New Internationalist

This is my story

Issue 334

Former Oxfam employee Ian Brown asks some awkward questions about the accountability of aid agencies.

The international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been in the firing line more often than usual over the past year: Kevin Myers, writing in the Irish Times in June 2000, berates them as ‘autonomous, unelected and frequently unaccountable’ with an ‘addiction to raising and spending money’. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, General Secretary of the Pan-African Movement, accuses Northern aid workers of ‘arrogance’ and having ‘a feeling of superiority and we-know-best attitudes’ in last August’s New Internationalist. And The Hunger Business, a documentary shown on British television last November, suggests that in some instances the international NGOs did more harm than good during the Ethiopian and Rwandan crises of the 1980s and 1990s respectively.

The accusations aren’t new. Charges of misusing funds, of a lack of transparency and incompetence have periodically been levelled against international NGOs by journalists and others since 1985, when Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid success transformed the likes of Oxfam and Save the Children into multi-million-dollar, high-profile operations. Criticisms have never stuck, however, when pitted against scenes of worldwide suffering. Famine, flood and war in Africa, Asia and Europe throughout the 1990s, coupled with slick publicity campaigns and increased funding from Western governments, have spawned ever-larger NGOs, commanding budgets in excess of $100 million, in ever-greater numbers. ‘NGOism’ is big business, especially in the burgeoning emergency sector: during the Rwandan crisis Oxfam was providing water to 750,000 refugees in eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) alone.

The new millennium appears to offer little hope of a brighter future for many people in the South and so, despite the recent flurry of criticism, the right of the international NGOs to speak and act on behalf of the Southern poor will continue unchallenged. Or will it? I say no. I say that the NGOs are unaccountable, that this has bred a culture of arrogance, wastefulness and dishonesty masked by the public, profitable face of integrity. I know because I spent 11 years, between 1987 and 1998, managing aid projects in Africa and Asia. Many aid workers will privately agree that the NGOs need urgently to reform, but nothing will change so long as critics remain on the outside, unable or unwilling to name the culprits. Anonymity provides perfect protection. Only when specific NGOs are called to account for specific actions will the movement sit up and take note.

This is my story.

Between November 1993 and February 1996 I was country representative of Oxfam Great Britain and Ireland’s programme in former Zaire. I resigned in February 1996, partly due to irreconcilable differences within the Kinshasa management team – but mainly because the programme I was responsible for was, in my opinion, doing very little to make a difference to the lives of poor people. Managers in Britain must have agreed with my diagnosis because, following my resignation, most of the programme in central and western Zaire was closed down. Soon afterwards I was asked to deputize for six months for the regional representative in eastern Zaire during her maternity leave. This post carried with it responsibility for Oxfam’s emergency programme in the Rwandan refugee camps around the towns of Goma and Bukavu. As country representative I inherited an existing arrangement to procure money for Oxfam’s operations. Rather than using the traditional banking facilities – which, admittedly, were limited, though not moribund – Oxfam took large sums of cash from Tabazaire, the Zairean subsidiary of Rothmans International, in order to run its operations. The arrangement was ongoing when I left, meaning that, over the years, Oxfam would have accepted several million dollars of tobacco money. In return we deposited equivalent amounts into overseas accounts specified by the cigarette manufacturer. By acting as an unofficial conduit for its profits, Oxfam was saving Rothmans significant amounts in taxation and directly aiding a company whose product, sold cynically without any health warning in most countries of the South, kills. There were, of course, alternative, morally acceptable arrangements, but Tabazaire proved to be a reliable supplier.

Operating in a country with limited banking infrastructure and endemic corruption was never going to be easy. We weren’t so naïve as to think otherwise. Our mistake was to believe arrogantly that Oxfam’s humanitarian end justified the means.

In the case of the international NGOs’ activities in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire, I question how far we were responding to the ‘humanitarian imperative’ for which we were being handsomely rewarded. I remember standing on a hill overlooking Lac Vert camp watching a steady stream of people ferrying provisions, distributed by the NGOs, to the headquarters of the rump Rwandan army half-a-kilometre away. As food and water went in, orders and weapons for the members of the interehamwe militias in the camps to carry on the genocide were coming out.

I watched but did nothing. I was doing my job, making sure that clean water was supplied to the refugees around the clock, a service that many of the townspeople of Goma did not enjoy. I pushed away the difficult moral question about whether the NGO community should have been feeding, sheltering and watering genociders who were now killing innocent Zaireans with impunity. Life was too good in Goma to burden oneself with difficult moral questions. I had a house by the lake, complete with satellite TV, a full-time maid and a tax-free salary of $35,000.

Now I am ashamed that I did nothing.

This essay makes for uncomfortable reading. I believe, however, that it also makes for necessary reading, because I care about those in the South who are not getting the assistance they deserve and about those in the North who give generously without knowing the truth about what happens to their donations. It is necessary because I can no longer live with my past dishonesty and because I believe that NGOs can play an important role in fighting for a fairer world – if only they have the courage to face up to past wrongdoing, root out malpractice and rebuild legitimacy.

Accountability is the key to genuine reform. British NGOs are theoretically accountable to the Charity Commission, to host governments, to donors and to beneficiaries. But this is not true in practice. With over 180,000 organizations to monitor, the Charity Commission has only 50 staff actively engaged in investigations. Host governments are, in my experience, ignored by NGOs, who dismiss them as meddlesome bureaucrats, despite formal agreements obliging NGOs to submit regular reports and accounts. Institutional donors, such as the Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Union, give only cursory attention to how their money is spent. The donating public is thrown selective, simplified snippets of good news in return for its cash. And the beneficiaries? They dare not question.

Consequently NGOs have become a law unto themselves. And until they are brought to account for their actions, the kinds of behaviour cited above will continue. I believe that heads of other NGOs should think about setting up an independent body, involving members of the public, beneficiaries wherever possible and MPs of all political persuasions to investigate malpractice and report publicly its findings. A mechanism similar to the Truth Commission established in South Africa might be appropriate, allowing individuals to come forward and contribute as I have.

However, the process will not just be about rooting out malpractice. Perhaps more importantly, this will be a crucial opportunity for the NGO movement to re-examine its aid ethos and, by doing so, to forge new relationships with stakeholders which are no longer tainted with arrogance and duplicity, but are based on honesty and equality. Only after the catharsis should an independent regulatory structure – an overseas arm of the Charity Commission, perhaps – be created to monitor the international NGOs.

Such a process will be damaging in the short term, but will, I believe, ultimately lead to a strengthened, reinvigorated movement better able to defend the interests of poor people against increasingly rapacious global capitalism and uncaring, undemocratic regimes.

It is not my intention to destroy the well-run projects that do benefit the poor. I do not want to bring down a movement which campaigned so effectively to bring about the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines and which, under the ‘Jubilee 2000’ banner, has helped draw the public’s attention to the curse of Third World debt. I simply feel that the time has come to face up to what so many of us know to be wrong about the international NGOs, and to work to put things right – for everyone’s sake. If we do not act now, the consequences will be all the more devastating later on.

Ian Brown is a freelance writer and teacher. His published work includes Khomeini’s Forgotten Sons: the Story of Iran’s Boy Soldiers (Grey Seal, 1990) and Cambodia: An Oxfam Country Profile (Oxfam, 2000). He has recently completed a novel set in the world of international aid and development.

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