Humanitarian Assistance: the View from the Other Side

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by Randall Wood & Carmine DeLuca
(an extract from The Dictator’s Handbook: a practical manual for the aspiring tyrant (2012,

 Miriam Aertker, UNHCR Refugee Transit Camp, Great Lakes region, Africa

Miriam Aertker, UNHCR Refugee Transit Camp, Great Lakes region, Africa

You’re off to help provide desperately needed services to an ailing population whose well-meaning government is willing but unable to help them. Right? Wrong. The world’s dictators, tyrants, and autocrats are happy to invite you in, but on their terms only, where your largesse is just another opportunity for profit, power, and prestige. Here is the advice we provide to dictators. If you understand it, you understand how the “other side” is thinking about your project.

The NGO community can be a large headache or, if approached correctly, a powerful tool. Understand where they are coming from. The donor community frequently focuses on two things only, as far as you can tell: to “help” someone (usually orphans, babies, women, minorities, gays, or your political rivals) and to keep their comfortable houses, expat lifestyle, household help, “living allowance” bonuses, tax-free lifestyle, and other perks of being overseas. The fact is, they're living a cushy, somewhat tax-free lifestyle and do not want to jeopardize it by going back home to their own countries. As their projects are permitted to operate in your country only because you have benevolently permitted them to be there, their demands for change are subject to your willingness to listen to them. You know it, they know it, and you both know if you shut down their project, they go back home to their crappy hometown to look for employment at the local gas station. They will be somewhat reluctant to criticize or contradict you if doing so puts their own lifestyle at risk.

Donors each have individual funding, reporting, and monitoring mechanisms, operate on different budget cycles, and respond to different political whims. This is an immense hassle for you and your ministries to manage, and while it should require your hiring additional government staff they'll prevent you from doing it. But all is not lost, for the burden is equally cumbersome for the donors themselves. In fact, it's hard for them to coordinate with each other. Furthermore, they tend to prefer different types of projects, and despite their rhetoric about coordination, don't very much like to work together, preferring to take credit individually for successful projects. Keep that in mind and you will find it's easy to keep donors working on separate projects, siloed and isolated. If they work in parallel, they each spend a bit more, are less able to demand complicated concessions from you, and have a harder time combining forces against you. So insist on a role for your government's appointed office in centrally coordinating, allocating, and distributing aid resources.

You'll be surprised to discover they love this idea! You are, after all a sovereign state, and this strategy is in perfect harmony with current donor thinking that beneficiary countries should be in charge of their own projects. If you have a ministry of cooperation, economic development, or planning, it is a logical interlocutor for these donors. This ministry should be fully authorized to choose, distribute, request, and audit donor programs, and should ensure donors are neither fighting to work in the same sectors nor neglecting others. Naturally, that ministry should answer directly to you, so you can channel projects where you need them, and ensure areas held by your political opposition never seem to advance on the list for a new health center, school, or well.

It is possible to assign a representative from relevant ministries for individual projects. These individuals make convenient scapegoats when projects are not going as planned, or when donors grow anxious about one aspect or another of the work. It is also effective to change these points of contacts as necessary to keep the donors engaged and funding without making much progress. Remember, when the program ends, the funding does as well; it's clever to keep extending the goals, the reach, or the calendar of execution of the program to keep the money flowing, bearing in mind that too many failures in a row put you at risk that the donor will grow discouraged and give up.

The NGO Crackdown

It's important -- and not difficult -- to proscribe the behavior of NGOs. You certainly don't want them nosing into your financial or extra-legal affairs. This takes some finesse, however, as you don't want to appear heavy handed unless it's required, as it will potentially limit their generosity to your nation. But neither do you want them to feel they are empowered to do as they please at times when dissenting voices would not be appreciated, such as the lead-up to elections.

Start with the licensing process, as every nation has a mechanism, probably through the Ministry of Foreign Relations or equivalent, in which NGOs are given permission to operate. If NGOs start hassling you, well it must be time to renew the licensing process, then, wouldn't you say? Make them line up one by one, file through your ministry, pay the “official” fees and fill out a lot of paperwork, which will be “examined” by your government. Impose a new requirement, like a special sticker required on all NGO vehicles driven outside the capital. Require a mandatory certification by your Ministry of Communication to ensure their public pronouncements are in line with official government policy: you get the idea. These NGOs are here on the basis of your having given them permission, and ostensibly they are here to help advance the goals of your administration. On that basis then, make sure it's clear they work for you, or they're out of there.

You can take it a step further, although you are effectively showing your poker hand in doing so: send in the thugs. In late 2011 Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 international NGOs focusing mostly on promotion of democracy, including the International Republic Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, to name a few. The offices were shut, and the authorities carted away computers, files, documents, oh yeah, and all of their money. Like Egypt, you may find that hassling foreign NGOs is entertaining and fun.

