Posts Tagged ‘emergency aid’

After Oxfam

February 12, 2018

Jesus Hieronymous Christ, just when you think the tin ear could not possibly become tinnier you have Oxfam’s Chief Executive on hearing about the exploding sex scandals and the possibly resultant de-funding by the government saying that…

…Oxfam would “carry on delivering as best we can, because that’s what the people of Yemen, Syria, Congo and indeed Haiti need and deserve”.

Who on god’s green earth appointed you the adjudicator of that? Have you asked the people of Yemen, Syria and Congo? Yes, there is an enormous difference between helping people in deep distress as a result of war and natural disasters on the one hand – and “doing development” on the other. Emergency aid started in the 19C Crimea War, gave us Florence Nightingale, a budding humanitarian effort that went on to create the Red Cross and an eternal debate about emergency aid, neutrality (unattainable in my view) and politics.

The people in Yemen, Syria and Congo are in severe distress – in the case of Yemen as a result of barbaric action by a key client of UK-manufactured arms. Congo can equally be said to be somebody else’s proxy war, exacerbated by extremely complex local politics and the presence of vital minerals in the ground. Syria is arguably the same, minus the minerals as far as I can see.

But the point here is this: I have heard the very same rhetoric about needs and delivery in respect of what you may call “ordinary” development work. The planning of development overwhelmingly does not involve the people affected and I have even heard policy makers in those development bureaucracies arguing against giving their intended recipients a say. This is not doing development, sorry. This is, at the deepest level, a colonial mindset at work, which I once summarised like this: ‘the natives must first be studied and then improved’. Sure, all with the best of intentions but that only helps to remind me of Michael Maren’s The Road To Hell (a book you should read).

Only a few short days ago I mentioned on Facebook the idea of having tort legislation introduced in relation to designing development projects, with a reference to the criminally disruptive Structural Adjustment Programs. Abdourrahmane Sissako’s film Bamako depicts this in a Malian home court. Now, we hear that Haiti may be considering legal action against Oxfam. As pointed out, emergency aid happens on a different scale and with a different timeline but is ultimately guided by similar “principles” for lack of a better word. What both have in common is that the intended recipients, by and large, have no say in how the stuff that supposedly benefits them is delivered, no influence and no redress when things go horrendously wrong. Wasn’t Haiti the very same place where the UN was caught with its pants down (a deliberate turn of phrase) over the cholera epidemic it imported?

This is fundamental. It is this lack of fundamental accountability that leads to the excesses that have just been revealed – and numerous others. That is where the debate should go, because below the scandals and the sleaze lie far more fundamental issues, issues that the development industry, worth scores of billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of people, has so far stubbornly refused to address.

Blue Clay People

December 31, 2010

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!