How Humanitarian Aid Prolongs Wars

The money you donate to feed starving children may actually be prolonging war in places like Darfur and Somalia, says Dutch journalist Linda Polman.

Think again before you reach into your pocket to give; the money you donate to feed starving children may actually be prolonging war in places like Darfur and Somalia, says Dutch journalist Linda Polman. Darfur is ruled by quite a sophisticated military regime which charges aid organizations for every move they are allowed to make in Darfur.  "For every single person that works for aid organizations, for every single kilo of rice, aid organizations are forced to pay what they call, 'taxes,'" she tells Big Think. "So the military regime there is actually cashing in on a lot of aid organizations for quite large amount of money. That money goes towards the war effort of the military regime of Darfur and is actually being used for the ethnic cleansing and the genocide taking place in Darfur."


A recent UN Security Council investigation found a similar situation in Somalia, named the most corrupt country in the world by Forbes magazine. The World Food Program is the largest aid organization in Somalia, with $415 million per year to spend on food aid. But the investigation found that "over $200 million of that money is disappearing straight into the pockets of warlords and of local staff who will also spend it on their own corrupt programs there," says Polman.

In Afghanistan aid money gets shifted back and forth between the over 2,000 organizations currently on the ground. "Between the moment that the donor government makes money available and the moment that somewhere in Afghanistan a carpenter will actually start building a school or a clinic, you might have five or six or even seven in-between organizations who will all keep 15% or 20% of the aid money," says Polman. "So in the end, the aid money that is left is actually quite little to complete the projects with." Is that corruption, bad management, or both?

There are an estimated 40,000 international NGOs, according to the United Nations Development Program. And this does not take into account the millions of local NGOs. India for example has an estimated 1.2 million local NGOs. This explosion of aid organizations in recent years means that aid efforts, especially after natural disasters, are uncoordinated. "On the ground, you have this chaos of donors not formulating a mutual agenda for the benefit of the victims and you have this chaos of an average of 1,000 aid organizations per disaster who are not negotiating with each other, not meeting with each other about what is the best way to achieve anything there," Polman tells us. "It is obvious, the rich worlds are dividing their power which makes it easy to manipulate them." What is needed is a more coordinated approach, so aid organizations can make a "fist" against the manipulations of aid money, she says.

Part of the solution also lies with the public, she tells us. "We have sort of invented charity because it makes life easier for us." When we see picture of children with flies in their noses and distended bellies, we can "buy off our conscience" by donating $10. But that's too easy, says Polman. It's our duty to do serious research and ask tough questions of the charities we want to support to know exactly how the money we donate will be spent. "Question them about their own knowledge about the country and about their knowledge about a goal for that country...And if you’re not convinced, maybe find another good cause; there are millions and millions of people on this planet who could do with a little help."

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

Keep reading Show less