It´s a common sight to see white UN jeeps driving around Africa, but I´ve never seen so many as I saw in Abdjan and Monrovia. Im not sure which UN mission is bigger, but they both claim to be the biggest in West Africa, and there are more UN jeeps driving around than unmarked jeeps. They don´t all say “UN” with the big, black, block letters, but some cars are UNICEF, some are with FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization), the World Health Organization, or IMF and the World Bank. All of their offices are in big, guarded buildings, many of them old hotels turned into base camps, and the security for each building would rival that of the US Embassy. In Abidjan, it was normal to see UN trucks driving around with the ´blue helmets,´ armed military personnel who cruise around town enforcing the peace.
There are hundreds of expats working for these organizations, plus alot of other NGO´s and international development projects, so all the white people around town are usually not tourists but living and working or volunteering there. The UN even have their own flights and helicopters to transport them around, so taking public transport or landing with a commercial plane as a white person is a strange sight. When I flew into Monrovia airport, the immigration got really confused that my passport wasn´t a diplomatic one. Its a bright blue colour, so they couldnt figure out how it was a ´normal´ passport and felt very sheepish to ask “excuse me ma’am, is this a regular passport?”
I couchsurfed with a Colombian FAO worker in Monrovia, and a Spanish UN architect in Abidjan, who first applied for his job dreaming to help rebuild a destroyed city after their recent civil war. His colleagues and employers just months before him lived through the unrest and violent attacks, so its still fresh in their minds the risk they take trying to stay and help. I can imagine getting a job with the UN is a major accomplishment, and a scary commitment in many places, but the faces behind these jobs feel less and less noble as time goes on.
The Spanish architect realized that he was hired to build temporary homes for the blue helmet base camps, Jordanian and Togolese soldiers living in a large trailer parks he puzzles together. The Colombian started to realize how much money gets wasted in administration and over-paid salaries, and the incompetencies of the local people hired to work for their people but eventually give into selfish greed, losing touch of any compassion. The UN expats enjoy a Western salary, paying for western-luxury apartments, grocery stores, bars and restuarants built just to exploit them (thanks to the very innovative Lebanese running all of ex-pat West Africa), and spend a lot of time talking and planning for projects that take more resources to execute them than they produce. They drive around the all-expense paid jeeps, drunk or sober, party alot, and become a major contributor to the prostitution industry. I realized that all those agencies and organizations are trying their best to do some good, but if only more people saw the reality of everyday life for ex-pat workers who eventually stop feeling any heroic, good samaritan pride in their jobs. I think it would work so much better if they stopped caging themselves behind gates, security and air-conditioned jeeps, burst out of their expat bubbles, and made some attempt to give up their western comforts to really live and sympathize with Africa. I almost started to worry we do more harm than good, coming in to a country without paying taxes or adhering to their laws, ordering their government around, and dividing the population’s wealth between the have’s and have not’s… besides, ‘enforcing the peace’ doesnt make any sense – isn’t that an oxymoron?