Why are we here?

Why are we here?

There is almost an evangelical appeal among many people supporting the idea of working as an aid worker in a foreign land, lots of smiling children, living in a tent, helping the poor and downtrodden, saving the world. Although this is all very much part of the life, it is not all of it. It doesn’t explain why it is necessary that someone from the west, with little or no particular skill set, no real cultural understanding and at considerable cost is required to go to a country where there are university trained people, who know the country and customs, have appropriate skills for the work entailed and will frequently come at a much lower cost than even an outside volunteer.

Sitting around any campfire or main city restaurant table with a bottle of wine or two, someone will inevitably refer to the types of people who go into aid work. Misfits, missionaries and mercenaries are a common sobriquet and one that is completely fitting. I have probably been all three at some stage of my working career.

The evangelist, the one with stars in their eyes, a fire in their belly and a willing pair of hands wanting to save the world obviously are the missionaries. They will often come with little particular skill other than a capacity to be there, often straight out of school, their degree still getting put into a frame, patronizing, ostensibly to help put up tents or hand out food packages which they will see as an important intervention.

In time, they realize that they are not really needed so they end up filling some mundane administrative job in the head office or field office of the agency that employs them and then concentrate on their social life in a foreign country. They are the misfits, doing a job that could be easily done by a local but because they are not trusted to be competent or thought to be corrupt, is filled by an outsider.

Those with some skill will eventually take a role as the mercenary, the people who do it simply as a job and for the money they can earn, not that it is a particularly excessive emolument, it is often where they have placed themselves having forsaken careers back at home. They know that they are not really needed, that there are competent honest people from within the community who can do the job and for much less. But they often bring with them experience from other disasters, they have a knowledge of how to move through the turmoil and confusion that a new project or a new conflict will have, how to utilize unfamiliar staff and form them into manageable work groups, how to set up an office so that they continue to look like they are a necessary adjunct.

Now in semi retirement, I now look back and think of myself as a mercenary with a mission.

Beside the come the academics, the focus and study groups who seek to analyse yet again what it is that has caused the issues the communities face and offer solutions that are far from practical in solving their plight and even though they have studied the situation fail to take into account the natural resilience of people to recover even under the most adverse conditions and never really solving any problems.

And finally, there are the game changers, the people who come with multiple masters degrees in law or politics and seek to bring about social, legal and political change to what they would argue is a fractured society and needs to now have western values and dismiss the existing frameworks that have been in place for centuries.

However, the types of people who find them self in these environments hardly fill the need for the situation. As I said a little earlier, in most countries where aid is being delivered, there are any number of competent local individuals who in time are quite capable of administering and managing its delivery.


Similarly, there is this assumption that the local governments involved are not able to support the cost of aid delivery to a disaster. Again this is probably untrue given that they often have sufficient funds for engaging in outrageous pomp and ceremony or investing in expensive bureaucratic or military functions.

That is probably a harsh analysis however, what is largely absent are the people want to invest in these communities, the ones who see that it makes sense that if these countries are to develop, it needs entrepreneurs who can lift the place out of their economic problems, who can pay taxes and support a welfare component in society that enables the country to manage its own difficulties.

Largely the primary reasons why we go to these locations is geopolitical in nature. The donor countries have some regional or commercial interest in the stability of the country and their investment in relief or recovery or even development is commensurate with that interest. The question anyone interested in aid work needs to ask is “Why are we here and not there?”

Although I have not been to Africa other than a short evaluation mission to Libya, aid delivery to the whole continent is by all accounts, a shambles. Dambisa Moya, an African economics academic along with any number of other academics and aid professionals qualified in and from the region argue that the delivery of aid or at least, how we implement it is keeping the country in a state of dependence and not solving the complex problems even after decades of applying the same approach.

The same can be said of almost any international intervention anywhere in the world. Afghanistan for instance has, over a sixteen year period, had more than one hundred and twenty billion dollars applied to various aid programs for its twenty five million people, half being administered by the Department of Defence, yet it still maintains one of the world’s poorest living standards, only slightly above half a dozen or so African countries with a per capita GDP of around $1,900, only double what it was in 2001 before the aid programs began. It is not keeping up with the natural inflation of the dollar.

It is only when we do realize that the intervention has more to do with regional geopolitics than with humanitarianism; that concerned aid programs finish when the aid funding dries out notwithstanding the continuing plight of the communities, when the political stability is restored in favour of the primary donors. The funding has supported a bandaid treatment to an endemic problem that with the processes we employ never gets any better, it is not designed to. It is as if the west wants to keep the developing nations in a constant state of dependence rather than have them develop independence. A lot of it has to do with factors outside of the humanitarian crisis, the sale of weapons, the need for access to resources or other commercial interest, the placement of strategic military installations and for favourable treatment in view of a broader more wide reaching global politics.

In later chapters I will discuss in brief some of these various reasons that underlie the need or at least the reason for humanitarian intervention.  Suffice it to say, we are not there to save the world. As an aid worker, we are a pawn in a bigger picture that we rarely take time out to contemplate its cause or significance or actively campaign to make radical changes to how it is delivered. This is an argument I have had with representatives of donor organisations on a number of occasions much to my chagrin. On a couple of occasions I have thought I might be squeezed out of my job as a consequence.

While I spend some time at the start of this book outlining the life that an aid work might endure and the processes of the job and the industry itself we go through to get there, I do visualize a better way, a more economic and sustainable means of making improvements to affected communities that as I posit, targets independence from aid rather than dependence upon it and makes a lot of this side to the industry less plausible. The transition will be slow however.