Channeling Humanitarian Assistance

Humanitarian groups are useful and important, and to the extent you can keep them around, you should do so. They provide things your government doesn't, like health care, mosquito nets and malaria medicine. They help the truly poor and bring resources for projects like building churches; they employ people, and they generally help out. All of these things allow you to use your own money, time, and resources, for other things of greater and more personal benefit to you and your family, like pumping up the military's hardware or paving the road to your beach house. Having them around similarly shows that you are a concerned leader working diligently with the international community to find solutions to real problems, like the reduction of poverty. Don't hesitate, however, to take measures to keep them in line, and under no circumstances should they be led to believe they can tell you what to do, rather than the other way around. Hugo Chávez neutered hostile NGOs by enacting legislation that prevented them from receiving funding from international sources, which will force many of them to disappear. Or, prohibit human rights organizations from operating at all, as Eritrea's Isaias Afawerki did successfully.

But watch out for “humanitarian funding” that is really something else in disguise. In 2011, for example, Germany loaned the Libyan rebels 100M Euros of funding for humanitarian reasons. How much of that funding was converted into Kalashnikovs and how much was converted into “medical care and food” remains unverified, but the fact that the humanitarian loan came in mid-civil war, and the fact that Germany paid up despite not having contributed to the NATO air strikes makes it seem this one-sided loan was anything but apolitical (Hey, what about Khadaffi? Do his supporters not also need medical care and food, since the rebels are shooting at them?)

Humanitarian aid is an astonishing business. Should your nation suffer some sort of catastrophe -- a flood, a drought, an earthquake, a tsunami -- you can expect a sudden and precipitous increase in contributions from the international community. These are frequently donations of food and clothing, medicine, and (re-)building supplies, the same things the international community might have otherwise refused you under more normal circumstances. There is easy money to be made here. Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza turned the 1972 earthquake in Managua into a millionaire's personal funding mechanism, by insisting on personally overseeing the relief effort.

At a minimum, they are going to need you and your cronies to provide the better part of the distribution and logistics chain in-country, and if you negotiate well, you will benefit handsomely. You are in somewhat of a monopoly bargaining position, as the international community is totally unprepared to run the supply caravans into the countryside, and you can negotiate on the basis of safety, the need to assure the arrival of the goods, and local knowledge (including local language) to ensure your team does the delivery.

You will benefit again if you have enough control over the supply chain to ensure the relief supplies go to your supporters -- or soon-to-be supporters -- as part of the relief effort. Start by supporting those areas which have historically supported you the most vocally, and let the nay sayers and opposition-held territories languish a bit. They may come around. Next, condition their receipt of relief goods on pledges of political support for you, especially from the community leaders and religious leaders. If they are hungry enough, their ability to resist your deal will vanish.

Rejecting Assistance Outright

You should ensure your donors are managed the same way foreign embassies are, and for the same reason: they are guests, and probably need you more than you need them. Malawi, after passing laws that criminalized homosexuality and restricted the freedoms of the press, was surprised that the United States and Germany reduced their planned expenditures to Malawi by over $400M. The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, when commenting on the decision, railed against donors' insistence on protecting gays when a minority of nations worldwide do so, and insisted that Malawi, a sovereign nation, must make decisions on the basis of the interest of the Malawian people, not donors' preferences. “Malawi is a God-fearing nation,” he said, “with its own cultural values and traditions; hence it can not embrace gay and lesbianism just for the sake of aid.” Several months later, and clearly fed up with the Washington consensus, he finally just exclaimed, “If any donor wants to withdraw from this country let them withdraw. Let me repeat, if any donor wants to abdicate from this county let them pack up and go. … I'll not accept this nonsense any more; if donors say this is not democracy, to hell with you … yes, I'm using that word: tell them to go to hell.”

If you truly don't want any foreign governments poking around your business, you're better off not accepting their aid money, either. Deny there's a problem and refuse their “generosity” and carry on, hoping the press doesn't start to go against you. Somalia did this -- despite a famine -- in 2011.

Likewise, you can expel a foreign mission or project on the grounds they are ineffective. Despite major governmental challenges and phenomenal food insecurity, Chad's Idriss Déby Itno refused to renew the United Nation MINURCAT mandate, claiming the project had failed to meet its goals. He proposed Chad's own security forces as a more competent alternative.

You don't have to be overt about it, or raise the dictator flag on the pirate ship as you pillage and plunder. But keep in mind, humanitarian assistance is one area where you can have your cake and eat it too (or in this case, get your people some malaria medicine and still have money to equip your army!) Keep these simple tenets at heart and you too will prosper. That's all for now, Dictators!

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