|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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