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Entries in NGOs (6)

Monday
Jun272011

The Humanitarian Cluster...

One of the things that I most looked forward to coming to Libya, was the chance to see how all of the things I (over-) learned in Afghanistan apply here.  I can go on at length about similarities and differences, but let me just focus on one thing that I see remaining the same.  There seems to be an inability or unwillingness to accept the meaning of the word ‘principle’ in humanitarian principle and hence an inability to approach the politics inherent in working for an NGO, or for that matter to see the big picture.

Libya is an aid effort in a pretty heavily developed place (electricity and paved roads galore here), and with all that sundry rule of law lying about, the effort seems much more structured here.  The UN and the major donors from the NATO states take the lead and the first-tier NGOs are chasing them about and going to the meetings they schedule.

This leads to a lot of exhausting discussion about rather useless topics (Benghazi or Zarzis take your pick) like which NGOs are too allied with the rebels to support.  And this is where I, the good realist liberal, want to tear my hair out.  See we have this principle of trying to be neutral, but we have to be realistic and realise when we cannot.  There is no civil society behind Qaddafi lines because his quixotic dictatorship has not allowed any to form.  Pretty much everyone trying to help Libya, like the vast majority of those within Libya are supporting the opposition, which allows NGOs to operate freely.  Moreover, if you or your organisation hopes to have any credibility in future Libya, the only question that will be asked of you is ‘what did you do for the opposition?’

So here is why it’s useful that humanitarianism is a principle and not a set list of things.  We can employ humanitarian principles by working with a Libyan organisation who might be pro-rebel but still tries to distribute aid widely to all (again rebels support things like this while the former regime does not).  Sometimes such nascent civil society organisations will say inappropriate things at meetings when included.  That’s okay; it’s how the discussion evolves.  What if we excluded the UN and its employees for every inappropriate thing they did and said?

Just as was my past experience in Afghanistan, a lot of the response to this crisis could get bogged down in NGOs’ self-perception.  Non-profit and non-government are happy coincidences; I’m still encouraging NGOs to think of themselves as non-state actors (and no, that doesn’t mean you need to be armed).  It may be nice to have a few governments recognising an organisation to lend it legitimacy, but we exist outside the state system and our lack of state-based identities make us better and more able to focus on the task at hand.  It also means we’re independent political actors trying to enact our political platform of neutrality.

I came to Libya support liberalism, to support the people here, to get some perspective on the 2011 revolutions.  I did not come here just to implement some lines on a TOR.  Everybody can and should do their work and the immediate task at hand, but I really hope no one loses sight of that bigger picture.

Monday
Sep152008

Turkish food!

We now have a fourth restaurant in Mazar!  So along with the Royal Oak (truckstop fare and atmosphere), Delhi Darbar (Indian comfort food), and Ittifaq (pizza and burgers), we now can enjoy Turkish food.  I just got take-away from there last night...it seems to be the only thing completed yet in the soon-to-be-impressive Amiri planned community.  Amiri is one of the series of privately financed subdivisions going up on the east of town...if you're interested in their business model, think Irvine Corporation.  The food was good at any rate.  the Karishik Pide and ezme salatasi tasted just like they do back in Turkey.


Maybe the market for restaurants is not so big as I thought.  After living here a while it has become apparent to me, that only three NGOs including myself are based here, and that leaves embassy staffs and the UN and ICRC to make up the rest.  Kabul this is not.

Today whilst driving through town, my driver made a funny observation (we were looking at a convoy of World Food Programme (WFP) trucks).  "People don't like the WFP flower here because it's so dark and the bread doesn't look right."  My response was "obviously they are not hungry enough."  The observation was amusing because it is a reminder that this area was once relatively affluented.  Flour doesn't bleach itself but the fact remains that people consider normal what in places like India or the Middle East is considered a rather unnecessary luxury.  The other thing is that it's probably not the starving people suffering from food shortages in Kohistanat District of Sar-e Pol who are complaining--it's the urban customers buying bread from bakeries.  Bakery owners who, thanks to corruption at all levels, take their cut of WFP wheat.  Remember the flour is as good as any other but not bleached, but since people think that unbleached equals inferior quality, bakers acquire the WFP flour and cut it with the regular stuff to the degree they can get away with.  This leads to scenes of customers accusing the naanwalla of scamming them with WFP bread!

Friday
Sep052008

Work, Vacation, and Beyond

After about two and a half months in Mazar, I can at last say I'm settled in--both to the place and my job.  I finally got to take a small vacation to a place other than India, and have even begun looking at the next step beyond Afghanistan.

