Unkonda Rasheda Sawyer blogs at internationalesawyer.wordpress.com.
I started working for Plan International in Burkina Faso in 2012 at the exact moment that the crisis in Mali (which shares a close border to Burkina Faso) gained momentum. During my first 6 months at Plan, there was literally an explosion of jobs in the emergency sector for international and local hires. Everyone whom I knew that was looking for a job was now employed.
The Malian crisis in Burkina Faso made the already lively city of Ouagadougou even more lively with expats, white SUVs, and African nationals zooming about meetings and field visits during the day; dinner and drinks by night. It was also a difficult time as refugees poured into the northern region of Burkina Faso, marking also the end of the “lean” season. While no one welcomes any conflict, for a job seeker, they have the reputation of bringing in several jobs. During this time, we worked in a dichotomy – glad to be working, but hoping for the peaceful end of the crisis.
Now in 2014 a large portion of the Malian refugees in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso have returned home. The conflict is steadfastly losing global attention from the news not just because the situation has improved, but also because the international community has deemed more serious conflicts (i.e. Central African Republic).
So what happens in the world of humanitarian aid when another conflicts trumps an existing one, or once a conflict is under control, subsided, or regulated? Chasing one crisis to the next, international aid workers can be like storm chasers. But what happens to the local population that was once employed by the humanitarian sector due to the crisis in their country and/or region? Are they better off before, during, or after an international crisis?
In my circle of friends from Burkina Faso, of all that received job contracts during to the Malian crisis…none are still working. Their stories are the same. Their contracts ended as the funds dried up and the refugee situation improved. Having a look in the local newspapers that were once overflowing with positions is now a tedious task, as the jobs just trickle in.
The question is: what level of responsibility do NGOs have for the instability of employment during and after a crisis?
Few would argue that part of NGOs’ role is to build capacity, or enable and strengthen self-sufficiency. What I found in Burkina Faso during the Malian crisis was that many local associations worked together and executed the aid delivery. Though the funding, hiring, and the “orders” were handed down from the global partner (i.e. the international NGO), these locally-organized and –driven groups were the ones actually delivering the assistance to the people.
Thus the process in which local associations partner with larger NGOs should be revamped. Instead of being looked at as nothing more than a remote field office for the INGO that does its “dirty work,” local associations should be invested in as the independent entities that they are, and ones that can one day be self-sustaining.
More questions: What if local organizations were strengthened and could grow sustainably via their partnerships with INGOs? Couldn’t and shouldn’t local civil society be able to offer more stable employment and thus a cache of qualified people in the event of another crisis?
Unkonda Rasheda Sawyer has lived and worked abroad in low-level conflict zones in Kenya and Burkina Faso for six years. She is a Liberian native who immigrated to the US with her family as asylum seekers at the start of the Liberian Civil War. You can follow her on Twitter @URSawyer.