The NGO gravy-train

Current Affairs

The NGO gravy-train

The recent scandals involving misconduct by staff of the Red Cross have put the critical spotlight on the activities of NGOs in the developing world. While some workers are dedicated to their missions, many see their posting as a gravy-train ride, allowing them to enjoy benefits that would be impossible at their home bases. By James Jaffery

The diametric opposition between people’s lifestyles in the West and those in Ethiopia can send the mind spinning. But the degrees of separation are most evident when comparing the lives of some Ethiopia-based NGO workers and diplomats with those of ordinary Ethiopians – and those of ordinary foreigners there, like freelance journalists.

The recent scandal that has engulfed the usually admired British charity, Oxfam, which has been accused of covering up allegations of sexual misconduct by staff members in Haiti, has highlighted how the worthy missions of NGOs in developing and crisis-hit countries can be undermined by those choosing to take advantage of the inevitable dichotomies of power between foreign workers and locals.

But even without such extreme examples of dereliction of duty and trust as seen in Haiti, my experience of working in Ethiopia since 2013 has caused me to increasingly question the substance of the foreign aid and development; as well as the diplomatic presences that make up the knight-in-shining-armour-industrial- complex in developing countries like Ethiopia.

I used to seek out parties held by NGO workers and embassies in Addis Ababa. I won’t deny that a bash in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday in the lush grounds of the British embassy, with free Pimm’s, champagne and gin and tonics, is fun and a pleasure to be invited to.

But overall, when it comes to attending most gatherings of diplomats and NGO workers in Addis Ababa’s higher-end restaurants and nightclubs, I would far rather head to the warren of dive bars in its Piazza old town with a couple of Ethiopian friends – despite the music being so loud you can barely talk to anyone. At least there you interact with the real Ethiopia, seeing how locals live.

Another issue is how the foreign NGO and development agenda has played a problematic part in creating a ‘dependency syndrome’ that drains the ability and will of Ethiopians to tackle problems self-sufficiently, rather than relying on handouts.

“I don’t like NGOs,” an Ethiopian working for an NGO told me, despite his excellent salary, when I was reporting on the 2017 drought in the country’s Somali region. “If it was up to me they would all leave the country. There would be an increase in deaths for a few years but then we would be forced to sort things out ourselves and the country would be better.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I can see what he was getting at. I have witnessed, and been told enough times about, how charity and philanthropy between Ethiopians barely registers in the national psyche beyond helping family.

This, despite increasing numbers of very wealthy Ethiopians living cheek-by-jowl with absurd numbers remaining in abject poverty and squalor. For if foreign organisations will pay up, why delve into your own pockets, seems the logic.

Most NGO workers and diplomats are doing their jobs well, while some work very hard, enduring lots of travel, tension, multi-tasking pressures and crisis management. But at the same time, many NGO workers, consultants and diplomats earn fantastic salaries, jet off for weekend jaunts to Nairobi and Cape Town, live in palatial compounds, revel in the non-stop party circuit, while getting breaks such as tax-free SUVs while everyone else looks on from their rusting 30-year-old Toyotas.

All this, added to the fact their careers depend on Ethiopia continuing to have problems, meant that the more I saw of it, the more it appeared increasingly weird and flawed, and not just in Ethiopia.

“Most of the NGOs here are terrible, it’s mind-boggling how much money from donors is being completely wasted,” said a volunteer with a church-based organisation in Djibouti helping refugees fleeing the war in Yemen, who wished to remain anonymous. She had left the NGO world after two years in Afghanistan. “It’s a weird world, very hedonistic, there’s no accountability, the workers consider themselves outside the law — it’s just a business.”

Ethos of duty and care

While enormous amounts of private and public money are channelled to NGOs, the work being done by faith-based organisations with miniscule budgets gets little coverage.

Much media attention garnered by the Catholic Church during the past few years has dealt with clerical child abuse. Rightly so, but this focus has omitted that church-related organisations are doing great work in developing countries, on tiny budgets, staffed by the likes of missionaries and others earning very little. In Ethiopia, the Catholic Church runs the second largest number of schools after the government.

Such an ethos of duty of care and of serving to lead and build appears to be lost in the NGO world amid a narrow focus on hitting targets which admittedly achieves something, but in the long term is aimed at bolstering budgets while making the most of your time in-country.

I’ve got no issue with the last factor, up to a point: Ethiopia and Africa cry out to be explored, as long as that is twinned with an empathetic understanding that a few hundred metres away, live people who are dirt-poor, and will never get close to experiencing the materialistic luxuries falling into your lap.

My increasingly jaundiced view stems partly from talking to people who formerly worked for organisations like the UN. Their assessments are damning to a depressing degree, encompassing almost all the big names running fundraising campaigns. About the only organisation I don’t recall being criticised was Médecins Sans Frontières. It is regularly singled out for the fact it goes into war-torn regions and developing countries affected by severe problems and sets up shop for the long haul, rather than coming in, dropping off some supplies, building a few things and moving out.

In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, it’s ironic that it had never been one of the organisations I heard criticised. One of the reasons I sought out its Christmas cards on returning to the UK was because the back of the cards stated how money from card sales supported projects in Ethiopia.

I like that. Ethiopia and countries like it do need assistance. But, for the long term, it’s all about an organisation’s ethos and commitment to institutional change, a huge undertaking that can only be successful if underpinned by good leadership. 

Presently in Ethiopia, it’s a reckoning moment for the government and its leaders amid protests by a population demanding change. The leaders of the likes of the UN and other foreign aid organisations could also do with similarly looking at what reforms are needed in their organisations to ensure each delivers what it claims to stand for. 

“What we should expect when giving to charity is a better performance from the Lords of Poverty themselves,” wrote Aidan Hartley, a former foreign correspondent for Reuters who covered Africa in the 1990s, in a 2017 article for the Spectator. “The UN’s new Secretary-General, António Guterres, is promising to speed up overhauling a system that has been more resistant to reform in recent decades than anywhere outside Pyongyang.”    

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