Print Edition - 2018-01-07  |  Free the Words

Unbecoming an aid worker

  • There was much to observe, criticise and complain about in the provision of post-earthquake aid

Jan 7, 2018-

Aid-land is a strange land, a land populated by expats, aid workers, ‘bikases’, locals and beneficiaries. We are a diverse group working under the same umbrella for a purpose that seems incoherent as we move from one millennium goal to the next. It provides all kinds of services: from fighting animal poaching to bringing democracy, and from providing post-disaster relief to bringing the internet to a hamlet. Under extreme circumstances, if needed, it even becomes the government. Who runs this multi-talented sector? Well, it’s a multi-stakeholder sector, of which I am a part as an aid worker. Even though it gives me the Nepali equivalent of bread and butter, I have always been a sceptic of this entire enterprise. My scepticism has further deepened since my recent adventures in the land of post-earthquake relief and recovery.

On a recent trip to post-earthquake land, I had a lot to observe, learn, criticise and complain about. To locals and beneficiaries of this multi-million post-earthquake enterprise, I was what aid-land calls an aid worker from headquarters. Was I an aid worker? For the time being, no. Am I from headquarters? Certainly not. As much as my role as an independent researcher was clear to me in the beginning, it faded as I went on to conduct research in the field. 

What’s in a name?

While I was designated to be an independent researcher, I could not stop identifying myself as an aid worker. Was I supposed to leave my aid worker hat on the coffee table before I hopped into the white van every morning in this earthquake land? Perhaps, when an aid bureaucrat stationed in Geneva or New York reads the eventual report written by independent researchers like me, she or he won’t think twice about the independency of my researcher status. That is, if someone reads this report at all, for aid land produces more reports than the aid workers can read. With regard to my aid worker hat, I could have left it on the coffee table and gone to the field to talk to the beneficiaries as an independent researcher. But you see, I am an almost-anthropologist in my mind, and I attempt to put this mind into practice. 

All the anthropologists that have taught me shouted at me, “You fool, there is nothing independent about your researcher status. You probably believe democracy will bring peace and neo-liberalism will bring riches to the country. You’re a liberal trained in the Western school of thought just like your expat counterpart. The only difference between you and the expat who lives in a fancy apartment in Patan, aside from your salary, is the name you were given at birth and the colour of your skin.” 

You will find a crowd with a whole lot more experience than me, but your local aid worker, just like me, will eventually return to the comforts of the Capital. The bikase, on the other hand, is probably the social mobiliser of a local NGO that partners with an INGO who is usually funded by another organisation in the far, far away land of DC, Stockholm, Geneva or Berlin. Why this long chain of command, you ask? Why can’t they fund the local NGOs in the earthquake lands directly? One, the local NGOs apparently aren’t organised and fluent in English enough to write reports that very few will read. Two, the local NGOs aren’t equipped enough to handle this multi-million enterprise. This is where aid-land needs an aid worker, not a bikase. 

While I walk through the half-constructed houses asking the locals if they are happy with the work of the local NGOs, I wonder who I am really asking this question to. I keep mumbling to the bikases and locals that I am not here to evaluate the work 

done by NGOs, and that I am simply here to study the way NGOs and their supreme INGOs listen to the locals. Who is really going to believe that? Well, some did, and some did not want to take the chance. Thus, in some earthquake lands, what I witnessed were desperate attempts to show me that NGOs had been doing a commendable job. 

Filling a void that shouldn’t exist

Even without their window-dressing, I genuinely believed that the people were trying to help -build houses and support livelihoods through various programmes. With the government virtually absent, what choice did they have than to help each other? Their so-called resilience was not a choice, but a necessity. However, my presence there had created an unnecessary hurdle, a burden to show me that there wasn’t any fraudulent activity. I was there so that I would make INGOs more efficient and more aware of what the locals wanted. Or so they had me believe. 

I am not an aid worker who believes in this system. While I risk sounding like an idealist, I would say this: It’s a system that one should believe in. An aid-worker needs to be critical of the work she or he does because, ultimately, aid-land needs to cease to exist, and the government that one pays taxes to should do its work. However, today, we reap the benefits out of this system. We as aid workers cannot afford not to have this system in place, for this is how expats can afford their cheese and wine, aid workers like me can afford their locally crafted beer and momos, and bikases can earn an income to feed their families. 

I once asked a professor, “What does a student of this aid-land do if she doesn’t believe in it?” I was expecting her to say, “Aid-land needs people who are critically aware to change the system from within.” Instead, she replied “Well, you don’t belong in this system then.” Nonetheless, I stayed for reasons I hope I will eventually discover. 

Gautam is a researcher for the Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative

Published: 07-01-2018 08:03

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