A former aid worker for Save the Children in Dadaab returns in an attempt to deconstruct the enchantment surrounding the “saving Africa” myth and find out how to improve public service.
There's a gap between the on-the-ground-reality of international aid programs and their perception in the American consciousness. Years after an internship at age 20, Tori Hogan returned to Africa to embark on a journey through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, searching for the truth about what does and does not work in international aid. Though there were glimmers of hope along the way, she discovered an aid industry mired in waste, ineffective solutions imposed by well-intentioned outsiders and humanitarian efforts that do more harm than good. In this excerpt from the introduction to Hogan's resulting book, Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid (Perseus Books Group, 2012), she highlights some of the perception bias of the international aid system—and possibly how to get beyond just having good intentions.
The stewardess is remarkably alert compared to the half-asleep passengers on board this morning’s 6 a.m. charter flight. Her hair is carefully pulled back in a tight updo, her navy skirt and vest are perfectly ironed, and the white and blue silk scarf tied around her neck brings an air of French couture that seems out of place. I watch her squirming in the jump seat as the plane begins its descent, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, attempting to find the most dignified way to sit in a clearly uncomfortable chair. The green and brown Kenyan grassland we had been flying over has now turned into an endless expanse of red and yellow sand, dotted with clumps of parched brush and a few herds of goats and camels being marched along by persistent women in colorful veils. The stewardess puts her hand up to smooth out her hair, which hasn’t moved an inch the entire flight, to compensate for a particularly bumpy landing on the dirt airstrip. As the plane slows to a stop, she picks up the microphone and, amidst the screeching feedback from a PA system that has seen better days, she instantly transitions into perky stewardess mode and sweetly says, “We wish you a pleasant stay in Dadaab.”
I try to suppress my laugh. We have just arrived at the largest refugee camp in the world, and we are being encouraged by our lovely Kenyan stewardess to have a “pleasant” stay. I’m guessing they don’t tell the refugees the same thing when they arrive here.
She pushes the plane door open and lowers the stairs and I’m suddenly hit by the intense heat of the dry desert air, the kind of all-encompassing warmth that makes you secretly yearn for a bit of moisturizer and a frozen drink. I’m also enveloped by a wave of déjà vu. Not much seems to have changed since I last disembarked here eight years ago. A sea of white SUVs with massive antennas sticking out like tentacles have swarmed the airstrip awaiting their cargo of twenty-five “do-gooders” who are coming to heal wounds, write reports, and take photos of a forgotten Somali refugee population that has been forced to live in this makeshift desert community for the past eighteen years. Make that twenty-four “do-gooders.” I myself am not exactly here to save the world—or at least not this time around. That was me eight years ago: a twenty-year-old intern for Save the Children, naively arriving at this camp full of grand humanitarian aspirations to improve the lives of refugees.
Save the Children. The name alone conjured up images of goodness and virtue to me back then. Or at least it conjured up images of Sally Struthers and others who spent much of the eighties and nineties trying to convince me in between my favorite television shows that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, I could save a child’s life. I fell for it. But at the end of my time working in this camp, my virtuous dreams were dashed by the reality of the situation: I obviously hadn’t saved a single kid. Not one. Not even close. In fact, I left this camp back in 2002 wondering if my presence here had actually done more harm than good.
At that time, I thought I would never see this dirt airstrip again. I vowed to myself after leaving the camp that instead of being an aid worker I would try to transform the aid regime and all of its obvious failures. However, uncovering this calling hadn’t merely been a result of a summer full of vague challenges and disappointments. It was the result of a single moment; a single comment, in fact, spoken by a refugee boy when I was in this camp. In that instant, standing in front of a classroom of secondary school students, I faced what some would call a “moment of obligation” and my life would never be the same.
The day had started out like any other as I was making my rounds, conducting interviews with groups of orphans, students, and refugee leaders for a report funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). I was working alongside a Swiss consultant who had been hired by Save the Children to write the report. Having never worked with children or refugees before, it seemed her only apparent qualification for the job was being the girlfriend of the United Nations’s chief protection officer in Nairobi. As a result, I ended up having to take on much more responsibility than I expected as an intern, leading the majority of the interviews myself. It was a difficult assignment. We had been sent to Dadaab to investigate the issue of child protection in response to a West African report that uncovered numerous allegations of aid workers demanding sex from children in exchange for food and other assistance. We were tasked with making sure the same thing wasn’t happening in East Africa.
