(STN-MUQDISHO):_WHILE reading the sex scandals involving Oxfam personnel in Haiti, I remembered past reports implicating UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic as well as my recent humanitarian venture with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Listening to the answers and the explanations of the people implicated in the scandals makes one think that we are talking about the misconduct of a few individuals in an otherwise functioning and well-intentioned industry. What we taxpaying citizens need to ask is if the whole aid industry is even needed? Why are we paying them and what are the results they bring? Every activity public or private is evaluated according to its results. After a year and a half with the ICRC in Myanmar and in the DR Congo, I quit the organisation despite its high salary and lucrative benefits because we accomplished nothing. After years of teaching in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sierra Leone and after visiting several war zones for media outlets, I decided to join the ICRC to increase my income, and understand better the humanitarian sector and the dynamics of modern conflict. With a starting monthly salary of 6000 Swiss francs (K9.53 million/US$6187) and several training courses at luxurious hotels and resorts, the job seemed quite ideal, at least in the beginning. My first mission was in northern Myanmar as an ICRC field delegate. I arrived energetic. Out in the field most of the time, I was collecting information on international humanitarian law violations perpetrated by the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), time passed quickly. It was exciting to travel up and down the countryside in our nice land cruiser, discussing international humanitarian law with the victims of war.
But then in the middle of my mission with 6 months to go, I started wondering what was the purpose of our work. We had collected several serious allegations of violations, but the combatants were not willing to discuss them with us, and we were not so keen to try to reach them. We seemed comfortable with the idea that the military was not willing to talk to us, and it was not our fault. We kept collecting allegations from the victims despite the fact that we knew we would do nothing with them. Why? For the sake of our careers, of course. We just wanted to look busy. Week after week, I would go back to the same villages asking the same questions about the situation, or the treatment by the military. This was a big challenge for me, that I had documented many violations of international humanitarian law without doing anything for the victims. I can cite two examples, both forced recruitment of minors by the KIA that were sent to my supervisor in March and June 2017. In both cases, my supervisor refused to discuss the issue with the armed ethnic group. It seems to me that the whole purpose of our work was to write reports and send emails. If we were not going to discuss the violations, why document these sensitive cases in the first place? Families are still waiting for our help; they are still waiting for their children. We were working mainly in the internally displaced person (IDP) camps, where hundreds of similar Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were also working.
No one asked questions
In our year in Kachin, we tried, but failed, to construct several water pumps in the camps to bring water to the displaced people. No one asked us about our failures or held us accountable. In the meantime, we were all getting paid. We kept writing reports and emails about our projects and the violations of international humanitarian law. At some point, we laughed to ourselves and joked about “paid holidays in the tropics” paid for by civilians who actually work. There were so many of us, even though there was no humanitarian crisis in Kachin. Usually representatives of NGOs had to queue in order to see the leader of an IDP camp because he was meeting with another humanitarian official. Hundreds of NGOs were in Kachin, years after the actual crisis in 2011. Humanitarian organisations have an ambivalent relationship with the elected government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, the ICRC preferred working with the previous military government because it gave them better access. Senior ICRC officials said this quite publicly. The State Counsellor did not appreciate the ICRC, probably because she was not buying its lies and she remembered its inaction when she was a political prisoner. The ICRC, like other NGOs, exaggerates crises to get more donations so they can keep operating and pay for their lucrative salaries, fancy facilities, planes and vehicles, especially if the media is interested. The worst part is that they are accountable to no one. NGOs probably do more harm than good. They enhance corruption, prolong conflicts and sustain the colonial ideology of helping, or “civilising,” the global south, a region that Western governments and corporations continue to exploit with the approval of their local collaborators. Menelaos Agaloglou worked for the ICRC in Kachin State and the Congo. He has an MSc degree in globalisation and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
BY: MENELAOS AGALOGLOU