How many moments are there in a life? Every moment is an experience, set aside from other experiences by time, by how much attention we choose to pay it. Because of course, as Viktor Frankl so agonisingly accurately put it, paying attention to what is going on inside us is the one thing that we are free to do, no matter what is going on outside. And still, there is no then and now.
There is still a me, somewhere, staring up at a cooling tower, watching the steam rise into a grey, rain-sodden sky, while I absorbed the letter that I had just received letting me know that I had inherited a small fortune from my grandfather’s trust. What I did with it is another question. What it allowed me to do was to take a job I was interested in, at an NGO that raised funds for projects for displaced people. And one set of those people were Afghans, living in Pakistan, needing funds for materials to make carpets that they could then sell so they could earn enough money to eat.
That was 25 years ago. The money I inherited is long gone, given away, and I’m no better off than I was on the rain soaked street, returned from Indonesia as a young volunteer because the project wanted a male teacher, feeling the sense of gut-wrenching poverty that landing in a country with no prospects gives, with nowhere to live, no family connections, no going back. Yet I was so lucky.
Now, what is it like there, in the camps set up to house the weary travellers who have left their homes and livelihoods, the music that they played on pipes and drums now banned, the jobs they did now unavailable? Shops shut. Classrooms closed. Even the doctors and dentists forced to sell their equipment on the black market, return from cities to villages, heads lowered. Cars sold. Children assessed: marriageable at 13? The hellish decisions to make in the face of imminent starvation on a scale never before experienced by our species.
What can we do? In the refugee camp where I worked in Kenya — Kakuma — there was a whiff of corruption around the UNHCR compound that eventually resulted in an investigation https://www.unhcr.org/en-ie/news/press/2017/5/592dcf644/unhcr-refers-kenya-staff-police-internal-investigation-finds-fraud-kakuma.html. The UN’s headquarters in Geneva are are a monument to opulence and conspicuously luxurious vehicles and contracts smooth the way for the elite staff there. This contrast made my supervisor, Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond, furious. She wrote “Imposing Aid”, a fantastic laser sharp assessment of the corrupting nature of the aid industry. She recommended we give to local organisations that have been researched as to their capacity to account for funds, and their ability to get those funds to projects and people who need them with the minimum of administrative cost and loss.
Rory Stewart is setting up a foundation according to British Journalist John Simpson at https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/turquoise-mountain-trust. I’ve been told before not to split attention between too many projects, but forced migration is linked intricately to the ecological emergency, as is attitude and ideological polarisation. So I’d really appreciate your support for this.