The global media has always been an interesting phenomenon to me – that power which it has to focus everyone’s attention, to ignite and inflame people’s passions over, to ensure that all over the world, people have the same debates, jokes and observations to fill their moments of conversation. This is not to say that those issues do not have importance, simply that it is disproportionate. Nor does that disproportion make the issues discussed any less pertinent – it is of course their very presence in the media moves them up the agenda of the rich and powerful – that age old relationship between power and communication, a cycle of self-reinforcement through which these issues spring to our attention.
I am, of course, referring to the implications of Bin Laden’s death within Pakistan. In fact, if we ignore the sheer quantity of articles, which is what provides the imbalance, I have read some very good and balanced reporting. In fact, and not because of my (media-induced) fervent post-wedding national pride, a lot of the best has come from the BBC, reports which listen and observe, which change their tune with changing fact, and which corroborate most with what I am seeing and hearing in country.
There do appear to be a few universals running through the story. Most Pakistanis dislike Bin Laden, the majority of them are not extremist, and rallies in his support have been badly attended. More universal is anti-Americanism – the activists and the extremists just plain hate America, whilst the liberals and the Anglophones simply lament America’s lack of wisdom, subtlety. The Pakistanis and their media are very self-critical – they are the first to criticize their own military, and in fact, most Pakistanis do believe that the military and intelligence services were in some way involved in harboring Bin Laden. Two of my staff are from Abbottabad and home on leave, and heard the operation going on – familiar with the military presence there, they strongly doubted that Bin Laden could have stayed there without some knowledge from within the army. The plot thickens – but no-one is really surprised, and the hype has now calmed down.
Maybe the closer truth, that Obama will continue to struggle against, if he even wants to, is the old adage that war and disaster pays. Pakistan is of course one of the biggest recipients of aid, and half of that is military – a Pakistani politician who didn’t like that would be a fool. For Obama, there’s the Karachi oil route from Central Asia that needs to be kept open, and vast national defense institutions that need to be kept occupied. But Pakistanis are proud, they don’t like the stranglehold – initially, most Pakistani’s refused to believe Bin Laden had died, indication of the esteem in which they hold the word of powerful Americans: ‘habeas corpus’.
One friend back home posted the ‘Fuck Yeah’ clip from Team America on the internet – and it struck me that, as all good comedy is, this was the closest to the truth: the jingoistic street parties, the language of national defense, the heroism that has been attributed to the SEALs who took part in the raid, the continuing raids in the North. If we want to talk the language of the victors in this case, the greatest threat to American national security has never been Islamic extremists, it has always been America’s large walled embassies and proclamations of greater truths. I still like Obama, the world needs tough liberals unafraid to tidy up old mistakes – but he would make America far more friends if he stopped the drone attacks in Waziristan and pulled out of Afghanistan.
From our perspective, we restricted expat movements for a few days, and activities carried on as normal in the field – northern Sindh is not renowned for its Islamic extremism, and most of the staff are too busy to care. Either way, it is usually the case that global media affairs are only ever manifested through pre-existing local political relationships.
So what of local politics? – NGOs and their money always comes with those who want a slice of the pie, and it is always a battle of wits to keep the right balance, and always the same in every country. I will illustrate one example that we have been dealing with: when we started up in Northern Sindh, we recruited a local liaison officer, with UNOCHA experience and a degree of local clout – let’s call him Raza. He turned out to be, frankly, a nasty piece of work – charming to a fault, but a nasty political operator behind the scenes, acting the puppet master to make staff complain about issues that were not there, and working with the District Coordination Office to get all the international NGOs thrown out of Sindh (which, it struck me, would be shooting himself in the foot). Even since we managed to engineer his resignation, a slimy trail of stinking twists and turns follows Raza wherever he sets foot – as we began to investigate some community protests at one of our distributions, a staff member who appeared to be starting up a small brothel, and some internal discontent over staff accommodation issues, we uncovered text messages, meetings, emails that would always lead back down the trail. In all cases of staff complaints, we would have conversations with the staff in question, find an easy solution for them, and discover that they were not that bothered about the complaint in the first place.
One particular bee in the Raza bonnet has been a local political one – that we accommodate outsiders in our guesthouses and not local Sindhis, that we don’t recruit enough Sindhis. It’s a hard one to handle – if we address the issues head on, and make an overt enemy of someone with such local influence, the consequences will be worse for us – this is the only real way that the hype surrounding Bin Laden could become a problem for us. We have all the facts, all the arguments to back up our defense – we now have over 85% local staff, but if we go shouting it out, as the Americans are inclined to do, we will increase our profile, and thus the risk. That is of course, the reason successive UK governments get away with fighting American wars – although, as a wise friend pointed out to me, I’d still rather be in Pakistan than London.
