Aleppians waiting in a bread line during the Syrian Civil War. Photo from Voice of America.

Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other

This is the final post in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s piece on cognitive dissonance in the aid industry. Check out the other responses here and here, and share your own in the comments.

A few bullet-points, first, then narrative.

  • The opening scene of the barbershop in Jonathan’s article resonates: I had approximately the same experience in a small town in southern Michigan in about 1991.
  • Jonathan describes well the cognitive dissonance of being an aid/development worker, but struggles to convey the gaps between what we actually do, what everyone thinks we do and who we are. Hell, I struggle to convey them after more than a decade of writing specifically dedicated to that end. It’s mostly the point of my recent book, Letters Left Unsent (see especially the chapter entitled “Noble Savages”).
  • In this way, I think aid workers and the aid industry are actually analogous to porn actors and the adult film industry. Powerful, common perceptions about who we are and what we do seldom reflect reality… But since everyone thinks they know, no one bothers actually asking. Which leads to massive misperceptions by those entering or attempting to enter the sector. Which leads to people like Jonathan having cognitive dissonance straight out of the gate, before he’s got much more than entry-level experience under his belt.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity?

In pretty much the same way a physician integrates recognition of the healthcare industry’s flaws. Which is to say that I acknowledge them openly, and then assertively use my own (current) influence to correct them or start to correct them where I can.

I recognize the faults and challenges, and take on as a part of my personal responsibility and ethics to do what I can to make it better. In this area, though, I don’t really see that aid and development is any different from most any other industry–the automotive industry, perhaps, or the food industry. I think there’s always a disconnect between, for lack of a better term, the business-end or “industrial” side of any industry and the thing the industry is meant to provide.

For example, the automotive industry is beset with drama and intrigue around what gets decided, how, where and by whom. Then consumers–people like you and me–certainly have opinions about what cars we like, would like to have (whether real and current or imaginary), all to come around to the realities of what we can actually afford.

And so, I suppose, in my professional life, like an engineer or a factory worker at Toyota, I have no problem acknowledging the limitations of what my chosen industry has to offer.

I may even be candid and open about my employer’s comparative and competitive advantages and disadvantages vis-a-vis other providers. I think we can safely assume that in 20 years’ time, the cars we drive will look and work and be quite different from those we have now.

And in the same way, with the aid industry, whether we’re talking about the technical specifications of the actual products we deliver or the industry’s nature and structure, the acquisitions, the shifts in power at the “top” of the industry itself (far from the factory floor, if you will), I think we can freely acknowledge flaws without ever abandoning belief in the value of the product itself or in our own individual and collective roles in making that product happen.

How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to do work in the field or advocating for its expansion?

I think there’s a tendency to make this issue seem more black and white than it is, in fact. It’s partially to do with basic human nature–we gravitate toward explanations that feel simple. It’s partially to do, I think, with the way the discussion about aid has evolved, particularly on social media, in the past few years. And I think it also has to do with the fact that the major (which is to say, widely-read) critiques almost all come from industry outsiders who have a vested interest in articulating extreme critique. And here I’m talking specifically about William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo and Linda Polman (among others). “Dead aid” grabs attention, whereas “Aid with a serious, but ultimately curable illness” lacks punch.

Too much of the conversation, in my opinion, is polarized between “aid is dead,” and “OMG, we’re making poverty history!” The truth is that the vast majority is somewhere in the middle.

I think there’s perhaps a generational thing at play, too. Myself at 25, a year or two into my own aid career, I had all the answers. I could give the entire litany of everything wrong with the sector, every decision my boss and my bosses’ boss made was wrong, and so on. Now, 20+ years later, I’m not so sure.

