Reading the sex scandals conducted by Oxfam personnel in Haiti I remembered past reports implicating UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. But it also raised more personal concerns, tied to my recent experience working for ICRC in Myanmar and then in Congo. The responses given by those implicated in the scandals often makes us believe that what is under scrutiny is the misconduct of particular individuals in an otherwise functioning and well-intentioned industry. Every activity, public or private, tends to get evaluated according to its own results. After a year and a half with ICRC in Myanmar and in the Democratic Republic of Congo I quit the organization despite its high salary and lucrative benefits. The reason is, simply, that we did nothing.
The first part of the article was published by Myanmar Times. Due to pressures from ICRC’s Public Relations Department the newspaper cancelled the publication of the rest of the article.
After years of teaching in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sierra Leone and after having visited and reported from several African war zones, I decided to join the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Reasons for my decision included a desire to increase my income, on the one hand, but also an urge to understand the humanitarian sector and the dynamics of modern conflict better. With a starting salary at 6000 CHF per month and several training sessions in luxurious hotels and resorts, the job seemed ideal, at least in the beginning.
My first mission was in Northern Myanmar as a Field Delegate for ICRC. I arrived energetic. Thereafter, travelling to the field most of the time, I held the task of collecting information regarding violations of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), perpetrated by the Myanmar Military and/or the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Initially, time seemed to pass very fast, and adrenaline was at its highest. We ran up and down in our comfortable land cruiser, discussing the IHL with actual victims of war. But then, in the middle of my mission with 6 months still to go, I started wondering what the purpose of our activities was. What do we do with the information we collect and for what reason do we spend this amount of money? Who, if anyone, benefits from our actions? We had collected several — and serious — IHL-violation allegations from civilian victims but the armed groups were not willing to discuss with us, and we were not so keen in trying to reach them. Each and every one of us seemed content with the idea that it is the army who is not willing to talk to us and, so, convinced ourselves that it’s not our fault that nothing was being done. But then we kept collecting IHL violations from the victims, despite the fact that we well knew we couldn’t do anything about them. For what reason then? It was merely a way to sustain our careers. A reason to look busy.
Week after week, I returned to several villages inquiring about civilians’ treatment by the military. And admittedly, this became an increasingly difficult challenge for me. I had documented numerous IHL violations, but I now knew that we were not able to do something about these victims. We talked to families whose relatives had been shot by this armed group or the other. Then, we went back to the same villages and asked the same questions. We were not in a position to suggest anything to them to improve their lives, and we provided nothing to them. All we did was make notes of the violations, over and over again.
I can use two cases as examples: We were discussing with families that had their children abducted by KIA (Kachin Independence Army). We pretended that would bring them back in order to get the information, but then did nothing. My supervisor refused to try to discuss with the armed group for both cases.
Second, in a village affected by war we were asked to meet a very simple demand: to provide them with a stretcher for their ambulance. But a year passed, and we didn’t manage to deliver it. It seems to me now that the whole purpose of our presence was to write reports and send emails, and this made me feel shame. We were not honoring our responsibilities. As for the areas to which we gave ‘priority’, again we proved to be inadequate. We worked mainly in the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons’) camps where tens of similar international NGOs were also present.
In effect, we all helped Myanmar’s policy-makers who wanted these people removed from their communities and locked up in a camp. And we were supposed to bring the required supplies an provisions. But even in this simple task, we failed; for in one year’s stay in Kachin our plans to construct several water pumps in the camps failed. Not one pump managed to bring water to the displaced — meanwhile we were all getting paid.
Still, what makes this whole situation even worse is that no one inquired about our failures. No one held us accountable. We kept writing reports and sending emails regarding our imaginary projects, and circulating among ourselves the IHL violations. And, at certain points we were laughing with ourselves. We were joking about how we were having ‘paid holidays in the tropics’ (paid by civilians who actually work). And there were so many of us, although an actual humanitarian crisis did not unfold at the time in Kachin. Representatives of INGOs had to queue in order to see the camp leader of an IDP camp, because he was so busy meeting other humanitarian officials. Hundreds of NGOs had arrived in the Kachin state of Myanmar, years after the actual crisis, which was in 2011. What was their purpose? How did they benefit the local population?
Moreover, humanitarian organizations had an ambivalent relationship with the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. ICRC in particular preferred working with the previous Military government because they were giving us better access. Higher ICRC officials were discussing this quite publicly. Probably Aung San Suu Kyi was not buying our lies. The state counsellor did not appreciate ICRC because she remembered our inactions in her own case when she was a political prisoner.
