I’d just landed outside the city of Semera in Ethiopia’s northeast Afar region. I know Ethiopia pretty well, having traveled and worked there since 2000, but this was my first time to this remote area, once known for the locals’ habit of cutting off the testicles of straying foreigners. The only direction I’d had were a few paragraphs in a guidebook. I surveyed the torpid environs of the airport with no idea where it was in relation to the city.
I felt an uneasy discombobulation as I pondered the similarity between my destination’s name and W. Somerset Maugham’s famous poem “An Appointment in Samarra”—which doesn’t end well. But spotting an SUV with the emblem of a foreign NGO (non-governmental organization) to which all the other Westerners on the flight were headed, I cheerily strolled up, explained my situation, and asked if I might grab a lift into the center of town.
The three NGO workers looked sheepish. Then a man explained that it wasn’t allowed (who would know or care? I wondered) before counseling that I could find a local three-wheel taxi easily enough. As the SUV roared off into the distance, I was still negotiating with the taxi driver. He was a good enough soul, no doubt, though the big grin plastered on his face as he kept shaking his head was an acknowledgement that both of us knew I would eventually have no choice but to pay the price he was charging—admittedly not that much, but exorbitant at local rates.
I didn’t care about the money. But the inflexibility and absence of empathy by the NGO staff hardened a bitterness that had been developing in my heart during the previous month of reporting from and traveling around Ethiopia.
For everywhere I went, it was the same: the NGO staff were uninterested and unwilling. That goes for the United Nations, too, which in part funds the NGO and has its own local staff there on behalf of UNHCR, the international body’s refugee branch. At one point, I was chasing the biggest story of the year in the region, the seismic opening of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the impact of the new peace on Eritrean refugees coming into Ethiopia. UNHCR plainly didn’t want to know. After arriving in the north Ethiopian city of Shire, not far from the border with Eritrea, my appeal to speak to local UNHCR staff resulted in the Kafkaesque solution that I might instead try to approach their workers in Addis Ababa—700 kilometers away from my current location, which I’d taken great efforts to reach to see how things looked on the ground. In journalism school, they’d indicated that it was a good idea in order to report effectively. I suspect anyone can see the simple logic in that—but not UNHCR.
Following Semera, and by the end of five weeks of this, my feelings towards the understandably much-maligned Ethiopian government were lustful compared to how I felt about UNHCR and the whole merry circus of NGOs in Ethiopia.
Admittedly, their recalcitrance wasn’t a great surprise: when I worked and lived in Ethiopia from 2013 to 2017, it was the same. But when you lived there, you came to accept it with a shrug, as you did with many of the somewhat unusual elements that went with living in an extraordinary country like Ethiopia.
That said, while living there, I had begun to understand why whenever I met someone who had formerly worked for the UN, the opinion about the experience and organization appeared ubiquitous: dreadful, soulless. I also couldn’t ignore other voices I’d encountered. “I don’t like NGOs,” I was told while reporting on a bad drought in Ethiopia’s southeast by an Ethiopian working for an NGO paying him an excellent salary. “If it was up to me, they would all leave the country. There would be an increase in deaths for a few years but then we would be forced to sort things out ourselves and the country would be better.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s often hard to find anything ennobling about NGOs. Many of their workers and consultants earn astonishing salaries, jet off for weekend jaunts in Nairobi and Cape Town, live in palatial compounds, attend non-stop house parties—all while surrounded by abject poverty. I’m not saying they shouldn’t make the most of their location when they have time off—Africa’s beauty and grandeur should be seen amid the tragedy—nor that they must walk around long-faced because others are less fortunate than themselves. But at least display some awareness of the dichotomy.
Plus their careers depend on Ethiopia continuing to have the problems they are there to “solve.” The whole edifice appears increasingly weird and flawed the more you encounter it. While reporting in neighboring Djibouti, I was told by an American woman working for a small Catholic charity that she could never go back to the NGO world after witnessing the debauched lunacy of NGO life in Afghanistan.
And all of the above is before you even start to consider the sexual exploitation hinted at by the likes of the 2018 scandal that hit the charity Oxfam in Haiti. It would not be surprising to learn that Haiti is merely the tip of the iceberg. NGOs involve lots of money and the power that goes with it, as well as desperately poor young women. You can figure out for yourself what that leads to.
But the main problem with my shrinking tolerance toward these organizations was that before my trip, I had been been out of Ethiopia for a year, mostly working in America, which, its own struggles notwithstanding, remains a dream for a journalist when it comes to earnest sources getting back to you in a heartbeat and being willing to talk. This context lent an entirely new perspective to how people working for the likes of the UN and NGOs deal with the media. Their lack of transparency and displays of overt suspicion bear all the hallmarks of authoritarian governments. Their behavior makes a mockery of the system of public and private donations for which they are forever appealing and receiving in vast sums from Western governments.
If they take that money, they should actively engage with journalists so we can report on where it’s all going. Instead the public gets polished PR campaigns featuring shockingly emaciated children. It’s amazingly cynical and narrow-minded.
It’s not just the UN’s lack of cooperation—underscored, I suspect, by significant hubris and a complacency borne of the idea that they are too big to fail—that bugs me. I understand that such organizations find it difficult to escape the strictures of Big Bureaucracy. But I too was once part of a big organization—the British Army—which still operated fluidly, energetically, and proactively. Individuals there didn’t let the necessary administrative burden hold them back; they gave everything they could to achieving a shared goal.
In the middle of my recent trip to Ethiopia, after finally meeting in the field the “head” of an NGO program that dealt with Eritrean refugees—following innumerable meetings and emails to facilitate—it turned out he had been in Ethiopia for just 10 days during his first ever visit. There wasn’t much he could tell me that I didn’t already know, unsurprisingly, other than that he loved the NGO lifestyle, jumping from contract to ever-available contract, taking long breaks at his house near the beach in Bali.
Of course, these criticisms can’t be leveled at all NGOs. After numerous discussions, I’ve never heard a bad word about Médicins San Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders—they are famed for working in the remotest spots where help is needed. There are other NGOs like them, undoubtedly, staffed by personnel who at personal risk and for little reward go to Herculean efforts for the afflicted. But I don’t sense they constitute a majority.
In the quarter century after it was founded in 1945, “scattered teams of quite selfless and denationalised people have repaired the health, agriculture, and economics of innumerable poor countries,” wrote the BBC’s famed America correspondent Alistair Cooke. My father served in the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus, and it was the ideal of such peacekeeping roles that motivated me to join the British Army.
But since Cooke’s words, the UN has ballooned and gone corporate, taking on many of the worst tendencies that metastasize in such Leviathans. I do not, like some, want to see the UN dismantled. But I do agree with those who say it needs a massive overhaul. I find it especially notable how in countries like Ethiopia, the government has been pilloried for decades for not reforming—rightly so, and which it is now finally doing—while the likes of the UN is left to grind away amid enormous inefficiencies and wastefulness with rarely a call for change.
But these days in the foreign aid world, no one is willing to take risks or ownership: all they care about is career, promotion, keeping a clean slate, and landing the next juicy posting. It’s a long way from the impressive original Charter of the United Nations, described by Cooke as “another noble document of dubious practicality.” Therein may lie many of the above problems.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.