In the queue with UNHCR

On Wednesday we went to visit a particular District Commissioner to clear some upcoming programme activities. He's the senior government representative in a pretty large area: if you want to do something in his district, then protocol demands that you get his blessing.

There's a lengthy queue of people waiting in the sun outside his office – petitioners ranging from tenant farmers who've been evicted from their land, to local hotel-owners wanting the DC to open their new bar. We join the queue.

We've been waiting about half an hour when a gleaming white UNHCR Land Cruiser pulls up, and four people get out: three ex-pat staff, and a Kenyan member of what NGOs universally refer to as their 'local staff' (why can't they just have 'staff'?) They're three UNHCR Protection Advisers, up from their office in Nairobi's leafy Westlands suburb and 'out in the field' to find out how the local government is providing for IDP's livelihoods. Jolly exciting.

I've heard various stories about the attitudes of international agencies here in Kenya. I'm pretty new to all this, and my experience of the international humanitarian sector is very limited. Maybe these were an unusually insensitive bunch: I've no doubt UNHCR has its fair share of sensitive, talented, community-embedded people, often working in infinitely more challenging circumstances than central Kenya. And I'm the same as them, of course: a white do-gooder, arrogantly joining the queue outside the DC's office. All the same, from an ill-experienced mzungu to some aid industry old hands, I humbly submit four tips for being 'out in the field':

  1. You find a group of people from a local NGO (us) waiting in the queue outside the DC's office. Don't walk up, ignore all the black staff members, introduce yourself to the only white one, hand your card only to him, and look only at him while you're talking. Then don't raise your eyebrows and look surprised when they white guy awkwardly introduces one of the black guys as actually being in charge.

  2. When the DC comes out to meet you and starts talking, don't irritably tell your only black colleague - a fully-fledged programme officer - that she should be taking notes for you.

  3. You have aid funds to disburse. As you well know, the DC wants them for his district. He will therefore suggest that you can jump the queue outside his office.

    That doesn't mean that you should jump the queue outside his office.

    If you are going to jump the queue, don't grin apologetically at all the people who have been waiting here since early that morning, and sit in the DC's office for the next hour.

  4. Just because you're 'in the field' (actually a pretty big, central town) doesn't mean you have to wear the aid industry field uniform (jeans and floaty Indian tops; or worse, in the case of the 40-something male Senior Protection Adviser, an Eminem T-shirt, a safari hat, and a pair of bright pink jeans). You're here to see a government official – you could pretend you think he's important. Everyone else in the queue, including the guys who've been evicted from their farm, have managed to wear a jacket, and most of them a tie. I can't see any lions and tigers around here. You could at least wear a fucking shirt.


Update: : Having taken the piss out of UNHCR's swanky Land Cruiser, on the way back from the DC's office our creaky Nissan Mistral gave up the ghost. Serves us right.

1 comment:

  1. wow i got annoyed by proxy. fascinating, right? did it make you wonder how long you have to be working there to act like that?