Irish Aid-funded UN volunteer programme sends 'development worker' on one year holiday to Zimbabwe

Oct 17, 2012

The Irish Times carried an opinion piece in 2011 by one of its then most prominent columnists with the heading, 'Africa is giving nothing to anyone — apart from AIDS'. It was a screed against the giving of aid by western countries to Africa, but it was much more than that as well. To cut a very long story short, and to give an indication of the reaction, that article is no longer on that paper's website, nor does the writer still pen articles for it. So 'aid' is as controversial in the 'donor' countries as it increasingly is in Africa and elsewhere, mainly over its effectiveness versus its cost. Why then is Irish Aid sending a young Irishwoman with no particular 'development' skills on an effective one-year holiday in Zimbabwe?

Despite the issue of how controversial and emotive aid-giving and aid-receivng has become, there is no danger at all of the 'aid industry' disappearing any time soon. There are and will continue to be genuine humanitarian reasons justifying aid of one kind or another. A more cynical reason is that the whole business of aid has become a self-perpetuating one like any other economic sector.

The most commonly propagated view of aid is of kind, knowledgeable ('expert') white Westerners 'aiding' poor, helpless and clueless black Africans. Less frequently thought of or examined is the aid business as a job/career opportunity for sometimes poorly employable Westerners.

The Republic of Ireland had a booming economy until the financial crisis of 2008. A property bubble burst, sending the economy reeling, throwing many people off kilter. It may have been nothing as bad as Zimbabwe's economic crisis at that same time, but the Irish Republic's lingering problems mean job opportunities are not easy to come by, especially if you do not have high-demand skills.

Which brings us to the story of one young Irish lass named Emma Mulhern and her connection with Zimbabwe.

Emma writes in the Irish Times of 9 October 2012, "A 12 month work contract was a dream come true, something I was beginning to doubt existed after months of rejected job applications. With the news delivered on 22nd December, I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present. Over the Christmas festivities when I bumped into old friends, teachers and cousins and the inevitable and dreaded question of “have you managed to get work yet?” was shot at me in hushed tones, I not only had an answer but I had an answer that solicited shocked silence as a response. The first reaction was generally “why?”My answer was generally “why not?”

The question, of course, was 'why a job in Zimbabwe of all places?'

After all, is that not the country where the heads of white people are snapped off simply because they want to do the noble, Christian duty of farming for the blacks? Is that not the country of (gasp)...of....(gasp)...of Moo-gah-bay?

So one can quite easily imagine how horrified our protoganist Emma's friends and family must have been that she was so hard up that she felt moved to accept a contract in Zimbabwe. 'Poor dear, I do hope she'll be alright there.'

Emma's excited article in the Irish Times was partly to assure her worried associates that she not only was alright in Zimbabwe, but was actually very, very well indeed. To further illustrate the point, she helpfully posted a picture of herself jumping up and down at sunset next to a road sign alerting of elephant crossings.

You see, while Emma may have been an unemployed young lady back home, by becoming a 'development worker' for an initial 12 months contract , she immediately joined the rarefied, privileged realm of expatriates in Zimbabwe.

Here's how she breathlessly describes her new life in the Zimbabwe her friends were so worried she was going to:

"Sitting around a blazing fire on a chilly Tuesday evening, eating pizza, drinking wine and listening to a live trad session with a sax thrown in for good measure. I find myself in these situations a lot. When asked how I’m finding it here, my answer usually goes along the lines of “a pleasant surprise."

"Some people think I’m crazy when I say I’m happy living here, but Zimbabwe has gotten under my skin in a way I never thought possible. Living as an “international” comes with its perks and pitfalls. The expat community gravitates towards each other and you find yourself at a dinner table with a German, a Dutch, a New Zealander, two Americans, an Australian, a Brit, a Zimbabwean and a few Irish on a Thursday night making plans to escape the city for the weekend. But living among so many expats also means a lot of leaving parties."

"In the last six months I have showered in the mist of Victoria Falls, white water rafted on the mighty Zambezi, been woken up by Zebras outside my tent, danced to a DJ in a private game reserve, toasted marshmallows with new friends, belted out my own version of Call Me Maybe to people who have requested I never sing again, conquered the highest peak in Zimbabwe, gotten a speeding fine in Mozambique (unwarranted, might I add!), been diving in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and witnessed frost in the green highlands (frost in Africa – who knew!?)."

As Emma then asks rhetorically, "What is not to love about this kind of life?"

Indeed, being paid for what seems like all play and no work while clubbing and being a tourist sounds like a lot of fun, at least compared to being indefinitely unemployed back home.

In fact, so much so that "Zimbabwe is the place for me right now, especially when I can spend Tuesday evenings listening to a bodhrán, a box, a fiddle and a sax." Earlier, she shares, "I miss things like the All-Ireland...but I can’t imagine living there anymore – not right now anyway."

Emma doesn't get around to what job she is actually doing (if anything) in Zimbabwe as 'an international, an expat' said to be 'working' for the partly Irish Aid(ed) UN Volunteer programme. But whether she is or isn't really doing anything there, she makes it quite obvious what she is thinking when she says, "I feel I may be starting a career and life here."

Emma is probably a very nice young lady, even if she has no particular skills to speak of for her (initial!)12 month stint in Zimbabwe. What sounds like effectively a one year paid vacation in Zimbabwe is obviously a very good deal for Emma.

Life in Zimbabwe is full of surprises indeed, particularly if you have been fed on a steady diet of CNN/BBC/Irish Times-type stories about the country. But the kind of 'aid' programmes under which unskilled westerners go to live privileged lives in poor countries under the guise of 'doing development' is just as full of its own cynical surprises.

Whether or not purported aid/volunteer progammes do much long term good for the recipients or not, at least some unemployed of the donor countries are assured of lifestyles they could not dream of back home.

And that's one strong reason the international aid business will keep on keeping on regardless of whether it is effective or not, whether it empowers or weakens.

The Zimbabwe Review


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