I’ve spoken a lot in the media these past few days because there’s a lot I wanted to say about aid and development. Most of you know that I was an aid worker myself for almost a decade, and then completed a doctorate on development at Sussex University. It’s something a care a lot about.
From my experience the vast majority of frontline aid workers are extraordinarily professional and caring, choosing to put their expertise and experience to use in the most difficult situations. Please, don’t ever forget that.
There’s another side that I saw too though. In some truly extreme situations, such as in sudden refugee crises, humanitarian disasters or areas of conflict and war, there is chaos, stress and lawlessness that is really hard to imagine if you’ve not experienced it. Our job as aid workers was to bring stability and security to people who had lost everything, including their human dignity.
A small number of dysfunctional people, who probably could never really survive a steady job back home, seem to thrive amid the chaos and dysfunction of a disaster. I noticed some of them travelled from one disaster to another and rose quite high in the ranks. They were a nightmare to deal with, unreliable and made very poor decisions.
I remember a doctor for a well-known large charity coming up to the small team I was with, wearing a bloodstained doctor’s uniform, and said: “It’s boring here you’ll hate it. You should get over to Asia. That’s where the blood and guts are.”
We were standing in a refugee camp with over a thousand destitute women and children, many with gynaecological problems caused by the rape and abuse they experienced as they fled (rape was used as a weapon during the Balkan war) and very few knew if their husbands and adult male children were alive or dead as they had either been detained or remained to fight.
We stood there stunned at the sight and words of this grotesque man. I would never want someone I loved being seen by him so why should people who were among the world’s most vulnerable have to turn to him? They deserved the best not this horrid little man.
People like him should never be working with vulnerable people and aid agencies need to get better at weeding them out and getting better-suited people in. It’s tough. In this country we struggle to get great maths teachers into challenging schools so imagine the difficulty of getting brilliant doctors, who might have families and dependents of their own, to go to extremely dangerous and life-threatening places to practise medicine.
There’s another issue I want to mention. The aid industry has become extraordinarily competitive. It has driven some to become territorial and secretive in order to fight off challenges to its work and funding.
A team I was with once took an incredible unit into a refugee camp that could shower 1,000 people twice a week in privacy. Imagine how important that is to life in a camp with no running water. When we arrived a director of a famous charity came running over and said: “You can’t have that here. Take it away. We are the lead charity in this camp and we won’t have something with your logo on it in case TV crews film here.”
I promise you, this is true. So I explained we didn’t care about logos, we cared about helping people and suggested he put his organisation’s logos on instead. Out came a satellite phone, a call to head office and we got the ok to plaster our amazing shower unit with their logos.
I still can’t imagine what would posses someone to stand amid a refugee camp full of desperate, lonely and scared people and seek to deny them health and hygiene because of a bloody logo. Things were getting out of hand. Some had lost sight of their true humanitarian purpose.
There’s a lot more I could say but you get the picture. I never became cynical because I saw so many lives transformed and I saw first hand just what can be achieved through sensitive and professional aid work. Because of Britain’s aid and disaster support there are thousands and thousands of people alive and prospering who would otherwise be impoverished or dead so please don’t become cynical either.
In all my time I never saw or heard rumours about the criminal activity being uncovered today. It disgusts me to hear it though.
Heartbreakingly, sexual exploitation and rape of children can exist in any organisation if we do not proactively protect young people and have proper systems and procedures in place. Jimmy Savile taught us that. So if it happens here where we have a mature civil society and a world-class police force, imagine how difficult it is to get this right in a war zone or disaster area.
But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.
Aid agencies and government must work to change culture to become more open, co-operative and sharing of best practice. What is tragic about Oxfam’s failure to act is that as well as the tragedy of already vulnerable people becoming victims, predators and corrupt people have escaped justice. And also, keeping it hushed up has denied other organisation the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that led to this happening.
I fear that threats to cut Oxfam’s funding will only exacerbate this. The message to other organisations is: “If you have this problem and make it public, we will cut your funding.” And the people who will suffer most from funding cuts are already-damaged communities being supported by the good work being done.
Government much act as a mature partner. We need to know everything and we need to learn from it. In the future I believe the public will forgive organisations who own up to mistakes, providing they are open and honest and prove they have learned from them. But they will not forgive cover-ups and hiding the truth.
Aid does work. It really does. Tonight I did a TV debate with a UKIP assembly member who thinks we should stop aid. I simply pointed out that his world view of “stop engaging with the world” is dangerous and costly. If we don’t try to help solve problems where they exist, believe me in time they will land on our own shores and cost us even more.
Thanks in large part to Britain, 8 out of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. Also in Africa, deaths from malaria and communicable diseases are plummeting, as is infant mortality and death from famine and war. Education, life expectancy and economic prosperity are all rising. Britain hasn’t had to intervene with our military in Africa since Sierra Leone. And the Balkans, where I spent a lot of time, is now unrecognisable to how I remember it as war ravaged and desperate.
I will be pushing as hard as I can for reform of our large aid agencies but I will defend what they do and the work of all decent aid workers with everything I’ve got. Former aid workers like me and many hundreds of brilliant ones out there now in the front line have been bitterly let down. For them and the thousands of desperately vulnerable people who look to us for help, we must get this right. And we will.
Peter Kyle is the Labour MP for Hove and a former aid worker.
This article first appeared on Peter Kyle’s Facebook page late last night (Monday 12 February).