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Who saves the saviors?
October 28, 2008 1:57 PM   Subscribe

In the field of humanitarian aid, personnel decisions are life and death business. The UN knows all too well the costs of poor oversight, but aid worker and blogger Michael Kleinman makes another observation, far more disturbing. In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid business, some lives are worth less than others, and not only among the populations served.

Local staff are the lifeblood of international charity organizations, and a lifeline for those they serve, yet they too rarely make the headlines, either to celebrate their work or to acknowledge their sacrifice. Is this a symptom of neo-colonialist attitudes in global aid or the evolution of aid into anything but neutral charity (or ngo-colonialism)? Simple racism? Or are the economic conditions in many of these places so dire that the relatively well-paying jobs for international organizations make the risk seem worthwhile in countries where civil society and the middle class have been destroyed or never existed in the first place?
posted by cal71 (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Some animals are more equal than others" -George Orwell, Animal Farm
posted by SaintCynr at 2:25 PM on October 28, 2008


This is not a new observation, and extends far beyond aid organizations. Non-US and -European employees of for-profit companies doing reconstruction and services work in Iraq, for example, are paid less and protected less well than the more valued American and European employees. Oil companies and others with extensive overseas operations have always followed the same principle. Colonial powers relied on "native" police and military recruits for dangerous or controversial tasks. The list is pretty much endless, really.
posted by Forktine at 2:56 PM on October 28, 2008


Find the perpendicular bisector of the line segment running from point "If too many workers from industrialized nation X get killed, industrial nation X might tell us to piss off next time we come calling for financial support" and point "If you're from here you're kinda screwed already."

Not saying that this is good or right or anything, just kinda guestimating the mental calculus that's taking place.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:23 PM on October 28, 2008


I agree with the third comment on the linked blog, by Kevin Toomer, and also with Forktine. It's ridiculous to assert that it's a deliberate decision; rather, it's an emergent consequence of several facts. International staff, by definition, have personal and/or organizational resources sufficient to have arrived from elsewhere. Given that they are aid workers in a country which requires their aid, it's fair to say that their personal and organizational resources greatly exceed those available, on average, to national staff (and in turn, national staff's average resources exceed those of the clients', although the gap is narrower). It's as simple as a "rich" vs "poor" issue (although the wealth in question may be organizational rather than personal, and may not actually be money as such): the rich face lesser risks in life than the poor. As Forktine points out, this is universally the case, whatever the foreigners' purpose for being in a significantly poorer country. The local, on the other hand, is there because he or she can't go elsewhere. Or has very strong personal reasons not to.

The local personnel obviously have much greater knowledge of local culture, customs, resources, and risks. Since both local and foreign personnel are aware of that fact, it's reasonable to expect the foreign personnel to take less risks, ie staying in the charity's compound more often, leaving only accompanied by locals, acquiring risk-reducing resources (eg GPS units, phones, guns, contacts in the local government, contacts in the charity), and enquiring about risks where locals would believe themselves, usually rightly, not to need to do so.

Even in the example given in the article, where local staff in Afghanistan are at risk from the murderous Taliban, I think it's reasonable to say that the local clients are at even greater risk. This is a given, and if it weren't the case, the charity wouldn't need to be there in the first place.

Regarding the first comment from Alanna Shaikh, referring to losing "even" national staff--I think this kind of way of talking is likely to be simple observation of the fact of greater risk, rather than a perception of lower human value. (Examples: Doctor A: "My hospital suffered a generator failure, but we dealt with it and didn't lose any patients." Doctor B: "Not even people on life support?" Fireman A: "There was a huge fire at the train station, but everyone got out OK." Fireman B: "Even the people in the underground?")

Bear in mind that we are talking about charity workers. If they as individuals didn't place an exceptionally high value on the lives and worth of poor foreigners they wouldn't be in a third world nation, doing charity work. No doubt they have biases; if they didn't feel that by virtue of having been born and raised in a wealthier country, they have the superior ability to provide help, then they wouldn't be there helping. As for upper management, they must assess the risk to the charity as a whole of harm coming to international staff, to national staff, and to clients. I think it's fair to say that they would, if possible, reduce all risk to everyone (it's what the work they do is all about, basically); but they can't.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:44 PM on October 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


Romeo Dallaire came to the conclusion that the life of one American soldier was worth the lives of 85 000 Rwandans. Like Forktine said, not a new observation.
posted by Dr. Send at 4:06 PM on October 28, 2008


Dr. Send, that was fucking uncalled for. Even the most cursory study of Dallaire's struggle with the UN during the Rwanda crisis and how the whole genocide affected him afterwards, would reveal the man believed anything but what you accuse.
posted by schroedinger at 7:06 PM on October 28, 2008


I apologize, I'm ranting here, but seriously, you're attacking Romeo Dallaire? Like, do you have any basis whatsoever? Do you also compare Nelson Mandela with Robert Mugabe?
posted by schroedinger at 7:10 PM on October 28, 2008


I think Dr Send just said that clumsily. He probably meant that that a US military staffer had given that estimate to Dallaire, not that Dallaire came up with that figure himself (or believed in it, obviously).
posted by saucysault at 3:21 AM on October 29, 2008


It's ridiculous to assert that it's a deliberate decision; rather, it's an emergent consequence of several facts. International staff, by definition, have personal and/or organizational resources sufficient to have arrived from elsewhere. Given that they are aid workers in a country which requires their aid, it's fair to say that their personal and organizational resources greatly exceed those available, on average, to national staff

Even beyond the resource issue, I would expect this. Were I an aid worker in my own country, I would appreciate the work of international staff but when the shit comes down, I would expect them to vacate. Why? It's not their country. It's mine.

This is not quite bringing the sherpas up Everest carrying your packs and then abandoning them there when things turn bad. These people are living at altitude, so to speak.

Also, I read Dr. Send's comment as something that Dallaire might have come up with, as a personal observation of resourcing. I can't count the number of times I've wondered the same about U.S. military vs. "other" casualties, given a particular strategy -- such as aerial bombardment -- rather than risking soldiers on the ground. When you see the numbers afterward, you have to think there's a calcuation represented there -- 1 American soldier = X (large) number of locals. That's not a new observation, either, and doesn't reflect negatively on Dallaire.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:46 AM on October 29, 2008


Whoa big misunderstanding here! On page 499 of Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire talks about a phone call he received from an American staffer who was involved in determining the magnitude of the US response based on how many Rwandans had died. "He told [Dallaire] that his estimates indicated that it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify risking the life of one American soldier." Obviously I'm not asserting that this is Dallaire's belief, but the observation that he made (i.e. that the US sees this disparity in life-values) is not a new one.
posted by Dr. Send at 2:15 PM on October 29, 2008


Oh, I see, I apologize for misunderstanding then!
posted by schroedinger at 11:27 PM on October 30, 2008


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