Jonathan asks some tough questions, but lately I’m not so sure they’re the most relevant ones. The question, “Did I ‘make a lasting difference’ during my time as a PCV in Senegal?” is a very, very different question from, “Does aid work or not? And if not, how do we fix it?” And those of us who stick around come to understand that the things that make aid work or not, the problems in real need of redress, have nothing at all to do with whether the white guys and women in rural West Africa are “learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society.” I think many of us had our equivalent of a barbershop crisis early on. Stay on for a while, though, and see how things actually work, and you begin to understand that the issues are different.

I stay on because I see the potential for good. I’ve seen the good actually happen myself. I stay on because I see the real possibility of changing the industry for the better and at the level at which it truly needs to change. I stay on because I still believe.

How do you motivate yourself on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

Let me start somewhere else, because I don’t really think this is the best question to ask here. I think it is absolutely critical to understand that this aid or development thing is a job, like any other (even if Peace Corps marketing says otherwise). Maybe you work some long hours. Maybe, in the course of this “ordinary job,” you go to some cool places and have some wild moments. But at the end of the day, it is a job. You go to work, you collect your salary or stipend, you pay your bills, and eventually you retire.

It is critical to understand that liking your job, that feeling as if what you do for work contributes to some greater good–“job satisfaction”–is a luxury and a privilege that many (perhaps most?) people simply do not have. I think too many people enter the aid sector because they anticipate a constant rush of, “I JUST SAVED A LIFE!!”

I see these people day in and day out in my real job: they’re the ones who very easily get bored or disillusioned and leave, or perhaps run off to start their own NGO, before they’ve really understood the reality. I think the sooner we understand that, like with any other job in any other industry, some days are going to be awesome and some days are going to suck, the sooner we’ll get past the stage of existential barbershop crises.

I don’t mean we should become apathetic. Rather, I mean we must understand that this job, this career, carries with it both positive and negative. And further, that just because we have a tough day at the office or in the village, doesn’t mean aid is broken.

And there, I’ve gone on preaching.

Featured image from Voice of America.

Last Week Today: 10 October 2014

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds are expecting! And it’s pretty likely this will be the world’s most beautiful baby. You can already see predictions of what he or she will look like.

Although, here at WhyDev, we’re disappointed they haven’t adopted a Cambodian child. Blakan could give Brangelina a run for their humanitarian money.

The week in news

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has temporarily stepped down (the ICC hearing on his crimes against humanity and all).

ISIS is set to take the key town of Kobane, on the Turkish-Syrian border. Meanwhile, Turkey is garnering support for a buffer zone to protect displaced people.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to be missing. Unsubstantiated rumours suggest he has gout, is under house arrest, fractured both ankles because of his weight or was tapped on the shoulder by Ban Ki-moon to negotiate a ceasefire between ISIS and the world.

The week on the blog

The difference one tree can make

What can be done to combat deforestation in developing countries? Kathleen Buckingham draws lessons from some major tree-planting initiatives.

What Tim Minchin can teach you about working in global development

Musician-comedian Tim Minchin doled out some unconventional but inspiring life advice in a graduation speech – and WhyDev Director Brendan Rigby turned it into lessons for aspiring aid workers.

The week in globaldev

Where my senior consultants at? Hola!

UNDP Number 1!

So much panic, so little action on Ebola

Down with all-male panels!

Generalists and specialists are so last year. This season is all about the “integrator.”

Ebola is the Jeffrey Sachs of cold sores.

A “Homeless Bill of Rights,” so people can legally sit and stand in public

No money left for food aid – USAID spent it all on shipping costs.

Comic In the real world, do we actually love the underdog?

"The Underdog Myth," a comic by Mike Dawson.
“The Underdog Myth,” a comic by Mike Dawson.

You can also check out our events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

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Featured image by Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA.


What Tim Minchin can teach you about working in global development

I’ve been sitting on a number of career panels recently. Melbourne is the Australian capital for NGO HQs, social enterprise, development students and cafes. These events are popular. Students are thirsty for the holy grail of career advice. I’m far from the best person to offer advice for a number of reasons. I like to take a different tack.

