Blue Clay People

I have just finished reading “The Blue Clay People” by William Powers – about a country familiar and very dear to me.

In his late twenties, Powers gets sent to Liberia as the director of food distribution of a large NGO. Charles Taylor’s violent and inept regime is in its second year, the notorious Oriental Timber Company (OTC) is tearing at Liberia’s bowels: the vast tropical rainforest. And war is once again on the horizon.

It’s good to see so many insights about the aid industry once again confirmed, even though his book deals mostly with the branch known as emergency aid. We have the privileged lifestyle of the foreign aid workers. Local boys are available for the “Madams” in the aid business; ditto the girls for the “Bossmen”. Just one small example of how the aid industry is, despite all its protestations to the contrary, the latest incarnation of colonialism.

Powers talks about the insidious patron-client relationships that aid reinforces. He talks about the fact that the stuff he helps bring in for free tends to get stolen by the people for whom it is not intended: it happens on his own watch. Yes, it happens by mistake – but much more often it happens by design, witness the manufactured famines in Ethiopia for instance. Linda Polman writes convincingly about that in “War Games”.

As his book illustrates, emergency aid frequently does not work, frequently prolongs violent conflict (as it did when it was first dispensed in Biafra in the 1960) and most of the time interferes with the lives and cultures of the “recipients”. And let’s not even get started on the elaborate bureaucracies that are employed to administer regular aid, the larger chunk of the US70 billion a year aid industry.

Getting it right means that those who work in the aid industry do something they are generally badly prepared for: shut up and listen. Powers manages to do just that in a place that rapidly becomes a home away from home: a village near the eerily beautiful dense tropical rainforest of Sapo National Park, which is directly threatened by the OTC thugs, with president Charles Taylor’s blessing. It is indeed a good thing to know that the trial against Dutchman Gus van Kouwenhoven, up to his neck in the OTC business, will reopen.

At times Powers gets a little too sentimental for my taste, but “The Blue Clay People” takes its place in the line of books such as Michael Maren’s “Road to Hell” (about Somalia) and Linda Polman’s work mentioned above.

It did bemuse me slightly, though, to read that he subsequently took up a post with the same NGO in Bolivia. I would have left the whole  business altogether.

NOW….for later, folks: Happy New Year All. Or as we say here: Deweneti!


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