Featuring Carly’s encounter with supply-driven development and #SWEDOW in Fiji and the overuse of “capacity-building,” “gender-mainstreaming,” and all our favourite development jargon. Plus aid workers’ constant fighting over whose turn it is to watch porn (and other coping mechanisms).
Hop on Twitter to respond to the podcast or shoot us your questions using the hashtag #MissionCreepDev, and don’t forget to send us the best examples of SWEDOW you’ve seen – and your bet for the next big development buzzword.
You can also listen to the podcast here or download it from iTunes (and a transcript is coming soon).
In honour of World Humanitarian Day, the WhyDev team wants to recognize an unfortunate truth: humanitarian projects often fail. We believe NGOs need to confront their mistakes, talk about them and learn from them – it’s the only way aid will get better. Continue reading →
In case you missed the news last week, WhyDev just launched a new feature – designed to make sure your busy life doesn’t stop you from getting the top news and development stories. Last Week Today brings you the week’s best links, all in one place, every Friday. So sit back, relax, and get all caught up. Continue reading →
The WhyDev team (minus a couple of internationals) went out for karaoke last Friday night in Melbourne. This is not an unusual event for us; three team members have lived in China and performed karaoke during the middle of the day, stone-cold sober with work colleagues. Karaoke is to us what water is to fish. However, what was unusual was our song selection. Missing were many aid work classics. (And some not-so-classics.)
That got us thinking – what are the classic aid worker songs that define how we see the world and our role in it?
We have our own ideas, but we’d love to compile a playlist of the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes through crowdsourcing. We’ve chosen a shortlist. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, Toto’s “Africa” features. Yes, you can enter your own choice. You get five picks. Like Indiana Jones in Last Crusade, choose wisely.
Please take this as seriously as you like. The poll will be open for one week. We will then tally the results and post the definitive, annotated guide to the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes next week. Continue reading →
Many Australians working in development had their first professional experience through the Australian Government’s prestigious Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, with either Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) or Australian Volunteers International (AVI) assignments.
But how effective are these programs actually? Do they translate to good development?
Most NGOs these days blog, tweet, use Facebook – but not many of them use video effectively. Our Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp explains how organisations could pick up some tips from (who else?) the celebrities of YouTube.
The UN is feeding refugees a starvation diet: 850 calories a day. When Francisco Toro found out about it, he didn’t “like” a post or order a bracelet. Instead, he ate a tiny bowl of sorghum and lentils – and nothing else.
Like most right-thinking people, I had decided to devote 1 July to football. After Argentina’s grinding, 1-0 defeat of Switzerland, I was getting ready to enjoy the USA-Belgium match, when a link on Twitter caught my eye. “As food shortages hit 800,000 African refugees,” warned the press release, “UNHCR and WFP issue urgent appeal.”
The story is entirely garish: the kind of too-awful-to-be-true story we’ve all gotten so adept at seeing-and-not-seeing. Due a budget shortfall, UN agencies had to cut food rations for refugees throughout Africa. In some cases, people are getting as much as 60% less to eat. The new rations, The Guardian warned, come to scarcely 850 calories a day.
We’re all supposed to be grown ups, able to read-but-not-read a story like that, right? And yet, this time, I couldn’t. As I tried to concentrate on the USMNT’s valiant-but-doomed stand against the tactically superior Belgians, my mind kept drifting back.
“850 calories. How can you even live on that?”
I think most people who go into advocacy have a moment like that, when a story not so different from the ones you’re used to just passing over stays with you, tugs at you, worms its way into your every thought, becomes unignorable. That night, I found myself up at 3am, turning it over on my mind, re-reading the UNHCR story, looking for extra information (of which there wasn’t any).
I guess I’m pretty green on these issues, because I really thought over the next few days I’d start to see this story crop up other places. I mean, this is a famine brewing inside UN facilities, affecting people living under the international community’s protection. Surely the story had legs.
