Global Aid / policy


Renzo Martens film Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty Is one of those visual experiences that will stay with you forever I was lucky enough to have seen it in a lecture theatre. It made me feel uncomfortable its fleshy ness and unavoidable narrative where the lesser contributors to my discomfort above these lay the fact that the works premise was true. The notion that poverty its self is a resource one that is manipulated and currently does not help those who are subjected to what the west calls ‘Absolute Poverty’, Instead international aid makes the wealthy wealthier. Martens video journalism even now months after first witnessing it still carry’s a refreshing sense, an artist perhaps with a social conscious one that does care about this alarming issue. Episode 3 wields real people and uses them as puppets and actors on a stage in which the play is all to real, portraying the power relationships between people watching (the audience) and the people being watched (Africans, Aid workers etc). He uses a neon sign as the focus of a party an emancipatory tool Renzo sets out to inform the people of the Congo that they should be benefiting from their poverty. He articulates the idea that if only they benefited from their poorness and used it as a resource then it would be their biggest source of revenue or capital. In this narrative I find the artists dissection and advance on the remnants of colonialism rejuvenating it shows the perpetuation of a distorted reality an example being when he takes an African photographer with images of death and poverty to Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders  and the african is turned down because the NGO has to use western photographers thats its policy. Thus effectively demonstrating the wests hold on the resource that Martens has successfully termed as the ‘Poverty Industry’ and the exclusion of locals benefitting from the resource of poverty. An alarming Idea right?     

I’ve been having a ponder on how aid/charity/NGO workers are popularly perceived by the general public and how people can have set ideas on the working/living situation of such individuals. Allow me to elaborate: I have had various experiences where I catch a glimpse of how people overwhelmingly believe charity workers should essentially be

(a) underpaid (preferably heavily)

(b) have no incentives to do what they do other than a strong, altruistic desire to rid the world of all its wrongs and

(c) that in the process of doing their jobs they should, above all, suffer (ideally by living in a mud hut with no running water or electricity), as any indication that they are not suggests that the tax-payer/supporter is probably paying too much, and funds are being squirrelled off to unnecessary luxuries.

Okay, perhaps I am exaggerating just a liiiittle, but overall that is pretty much an accurate description of how the public views us. I’m going to make an effort to explain why I believe these stereotypes are not only unrealistic but unhelpful.

Firstly, we are, at the end of the day, human. We may have our own families to provide for, we have rent/mortgages to pay, we want to be able to go on holiday occasionally too. Really! Shocking but true. Personally I have a whopping student debt to pay off, and if I can’t pay it off with an aid worker’s salary, then I can’t work as an aid worker but will have to do something else. It really is as simple as that. On another note, if we (as a global collective) are to turn this whole poverty thing around, we need to have the best brains and the best trained if we are to have any chance whatsoever. We need doctors, nurses, economists, campaigners, journalists, human rights advocates, academics – you name it. And education, sadly, isn’t free. This doesn’t mean I believe that salaries should be uncapped – the heads of some charities earning in excess of 100k a year is quite frankly absurd, and is damaging to the sector’s overall reputation.

Then there’s this point: we all have to do the daily slog, but the idea that we should get nothing from ours then a warm fuzzy feeling of having made a small positive change (however nice this idea is) is just a little toooo utopian. Is in fact less controversial for those in the profit-making industry to rake in fat-cat salaries, despite harmful business practices taking their own toll on the very work we are trying to achieve, as well as taking risks which destabilises the global economy? Which brings me to my next point: it is more acceptable to make ostentatious amounts of money in a profession that not only does not help development efforts but directly hinders them. Take the US where such people are not even taxed appropriately (how much tax has Romney been paying on his 20+ million income a year? not so much: ), and essentially lost tax money = money NOT being pumped into social services. The fact that Romney did also donate a sizable sum to charity in my opinion misses the point.

To illustrate: for any of us trying to work in international development, you will be aware that it is not easy (and nor should it be – to dissuade the faint-hearted). My first internship was at Oxfam GB’s offices in Oxford, where I worked 3-4 days a week and where I did not receive pay however I did receive lunch reimbursements up to 6 GBP and travel costs to and from the offices (I ended up renting a room in a shared house with some performance poets and walked to/from work every day). After a while I realised I was essentially doing the same work as others who were getting paid a salary, but rather than this being a deterrent I was pleased to be doing work that actually served some purpose instead of doing coffee rounds and photocopying (contrary to what the photo below suggests). However, there was always the lingering suspicion that those who undertake unpaid internships (a) come from middle-class backgrounds whose parents are able to financially support them and (b) those whose families live in the area and rent costs don’t come into play. Take this into consideration when a lot of NGO headquarters (at least, in Europe) tend to be based in well-off areas (Oxford, London, Paris, Geneva, etc) where living costs are not to be taken lightly. This immediately categorises the large majority of volunteers as those with means/resources.