I believed strongly in the importance of the investigation, but I also sensed that it was just a report being done for the sake of reporting. By that time I was two months into my summer internship with Save the Children, having spent a few weeks at the D.C. office and a few weeks helping to set up a new post in Nairobi. Disenchantment was starting to creep in. On top of all the waste I’d seen in the budget documents and the questionable decisions made in fancy offices far away, I’d also spent hours filing countless field reports that I’m pretty sure nobody had ever read. Even if Save the Children wanted to implement new protection programs as a result of our findings, I could already tell they would have ended up locked in a nasty turf war with CARE, another large-scale international aid organization that had established supreme reign over the camp at the time. However, I was delighted to finally be out of the office and on my first field assignment, so I dutifully blocked out my concerns and gave the research my best effort.
As I walked through the gate of Hagadera Secondary School that afternoon, already fatigued from five days of interviewing, I was accosted with walls of American patriotism. Lining every surface of the administrative building of the school were flattened cans of donated vegetable oil, prominently marked with “USA” in bold blue lettering, flanked by three red stripes on either side, and the USAID logo with the cautionary statement below: Not to Be Sold or Exchanged. Although impressed by the school’s ability to recycle these materials into aluminum siding, I was embarrassed to see my country’s name and symbols plastered all over the place. If I saw another building in the camp painted with the words “A Gift from the American People,” I was going to go crazy.
The principal greeted me with a firm handshake and graciously welcomed us to the school. We did the necessary introductions and, in a way that indicated an excessive familiarity with meeting the endless demands of visiting aid workers, he forced a look of willing cooperation and said, “How can we help you with your research today, Miss Hogan?”
I felt guilty for wasting the students’ and administrators’ time. But our orders were to get as much feedback as possible, from as many stakeholders as we could find. By that point we had already heard horrifying accounts of abuse and neglect from orphans, confirmed the existence of child labor in the camp, and met young girls who were enduring forced marriages and female circumcision, but we hadn’t found any evidence of sexual exploitation of children by aid workers. It might have been happening, but nobody was talking about it. On that afternoon, out of sheer curiosity, I decided to broaden the scope of the research to see if I might get new insights about the general challenges facing children in the camp. After a quick tour of the grounds, the principal escorted me to one of the dark, mud-brick classrooms to interview a group of fifty-three first-year high school students, while the Swiss consultant went to speak with a group of girls in the courtyard. The teacher stepped outside and the students put down their math assignments, listening quietly to my introduction.
“Good afternoon. My name is Tori and I come from the United States,” I said cheerfully. A few students looked amused and a couple of whispers reverberated through the room. I suddenly realized that with just a few words I had already aligned myself with the wall of tin, and likely the dollar signs and expectations that accompanied it. I pressed on. “I’m here to conduct some research for Save the Children. We are interested in hearing about the problems you are facing in the camp. Is anyone willing to share some of their opinions about the challenges you’re dealing with here?” It felt awkward to be posing such a vague question, but I had a glimmer of hope that it might produce insightful responses.
After a few awkward stares from one student to the next, one boy finally stood up, dressed in a uniform of dark blue pants and a crisp white button-up shirt, and said, “Madame, there is a lack of basic needs such as shelter and food. The rations are not good, and there is the problem of malnutrition here in the camp.” He then boldly added, “We would benefit from a feeding program here at the school sponsored by your organization.”
Next a female student in a long white veil rose, speaking softly from the back of the room, “The rate of girls in the secondary schools here in the refugee camp is very low compared to primary schools because of family problems and social beliefs.”
“And the teachers do not receive enough training,” another voice added.
“Miss, we are grateful for your presence in our class today, and we would like to tell you that there are many problems faced by refugee children in the camp,” another boy started with a concerned face.
I waited, hopeful that this boy might finally be the one to address the deeper issues at stake. But those hopes were dashed when he explained with surprising formality, “Our greatest challenges include a lack of learning materials like textbooks and incomplete laboratory supplies for practical experiments.”
