It’s not about the swimming pool

The Rotana swimming pool in Khartoum - favoured Saturday venue of Sudan's expat aid workers

There’s a fascinating blog post by Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s head of research, about whether the charity should open up its guest house swimming pool in Nairobi. Apparently it’s closed at present for fear of…

Reputational risk – back in the UK, where swimming pools are luxury items, Oxfam’s big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed it (see right, the blue of the pool is a protective tarpaulin, not water). It didn’t help when some bright spark decided to advertise for a swimming pool attendant on the Oxfam website……

Swahili Street has an interesting response:

The aid business is a very strange world. It sees itself as a world apart, which is self fulfilling. Thinking that yours is a world apart leads to both guilty hand wringing, as seen in Oxfam’s empty pool, and also a deeply unattractive  sense of entitlement, as seen in some of the comments on the post.

I think this hits the nail on the head. Charities have a lot to think about in East Africa. The billions of pounds poured into Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and the rest have made little difference to sustainable development. There’ll be another famine scare in the Horn in a year or so’s time, despite the 2011 appeals. Few of them dare speak out about the corruption and poor governance that means the region cannot move forward. And at times, the charities seem more interested in beating the others to funds (such as the occasion Oxfam moved forward its Darfur appeal to beat an upcoming one by the Disasters Emergencies Committee).

There is plenty for the charities to mull. The issue is not a sodding swimming pool. After all, I’ve swum with plenty of aid workers in plenty of pools across the region.


4 thoughts on “It’s not about the swimming pool

  1. So, to turn it on its head – what should it be about?

    Plainly not about thinking that their world is a world apart.

    Are they paternalistic? Are they busybodies who do more harm than good, or less harm than would be spent on educating a future opposition leader?

    Do the charities do any good at all? Should there just be a charity to reward good governance, fund political movements to oust bad governments, etc?

    Should the charities just spend their money on lobbying the UN to approve sanctions to lever bad governments out of power, etc.

    – Not that I have much faith in any of these ideas.

    One of the things that Iraq, Libya, Egypt, have taught us is that once in power, a leader will not go even when the writing is plainly on the wall.

  2. Living and working in many of these places is tough. As a journalist I have no issue with joining a club with a pool to survive Islamabad’s summer. I try to buy the best food I can and sleep somewhere comfortable, because it is difficult work and you can’t do it properly unless you are in good shape.
    So why might aid agencies think differently? Perhaps because so much of what they do is based on process – rather than outcome. So the swimming pool is the issue, rather than the wellbeing of their staff. And in the same way, the well is the important thing, rather than whether it will help the village stand on its own two feet.

  3. I’m sorry but it is perfectly possible to trhive in Africa without a swimming pool. If you require a swimming pool to do your work, you shouldn’t really be here.

    One reason why the Chinese are respected by locals is that they can get the job done without having to live obscene (by local standards) luxury.

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