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Memento Mori

Aid workers at the United Nations mourn the death of a colleague killed Ben Parker/UN
Aid workers at the United Nations mourn the death of a colleague killed.

For a long time, my password was based on the name of someone I’d never met. 

Conveniently unguessable, it also served as a micro-memorial of sorts; we’d both worked in a hot, very difficult corner of a country at war, with epic malnutrition rates and thousands of skin-and-bone children living in makeshift tents made of plastic bags and sacks. The mothers gave the children tea made of coffee husks to stop them feeling so hungry. 

Only a handful of foreigners worked there at the time. One of the early debates during that operation for me, an inexperienced aid worker,  was whether burial sheets were something the aid system should fund. So many people were dying the refugees were asking for them, but they didn’t appear to do much for the living.

In the end, we supplied them: a contribution to a decent burial, a proper memory, was at least something we could do.

The man in my password arrived after I left. I only knew his name and the organisation he worked for. He was killed, I think by a grenade, in a dispute over rations, or tarpaulins, or contracts.

In a combination of sentimentality, superstition and sheer laziness I appropriated his name for my password for years. I wondered about his story, his family, from time to time.

It’s a lot of fun to bash aid workers. The narcissism, arrogance and delusions of the stereotypical expat aid worker is the joke that keeps on giving. Equally the cliche of the selfless, dedicated, plugged-into-the-local community national aid worker is rarely unpicked.

But those aid workers, good and bad, whatever their motivations and attitudes, number 450,000 now —mostly working in their own countries. It’s hard to generalise.

One thing is too often true —they’re used to camouflage a political failure their bags of food and cack-handed projects will never fix: they're a fig leaf for impotence.

However, if I were stuck, homeless and destitute in a filthy camp far from home, I’d say: keep it coming. It’s not pointless, it’s humane, or it’s both.

Aid agencies’ neutrality, or at least impartiality, used to provide them protection better than any flak jacket. But not so much any more. UN and NGO workers are targeted: for propaganda, financial gain, or strategically. We have plenty of unarmed international aid workers where Seal Team Six wouldn’t go. Donor officials in western capitals demand aid convoys cross frontlines with staff on board. That’s for “monitoring”, even though it won’t make much difference where the aid lands up.

And the aid agency managements let it happen. Yes, they say, we can manage the risk of being present in city X or region Y, and no, we won’t live in bunkers, we’ll be accepted by the local community. We’ll operate on the basis that people understand we’re here to do the right thing. Oh, and not one cent of your donor dollar will be ripped off or bunged to a crazy at a checkpoint, absolutely not. Perish the thought. We’ll have “partners”, remote management and (growth area here) “remote monitoring”. Security and risk management has become a humanitarian specialism.

Meanwhile, I remember the security officer bluntly telling me, the aid worker, of kidnap risk: “you’re a walking wallet”.

In a Syria, or a Somalia, or Sudan, donors want to be seen to be doing something — anything — on the humanitarian side, even when the political or military options are stalemated. When this desire meets the urges of an aid agency not wanting to be left out, things can get hairy.

Thousands of aid workers have been killed, kidnapped or wounded for all sorts of reasons. Just take a look at the map.

Aid agencies are squeamish about their losses. True to form, a UN “day” has been set up: World Humanitarian Day, every August, is meant to honour fallen aid workers. It’s become awkward. How do you honour the sacrifices of aid workers without appearing to value them more than those they serve?

I don’t know whether it’s all worth it. Ask the families. Ask the people who got help when everyone else had run away. 

It’s time I updated my passwords. There’s no shortage of names.


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