Their responses were predictable. I jotted them down and asked follow-up questions in an attempt to pull more details out of them. In a well-choreographed ballet, the students took turns politely standing up behind their wooden desks and addressing their various grievances to me. It was as if they were reading from a script, a riveting play titled What to Tell the Aid Workers. I’m not saying that the concerns they mentioned weren’t real or highly legitimate, but I could sense they were only telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, or perhaps what my organization might be willing to fund.
I wrapped up the discussion with the students and thanked them for their feedback. I had already met with three principals, sixteen parents, and eighty-one students that day, but I didn’t feel as if any of those conversations had tapped in to the core issues at stake, like why these problems existed in the first place, or why they hadn’t been fixed. The principal met me outside the classroom and energetically informed me, “Miss, there is one more class, the year-two students, who you should visit.” He motioned for me to follow, and I reluctantly trailed behind as I tried to think up an excuse, any excuse, to skip interviewing the next class and call it a day. I couldn’t think of an exit strategy fast enough, though, so there I was, standing in front of another blackboard with forty-eight sets of curious eyes staring at me.
The conversation with the next class of students began the same way as the previous one, with predictable and rehearsed responses. During a moment of prolonged silence, I scanned the room with an almost desperate “cut the crap” look on my face, eager for someone to be brave enough to tell me the truth. A tall Somali boy sitting in the last row slowly rose, cleared his throat, and looked down for an instant with a slight degree of uncertainty, shifting his weight before staring directly into my eyes and boldly saying, “A lot of aid workers come and go, but nothing changes. If the aid projects were effective, we wouldn’t still be living like this after all these years. Do you really think you have the answer to our problems?”
You recognize truth when you hear it. This boy was finally saying what I’d been longing to hear. Something that hadn’t been rehearsed. Something real. He was calling me out in front of the entire class, and he was absolutely right. Who did I think I was? Who did we think we were? Even if I was willing to listen to their various grievances, I didn’t have the magic answer to their problems. In fact, I was beginning to suspect that I was part of the problem.
That single comment opened up the floodgates of discussion, and the rest of the students suddenly found the courage to reveal the deeper realities of life in the camp and their impressions of the aid being offered. They told me about the false promises made when “white ladies” like me came around, the lack of power refugees have in decision-making in the camp, and the waste, corruption, and distrust they witnessed from the aid organizations on a daily basis. It turned out the issue of sexual exploitation of children by aid workers was only a surface example of a deeper web of problems in which the international aid agencies were failing to serve and protect the very people they were there to help. It was one of the most humbling conversations of my life.
Later that night, back at the UN compound, the boy’s comment echoed in my head. As I lay in the stifling heat, tossing and turning and listening to a persistent mosquito outside my net, I kept trying to justify my work. “At least I’m doing something!” But it was impossible to convince myself that being part of something that was ineffective, or that was even potentially harmful, was better than doing nothing at all. I knew it wasn’t. But up until now, nobody ever had the guts to inform me that my good intentions to help weren’t actually good enough.
My naive dreams of “saving Africa” were shattered that day, forcing me to swallow a heavy dose of humility and realism. I had originally planned to pursue a career as a globe-trotting, world-saving aid worker, but after my summer with Save the Children and my subsequent study abroad semester in Uganda and Rwanda, I threw those plans away. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen what I’d seen, or hadn’t heard what that boy had told me. I felt a deep obligation to share the truth about aid with others and to uncover how the “helping industry” could be reformed. The past eight years have been an intense and rewarding journey as I’ve established myself as a filmmaker, educator, and advocate on the issue of aid effectiveness. At age twenty I never could have anticipated the path I would end up taking. All I knew back then was that a fire had been lit within me, and I had to respond. But when I recently reflected on my life’s journey so far, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of gratitude for that catalytic turning point that happened in Dadaab so many years ago.
So now I find myself back at this refugee camp, on the same airstrip once again, for a simple purpose: gratitude. I have returned here to find the boy who was courageous enough to tell me the truth. The one who changed the course of my life. I want to see what has happened to him and his community, and to say “thanks.”
From the book Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid by Tori Hogan. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2012.