The days went by, and I found myself first confused, then dismayed, and finally shocked to be disabused of this hope. The story about the food crisis inside UNHCR refugee camps was going absolutely nowhere. It came, it blipped, it disappeared into the digital oblivion of a public sphere saturated with football and Hobby Lobby and downed Malaysia Airlines jets.
“These Africans sure picked a lousy weak for the UN to run out of money to feed them,” I mused darkly and tried to move on. But I couldn’t move on. I was stuck.
“How would you like it if you had to live on…” I found myself ranting at my wife. And at that moment, the idea came to me.
By the end of that week, a first draft of 850 Calories was online, and I was frantically trying to figure out how to get people to join me. I bet if people experienced for themselves what it’s like to live for even one day on African refugee rations, they wouldn’t be comfortable to know this is happening to 800,000 people whose only “crime” is fleeing from conflicts that threatened their lives.
So there’s indignation, of course, at the wellspring of the campaign, but there’s also analysis. There’s a reason UNHCR and WFP face the kind of funding gap that’s left them no choice but to drastically cut back on African refugees’ food rations. And it comes back to that complete information gap I saw in the days following their joint appeal. Nobody’s heard this story, so nobody cares to tell this story, so nobody writes this story – with some very few, fantastically brave exceptions.
Refugees in Central Africa are suspended in a vicious cycle of Western disengagement and international neglect, the cost of which is measured in stunted children, anemic mothers, child brides and community breakdown. The Western politicians who ultimately control the purse-strings find it eminently easy to ignore the agencies’ pleas for money, because none of their constituents have ever heard this story, and they’re thus under no pressure whatsoever to act.
This, I think, is why 850 Calories is different from things like One Day without Shoes or the infamous Kony2012 campaign. Those are cases where the fact of Western awareness, of it “being a thing,” didn’t necessarily do anything to solve the problem. Shoelessness is an intractable problem, and Boko Haram is a war machine the West would struggle to face down even if it made military commitments many orders of magnitude larger than what hastagtivism can accomplish.
But the food crisis inside UNHCR’s camps is different. Here’s a situation where, in fact, just making it “a thing” would produce pressure for Western politicians to solve the problem. If people start to take the 850 challenge, post about it, tweet about it, get their friends doing it and get them posting and thinking about it, the problem could go from total invisibility to cultural ubiquity a lot quicker than folks realize. That would create the kind of environment in which politicians have strong reasons to fund the UNHCR-WFP appeal, and the funding is all that’s missing now. After all, the camps are already there, the refugees are already registered, the logistics are already in place, the only thing missing is the money. Well, the money, and the will.
850 Calories is just starting, and I have no idea if it’ll ever have its “viral” moment. Experts tell me that, with its absence of a clearly identifiably bad guy and its focus on a largely unheard-of crisis, it may not.
It may be that we just let refugees in Central Africa starve to death slowly under our “protection.” That’s the crude reality - the least we can do is face it squarely.
I’m just one guy with a keyboard in Montreal. It may be that there isn’t really anything I can do to stop that. But Thomas Friedman’s been boring us to death for years now about how we’re all “hyper-empowered” thanks to the net and, personally, I’d much rather give it a shot and fail than never try at all.
I’m a massive fan of video. Often I think it’s an underrated or forgotten about platform in communications, especially in development. And while some NGOs do it well, most use video for the purpose of presenting marketing and advertising material. Few use it for establishing, aiding or developing their brand and online community.
While it is often easier for individuals to establish themselves on YouTube than it is for organisations, there is still a lot NGOs can learn from YouTube celebrities.
Video is unique because it allows you to create longer content and therefore you can flesh out ideas and issues.
Also, people who are interested in watching a video – longer than 30 seconds and that isn’t about a cat – have decided to invest their time so you have their attention, unlike, say, Facebook and Twitter, where you are competing with your supporters’ friends and family.
Two YouTube celebrities that I love are Jenna Marbles and Miss Coco Peru. What makes them different, I feel, is that they are real people who look, act and sound genuine.
