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by Kalamalama staff

The United Nations, the World Bank, international donors, and other developmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) all work directly with the peoples of impoverished countries to facilitate development and alleviate poverty. Saleh Azizi, an Iraqi from Sweden working toward the M.A. in Global Leadership and Sustainable Development at HPU, has been interning with the U.N. in Africa, where his work involves backstopping rural rice production projects with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

The lives of some of the people Azizi works with maybe endangered by what he says, so, to protect them, he has asked us to change some of the names and locations.

Azizi has been working with a man called Lock, a development specialist from Asia, and experiences as well as conversations with him, have impacted Azizi’s views of development work and his thinking about postgraduate studies. Lock has been working with development projects in Africa and Asia for more than 30 years. His employers have included African and Asian governments, NGOs, and rich private donors. Currently he shares an apartment with Azizi in Afritown, where Azizi works with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on a sustainable development plan.

Azizi started his internship at the FAO headquarters in Rome, but quickly grew frustrated with the inefficiency and what seemed to be a lack of compassion on the part of UN employees about poor people, whom he thought were the main objectives of the organization.

” Not only were we drowning in paper work, but my fellow employees seemed more interested in organizational politics and about what clothes they were wearing than in helping others,” Azizi said. “Some days I thought the HQ was a catwalk for models who liked to show off by speaking five languages in one discussion. Many seemed more concerned with renewing their FAO contracts, since the organization has few permanent staff but lots of short-term contractors.”

From his first week in Rome, Azizi tried to talk his way into the field. He wanted to see more action and fewer papers.

In Afritown, Azizi was surprised to see so many international aid workers. Given his experience in Rome, he thought that he would be a minority.

“ The streets were whizzing with official four-wheel drives constantly in motion,” Azizi said. “The vehicles belonged to representatives of international donors and NGOs such as United Nations Population Programme, UNDP, UN Migration Office, the World Bank, and others. There were mysterious Europeans in top positions in the Government. At a first glance, I thought that we were actually employing more people as drivers than to help the poor.”

There were aid workers everywhere in Afritown. The whole economy is built around the provision of aid. Profitable businesses in Afritown can thank the generous international workers for spending their money (25 percent of GDP) on foreign products and food in retail shops that cater only to the aid workers.

“ I have not seen any Africans in these retail stores,” Azizi said. “The money goes from Afritown taxpayers to the UN, to pay employee salaries, and into Lebanese restaurants, wholesalers, and other shops. The Lebanese own all the businesses and are best friends with every international aid worker. They aren’t very popular, however, with the Afritown locals, who earn just over $1 per working day.

“ Some of the aid is really reaching the poorest-of-the-poor, especially marginalized women through micro-financing projects, just to mention one, but most of the poor see little of it,” Azizi adds.
Azizi began to look for innovative ways to reach the actual poor, and that search led him to Lock.
“ It’s a skill they have been developing over some time now” Lock said of the country’s elite. “Bureaucrats and foreign business men are making sure that the money that flows in to help the poor never reaches them. “It is not always a conscious thing,” he continued. “Many of them are unaware of the larger impact of their action.”

Lock has been working off and on in Africa for many years. He is a development specialist who is currently trying to promote low-wetland rice production in order to create sustainable livelihoods and food for the poor, a crucial effort, given the world’s current food shortages and commodity prices crises.

“ When people see that you are working for the donors, they immediately know what they are supposed to do with you and will start asking you for everything that they need, similar to a child asking for more chocolate,” Lock said. He added that development workers have to adopt a critical view to make sure that the aid reaches the poor.

“ Most aid workers never see the poor people, even when they are in the rural areas. They are invisible, displaced, kept in the background, and used for working the land,” Lock explained. The elite of the country, the paramount chiefs, are the landowners. They normally have many wives, all working for them, and control many young men. These young men are often displaced from villages in other district or from the neighbouring countries and have little prospects for a good wife.

“ Even when donors launch their programs in the rural areas, the benefits will go the rural elite’s sphere of family, and participants in the many capacity building programs, micro-financing groups, and other projects will often be the same people that participated in other earlier projects,” Lock said. “It’s a charade.”

Talking to Lock, seeing how things work in town and country, Azizi began to think that aid money had created a mindset among the locals that actually discouraged them from work. “Instead of working, they reached out their hands asking for money and equipment,” Azizi said. “And when these were given, they went not to the poor but to their landlords,” he concluded.

Azizi believes this issue reaches far back in the history of Africa, as there has been little change in the social structure of the country or its ruling elite, since pre-colonial times, when slavery was commonplace. Rural chiefs are still using slaves, just as they did before the colonial powers came. The chiefs have been known to prostitute their wives, not earn money but to catch guilty customers. Since the young men do not have money to pay their fines, they must work as free-labor for months at a time.

Lock shared story after story of the ruling elite’s efficiency in catching all the money in their webs.
“ I came to see that poverty is not the problem, but inequality is,” Azizi said. ”There is an abundance of goods, but the distribution of them is controlled and access is limited.”

The situation is not hopeless, however. Lock suggested that a person who intends to spend a life-time in development work “needs to be aware of social implications, networks, and how things work in a particular culture.” Through discussion with him, Azizi has been able to inform more people about some of the complexities of aid work as well as adapt a new mindset about what really needs to be done in Africa.

Graduate paths to a career in development work, Azizi explained, include the fairly classical studies of economic development, sociology, and geography, or the interdisciplinary study of sustainable development. Since the real issues, based on his experiences in Afritown, seem to be inequality and distribution, an interdisciplinary combination of economics and anthropology might also be effective.

“ My overall concern is rural development, and until now I had concentrated on economic development, but as I now see a need to understand complex social networks in rural and indigenous communities, I am moving toward anthropological studies,” Azizi said. “The best development workers and human beings I have met so far, however, did not rely on their academic path or discipline to become great human beings, only their hearts,” he adds. “In that context, my endeavours and analysis of development work in Afritown should be seen as a rather petit issue in the bigger quest to become a better human.”


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