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Aid work grounded in good relationships



The recent reports of sexual exploitation by officers of aid organisations in Haiti and elsewhere illustrate the truth of Aristotle's dictum about systems of governance, that the corruption of the best is the worst form of corruption.

Jesuit Mission project in NepalThe factors that contribute to such disgraceful behaviour are complex. They illustrate the constant need for self-reflection personally and in organisations, especially when one is doing good works.

Those who have worked in places of humanitarian disaster recognise the heightened sense of being alive and of the importance of seizing the moment which often accompanies such work. As with the British pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, relationships are easily formed and become very intense, and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour become fluid. Self-preoccupation and a righteous cause can easily dispel self-reflection.

In such an environment aid workers are by definition the good guys. They are vulnerable to the sense of entitlement evident in the sexual exploitation of the people whom the aid staff came to help. Central officers of the organisations, too, can be so focused on supporting their people in the risks and difficulties of their work that they do not monitor their behaviour.

The scandals in Haiti and elsewhere clearly underline the importance of care in choosing and supervising staff. They also prompt reflection on how people committed to help others in need should best understand their mission and with what attitude they should engage in it.

The basic attitude of aid workers is clearly the desire to give rather than to get. That line certainly excludes overtly mercenary or exploitative motivation, but beneath its virtue more selfish instincts can fester. It can helpfully be complemented by older sources of wisdom. Jesus' instructions to his disciples when he sends them out to preach the good news, for example, are as pertinent and subtle as they are initially puzzling.

He tells them to go out into the villages, taking a stick for walking, but no food, no extra clothing, no money to buy such things nor bag to carry them in, and to stay only when hospitably received.


"The attitude with which organisations and their workers bring emergency aid is critical. The heart of their work is to build relationships that will empower people."


The reasons for such instructions were not primarily ascetic but strategic. Without resources the disciples would be forced to beg food, drink and shelter. This meant that they had to see themselves first as beggars and not as givers. Beneath the paradoxical strategy lay the insight that people are more likely to be open to people to whom they have done a favour. They will then have opened a relationship that they feel good about, will talk freely about themselves, and will be more interested in what their guests have to say or give.

We might call this strategy the path of reverse hospitality. The most effective way of reaching people is not first to offer them your hospitality but to beg them for theirs. If they respond by offering you hospitality they will be more ready to accept you and what you have to offer.

This logic explains why on soup vans the encounters most filled with possibility occur when the person who receives food is made to feel that she is offering hospitality to the person who provides the food. It also explains why volunteers so often say they began with a desire to give, but now recognise that they receive much more than they give.

In large scale aid work the emergency services that provide medicine, security, food, shelter and sanitation are clearly the first priority. They cannot be delivered by people who come penniless on foot waiting to be asked. But the attitude with which organisations and their workers bring even emergency aid is critical. The heart of their work is to build relationships that will empower people.

The building of such relationships is predicated on seeing the people who are served as givers and not as receivers. This is the distinctive form of respect that allows relationships to grow.

To maintain this attitude will demand considerable investment by agencies in communicating the importance in its external and internal relationships of reverse hospitality as their defining quality. The capacity to appreciate its rationale and importance must also be a central priority in the appointment of staff, particularly of those involved in management and financial services.

This will ensure that the corporate financial and management skills necessary to sustain an organisation are built into it, but that they do not control or dictate its priorities and practices. Efficiency and financial stability are means to a larger end: the humanity of the people served and the relationships through which they are served and empowered. These are always the gift of the person served.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Jesuit Mission project in Nepal.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Oxfam, international aid



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Existing comments

Andrew This is brilliant!! While reading it I wondered if our Church would have perpetrated any abuse if we had the attitude Jesus challenges us to in service. Secondly, I was reminded of many Aboriginal Elders teaching me as a much younger social worker how I needed to be in respectful relationships of service. One inspirational Aboriginal man helped me to listen once (or twice!!) when he told me that I had no ears! The teachings of Jesus and many Aboriginal Elders have many similarities. We could learn from both!

Kenise | 08 March 2018  

Thanks Andy. In particular thanks for this quote. "The attitude with which organisations and their workers bring emergency aid is critical. The heart of their work is to build relationships that will empower people." So often were are get so absorbed in 'doing the job' we forget about the people.

Bill Armstrong AO | 08 March 2018  

Thanks indeed Andrew for a word in season ....timely in relation to Australia's relationship with Timor Leste where Australian visitors in WW2 forged mutually crucial relationships with Timorese people. Fast forward to the newly resolved maritime boundary and the Greater Sunrise gas deposits. How would it be if, after our shabby track record on this, our government could form a grand bargain with the Timorese to enable them to retain complete ownership of this crucial resource....and to develop its potential. Our government could be honest broker with mutually agreed resource companies. These would provide technical and commercial capacities; capital resources for the extraction, local training and skills development, processing, and transport needed. Profits from this resource over time would phase in and complete total Timorese ownership. Foundational to this would be the national integrity and moral agency of the Timorese people.

