Limits

An NGO closed down all its activities for lack of money. Bad management? Unavoidable problems linked to the economic crisis in Europe? I do not know and there is no point in trying to walk on the slippery ground of mistakes, guilt, scapegoats & co.

They closed down and the expats working in the country left in hurry for fear of becoming victims of the (more or less fair) claims from the employees and various creditors.With no more money left the only thing to do was to sell the remaining belongings in order to pay the last salaries. Pretty logical.
Did they leave one person responsible for that or choose an external agent with the mandate of managing the exit strategy? No.
They wrote and signed a paper where – in one paragraph – they named a local staff delegate in charge of selling the remaining goods of the NGO and distributing the money to her colleagues. Orally, they told her to take a percentage as “compensation” (her contract, and her regular wage with it, had ended along with all the others) and that was all.

It is maybe just my personal point of view but leaving a person with such a responsibility without a clear mandate and no help of any sort led me to think about how difficult it can be to trace the line between stupidity and criminal act. 

If the expats left so quickly it surely means that they actually understand well the danger in which a person can be in such a situation.
More than one hundred local staff left suddenly without a job, thousands of euros to take back from selling goods and more than double that amount in debts. How do you expect people to react when they understand that just one person has the key to that money and that there is not enough for everyone?
If you add to this that many of the goods and staff were (and some still are) in war zones, I really think that studying conflict and knowing the “free rider” theory is not a necessary prerequisite to understand the gravity of the situation.

Even admitting that she will be able to go to all the provinces where the NGO had its bases, convince the people around not to steal everything by promising them they will get a piece of the cake back, that she will get enough money to pay a “fair” amount of money to all the former employees and that she will be able to convince everybody that the money she is taking as salary for herself is a fair amount for the job done – and those are already more that huge “if” -, how is she supposed to clear all the suspicions of not having sold at a good enough price, of having made fake bills, of having taken too much money for herself? The simple fact that she can even take money for all this is not guaranteed since she has no contract of that sort.

What I would like to ask those people who decided to give her such responsibilities is if they realized that someone can just decide to take “manually” from her the thousands of euros she is collecting. If they realize that, in the best of the scenarios, she is exposing herself to be pursued by the private companies with which the NGO had, and still has, thousands of euros of debts.

I got to know the story almost by chance, when she asked me candidly if, with the money left, she should pay the bank or another big company they had debts with, considering that the money was not enough for even one of the two.
For now I told her not to give any money since she has no mandate, and thus no authority, to decide who is to be prioritized; not to take any money for herself; and to take good care to obtain all the proofs of payment. Then to go to the embassy of the country where this NGO originates and ask for – at least legal – support.
In the meanwhile she will wait with a lot of money, stored I do not know where, and everybody knows it.

NGOs often lack of competence and a minimum of intelligence, to put it lightly, and their goodwill too often serves as a shield to cover for all the bullshit done.

But I still think that there are limits.

Can someone help me understand where to draw the limit between stupidity and criminal act?

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5 thoughts on “Limits

  1. Something about this incident has been grating at me for the last few days. Then I realised that it applies to an essay I wrote years ago on the ‘War on Terror’! At the risk of sounding like a poncey academic, I’m going to turn this into a quasi-philosophical argument: it appears that this NGO (and many like it, and also the UN) believes itself to be working in a “state of exception” (as analysed by Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt (yes, the Nazi jurist…), though in relation to states and warfare, not NGO interventions!).

    Creating a “state of exception” is about conscious and calculated construction of a new zone with a different normative order. We start from the premise/assumption that CAR is a fundamentally different world, in which the people are ‘not like us’ (indeed “the politics of exception is marked by racial and cultural signification”) and clearly their normative order is deficient, hence the need for us to step in and remedy it. As such, we are the crusaders coming to create and define a new order and we have the privilege of redefining things like ‘moral responsibility for actions’ as we wish.

    In this state of exception, certain events “bring forth their own political and existential imperatives” –so in this particular case, the emergency that was bankruptcy suspended any framework of a consultative process with staff, a legal agreement with the banks, and a reasoned effort to remedy the wrongs done. Instead, the solution was to abandon ship with no thought for the consequences.

    Now, how can such actions be reconciled with the NGOs presumable aims of development, well-being of locals, and respect for their rights? Precisely because the NGO is fighting for grand ambitions (liberal humanitarianism, ‘civilisation’, etc) they lose sight of the *individuals* concerned. These locals belong to an ‘Other’ culture, a barbaric one at that, and each individual is not worth as much as one of us, though of course we still want to save them *collectively*, this suffering mass of poor Africans. So long as the final end of bringing development and civilisation is good, then the means are justified. Individual lives are collateral damage in the greater fight for humanity. If you can claim on your website that you “provided clean water to 2.5 million people” then the few people sacrificed for you to make this claim matter little, right?

