The Oxfam Nairobi swimming pool dilemma – cast your vote...
Duncan Green Senior Strategic Adviser
25th Jan 2012
Nairobi is a major NGO hub, currently the epicentre of the drought relief effort, and Oxfam's regional office realized some years ago that we could save a pile of money if we ran our own guesthouse, rather than park the numerous visitors in over-priced hotels. It's nothing fancy, definitely wouldn't get many stars, but it's much more relaxed than a hotel and a brilliant place to meet the kind of people I profiled recently. It's really rather unique.
But there's a problem. As a large converted house in a nice part of town, and like most such houses in Nairobi, it has a swimming pool. But the swimming DSC00645pool is covered over and closed, even though it would be cheap to keep it open. Why? Reputational risk - back in the UK, where swimming pools are luxury items, Oxfam's big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed it (see right, the blue of the pool is a protective tarpaulin, not water). It didn't help when some bright spark decided to advertise for a swimming pool attendant on the Oxfam website…
On my recent stay at the guesthouse, I asked everyone I met there and whether African or mzungu, they all said it makes sense to open the pool. Exhausted aid workers arrive hot and dusty from remote areas of East Africa for some R&R, but there's no chance of a refreshing swim. I need my exercise so had to go running instead - the combination of altitude, hills and choking traffic fumes nearly killed me.
On the other hand there's no denying that most of our supporters back in the UK, let alone the people we are working to help, are not likely to have access to a pool in their back yard, so why should aid workers get special treatment? (And I have to confess, when I interviewed the members of a sex workers' collective in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago as they relaxed by their aid-funded organization's pool, I was rather shocked myself.)
So what do you think? Should Oxfam open the pool and take any bad publicity on the chin, or should we stop whining? It would probably cost about $200-300 a month to keep the pool open - if we could find a way to do it without creating an accounting nightmare, we could probably raise that from contributions from guests, and even have money to spare to plough back into Oxfam programmes. Vote now on my blog.