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Rwanda: Foreign aid workers who live like kings

Foreign aid workers in Africa and elsewhere are often criticized for living far removed from the populations they are supposed to serve. How can people who spend their time zipping around in air-conditioned SUVs, tinted windows rolled to the top to shut out the noise and the dust and the people hope to be effective, the argument goes. Les aventures du Civiliste Guillaume writes about the legion of aid and relief agencies station in Rwanda, finding reasons both to criticize and defend those who have come to help.

Le Rwanda est le pays des ONG et des acronymes : WFP (World Food Program), UNDP (United Nations Developement Program), ONUSIDA (ça s’explique tout seul), Right to Play, Human Rights Watch, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), CARE, PRI (Penal Reform International) … ajoutons à cela les programmes d’aide au développement d’un nombre considérable de pays, toutes les associations rwandaises, etc, etc, etc, … Pour une liste (non-exhaustive, cliquez ici).

Rwanda is a country of NGOs and acronyms : WFP (World Food Program), UNDP (United Nations Developement Program), ONUSIDA (ça s’explique tout seul), Right to Play, Human Rights Watch, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), CARE, PRI (Penal Reform International) … add to that the development and aid programs of a considerable number of countries, all the Rwandan associations, etc., etc…For a list (non-exhaustive, click here).

Les ONG, il y en a de tous styles. Des grandes, des petites, des internationales, des locales, des africaines, des européennes, des états-uniennes, sans doute quelques chinoises, des ONG où l’on trouve plus de rwandais, certaines où l’on trouve plus d’européens (quoi que, le gouvernement demande la parité).

NGOs come in all shapes and sizes. Big ones, small ones, international ones, local ones, African ones, European ones, American ones, without a doubt a few Chinese, NGOs were there are more Rwandans, some where there are more Europeans (whatever the case, the government demands parity).

Civiliste Guillaume shares the perspective of two of his French friends:

Au Rwanda nous avons quelques amis qui travaillent dans des ONG ou aux Nations Unies. Il vivent plus ou moins comme des rois, loin de la population, la journée ils sont le plus souvent dans des bureaux… Mais comment peuvent-ils espérer comprendre la réalité que vivent les personnes qu’ils veulent aider en vivant eux-mêmes de cette manière ?!? Ce n’est tout simplement pas possible. Quand on discute avec eux nous voyons bien à quel point ils ont du mal à comprendre les gens qu’ils sont sensé aider. Ce n’est pas par mauvaise volonté, c’est parce qu’il ne sont pas dans un cadre qui le leur permet. Je ne dis pas que nous, on comprends tout, loin de là, mais c’est sûr qu’en vivant au quotidien avec des enfants qui sont considérer comme des moins que rien, on ressent, plutôt qu’on ne comprend, un certains nombre de choses, sur leurs “problèmes” mais aussi sur leurs “rêves, projets et envies” pour l’avenir.

In Rwanda, we have some friends who work in NGOs or at the United Nations. They live more or less like kings, removed from the population, they spend most of the day at the office…But how can they hope to understand the reality that the people you want to help when they themselves live in this way?!? It's simply impossible. When we talk with them we clearly see the extent to which they have problems understanding the people they are supposed to help. It's not by any ill will on their parts, its because they are part of an organization that does not let them. I'm not saying that we understand everything–far from it–but for sure living everyday with children who are considered less than nothing, we feel, rather than understand, a number of things about their “problems” but also about their “dreams, projects and desires” for the future.

Civiliste Guillaume thought as his friends do when he first arrived in Rwanda, but his views have since changed:

En Suisse, j’entends le même discours. L’impression que certains de ces gens sont déconnectés. Qu’ils ont la vie facile, un peu d’aventure et des salaires inconvenants.

In Switzerland, I hear the same discourse. The impression that some of these people are disconnected. That they live the simple life, a little bit of adventure and unseemly salaries.

En arrivant au Rwanda, j’ai eu le même genre de réaction. Ce que l’on voit en premier, c’est les grosses voitures, les beaux bâtiments, les bureaux. Des gens qui ont l’air d’être dans un monde à part.

Upon arriving in Rwanda, I had the same kind of reaction. What you see at first is the big cars, the beautiful buildings, the offices. People who seem to be living in another world.

Et puis j’ai rencontré “ces gens là”. Ceux qui travaillent pour l’ONU, ceux qui sont dans les bureaux plus que sur le terrain. J’ai appris à les connaître. J’ai découvert leur travail. J’ai passé des soirées avec eux, des Après quelques mois, j’ai changé d’avis.