    I could go on about the decision-making process behind such actions as what you described above, and talk about “petty bureaucrats” and “governmentality” Foucault-style, or Hannah Arendt on banality of evil that would allow the people who actually took the decisions to not realise how wrong what they were doing was, but then I remember this is just a blog post! I just want to leave one more quote: “exceptions are now made as a continual mode of action, and they can be made by bureaucratic machinery and functionaries quite as easily as by grand sovereigns”. I’ll bet the person who wrote out that last “contract” for the lady honestly thought s/he was doing exactly what their job required of them.

    Now, I could be massively exaggerating. It could be that what happened here was down to one extremely naive individual with very poor judgment. However, it’s an incident that doesn’t surprise me and seems to be a pattern of behaviour/attitude in those ‘Messianic’ institutions coming to save the locals.

    The TL/DR version: individuals don’t matter when you’re saving the world.

    Now, just to be argumentative, you do know your post can be read as displaying an essentialist (and racist) view of the nature of people in CAR: there seems to be the strong insinuation that she would be in physical danger if she followed her former employers’ advice and needs to seek help from foreigners…because of course the locals know of no other way to resolve disputes than through violence. Oh those wacky Africans: as soon as there’s money involved, they’ll have their machetes out and be looting and thieving!

  2. I was saying “I’ll reply soon when I’ll have some more time” when I stepped onto the last paragraph…. Now I’m obliged to stop saving those wacky Africans and spend precious minutes answering to your (wrong) argument.

    The logic of my argument was a bit different from what you presented.
    I am not saying that their primary mistake was forgetting how dangerous people here are. It was more “if they decided to leave because of security issues” (read: bad people threatening expats) is it possible that they did not think that the same “issues” could well apply to a local?
    Secondly, even admitting that I also think she is in danger (I do, even though not that much) how can be it racist to say it? The same situation transposed to another country, especially (but not only) where the State is not present and there is no other legal way to take the money back, can present the same problems to someone who has a sum that is around 80 times the average salary.
    Maybe behind your view there is an essentialist (and racist) view of white people like me looking at Africa and Africans…. Those racist Italians! 🙂

  3. Well, I wasn’t serious at all, but since we’ve started this…you didn’t say the expats left because of specific threats; indeed from the post it seemed they were thinking “we got into a mess, better get out of here ASAP before those crazy Africans break out their AK47s”, so that justifies my (pseudo)argument! Second, it’s not the fact of thinking this woman faces a specific threat, but the assumption running through the post that at every turn she faces an angry mob ready to violently pry from her hands what they believe is theirs. And you make the same argument in your reply : without the State or law to intervene, the locals cannot possibly conceive of a means to resolve a dispute over money other than violence.
    Thank you for at least having the grace, in your last sentence, to accept your inherent racism. 😛

  4. I actually did say that expats must had taken into account the risks of staying (Line 17). It is true that I did not much develop the argument but if you see the letter I wrote to the President of the NGO I am talking about, you would see that I have been even more clear on that point. Moreover I did not enter into the details on how they left but for the sake of argument I will add that three (3!) days before the departure they where asking to another NGO about possible collaborations (to give a fake assurance that they where going to stay) and that they informed all the other colleagues about their decision only the same day they took the flight. Saying that they were scared is an euphemism.

    Then about the fact that you insist with your prejudicial arguments over my pretended racism : 1) If someone cannot take into account the role of the context in influencing people’s behaviors – ie: the role of the State or some other forms of social control / canalization / organization – without being accused of racism than means that no analysis can ever be possible and everything will be reduced by the more and more powerful presence of – the nemesis of – political correctness. God no! 2) I did say and think that the same logic can be applied to other cases/countries/populations from which I do not exclude my own country. You can say that I am inherent pessimist towards human nature – which is, by the way, true even though I would call it being realistic not pessimistic – but you cannot say I am racist.

    I know you have a deeper level of analysis so please accept that, at least this time, you have being guided by nothing else than prejudices towards my skin color and let’s move forward. 😉

    A part from that I totally agree with your analysis (the main one): this accident happened in a context where such cases, even if not all so extreme like this one, are more frequent than what we think and where the unintended – more exactly is maybe unthought – consequences of intervention often – mostly? – protected by the rhetoric of goodwill and humanism.

    I totally agree with you that the person who wrote the last “contract” was convinced doing “no harm”. The capacity of human nature to living on lies that we tell to ourselves is another interesting chapter. Without pretending to reach Cungo in her quotations (Arendt, Foucault…) I only add that also the non-academic literature has some interesting hints like the idea of the “double-thought” in 1984 by George Orwell.

    Will tell you about the development of the story.

  5. Well, now you’ve specified the contextual details, it’s a different matter. My comments related to the initial post you had made, with a broad sweep of event. *I* know you’re not a racist (well…)-but I’ve read too many articles from otherwise decent and reputable sources which, by not providing any more insight, detail and context, end up helping to perpetuate some of the stereotypes that they think they’re ultimately breaking down.
    This is the particular sentence I want to highlight: “How do you expect people to react when they understand that just one person has the key to that money and that there is not enough for everyone?” –>instant images of a wild black mob scrabbling for every penny it can get its hands on…

    Btw, I agreed with you (as you know :P); was being overly sensitive and argumentative. (but the point still stands).

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