If you criticise an NGO it's up there with saying kicking puppies is OK or Fianna Fail is just misunderstood. Non-governmental organisations are NO GOs rather than NGOs because everyone believes they're above reproach. With our proud tradition of pennies for black babies, sending people to the missions and producing Bono and Bob Geldof, criticising aid feels like letting the side down.
But questions are being asked by critics here and elsewhere about the role of aid and aid workers. There are allegations of NGO employees living it up amid dire poverty in big houses surrounded by high walls. There are stories about generators being powered up first for aid workers' DVD players and discos and restaurants being set up before aid relief begins.
Critical BBC Radio 4 Documentary
Last month BBC Radio 4 aired a documentary by respected broadcaster Ed Stourton entitled Haiti and the Truth About NGOs, which questioned deficiencies in aid provision in Haiti and elsewhere.
One contributor dubbed Afghanistan "Afghaniscam" because of estimates that only 15-20 per cent of Afghan aid actually reaches the intended recipients.
The Dutch journalist and NGO expert Linda Polman was a key contributor to the programme. "Aid workers need large four-wheel drives; they need nice offices; they need places to stay. They need nice houses with walls around them. They need electricity in places where there is no electricity so they bring their own generators so they can play their DVD players," she said.
Linda is a veteran of many aid locations and recalled her time in Sierra Leone. "When I was in Sierra Leone after the war, the first things that opened up were the restaurants and the golf course. The gap between the daily reality for the people and the daily reality for the aid workers becomes perverse."
There were allusions to discos and casinos being the first things to open up after other humanitarian tragedies.
NGO Staff's Living Arrangements
Former head of international development with the Irish Red Cross, Noel Wardick worked for seven years in Ethiopia, Uganda and Darfur with various aid agencies. He's been dubbed the "Red Cross whistleblower" after being sacked from his job in November.
Overseas-aid expert Wardick certainly doesn't believe NGOs and charities should be immune from criticism. "There's a certain degree that charities are untouchable. You can't question them. There's an assumption that if I work for charity X, it means I'm a good person."
How does he react to general criticism about how aid workers live? "You can't live in similar conditions. It would make no sense, as people are living in abject poverty. There is no benefit in putting your staff in abject poverty and unsafe, unhealthy environments."
Noel claims the normal NGO lifestyle anywhere in the world couldn't be classified as luxurious anyway. "Where it gets extreme or lavish, that's a problem. In Darfur, for example, it was far from it. We would have rented houses which had running water but communal showers, communal toilets, and only some rooms had air conditioning."
Conditions are better for NGO workers who end up in big cities. "When they work in the capital cities, workers have better lifestyles. You live similar lifestyles as you would in Dublin. You can be a nurse in Dublin working with the homeless, but you don't sleep with them on O'Connell Bridge. You go home to your house in Malahide or Clontarf," adds Noel.
Is it appropriate to watch EastEnders in a country that's got extreme poverty levels? "In a city centre, you live in a house which may have satellite telly, and bathroom and showers and a garden, and I don't see any issue with that. There is severe pressure, so they come home, yes, to a television that has BBC. It's a small benefit that is appropriate."
Noel's most challenging experience overseas was in Darfur in 2005. "There were massive refugee camps in Darfur -- which is the size of France. There were loads of camps and they were very insecure environments. Some of the camps had 100,000 people in them."
He thinks that NGO staff deserve perks like every other employee -- or they just won't stay. "You are always interested in your staff staying for as long as possible. The vast majority of aid workers are passionate about what they do, and they're workaholics."
Everyone craves normality in these crazy situations, even the thousands of refugees taking shelter in the camps. "The camps become like towns. There is commerce; there's trade within days like any village or town. There'd be a hierarchy: the people living in the shittiest shack and people living in the better ones. This happens very quickly," Noel said.
But what about the flashy compounds and the speeding 4x4s we see in those movies that always seem to star Matt Damon? "You will see, on occasions, the UN, at times, criticised for living in huge houses and driving huge cars, and a very isolationist approach with guards and walls and all that. That can happen, but often it's necessary for security reasons," says Noel.
The Veteran Politician's View
The optics can also be wrong at a political level. Conor Lenihan has seen it all. He was overseas development and human rights minister from 2004 to 2007, travelling to 85 countries and working with everyone from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela.
Aid is big business. In Ireland alone government aid amounted to €671m in 2010.
But, besides building up an impressive stamp collection on his passport, did Lenihan ever see things that made him think twice when it comes to aid provision? "I was at international conferences and met ministers from developing countries, like African countries. They have Rolex watches and branded clothes . . . at these conferences dressed to the nines with clothes, watches and jewellery!"