To return to our own context, I’ve seen that the only way to fight this particular battle is with results – the other day, we were summoned to the District Coordination Office as part of this inquisition in international NGOs (not all DCOs are like this, they vary from district to district in all countries, if you remember how useful the Fort Liberté DCO was in Haiti). We presented them with our old staff breakdown, and our new one, and he could see we had made real efforts with recruitment, that we did not have the capacity to accommodate local staff, and that we were getting work done in the field – political problem solved (well, temporarily), without facing it head on. Similarly, in the field, we have problems with some villagers or villages not receiving help, or with badly planned distributions – in almost all cases, if we have community meetings first, to explain openly what we are doing and to listen to the community’s concerns, and if communities see the results arriving, there are never any problems. If there were no results, and no communication, then I think we would create a security risk for ourselves, and people would be justified in calling us hypocrites. Insecurity comes from broken promises – if we have communities unpaid for work or mud bricks, or unpaid suppliers, usually the risk is mitigated by a) apologizing profusely and b) making damn sure the payment happens. I just don’t see an American President apologizing for anything more serious than a blow job.
And let’s be clear – I’m sure we’re still making a mess of a lot of things in the field – aid agencies are always too ambitious, suffer from too little time in which they have promised too much. Quality does suffer, and it’s largely down to the competitive nature of funding from the donors, the likes of the good old UK and US governments – my recommendation to Messrs Obama and Cameron would be to make all donor funded projects a minimum of one year in length. And let’s clarify one more point – of 180 staff, there are always one or two bad eggs. The majority of are very honest, proud, hard-working and have a much wiser political intelligence Messrs Obama or Raza – I think, after years of battling the issue out in lecture halls, books and academic debates on aid, I was reminded in conversation with one of our senior monitoring staff (responsible for the assessments that define, in NGO speak, our most vulnerable beneficiaries), what the notion of impartiality actually means: it’s nothing to do with political impartiality, it is simply a question of an organization living up to the promises it makes, doing its job, and that is enough of a battle.
To finish where I started, one media report that nicely ties in this melee of international Americo-Islamic politics and humanitarian aid are the reports that came out about Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute, of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fame. I have read a lot of aid books, but it is without a doubt one of the best – a story of real aid efficiency, quick results (and the ones that the communities asked for), and no overheads. This sort of quality is the main reason I am so supportive of the Henry van Straubenzee Memorial Fund – there are many parallels, except that Uganda’s hot plains don’t write as nicely as hauling stones over rapids in the wild mountains of Pakistan’s frontier regions. There the parallels stop, for Mortenson has been the unfortunate subject of another Pakistan-centred glut of media reports.
The accusations are manifold, supported by John Krakauer (whose accusations on the 1996 Everest disaster in his book ‘Into Thin Air’ were famously controversial) – that the charity has lost its way since it humble beginnings, and begun to lose and misspend its millions, that Mortenson fabricated some facts in his story. Working in aid myself, I would say these are familiar accusations, familiar truths in some cases. I hope that the money has been lost simply by a lack of financial procedures in the field in favour of getting the job done – I don’t know enough about the situation for that. Mortenson was also shown holding a gun in his picture with his kidnappers, whom he had falsely said were Taliban. In these contexts, you often never know which local political group you are meeting, or are fed false information. Secondly, I have held guns of local agitators in jest to ensure a smooth relationship. And thirdly, kidnapping anyway ranges from anything from dinner with the kidnappers to torture and interrogation. I haven’t read the passage in the book, but I sympathise with a man telling a story. Finally, there is the premise on which the book sold so many copies, that Mortenson’s schools and diplomacy were doing more for American relations in the region than the entire efforts of the US military and government, to which there remains a considerable truth.
There may well be some of Mortenson’s schools lying unused, there may have been money wasted, he may well have exaggerated stories, but, I feel he is no worse than much of the aid world – a sad truth, but it is unfortunately the nature of the unempowered places in the world, that there will often be corruption, politics and jealousy eating at the fringes of good intentions, sometimes of course at their heart too. I would at least like to be allowed the hope that Mortenson’s imperfect story is a good one, a real one, and there will always be those in whose interests it remains to encourage disbelief in a good story.