Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Challenge to Aid Workers

HDEO is surprised, and unpleasantly.

The congruence of aid workers, digital cameras and social media should allow us to be posting up-to-the-second images of our work in disasters to our own pages, to our blogs, and to our peers. What's
happening? Maybe it’s the rarefied air of management that I breathe these days but I am seeing very little outside of our corporate websites of the victims and consequences of natural, social and
man-made disasters.

And why? It's happening all around us. Yes, even in the stable cities to which we have retreated to headquarter ourselves. Do we think our personal involvement is prurient? Undignified? Or do we only want to show the shiny happy side of aid work, the clapping families in their new tsunami-proof houses? The well-nourished babies at "our" feeding centres? The old ladies with nice new blue rinses getting a lift to the social centre from a young friend with slicked-back hair and neat teeth?

I got a gallery of pics from Reuters this morning that made me feel physically ill but I'm damn glad I saw it. It was from Slovenia, that well-known crisis hotspot. And it showed, in clean, graphic detail, a
person shooting heroin. None of your Trainspotting "oooh that's gooooood" to be seen here. Just a manky falling down shooting gallery, blue-blistered scabby veins, bleeding knuckles, lit up by summer sun coming in through the gaps in the walls.

What's he banging on about now? you are wondering. Well folks, this person is our client, our raison d'etre. (Not to mention our brother). He's clearly given consent to being photographed, knowing that this is the one great gesture he can make, to show injecting drug use with all its glamour stripped away. The end of the road.

The point, from the pictures, seems to be that the needles are clean and this guy has been reached. He has, at least, the option of safe fixing and perhaps a way out of an expensive, disabling addiction that has long ceased to have any joy attached to it. And so he won't go on to contract HIV and infect his partner and their unborn kid.

The pictures are ugly, but dignified. No one is being objectified here. I don't suggest that we all (re)start sticking our Canons and Panasonic into the faces of starving African babies or recording the
death-rattle of a TB victim in the depths of a Siberian winter. I'd rather those clichés remained rare but powerful. But I am getting mightily bored of the holiday snaps we are posting in our travels round the scarred planet.

I think the reason may be that we are nervy of being seeing as wearing our bleeding hearts on our sleeves. "C'mon, we know you work for an aid organisation, we can see our friends commenting. "Don't ram it down our throats, eh?"

To which, my diplomatic reply would be "sod off".

We "aid workers" (do we even like that nomenclature?) are so bloody privileged to zip round the world, generally staying in pretty groovy digs where we solve the word's problems from air conditioned
conference-rooms with regular coffee breaks at which we've long since forgotten the irony as we freeload up on canapes and sushi ("they're paid for anyway").

Surely our duty, as well as our privilege, is to bear witness. To what we see, what we hear about. Our "civilian" friends are not going to see the depth of squalor, the abomination of the human condition that
we get to see (well, if we choose to truly partner local NGOs and stick a toe outside the hotel lobby).

And my other contention (or conceit as my old boss DLP liked to call his contentions) is that we are obsessed with public relations. Urgh. Phtoo. Spit. Gargle. Rinse.

We are so donor driven that we think the only obligation we truly have is to the governments and fat cat philanthropists who assuage their guilt at ignoring the injustices that lead to favelas, filthy hospitals and empty schools by throwing money at us. And we dutifully round up the gap-toothed kiddies, the prettiest urchins, and snap them goofily glugging from a new waterpump, cutely yelping as they get
their vaccination and so on and so predictably on, all under a sticker of the donor, the donor, the donor.

Friends, comrades, colleagues. Our world is in a mess. Make your move. You have the tools to tell the story of the slum kids who still haven't gotten round to opening up a facebook account. Tell it as it
is right now, as you see it, before the aftersales service. Don't wait till they get their annual jab of charity. Be a friend. Be more. And if your mates don't like it, remember your diplomatic training. Sod
them. Life's too short, literally.


1 comment:

  1. I agree, Joe, but let's face it the whole development aid business is driven by the commercial business needs fostered by the donor's financial backers. I have less experience of NGOs but I suspect that the same Slarty Brasstacks are pulling strings there too. I personally witnessed the subversion of the EU TACIS programme in Russia from funding devoted to help at grassroots level to large political projects to satisfy Yeltsin's clique. The EU is spineless and an instrument now for promoting the (failed) neoliberal agenda. The only hope that I see is that the Internet has made the world flat again and individuals like ourselves must just tell it as it is and hope to the power of the Great Universal Spirit that we might one day claw our way out of this mire. In the meantime, I would like to know if any other Europeans have advice for Irish voters in the Lisbon Treaty Referendum. I wonder whether a Europeans' Advice to Irish Poll would help?