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Aid worker agonistes

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A UN vehicle in Kratie following the shooting of a 14-year-old girl in May 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/7Days

When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb, you can keep your shame to a minimum: To show that you, too, are intelligent smugly ask, “Is it really development?” Ross Coggins, The Development Set.

Two pernicious stereotypes prevail about members of Cambodia’s aid community: either a Western wage complete with hardship posting allowance, gated living in BKK and a penchant for extravagant lunches at the finer boutique cafés, or young and adventurous, on a break from university, working the summer in an orphanage or similar enterprise structured to exacerbate the problems its unpaid interns self-righteously claim to be solving.

Of the two, the latter is subject to more venal caricature. Older men with a professional girlfriend hanging off their arm subjected to the disapproving stares of Western women are likely to console themselves by remembering the story of the Christian NGO which produced a report claiming the destitute children around the riverside pointing to their mouths and saying “nyam bai” was evidence that child prostitution was rampant in the country.

It’s the former that can’t be dismissed as naïve, those often in possession of a wealth of experience both within the country and the developing world in general. Certainly, the general scorn heaped upon the NGO community here is partially a function of a perceived gap between massive foreign aid expenditure and achievement. What this incomplete assertion misses that aid workers often make convenient whipping boys for people lacking the means or desire for self-analysis.

This country often seems like a magnet for mediocrity. More than a few people have arrived after finding success eludes them in their home country or elsewhere abroad—who hasn’t heard of the so-called ‘Pattaya refugees’, driven out of expat life in Thailand for various reasons, occasionally unsavoury? At times it seems like incompetence, lack of qualifications, stunted social skills or crippling substance abuse problems are no barriers to achievement here, and anyone can live a life a great deal more comfortable than both their neighbours and what they could expect back home regardless of how they behave. The path of least resistance out of any resulting existential crisis is often to remind oneself that people earning more for doing what seems to be less.

A journal article released this month by Anne-Meike Fechter of Sussex University reminds us that aid workers here regularly labour under a mass of anxieties and misgivings about their lifestyles. Based around interviews with aid workers in Phnom Penh and the growing academic opposition to foreign aid from the likes of Dambisa Moyo and others, Fechter’s article is a revealing look at a sense of cognitive dissonance and self-doubt that doesn’t fit within the disdainful view of aid workers as unexceptionally ignorant or self-indulgent.

“One of the party, a middle-aged project manager, turned to me and declared, ‘I have got two kids. That means my government is paying more than US$20,000 per year so they can attend the International School in Phnom Penh,’” she writes. “A brief silence followed, as none of his colleagues offered a comment. Slowly talk turned to other issues. Such moments were sometimes left hanging in conversation...”

Do those last three sentences sound familiar, even if the perks don’t? Fechter’s article incorporates a multitude of responses to the environment they find themselves in, from people who bristle at their need to create an emotional buffer by seeking comfort in the company of fellow foreigners, to those who lament their lack of ability to wean themselves off six figure tax-free salaries, to a ‘governance expert’ on an apparently lucrative contract who unapologetically tells the researcher, “yes, I am paid very well, and I’m worth it.”

Foreigners based in this country are prone to problems that rarely warrant the attention they deserve. Alcohol and drug abuse, depression and other psychological issues are rife, and the means to treat them are virtually non-existent, unless you fancy your luck with Wikipedia and the neighbourhood pharmacist. That these problems aren’t discussed is the result of a collective feeling that it would be absurd or offensive to consider them legitimate in an environment where people are wantonly kicked out of their homes, where parents struggle to feed their children, and where every other conceivable social ill exists in abundance.

But these problems aren’t willed away just because we consider them to be some #firstworldproblems iniquity. If we believe in pragmatism and we perceive a lack of it in foreign-run NGOs, we should remember that the harm caused by these things benefits neither aid workers nor the people they purport to help. Fechter should be commended for beginning a long-overdue discussion, and forcing the rest of us who work in this part of the world to consider whether people with noble intentions are indeed more worthy objects of contempt.

The full text of ‘Living Well’ While ‘Doing Good’? (Missing) Debates on Altruism and Professionalism in Aid Work is available online in issue 33:8 of the Third World Quarterly.

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