It was late, and the bearded Spaniard in the Medecins Sans Frontieres T-shirt had just reached that stage of inebriation where people start confiding in strangers. “You know,” he said with a shake of the head, “when I go back home, people treat me like a saint. It’s incredible,” he laughed. “They really think I’m Jesus!”
The words of that young aid worker, pronounced at a Nairobi farewell bash, rang in my ears as I watched the non-governmental organisations involved in the Make Poverty History campaign, all pursed lips and flared nostrils, slam as a gross betrayal the outcome of what many regard as the most Africa-friendly G8 summit in history. These groups certainly act like modern-day Messiahs. But why do we let them to get away with it?
At this juncture I should probably say that many of my friends work for NGOs. In fact, most do, because when a rootless foreign correspondent’s career runs out of momentum, where else can one turn? My friends are not wicked cynics. They would like to make a difference. Yet I am baffled as to why a normally sceptical and questioning public is so ready to suspend its critical faculties when it comes to the organisations you join.
When a government official, party spokesman or company press officer makes a statement, we weigh their words in the balance. We know about unstated agendas, pandering to constitu-encies, and how funding influences policy. “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” whispers the voice of pragmatic common sense. Somehow, none of this applies when it comes to the NGOs. They uniquely are regarded as being too pure to have ulterior motives. We may tell the market researcher badgering us on the high street to get stuffed, but the fresh-faced youth with a clipboard from ActionAid wins an apologetic smile. His virtue – emblazoned on his sweatshirt – lifts him beyond the reach of informed debate.
The same automatic respect applies when it comes to the big picture. For decades, debate has raged over whether the methods applied in Africa to alleviate poverty are helping or are part of the problem. Economists flounce out of the World Bank over the issue, professors squabble on the web. Despite what Bob Geldof claims, there are plenty of first-rate thinkers who believe aid actually contributes to Africa’s backwardness. But there’s been not a hint of this from the NGOs that signed up en masse for the doubling of aid and debt relief recommended by Blair’s Commission for Africa, which won only qualified support at Gleneagles.
This is hardly surprising. In a logical world every aid agency would pine for the day it could shut up shop. In reality, Save the Children, Oxfam and Christian Aid all have salaries to pay, overheads to meet. Every year, as 70,000 of Africa’s brightest abandon the continent, 100,000 westerners head in the opposite direction. Many are bound for NGO offices because these are organisations in which ambitious, intelligent people can plan lifelong careers. Expecting them to challenge the G8’s plan to double aid is like expecting Bill Gates to vaunt the virtues of pen and paper.
The business instinct is to expand, not contract, and in many ways the NGOs are indeed businesses: competing for government contracts, aware that survival relies on market visibility. Hence the images of Africa broadcast from the giant screens in Hyde Park. All piteous expressions and tear-streaked cheeks, they verged at times on the pornographic. An industry that depends on pity, however, knows that the best results come from bludgeoning its audience with guilt.
The media should do a better job of making clear that the NGO industry is just another player in the development game, whose views deserve to be challenged as robustly as those of the World Bank and the Department for International Development. But self-interest prevents us. If it weren’t for the NGOs, it would be impossible for many of us to cover Africa at all. As organisations such as CNN and the BBC close down offices in Africa and newspapers increasingly resort to poorly paid freelancers, we find ourselves relying on NGOs for free seats on charter planes into war zones, for beds in their compounds. It is hardly surprising that, seeing the crisis of the day from the aid worker’s perspective, we then draft articles that faithfully reflect the NGO view of the world: pity and horror . . . these poor people . . . more aid please.
Just as reporters who accept company freebies are expected to add a health warning to their articles – “John Smith’s safari was paid for by Lion Tours” – I’d like to see articles from African trouble spots closing with the words: “Helen Jones’s trip to Darfur was provided by Oxfam. Her Land-Rover was courtesy of Save the Children.” I’d like to see passers-by engaging those cheery clipboarders in feisty discussions on the efficacy of aid. And I would like to see Jeremy Paxman and Jon Snow treating the NGO spokesmen in their studios a bit more like George Galloway and a bit less like, well, Jesus.