The ongoing scandal surrounding the unethical behaviour by some staff of major Western NGOs is only the tip of the iceberg. It reveals a more deep-seated reinforcing of the unequal power balance between the developed and developing worlds. By Kalundi Serumaga
Can an arm disassociate itself from the actions of the hand attached to it? And what would it use instead? This is the state of affairs in the (largely Western European) “aid” sector.
Ground zero seems to be located in Britain, where at least two globally known aid giants have appeared before the relevant Parliamentary oversight committee to explain nefarious – and possibly illegal – conduct by members of their staff while managing the delivery of said “aid” to distressed (and they are always distressed, it seems) parts of the “developing” world.
Oxfam has taken the brunt of this grilling, after reports emerged that not only were senior staff members misbehaving sexually with young people during their Haiti posting, but that one was even enabled to retire gracefully after being caught, and therefore able to take up similar employment (we don’t know about the behaviour) elsewhere. What is more, he arrived for the Haiti job with such complaints already hanging over his head from his time in West Africa.
The UK parliament’s concern was that as Oxfam was a conduit for a solid portion of the UK government’s aid budget, some £31m last year, there was a need to see to what extent the arm was liable for the actions of the hand it was nourishing, so to speak. Several other organisations have also been mentioned in relation to the problem, in addition to the long-stated, long-fudged, accusations against United Nations staff.
However, as any person with at least an eye on Africa will tell you, such conduct is neither unusual, nor even limited to members of the “aid” community.
Sexual tourism is part and parcel of the culture of well-paid persons arriving in poor spaces, armed also with a sense that they are somehow helping the locals evolve, to become more ‘developed’ like them. This mentality stretches across the entire ‘expat’ culture and includes men and women, including high-level natives of other ‘third-world’ countries who work for global corporations and are deployed away from home.
Efforts can range from informal and discreet individual forays to the sustained group activities found at purpose-built social clubs – all done with the same final purpose in mind.
I know of one such group in my native Uganda that brought together all manner of aid workers and technocrats, corporate executives and some local elite Ugandans in such a way. There was no visible stigma attached to these associations, quite the opposite, in fact.
The outrage expressed in the Western media, and the UK Parliament was therefore somewhat puzzling. This is the relationship, and it reaches way back. On a slow day, Uganda’s media will occasionally recycle features on claims by certain African families to be direct descendants of James Augustus Grant and his companion John Hanning Speke, from the time of their exploration looking for the source of the Nile in the 1860s!
Many Christian missionaries and even the British Special Commissioner for Uganda in the 1890ss, Gerald Portal are reputed to have left a similar track record. In colonial India, this happened on a vast scale.
Uneven balance of power
The real problem is the uneven power relations, born of a failure to implement a clean break at Independence, which would have enabled those relations to be fundamentally altered.
Think about it. If perhaps a straightforward audit of all the intellectual and physical damage caused by the colonial invasion had been carried out and measured against any arguable material benefits (such as stopping an epidemic, maybe) not paid for by local sources, then maybe a one-off Versailles Treaty-type reparations arrangement could have been made. This would have allowed the former colonies and colonisers to make a clean break with the past and build a whole new relationship.
Instead came a sort of colonial hangover, which perpetuated the idea there were still brown and black people in need of ‘being saved’ by other (basically, white) people, and cemented the old power dynamic into the new independence era.
With the near-collapses – induced essentially by the unfair global trade regime – of the newly independent states in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this thinking spawned a global multi-billion-dollar aid industry, replete with ‘experts’ and ‘specialists’.
Since then, NGOs (or charities as they were originally, more honestly called) have faced the challenge of sustaining their legitimacy. With their gradual emergence as a major factor in development and relief discourse, they have had to contend with a whole body of interrogative work from intellectual and political activists, many from the recipient countries, critiquing not just their activities, but the philosophical underpinnings thereof.
Thinkers like Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Susan George, who promoted the theory that underdevelopment was simply the flipside and result of Western industrialisation, helped fuel a debate as to whether aid was a well-intentioned delusion, or even something worse.
A number of remedies have been attempted including ‘transparency’ and the bringing on board of actors from the South in development discourse. In the 1990s, there began the movement to create regional centres, if not relocating headquarters wholesale to cities on the same continents where the aid was to be disbursed.
This often resulted in dismay and disarray. The whites didn’t like the new conditions, and the blacks expected real power and authority. At a lesser level, non-locals got paid extra for the ‘hardships’ they faced, much to the annoyance of the locals.
At a more fundamental level, there would be a power struggle between the new physical headquarters versus the historic one, where the original founding branch, still based in the North, retained greater physical resources, fundraising capacity and general cultural capital, despite what the organisation’s constitution said.
One notable strategy that I personally witnessed was the elevation of the most mediocre ‘third-world’ poster boys and girls to the highest levels of the now nominally independent, southern-based organisation, as a way of maintaining back-channel control by keeping the organisation dependent on the same Northerners flying in as fire-fighting ‘experts’.
Sexual, financial and other types of misconduct will clearly remain possible, in such circumstances.
The current panic is because of the implication that all these attempts at reform were little more than window dressing.
The extent to which the NGO/development movement works as a hand at the end of a continuing Western foreign policy arm, despite their radical ‘anti-imperialist’ stance, is also revealed.
Certainly, it has worked to contain what otherwise may have been well-organised rebellions against the IMF/World Bank ‘Washington Consensus’ economic strictures that were finally imposable on the formerly colonised parts of the world following the end of the USA vs USSR Cold War.
Many committed individuals who might otherwise have found more radical alternatives thought that their passion for social change may well be achievable through the broad aims stated and funded by these NGOs, and so worked for them instead.
We are beginning to wonder if that was indeed a wise choice. NA