Rwanda & the charity industrial complex (part 2).
Josh Kron concludes his two-part article on the psyche, culture, and behaviour of NGOs in Rwanda. He quotes one Rwandese, Civiliste Guillaume, as saying: "In Rwanda, we have some friends who work in NGOs and at the United Nations. They live more or less like kings, removed from the population, they spend most of the day at the office. But how can they hope to understand the reality of the people they want to help when they themselves live in this way? It's simply impossible." Please read on ...
Rwanda is a place where status and money matter. Those walking the long roads threading together hilltop commercial centres are seen as people who cannot afford to drive. Rwandans hold prestige close to their hearts, and in that regard, development (or NGO) workers are the cream of the crop.
"If there is one thing that is immediately noticeable in Kigali [Rwanda's capital]," one tourist recently said, "it's the cars. They have the nicest cars, and they are everywhere."
But such cars are more than just fancy, fun vehicles; they are seen as a reflection of class. That reflection being that NGO workers, especially expatriates but also local workers, have the best jobs, the most money, and the best lives.
"It is prestigious to be called an NGO," says a high-ranking Ministry of Local Government (MINALOC) official of the booming proliferation of local NGOs, sometimes with no more than two or three staff. But sometimes these desires can turn ugly. In 2006, Joan Roelofs, a professor from New Hampshire, United States, wrote an article on the reactions that foreign aid workers stimulate in recipient countries. Calling them the "heirs of missionaries," Roelofs said international NGOs were not trusted in many countries. This is not the case in Rwanda, and most NGO employees, both local and expatriate, express strong confidence and satisfaction in the relations they have with each other and the community. Still, it shows that, on a day-to-day basis, they are understood by many to be the intruder; not as in "bad" but as in "other".
As Michael Maren, a former development officer in Kenya and Somalia writes in his book, The Road to Hell--The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity: "When trouble comes, the Land Cruisers always follow. Airplanes and trucks bring bags of food and blankets, and Land Cruisers bring relief workers. They are young, earnest, healthy, clean, and tanned European and American kids in short pants, T-shirts, baseball caps, and sunglasses."
Now, this may be an overly subjective opinion from someone who is very biased, but the point he is making should not be lost. To the outsider, those who come to deliver food don't look so different from those who come with guns.
In this way, NGOs can be mistakenly seen as deciders of war, and thus the heirs to security and control; they are part of the victor, holders of the peace. They are immediately in positions of control. It is the same reason that Henri Dunant felt compelled (in Part I) to help the wounded after Solferino, there were people in desperate need and he could meet that need. That power may bend over the decades, but it is yet to be broken.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) spokesperson, Servilien Sebasoni, puts it perfectly when he says: "They were too rich, and we too poor. NGOs replaced and displaced Rwandese people in running the country."
But Rwanda is not Afghanistan or Iraq. It was not invaded by men of other skin. It is not even Somalia, but the situation does come from a time when people were frantically distressed, and NGOs, and particularly outsiders, were in control of supplying the most elemental necessities of life. Although services have changed and the government and private sectors are now vibrant, it is still like growing up and away from a mother. And in that way, the NGOs are like the "heirs" of colonialism.
There is no loss of people disturbed by this association. In a 2002 article published in International Affairs, Firoze Manji accused Western NGOs of talking in a "new vocabulary" to potential donors, but really saying the same thing.
"The real problem was that the dominant discourse of development was framed not in the language of emancipation or justice, but with the vocabulary of charity, technical expertise, neutrality, and a deep paternalism," Manji wrote. "It was no longer that Africans were 'uncivilised'. Instead, they were 'underdeveloped'."
Rwanda has tried to avoid this maternal/paternal-filial relationship, instead struggling at times to bring all development workers--national government, donor agencies, and civil society--under national systems and government policy.
Still, it has been difficult to argue against the association when looking at the direction and destinations of finances. Government contributions to CARE accounted for well over half of its total revenue. In Africa, Western governments have been shifting much of their aid to NGOs, and away from Rwanda's stated desires--direct budget support. According to information produced by MINALOC, USAID works with and through at least 22 different NGOs in delivering aid to Rwanda. And as a recent Economist article puts it: "Many 'non-governmental' groups are becoming contractors for governments." What Marren and Roelofs say (and numerous Rwandan government officials allude to) is that what begins as military-charity relationships during moments of emergency, later becomes a charity-industrial complex.
While organisations like Oxfam and CARE work directly with returning refugees in Rwanda's Eastern Province, building housing, providing food and medicine, the vast majority of NGOs operating in Rwanda today are exclusively second generation; devoted to longer-term capacity building. World Vision has programmes lasting 15 years, projects and development plans that will undoubtedly take its country activities well into the 21st century. (Still, average staff terms are rarely longer than two years. The turnover rate is astronomic.) Many NGOs readily admit this. In an April 2007 report of Save the Children's human resource management, the organisation explicitly stated its strategic intentions. "Over the last few years Save the Children has been positioning itself and looking at its long-term strategy. It has launched a new brand positioning statement and confirmed a new strategic direction focusing on national level advocacy" (the third and so far final generation in NGO evolution). The group that 13 years ago ventured into war-torn Rwanda to find the parents of lost children could soon be telling the government how to raise those children.
