Aid workers bring mixed fortunes for local economy in eastern Chad

Surge of NGOs during refugee crisis boosted business and graduate employment but led to job losses and inequality

For business savvy in eastern Chad, look no further than Abderahmane Hissène. In one of the hottest countries in the world, he is the only person selling refrigerated soft drinks within a 20km (12.4 miles) radius of Goz Beïda airstrip. "My approach is to keep prices reasonable, then customers come back,'' says the 17-year-old entrepreneur whose Café de l'Aéroport is a discarded UN container.

Return custom is guaranteed because many travellers embarking at Goz Beïda – a gravel airstrip used almost exclusively by the UN and where delays are common – have large expense allowances at their disposal.

But Hissène does not consider himself particularly fortunate: "The guy who was here before me is rich now. He has moved to [the capital] N'Djamena and owns a car. The best time to be here was at the height of the Darfur crisis.''

While there have been many studies into aid effectiveness, less well researched has been the impact on economies of the presence of aid workers and peacekeepers. They buy soft drinks and handicrafts, and employ drivers, guards and even prostitutes, and then they leave.

"There were at least 30 NGOs here between about 2003 and 2010. Business was brisk. There were always large parties of people coming to eat and drink,'' says Youssouf Mahamat as he surveys the empty tables in the courtyard of the cavernous Club Des Amis – the only remaining restaurant in Goz Beïda and now the sole outlet for beer.

In the 2000s, Goz Beïda – a sleepy market town 70km from the Sudanese border, with half a dozen concrete buildings and no electricity – underwent a demographic explosion. Camps were built in the surrounding area to accommodate nearly half a million people – refugees from Darfur and internally displaced Chadians.

A joint EU and UN force, Minurcat, built the airstrip. Next door, a fortified military base sprung up to accommodate 3,000 soldiers. In town, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and others built offices where generators hummed and satellite dishes pointed at the sky.

Mahamat believes that Goz Beïda was short-changed. "We still do not have electricity and hundreds of local people, from cleaners to butchers, have lost work," he says. "The Chadian army has moved into the Minurcat base but many buildings are now empty. The only cars in town are still the white Land Cruisers belonging to the UN and remaining three or four NGOs.''

One of those the Spanish branch of Oxfam, which has cut staff numbers from 150 to 60 and is focusing its work on resettling internally displaced people (IDPs) in villages around Goz Beïda. At the Oxfam guesthouse, a group of aid workers flick between channels on the satellite television before they finally decide on a glitzy French variety show.

Simon Mopo, 32, is a paying guest. A fieldworker for the Chadian NGO, Association des Femmes pour le Développement (AFDI), he is grateful to the aid world: "Hundreds of young graduates in this country owe their careers to the fact that Darfur was in vogue. After university, many of us walked into jobs. The alternative would have been to apply to be admitted as teachers or health workers on really low salaries.''

He says there is now a critical mass of graduates in the underdeveloped east of Chad, where previously no one with a degree was willing to move. But the flipside of this phenomenon is evident in any school or public health institution. An hour's flight away, in the former aid hub of Abéché, the decrepit regional hospital is woefully understaffed.

Senior nurse Khadidja Chaib Mahamat, 38, has worked in the paediatric ward for 10 years. She saves the lives of malnourished babies and toddlers on a daily basis. Yet her monthly salary is just 135,000 CFA francs (£170). "Nine staff here, including myself, are paid by the state. But the full complement is 30. What happens is that the government turns to aid organisations to solve the problem. They employ workers on short-term contracts who earn more than we do. It is good for the ward but it is demotivating for us.''

At the Goz Beïda airstrip, a dozen people wearing UN-blue lanyards have been told that their helicopter will not make its scheduled flight today. While they make contingency plans, Hissène's airport cafe cashes in. "My next plan is to get a pan and a Thermos flask so I can sell coffees and teas,'' he says. "Refugees have started coming in from Darfur again so we might soon have more aid workers stopping at the airport."


Alex Duval Smith in Goz Beïda, eastern Chad

The GuardianTramp

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