and an insatiable drive to forever grow: Hence the need to be seen in the right place at the right moment to support their fundraising drives from governments and individuals.
This modus operandi is primarily fed by a global system that is unable and unwilling to deal with the political drivers of the catastrophes they intervene in. Aid organizations, which help people in need with food, shelter and medicine therefore grow bigger, with fancier offices and larger budgets, while people in the region become poorer, more desperate and dependent on handouts. The underlying political and economic causes remain untouched, while the ruling corrupt and failing regimes and the chaotic conditions they engender continue to prevail. The political class and their cronies also directly benefit from contracts and jobs with these agencies.
Instead of being accountable to the communities they work with on the ground, most aid agencies have shown a deeper commitment to fulfilling programmatic benchmarks and submitting reports to Western donors. In doing so, the governing principles of humanitarian work have slowly eroded. The aid industry has increasingly departed from the humanitarian imperative and moved towards quick fixes that can potentially attract donors and please the kleptocratic elites that captured their states — as is the case in Lebanon — thus contributing to further weakening the global aid system and betraying its lofty stated goals. The organizations also betray the people they claim to help, making them more cynical toward the entire aid enterprise.