Ask not how do you get a job in development, but how can you best contribute to justice, human rights and people’s well being.

I’ve considered a number of times asking attendees to “Sell me this pen,” or screaming, “Don’t start an NGO!!” Thankfully, I’m more reserved and promote a reflexive approach to my pitch.

Although Tim Minchin isn’t my favourite comedian (Aamer Rahman), his address to students at the University of Western Australia was poignant, unapologetic and irreverent. Just what I needed to inspire a click-bait friendly post about what he can teach you about working in global development.

1. You don’t have to have a dream

Recently, there has been a trend of blog posts and research advocating for a focus on short-term, discrete goals, particularly when it comes your own life. A range of PhD advice centres on chunks. Don’t get caught up on the whole. It is overwhelming. Break it down into discrete, manageable and achievable tasks.

A dream can be overwhelming, particularly when others speak of having or obtaining one. Ending extreme poverty comes to mind.

Minchin says to be “micro-ambitious” and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re editing a boring mid-term report for a disinterested donor or yet another grant application with a 0.01% chance of success. “You never know where you might end up.”

Working in global development is by no means linear, stable or secure. Yes, there are those who’ve wanted to work for “the UN” since they were the under-secretary of the Model UN at Parkville High School. But, shit happens.

2. Don’t seek happiness

“Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away.”

If you want to be happy, make someone else happy. This taps into the notion of mindfulness and awareness about being less selfish, less egotistical. It is difficult. Working in global development sometimes feels like a circle jerk. It can feel really good, and everyone in the circle is feeling good, but it is also wrong. The ethical, philosophical and very practical dilemmas of the industry are hard to reconcile and find happiness within. Can you work in a flawed industry and still do good? Let me put that another way. Can you work in a flawed industry and find happiness?

3. It is all luck

This is about privilege. You can always acknowledge it, and it is important to do so, but you can never outrun it. If you work in global development, you are lucky. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to be educated. Lucky to be healthy. You are privileged. Yes, you worked hard for it (some of you didn’t), but as Minchin says, “I didn’t make the bit  of me that works hard”.

Don’t take full credit for your successes and don’t blame others fully for their failings. It will make you humble, compassionate and empathetic. Although it sounds like something the Dalai Lama would say with an enlightened smile, they are wise words from a man who wears a lot of black eye-liner.

4, Exercise

Take care of your body. Run, jog, practice yoga, do aerobics, try heyrobics, eat well, sleep enough, don’t smoke, drink moderately. Working in global development will pit your emotional, mental and physical energies against the world, against violence, cruelty and hardship.

If you are lucky enough to work overseas, you will most likely experience stress, depression, isolation, compassion fatigue and perhaps even show symptoms of PTSD. You’ve got a long life ahead of you. Get active.

5. Be hard on your opinions

This is my favourite one. Global development is rife with entrenched positions, program inertia and anecdotal evidence. Change does start within. We’re always bashing other people’s theories of change, opinions about development minutiae and where to get the best coffee (Melbourne).

But, what about our own hard-won beliefs, biases and prejudices? “Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat”. (A cricket bat.) You know nothing, aid worker. Many of our failings in global development are found in a failure to communicate because we are too wrapped up in our own beliefs.

6. Be a teacher*

Okay, so this is my new favourite one. “Even if you are not a teacher, be a teacher.” But, this comes with a caveat. This does not mean go and volunteer to teach English in Ghana during summer break. No. And I’m speaking to you, the 22-year old white female from [Australia, Europe, North America], studying business but wanting an adventure in Africa over the holidays.

If you want to teach, even just to give it a go – and will commit to it for a period of time – go and get a degree. Read John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Maria Montessori and Michelle Rhee, and get pumped about being a professional educator. You want to change the world and make a difference? Be a teacher.

7. Define yourself by what you love

It is not about what you are in opposition to; express your love for things, places, people and ideas you are passionate about. “Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.”

