ETHICAL DISASTER   Did NGOs extend ‘Hutu power’ in the humanitarian response to the genocide in Rwanda?  

‘The humanitarian system would function better if organizations worked collectively instead of operating as competitors in a free market’. (Polman, L. and Waters, L 2010) The need for reform within the humanitarian industry has been especially apt after the ‘total ethical disaster’ (Moyo 2010, p13) during the response to the Rwandan genocide. John Borton, in an interview to the Sphere project, estimated the international community designated some US$1.4 billion and around 200 NGOs were involved (Project, S. 2014). Nevertheless, the success of the work is hugely contested. I would like to stress that it is not my intention to undermine or disregard the bravery and hard work committed by thousands of workers and volunteers but merely present an argument illustrating the need for reform within the humanitarian industry for more effective action and better results, and I will use the case study of the Rwandan genocide to exemplify these faults.

Figure 1- Remains of those who died during the genocide.

Figure 1: Remains of those who died during the genocide.

When Polman took a tour in the Goma camp with a liaison officer who was part of the international police as part of an observation project, he stated ‘Everything you see here has been stolen from Rwanda by the Hutus…. they’ve lugged just about the whole university library out of Rwanda with them…but the Tutsi children in Rwanda who survived the massacre have no books any more and no teachers either’ (Polman 2010, p.10). Not only were the Hutus therefore creating prevention of Tutsi education for younger generations, but also even more detrimentally, it appears Hutus were formulating methods of acquiring financial assets therefore setting them up for greater political control and access. Howard Adelman also believed that ‘The refugee camps supported and supplied by the international humanitarian community, were being sued as safe havens by the genocidaires to escape from justice, regroup and restart war and genocide’ (Adelman).

Figure 2- Polman speaking at TEDx

Figure 2: Polman speaking at TEDx

Due to the neutrality principles of the Red Cross, which are mainly adopted throughout the whole humanitarian industry, most of the NGOs were committed purely to relieve human suffering to the highest degree possible. However, this process resulted in well-nourished and healthier Hutu members who could be recruited to work more effectively for the Hutu government who levied a ‘tax war’ in to finance its army. Furthermore War Games estimated that according to some INGOs, militia stole over two-fifths of aid supplies distributed. Some stolen for their personal use, some used to sell back to the camps when resources were scarce. Not only was revenue created to fund the Hutu extremist sector through non-official illegal means, but also NGOs such as MSF Belguim were employing Hutu personnel in the camps. For example, it was reported that MSF Belgium employed 550 Hutu personnel and it was also reported that Hutu leaders were generating capital by collecting taxes of approximately $11,000 from just that NGO alone (Polman, 2010, p.11) This clearly illustrates how Hutu extremists found ease in making money out of the humanitarian industry.

Figure 3: Information about the Code of Conduct followed and formulated by the Red Cross

Figure 3- Information about the Code of Conduct followed and formulated by the Red Cross

Not only is it corrupt that Hutu extremists were able to take over the camps so easily and make a profit from the war they created, but it is even more disturbing when one thinks of how this aid money, initially meant for the victims of war, was manipulated to fuel more criminality. Polman described the camps in Goma as a ‘complete ethical disaster’ because the decision needed to have been made as to whether or not conventional medical ethics should be respected or whether wider responsibility for the effects of massive humanitarian help should be considered and therefore the process of relief reevaluated. I think it is a question worth us, as substantial aid donors, to ask ourselves. Are we partially responsible for funding resources to be sent to camps where desire for power and capital to fuel war is so concentrated and can easily be put into the wrong hands? Who should be accountable? According to Rwandan president, Paul Kagame the aid agencies should be blamed. He reported ‘I think we should start blaming these people’ (meaning aid agenices) ‘who actually supported these camps – spent one million dollars per day in these camps, gave support to these groups it rebuild themselves into a force. Why shouldn’t we accuse them?’(cited in Gouveritch 1997).

Today, it is believed that Rwandan Hutu militias are a central player in ‘Africa’s First world war’ where it is estimated 5 million people have been killed and it is still ongoing. Were NGOs and their donors indirectly an investor of this war? Overall, I think it is clear that the aid industry needs better control of their resources and better control over who gets the aid. I believe whilst it is the role of many NGOs to alleviate human suffering, they also have a responsibility to act thinking about the consequences of their actions – will it only cause more human suffering in the long term? In the case of the response by aid agencies in Rwanda, I believe that to a great extent, NGOs did not consider the potential later causes of their actions and thus contributed to extending Hutu power.


Gourevitch, P. (1997) ‘Continental shift: letter from Congo’, New Yorker, 9 July, p. p. A1.

Moyo, D. (2010) Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa. London: Penguin Books.

Polman, L. and Waters, L. (2010) War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. 1st edn. London: Viking.

Project, S. (2014) The Sphere Project | 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide: The unfinished accountability revolution � An interview with John Borton | News. Available at: (Accessed: 19 August 2015).

THE USE AND ABUSE OF REFUGEES IN ZAIRE (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 19 August 2015).(Adelman)

Figure 1: Available at: (Accessed: 19 August 2015). Credit: Yuri Dojc 2014

Figure 2: TEDx Talks (2011) TEDxHamburg – Linda Polmann – ‘What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? A Journalist’s Journey’. Available at: (Accessed: 19 August 2015).

Figure 3: IFRC (2007) The Code of conduct. Available at: (Accessed: 19 August 2015).


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