From time to time, I visit Duncan Green's blog, From Poverty to Power, an official blog of UK charity, Oxfam. I envy Duncan's writing style, find the content very informative and besides Duncan even permits me to register all my protests against Oxfam's global warming policy obsessions as comments (which is big plus, plus for repeat visits).One of his recent posts was a little different: "The great Nairobi guesthouse swimming pool dilemma – cast your vote now……" Being an official blog of Oxfam, this simply can't be Duncan's personal views alone. Here's the post itself:Nairobi is a major NGO hub, currently the epicentre of the drought relief effort, and Oxfam’s regional office realized some years ago that we could save a pile of money if we ran our own guesthouse, rather than park the numerous visitors in over-priced hotels. It’s nothing fancy, definitely wouldn’t get many stars, but it’s much more relaxed than a hotel and a brilliant place to meet the kind of people I profiled recently. It’s really rather unique.
But there’s a problem. As a large converted house in a nice part of town, and like most such houses in Nairobi, it has a swimming pool. But the swimming pool is covered over and closed, even though it would be cheap to keep it open. Why? 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……On my recent stay at the guesthouse, I asked everyone I met there and whether African or mzungu, they all said it makes sense to open the pool. Exhausted aid workers arrive hot and dusty from remote areas of East Africa for some R&R, but there’s no chance of a refreshing swim. I need my exercise so had to go running instead – the combination of altitude, hills and choking traffic fumes nearly killed me.On the other hand there’s no denying that most of our supporters back in the UK, let alone the people we are working to help, are not likely to have access to a pool in their back yard, so why should aid workers get special treatment? (And I have to confess, when I interviewed the members of a sex workers’ collective in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago as they relaxed by their aid-funded organization’s pool, I was rather shocked myself.)So what do you think? Should Oxfam open the pool and take any bad publicity on the chin, or should we stop whining? It would probably cost about $200-300 a month to keep the pool open – if we could find a way to do it without creating an accounting nightmare, we could probably raise that from contributions from guests, and even have money to spare to plough back into Oxfam programmes. Vote now (see right).Vote choices: Open the pool; Open the pool but only on if it at least covers its own costs; Keep the pool closed; Don’t waste my time – use the blog for something more high-minded please (and you can choose more than one option).Perhaps unintentionally, Duncan gives us an insight to the organizational culture of Oxfam. The swimming pool is closed as it poses a "reputational risk" (to read Oxfam is a heavily PR image conscious organization); "no denying that most of our supporters back in the UK, let alone the people we are working to help, are not likely to have access to a pool in their back yard, so why should aid workers get special treatment?" (to read: staff having guilt trips for sustaining lavish lifestyles)All these emotional upheavals had been apparently triggered by "some bright spark decided to advertise for a swimming pool attendant on the Oxfam website". That probably why the need for such a post. It is however amazing that Duncan feels only a swimming pool could negatively condition public perception. This is how The Hindu, a leading newspaper group in India, perceived the NGO sector in Kabul:"People working in these NGOs lead a lavish lifestyle. A look at their offices and their houses, the way they are furnished, the air-conditioned cars they drive, all add to the resentment of the people, as it all comes out of the aid being pumped into the country."So what difference will one measly swimming pool with an attendant make to changing popular public perceptions of the extravagant lifestyles of these INGO staffers? In fact, in India, fuel guzzling SUVs are even considered a clear Oxfam legacy to the NGO sector. All you need to find a NGO office is to successfully spot the SUVs parked as a clutter outside it.Personally, I don't see why anyone should object to good pay scales and working conditions for NGO staff, particularly humanitarian workers who often have to brave security threats; adapt to difficult living conditions; suffer long separation from family to carry out their jobs. But let me react from a very different level.The poor ostensibly is touted by NGOs as their primary constituency. The poor doesn't pass judgement or preach to NGOs how to lead their lives. On the contrary, they aspire to attain the lifestyles of NGO staffers. But the reciprocity of expectations does not exist. NGOs tend to arrogate the right to tell the poor what to aspire and how to lead their lives.We see this hypocrisy most lucidly in Oxfam's climate advocacy. The poor they tell us will enjoy a more sustainable life for example by having one solar lantern and using cow dung for cooking. And how about themselves? Well, they are all linked up to the energy grid. They need to. After all refrigerators; air-conditioners; micro-oven; computers; mobiles; stereos; mixies etc all need power! Agriculture should be sustainable even if yields are less and farmers earn less. is yet another common advocacy refrain.
As for themselves, they need salaries at par or just a tad below the corporate sector for a sustainable livelihood! One of the comments to the post noted that Oxfam is currently recruiting a Communications Director at £ 80,000 p.a. plus perks! And of course this prospective staff will need this entire amount and more. Flaunting one’s green credentials doesn’t come cheap. A hybrid or electric car for example needs at least 3 times the budget of a petrol version of the model.We all know that Oxfam staff are the high fliers, some competing with Rajendra Pachauri who have already logged flying miles, so extensive, that ordinary mortals even after 10 rebirths cannot aspire to overtake!. A few of them fly around the world to warn the public that aviation fuel is just plain evil! All the same, they advocate for higher taxation on aviation to discourage air travel that in turn will reduce the carbon footprint of the industry. So while it becomes more and more expensive for people, including their supporters to fly, Oxfam staff continues to fly merrily and in process, burning up taxpayers money and their supporters donations.Oxfam say they are deeply incensed at high food inflation and increasing number starving people in this planet. And what's their solution? Higher taxation of fossil fuels; use of expensive renewable energy and even introducing a bunker tax on the shipping industry - all steps that would further accentuate food inflation and global starvation numbers.So Duncan, if you reading this post, no one will probably grudge an Oxfam staffer taking a dip in your own swimming pool. Boy, you guys even deserve it. Particularly you Duncan for all your excellent posts. We all know besides a donor office could be at times, a real cuckoo's nest. That dip in a pool might be the only saving grace for many of you. But please, please spare us the hypocrisy of your climate change advocacy. Make a living, if you must out of the poverty business. Spend every pound you raise for staff salary and their comforts, if you feel you must. But always remember the key humanitarian principle Do No Harm to communities you profess you serve and who you tout as speaking on their behalf.The number of comments Duncan's post attracted should be a record of sort. Collectively they might even overshadow the brilliance of the post. So visit Duncan’s blog here and check it out yourself.