Famous Nazis used ICRC help to escape arrest by the Allies
The ICRC, similar to most INGOs, exaggerate a crisis (especially if the media gets interested) in order to attract donations which keeps them going and mostly pays for the lucrative salaries, facilities, planes and cars of humanitarian workers. But this is not the worst part of the outstandingly failing system; the worst aspect in this whole industry is the fact that humanitarian organizations are not being held accountable for anything, by anyone. They collect money from government donations taken out of taxpayers’ pockets, but those on the receiving end — the ones this whole system is meant to serve and benefit — are far away without any real access to the formers’ media, so they remain unheard. They cannot complain — or at least evaluate — what INGOs deliver to them. And the saddest truth is that we probably do more harm than good. We enhance corruption, prolong the conflicts and sustain the colonial ideology of helping/civilizing the global south — a region that rich governments and corporations continue to exploit with the approval of local governments.
When the mission in Myanmar was complete, I was asked to submit a report (attached to my annual appraisal) in which I wrote my remarks. I wrote, in all honesty, how I felt that “we did nothing for the civilians” and “we did not help at all”. The deputies in Yangon demanded that I erase that part of the report, and I disagreed, so they simply did not sign my appraisal. But because my performance was evaluated as “very good” and “good”, I was offered a second mission and an open-ended contract by the headquarters in Geneva.
The second mission was in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which I mostly worked in the central prison of Kananga. I arrived at the prison where — in theory — the ICRC ran a nutritional project. But the day I arrived it was quite obvious that the detainees were starving to death. I talked to my superiors and we arranged to do a BMI (Body Mass Index) measurement, to evaluate their condition. After the measurement, we found that fifty detainees were severely malnourished. Four of them were not able to stand up due to hunger; saliva came out from their mouths and their eyes were almost closed. We had to transfer them to the weighing scale with a stretcher, and then move them to prison’s infirmary.
When I went back with these shocking results to my supervisor who was responsible for the ICRC detention program for the whole country, she replied that “we have no budget”. But the reality is that we had a big budget; it just was spent on — among others — social gatherings, Christmas celebrations, staff parties,our own airplanes, our land cruisers and our high salaries. When I highlighted this reality, she was angered and told me to return to the prison and implement ICRC policy: this meant that I had to return and explain to the detainees that their condition would not improve and that the three days we spent weighing and measuring them amounted to nothing. Again, I felt ashamed.
It is then that I realized that my second mission would be exactly like the first one: Writing reports, exchanging emails with people who only cared about their careers and their salaries and not for those they were meant to assist. So, I quit.
The least the ICRC could have done was to condemn the fact that the central government in Kinshasa was not sending budget to Kananga’s central prison for 3,5 months. ICRC claims to be the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, but when it faces starving detainees and serious IHL violations in actual reality, it does nothing. You either feed the detainees or you denounce the government in DRC for not respecting its obligation towards detainees. But it’s a common secret that ICRC was suspiciously close with Joseph Kabila, the president, and big European economic interests in the region.
Our irrelevance in the field was also shocking. In Kasai as well as in Kachin we arrived late — the crisis was over. And thus we mostly pretended to be helping the IDPs. I remember the first day I arrived in DRC my supervisor described an incident where ICRC distributed some kits in a number of villages and we created tensions between villages who received and the ones who did not. But even after this incident we continued doing the same thing. We had no clue what we were giving and to whom we were giving it to, or for what reason. And, on top of this, our unequal distributions created violent episodes between some of these villages. Where the aid really ended up — again we had no idea. One night while partying in Kananga, my supervisor received a call from our coordinator telling her that an ICRC-rented truck full of food had arrived in our town. She had no idea who ordered this and for what reason. In the end we decided to send it to another town, so “we don’t look so bad”.
Such unprofessionalism would have never been accepted in the private sector. We should stop supporting an industry that is accountable to no one and should demand evaluations from the beneficiaries, who remain silenced and reduced to advertising material for a next humanitarian campaign.
INGOs are exceedingly powerful in that they control, guide and often directly inform the media about the areas in which they operate. They control the information we get. They facilitate access for the journalists. And usually they focus in two or three big current crises, but the donations they receive are so big that they support their offices around the world where they mostly stand idle.
Let me go back to the beginning, where I discuss the Oxfam sex scandals. The perpetrators acted in a shameful manner, but this only occurred because they exploited people they did not consider equal in the first place. And this is the underlying problem of the humanitarian sector: it’s concealed but also open racism; the fact that aid workers live like kings in Kinshasa, Dakar, Monrovia with a salary that in these towns can get them literally everything. Some of these aid workers are honest about this, and openly reminisce the old days where most of the world was ruled by European colonial masters. They even joke about it like one of my ex-supervisors in Kasai: “how better it was when the country was functional, with roads and all”.