What about the allegations of misspent funds? "There's no point in denying it, there is corruption. Ireland has avoided this, as we've targeted aid to health and education," he said.
Has he seen an aid response that was just plain wrong? "Well, there was Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the Asian tsunami. It's great that people come in to help. But in Banda Aceh, UN officials told me they saw several 100ft mountains of clothes that came from all over the world being dumped. They didn't need them because they needed hard cash. People are keen to send them their slippers! Not needed! Better off sending cash."
It's not just politicians who are critiquing overseas aid. Some aid workers also question the need for the raft of enthusiastic volunteers bumbling into developing countries from the West. Is it a case of "haven't they suffered enough?" when people in disaster-hit regions have to deal with preppy twentysomethings intent on helping them for a couple of months.
Clare Herbert works as a project manager with Irish NGO Suas and recently published a critique of volunteer tourism -- or voluntourism -- on her blog which got a strong response. "There's a misguided notion that you're changing the world. That's why I wrote the blog. I didn't want volunteers to go overseas without knowing everything," she says. "The NGOs say you're having a big impact. But sometimes it deflects resources from the real need, and the big thing becomes hosting Westerners. The gap-year thing is a fashionable thing to show good social responsibility."
The culture clash between Westerners used to creature comforts and the harsh reality of local lives can be stark, according to Clare. "People who volunteer have the best intentions as they're following their heart -- but often it's misguided. For example, I saw things like volunteers demanding hot showers. Some people don't make the connection between women carrying water for hours and their showers not working!"
She also has issues with volunteers who teach overseas for short periods. "They're always recruiting for teachers, rather than for people to teach teachers. Everyone wants to work with kids because they're so adorable. But the kids have a different teacher every three months!"
When she was 19, Claire volunteered with the Presentation Sisters in Kalomo, southern Zambia. "It was an amazing experience and I worked in a home-based care project assisting a nurse."
But her Zambian experience got her thinking about the whole volunteer tourism industry. As well as volunteering in Zambia, Clare spent time in the US on a volunteer house-building programme. "I took part in a charity build a few years ago. I was tasked with dry-lining a house -- I think that's what it was called. Predictably, I was crap at it. I am not good with a hammer. But, I worked hard and was very enthusiastic and got it done, albeit to a very poor standard."
By her own admission she's no Duncan Stewart and isn't too confident about the quality of her labour. "I shudder to think of the quality of those houses. If you cook with the right food, you get a yummy dinner. If you build houses with do-gooders who are crap with hammers like me, you're going to get crappy houses -- and a very sore arm.
"I have a problem generally with the house-builds. They are usually in countries with huge unemployment rates. Could locals not do that role?" added Clare.
Niall Mellon, who spearheads one of the volunteer-based house-build NGOs, points out: "We're at the forefront of generating local employment as we've almost 2,000 native South Africans building houses all year round. It's essential to generate local employment. We have 10 Irish staff in Dublin, but I'm the only Irish in South Africa."
Former overseas development minister Conor Lenihan believes that the Irish house-build charities like the Niall Mellon Irish Township Trust do make a big difference. "I strongly endorse Niall Mellon. I was at a reception one night in South Africa. There were six members of the South African cabinet attending and they were raving about what the Mellon township appeal was doing. It did fill a need for them."
Clare Herbert believes there are other ways of helping poor countries besides inflicting inexperienced volunteers on them. "Tourism is a better alternative. It's crazy to go to Paris and go to a homeless shelter. If you really want to get into this sector you could join campaigning organisations."
Noel Wardick believes that volunteer tourism should be questioned. "I have seen people, aid workers, who shouldn't be there, or being very irresponsible, as, in their head, it's their gap year. I am a big believer in the professionalisation of the sector.
"What's really key with any aid worker is questioning whether that individual adds value. If I can bring a certain set of skills then that's good, but if it's readily available in Sudan there's no need for me there," says Noel.
Culture Shock for NGO Staff
Some of Clare Herbert's friends in the NGO sector have also experienced difficulties. "There can be a lack of support on the ground, along with bad communication between the mothership and overseas."
With high unemployment the motivation of some of the volunteers also needs to be analysed. "There's also a lack of preparation for the volunteers and not enough questioning of their own motivation for going overseas," she adds.
