Don’t say anything, go with the flow

Posted: 28th Januar 2011 by Bellusci in Challenges

I often hear from (ex-) colleagues, friends and acquaintances some unbelievable stories about their work and daily life but when I ask whether they mind if I describe and publish these episodes in my blog (anonymously of course), or offer to write an article on their behalf, they normally refuse.

However, a few pieces in my blog, although published under my name, are not actually mine but from colleagues (the articles are still in German only and not translated):

I cannot give any names and must omit any reference to the source. I also have to rewrite the articles so that it looks like my own writing style. People don’t want to be recognised, which always seemed a little bizarre until I found out the hard way why this should be…

This morning I had a visit from a close friend who reflected critically on certain articles in my blog and commented that the content wasn’t specific enough and that the real issues were dodged to some degree.

I must admit that this is fair comment, but I am in a dilemma. I cannot write anything concrete because it would mean having to publish names, addresses, et cetera, and without permission from those concerned I cannot add the credence to my articles that I would like. Most people don’t even want their stories told even if I have offered to write them anonymously from their perspective. On the occasions that I do succeed to get permission then usually I have to generalise and write about “an organisation” somewhere in a “town/village in Uganda” participating in some un-named “international project” and this is naturally less believable to the reader. I have to be careful not to compromise the identity of the project or person.

This is not because of any restrictive laws in Uganda. On the contrary, one is allowed to publish freely here so long as it doesn’t compromise Uganda or its leaders. The newspapers are full of critical articles about Uganda’s internal affairs.

The reason for self-censoring is more to do with the people involved in the stories and their worry and fear about keeping their jobs in the development organisations, plus the generally accepted taboo which precludes internal criticism of the impact/outcome of international development projects.

My friend says that he/she would like to write critical essays about development aid because too many of the situations happening here are simply outrageous but cannot through fear of his/her partner losing employment. In addition, my friends signed before coming to Uganda that no internal information should be shared with the general public.

What is internal information exactly? How far does it stretch? Are people right to be afraid or are they just paranoid?

What further consequences may I face when I write about my own affairs and mention that I have raised a court case against my assignment organisation in Germany? Am I actually allowed to write further that my assignment organisation told me more than once that they are not in Uganda to fight corruption but for development assistance and that it doesn’t concern them if their money (the taxpayers’ money) is being wasted because of corruption, so long as they have an apparently successful project in their portfolio to feel good about and thereby justify their value/worth to their home country?

What type of incidents am I allowed to describe? Above all, I ask myself how much support will I get and from whom?

I filed a court case in Germany against my assignment organisation and I now personally know of at least six people who have lost their jobs under similar circumstances; they worked for the same organisation, in the same project. They were either sacked by the assignment organisation before their employment contracts expired or they chose to hand in their notice and leave prematurely. All six of them are now watching my case with interest, because I am the first who has dared to go to court in Germany. All six of them expressed that they “regret” not having done this themselves.

However, my lawyer asked me to provide a few witnesses to support my case and from the six people mentioned who experienced similar ‘betrayals’, only one has agreed to be a witness. Thank you to that person!

Since 1977 (!) there has not been a single similar case before the German courts. The case is very political; it is about German taxpayers’ money being wasted via corruption and poor management in a development project. The head quarters of this development organisation prefer to turn a blind eye to it and ultimately also to the rights of the development workers who have highlighted the problems and reported them back to the development organisation.

Being a German citizen assigned by a German development organisation to work in a project abroad, a problem of this magnitude arose, completely not of my making. I found suddenly that German employment laws were not applicable to help me, and neither were the Ugandan laws. I have no protection and no rights whatsoever despite the fact that I have been employed by a German organisation, which is itself, subject to German laws.

My case is proving to be somewhat of a precedent before the German courts, although I am aware that my situation is not unique. After more than 6 months of searching I eventually found a lawyer who is ready to run with the case and if necessary, up to the Federal Constitutional Court. Lawyers in Germany normally don’t like to burn their fingers or reputations on political cases.

In view of that people are right to be afraid and they are not just paranoid.

It is therefore no miracle that I have lost the desire in the last few months to continue writing about development assistance and to some degree my blog has become quieter. It is simply no fun to write about personal challenges and problems within the development world, to discuss problems which most of the expatriates experience, but not to be allowed to mention the real things. It all sounds absurd and I have to say is also absolutely scary. Somehow I have found myself in a Don Quixote situation.

Don’t say anything, go with the flow, bury your head in the sand and don’t even attempt to change things in your development project for the better. Just write nice sounding reports how successful your project is! Close your eyes and ears and if you are able to comply with these measures then your career will be a good one.

However, this morning’s visit by my friend has given me encouragement to continue. I will take his/her advice and consider remarks in our conversations in my articles. My friend confirmed that my blog is read by various people in the expatriate community, that they discuss the topics and it makes them think. Therefore I will start writing again and continue discussing the challenges of development assistance.