Yes, yes, yes, we know voluntourism is the embarrassing, slightly perverted uncle of volunteering, but what are the alternatives? What should people who are willing to give their time, and pay for it, be doing?

You are anti-voluntourism, anti-TOMS, anti-IMF SAPs, anti-religion, anti-capitalism. But what are you pro?

8. Respect people with less power than you

How do you treat your interns? How do you treat the community members your organisation works with? Do you show friendliness or friendship?

Friendliness is benign. It is that demeanour you adopt when visiting communities. You arrive in a community and go through the customs of greeting its senior members, with a kind smile on your face, aware of your status and the blessings you bring. You soak up the exoticness of it, aware of your, and the community’s, otherness. You are a Big Man/Big Woman. The magical symbols and capital letters that represent your tribe give you power. At the back of your mind, you hear the faint whisper of Kanye. “I am a god / So hurry up with my damn massage.”

And there is friendship that is powerful, humble and respectful. It takes a step back, relinquishes power and empowers. You are small in the company of others, aware of your privilege but not consumed by it. R E S P E C T. Find out what it means to you.

9. Don’t rush

Relax. You don’t need to know what your career in global development or elsewhere will be. No one knows. It ain’t that simple. Take time to figure shit out. What are you good at? What do you love? Who do you love? What will people pay you to do?

Think carefully before entering global development. We need critical, reflexive, humble people; not just do-gooders. Hell, global development may not even need you. In the wise words of Tina Turner, we don’t need another hero.

Watch Minchin’s full address below.

Featured image by Lyndsey Brown.

The difference one tree can make

This post originally appeared on Devex and is reprinted here with permission.

By Kathleen Buckingham

Trees have become an iconic image of environmentalism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should plant millions of them.

While scale is important for landscape restoration, we need to reconsider quality and not just quantity. When does the presence of a tree really make a difference, and when is it neither an environmental or economical solution to a host of complex issues? What are the implications for food security, biodiversity and landscape protection?

First, we need to take a step back — why shouldn’t we count the trees? Planting hundreds or even millions of trees does not automatically translate into an increase in the overall long-term tree population. To increase population levels, survival and planting rates have to outweigh losses from tree mortality and removal.

Challenges in China, Nigeria and Haiti

Traditional Chinese approaches to restoration have focused on afforestation (establishing forest on land not previously forested) as an important tool to control desertification.

However, over the long-term, tree planting projects have actually increased environmental degradation.

In arid and semi-arid regions of China, the fast-growing trees draw moisture from the soil, causing many trees to die in water-stressed regions with low annual precipitation. Since 1949, the overall survival rate of trees planted for afforestation projects has been only 15 percent across northern China. Rather than focusing solely on afforestation, re-creating natural ecosystems would provide a better chance of fighting desertification.

In Nigeria, among the 11 northern states worst-hit by desertification, nearly four out of every five seedlings — 37.5 million out of the 50 million planted each year — wither and die within two months. In these dry areas, water is more valuable than a standing forest.

“You can’t plant a tree in the desert without a water source and expect people who are struggling for water for their human needs to shoulder the extra burden of watering it,” says Kabiru Yammama from the National Forest Conservation Council of Nigeria. Furthermore, since 70 percent of rural Nigerians depend on wood for fuel, there’s little incentive to protect the trees that are left standing.

Haiti, one of the most deforested nations on Earth, could definitely benefit from increased tree cover and could ecologically sustain it too.

Before European occupation, Haiti was almost entirely covered with forests. Tree cover now stands at 3 percent. Although the World Bank spent $4.2 million to plant 20 million trees — of which 60 percent died — over seven years in the 1980s, they estimated that 10 times as many trees would need to be planted to result in net restoration. In fact, in the 2000-2005 period, the deforestation rate in Haiti accelerated by over 20 percent from the 1990s. Although forest-friendly policies exist, demand for energy and markets that encourage deforestation undercuts these policies.

