The Three Worlds of an Aid Worker in Lagos

by Jeffrey Barnes, veteran aid worker I start my day in World One, the world of international flights, business class lounges, laptop computers, four star hotels and Internet. Although power in the country is expensive and infrequent, the hotel management has installed stand up air conditioners in all the public spaces, including the hallways, to ensure that the temperature is always low enough so that clients with three piece suits are comfortable. The hotel generator run constantly to maintain the chill, but this is only noticeable to clients when they smell the diesel fumes in the parking lot

After breakfast, my driver is waiting for me and drives out into the midst of World Two, the bustle and struggle of the city streets. Our trip to my meeting can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. We have allotted one hour. I admire the nerves of my driver as I watch him navigate around the potholes, the taxis, the bikes and the pedestrians who jump in front of us. The hawkers congregate at the traffic choke points to sell—kitchen appliances, toilet seats, bootleg CD’s, fresh fruit, clothes, plumbing, tool sets, furniture, toys, rugs and more. The guys selling cellphone recharges are everywhere, with their long strings of cards. My driver needs a recharge, but first insists that the seller open the recharge and enter the code. It works, but the additional time reminds me of costs of doing business in a low trust environment. “Low trust environment” is development jargon for “everyone for himself” that is the core principle of World Two.

I notice a huge cloud of black smoke in a nearby residential neighborhood. I ask my driver what he thinks it is. He hadn’t noticed it. Later, I hear that the fire was caused by the explosion of an oil tanker that shouldn’t have been in a residential neighborhood. Several deaths, homes destroyed. Apparently tanker explosions don’t merit special attention when you are working the streets of World Two.

Surprisingly close to our one hour estimate we arrive at our destination in World Three—a large ministry of the state government. Although it takes a while to attract the attention of the receptionist who is busy reading her newspaper, my obvious status as a foreigner gives me rapid access to World Three and she directs us to our destination without questioning our purpose or demanding any credentials.

The elevators are not functioning and apparently haven’t been for some time. As we walk up the seven flights of stairs to our destination, I notice that the walls are amply decorated with posters for every conceivable campaign, every vertical program, every pet donor cause—World AIDS day, Roll Back Malaria, Campaign for expanded vaccination, Women’s Day, World Effort against TB, Millennium Development Goals, World Population Day, etc.

When we arrive at our destination, our contact is not there and her secretary seems uniformed of our arrival, in spite of repeated calls to set up and confirm the appointment. When our contact finally arrives forty-five minutes later, she greets us warmly and we discuss the conference we attended together. We discuss another team building exercise for her and her staff. Our conversation is filled with development buzz words, “capacity building”, “leadership development”, “public private partnerships”. Ultimately, the deal we are discussing is about helping the ministry with their internal processes. I wonder what difference it will make to those people working the streets in World Two.

After the meeting, we plunge back into World Two. The traffic has become even more chaotic. Enterprising drivers have added two more lanes by driving on the sidewalk, but the four lanes still have to merge into one as we access the other road, so traffic has slowed to a crawl. A tall man wearing a dirty white boubou limps over to me. He thrusts out both his arms in my direction. His left arm is amputated below the elbow and his right hand is extended in anticipation of my charity. I have no change, and I don’t dare reach for my wallet while we are stuck in traffic with the windows open. I gesture with empty hands and apologize for not being able to help him out. Instead of moving onto the next car as the others have done, he glares at me and thrusts out his arms again. His eyes speak to me: “Don’t you see I am an amputee? Didn’t you come here to help people like me? Why don’t you build my capacity to eat a decent meal? When is World Amputee Day?”

I have no answers. The car finally lurches forward. I am thankful to escape back to World One, but the questions remain. Why are these three worlds so disconnected? Can we international travelers of World One really make the comfortable bureaucrats of World Three more responsive to the struggling masses of World Two? Or are we just making them even less accountable?