Seeing Libya from the Outside

To my father’s consternation, I began working in the field of international development after I graduated from architecture school. Repeated lectures on how this wasn’t a real field of work still fill our conversations (nothing outside of engineering is a serious profession in my father’s rigid worldview). Every car ride home from the airport on my visits back is filled with conversations of, “You need to get a Masters degree, work in the university, this will ensure your future.” But more than that, my father isn’t really clear on what it is I do, and ‘developing and managing’ projects isn’t a satisfying answer.

In fairness, I can’t always clearly articulate what it is I do. International development is a field in which projects are implemented with goals such as “capacity building” and “improving community resilience”, vague terms that are supposed to give the impression of improving the situation in underdeveloped and war-torn countries. But more than that, this is a field in which you are constantly trying to balance between political and economic interests within these states, in which you compete for funding to ensure your organization’s survival, and where you try to improve your professional image through a tangle of abbreviations and dry technical language. In this constant battle, the lofty goals set out in the projects are often forgotten

As a person who started out in very grassroots civil society organizations – picking up trash, holding festivals – it’s interesting to see the transformation that NGOs go through once they scale up. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to help more people and have more creative license to design projects. But on the other hand, it’s a source of constant frustration to try and work within the increased bureaucracy and procedures – a feeling akin to running a race in a pool of molasses.

But what really makes my own experience unique is the fact that the work I’m doing is for my own country, and not for some far-off nation that I’ve only heard about in the news. For this reason, my work is always coloured by my emotions, my frustrations are magnified, and the satisfaction following a successful project always sweeter.

For the average Libyan, finding fault with the work done by INGOs is part of the overall daily criticism towards everyone that hasn’t “fixed” Libya yet. But when you work within these organizations, you realize that a lot of delays and limited impact usually comes because it takes so much effort not to make things worse. In a country rampant with corruption and little rule of law, a well-intentioned community project could end up empowering mini-despots and fueling a system that disenfranchises the average citizen. So many projects have been stopped by local authorities because their palms weren’t greased enough.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all criticism lobbied at the international community is without merit. The world of development still suffers from lack of transparency, institutional racism and a result-oriented mind-set. Some of the foreign “expertise” hired by these organizations are not looking to save lives or make a difference, they just want a paycheck and a few months exploring an exotic country (often without the necessary sensitivities). Add to that the additional barrier of remote management and you have a recipe for redundancy.

The truth, of course, is always in between; INGOs are doing useful and important work in Libya, despite the difficulty of the situation. But they could definitely be doing better.

In the middle of all of this, I find myself with a new crisis of identity. To defend the work of my institute means that I’m part of the problem, to criticize it means that I am a hypocrite. The reality is that I just want to help my country within a system that allows me to give more than if I were to continue helping on a grassroots level.

More and more though, I’m finding out that Libya is really not a classic humanitarian/development country. The biggest added benefit of INGOs to any country is the money, plain and simple. Truly underprivileged countries need all the support they can get. But Libya is not a poor country. When hospitals turn their nose up at medical shipments, and when displaced people are asking for brand name items rather than the generic stuff that is distributed, then you know that the situation isn’t that bad.

What Libya needs is good management, administration and governance. If this is achieved, everything else will fall into place. But trying to achieve this goal is tantamount to finding a cure for cancer. The legacy left behind by colonialism and dictatorship is still deeply entrenched in the MENA region and will take generations to undo. So for now, everyone working on Libya will gravitate towards the easier, short-term fixes, which is where the funding flows anyways.

For now, I’ll stick to my little development projects, the ones my dad will never understand, and keep trying to create my own change from within. I’ve resigned myself to accept that the outcomes of what I’m doing won’t be apparent anytime soon. But with experience and time, those of us in the INGO world can at least start defining the right path.

*Disclaimer: This piece does not reflect the work being done in the migration sector in Libya, which is one big fucking mess on its own


3 thoughts on “Seeing Libya from the Outside

  1. “What Libya needs is good management, administration and governance. If this is achieved, everything else will fall into place. But trying to achieve this goal is tantamount to finding a cure for cancer. The legacy left behind by colonialism and dictatorship is still deeply entrenched…”

    That’s the story of every African country! Good going for actively making a difference in your country; small as it may seem now, it will make a difference somehow.

  2. I love your insightful, honest and refreshing piece on INGO’s. Fifty years ago we lived in Jordan where my father worked for the American Friends Service Committee. He was part of the “outside expertise” that King Hussein invited to his country to help farmers set up credit cooperatives, to pool their resources for irrigation so crops and animals survived drought. Reading letters my parents wrote back to relatives, I can see where the AFSC team made a difference. I certainly reaped the benefits of living overseas. It wasn’t always easy, but it was a mind-bending and generative way to grow up. I’m thankful for the experience.
    Your post reminds me what a different world it is now trying to help people, communities, and countries. Thanks!

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