Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Thursday, January 29

Lending new meaning to the term 'refugee camp'

William Easterly, on his new blog Aid Watch, points to a particularly disturbing event being held at the World Economic Forum in Davos: a "refugee run," which invites participants to "experience life as a refugee in Davos!" Reading this prima facie, my interest is piqued, just because I can't even imagine what calamity occurred on those glistening, alpine slopes that would produce all these refugees in Davos. Once I get past the dangling modifier, though, my interest devolves into something that I'd probably have to describe as horror.

As Easterly puts it:
Of course, I understand that there were good intentions here, that you really want rich people to have a consciousness of tragedies elsewhere in the world, and mobilize help for the victims. However, I think a Refugee Theme Park crosses a line that should not be crossed. Sensationalizing and dehumanizing and patronizing results in bad aid policy – if you have little respect for the dignity of individuals you are trying to help, you are not going to give THEM much say in what THEY want and need, and how you can help THEM help themselves?
And there is little doubt in my mind that the "refugee run" is nothing if not patronizing—e.g., best line on the flier: "(Spoiler alert: No harm will come to you!)." 

There are any number of books on this phenomenon, which is often called the "pornography of poverty" or "disaster pornography." Easterly notes two excellent ones: David Rieff's A Bed for the Night, and Alex de Waal's Famine Crimes. Some others that touch on the subject are: Graham Hancock's Lords of Poverty, Michael Maren's Road to Hell, and Tony Vaux's Selfish Altruist. Beyond the moral hang-ups one might have with using people in the most abject circumstances as mere means, as Kant might say, these books describe an aid industry that is so keen on selling its product—i.e., charity—that it has romanticized the misery it ostensibly seeks to end.

But for a real case study in the direct effects of paternalistic attitudes of this sort, read Peter Uvin's Aiding Violence. Looking at the run-up to the Rwandan Genocide, Uvin describes an aid enterprise so caught up in its own beneficence that it both enabled and legitimized a genocidal regime. In particular, one prong of Uvin's argument holds that the willingness of Hutus throughout the country to engage in mass slaughter was in part the result of years of systematic humiliation at the hands of development agencies who flaunted their own wealth while patronizing Rwandans' poverty.

The "refugee run" is sponsored by UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency. Easterly writes in his post that he hopes "such bad taste does not reflect some inability in UNHCR to see refugees as real people with their own dignity and rights." UNHCR is undoubtedly a force for much good, supplying needed support to some of the world's most vulnerable people—those displaced by conflict, oppression, and natural disasters. It is also the employer of many genuinely compassionate and dedicated relief workers.

Then again, anyone who has encountered UNHCR on the ground is familiar with a bureaucracy so upside-down and backward that it could join the circus. Failing to respect refugees' dignity is only the start of the agency's inadequacies. In his recent article for The New Yorker, Jonathan Harr offers a typical story, from a refugee camp in Chad:
... One of the Chadians rose from his desk with a big smile. He was a short, lean, muscular man in his forties who was dressed in a dark-green suit and street shoes polished to a high gloss. On his wrist was a large gold watch. His name was Vito Ngomnalta. His understudy, a man fifteen years his junior, wore a T-shirt and sat at the second desk, a cigarette in his mouth, squinting as he riffled through a stack of several hundred blue ration cards. ...

... Every so often, in the interest of crowd control, Ngomnalta would rise from his desk, stomp around, and wave his arms. He appeared to have mastered the demeanor of a low-level bureaucrat. He was by turns haughty, authoritative, harsh, and dismissive.

A teen-age boy, perhaps eighteen, wearing dusty jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, sat before Ngomnalta and proffered a tattered page. A travel permit, necessary for exiting and entering the camp, it was folded in half and then in quarters. The boy opened it delicately, like the wings of a butterfly. Examined by many hands at many checkpoints, it had split along the four creases.

Ngomnalta took it from the boy, gave it a glance, and spoke to him sharply. The document had expired twelve days ago.

The boy replied, a worried look in his eyes: yes, he knew that it had expired, and would like to have another.

Ngomnalta shook his head dismissively. From what I gathered, it was the boy’s duty to make this application for renewal before the expiration of the permit. Whatever the problem, Ngomnalta slapped the document face down atop a thick stack of papers. Case closed.

The boy began to appeal, but Ngomnalta motioned him to be on his way and summoned the next person in line.

Throughout his audience, the boy had maintained a deferential bearing. But as he rose from the chair his eyes smoldered with anger. He glared openly at Ngomnalta, but Ngomnalta either did not notice or was immune to this sort of venom.
At one point, Harr describes the UNHCR office as "a D.M.V. in a land where people had no motor vehicles." Have you ever found going to the DMV a humanizing experience? My point is this: a "refugee run" seems par for the course.