And then I met “those people.” Those who work for the UN, those who are in the office more than they are in the field. I learned to know them. I discovered their work. I spent evenings with them, and after several months, I changed my mind.

Oui, l’ONU a une armée de grosses Toyota Prado, mais pas plus que les autres. L’EPR a les mêmes. Oui, certains travaillent dans des bureaux, et ne croisent que rarement les populations les plus nécessiteuses. Mais un job de bureau peut lui aussi être important. L’approvisionnement d’un camp de réfugiés ne se prépare pas seulement sur le terrain. Et surtout, aucun de ceux que j’ai rencontré ne reste dans son monde. Tous les expats que j’ai croisé ont des amis rwandais. Certains plus que d’autres.

Yes, the UN has an army of big Toyota Prados, but no more than others. The Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (EPR) has the same. Yes, some work in offices, and only rarely cross the paths of the people who are most in need. But an office job can also be important. The supplying of a refugee camp doesn't begin only on the ground. And above all, none of those I met stay in their world. All the expats that I've come in contact with have Rwandan friends. Some more than others.

Et surtout, tous sont touchés par ce qui se passe autour d’eux. Tous essaient de faire un petit quelque chose pour créer un monde meilleur.

Above all, they are all touched by what happens around them. They all try to do a little bit to make a better world.

Loin de moi de dire que la situation est idéale. Bien sûr, quelques “huiles” ont des salaires disproportionnés (mais à côté de cela, combien de stagiaires payés au lance-pierre). Bien sûr, on peut trouver de gros disfonctionnement dans les grosses ONG. Bien sûr, la taille implique une certaine lourdeur et une certaine bureaucratie. Mais derrière tout cela, n’oublions pas qu’il y a aussi des gens. Et qu’eux aussi méritent un petit bout de respect.

I am far from saying that the situation is ideal. Of course some “bigwigs” have disproportionate salaries. Of course you can find major dysfunction in the big NGOs. Of course size implies a certain slowness and a certain bureaucracy. But behind all that, don't forget that there are also people. And that they deserve a little bit of respect.

* * *

Editor's note: I've just arrived in Kigali on my first trip to Rwanda. If there are any Rwandan bloggers out there, I'd love to hear from you. Je suis arrivee a Kigali hier l'apres-midi. Si vous etes un bloggeur rwandais, contactez-moi.

14 comments

  • Hi Jen. You wrote: “without a doubt a few Chinese.” Have you or anybody you know encountered Chinese NGO’s working in Africa? Given the fragile legal situation for all but the most pseudo-official Chinese NGO’s back home it would be very interesting if real Chinese NGO’s are operating in Africa. Would love to know more if you know anything. Thanks.

  • […] titled:”ONG, etc…” – has been translated into English on Global Voices titled – Rwanda: foreign aid workers who live like kings. Excerpt: In Rwanda, we have some friends who work in NGOs or at the United Nations. They live more […]

  • Hi Rebecca. The observations on Chinese NGOs were the original author’s. I have never seen a Chinese NGO in Africa, although the Chinese have been involved in funding various types of NGO-like projects, but usually (I think always) through government organizations. I’d also be shocked if I saw a Chinese NGO.

  • tiptop

    Je n’ai pas d’opinion suffisamment étayé sur les ONG mais les coopérants et leurs styles de vie m’ont toujours mis mal à l’aise.

    Il suffit de se balader dans les quartiers populaires des grandes villes africaines pour se sentir extra-terrestre. Les blancs là-bas sont bunkerisés et ne se déplacent qu’en 4×4 rutilants. Ces derniers prétendront le contraire mais en fait ils ne vont que dans certains quartiers (qu’ils croient populaires !). A Mokolo, au quartier de la Brique à Yaoundé, on ne voit quasiment jamais de blancs. D’ailleurs là-bas, on m’appelait « le faux blanc » car je marchais à pied…c’est amusant … Là où je veux en venir c’est que le « blanc » sur le continent noir est presque invisible, il est fantasmé, essentiellement à travers les médias (occidentaux faut-il le rappeler) ; il représente la richesse, le pouvoir et plus grave, le savoir et la culture comme si eux-mêmes n’étaient pas riches d’une culture et de traditions séculaires. Dans ce sens-là il y a un vrai racisme, inversé dirons-nous, qui consiste à penser que l’autre est supérieur. C’est de cela que meurt l’Afrique et qui fait qu’ils sont si dociles au pillage et à la mise sous tutelle de leur continent. Certains pensent encore qu’ils ne peuvent pas vivre sans l’occident, c’est du pain béni pour les profiteurs occidentaux et leurs complices africains. Ici on peut mesurer combien , et je pèse mes mots, la traite des noirs, la colonisation et le neo-colonialisme libéral constituent dans sa durée (plusieurs siècles) et en tant que phénomène historique ininterrompu, le plus grand crime commis à l’échelle de l’homme. Ce qui tue l’Africain ce n’est pas tant des conditions politiques et économiques déplorables que le sentiment d’infériorité qui s’est immiscé en lui après des siècles de servitude et de racisme.