My work is always fun and fascinating.  Anything that I accomplish in a given day is all subsidiary to one big bullet point: building and maintaing my own human intelligence network.  That, it turns out, isn't my notion of "work" at all in that work is something unpleasant which involves an Excel spreadsheet.  Here when something happens (unfortunately that means 'goes boom' for a security advisor), the resulting process is very akin to gossip collection at a party ("Sonali slept with whom?, okay you talk to Alex and I'll talk to Aziz")--we divide up who has the best contacts for the particular information sought, go to it, issue a report, maybe hash it out further with the boss in Kabul.  And it's all very intuitive.  Furthermore you get to interact with the plethora of NGOs (and other actors) roaming about in the north of country, which means there's always a parade of interesting people from different walks of life stopping by my office.  A while ago some food security people stopped by one of our meetings, so afterwards we went up to my office where I got a full Q&A session with them about how food security work is carried out, what it entails, what specific dangers they face and how they mitigate them; interesting for my own bank of personal knowledge and useful for me professionally in understanding their security profile.  An organisation doing food security faces completely different risks and threats than one involved in microfinance.  Likewise yesterday I got to learn about demining.  So the job is fun; always interesting, engaging, and different.  And the best part is I get to have all the fun of doing intel without having idiotic masters, the Americans (assholes) or Russians (clowns).

I've also come to discover that, as predicted, the security world is in great need of people who can put two and two together.  At the micro level that means being more interested in protecting people than shiny new weapons, but on the broader scale it also means that what sounds tough does necessarily work.  This all brings me back to the (unsuccessful) interview which firmed up my decision to quit DC a few years back...it was four days into the 2006 Lebanon War and the interviewers asked me what was going to happen, and were consequently very displeased at my answer that the IDF was going to get its ass kicked for a number of reasons starting from lack of defined strategic objectives.  My point is that these people (security consultants) had a pre-defined notion of how the world had to work and they weren't about to let reality intrude on it.   Basically people handling security matters need to know why Russia is a threat just like Israel is, even though neither gets their fair share of blame.

The city of Mazar is survivable, but being a quiet place I find it something of a din of iniquity.  I chill a lot more here and get a lot more reading done (thanks to the Kindle as well, which is awesome), and it's okay because I'm not missing out on things like I would be in Kabul and I have a really nice home/office to come back to here in Mazar.  In general, even though there are a lot of expats around, they are all pretty introverted and hard-working.  Plus there isn't a critical mass of people who like to party.  This is made tolerable by the work and the fact that I would feel like a tool if I keep hanging out in Kabul, with its cast of interesting (much better than DC or NY) yet repetative people (the meatheads, the glamour-seekers, the int'l men of mystery, the granola-munchers, and so on).  I will not be one of those people who just stays on here indefinitely without any direction...I will get out a some point next year and if not it will be because I found something in Afghanistan that is a damn good and clear alternative.  It would be nice to live in a Western country if it helps me in my career goals (not North America, which I've long since outgrown) and eventually if I do something development-related it would be nice to spend time in a country with more morality and decency (Georgia?! Turkey?!) rather than Afghanistan, which all too often seems like a bunch of Sarah Palins running around unwilling to acknowledge the realities necessary to achieve what it is they claim they want.

Finally there was the vacation; a quick tour of Toronto, DC, and London.  I also got a new passport and stopped in for MillerStock near Buffalo.  I've definitely learned never to go visit a big group of people...go stay with one friend or just bring one or two along and leave it at that.  Trying to fit everyone in in DC was insane, but the plus side was that everyone showed up.  Muhammad was there from Khurtum, Waise made an appearance from Manila.  I had great hosts (Lynn and Ann) and a generally good time.  DC has improved as well--two cheers for gentrification.  I spent a good a mount of time in what used to be an incredibly depressing Columbia Heights which is now full of nice house and appartments and fun things to do and shop at.  And of course I also got to have Ravi Kabab with Neda and Navid.  It was nice to leave DC in the end, and I definitely don't know when or if I'll be coming back though.  Been there done that.  On the way back to Dubai I had a day layover in London which did turn out to be an eye-opener.  The customs gods smiled on me getting to and from Heathrow and I got to spend the whole day with my lovely friend Jaya getting a tour of the city.  It's a huge and quite strange place (19 degrees in August...hmm) but I decided I might well give it a go post Afghanistan.  I also have some friends there and hence a potential roommate pool and place to start building a new network.  The real test will be to see if I can survive the winter there...the next step is to try spending vacation there in late January, do some informational interviews, and get a feel for the place.

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