Aid Jamborees

Meeting a small community group…

Look carefully and you’ll see 7 women sitting on a mat (under the tree on the left). They are discussing the impact of a ‘cash transfer programme' on their families and lives.

Look again and you might be able to count 43 other people watching on: NGO staff, media, police, security, government officials. Many are standing right in front of the women, 39 of them are men.

I have been part of scenarios like this throughout my career and each time I am struck by the way aid agency staff visit and engage with communities.

More cars than people…

What, I wonder, do the people think is going on when the motorcade finally shows up, when they have been waiting for hours, having walked hours to get there? What to they think of the simplistic, leading and same old questions: “do you take your daughter the the clinic?”, “do you want training?”, “do you invest in savings schemes?” What do the onlookers, who are not part of this particular programme, know or think about it? Does anyone feel empowered or do they just feel manipulated? What do the women ‘being consulted’ think about being surrounded by (often male) NGO staff asking questions?

When the motorcade finally shows up: A visit to Equateur Province, DRC, in 2012

When I lived in a rural community at the start of my career, an increasingly distant reference point, we had a rota for when donor or NGO visitors came; people would take it in turns to be ‘consulted’ by whoever was visiting so they could share the burden or occasional benefits (attendance fees etc). We used to joke about it that evening, laughing at the naivety of aid organisations.

I have been part of these kinds of visits for a decade now; frankly, it freaks me out. People often shrug their shoulders. They agree. But it is just the way it is. I am reassured that it’s not normally like this. I am teased me for being a ‘reluctant VIP’ or mocked for being a posh, white bloke who wants to be ‘one of the people’.

Getting out into the field is essential. It can be a big deal for communities, local government officials and our partners, giving people the chance to showcase the excellent work being done. Equally, it’s vital that aid organisations get out and hear from people, connect with reality, see what is really happening away from the paperwork and rhetoric of the aid circles in the capital.

So why do I feel so uncomfortable? Do these kinds of jamborees do more harm than good? Do they just reinforce social norms where the rich and privileged interrogate the poor and disempowered? Can we think of a better way to do it?

I loved Owen Barder’s pledge not to sit on another all male panel. Do we need a new pledge not participate in another ‘development jamboree’?