Secret aid worker: when your crisis isn’t cool enough to attract the right people

Secret aid worker: when your crisis isn’t cool enough to attract the right people

The humanitarian community is showing lacklustre interest in the Lake Chad crisis, despite 15 million people needing help

Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis: millions face hunger amid the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region
Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis: millions face hunger amid the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP

have started to think that a lack of attention to a crisis correlates with the kind of aid workers it attracts. The greater the media buzz, the more in-demand a deployment is, and the broader the choice of candidates to pick from. I have worked in a lot of places, from active war zones to countries affected by natural disasters, and have seen the different people they attract first-hand. Now having spent over a year in west Africa, responding to the displacement crisis caused by Boko Haram, I can honestly say I have never witnessed such a level of lackluster interest from the humanitarian community and a government to effectively assist those in need.

No one wants to admit it but there is a certain level of vanity to aid workers, and some crises are just more attractive than others. Saying that you work in Damascus or Mosul has a certain ring to it, you’re in the line of fire – and those in and outside the industry (thanks to the media) have an impression of the kind of work you do, and what you’re made of.

But just because a crisis is not rolling 24/7 on the news, doesn’t mean the best people are not needed.

Here in the darkest corners of Lake Chad, despite the presence of large UN organisations and a vast range of NGOs, the response remains meagre. Malnutrition for example, is rife, and the possibility of a lurking famine was announced in the summer of 2016.

However, the key organisations addressing food needs barely seem to have set up functional logistics to supply aid on a large scale. How is it that at least 5 million are close to starvation while the main responders have been here for the past two years? Of course, there is always the argument that there is not sufficient funding or that problems are due to a lack of cooperation from the authorities, but these arguments deflect from the heart of the issue.

This is a complex crisis in a challenging political environment, where the authorities would deny the extent of the crisis were we not staring famine in the face. It’s the kind of place where every form of assistance has to start from scratch at every new location; where infrastructure is so poor and access so difficult to negotiate, that by the time your aid convoy reaches those in need, thousands more people have gathered, and what you can offer is a drop in the ocean.

Thus, it’s crucial that the humanitarian sector here has access to people who can build and lead a crisis response, who continuously push for action, and who think practically and fast.

Yet this crisis has an incredibly high staff turnover. And in some cases organisations are simply unable to fill positions permanently. This means we end up reliant on surge staff and rotating experts.

These people are flown in from head office to support a project, but in practice spend their time conducting a seemingly endless amount of assessments and meetings. As quickly as they arrive, they are gone – and another person comes in, and the cycle starts all over again.

It’s incredibly frustrating for those permanently based here to keep having to have the same conversations with rotating staff (handovers are a thing of the past, it would seem). Often whatever was implemented by the previous expert is questioned by the next one, and so the process starts over again. As a consequence, we’re underperforming significantly, and our combined efforts barely touch the tip of the iceberg.

No humanitarian response is perfect, but based on previous experience, I know it can be better. I have a number of great colleagues who are eager for change and keen to work together with others so a proper response can be built. But things will only come together when there is a sector-wide shared interest to do better.

This crisis won’t offer you regular semi-glamorous media time at conflict lines or the kudos that come with it, but it does offer the chance to build a solid crisis response in a place that desperately needs it. You would be working with a small group of humanitarians eager to work together to to help millions of people. Please join us.

Do you have a secret aid worker story you’d like to tell? You can contact us confidentially at globaldevpros@theguardian.com – please put “Secret aid worker” in the subject line. If you’d like to encrypt your email to us, here are instructions on how to set up a PGP mail client and our public PGP key.

Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow @GuardianGDP on Twitter.

Source: www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network

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