Aid workers go where others fear to tread
23 February 2018
I’ve just come back from the Central African Republic [CAR), the world’s poorest country ranked 188 out of 188 in the UN Human Development Index in 2016. Life is unbelievably tough for the country’s 4.5m people. Conflict and poverty have ravaged this country for years, with armed groups controlling whole swathes of the country and its mineral resources. These groups have perpetrated appalling human rights abuses, with widespread sexual violence and use of child soldiers. In recent years, problems have been exacerbated by inter community tensions and violence between Muslim and Christian communities. Even the most basic public services have collapsed, leaving many people with no access to education or health services: the adult literacy rate is just 36% and life expectancy 51.
Today around half of the population in CAR need humanitarian aid just to survive - aid provided by the EU, UN and many individual governments and delivered by aid workers, many of them working for charities. Working in CAR isn’t easy and it’s dangerous. We weren’t allowed to leave the capital Bangui and could only visit certain parts of the city. Last year 14 aid workers were killed, making it the most dangerous place to work after Syria. But still Oxfam and other charities are there, alongside UN agencies like UNICEF, providing basic services for children, for women and for hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
One thing that’s often forgotten is that many aid workers in countries like CAR are local workers. If aid projects close, they will lose their jobs too - and in Africa one worker will often be keeping an entire family. One aid organisation I met told me they had around 30 workers from HQ on the ground in CAR, but 240 local staff who supported around 50 people each with their still modest salary.
What we are hearing now about the behaviour of some aid workers is sickening. They have let down not only those they were there to assist, but all those who supported their work through donations and voluntary work. Things need to change and procedures be tightened up. But I hope we won’t lose sight in all this of the many, many aid workers out there in the field, bringing hope and dignity to millions. They deserve our continued support.
Linda McAvan is a Labour MEP for Yorkshire and Humber and Chair of the Development Committee in the European Parliament.
Picture: Linda McAvan MEP meeting with aid workers and locals