"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

6.24.2010

the aid worker's dilemma

Over at Slate, aid worker Emily Meehan shares a story that we all know:
Aimé's situation didn't warrant the kind of foreign aid that my employer and most large relief agencies provided. The family was squatting in a city that doesn't get the support its poor and displaced need in terms of shelter materials, water and sanitation infrastructure, or mosquito nets to prevent malaria. In 2008 and 2009, foreign donors provided those amenities to people who had recently been displaced by rebels in the surrounding hills. But the "emergency" that had displaced Aimé's parents was more than a decade in the past, and only those still living as official refugees received aid. With primary-school needs unmet for DRC's children, the country's government and international donors have tended to see secondary school as a luxury they can't afford. So Aimé had slipped through the cracks.

I left the house, and Aimé walked me home. In a dejected voice, he repeated his desire to study and his need for money to pay his school fees. He was asking me to pay, but I wasn't prepared to do that. I had been in Congo a week, and it seemed rash to start subsidizing a child. Nonetheless, I was impressed by his evident intellect, which came, it seemed, from nowhere.

...It was a long time before anyone explicitly told me that they didn't like what I was doing with Aimé. I knew that I was breaking an aid-worker code, one that says it's unprofessional for an individual aid worker to single out an individual "beneficiary" and help them with their own money.

No one would actually talk about this code, just as they didn't talk about the code against discussing why you left home and came to work in a warzone. In fact, people didn't talk about a lot of things, and I sometimes think that's why we had become expatriates—to avoid talking about our lives and to avoid our lives.

Still, I had heard a number of vague reasons why I shouldn't help Aimé. One was that if you help an individual, they will become dependent on your help, and when you stop helping them, which is inevitable, they will be crushed. Aid agencies do that all the time, though. They help a group of people here one day and then stop another day. Besides, almost everyone broke the code.
Read the rest here. The final installment of the series will be published Friday.

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