In our series of letters from African writers, Ghanaian journalist ELIZABETH OHENE reflects on her interactions with aid agencies in crisis zones.
At my age, every new event sends my mind reeling back into the past. Not surprising, therefore, that the ongoing Oxfam scandal has sent me thinking of past events.
When the story first broke that Oxfam workers had “used prostitutes and held sex parties” in Haiti, I must confess, I was a touch underwhelmed. I had never imagined charity workers had taken vows of celibacy or were saints.
If you have reported around the African continent as I have done, you know that charity workers come with the territory. Where there is trouble, or crisis, there would be reporters and there would be charity workers.
No, I have no stories of sex orgies between foreign correspondents and charity workers on the field to recount. What I did notice was they usually lived in the choicest neighbourhoods and had impressive vehicles. They often had better conditions in the hardship posts than when they were at their home stations.
Mary Beard, a British TV presenter and Cambridge University classics lecturer, had obviously never seen aid workers in the field when she wondered in her tweet if it was possible to “sustain civilised values in a disaster zone”.
But I did not begrudge them. After all, diplomats also tended to live well wherever they were sent, and I took the view aid workers deserved it so they could take care of people in distress.
My expectations from aid workers were probably different from what their current critics seem to expect. Those that I met tended to be knowledgeable and very hard-working people. They made it their business to learn about the countries they were posted to and, as a result, were often good sources of information.
I used to think that as much as we journalists often reported from crisis spots, every once in a while we got the opportunity to cover a happy story. The aid workers, meanwhile, moved from crisis to grim crisis.
This was the light in which I saw their Land Cruiser and swimming pool lifestyles.
It was a helicopter trip at the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war which gave me pause for thought.
The trip, courtesy of one charity, was to take the body of a seven-year-old to her grandmother in a rebel-controlled town, and to bring back two extremely malnourished children so they could be nursed to good health.
My BBC budget couldn’t have paid for the hire of a helicopter, and the aid agency didn’t charge me for the ride. The mention of the agency name in my stories was taken as more than enough.
After the story was aired, two other aid agencies appeared asking to take me to their project sites.
It was extreme rivalry. But then, I have been at fields where aid workers would only start distributing handouts when the cameras were rolling. I have seen the agencies scramble for the most photogenic position to pitch their camps and I have been at the receiving end of protests when one agency felt it hadn’t received as much mention as another.
It took a while, but I learnt that they were competing against each other for the same sources of funding, like rival banks on either side of the high street.
I have also been following with keen interest the news about peacekeeping forces and accusations of sexual exploitation.
I recall a scene at an airfield in Liberia during the civil war, when a contingent of peacekeeping soldiers from the West African mission Ecomog were leaving after the end of their duty tour.
Then, a crowd of extremely agitated women arrived. Some of them carried babies in their arms, some of them were visibly pregnant and were pointing to the bumps in their stomachs.
The majority were shouting and had to be restrained from running into the line of soldiers. A few of them stood weeping uncontrollably. The women said their “boyfriends” and the fathers of their children and unborn babies were being taken out of the country surreptitiously.
They wanted proper arrangements made before the soldiers could leave.
I remember one inconsolable young woman who insisted her relationship was not the “usual peacekeeping boyfriend” and if only she would be allowed to walk up to the soldier, it would all be sorted: He was planning to take her to Nigeria and introduce her properly to his mother.
Eventually, the women were herded away and the soldiers walked up the stairs to the plane. I don’t recall that any of them looked back.
I have always wondered how many Ecomog children there are in Liberia and how their mothers have coped. I have always wondered if the Nigerian and Ghanaian Ecomog peacekeeping soldiers ever think of the babies and broken-hearted women they left behind.
It took a while but I came to the conclusion once conditions exist in a country for aid agencies and peacekeeping forces to arrive, it became a playground for all kinds of people.
The only remedy is to make sure your country doesn’t have a war, a famine or any crisis that would invite the aid and peacekeeping industry.