Wednesday 26 November 2014

Gap-year messiahs

In Sierra Leone after the war, the first things to reopen were the golf club and the restaurants to service the NGO staff. In other troubled areas, scarce electricity goes to power discos and DVD players for aid workers. Will Hanafin investigates the world of voluntourism, and the moral haze that is international aid

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.

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.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

Promoted articles

Also in this Section

Promoted articles

Top Stories

Most Read

Independent Gallery

Your photos

Send us your weather photos promo

Celebrity News