By Ilaria Allegrozzi, Bukavu, South Kivu, DRC, 20.01.2012
We are too many. Too many talking, moving, assessing and judging. Above all, we are too many providing aid. The humanitarian workers are no longer part of a relief, impartial movement, but of a well-run industry growing fast and wealthy and aiming at getting the more and more.
The no-profit sector turned profit, with a revenue-earning component to a for-profit-not-very-social enterprise. And the consequences of such a switch are shocking. NGOs are considered non-profit because profits are not for the financial benefits of the owners o shareholders, instead they are reinvested directly back into the organization and its program, and utilized to fulfil its mission in concrete, social ways. According to their proponents, NGOs are concerned about the most vulnerable and give voice to the voiceless. Their driving force is meant to be humanitarism and not to follow any reason of state.
This is not always or, maybe, no longer, the case. NGOs are involved in a business, which, according to Linda Polman, an Amsterdam based journalist who wrote the book “The Crisis Caravan”, accounts for more than $120-billion annually. Around these billions nervously turn NGOs, looking for contracts to resolve the next catastrophe, save hopeless children, rebuild destroyed roads and houses.
NGOs are channelling an increasing share of development assistance and, as they expand fast, concerns have been raised about their conduct and the impact of their projects. Questions of accountability and transparency, financial indiscipline, ethics and mandate often come up. Recently, the American Red Cross has faced criticism for its handling of earthquake relief funds in Haiti. After having collected $255-million from private donations, it allocated only $106-million to Haiti relief, which left $149-million of donations unaccounted for. Millions of dollars get wasted as a result of mismanagement and corruption. Useless projects start, can’t be continued and die. Projects and infrastructure are built in the middle of nowhere and with no planning whatsoever, just for the sake of doing it and spending the money an NGO has been given by a donor. The very day these projects are over, the look like white elephants.
In 2009, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) reported that, across rural Africa, up to US$360m has been spent on building boreholes that then become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down, resulting into 50,000 water supply points not functioning. The report also pointed out that, in rural Africa, it is generally women and children who collect water. So, if a village supply breaks down, they may have to walk several hours to collect water each day.
NGOs are often fragile and tend to be depended excessively on external financing, which makes them unsustainable or liable to manipulation, and their final aim is not as pure as they want us to believe, but it’s just about making money. Sometimes NGOs are established just to meet donors’ needs and priorities. For instance, because of the recent donors’ stress on women rights, many
NGOs have been set up around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – and keep mushrooming – to deal with sexual and gender based violence issues. This has led to allegations that some NGOs only aim at getting money and not at eradicating problems. NGOs became skilled in witchcraft, appearing and disappearing according to where the money goes.
In Bukavu, South Kivu, DRC, I entertain myself by counting the logos of all the NGOs operating in the city and the surroundings: from Oxfam to the Ben Affleck foundation, from Care to the International Rescue Committee, you can find them all. Their logos are stuck everywhere: from white SUV to buildings, billboards, flags and signs. Basically, all the most important international NGOs (INGOs) are based here: from the biggest and most prominent to the smallest and most insignificant, the choice is wide, and if you’re an expatriate with a big house and garden you can be sure your parties will always be awesome. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in Bukavu estimates that around 80 INGOs are working in South Kivu only. So, what are all these NGOs exactly doing? How many of them are necessary? How much money are they spending and for which purposes? They provide aid to internally displaced people (IDPs), they help rape survivors, they build roads, and hospitals, dig wells, they distribute food and non-food items to refugees, they advocate for the respect of human rights, they reintegrate ex child-soldiers into the society, the support sustainable agriculture, etc…
So, what are the other 250ish1 Congolese NGO doing?
They are doing exactly the same, but with considerably less human and financial resources: they provide aid to IDPs, they help rape survivors, they build roads, and hospitals, dig wells, they distribute food and non-food items to refugees, they advocate for the respect of human rights, they reintegrate ex child soldiers into the society, the support sustainable agriculture, etc…
So, why are the INGOs necessary?
The best answer that a humanitarian worker will give you is: capacity building. A tricky word for which I can’t even find a proper translation in my own language, and which often is explained by delivering training without any follow up and which allows justifying the presence of INGOs “in the field” and let these international staff get a lot of money plus benefits.
In “The Crisis Caravan” – the book I mentioned above and which, I believe, should become a compulsory reading for all humanitarian workers about to go to the field – Linda Polman says a vast industry has grown up around humanitarian aid with an estimated 37,000 organizations competing all around the world. It’s the NGO show-business. Many have warned that having too many NGOs in a certain country is not a sign of how kind human beings are and how much they care about social issues, but of how greedy they are. Moreover, it’s a matter of facts that, in some countries, especially the least developed, NGOs overlaps with governments’ agenda, messing up the national planning. Besides, as clearly shown in Ethiopia or in Rwanda, NGOs are connected and dependent to governments, so they lose any independence. For the sake of not losing their contracts, they end up turning a blind eye to any sort of human rights and civil right abuse, and they also accept their efforts and aid to be diverted as long as they can remain in the country.
NGOs tend to follow their path or that of donors and this may result in possible overlapping and duplication of activities. In Haiti, for instance, following the January 12, 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, concerns about the role of NGOs in the small island’s development have been raised. In the past, directing aid through NGOs has created dependency and contributed to limited government capacity, as well as weak institutions. Which, translated into simple words, means that Haitians look at NGOs rather than their government for basic public services.
So, my point is: we are too many and we keep staying. Why?
