Monday, 12 February 2018

Oxfam and the Perils of Remote Operations

The recent news of Oxfam troubles over the behaviour of some staff in Haiti should come as no surprise to those who have worked in the poorer parts of the world.  I don’t think this is an issue about charities per se. Instead it about standards, and about how anybody who finds themselves in foreign cultures applies them.

Beyond more times than I can recall, I have seen examples of bad behaviour by Europeans  (including British) and North Americans while working in poorer societies. Use of either prostitution or having a local girlfriend while in country is commonplace.  In the early 2000s, I did one particular job in Kazakhstan for a month, which involved regular rotation work for many colleagues. The temptations there were incredible.  I stayed a month and refused further work because if I had returned I am certain that I would have been unable to hold my marriage together.  Divorce is indeed the fate that befell most of my married colleagues: out of forty guys who were on month-on-month-off rotation, by the end of two years (by which time the contract ended) thirty-eight of them were divorced. Some of them came away with new partners, others required courses of medication.

It can be argued that in this case there was no moral leadership, which is perfectly true. In fact, there is often a large degree of peer-pressure to get people “dirty”, so that they are not going to blab when they go home. “What happens in the field stays in the field” is an old saying that is still honoured.  It can be argued that charities are engaged in noble work and should be held to higher standards than a bunch of rig-pigs. In reality though, standards to which any person operates are the ones that they carry with them.  When back in the UK (or wherever home is), one is held to certain standards, the social norms. It is quite common for a man to leave his own society and, finding himself in a new society whose norms he is unaware of but is offered easy access to sex, drugs and alcohol. The newcomer has a vast amount of spending power compared to locals and a proportion of those local folk not only want that cash but are willing to deliver pretty much anything in order to get it. The newcomer is basically entering a moral vacuum where there are few external boundaries. If that person does not carry moral standards within him or herself (and no, that is not me being politically correct – one former colleague said she enjoyed working in Angola because of all the “uncomplicated sex”) then they are capable of living out their wildest fantasies. Abuse is only possible because the power is so one-sided. Kazakhstan is a society that has become a lot richer over the past two decades and, as economic power has equalised, the desperate excesses of the late 1990s are no more. 

Corporations are very aware of the perils of this lifestyle and nowadays try to control the situation by overworking employees. That may include long shifts, seven-day-a-week working and no leaving of the hotel or staff house. Some even have tried to introduce a strict policy of no alcohol while on rotation, that even includes airports and flights.  Such extreme measures, in all, make a complete misery of foreign working and takes any joy out of the proceedings. What is the use of being in a country when one is not able to visit any site of interest or culture? By the same reasoning of course, it keeps others out of the fleshpots. Many of the senior executives know the perils of course, because while they were in the field they were often the worst offenders.

It may be possible to keep oil workers away from the public but charity works, by definition, involves public contact and being part of the fabric of the host society. It will be a lot harder to enforce a moral standard as isolation is not possible. Before I continue, I don’t want to cast aspersions on everybody. For example, I came across a brilliant team of American doctors and nurses in Mauritania who had given up a month of their time to provide free operations and medical care to local people. Another good example I encountered was a UN conference in Kampala on refugees and stateless people. Much good is being done, so please do not get the idea that all foreign charity work is a waste of time. It isn’t. There are bad examples though. In West Africa, the UN workers were often derided for being in place to stop the exploitation of women while being themselves regular clients of sex workers.  Some of the most unpleasant individuals I have ever met have been diplomats attached to various embassies - although I have not encountered misbehaviour from any UK staff.

When it comes down to how to solve such problems, it is difficult. Cultural awareness must be one key. I don’t know what courses are available to charity workers before they are shipped out to remote parts of the world, but I don’t recall much training on this being offered in industry.  Leadership in field is another imperative.  If the leader is a sleaze, the team is left to their own personal standards. In fact, as I stated above, bad conduct is often encouraged from those indulging in it.

Perhaps the worst examples though are not failures in individual behaviour but extravagance in operations. Both the following examples come from former colleagues and both involve Oxfam. Both are also historical: at least twenty years old.  The first one concerns a colleague comes backing from West Africa and, unexpectedly, he is upgraded to business class. Next to him is some guy and, as the flight goes on, they fall into conversation.
“Who do you work for?”
The engineer expresses surprise that he is travelling business class.
“Oh, I don’t work directly for Oxfam. My company are being hired on a consultancy basis.”

The second example was another friend who, as engineer-in-charge, was running an operation out of Port Hardcourt in Nigeria. The house that the company was renting could sleep ten and was often used for crews coming and going to rigs and arriving in country.  One day the landlord comes to the engineer and gives notice, unless more than double the rent can be provided.
“That’s crazy!” says my friend. The landlord says calmly that he already has an alternative tenant lined up on these terms.
“Who is it?”
“That must be a huge team that they are moving in.”
“Oh no, it’s just for one person.”