‘I once bought the life of a Sudanese man with eight cows.’
Denis Dragovic was once an aid worker (1). In 2010 and 2011 he returned to South Sudan, Iraq and East Timor, sites of three major humanitarian crises, to see what had happened with the projects he had worked on.
This book is both an account of Denis Dragovic’s experiences as an aid worker and a reflection on how to make aid more effective. The aid landscape is littered with stories of well-intentioned aid which fails. There are many reasons why aid projects fail. These can include cultural barriers, misdirected or misappropriated funds, and a focus on delivering tangible items without enough focus on the skills transfer required to maintain those items. And, sadly, it is too often the case that the world’s attention moves from one crisis to another without effectively addressing any of them.
‘Aid needs to harness both the ambitions of donors and the dreams of the people it is meant to assist.’
Aid also needs to consider local cultures, religions and traditions. Aid means to assist, rather than to impose.
I have so many questions about aid after reading this book. Who is the primary client? Is it the aid recipient, or the donor? How do we differentiate between the aid needed in an emergency and ongoing aid needed as societies and countries rebuild? How do we measure success, and when do we measure it? I was troubled by some of the examples of assumed western superiority, frustrated by some of the cultural barriers to success, and heartened by some of the achievements recounted. Just think how much more effective some of this aid could have been if some of those providing it had taken the time to find common ground with those who needed it.
Already much of the world has shifted focus. There are humanitarian crises across the globe, with millions of people seeking refuge as a consequence. Much of the western focus has been on keeping ‘them’ out rather than on helping ‘them’. Othering people makes it so much easier to ignore ‘them’. But I’m also reminded of the proverb: ‘If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime’. And yes, there’s more than one way to fish.
My copy of this book is filled with Post-It notes, marking parts I want to reread or reconsider. There are no neat, easy solutions to the global humanitarian crisis, not is there a single cause. This book is not a comfortable read, but it is an important one.
Note: My thanks to Dr Dragovic for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
(1) And now, Denis Dragovic researches the consequences of war on society and the state. His professional career has spanned over a decade as a consultant to various UN agencies and as a senior leader with international NGOs in conflict and post-conflict environments in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He holds a PhD in political theology from the University of St Andrews, UK, where he studied the role of religious institutions in post-conflict statebuilding and a Masters of Foreign Service from Georgetown University. He is currently a Senior Member in the Migration and Refugee Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal where he holds responsibilities for hearing appeals by asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected by the Australian government. His current research builds upon his prior research and focuses on practical elements of refugee decision making.