Video allows you get a sense of a person. It’s a chance for an organisation to establish who they are and then encourage their viewers to interact with them on a deeper level. Coco became a hit at my work after a friend who had gone through a similar quest to find Temper Tamer Tea, and found her video. We then contacted her by email. Although we didn’t expect a reply, she responded, and we chatted back and forth. Soon, she became more than just a character or celebrity to us. She became a person we could talk to and get to know. And we loved her more because of it.
Jenna, in particular, talks about everyday topics that are relatable to most people.
Sometimes she sets topics; other times, she touches on areas that she knows people want to talk about, but may not have had the chance to; or, she asks the community outright what they want to discuss. NGOs can learn from this, as they don’t always focus on two-way conversations and forget to ask their supporters what they want to know about the organisation and its work. In all cases, video lets Jenna create a space for discussion, and it’s through this two-way dialogue that her viewers realise their similarities. The space she creates isn’t some obscure world, either. Because of the nature of video, we talk with her in our everyday world; on the tram or at home, as if she were our friend. I believe this is what has helped her form her huge community of 12,790,673 YouTube followers alone. I like knowing there’s millions of other people who question, think about and laugh at the same things I do.
Finally, what I love about both Coco and Jenna is that they have a clear personality or brand.
When you watch their videos or go to their websites, you enter their world – Coco greets you with her voice while Jenna makes you “awww” out loud with pictures of her dogs, Kermit and Mr. Marbles. Both celebrities know how to use their talent and personality to their advantage, but they aren’t trying to please everybody. Because they know who they are and stick to what they know, they are quick to respond to criticism and support their views. NGOs can fall into the trap of trying to speak to everyone or trying to discuss every issue at length. If an NGO specialises in water or restoring eyesight, then it’s ok if they only talk about this, and some do this well. I wouldn’t normally engage with personalities like Coco and Jenna, but friends shared their YouTube videos with me, and now I really enjoy watching and listening to them.
NGOs should look to YouTube celebrities when trying to create genuine dialogue, spaces where two-way conversations can take place and a holistic brand. While NGOs and celebrities might start and end in different places, the tools and motives are the same – to tell stories in new and engaging ways to their community.
Who are your favourite YouTube celebrities, and what do you like about them?
As a child, I grew up with the notion that I wanted to do great things. That my mark on the world would be significant. By that goal alone, the past 12 months have been the most fulfilling period of my life. A few months ago, I woke up one Saturday morning and stepped into the shower. I spent the next 20 minutes crying uncontrollably. No matter how hard I tried, it would not stop. Everything seemed to be going so well, but all I could feel was loss. Why? Though I was making my mark on the world, I’d forgotten about the mark I was making on those around me.
This week, my grandfather would have celebrated his 90th birthday. From my own interactions with him and the countless stories I have been told, he embodied everything in the word “great.” As a young man in his home country of Malaysia, he excelled in his studies, but he left school before his final year to work and support his family, handing over his salary to his mother every month. At the age of 22, he won the local lottery, worth $5,555. He took the entire winnings and gave it to his family. This was the equivalent of 31 years of his salary at the time. My grandfather was not the perfect human being, but overwhelming messages of support and love can only mean one thing. When he passed away late last year, this was a man who had left his mark on the world.
When people talk about my grandfather, they rarely mention his many achievements. They don’t talk about his successful businesses, the school for underprivileged children that he established, or the fact that he founded the Red Cross society in his hometown. Though his achievements read like a never-ending reel of credits at the end of a film, they don’t define his legacy.
My grandfather will be most remembered for the way he made others feel. He gave time and attention to every person who crossed his path, regardless of their age, wealth or race. It’s hard to imagine that his attention to other people was ever determined by the question, “What can this person do for me?”
The late Maya Angelou once said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Her words are relevant for every single one of us, but her message might well have been tailored to humanitarian workers. The dilemma that each of us must face is this: is your legacy what you achieve in your work life, or how you impact those around you? The former is not the same as the latter.
