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‘make poverty history’ by making her history

Advocacy, Campaigns were two new words that were added to my new title in addition to communications, at a world renowned aid agency, committed to make poverty history. I just got in after the last one wound up and left this country. Filled with more jargon that lavishly pours out of all the non profits, I didn’t mind the madness as long as I was learning something and the pay cheque kept coming.

My first week of work was a round of introduction and getting an overview of how the different roles contributed towards the overall effort of making poverty history. The first week ended with a lot of listening and questioning and understanding how the system worked. I thought it was interesting that all of the agency’s projects revolved around giving prominence to making poor women more stronger economically (they called that economic empowerment…gulp that was a lot to explain to a layman). My task was to portray the agency’s efforts in doing by reporting on change in the different working districts. I have to admit that the external political context was getting more challenging for aid agencies to work, especially to voice out in favour of rights based issues and policies that worked in favour of the poor (pro poor..gulp that’s another one). BUT what was important was to work towards the agency’s vision of advocating, campaigning for real change. From the various electronic news bulletins I read and understood that amidst similar challenges in other countries the agency continued to carry on its vision. Silence will only encourage continued injustice to the poor-the people whom they had chosen to work for. This was the agency’s true committed mission but the vision of the local country office was a far cry from making poverty history.

It was important for the head of the Advocacy & Policy unit to retain the Country Directory in her position because he nosed into everyone’s duty and undertook to work trying to outshine everyone else. The only area he could not do so was mine because his skills in photography, creating videos, writing stories was downright appalling. He won her trust well enough to manipulate her into doing exactly what he wanted. She looked upto him as a kind of saviour that had come down from Uranus, always giving her the right advice. To save her from getting expelled from the country, his advice was to not voice out any unjust that was being witnessed in the lives of the poor families – Sensitive issues such as land grabbing, loss of house, property due to displacement, loss of livelihood etc., I spent days travelling bringing stories that would raise better attention in fundraising, policy changes but none of it was allowed to be published finally. After I got back I spent weeks developing stories and pictures that were proof read and sent back to me with clear instructions to not write anything that highlights the injustice taking place. A few days later I learnt that the Country Director’s visa was due to expire and her prized employee would be submitting her papers to the authorities. Any raised voice from the agency she represented would only result in her not getting an extension. This in turn would mean the power base of the head of the Advocacy and Policy Unit manager would dwindle (at least until such time he succeeds in enticing the next Country Director).

I began to reflect on the real need of my position and the purpose of my work. If the agency’s intention was to raise alarm bells to highlight the injustice and if they didn’t want to do this in fear of losing their position and power, why on earth did they ever create the position?

I wasn’t paid during the first month as the HR unit had not processed by details for inclusion in the payroll system. I ended up taking a loan from a low interest money lending company and was able to pay off the complete loan a year later. On questioning the HR unit I got a very sheepish response “that is the way it is for the first month” On browsing the staff hand book I saw an entire paragraph clearly detailing how important it was to pay workers on time. How did this practice relate to the statement of the HR unit?

Eventually my stories were shelved. The Country Director got her visa extension. I continued travelling, gathering stories. Each time I got back it was the similar practice. The stories, pictures would be routed to the head of Advocacy and Policy unit back and forth and eventually all of them ended up in my pc. I was to talk of all the nice things that went on. The truth was there wasn’t anything nice that was happening to the poor folk, obviously instead of the local country office of this agency carrying out’s its intended mission they were safeguarding their positions and power base by choosing to sit still and be quiet.

My frustration grew in leaps and bounds and began to voice out against this madness. The result was I was never confirmed on the grounds of poor performance. I rebelled on my own, not wanting to give in to the biased administration of the local office.

Some months later a meeting had been organized in a fancy hotel about 150km from Colombo. This was one of the many meetings that I also attended to learn more of what the agency was doing. This time it was somewhat strange, because I wasn’t invited for the meeting but was travelling on a field visit further than where the hotel was located. In an effort to curb the cost and be more effective, I joined the group at 5 in the morning, spent an entire day at the meeting and ended up taking down notes from the discussion. The first half of the day was spent on discussing formal project planning and then came the rude shock of being told in the presence of more than 30 people that there would be a restricting of the agency to keep in line with the reduction in funds. I could see everyone getting very agitated. An A4 sheet of paper with the new structure in place was circulated. The strange thing was the head of the Financial Unit sitting next to me didn’t know that such a change was about to come into effect.

The restructuring had been done with more power given to the Head of the Advocacy & Policy unit. To safeguard his position his title had been changed to Manager-Quality Programming. The hours that followed were filled with angry protests and verbal confrontation with the HR Manager. The Country Director sat and observed everything occasionally nodding her head at whatever the slip-away responses he chose to give.

Looking down at the A4 paper I saw that my position did not exist anymore. I tapped the HR guy and asked him what happened to my position on paper to which he slyly replied “aahh that…that won’t be there” This was the gift I got from this mighty agency for trying to work according to its vision and not giving into pleasing individuals and their own agendas. I was so irritated at the fact that this was not conveyed to me initially but the very intention to bring me in front of 30 people and just let it out, all the while when I sat at a meeting that I wasn’t invited to. I knew I had been struck off and was never going to be let in. I walked upto the Country Director and simply expressed my dissatisfaction of how the whole thing was handled.

Certainly I was not going to forcibly hang on but the manner in which the whole issue was addressed and the professionalism of the country office of a so called world renowned aid agency was not to be pushed aside in silence. I raised alarm bells of the corrupt practices of the country office to which an inquiry was held by the visiting Regional Director. My concerns were acknowledged that were not acceptable but nothing else was done. The country office ran the show here in this country and the opinions of the global offices were not needed. Clearly one that challenged unjust decisions were not welcome to work there. I cannot express in words the level of disgust that grew within me not at the thought of being kicked out on the grounds of restructuring and lack of donor funds but at the thought of such injustice taking place within the area of a humanitarian aid agency. Where was the need to be respectful to hear another voice and where was the space to have everyone’s voice ?

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