British charity Oxfam has been in the proverbial doghouse lately. It was interesting listening to media reports about what some of its international staff have been up to in some countries where they work.
Haiti in the Caribbean and Chad in West Africa came in for specific mention. Apparently while stationed there for the purposes of doing relief and development work, some of Oxfam’s employees were also doing some “funny” things on the side.
Specifically, they were allegedly “running around” with local prostitutes. The story triggered much outrage.
It became the subject of much discussion on electronic media and saw Oxfam’s top leadership hauled before officials of the British government which finances its activities to the tune of several million dollars annually, to answer some questions.
Soon enough heads were rolling. I thought “poor Oxfam”. Why? Clearly, this was a case of being unlucky enough to be caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar, as it were, and paying for the sins of whoever else might have dipped theirs in.
Anyone who lives in the various places where the Oxfams of this world are active and does not go about their day-to-day lives wearing blinkers knows that expatriates of all kinds do these things, in the same way we locals do, and that it has always been that way.
The outrage was therefore the result of blinding ignorance about the actual lives of aid workers or a matter of being seen to do the right thing, because few would want to be seen to defend or appear to defend such acts or own up to being indifferent.
But we all know about prostitutes and what they do and that they are out there and continue to do what they do because there is a market for it. That is why in some countries prostitution is legal.
It is probably well worth asking if we would have witnessed the same outrage if the accused had procured the services of prostitutes in countries such as the Netherlands where they put themselves on display in shop windows for potential clients to have a good look before they decide whether they want to take things farther or not.
Whatever the answer, there are other issues to consider regarding the whole business of charities rushing their money and staff into poor countries struck by disaster, or stationing them in others to do “development work.”
In Africa south of the Sahara at least, non-governmental organisations have been doing “development work” for more than quarter of a century.
It intensified during the bad days of indebtedness when many African economies were literally on their knees following the 1970s decade of political upheaval characterised by military coups, economic mismanagement and generally bad politics.
The justification for the invasion by foreign NGOs, for that was what it really was, was that in many of the countries doing badly, governments had long abandoned any pretence of possessing the capacity to deliver services or do anything about the poverty that was ravaging communities across the continent.
In good time, many such countries turned a corner. The detailed story is complex, but in broad terms they democratised their politics, if only by allowing multiple political formations to compete for power.
They got better at economic management and even learnt to live within their means by minimising external borrowing, thanks to restraining pressures from the IMF and the World Bank.
Even donors started trusting their capacity for financial management and took to channelling aid money into national treasuries as general budget support.
It began to feel as if development NGOs would run out of business. Well, they didn’t, not least because in recent times donors have taken again to channelling substantial amounts of aid money through them and tasking them with doing things that ought to be the responsibility of self-respecting governments. There are all sorts of reasons for this.
One of them is that our governments, some of them at any rate, cannot be trusted with money. When officials are not diverting it to personal uses, governments are engaging in “creative accounting,” pretending to channel it into those things that donors want to see their money going into, while actually sending it elsewhere in line with their own priorities which may or may not have anything to do with improving the lives of their citizens, especially the poor on whose behalf it is given in the first place.
In countries such as Uganda, this use of aid money has led to entities such as the perennially scandal-prone Office of the Prime Minister acquiring such nicknames as “eating Other People’s Money” (OPM).
It is also true that in some countries donors have switched from general budget support to channelling money via NGOs for reasons that have more to do with politics in their own countries than financial mismanagement in ours.
And so the Oxfams of this world are still running around in our countries for reasons that have to do with the interests of their home governments and our own failure to get our act together and be fully in charge.
These issues are worthy of as much public debate as the question of whether or not foreign NGO workers should or should not touch our prostitutes.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]