Once you invest your energy into a cause, it’s impossible for it not to occupy your entire being. The cause becomes you. For me, my ownwork has become exactly that. It’s more than a job to me – it’s everything about who I am. It’s fulfilling that somewhat vague childhood notion of leaving a mark behind. Yet, with every gain in my work life, parts of me slipped away. I felt less joy over social events than I’d ever felt before. I forgot important details about friends’ lives. I lost track of birthdays and important events. I even forgot to ask the simple question: “Is everything okay with you?”
I cried in the shower because I had experienced loss. I had forgotten that no matter what it is I want to achieve, being human means being the best I can be to those around me. Nothing else matters more.
People are often surprised just how unfriendly and unhelpful humanitarian workers can be. I used to feel anger at people who, despite being incredibly good at their work, were unable to be cordial or friendly. Now I try to feel empathy. I try to imagine what they might be going through.
How do you break the cycle? There’s no simple formula, but there are some common sense ideas. I noticed the signs of burnout early. I started to work out what it was that I needed to perform well, and I prioritized them. I started to perform random acts of kindness, particularly if there was no way the person was able to repay me. I started to listen, truly listen, to what people were saying.
I started to introduce deliberate moments of emptiness into my life. Rather than waking up in the morning and immediately checking my work emails, I made myself a cup of tea and stared out the window for a few minutes. Instead of obsessing over what I had to do tomorrow just before going to bed, I wrote them down on a list, and then spent at least two minutes thinking about everything I was grateful for that day.
I often wonder what went through my grandfather’s mind when he was alive. Did he ever feel overwhelmed by his work? Did he ever battle with the concept of work-life balance? Or did it just come naturally? Either way, as humanitarian workers striving to leave the world in a better place, one lesson he taught me should always stick. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do, what matters is how you make people feel.
Complexity is the latest buzzword in development, but with good reason. Our work is complex, not just because of the kinds of issues we work on or the contexts in which we work, but also because being an international development practitioner is a complex thing.
Whether we are staff of an NGO, an academic or an independent consultant, we are continually playing multiple roles and meeting multiple, at times conflicting, demands. Every day, we work across cultures and through multi-layered relationships of power that we must learn to navigate and that frequently challenge our values, beliefs and assumptions.
Unfortunately, there are no simple, universal instructions on how to manage these complexities. Reams of butcher paper and megabytes of PowerPoint presentations have been used to provide guidance on being a good development worker. Our personal experience is that the conversations with our colleagues (typically over a drink, often in dingy hotel rooms and airport lounges) have been the most valuable.
Our best source of professional development and support has been the opportunity to share experiences and perspectives, to challenge and be challenged, and most importantly to laugh at ourselves.
With this in mind, we are running a series of conversations in Melbourne on the second Tuesday of every month, beginning 12 August (ahh, now the name makes sense!). The series is aimed at middle- and senior-level international development practitioners, from across the NGO, academic, consultancy and volunteer sectors.
With the help of a few of the leading voices on development practice in Australia, we will reflect on the complexities that we face in our day-to-day work, how we manage them now, and how we might do better in future.
If you like the idea of some structured ranting, accompanied by Shebeen’s excellent selection of beverages, come along! The sessions interlink, and we hope that over the course of the sessions you will feel increasingly comfortable to speak openly and honestly.
To contribute to this kind of environment where people will feel comfortable, we ask that you register for all five sessions, although we know you might not make it for all of them. A small contribution is requested to cover the venue fee.
Katherine Gilbert worked on strengthening social service delivery and improving aid effectiveness with the UN in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Haiti for seven years. Over the past six months, she has worked as a research fellow at a Melbourne-based university on a health sector study in the Solomon Islands.
Rebecca Spratt has worked in international aid and development for over ten years, mainly in the areas of education, civil society strengthening and advocacy. Rebecca is currently based in Melbourne as an independent consultant, having previously worked for government, NGO and private sector agencies in New Zealand and Australia.