  • Tiptop’s comment, translated:

    My opinion on NGOs is not well-informed enough but I have always been uncomfortable with aid workers and the style in which they live.

    All you have to do is to walk in the working-class neighborhoods of big African cities to feel like you are on another planet. The whites there live in bunkers which they only leave in 4x4s. They would claim the contrary but they only go to certain neighborhoods (which they believe are working-class!) At Mokolo, in the Brique à Yaoundé neighborhood, you almost never see whites. Also over there, they called me “the fake white” because I walked on foot…it’s funny…

    What I am trying to say is that the “white man” is almost invisible on the dark continent, he is made ghost-like, essentially through the media (the Western media that is); he represents wealth, power, and more seriously, knowledge and culture, as though they [the Africans] themselves were not rich in culture and secular traditions. In this sense there is a real sort of inverse racism that consists of thinking that the other is superior. It is because of this that Africa dies and is so docile in the face of the pillaging and of their continent. Some still think they cannot live without the West, it’s hallowed bread for Western profiteers and their African accomplices. Here we can just how much, and here I measure my words, the treatment of blacks, colonization and the liberal neocolonialism in its duration (many centuries) and as an uninterrupted historical phenomenon, constitute the biggest crime ever committed by man. What is killing the African is not so much the deplorable political or economic conditions as it is the feeling of inferiority that has been engrained in him after centuries of slavery and racism.

  • I am constantly amazed by the very limited resentment towards expatriate development and aid workers. The rhetoric of make poverty history is balanced by good salaries, fine perks, and offices and homes always in the most expensive parts of town (and even then paying way over the odds for rent…). I know, I’m one of them.

    The greater absurdity is how few can speak or understand the national language of whatever country they are in – unable to read a newspaper, follow the TV news, enjoy the radio or understand the water cooler gossip of their colleagues. Quite cut off from public debate.

    These same organisations also pay ‘local’ salaries that are some of the best available, but they won’t make you a millionaire or anywhere close in most internationally traded denominations. To what extent these lead ‘local’ employees to be cut off from the real world, I’m not so sure. No more than the rest of the small but growing elite with similar salaries in the private sector.

  • halima

    Well said. I’m from Somalia and the NGO’s never helped to decrees the suffering of the people they traveled so much for. However, I believe the NGO’s (white man run or owned) are part of the problem, problem of poverty, civil wars, and illnesses. Example, in Somalia we’re better off without the white man. It’s the white man that creates and finance the warlords, it’s the white man that creates the wars and provides support for them (Somalis fought off the warlords financed by USA in mid July 2006, immediately Meles of Ethiopia joined the fight along with warlord under US order to reestablish the warlords). in this process over 4000 died, 2 million displace. As soon as the bullet stopped, the NGO’s poured to the streets of Mogadishu). The white man is the problem in Africa and their NGO’s just enjoy the booty – as Jeniffer said it in a politically correct way.

  • Gacheke

    Proffessor Issa Shivji a has exposed the neoliberal paradgim that is NGOS in africa this is the new face of imperialism that is lead by NGOs in africa the booklet called SILENCES in the NGO disourse…..here what they call themselves.
    Non-govermental
    not-for profitmaking
    non-political
    non-partisan
    non-thinking
    non-nothing but in realiaty NGO in africa are imperialist trojan horse.

  • see my blog for more info on “International Consultants” and GTZ, the German Development Agency

    http://www.abujavol.blogspot.com/

  • […] Ruanda berichtet Jennifer Brea, die auf ihrer Blogsuche das Thema der westlichen Ausländer in Afrika verfolgt. Etliche […]

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