Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My thoughts on White Toyota, White Aid

I just read Hugo Slim's post on Alertnet called "White Toyota, White Aid" which I thought was quite thought provoking and interesting.

As I prepare to move to an operational agency, I'm wondering how my opinions will change about risk taking and speaking out and advocacy. Hugo says "The rhetoric of solidarity, partnership, empowerment and support which international NGO discourse uses to describe current aid relationships, more often than not, describes relationships which are still more desired than delivered. " At my former organization, Refugees International, I strongly believed that my role was to take the voices of the displaced and amplify them as much as possible and advocate for change on their behalf. I found myself arguing with service providers about what was "in the best interest" of the displaced. I'm a firm believer, then as now, in the fact that the displaced are the best informed and suited to make decisions for themselves.

Time and time again I heard well meaning 25 year old Westerners (as well as their 50 year old compatriots) tell me that the IDPs or refugees were wrong in their assessment of whether it was safe to return or not to return. I attended a returns planning meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo for some IDPs who had been living in Kinshasa for years. They were finally getting assistance from the government to return home. The implementing agency was planning to give the people cash to purchase what they needed to re-start their lives back home. They had been the targets of criticism for htis. My colleague agreed with the implementing agency (while I sort of agreed with the criticism - worrying that the money would be distributed to the men who would buy beer and cigarettes rather than food and supplies for the home). As my colleague said - "who made the decision that they would leave and come here? Did anyone help them while they were here? Not really - they are survivors. They are adults. They know what's best for them. They can buy the same supplies at the market cheaper. It's a lot easier for them to transport cash and buy bicycles, mattresses, and large bags of wheat when they get there than to carry it with them."

I realized at that point that I was infantilizing the displaced men and women that I was there to represent. "They'll just use the money unwisely" I remember instinctively thinking. There is definately a 'post-colonial' tendency amongst the do-gooders to tell the displaced what to do. And its easy to fall into it. After all - we have advanced degrees and have been to other settings! "We know what is best for you, so listen to us and whatever you do, don't sell your rations to get other things you might need." We obsessively monitor waste and corruption in the rations distribution without really analyzing - are we helping them or helping ourselves?

I used to speak to a lot of audiences at my previous job. I would try to get across the need to respect and value the decisions and lives of the refugees and the displaced. I would urge them to make donations to NGOs that weren't tied to just one project to allow NGOs to make better decisions. In general, NGOs tend to represent the voices of the people better than the UN which does a better job than most governments, but there is still paternalism, racism, and neo-colonialism in the NGOs.

It's a complicated business - this humanitarian relief and development business. I've been interacting with my old university a lot over the past three weeks and re-engaging with my young idealistic beliefs. As I go to work for one of the "Big 8" (sounds so safari), I wonder how my opinions will change? Will I fit into the service provider "we know best" attitude? Will I be able to influence them at all? Or will I change? Only time will tell.

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