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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

  • Chan Mongol

    Jennifer,

    Very true and it’s not only in Africa but in Asia too. It seems that the goal of those NGO people is not to help victims rather, to live like diplomats.

  • Chan Mongol

    Not only the Civilian foreign workers but foreign soldiers too who been dispatched by the mighty UNO. They even steal. Read the following poems:

    Rwanda Genocide and Army of thieves 1
    -chan mongol

    We forgot Genocide in RWANDA
    Deads and massacre in Africa.
    Floating on water and lifeless
    Almost all men in their villages!

    Published in media and Newspapers
    Always presented terrible pictures.
    They got ongoing profitable industry
    On humans hardship and misery!

    General Romeo Dallaire told us all
    About the blood-bath humanity fall.
    He mentioned how hateful coward
    Bangladesh Army UNO sponsored!

    We found lot in book and memoir
    Written by General Romeo Dallaire
    Bangladesh Military’s very low life
    Stole soap, towels, smoke and pipe!

    Rwanda Genocide and Army of thieves 2
    -chan mongol

    Coward Military crooked, dramatic
    With greed and defected! genetic!
    They beg and pray for victim public
    In stealing, robbing disturbing sick!

    What good are they, bandits, immoral
    Bloody, miscreants, dummy and peculiar!
    General Dallaire said in his book
    Bangladesh Army’s notorious look!

    They should be cut from UNO fund
    No more exercise in UNO’S ground.
    Small country very poor finance
    They shouldn’t have Army Importance.

    Coward fighters Officers ranks
    Bad history with souls full blanks.
    In webmaster@bdmilitay.com
    Said, Africans in monkeys form.

    Racist website must be banned
    Their rubbish military should be end.
    Misuse of fund, no more good
    To make rascals unpolite rude!

  • hi, i’m new to this blog and this discussion and am wondering if you ever did find bloggers in rwanda. i’m planning to visit rwanda on behalf of a friend whose children are still living there and i’m curious to find other bloggers living in the country.

  • ngum

    good -though unsurprising- analysis of the lives of NGO workers. i too am of the thinking that they are more part of the problem than the solution.

    i do take issue with ur use of the expression “dark continent” though. it evokes that joseph conrad-like imperialistic thing

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