Should the Oxfam run guesthouse in Nairobi allow guests to use the swimming pool? That’s the burning question Duncan Green is asking on his popular Poverty to Power blog and he’s asking readers to vote on it. Duncan tells us that it’s closed to limit Oxfam’s reputational risk. What if it got out in the British press? Bad enough in the Daily Mail, but – the horror – imagine if it cropped up in The Guardian?
His post and question are interesting for how they reveal how disconnected your typical aid worker is. And some of the comments only serve to drive this home – they really are worth a read.
My first position with an international NGO was in Hong Kong with International Social Service. I was an immigrant and was hired competitively and on ‘local’ terms – just like all my colleagues, at all levels. Like my colleagues at all levels the bulk of a modest salary went on rent. We worked detention centres for Vietnamese asylum seekers. The environment was usually stressful and sometimes violent. We did our work as best we could, went home at the end of the day and got on with other things. For exercise I played football in Southorn Playground, a municipal football pitch in Wanchai. next door to the 42 storey Southorn Gardens which contained my expensive but tiny shared flat.
Then in 1996 I applied for a job with a European NGO and got posted to Dar es Salaam. Along with a reasonable salary I got housing, transport, food costs covered and driver to take me to the beach for a swim at the end of the day. And I was flabbergasted when I was told I could also have a free maid. My boss was flabbergasted at me being flabbergasted. But he had been in the game then as long as I am now.
The aid business is a very strange world. It sees itself as a world apart, which is self fulfilling. Thinking that yours is a world apart leads to both guilty hand wringing, as seen in Oxfam’s empty pool, and also a deeply unattractive sense of entitlement, as seen in some of the comments on the post.
So, fill the pool, get wet and if people think that’s unacceptable you’ll soon hear about it. Just spare us the hand wringing.