Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Not Unwelcome Beginning

I have been thinking and procrastinating for years about writing a blog, worried about potential repercussions. The stern warnings and reasons not to were brought home to me by a not unwelcome reminder email that read something like:

"...there continue to be too many improper and unacceptable uses of email, often involving emotionally charged exchanges ...which unnecessarily exacerbate personal relations and inhibit solutions to problems... bear in mind that, once written and sent, an email takes on a life of its own, and often cannot be recalled, and risks being forwarded to others who may be tempted to join the altercation..."

Then I read some numbing epithet that I received via sms, totally unsolicited mind you from a complete stranger, along the lines of "life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly..."

So I thought, 'I'll give it a go. And if it all goes horribly wrong? And I am forced to speak in high-minded principles, then explain in syrupy concession-laden tones? Then so be it. What is the material difference between that state of affairs and my usual course of dealing? Nothing - so as often say to confused staff, "Approved, please proceed".

By way of introduction, I am an aid worker.

There are three types of self-described aid workers - actually there are more, but it sounds so much more decisive to speak in threes - which may be calculated as follows:

Donor Aid Worker: This aid worker is usually wearing really nice clothes and access to a flushing toilet is taken for granted. This person can tell you what foie gras is or has traveled on business class at least once or has read at least one book by Collier, Easterly, Moyo, or some other really important and absurdly prolific intellectual meridian of aid thought.

You may calculate Donor Aid Worker using the following formula:

Loads of education + preppy + selfish + self-entitled + slack + risk-terrified + uncritical + intelligent + obsequious = Donor Aid Worker.

I'm not saying it's fool proof, but it works alright. So long as you intend the equation to result in Donor Aid Worker. If you wanted some other result, then there could be a problem, the main thing is that you are purposive about this and other stereotype arithmetic.

Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker: This aid worker is usually expatriate, even if it's a Kenyan working in Uganda (or vice versa). You would be amazed what frequent air travel does to one's expectations and sense of well-being. It's a wonder that more refugees don’t feel more important as a result of air travel. Then again, UN pilots have a disturbingly ’grounded’ manner about them that could negate the 'Air Travel Effect'. And, calico bags really detract from the jet-setting experience. Anyway, this person is usually a Donor Aid Worker aspirant.

Ergo, you may calculate Implementing Aid Worker using the following uncannily alike formula:

[(doing/just-finished Masters + officious + self-entitled + groveling + critical in meetings + intelligent + post-paid mobile phone + knows what ‘ergo’ means) x frequency of air travel]/risk-repugnancy (NB. as a scale of 1-5, where 1 is 'seeks concurrence on everything' and five is 'regularly makes decisions') = Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker.

Then we have Actual Aid Worker. Poor sod. Actually if he's gay, the chances are that he is probably not open about his sexuality because being open about one's sexuality usually accrues around the Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker altitude. Being openly gay is something of a luxury for Actual Aid Workers. But I digress. Actual Aid Worker knows what a pit latrine is as a user, unlike Donor Aid Worker, who only knows how to appraise a WASH proposal. Actual Aid Worker as his/her name suggests probably has a pre-paid mobile phone, and has probably never left her/his own country.

The formula for Actual Aid Worker is really simple:

[competent + knows all CSOs s/he partners with by name + thinks all bule/farangi/mzungu talk like instruction manuals + has never commented on a blog) x average miles traveled each day]/USD1,500 (NB. 95% of Actual Aid Workers makes less than this) = Actual Aid Worker.

I’m a self-loathing Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker. Not that I don’t love my job, I just loathe my species that’s all. It’s more complicated than it sounds, and I prefer to pay someone when I talk about it.

For instance, I let things get to me. When I find out that a prestigious U.S. based NGO wins a sh-tload of money to do the absolute bare minimum to keep some Donor Aid Worker out of trouble, I get bouts of self-loathing.

But, I wail, the mandate from the donor state’s citizens was to get jobs for vulnerable youth emerging from war and help an astonishingly corrupt government stabilize an extremely fragile part of Asia/Africa/somewhere ‘Eastern’.

So what does the Donor Aid Worker and his/her cohort do? Outsource the entire thing to one organization. Rather than break it up across multiple implementing agencies thereby introducing competition, rather than disaggregating the M&E for the sake of accountability, rather than directly engaging civil society as implementers - what does the donor do? They choose the modality that removes as much decision-making and responsibility from themselves. Gutless and totally at odds with what the donor state’s citizens expectations of their government.

So there you have it a rambling blog post with no resolution. I really wanted Double Negative to be like the clever title suggests, ultimately positive, albeit unnecessarily.

I guess the upshot is that I wrote about it - I expressed myself - and I feel a bit better now.


1 comment:

  1. What you are missing here is the evolution (or devolution, depending on your point of view) of Donor Aid workers. Lets take the example of Development worker Barbie. She starts out as the committed bright eyed and bushy tailed female. Loads of education, disillusioned (or so she believes) with western values and materialism. She decides to do something noble. The toughest job you’ll ever love, go “understand” people, whatever. For a while, as her armpit hair grows longer and she gives up deodorant, she may even succeed in approaching an approximation of the “real aid worker”. She can speak the local language, thow back the local brew, has learned to dance (rhythm! Its not exclusive to the developing world!) and can squat with the best of them in the pit latrines. But it’s all an illusion. Development Barbie can always go back to Gotham city, with flush toilets, hordes of people in cafes ignoring each other,chocolate cake and taxes (And yes, foie gras. I love the stuff myself). And most Barbies do go back. But those who don't end up slowly but surely transforming into Donor aid Worker or Well Paid Implementing Aid Worker for reasons varying from pressure (whaddya mean you don't have a landcruiser and you eat in local stalls? and when are you going to stop wearing dolls of the world clothing and cut your hair?) to the simple fact that given the opportunity, most of us like to make more money. Do we lose something in the gentrification process? I don't think there is any doubt.