“If you are working for a UN agency or an INGO, remember the pay and forget self respect.” A friend had warned when I was about to join the system in 1986.
I left in 1993 after I had just been promoted. I felt I would become like many long term local staff who had surrendered to high salary and low self worth.
Lucky for me, I didn’t want to pay that transaction cost, but understandably, many do even now. How expat staff exploit, use, and bully both local staff and beneficiaries are now coming to light.
But it’s not about individuals, it’s about the system.
Local staff stay on even when they experience such negative scenario because the pay is high. Beneficiaries are of course, as in Haiti, in no position to choose.
The system of international staff service delivery on which the UN and many INGOs operate is basically a charity variety of colonial relations. And the beneficiaries are sometimes just an excuse to go on tours and travels, as Haiti and Chad cases show.
The caste-based service delivery model
In international development, decisions are taken by the expats, and locals carry out the orders. The decision-making is very exclusive, and it’s taken for granted that this is the best way, as locals are not good enough. As I once heard: “If they were good, they would be international, wouldn’t they?”
The problem is that most of the foreigners and many of the locals are mediocre, and the system they sustain is exactly that. Caste-based development models simply don’t work in today’s world.
For the expat staff, field posting is going to a paradise they love to hate. Many of the Westerners who join the UN are mediocre and could not make it in their own world.
They also often arrive with the worst resentment of the loser. Few could imagine the life they get a chance to lead here, as pay and perks are endless.
But the biggest perk is being treated as a god or the chance to treat others as dirt and get away with it. This can’t be helped as local staff treat them that way. They are worried that due to any reason, or no reason at all, they might lose their cushy jobs.
One feeds on the other and the caste system is enshrined.
The lords and ladies of poverty
It’s actually a failed model, as limited achievement in post-war international development shows. They are basically the same crowd that talk of unfairness of the world, but if given a chance will take advantage of the situation.
So when expat staff arrive in a country, they are insecure, which quickly turns to arrogance when they realize no one gives a damn about what they do among the denizens of the lesser world.
It’s carried out by people suffering from a saviour complex who believe that only the Western man can save the black and brown people of the global South
Very soon, they become what has been described as the “lords of poverty” with a lifestyle to match.
The reason they become such “slum lords” is because international development may not be much about development itself. In some cases, there are real achievements, such as immunization, sanitation, etc, but these also happen when there is partnership.
But at no time was the system designed to be anything to disturb the structurally patronizing, condescendingly designed system. It’s carried out by people suffering from a saviour complex who believe that only the Western man can save the black and brown people of the global South.
I personally knew Mark Goldring, current CEO of OXFAM, who switched from UNDP to OXFAM while working in Dhaka because he believed that UN agencies were too privileged.
But today, he is at the centre of the scandal, and may have to preside over its steep decline. It’s not the person that matters, it’s the fundamentally flawed international development model that has been on since birth.
Caste-based systems don’t work when economies, aspirations, and people change into aspirational spaces.
Sex and NGOs?
To the West, the Haiti scandal is largely about sexual abuse, but to those from the South, it’s about the general pattern of exploitation and bullying. In this scheme of things, sexual abuse is just one part.
The President of Haiti Jovenel Moise has called it a “serious violation of human dignity” by those who used “aid for sex” strategy.
Haiti is now preparing to launch a criminal investigation. OXFAM had decided not to report the incident to the Haiti government in 2011.
Any reading of the situation shows that these people felt they were above the people they were supposed to serve.
They thought so not because they were bad people fundamentally, but because the system of international development is fundamentally flawed. Time for massive reform is now.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.