I have mixed feelings about unpaid internships. Granted, they are a great way to get in there and get some experience. However I’m under the impression the entire concept of unpaid labour is imported from the US and, with the recession, have become more common as a means of cutting down on running costs. On the Continent, most countries have laws in place where if a person works full-time for any period longer than 8 weeks the company/organisation is legally obliged to pay them at least minimum wage. However there is no such law in the UK, and the United Nations also does not pay its interns as it has its own agreements with governments on how it operates in their countries (most UN employees for example don’t pay income tax – although this could be attributable to the fact that their wages are paid out of States membership fees anyway). In fact the only UN agency to pay its interns is the International Labour Organisation because to not do so would contradict its mandate. Could we perhaps be slipping into a system where unpaid labour is a morally grey loophole for not paying your staff what they are due? I personally have a friend who worked for free for months on end, waitressing in the evenings to still be able to afford her living costs, in the hope of eventually landing a paid job – an idea which was neither confirmed nor disspelled by the employer, but which never materialised. Are we in fact not conceding ground with regards to our rights to receive due pay for our efforts?

I would like to conclude my pondering and get back on track to my original thought track with the blog article that got me thinking this morning. Duncan Green is Oxfam GB’s head of research and posts interesting articles about his views on international development. (I first came to know of him when he was doing tours across UK universities raising awareness of Oxfam’s GROW campaign.) In his latest article he reflects on the fact that the Oxfam guesthouse in Nairobi has had their swimming pool boarded up right from the start because of concern that the presence of such a luxury item at an aid workers’ guesthouse was a ‘tabloid scandal in the making’ :


Not so long ago I can remember being confronted by the loud uproar in the media surrounding the new U.S.A presidents Birth place. I even remember thinking how mad the whole thing was, this rare event of a man who visually represents a new age in the history of the country. Was getting attacked by the bullish, bastard, brute, Donald trump and his Fox retards about wether he was a genuine American, their point being he had ancestors and living family from another country, how isolationist is that? This man who won the election through carrying with him an idea of hope, one articulated  so well that all you had to do was listen and you believed that change could happen. And it has happened, It is a minor miracle that Obama has managed to influence the image of his country and its direction by moving away from the hypocrisy and idiocy of the Bush administration. Which included an illegal war that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and banks and financial systems that screwed over the global economy. Obama not only is the first president since Clinton to actually have a brain but is an amazing enigmatic leader and communicator. He observes and witnesses whats really happening before deciding what action to take, he is an amazing speaker absolutely flawless in his voicing of his policies and ideas. America should keep him as their leader handing the reigns to anyone else would be extremely wrong, on another front his name in Swahili means ‘One who is blessed’ and on his desk he has a wooden carving of a hand holding an egg a Kenyan symbol of the fragility of life.

Its truly awe inspiring when you have one of those moments when you take a step back and are reminded just how much has been achieved by humanity. The louvre in Paris houses some of the greatest objects ever created by human hand, you look at some of these paintings and they are bubbles of information whole worlds are contained on their cracked surfaces. The works of Da Vinci, Raphael, Carravaggio, David, and Delacroix are all marvels as they support a representation of a moment in history. Its almost like revisiting the past you can look at the faces, the expressions and envisage a world far removed from a modern existence. Another thing i saw recently at the Musee De pinacothèque is an exhibition of watercolour’s by an artist called Hugo Pratt, who is responsible for one of the most famous comics or hero ever created. Corto Maltese is one hell of a hero based upon sound facts found in the real world no superpowers, more magic. One could say that the fluidity and expressiveness of his paintings where bewitching and inspirational and is something I plan to return to when I get back to England.

Another thing that I found stupendously uplifting is the story of Takeshi Kanno a Japanese doctor. On March 11 2011 the 33 year old doctor was on duty at the Shizugawa public hospital in the japanese town of Minami Sanriku when he heard the the tsunami alert. He moved dozens of patients to the highest floor saving their lives and refused to leave until the last of those under his care where evacuated. It had been three days since the earthquake and he finally made it back to his wife, just before she gave birth. The second child was named Rei which evokes two meanings, the first in English means ‘a beam of light’. Secondly in Chinese and Japanese ‘the wisdom to overcome hardship’ (taken from the Time article by Krista Mahr, May 2 2011).  I cant think of a story that epitomizes kindness, strength, and altruism in such a powerful way we should all be grateful to people who lead by example. Another message supporting kindness and compassion over desire and greed is that of the new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Starring Andy Serkis as CGI chimp Caesar who becomes super intelligent and brakes free from the shackles imposed upon him from humankind worth a watch.

“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. – Buddha. “