Monthly Archives: June 2016

Aid Workers in Turkana: Outsider Lives and Compound Lifestyles

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been up in Turkana county, in northern Kenya. This is one of Kenya’s poorest counties; dry, arid and hot, it is not an easy life up here. Rural and pastoralist communities are spread out throughout the county, struggling to survive with a scarcity of water and relying on their cattle, goats and camels and various Food for Assets and Credit Transfer programmes; since the devolution process started in 2013, the county government is now leading many of these development initiatives in the area. Meanwhile, the refugee community in Kakuma in Turkana West sub-county is struggling to survive on the handouts of humanitarian agencies, with everyone waiting to find out if the camp – home to around 185000 refugees – will be closed following the Kenyan government’s announcement to this effect a few weeks ago.

It goes without saying that this is a very different context for aid interventions than Nairobi, where I’ve been most of the time whilst conducting field research in Kenya. In Nairobi aid workers are either based in national offices where they travel out to the field every few weeks, to their programmes dotted around the country (this of course includes Somalia for a lot of organisations, who cannot be based in the country permanently due to security risks); or they are based in the regional offices where they may be travelling even less, playing an administrative or supportive role to the staff based in countries such as South Sudan or Uganda.

Here in Turkana you can find aid and development workers who have barely travelled to Nairobi; some who are from Turkana and have rarely left the county. The air conditioned, bustling offices and plywood desks and swivel chairs of the INGO national headquarters in Nairobi are a long long way away. Here in Turkana most INGO offices are on sandy, dusty compounds with few trees or foliage, and a slow, sleepy atmosphere permeates with only fans and an occasional breeze to cool people down in temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to here, whether programme directors or field officers, are Kenyans. This would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. The expat aid worker presence, both here and in Nairobi, is falling year by year as Kenyan expertise increase and the restructuring of INGOs leads to more operations being managed and implemented at local and national level rather than from Europe. This reality, which can be seen across the globe as well as in Kenya, makes the need for greater recognition of the specific challenges faced by national aid workers even more crucial if we are to fully understand aid practice.

And here I outline some of those challenges that I’ve noticed as I spend time in Lodwar, the main city in Turkana and the local base for development INGOs including Oxfam, World Vision, Child Fund and Save the Children among others; and Kakuma, the base for humanitarian INGOs and UN agencies providing assistance to the refugee camp.

  • Many of the Kenyans I’ve spoken to are not from Turkana; their families are in another part of the country and they are visiting them every 2 or 3 months when they are on R and R (rest and recuperation). This is not the sort of place to bring your family, I’ve heard a few people say. So they must make do with speaking to their loved ones on the phone – provided they are not right out in the rural areas, where phone network may not work – or on skype – provided there is internet network, which is very intermittent here. And after 2 months, they spend what can be a day or more travelling to their family homes, for what may only be 5 days if they stick solely to the R and R they’re entitled to.
  • For most of Turkana county, you can find aid workers staying in guest houses or local accommodation, some in remote villages with no electricity or internet, and some in Lodwar and other large towns. In Kakuma, you can find them in one of the UN or INGO compounds. These are self-contained areas housing offices and staff accommodation, some of them small prefab units for people passing through for a short period of time. When not in the camp, humanitarian workers are confined to these compounds – it is where they work, eat and socialise – and are expected to return there when the curfew begins in the refugee camp at 6pm. Whether in Kakuma or other towns and villages in Turkana, there is not much to do outside office hours. None of the fancy restaurants found in Nairobi. No yoga classes or parks to walk around. And no supermarkets selling luxury items. In these circumstances, the social structure of one’s organisation is often all that exists in terms of support and social interaction. But on some weekends people travel out of town, to their homes or on R and R. So the humanitarian compound can be a quiet, uneventful place. Although some compounds, particularly those housing the UN staff, are better than others – one here has a gym and tennis court as well as cafeteria and bar.
  • One is very aware here of being seen as an outsider. In Lodwar, aid workers from outside Turkana told me of how they find the culture very different from their own; characterised by the diet – a lot of meat, mainly goat – or by the perceptions of women, for instance. One African expat in a senior position at an INGO told me of how she found the local authorities very reluctant to meet her when she arrived to introduce herself and make herself known to the community. She suspected there would have been a very different welcome if she’d been a man. Several others I spoke to in Lodwar commented on how the local community had seemed very suspicious towards them at first. This is partly a throwback to the derogatory treatment they were subjected to in colonial times, I was told; but also part of their guarded attitude as pastoralists defending their small communities and livestock, and their disillusionment with INGOs coming and going with endless surveys and overambitious or unfulfilled promises of development assistance.
  • In Kakuma, mistrust plays out in a different way. There is hostility particularly from the host community, who are tired of seeing the plethora of aid agencies turning up in their four wheel drives, hiding behind huge compounds just beside the refugee camp, and assisting the refugee community whilst apparently ignoring the abject poverty of the local population; although a number of organisations are trying to address this disparity with development interventions with the host community as well. One American expat told me of how she’d been attacked twice whilst going for a run in the area outside her compound, although she escaped largely unharmed on both occasions. Refugees too are also at times unhappy with the insufficient assistance received from the aid agencies here, occasionally protesting outside the agency compounds.

What is important to most aid workers I speak to in Turkana is having some form of social support network to turn to. Sometimes this may only be friends and family back home. For others, who are stuck up in a remote village for two months, it may be just one other colleague who is there with them. And for the expat humanitarian workers here in Kakuma, friendships are challenged by the continuing turnover of staff, as people finish one humanitarian posting and move on to another.

Life isn’t all bad of course. Staying in a quiet town with few ways to pass one’s time means money is saved, and for Kenyans this is particularly important when there are likely to be several relatives from the extended family expecting support. Expat aid workers have their supplies of luxury items such as olive oil, muesli, cheese and wine they’ve brought with them from Nairobi to keep them happy. And in the humanitarian compounds there is usually a party or gathering to go to at a neighbour’s house; one aid worker described his life there as ‘a bit like summer camp’.

Few aid workers have complained directly about their work with the communities. Those that have refer to the difficulties of meeting people’s expectations, particularly in what is often referred to as a very aid-dependent community. Most love the work they do, and feel a sense of fulfilment from the impact it has. The greater challenges often relate to what can at times be unbearable heat; the rough terrain throughout Turkana which can halt transport plans, particularly in the rainy season, leaving aid workers stranded in one place with few provisions; and the insecurity in certain areas – particularly on the borders with West Pokot county, where cattle rustling occurs between the Pokot and the Turkana pastoralists.

It has been an insightful time up here, exposing me far more directly to the realities of aid and development work than what I’ve witnessed so far in Nairobi. No doubt what I have described is familiar for many development and humanitarian workers. But outside the sector, these small but significant nuances are not always acknowledged in debates and analysis of what ‘aid work’ entails.

With only a few months left of my field research, it will soon be time to make sense of all of this and draw some conclusions, which I hope will be of value to the aid sector and to the many and diverse professionals working within it.