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It’s not all corruption and exploitation

  • Published at 06:39 pm February 25th, 2018
  • Last updated at 01:10 am February 26th, 2018
It’s not all corruption and exploitation
While I do not make light of Oxfam/UN failings, the critique by Towheed Feroze is a huge overstatement based on what seems to be antipathy rather than knowledge. Let me make my position clear: I’m a Western expat with no time for the gilded cage in which the expat often lives, and little respect for the Big Five international NGOs, based on my observation that their staff are often overpaid bureaucrats who spend more on salaries, seminars, and travel than on actual assistance. Mr Feroze’s point about the salary/career differential between rotational and local staff is one of my own complaints: Aid organization or embassy, we rely on local staff. We come and go, they are there day-in, day-out, making sure that the money produces results, doing the paperwork, visiting the sites, creating, selling, managing the programs and the problems, facing the dangers on the ground without surcease. Damn right they should be better paid and better regarded -- without them, we are nothing. Bur, and it is a big but, to generalize from two examples to the whole sector, and to demand the kind of “accountability” he does is to ignore realities in many countries, including his own. Most NGOs are smaller fry, and the vast majority of workers are not in it for wealth or power. In my experience, they are overwhelmingly people, often women, who feel strongly about their duty to others, and make significant personal sacrifices in income, career possibilities, comfort, health, and culture to follow that impulse not just for one posting to this nation or that, but for life, through many different postings. For every snotty UN functionary, there are thousands of men and women who leave everything they are familiar with to immerse themselves in a new and radically different culture, who learn the language and the habits, observe the local customs, wear the hijab, the flip flops, sleep on dirty mats, eat what the hosts eat, catch the local diseases, get killed in cafe bombings and crossfires, or kidnapped for ransom, jailed or disappeared for standing up to the local authorities on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, or shot by rebels, jihadis or just plain thugs for threatening their power. I have known them, I have worried about them, and I have mourned them. If you want to know why aid/development agencies prefer not to draw attention, consider the death toll in the last year for which figures are available: In 2016, there were over 150 attacks on aid workers from abroad, resulting in 101 deaths and 238 serious injuries. A further 89 were kidnapped for ransom. This was not a remarkable year -- just about average.
Think of the attacks on local and foreign workers that are also dealt with quietly because the perpetrators are affiliated with a powerful organization that could shut down a project that is the only source clean water in a poor village
NGOs avoid the spotlight not because they have skeletons to hide, although clearly some do, but because public attention endangers the workers on the ground. Bangladesh is no exception -- the majority of people killed at the Holey Artisan Bakery were female aid workers stationed voluntarily in Bangladesh, trying to make a difference. Think of the attacks -- the robberies, rapes, and beatings -- on local and foreign workers that are also dealt with quietly, not infrequently because the perpetrators are affiliated with a powerful organization that could shut down a project that is the only source of health care or education or clean water in a poor village. Many aid workers forgo justice for deliberate and debilitating injury so their clients will not suffer. Will you publicize them, too? What will you do for the victim when s/he is attacked again, for the local women who lose their one chance at decent health care during pregnancy, for the children who lose the vaccinations with vaccines that actually work, for the men crippled by work or road accidents who need to learn new ways to make a living? When I lived in Bangladesh, I had to work to reach the regular, under-educated, poor who support that tiny percentage that lives obscenely well on their backs, and get to know something about their lives. It meant extra money to certain guards, weaving through traffic on the back of a broken down scooter, employing a man for assistance, guidance, and protection, getting to know by name beggars and petty criminals, squatting uncomplaining in conditions that would not be inflicted on an animal in my home country. And it was worth every second. It would be easier for Mr Feroze to familiarize himself with the reality of aid and development work as experienced by the foreign worker. All he needs to do is set aside his prejudice and go out where they are. Be warned: He’ll probably have a hard time getting them to talk about themselves. They know what it can cost. Rick Blaine is a non-American westerner who lived in Bangladesh for three years, and paid attention. He was amazed at the kindness, energy, and entrepreneurship of the average Bangladeshi, appalled by the corruption of the political and economic elites, and now reads the tags on every piece of clothing he buys, to see where it was made.