Wayne Sanderson | 08 March 2018  

Just great.

Pat Sheahan | 08 March 2018  

"The building of such relationships is predicated on seeing the people who are served as givers and not as receivers. This is the distinctive form of respect that allows relationships to grow". This approach is the only way that mutuality will ever be able to flourish between people and between people and other-than-humans. How to teach this beautiful and awesome paradox Andrew ... that is the question! I have before me a reflection by Jean Vanier. It reads: "To love is not to give of your riches but to reveal to others their riches, their gifts, their value, and to trust them and their capacity to grow. So it is important to approach people in their brokenness and littleness gently, so gently, not forcing yourself upon them. but accepting them as they are, with humility and respect". How magnificent is that! Imagine meeting another who understands this and enacts it ... just imagine!

Mary Tehan | 08 March 2018  

Thanks for this insightful reflection, which I found useful and challenging – as you note, the reflections apply to many of us working in Australia today. As you know, there are also some further dimensions to the issues in play. You focus on humanitarian response to people in need, and, for the sake of the article, assumes good will. However, much abuse relates to other types of foreign intervention: Even if we steer clear of overtly criminal, illegal or commercial arrangements and of tourism, there are forms of intervention that far outstrip humanitarian responses in the number and the remuneration of foreigners that deployed in poorer countries: UN peacekeeping forces, UN administrative teams, non-emergency aid projects and programs, police and military deployments in support of civil authorities (including visits by naval vessels), large scale diplomatic deployments, etc. In many of these cases the expatriate is earning many, many times as much money as the local person; has access to accommodation, food, travel, medicine etc at a very different level; is protected from violence and oppression by a very different regime. In many cases, the expatriate motivation is not unrelated to the remuneration and other perks. And the expatriate soldier, aid worker, diplomat etc is often working away from many of the traditional institutional or societal restraints on behaviour. This imbalance in power and resources can lead to exploitation. Appealing to the better natures of these expatriates is important, as are similar appeals to the compradores and other enablers of oppression. But it is not sufficient. Awareness by local authorities of the risks at play is important, and so too is awareness by authorising bodies. That awareness needs to be turned into risk management. The establishment of appropriate rules, and of sanctions, and of an enforcement regime, are also important.

Denis Fitzgerald | 08 March 2018  

Thank you all very much for your comments and for the rich experience that lies behind them. Denis, you bring out well the complexity of situations where massive aid is given, and the different backgrounds and motivation of the players. The old saying in such situations says that three kinds of people are to be found: mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. My article addressed only the missionaries - those with an altruistic motivation - and suggested a refinement of the way in which that is usually articulated. But there is another article that could be written on how altruistic aid workers ought relate to the complexities of the situation, and how they might influence the culture they find for the better.

Andy Hamilton | 08 March 2018  

A terrific piece. There is a huge and increasing tension in the aid - humanitarian sector between the values of efficiency and impact on the one hand and of maintaining and investing in reciprocal relationships with the beneficiaries on the other. The accountability is always to the community in the last instance and only partially to funders. This is the great challenge. It is only accompaniment and reciprocity of this kind that can act as a counter weight to the power differential inherent in any aid relationship thus mitigating the risk of corruption, mismanagement and other abuses.

David Holdcroft | 08 March 2018  

”The scandals in Haiti and elsewhere clearly underline the importance of care in choosing and supervising staff”……What was lacking at Oxfam in regards to the Haiti scandal, was moral leadership, as the leadership participated in corruption….quote... “They did “let go” of some people whilst others “resigned” and took up positions elsewhere….” Were any sacked? The exclusion of the word ‘sacked’ as in dismissal, points us in the direction of damage limitation, as I suspect many were just moved on (Given references) to save face and then for them to continue in the same sinful behaviour, within another charity or elsewhere. This course of action, it is fair to say, took place at board level, as now a sacrificial director has resigned, who most probably will soon find another welcoming good job, but the ongoing culture remains the same, hide the problem as in give it to someone else, as now CAFOD has suspended one of its workers, who joined them from Oxfam. Is this not the same old boy’s culture that we find within the Church? This collusion with evil that is found within so many institutions requires a fundamental shift of culture, as in repent (Change direction) More so within the Church who should be leading in humility, from the front?....Please consider reading a way forward in humility; see link http://www.catholicethos.net/catholic-teaching-assault-amoris-laetitia/#comment-192

Kevin Walters | 19 March 2018  

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