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#58 Being tight with local politicians

May 23, 2011

Expat Aid Workers love showing off their intricate understanding of politics in countries where they are stationed. And one of the best ways to demonstrate this intricate understanding is by being down with local politicians.* EAWs love being on a friendly, first-name basis with those who are in charge, regardless of political orientation. After all, both EAWs and local politicians are members of the local elite.

Although it’s not likely that an EAW has the mobile phone number of a high level minister or politician at home, while “in country” EAWs are totally comfortable directly calling the Minister of Something or Other to schedule a meeting or to ask for a little favor for themselves or one of their less important friends or employees. Helping an EAW purchase land in country, obtain a driver’s license without going in person, process an exit visa in 3 hours, or get a drunk driving transgression eliminated from the books is a great way for local politicians to bond with EAWs, for EAWs to show solidarity with the local populace (if for some reason going native isn’t an option), and to generally reinforce the point that INGOs and EAWs fully embrace the humanitarian principle of “neutrality.” Local politicians are always happy to help out. It’s part of “building relationships and trust” — not to mention it pays off later in the form of partnership agreements and the like.

The EAW won’t often find local politicians from the right-wing at the weekend glocal house parties (those are reserved for the SLoNGOsleftist local politicians [unless they’re in one of the last Marxist regimes on the planet, in which case the SLoNGOs are all right-wing], EAWs, hip local musicians and artsy poets), but they will commonly cross paths at the beach club, the American school, Embassy functions, UN agency meetings and government events where the EAW uses his or her specialized expertise in areas like economics, public health, international relations or NGO management to help local leaders make major decisions for their country (usually referred to as “doing advocacy,” “negotiating a partnership,” “grant funding” or “technical advisory”).

All politics is local... POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Though international NGOs are non-political (as we all know – that principle of “neutrality”, again), they are often forced to get involved in decisions that seem political — things like, oh, whether or not to push the government to sign this or that agreement; determining which region of the country should benefit from certain projects that make this or that party look like it is actually doing something to benefit its constituencies; or ensuring free and fair elections. The good thing is that EAWs are ethically upright and don’t allow favors or personal relationships or their own political stances to impact on their neutrality.

When an INGO’s agenda and the sway of certain politicians and political parties are perfectly lined up, it’s just a coincidence. INGOs are (repeat after me) neutral. So if certain SLoNGOs or think tanks that follow a certain line of thinking happen to spawn certain highly visible local political candidates after a couple years of funding by certain INGOs, it means nothing. Those “civic education,” “democracy” and “governance” projects run by SLoNGOs are not pre-campaign political campaigns aimed at moving the political agenda to one side or the other, or encouraging a particular segment of the population with a particular political leaning to get out and vote.

If it’s observed that official party development projects get tons of funding right before elections, be assured that it is simply because the proposals submitted were top notch in terms of quality. It’s totally legit that a GoNGO created just last week is immediately given its legal constitution by the Ministry of the Interior so that it can receive a healthy chunk of institutional funding from, say USAID, to run a large-scale campaign, say, on the importance of heavy-handed narco-trafficking fighting. It’s a happy accident that the GoNGO campaign lines up exactly with party campaign promises and the external government’s agenda, is advised by an EAW expert from the funding agency and is headed by the guy who will soon be announced as the pick for head of national security if that party wins the elections. (It’s all in the name of defense, diplomacy and development after all!)

*by “local” we mean “national”, but most countries where EAWs work are not sophisticated enough to really have “national” politics like the EAW’s home country so using the term “local” is also fine. And all politics is local anyway.

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