I spent last week in Geneva – which provides some excuse for my recent cyberspace silence. Relentless rounds of meetings interspaced by working coffees: hardly a recipe for creative thought. But Geneva itself provides plenty of material for anyone interested in understanding how international development is controlled by a cosmopolitan elite.
Geneva’s reputation for dullness
is only half-justified: it’s certainly not a party town, but in many ways I find its disconnected hybrid culture fascinating. It’s the closest I’ve come to a genuinely “post-national” city — in the sense that the international quarters of the town and their inhabitants seem to belong almost entirely to a parallel world of global acronyms, transnational career structures and multiple passports. Entirely disconnected – linguistically, culturally, socially – from the Genevois natives they never meet.
The city seems disconnected from time, too. Walk in the Palais
and it’s impossible not to see the shadows of the 1920s and 1930s cast out from the monumental architecture sweeping down to the lake. But the very point of Geneva seems rooted in those inter-war years – the buildings echo the ideas that built a humanitarian capital here in the early twentieth century. Impossible not to envy the certainty of purpose of the 1920s – impossible not to regret its unravelling and the collapse of the League in the 1930s
. In Geneva, though, there are moments where it feels like time has stood still – in the general assumption that humanitarian action is still right (whatever the mistakes of the past century); in the heavy courtesy of state dialogues which are intended to ensure much is said and nothing is done.
Today, Geneva is a city filled with humanitarians-turned-bureaucrats. Many, mid-career, have spent many years in crisis states – Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda. It’s hard to connect Geneva’s bourgeois cafes to humanitarian emergencies and chaos, but a surprising number of the men and women drinking on a weekday will have war stories to tell about the Kosovo refugee crisis in ‘99
, or Congolese camps in ’96
. The result is another strange dislocation and an intense sense of transience. Everyone is always going somewhere – on mission to Nairobi, Kabul, Bogota. A quick trip to Khartoum. In Geneva today, normal is global. It begins to seem like everyone in Geneva is always about to be somewhere else.
Do these disconnections between Geneva and the “real world” matter? Perhaps not. I tend to think we should pay rather more – and not less – attention to the politics of the 1930s, for instance. But there is certainly an irony in the fact that UNHCR – an organization committed to returning refugees “home” – is staffed by cosmopolitan nomads, pausing in Geneva. Or that UNICEF staff, charged with protecting families in the abstract, struggle to build or keep together their own in the concrete.
Every time I travel to Geneva I am struck by the commitment of its international humanitarians to their jobs. And by the attrition rate, even though Geneva is where the mid-careerists come for respite, to try and make relationships work. But caring for the whole of humanity is a very lonely job. Which is why – in spite of my own reputation for “mobility mania” – I’m always glad to come home.