Noel Wardick says the sudden change from Ireland to an NGO assignment can be a shock. His first overseas job was in Ethiopia. Noel's first official duty was the opening of a health clinic -- having arrived from Ireland only two days before. "At 5am on the Wednesday morning I was put in the car, told we were opening this great health clinic in 90-degree heat. I said to myself, 'Oh my God, how does this happen?' Two days ago I was playing football in Colaiste Mhuire in Islandbridge and now some guys are standing beside me with Kalashnikovs!"
Recruiting Local Staff
Many better NGOs now recruit more locals than Westerners. "If you look at professional aid organisations -- 90pc of their staff is local. In Darfur we had 460 staff in total, and 400 were national staff when I was with the charity International Rescue Committee," said Noel Wardick.
Politician Conor Lenihan agrees the overuse of Westerners is a problem. "Bussing in the expertise is a key flaw. If they need high-level expertise they think they should bring in expertise, but any NGO's strength is the calibre of the local people.
"There's always the risk of West is best, and I've seen more senior nationals expressing frustration that they're reporting to young, inexperienced expats," adds Wardick.
EGO and NGOs
Everyone I spoke to about aid said that after NGO the most common three-letter word in the humanitarian relief industry is EGO. "The issue is that of individual ego to save the world. You have to look at motivations and get a sense of why they want to do it," says Wardick.
Conor Lenihan agrees that ego is the elephant in the room for the aid sector. "The biggest problem is if there's a flood or an earthquake and start-up NGOs come into existence. These have to be well run so you make sure they don't become personalised organisations around individuals."
Aid expert Linda Polman identified this trend in the BBC radio 4 documentary. "I call them Mongos -- people who start their own NGOs. They go there for a very short period of time. They stay there until the money is finished."
Lenihan believes NGOs have to become more professional: "There's a tendency to get these enthusiastic early founders, but with no accounting structures, which can be the biggest weakness. Within NGOs you have charismatic people who stay on for far too long after the starting and building. The well-run ones professionalise very quickly. The most important person in these NGO's should be the accountant. The NGO sector is plagued by an absence of business skills, and an absence of pure commercial skills."
Wardick believes there's still room for the enthusiastic amateurs who get angry at the telly and decide to start a charity. "If the enthusiasm is well placed and well intentioned -- you start with that. After all, there may be a blatant gap. Look at Bob Geldof, who always gets criticised, but that's just begrudgery. His was an unbelievable achievement."
Lenihan thinks Geldof and Bono don't get enough credit. "I've worked together with them on things and they opened doors for me. I get annoyed out socially in Dublin about the cynicism against them. What they did was impressive, because they forged connections that Ireland could never have made."
Having clocked up thousands of miles visiting NGOs in action, which ones impressed Lenihan most? "The most impressive were the religious missionaries. I gave money to the Irish missionary resource service. Some of these Irish priests and nuns might have been there for 40 years and their expertise is unrivalled.
"They have no real ego and aren't clocking up experience for the CV. I saw them working in palliative care caring for mothers and kids with Aids. The nuns and priests were the best because they've a good and valid reason to be there. It's not just Catholic -- I also saw the Lutherans from Germany."
Do You Support Badly Behaving States?
Last month Human Rights Watch told an Oireachtas committee that Irish overseas aid to Ethiopia was being used to support the regime and marginalise dissidents. The Irish Government denied this.
With €671m spent on Irish Aid last year, does Conor Lenihan think we should rethink the policy of funding countries with questionable regimes? "You shouldn't give it to governments, the NGOs say, because some of them are corrupt. In Ethiopia and Uganda, because of political concerns, we withheld money. I was the only Minister ever to deduct money. If you get into somewhere like Sierra Leone or Liberia, you have to be careful how to spend money."
Lenihan's opinion is that poor delivery of aid can be more about ineptitude than corruption. "It's poor spending of money rather than an outright culture of corruption. The absence of infrastructure and the absence of credit are big deficiencies. In Africa there are vast countries that have a horrendous deficit of infrastructure," he said.
He believes that states rather than the NGOs should have the primary role. "I went into the ministerial role sceptical about governments and government aid. I came out saying, 'I was wrong'."
His view is that the function of the NGOs is to fill the gaps. "The NGOs are sort of like the St Vincent de Paul here, acting where governments don't have the reach."
In the future Lenihan thinks that the big philanthropic organisations will become the key players in the NGO sector. "Increasingly with the Irish development aid programmes, they partner with large philanthropic foundations like the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation."
Whatever the future holds, aid expert Noel Wardick says NGOs need to be more respectful of donors. "We all owe to the people who give us the money that we use that money in the most effective and efficient way possible. All charities work on the basis of trust and because they trust us we have to honour that trust."