Tree planting 2.0

We need a new agenda to restore landscapes, and looking at the difficulties in Haiti, Nigeria and China can provide ideas for adaptation.

In Africa’s Sahel region, even an individual tree’s value has been demonstrated. Adding single trees to agricultural land across this drought-scarred land creates shade, regenerates soils, fertilizes the ground and fundamentally leads to greater food security. The process of agroforestry has helped the area come back from the brink of severe desertification, starting in the mid-1980s.

Driving this restoration was a locally driven practice called farmer-managed natural regeneration, under which farmers allow native trees and shrubs to regrow from remnant underground root systems and/or plant new ones amidst crop fields. Since 1985, more than a million rural households in Niger have protected and managed trees in agroforestry landscapes across approximately 5 million hectares.

Green corridors in fragmented landscapes

In forests, trees can make a difference by connecting fragmented landscapes.

Most of the Atlantic forest in Brazil has been converted into agricultural land, with only 2 percent of the original forest remaining, dispersed in small patches surrounded by open fields. This kind of habitat loss affects tree species, their pollinators and animal dispersers — animals that consume seeds and excrete them across environments.

Researchers from the journal Nature have called for a new paradigm for forest restoration, and discourage exclusively prioritizing the expansion of existing medium-to-large size forest fragments. Instead, they suggest focusing on planting forest bridges, connecting otherwise disparate clumps of woods to form one large ecosystem.

The recently approved Brazilian Forest Law could help make this a reality. The law requires all rural properties in Brazil to maintain Forest Legal Reserves — to protect natural vegetation on 20 to 80 percent of land according to the vegetation and geography. However, there is a 16-30 million hectare gap between what should be set aside and what actually is. With an estimated 4 million properties not meeting their requirement, BVRio created a Forest Reserve Credits market, which allows landowners to buy and trade restored areas. Now, large landowning companies can pay smallholders to regenerate their own land. This trade-off of small, scattered clumps of restored land for larger, aggregated landscapes on large landowners’ properties could benefit ecosystems in the long-run.

To an economist, the law requires a total amount of land that must be restored, so trading permits for which land is restored creates no net gain. However, environmentalists might ask what the difference is between the two landscapes that could be restored. Trading has the potential to not only incentivize compliance with laws but to connect landscapes. Connectivity has been demonstrated in Puerto Rico by smallholders restoring even small fragments of land.

So before setting out on another billion-tree campaign, let’s put down our spades and ensure that standing trees won’t compete for resources — with local populations, economics or politics — but instead establish where and how a tree can benefit a landscape as well as provide for human needs.

Kathleen Buckingham is a research associate for forest and landscape restoration at the World Resources Institute. Her research focuses on assisting stakeholders to plan and implement successful forest and landscape restoration strategies. She has a PhD in Geography and the Environment from the University of Oxford and an MSc Environmental Sustainability from the University of Edinburgh, and has extensive country experience in China.

Featured image by Eric Montfort.

Last Week Today: 3 October 2014

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

What happens when Thor gets too tired to pick up his hammer? It looks like a new Thor steps in. Only this Thor is a woman.

Marvel Comics recently made waves when they announced they were making the God of Thunder female, and now a preview of her first issue is out.

Just to clarify, “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.”

Fox News apparently disapproves of the change.

The week in news

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have taken to the streets in unprecedented (and unusually polite) pro-democracy rallies. Beijing is responding about as you’d expect.

Tragedy struck in Japan, as Mount Ontake erupted unexpectedly, killing at least 47 people so far. And two suicide blasts hit Kabul, killing eight Afghan soldiers, just two days after Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as the country’s new President.

In other news, David Cameron announced that Tories resent poor people. #FreudianSlip?

The week on the blog

Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained

From t-shirts made of organic cotton to shoes made of old tires, ethical fashion is getting more trendy. But do these efforts to be responsible have an impact? Liza Moiseeva explains the fashion industry’s potential to make a difference, and its shortcomings.

