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


oh, no, no, no

So last week I linked to a Slate series of reflections from an aid worker who formerly worked in Goma. I thought it was a nice way of capturing the tension that many aid workers feel: they help people professionally, but are torn about what to do when the problems they're fighting become personal.

Well. As you may recall, the series finished on Friday, when I was halfway through the Delta Airlines Journey from Hell 2010 (which involved unplanned stopovers at Dulles and Nairobi, as well as 22 hours in Newark, New Jersey). Given that I was enjoying the wonders of Newark, the land of no free wifi, I missed the conclusion of the series on Friday, which a friend in Goma informed me I'd better read tout-de-suite. Because here's how it ended:
I was confused and upset. I realized that I didn't know anything. I didn't know whether Aimé was tricking me. I didn't know why he would trick me. I didn't know if anything I have told you about his life was true, and I didn't know if foreign aid works.

But I was pretty sure about one thing. Aimé once told me that you can't trust Congolese people. Now, I agreed with him. From the parents who wouldn't let their children go to school, to the soldiers who raped women they were supposed to have been defending from rebels, to the rebels who killed for mining profits, to the witch doctors who sold phony cures, and the deacons who accused children of sorcery, and the government that didn't pay its officials, and the officials who bribed, and the culture that taught corruption as a means of progress, I was sick of this Hobbesian place, and I didn't feel guilty about their suffering anymore.
Now. While I'm sure these are feelings that, if we're honest, many of us have shared from time to time, I hope everyone who reads this blog knows that I don't endorse the idea that you can't trust the Congolese. To conclude thus ignores the mountain of evidence that many Congolese are quite trustworthy - including the hundreds of trusted drivers, cooks, housekeepers, logisticians, and other support staff who keep the international humanitarian circus running. It ignores the doctors who stay at their posts despite not having been paid government salaries in a decade, the fearless lawyers who pursue justice for the women and girls who've been victimized by armed forces, and the compassion of those who start orphanages not to make a profit, but because they cannot bear to see so many children living alone on the streets.

It also ignores the complexity of what we in the west call "corruption," because while the Congolese grumble as much as the expats at made-up fees and endless bureaucratic wrangling, there's a tacit understanding here that everyone in government work also has to eat. That bureaucrat who makes one pay a bribe at the border doesn't get a salary. What else is he supposed to do? And is that system really that different from taxation at its core?

(An interesting dissertation project for an economist, by the way, would be to figure out what the threshold of collective action is on these issues. The general population is fine with certain fees, but not others. Why? What does that tell us about taxation in weak states?)


Blogger Wren said...

I scrolled down to the comments to see what the general reaction to Meehan's last post was. However, the real find was this gem (I somehow missed it when I read through the article)!:

What's wrong with this sentence?

"In my recent job as a press officer I had introduced journalists and donors to child soldiers, displaced people, and raped women."

Saturday, July 03, 2010 8:09:00 AM

Anonymous J. said...

I agree with you: we all have moments of crisis. Crises of faith, crises of purpose. Moments when we temporarily cannot stand and fully mistrust those we claim to want to help. If those feelings are more than temporary, though, it's time to take a break, get counseling, perhaps change jobs.

I hope this blogger comes around. It's a shame she ended the series in the way that she did.

Sunday, July 04, 2010 2:32:00 AM

Blogger Adam Hooper said...

I think that's a spectacular finish to the series. It strips away fact and opinion and pounds the reader with pure emotion: an emotion that, frankly, is relatively uncommon in the typical Western aid worker's hometown.

I've spoken with several Congolese living in Rwanda who prefer paying high taxes for real roads and predictable policemen. Countless people have told me they hate not knowing most of all.

The decentralized nature of an informal system might or might not be a big problem; but I'm pretty sure it causes more frustration.

Maybe Aimé lied and maybe he didn't, and maybe the author's feelings at a time of personal crisis were unfair. But that emotion is real, it happens again and again to countless Africans who have no plane tickets, and I wager Western aid workers feel it far more frequently than the typical Slate reader, so I'm thrilled the author wrote about not knowing with such fervour.

Sunday, July 04, 2010 6:55:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for the record: I live in Rwanda and work and write there as well as in DRC—just on the edge of Goma. I really appreciate your clarification, especially the explanation about “corruption” that can be so confusing to folks from the West. But I felt Meehan’s piece spoke for itself in that it portrayed a very honest and genuine moment of extended exasperation which EVERYONE who attempts this work eventually faces. I never for a moment got the impression either of you were suggesting that all Congolese are untrustworthy.

Sunday, July 04, 2010 8:33:00 AM

Blogger La Gitane said...

Hello! I've been lurking for a while here and it's my first time commenting.

I think I agree that while it makes a poor end to a series this emotion is something that at some point every development or aid worker faces. And like all the others - from elation and hope to cynicism and depression - it too will pass. Sooner or later we either find a balance or we move on.

What I think would be an interesting project would be to flip the coin... How many aid 'recipients' or counterparts think they can trust aid workers? How many of them perceive our plane-ticketed, donor-salaried lifestyle as just another form of corruption? How many failed promises and futile projects do we leave behind in the wake of our idealism?

These topics are a huge political and social issue at the moment in Timor-Leste, where I live... Food for thought.

Sunday, July 04, 2010 7:06:00 PM

Anonymous @booksquirm said...

I want to echo rwandamediaproject’s appreciation of your unpacking the Western idea of corruption and agree with La Gitane that we need to see a lot more of how aid workers are perceived by aid ‘recipients’. Rasna Warah’s book, Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, gives a few excellent glimpses of the development world from the ‘other side’ and there is more in the post-development category. However, given the barriers to hardcopy publishing and the IT challenges you outline in the post above (which I guess would challenge e-book production), we make it very difficult for others to show us how they see us in a way that doesn’t seem tied to resources.

Monday, July 05, 2010 10:48:00 AM


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