The understanding is that there is a very real connection here, between the despair of one and the survival of another, be it in Rwanda or elsewhere. Locals can see and perceive it in any number of ways. The following is an actual posting by a man living in Mogadishu on a website forum devoted to NGO activity: "In Somalia, we're better off without the white man. It's the white man that creates and finances the warlords, it's the white man that creates the wars and provides support for them. As soon as the bullets stopped, the NGOs poured into the streets of Mogadishu."
Obviously Rwanda has not seen that type of anger. There is not that tension. Save for the French, there is not that feeling of betrayal and hatred. But there is contempt and confusion, occurring at their own times. "In Rwanda, we have some friends who work in NGOs or at the United Nations. They live more or less like kings, removed from the population, they spend most of the day at the office," Civiliste Guillaume says in a post on the website. "But how can they hope to understand the reality of the people they want to help when they themselves live in this way? It's simply impossible. When we talk with them we clearly see the extent to which they have problems understanding the people they are supposed to help. It's not by any ill will on their part, it's because they are part of an organisation that does not let them."
One university student, Sandrine Bizimana, says: "It's foreigners getting paid by foreign governments to work and live and change a foreign country. It is an organic growth of the same psychology that produced colonialism."
Yet this is not yet truly a problem in Kigali--the socioeconomic domination of one group over another, like that seen in Zimbabwe before independence, or in South Africa and Kenya. And expatriates in Rwanda notice it.
A blogger from Kigali on the forum talks of his surprise: "I am constantly amazed by the very limited resentment towards expatriate development and aid workers. The rhetoric of 'make poverty history' is balanced by good salaries, fine perks, offices and homes always in the most expensive parts of town (and even then paying way over the odds for rent ...). I know, I'm one of them."
Clearly the situation in Rwanda is not like it was (and still is) in Somalia, but the reason it has been brought up is because there is a trend, and it stretches over decades: development workers, including but not limited to expatriate staff, are incredibly detached from the people they serve and live with. On one hand, globalism is the theory of mixing and incorporation, yet on the other, its offspring--development-aid lifestyles--exudes the exact opposite. Why has it been so hard to amend a problem like this? It is because it has been here since the beginning.
The response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed once again how little control governments have of the actions and operations of international NGOs during a crisis; and how human resource-management and civil society are affected.
Bambang Sipayung, a project manager for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bande Aceh, Indonesia, called the relief community in the aftermath of the disaster a "veritable supermarket of NGOs", each with their own mandates and procedures. This is exactly like the "relief circus" in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, and something the government has worked steadfastly to avoid since.
Not only were the best jobs with international organisations, but they were virtually the only jobs. This, too, happened in Rwanda. Head-hunting for indigenous talent is still virulent in the current NGO community. Organisations do not hire at random anyone who speaks English or French, but because of criticism over expatriate costs, close to 90% of NGO employees in Rwanda are locals. When a country has a problem of capacity the way Rwanda does, it makes human-resource management all the more difficult, and jobs amongst locals all the more prized.
What happens is that the best of Rwanda flock to foreign-paid, foreign-owned employment. Those who were doing well before would probably still do well again. There is little movement of wealth throughout the workforce. Those without education or skills often get jobs as transport officers or drivers for NGOs. These jobs pay far better than most public or private sector jobs in the country, but are still far, far less than what the person in the back of the car makes.
"These same organisations also pay 'local' salaries that are some of the best available", says a development worker on a Kigali civil-society blog, "but they won't make you a millionaire or anywhere close in most internationally-traded denominations. To what extent these lead 'local' employees to be cut off from the real world, I'm not so sure." An unnamed MINALOC official disregards the possibility with a laugh. "Everybody gets rich," he says. "There is nothing wrong with making money. We can make it here, others can make it there, people are always going to make money."
The RPF spokesperson Servilien Sebasoni says that there is a problem, but it is primarily with the foreign personnel living and working in the country. It is a problem, he says, of language. Ninety-three per cent of the country speaks only Kinyarwanda. Just over one-half of a percent (.59) speak English, about 51,000 out of the nearly 9 million population.
"How can you be an expert on something and not speak the national language?" Sebasoni asks. "On principle, how can they do their job?" Minister Protais Musoni agrees. "It's not easy to change what you don't understand." Expatriates in Kigali have been wondering the same thing. "The greater absurdity is how few can speak or understand the national language--unable to read a newspaper, follow the TV news, enjoy the radio or understand the water cooler gossip of their colleagues. Quite cut off from public debate."
So how long will it take for development to homogenise throughout the country? The sense of urgency advertised by foreign NGOs is unrealistic to matters on the ground. Especially when local NGOs are kept in the loop, but on the fringe.
There are two things NGOs should be judged on; the medium-term effects that their projects have on individual communities, and the richness of their work with local NGOs.