A reflection on Oxfam & white power

I am a (very) ex-aid worker, white and male. I got out of the whole thing in the late 1990s at the point I was being offered the then usual route of a paid Masters Degree, then a Country Director posting, which would then have seen me in opulent, servant-run accommodation in a capital city.

While there were personal factors to do with my coming back to England and, to a large extent, starting all over again at the time most people are mid-career [1], the main driver was that I just couldn’t balance that career trajectory with a personal commitment to respect and equality of voice.

While I never witnessed or heard directly of the kind of behaviour now reported, rampant power to abuse was part of the ‘expat’ tradition, even folklore, alongside its hard-drinking culture. It was the danger that I might become “one of them” that made me leave. The news from Haiti is not, in a way, news for me, but it does make me shudder at what I might have become.

But that was a long time ago.

Even at that time, there was a tangible shift in attitude in the aid world away from ‘white man power’, of the type which led to Graham Hancock's now forgotten but then very important Lords of Poverty expose, towards a more respectful ‘industry’, in which people actually living in aid-needing countries were coming into senior positions; I was proud to see Bangladeshi colleagues taking on these positions in my time there, though progress was slower in Tanzania, precisely for the white man reasons outlined above. Development is always uneven, and there are always those who kick back at the idea of losing power and control.

In the 20 years since I left aid work (and the Haiti abuse was 7 years ago, a third of that time), I’ve watched, albeit mostly from afar, more respectful ways of doing aid/development work have come into being, and been embedded.

The fact that there are still some of the bad old ways around, and extreme examples of it like the one reported, are a reflection of the considerable residual force of two hundred years of colonial attitude, and the deep irony is that the aid organisations now being pilloried are among those who have actually been most pro-active about changing those attitudes by handing over power, while the government modus operandi, explained away as ‘accountability to the taxpayer’, has actually hindered that progress by NOT allowing aid agencies to work in proper trust and partnership with local NGOs and communities.

The Haiti perpetrators are a remnant of the old system, and there is no denying that safeguarding systems to keep bastards like this away were not robust enough, such that those systems were outweighed by the emergency need to get known managerial competence into Haiti quickly. Against this, there is the fact that the vast majority of aid funds go not in emergency spending, where abusers have greater opportunity and the organisations less time to get the right people in place, but in longer term rehab & development situations, where there is little doubt that respect and anti-colonialist practice is much better embedded than it was when I started 30 years ago.

30 years ago I strolled into a position of undiluted power on the basis of technical skills (and people are alive-not-dead now because I had those skills, and that’s not nothing [2]) but also because I was white and English. I wouldn’t get that first job now, or the second, because a brown/black person better than me already has it.

Aid is pretty well spent, overall, and some aid agencies are really very good at understanding both how colonial rule left such deep power imbalances long after official rule ended and what complexities that creates for the process of handing back that power.

I’ll keep giving to Oxfam.

[1] Some of the worst aid work expats I saw were those who entered it in the 1970s &1980s because entry was easy enough, and then muddled on through without any skill or knowledge development, to the point where they would have been pretty well unemployable in their home country.

That’s why a lot stayed abroad, despite growing cynicism turning to over racist behaviours, and sometimes deep personal unhappiness. As skill demands have grown, the numbers of such people have dwindled. The age (68) of the alleged key Haiti perpetrator suggest he is one of that dwindling breed.

[2] In this very old blog, written when I was reminded of a particular event, I talked about power in a way which suddenly seems bit more prescient:

A few months later, John had the courtesy to send over the article he wrote for the Sacramento Bee, in which the centre coverage was how we’d got the little girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, back more or less from the dead.
Reading it, I realized that I was full of shit at the time. Unlike John, I hadn’t really cared enough about the little girl, what had happened to her, and why it had happened, why there’d not been a cyclone shelter on an outlying island. I was turning into a hardened aid worker,who’d end up living in a big house in an impoverished capital city ordering people about and being gently or not so gently cynical about the work I did and the country I worked in.
I’m not saying John’s article changed everything, but I soon moved away from health work towards more general ‘community development’, ended up in Tanzania running forestry and agricultural stuff, before making the big split from the comfortable-amdist-the-misery overseas life in the late 1990s. I came back to England to start again.