How did aid organisations turn into political activists?
It was disturbing to read recently that 122 humanitarian workers lost their lives in strife torn countries last year, but even more disturbing to read the reason why.
Aid workers are now often seen in some of the most desperate and violent places in the world to be covert activists, even spies, working against the thugs, dictators and/or clerics who run the hellholes where aid workers try to go about their business.
That makes them targets.
According to the Annual Review of Global Peace Operations last year there were 260 major attacks against aid workers, making aid work more dangerous than UN peacekeeping.
Review author Adele Harmer recently told the ABC: “I think it’s very difficult for perpetrators who are targeting aid workers to be able to differentiate between those who are doing more political and development work and those who are doing humanitarian work.”
And there’s the rub.
It is worth considering how the traditional role of the aid organisation has morphed into that of activism.
These days most large aid agencies are mainstays in political debates, hire professional campaigners, employ legions of spin doctors and seek to gain financial support by aligning themselves rock star “causes”.
It’s also now commonplace for aid groups to play political hardball even if it involves distorting the truth to achieve a goal. It’s all for a good cause after all.
Three years ago, World Vision ran a prolonged, hard negative campaign around the 2006 Melbourne G-20 meetings attacking the then Government over third-world debt forgiveness and foreign aid.
I won’t attempt to analyse the rights or wrongs of debt forgiveness, suffice to say that World Vision claimed 30,000 children were dying every day because our foreign aid was too low, and that the billions lent to corrupt third-world dictatorships had not been forgiven.
Not much has changed since then, apart from the election of a Labor Government, but World Vision has not campaigned against the new Government. Nor has it run campaigns against the four G-20 summits held since.
Presumably 30,000 children are still dying each and every day but World Vision has been pretty much silent on the issue. Its activism helped achieve the activists’ grand prize – a change of Government – and the debate has moved on.
World Vision’s campaign director now heads the Climate Institute, and World Vision has switched to a new political campaign: climate change.
The new argument goes that governments in the West must adhere to new and tough emissions trading targets or children will be killed by weather events or climate induced famine.
And what of the kids?
World Vision raises money with the promise that people sponsor individual children. Prospective sponsors learn the name, age and gender of a child in a country and the money starts flowing.
It’s not until sponsors read the fine print that they learn that they are not sponsoring a child, per se, they are sponsoring an area or region and that funds are pooled for a variety of critical needs.
Recently, while in Ethiopia covering the famine, Foreign Corespondent journalist Andrew Geoghegan decided to find the little girl he and his family thought they had been sponsoring for years.
They had received numerous progress reports from World Vision, much like I had from my World Vision sponsor child in Vietnam.
Geoghegan’s reports had assured him that his child his child was making good progress in English at school.
Yet, when he overcame World Vision roadblocks and tracked her down, Geoghegan discovered that she had only just found out that she even had a sponsor, spoke no English, her family were barely surviving and the only things she had ever received from World Vision were a denim jacket and a ball point pen.
Geoghegan was rightly horrified and put his experience to air.
World Vision has since failed to address how its organization had systematically and cynically lied to Geoghegan by sending him misleading reports on the outcomes of his sponsor child.
I’m not sure what Geoghegan did, but I cancelled the sponsorship of “my child” and presumably the person who was probably inventing her progress reports.
It was clear to me that not enough of the money I wanted to go to her was getting there. Instead it was being diluted on armies of PR people waging a deceitful political war over issues with which I didn’t believe or agree.
As in all forms of communication, the best line is a true line and I simply don’t believe World Vision is being fair dinkum with the public and its donors about what it stands for.
If you want to be an aid organization, be an aid organization. If you want to run political campaigns do that; but don’t raise aid money for little helpless children and then use it to fund political campaigns.
My money now goes to an organization in which I have confidence that it is actually getting to a child. That’s what happens in the West when we spot a fake.
Tragically, in the Third World, a much rougher form of retribution is dispensed when they think they spot one.
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