From time to time in Africa I’m reminded of the years I spent on local papers in Britain. In particular, the stories about charities collapsing. On an almost monthly basis we would run a story about some well-meaning individual who has got it into his or her heart that it is about time they gave something back. It might start with a sponsored walk, or bike ride. And it might even include an attempt to “fly” on breakfast television using only several dozen helium-filled balloons.
But something would go wrong. Usually the charity would collect too much money. An accountant or a friend would be taken on to keep an eye on the books. But the money wouldn’t quite add up. Things would be hushed up for a while as everyone wracked their brains and tried to find a way to dig themselves out of a hole. But the result was inevitable. Someone who had donated money would wonder where their hard earned cash had gone, and give their local paper a bell.
On one memorable occasion we were tasked with tracking down Stuart Carnie, a self-styled paedophile hunter (the one who tried and failed to “fly” on the Big Breakfast) after he was involved in abducting a child “for her own safety”. I think he ended up in Brazil and eventually Newcastle Crown Court.
Carnie was clearly a nutter. One or two were con artists. But by and large most of these people were decent types who had no idea what they were getting into and then come a cropper with their name plastered all over The Aberdeen Press and Journal or The Chester Chronicle.
I was reminded of those cases by the Zoe’s Ark debacle. It’s unlikely that this bunch of “off-road enthusiasts” was part of an international child smuggling ring, given that they had taken along journalists for the ride. Far more likely that they were intent on helping the children of Darfur. Only they hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about it. And anyway, it’s Africa. Who knows if the kids are from Darfur or Chad? One parent or no parents? Well, it’s a war zone. Maybe no-one will check. And anyway, helping children find a better life has to be a good thing.
By coincidence, a report emerged from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies yesterday that seemed to suggest that this was an extreme example of a recognised problem: At the same time, there is a rising recognition that some international disaster responders are failing to respect the primary role of national authorities and domestic relief actors, insisting on sending unneeded or inappropriate aid and ignoring internationally-agreed humanitarian quality standards.
Too often well-meaning charities have no idea of what may or may not be appropriate. Gifts of goats that destroy pastures, seeds and tools distributed to communities with no assessment of whether they are hungry because of a lack of seeds and tools. It all happens.
One of the journalists who travelled with the Zoe’s Ark charity workers suggests they were “blinded by zeal”. Sounds about right to me.