One of the explanations is linked to exaggeration of figures and situations. Rigging and falsification over data of raped women, war victims, cholera affected refugees, threatened human rights defenders (HRDs), starving people, make Africa look even sadder than what it is. Exaggeration is the rule, a must to be used to move potential donors to pity. It has also a distortion effect regarding the real face of some African countries. International media and journalists contribute to bring about such effect by following NGOs on “cruise trips” to war-torn zones and reporting on what NGOs want the public opinion to see: extreme poverty, swollen-eyes skeleton babies, HIV-positive 1 UN OCHA counts more than 250 Congolese NGOs operating in South Kivu, and this is just a meager number, which only takes into account bigger and more established NGOs. To this number, you should add many other “portable” or “pocket” NGOs, with unknown offices. The local NGO business shouldn’t not be underestimated, especially in the Kivus, where setting an NGO might be easier than getting a job in a government office or running a small company. youngsters. This will trigger compassion, together with funds. It is regrettable that many journalists are no longer critical and objective observers of humanitarian crisis. They like an exotic full-board trip to crisis areas better than objectivity over facts.
Once, I was submitted a press release to revise. It started like that: “the situation of HRDs in DRC remains of a great concern and massive human rights violations have been reported over the past year”. The tone of the document was as such to make the situation look catastrophic and definitely worse than reality. I tried to explain to my colleagues that, although the context is worrying, it is not all bad and improvements have been registered. I would like to keep using the example of Congolese HRDs in order to better explain my argument. It is certainly true that defending and promoting human rights might not be the easiest job in DRC. Activists and journalists are frequent targets of threats, intimidations, arbitrary arrests, physical assaults and, in some cases, torture or even killing. Many have been forced into hiding or exile as a result of this insecurity. Attempts to silence them are coming from both state and non-state actors.
However, it should be acknowledged that positive steps have been undertaken by Congolese authorities to stop massive human rights violations, improve the safety of HRDs and reform the legislation concerning HRDs. In January 2011, for example, the National Ministry of Justice, in collaboration with the civil society, drafted a national law on HRD’s protection and set up two HRDs’ protection bodies (the liaison entity and the protection unit). The political will seems to be there, although the law is still under examination at the National Assembly and the two bodies struggle to start their activities. This doesn’t mean that the situation is catastrophic. This means that, if progress is visible in the determination to reform or strengthen legislation, a lot remains to be done in terms of HRDs’ practical security. Which is another way to put it.
Anyways, I think it is crucial to point out at the good steps being undertaken by the Congolese State to face human rights and HRDs’ challenges. Highlighting progress is recognizing the sense of responsibility of local authorities, their will to bring about change, as well as the need for the international community not to always shame, but challenge and constructively criticize local authorities.
Perhaps, the truth is that if the situation is not bad enough, INGOs’ presence will no longer be meaningful and necessary, and consequently, donors will refuse renewing the funding. There is another issue, which I would like to underline in this post and it relates to behaviours and curiosity.
I am convinced that many humanitarian workers are belonging to the “I-can-be-anywhere-and-I-don’t- care”-category of people, which are those who will conduct the same type of life no matter where they are. Goma, Nairobi, Ndjamena, Dadaab, Haiti, they will keep drinking beer under bomb attacks or post-tsunami affected areas without asking themselves a single question about why they are delivering tents and food to war refugees and IDPs. Many aid workers prefer meeting in fancy restaurants (always available in conflict zones) rather than reflecting on why they’re getting paid 3 or 4 times more their “local staff”. I’ve been told this is a psychological surviving strategy, a way to cope with suffering that people who are not used to it put in place. I don’t necessarily agree with this justification. I tend to blame the lack of curiosity and commitment of human beings. I also believe that many humanitarian workers go to underdeveloped countries, such are some in Africa, to try an exotic experience, to flee from their problems back home or to have living standards they will not be able to afford where they come from. Once they start, they love the money and find the lifestyle cool and fascinating, and they keep on rolling.
One day, I was at Orchids, the fanciest place in Bukavu, a Belgian-run restaurant and hotel overlooking lake Kivu, surrounded by luxuriant vegetation, with an amazing view of the city and neighbouring Rwanda. I joined an old friend of mine there. He was drinking and chatting with a bunch of expatriates. If I took a picture it would look pretty much like a scene by the sea in Miami Beach. Four good-looking and well-fed young guys on swimming suits and three girls in bikini, also good-looking but less well-fed. They were talking about “the crazy party of last night at the ICRC house” and still felt the hangover to be coped with thanks to a couple of tablets (brought from Europe “cuz in Africa you only get crappy and fake medicines”). All of a sudden, they all decided to jump into the lake. I stepped aside and watched them from the garden. One of the good-looking guys asked me why I didn’t want to swim. I replied that “the lake might hide dead bodies and this shocks me”.
“Dead bodies? Are you crazy? Why do you even wanna think about that?”
He took a dive and I saw his swimming suit slipping away to show a peace of his white bottom. Then I heard my friend screaming to him from the water: “Don’t bother man! Ilaria is always talking serious stuff, even on week-ends”.
To conclude, I think that we should all reflect on the challenge of balancing a social mission with profitability. We should understand that, while a generous scaling-up of foreign aid through NGOs might be a good way for reducing poverty, helping the most vulnerable, bringing justice to victims and achieving global prosperity, experience shows that it is not enough. Humanitarian workers’ behaviours and ways of delivering aid should be rethought.