Wednesday, December 10, 2008

untitled ('cos I was too tired to think of one)

Sitting at Matsapha, Swaziland’s teeny weeny international airport, waiting for my teeny weeny 30 seater plane to start the 6h trip home. All flights out of Swaziland are, alas, routed through Joburg, so I’ve a stop-over there to look forward to. At least OR Tambo Airport has a Vida! Yay! I may even deserve a pasteis de nata by the time I get there....

It’s been a very busy and productive few days, at least as busy and productive as one can be in a small African country... which, I’ve learnt, is all relative, and the last 3 days here have brought this home to me once again.

Swaziland is FULL of ex-pats. And in the office of an international organisation like MSF they far outnumber the Swazi’s. On my first night I had dinner out with an Ethiopian doctor, a French activist, a Swiss-Italian pharmacist and a Finnish-American finance officer, and these are just some of the MSF staff here. (Incidentally, the restaurant where we ate belongs to a French man and his Mauritian wife and he claims 11 generations of ex-pats in his family, with cousins and relatives as wide-spread as China, the Ukraine and Alaska!)

All the MSF ex-pats in Swaziland are very genuinely here to serve and assist the local health ministry. They work tirelessly to give support to government health programmes. They instigate their own projects, but only ever with the consultation and approval of the ministry. And they seem to always be respectful of the existing systems and authorities, trying to not step on toes. Or egos!

But they’re here with a mission, spending donor money and resources, and they feel the pressure always to justify their presence and produce tangible results of the work they do. And so, understandably, they grumble amongst themselves about slow-moving bureaucracy, about having to pander to government egos, about having to earn their credentials over and over again, and mostly about how the business of getting life-saving drugs and care to the sick and infirm is delayed by the to-ing and fro-ing of political decisions and approvals.

All of which I completely understand and sympathise with.

But to my surprise, I found myself taking another view too, the African view. And a few times I found myself, not justifying, but trying to explain that ‘Africa time’ is a concept that’s not going to change, that we have, to an extent, an inherent suspicion of people coming from across oceans to tell us how things should be done, and that while I know this doesn’t seem to make sense when those people are offering nothing but assistance, it’s not unreasonable of us to make sure that we’re not being bullied, not compromising our own freedoms.

But I also completely see the danger in foreign aid organisations not insisting that they get that involved with the workings of local projects before supporting them. As complex as this approach may be, it’s infinitely preferable to some of the interventions Africa has seen before.

Aid without accountability will never reap real, long term results. Apparently the UN has quite a shocking reputation for ‘gifting’ medical supplies to organisations and governments in need, supplies which often languish in warehouses and expire before they get distributed (and then the cynic in me wonders how close to expiration the products were in the first place, we’ve had plenty of dodgy stuff dumped on us over the years... yes, NESTLE, I’m talking about YOU), because the necessary infrastructure hasn’t been supplied at the same time.

So maybe this approach of talks about talks, more talks, tentatively pushed agendas, frustrations and hopefully, eventual cooperation, is the lesser of the two evils, is the more long-term beneficial approach.

And just like all these ex-pats having to communicate in a neutral language, English, having to talk a little slower and a little plainer just to maintain normal dinnertime conversation, let alone large-scale treatment negotiations, maybe along the way we also listen a bit more carefully, and learn more about each other.

No comments: