Talkshop, talkshop, communication, communication….blahblah blaaah blahblah blaaah

I went to an open discussion between the humanitarian sector and the situation in Libya. Representatives of the main Muslim charities were there as well as Libyan charities and members of the Libyan expatriate community. Interesting points were made by the different organizations and representatives.

Essentially a medical situation is unfolding in Libya. There is a lack of doctors, nurses, medical supplies and equipment. Along the border areas a refugee/ internally displaced people situation is developing, there is especially a need to evacuate women and children. It was suggested by the moderator to develop a monitoring system, especially of the situation by the border of Libya, to assess the extent of population movements. Moreover, himself being a doctor he said there is a need for specialist, not general practitioners. Being non-Arab I was pleased that he mentioned Pakistani doctors/specialists who usually offer their skills and expertise whenever a humanitarian crisis erupts anywhere.

It was mentioned that needs assessments had been done by the different organizations, but the problem was getting the necessary equipment and supplies to the people who needed it the most. All the organizations have field offices. The main issue which was repeatedly highlighted was communication issues. It was mentioned that it is essential to know what is needed from the organizations on the ground. The moderator said: “internet, telephones are lifesaving machines, alongside medicines, human resources and security. Communication is essential because we need to know the situation on the ground, but in order for us to know, communication must be restored. Once we know everything, the next step is how to share the information we have between the organizations, in order to assess what supplies are needed, look at certain areas to decide what organization does what where, and what needs to be done where. The Forum through which this open discussion was arranged recommended an action plan to be made, and focal point be made for medical/health, refugees, distribution, logistics and procurement, communication. The concerned organizations should maximize efforts of fundraising, the issue of need and increase information sharing as much as possible of the work done within Libya. All areas are our people. One of the attendees mentioned that the international organizations on the ground do not know what the needs of the people are. Moreover, the question which was continually repeated was what do we do, how do we get supplies and resources to the people who need it the most. The moderator, a renowned human activist and awarded by the Queen, kept repeating, this forum is a platform for further action. Our responsibility is to bring the organizations together and assist in coordination. We don’t do implementation that is your responsibility.

At the open discussion, I kept thinking if all the major organizations have field offices in Libya, their officers should know what is happening on the ground and it only helps to prove the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the leadership management in the country offices. Especially considering they all do relief and rehabilitation work and it is during crisis situations their work is supposed to prove its worth through quick action. An interesting concluding statement made during this open discussion was that what is currently happening in Libya is not a civil war, as claimed by the international media. It is the Gaddafi regime oppressing the entire country, hence breaking down means of communication. It is not a civil war, but a regime that has been in place for 41 years. Gaddafi must go and we must be allowed to get on with our lives and practice our human rights. The panel of the discussion went silent, their faces expressionless. The purpose was not to discuss political issues, but to deal with what is needed on the ground.

In this connection, the open discussion forums- coordination and networking events are really just talk shops with little action. The NGOs are more interested in raising funds and be seen to work for the betterment of underprivileged and deprived people. At the country level, the leadership will say “the board told me we need to make an action plan on e.g. earthquake relief, or needs assessment on internally displaced people at the borders”. Meeting will be convened, at the national office, attended by regional management staff, funds will be distributed to the concerned area. Pictures will be taken, minutes of the meeting will be noted and action points will be decided. In the end documentations of initiatives and actions will be reported and the machinery will be seen to be operative in an effective and efficient manner. These meetings are all part of the agenda of operation, otherwise the organizations will be considered inactive or useless. Nonetheless, quick action was made, because 2 days later, I received emails from the online forum and the necessary information was being shared.

Having worked for NGOs I can say that working in the humanitarian sector is a very noble thing to do. It is very rewarding personally. There is a very high feel good factor involved with this sort of work. However, charities/non-governmental organizations, whether they do advocacy work or are service based organizations are overshadowed by lack of accountability and transparency. In my own experience, the NGO I worked for, had at that time an annual budget of Rs. 7.5 million, but the way things were run it seemed more like it was running on Rs. 750,000. Only 25% of the budget was being utilized and no one knew where the rest of the money went. If I have to go by the experiences I had of working for that particular US-based charity set up by Pakistani doctors based in the United States, Chicago to be more exact, it probably went to buy the silence of the bank and other staff members. In other organizations, established by Muslims in the UK, rumour has it that money and supplies, such as tin sheets, blankets or medical supplies intended for affected families of the earthquake in 2005 were sold in the local market double the price. This was even reported in local newspapers in Pakistan.

Charitable donations made by Muslims are sadqat, kahirat and zakat. The Zakat is obligatory, the others are voluntary donations of general goodwill. Whatever you give, it doesn’t matter what the intermediary, in this case, charities/ NGOs do with the money, it is the intention of the giver that counts, what happens with the money after you donate it is irrelevant. Now Allah is almighty, he is all-knower and all-seer, and you will be rewarded for your good deeds. However if you are board member of a charity your duty is not just to make a name for yourself and be seen as a good citizen and humanitarian and thus get good marriage proposals for your children.

If your organizations values are accountability and transparency, they should be lived up to. It is not enough just to be seen doing work on the ground. Your passion is not shown by virtue of being a director or board member of a charitable organization, although it opens a lot of doors, looks impressive on your curriculum vitae and is a great networking tool.

Passion is when you get things done and uphold the principles of your organizational values, rather than merely paying lip service to them. Moreover, concern for our underprivileged fellow human beings is not shown by just handing out a big check or significant donation, and think you have done your Muslim duty. It is about reducing the structural inequities intrinsic to human societies. Yes, they need education, healthcare and income generation programmes to restore/regain their sense of dignity, but they also need to feel their concerns are being heard. True many of the NGOs/ CBOs are doing that to a large extent, but it is also a fact that the implementations of programs and activities depend on the field offices. Moreover, leadership in the field offices is severely lacking. Now, is that a concern not addressed by deliberately overlooking it, or the UK-US based board members and directors simply not care as it doesn’t affect their social status amongst the expatriate community, and the high society they end up becoming a part of because of their charitable work?

The reason I think these open discussions and working group meetings are all blaah blaah is because the root causes are never touched upon. Donors will not give money if their priorities are not addressed. Government departments know this. Moreover, expatriate service based charitable organizations won’t address political issues to avoid the government closing its doors in their faces and thereby prevent them from operating in their countries. Consequently, the actual issues are never really solved because as long as the parties get what they want, all is good. Who cares about the people stuck in the middle as long as you get ahead, afterall what’s the need to carry the world’s burden on your shoulders….right?

Nonetheless, in conclusion, the NGOs are always the place vulnerable people can turn to for help and support. True, charitable organizations have a knack for wasting financial resources, but when a poor person’s abuse from the system gets too much to bear, they are always the places to turn to. In return the organization concerned cashes in from the media exposure and its relevance is established for good. The people running the outfit might be honoured with a national award or become an accepted member of high society. In many cases, it is well deserved.