Saturday, September 25, 2004

What is the purpose of aid workers?

Most of us would say that if there is any purpose it is a short-term one: to go into places where there have been severe difficulties either as a result of natural or man-made calamity, deliver whatever aid is needed, make sure that the people in the area are putting their lives together and leave them to it. Task done. On to the next calamity.

Apparently we would be wrong if we thought in such simplistic terms. Aid workers exist in order to be politically neutral and their main achievement is to stay secure in various difficult areas, where they clearly intend to remain (assuming someone, for instance, American or other coalition troops, guarantee their security). The messenger becomes the message – the aid worker becomes the centre of activity.

This was the purport of Poul Nielsen’s speech in Prague. The outgoing Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, who told us a while ago that in Darfur “[c]ontinuing violence … has claimed the lives of thousands of people, and is seriously hampering the delivery of humanitarian aid", was speaking at a conference that was discussing the responsibilities of the enlarged EU in terms of development aid.

Apart from calling on the new member states to become part of that aid-giving machine that has done so much to support corrupt and tyrannical regimes in the Third World and to undermine the economy of potentially developing countries, he has also attacked the Americans. (But of course. No political speech these days is made by any EU panjandrum without the Americans being blamed for everything, up to and including original sin.)

Apparently, it is entirely their fault that aid workers have been attacked, kidnapped or killed.
"In Afghanistan, for example, aid workers have lost their lives because the credibility of the impartiality and neutrality of aid workers has been questioned and reduced since the US has been using soldiers in civilian clothes, but armed, to deliver humanitarian aid. This brings into question the neutrality of aid workers."
Well now. This raises several interesting points. One is Mr Nielsen’s assumption that those who do the attacking are complete idiots and cannot tell the difference between an American (or British, or Polish or any other) soldier in uniform or civvies and an aid worker. That seems unlikely. From what one can gather about the circumstance in which the two Italian aid workers were kidnapped, the people who came after them knew who they were and quite deliberately targeted them. We still do not know why. But they did not come rushing in demanding if there were any soldiers in civilian clothes there and then deciding what the heck, they’ll take a couple of left-wing anti-American aid workers instead.

Secondly there is the question of what he means by neutrality. Since it seems essential that their work be not confused with the soldiers’ aid work, the obvious meaning is anti-military, anti-coalition, anti-American. That is not being neutral. An aid worker is duty bound to help anyone, just as a doctor or a nurse is. But, surely they cannot be neutral between a terrorist and a non-terrorist, a tyrant like Saddam and a reasonably tolerant government that is committed to democracy like Allawi’s or Karzai’s.

Thirdly, one has to say that Mr Nielsen for all his “one world together” thinking, does not seem to understand the attitude of the various gangs who might be attacking and kidnapping people. For them the concept of neutrality does not exist. If you are western, you are an enemy. Anti-Americanism may play well at the Cannes Film Festival but means very little to the average neo-Baathist or, for that matter, somebody who thinks kidnapping westerners is a very good source of income. For all one knows, they find the left-wing “lady bountiful” type aid workers far more irritating than soldiers.

Finally, there is the question of who the soldiers in civilian clothes are and what they have been doing to annoy the Commissioner so much. Presumably Mr Nielsen is talking about the Reconstruction Task Forces, that have been active in Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree, Iraq. Indeed, they are soldiers in civilian clothes (probably jeans and t-shirts) but armed. They have been trained in the forces to be engineers, builders, construction workers and they are turning their knowledge to good use, helping the people of those countries to put their lives together after several decades of destruction and oppression. As the places are a trifle dangerous, they go around armed when they work. So do most locals. For the life of me I cannot see what is wrong with that. Given that the coalition forces have been accused repeatedly, and with some justification, that they lack a post military plan for Iraq, it seems rather hard that when they try to put various smaller plans into action they should be attacked for that.

It seems that the success rate of the Reconstruction Task Forces has been patchy but good in some places. The success rate of the aid workers has been much worse. When they are not crying foul and withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq because it is too dangerous (of course it is dangerous – that is why they are there), they, with a few exceptions, stay in Kabul or Baghdad, perhaps Basra and a few other well protected places and, as we noted from an account given by one of the Italian aid workers, have meetings. Then they have more meetings. Then they go out and have dinner.

My colleague has repeatedly called attention to the British media’s lack of interest in any of the big stories. May I add one more to the list? The scandal of the numerous aid workers, charity employees and UN relief officials whose usefulness is somewhat doubtful, is crying out to be investigated.

Their presence in Kabul, for instance, and reluctance to leave it, means two things. One is that much of the money that has been allocated to help people in Afghanistan is used to keep these people and their offices in the city. Just as form-filling and paper work in Britain is now reported as front-line policing, so manning offices and having meetings in Kabul and Baghdad is, presumably, described as front-line aid work.

An even more serious problem is the way these people undermine the local economy. They have far more money than almost anyone in Afghanistan and most people in Iraq. Certainly they can pay more for accommodation and labour than the local people and organizations. There are now parts of Kabul that are completely out of the range of local people because of the various western aid workers and, let us face it, journalists who write rather limited accounts.

People who could be doing useful work rebuilding those two countries become employees of westerners because the pay is much better. After all, you have to be a very conscientious and idealistic person, probably unencumbered by any family to continue the hard underpaid labour of a doctor in Afghanistan when you can earn about three times as much by driving some aid worker or UN official from meeting to meeting.

Another, indirect, consequence is that the non-military westerners stick together, complain about the military, and prevent any kind of a balanced story from coming out of either country or any investigation into the activities of the NGOs or the oil-for-food scandal. It does not really surprise anyone to find an EU Commissioner lining up on that side as well.

However, it seems that Mr Nielsen did not have it all his way in Prague. Former President Vaclav Havel could be relied on to produce the acceptable anodyne comment in eurospeak:

"Not to care in today's global world about what is happening in other parts of the planet would to a large extent be suicide. The problems grow and in the end we could all pay."
Other East Europeans seem to be much more outspoken, as we have noticed before. There were several calls for increasing trade with developing countries instead of distributing aid all the time. That, of course, would mean serious changes in core EU policies, such as CAP and trade. So that is not on the agenda. Let them eat aid.

Deputy Foreign Minister Petr Kolar dismissed complaints about the post-Communist countries not being used to giving to charity (they are not because charities were banned by the Communists) as being irrelevant. In his opinion, these countries have invaluable experience to pass on to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. They, too, emerged from decades of economic and political oppression and have, now taken their place in the free world. (In fact, some would argue that they are better at appreciating it than the west Europeans.)

One can but hope that this experience will be passed on and assimilated. It has much to do with establishing solid political structures, attracting investment and developing under one’s own steam, avoiding, as far as possible, the attention of the international aid-professionals.

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