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Fragments from a War Diary, Part #200

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, institutions that ought to exist to serve the public good go awry. I want to emphasise that the vast majority of the members of the international community that I have come across in Ukraine - and those people are all of international civilian volunteers, international military volunteers, and diplomats - have come to Ukraine with the very finest of motives and have come to support Ukraine and her people with passion, effort and enthusiasm. One of the things I have come to do at the end of each working day in whatever role with which I am occupied is to thank the people - both international and local - for their contributions, their labour and their time. Each day, at the kitchen I work in, farmers come in with bags of spare food, old ladies come in with spare pots of coffee and sugar, we culinary volunteers offer our time preparing food on an industrial basis, other volunteers are busy using their construction skills to build a new kitchen so that we can expand and upgrade capacity. Still others drive food and materials around town, food is stored in people’s private homes, supplies are transported across Ukraine in people’s private cars, and the whole mechanism relies upon the good will of a huge network of decent, upstanding and fine people. So I make sure to tell as many people as I can, each day, thank you. I am not the boss and I hold no official position; I just want to express my appreciation, and the appreciation of the Ukrainian people, for the contributions each person is making.

Regrettably, amidst this sea of good will, there are very occasionally some bad apples. We all know who they are; the international community world in wartime Ukraine is surprisingly small and after you have been here for a while, you know everyone who matters. Gossip is rife, and there are few secrets between members of the international community. Because a lot of people are passing through for short periods, those of us who have been here for slightly longer are often asked our opinions about different NGO’s. I try only to give positive opinions. Where I have criticisms of NGO’s - and there have been cases - I try to convey them privately, to the organisations in question. They sometimes will not listen, which is disheartening. But I do not like to be part of the rampant community of negative gossip that one sometimes hears in which people are rude about one-another behind their backs. That sort of conduct is beneath us all. In some or even many cases I have heard rumours spread about people or organisations that are simply made up or based on wholly bogus or false sources. I do not want to be part of that. So I keep my recommendations positive. If asked, then if I can, I give a positive opinion about something. If I don’t feel I can do that, I generally keep my mouth closed, and I think this is a good rule in life.

Therefore I hope the careful reader of these diaries will have observed that I don’t actually identify any person or organisation by name in these public diaries. This is a matter of discretion and a matter of basic decency. I have seen a number of things I didn’t like when I have been observing and interacting with the international NGO community and foreigners more widely here. I have observed some journalism that I considered exploitative. I have watched some individuals use positions in NGO’s to bully or harass people or to exercise improper influence. I really don’t like these things. But I am not going to use the power of the microphone - these diaries - to express my (very) occasional distastes in public. Criticisms are better exercised privately, and in correct procedures, save in the exceptional case in which someone is attacking you publicly in which case you may need to attack them in public back as the best means of defending yourself.

But this sort of backstabbing culture that very sadly occasionally rears its head within the international community in both Ukraine and in other war-torn countries where I have worked is all such a desperate waste of time. People should not be going around being suspicious and paranoid and attacking one-another behind their backs and full of personal hatreds and animosities and feuds. Instead they should be focused upon good work because there is so much work to be done. It is important that the very limited international resources available to assist Ukraine, in both financial and manpower terms, are used wisely and efficiently. And for that reason it is important that the people in charge of NGO’s show leadership, vision and commitment. They also need to face up to problems when they arise, and not just bury their heads and pretend that they aren’t happening. Or - even worse - sometimes such people actively attack those who raise concerns. This is a travesty of justice when it happens and it demonstrates a deplorable lack of leadership.

The reason we in the West have safeguarding policies and whistleblower protection policies is precisely to create an environment in which people working with others in vulnerable environments - and every war zone is an extremely vulnerable environment - has the opportunity to speak up to an appropriate authority if they see or hear of something that should not be happening. There was once a culture of impunity in international community operations in war zones and other areas of crisis relief, and it resulted in a series of devastating United Nations scandals in which terrible actions on the part of international community officials were revealed by decent and upstanding individuals who thought that the things they were witnessing ought to be brought to a halt. Then there was a slew of changes in the law to provide legal protections to people who raised these issues, and that is universally commended as a good thing.

The NGO world is not immune to these sorts of consideration, and equivalent regimes of legal reporting are mandatory for NGO’s in many jurisdictions of their origin. In well-run NGO’s, these regimes of reporting work well and concerns raised are taken seriously. In others, sadly, these mechanisms may not work so well and that is why there is an underlying legal system that if necessary, as a last resort, will enforce standards against NGO’s who are not complying with the law. In Ukraine, I am told, there is no such institution that regulates the conduct of NGO’s and their staff members. But in other countries, there are. A movement towards the regulation of NGO’s who are ostensibly committed to charitable purposes is one of the many changes to Ukrainian law that will need to be undertaken to prepare Ukraine for entry to the European Union.


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