The premise: Every human life is of equal value

What suburb someone lives in.  How much they earn.  How big or beautiful their house is.  The university they went to.  The degree(s) they earned at that university.  How they look.  What clothes they wear.  What car(s) they drive.   Where they go or what they do on holiday.

When these are the standards set to measure success it becomes easy for the idea that every human life is of equal value to become distorted.  Some of the biggest distorters of this premise are, in my experience, those who refer to themselves as “humanitarian”.

When I first went away with Medecins Sans Frontieres I had an excessively emotional and at times distressing ordeal.  Not from seeing poverty on a scale beyond anything I’d ever perceived was possible.  Not from seeing children, young and old people dying from completely preventable and unnecessary causes, with hunger often the underlying culprit leading to their disease.  Not from stepping over newborn babies, postnatal mothers, medical, surgical, paediatric and infectious patients all huddled as one on dirty hospital floors in foyers and corridors.  Not from the many disabled people I met without the wheelchairs, prostheses or other basic assistance that they needed.  Not from the parents asking me if I would please take care of their child so that she might survive.

My excessive emotions came directly from fellow expatriates sharing this environment with me.  A European doctor who, in explaining to me how angry she was that she hadn’t been authorised the extra day off she wanted, announced in front of our local colleague who could hear and understand her, that “I am not just some local staff with no choice!  I am ‘ere because I am a ‘ewe-manit-eeeeerian!  WE, ‘Elen, WE are ‘ewe-manit-eeeeerians”!  I looked out of the window away from her, recoiling at the idea that I was in any way connected to humanitarianism if this level of open arrogance was what it meant.  That was my first insight into the idea that not everyone traveling away under the guise of offering their services for humanitarian causes, shared my premise that all lives are equal.  My experiences in this regard, in hindsight, ran riot in that first twelve months, when I spent interminable hours trying to understand the viscerally disturbing anger welling up inside of me towards some of my colleagues.

That is not to say that every expatriate was excessively arrogant.  They were not and I made some lovely, lasting and respectful friendships.  But I struggled continuously with many enormous egos who didn’t understand that the cute baby they were taking a selfie with and posting on Facebook, was actually cute because she was so badly malnourished and that her parents had no way of preventing you from plastering her photograph on a public and international forum.  Or that the elderly, toothless lady whose face abruptly met the lens of your camera had no idea about Facebook, or that her image was about to be sent out across cyberspace without her knowledge, let alone her permission.  Oneday I had to literally fight with a European doctor who wanted to visit the home of a dying patient in an Islamic village, directly over the street from the village mosque, dressed in buttock-exposing shorts and spaghetti straps tank top.  This same doctor was later sent to another country with enormous poverty and disease, and her main impression was relayed to us as not being allowed to wear her bikini on the beach.

Expatriates from France, where Christmas and Easter are such commanding traditions, complaining about Khmer celebrations because “I cannot understand why this is so important to anyone”, seem to have no insight into their egocentrism.  They have no misgivings whatsoever, in sending local staff away from home on the cheapest bus fare, to stay in the cheapest accommodation, and joking that the staff must be trying to cheat them by taking the policy-driven per diem (<$10/day) to cover away-from-home costs; then in the next week sending their highly paid European counterparts to the same location in a private car, booking VIP hotel rooms and checking that they are not in any way out-of-pocket.

When a local doctor oneday informed our staff meeting that a specific patient was severely ill and would need palliative care, the newly arrived French nurse manager with no experience in the medical condition being discussed, instructed the team “No!  I saw that patient yesterday!  He is not so sick and we will not pay for transfer to palliative care”.  The next day the patient died.  Would she dare be so imperious to European doctors?  No she would not.

My own experiences are crumbs compared with those that local staff tolerate from expatriates who arrive from their comfortable homes, into positions of power over locals whose strong knowledge, years of experience, and contextual understanding are not recognised or appreciated.  At an annual work dinner recently, the restaurant was contacted and requested to reserve one table as “VIP”.  Every expatriate joined this table, not one of them questioning their self-nominated status against their local colleagues.  Some expatriates assume the local staff are all corrupt and cannot be trusted; others think that recent graduation from a rich-country university places them above experienced locals and use the opportunity to teach people to suck eggs without any attempt at assessing the situation first.  This lack of humility leads to some very embarrassing situations, but when you consider yourself superior you can brush humiliation off with ease.

Local people in poor countries have limited options in life which leaves them unprotected and vulnerable, emboldening perceptions of supremacy in visitors from privileged backgrounds.  The only time I’ve heard any public mention of the known abuses that occur in environments with excessive power differentials, such as the humanitarian world, has been when the abuse reached sensational levels.  Headlines in 2017 of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in some international NGOs don’t describe transgressions occurring in isolation of otherwise virtuous behaviour.  They sit at the pinnacle of a largely invisible, unreported and demeaning iceberg of imported egoism and self-appointed prestige.

Returning to my first paragraph:
What suburb someone lives in.  How much they earn.  How big or beautiful their house is.  The university they went to.  The degree(s) they earned at that university.  How they look.  What clothes they wear.  What car(s) they drive.   Where they go or what they do on holiday.
Expatriate humanitarians from wealthy countries beat local staff in poor countries at most of these superficial measures, as do a small privileged number of locals.  Yet, after years of observing the dynamic between people sharing a workplace but with a massive gap in power levels and privilege, the likes of which is not experienced in wealthy countries, I have measured true success in humility, generosity, humour and dignity, often in the face of discrimination and injustice.


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