Accepting flaws and doing good: Some thoughts on cognitive dissonance

How can aid workers sleep at night? Erol Yayboke continues the conversation on cognitive dissonance with advice on how to handle working in a flawed industry – and how we should be thinking about development work in the first place.

The week in globaldev

The problems with praising the female pilot who bombed ISIS | Vox

Jude Law, Akon and the DRC | VICE

A toast to Scott Morrision for his plan to send refugees to Cambodia | Sydney Morning Herald

Life in the time of Ebola | Think Africa Press

Support for volunteers with disabilities | Devex

Audio Laura Seay says we need to stick to the facts on Ebola. | On the Media (09:11)

Upcoming events

Learn how to utilise crowd funding in your organisation: A NetSquared Meetup | Melbourne, 7 October

You can also check out our other events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

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Featured image from Marvel comic book.

Children line up to wash their hands at a Tippy Tap in Kitgum, Uganda

Accepting flaws and doing good: Some thoughts on cognitive dissonance

This post is the second in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s recent piece on cognitive dissonance. Stay tuned as the conversation continues, and share your own thoughts in the comments.

By Erol Yayboke

Jonathan’s post on the “cognitive dissonance” required to work in development aid concludes with a series of broad questions that can loosely be translated into: how do you (i.e. “older, wiser” development practitioners) sleep at night? Though not an entirely fair translation, his broader aim to question the “development industry” is well taken. Most of us have had similarly awkward encounters with our barbers, taxi drivers and cousins that left us wondering whether we deserved such praise.

Before offering my “sage” responses to the valid questions every development aid worker should ask of him/herself and others, there are a couple points I’d like to make about the arguments that led up to Jonathan’s questions.

First, the “development industry” is a totally theoretical construct that includes countless non-profit, public, private and multi-lateral players, all with competing resources and agendas. We (including yours truly) overuse and abuse it regularly. Also, “development” as presented in the article is heavily skewed towards how “we in the West” have an impact on “those in the rest.” It’s important to note that part of the complexity of development is the fact that this West-centric viewpoint is simultaneously paternalistic and not entirely accurate.

Employees at India’s Ministry of Environment don’t see themselves as working in “development” per se; much like my friend at the U.S. Department of Energy, they’re working within the bureaucracy to improve their country. In other words, there is simply no utopian singular entity called “development” – it is a complex web that doesn’t even begin to understand itself (just ask any UN OCHA employee).

In spite of this, some groups have shown remarkable successes in health, food security and generally getting people to care about things outside their own communities (which I posit is better than the isolationist alternative).

I recommend focusing on criticising and offering improvements to specific sectors and programs based on concrete evidence, as opposed to chastising “development” as a whole.

Second, some of Jonathan’s article relies on one unfortunate tacit assumption: that the Peace Corps is a “development” organisation. Despite claiming that it “[sends] Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world” and work towards “sustainable change,” at best, the Peace Corps is a diplomatic ideal; it was arguably set up as such by Kennedy during the Cold War.

An admirable service organization that has undoubtedly “helped people build better lives,” Peace Corps is nonetheless one whereby, in practice, (mostly) young, energetic, bright Americans who often lack relevant technical skills (how many of us have met a health volunteer who didn’t know First Aid?) ingratiate themselves to communities that would otherwise probably never meet such aliens (double entendre intended).

More realistically (and acknowledged by the organisation itself), Peace Corps service is a time for self-discovery – as was the case for the volunteers Jonathan knew in Senegal – a time for Americans themselves to grow in compassion, worldliness and resilience. All noble outcomes, none of which have anything to do with “development.”

Now to the “sage wisdom.”

On reconciling the “industry’s flaws” with my own professional identity, I’d say that we live in a flawed world where nothing is ever perfect. Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us. As professionals, we should constantly be in pursuit of more efficiency, effectiveness and impact. It’s important to establish meaningful metrics for your project (NGO, sector, industry, etc.) and for yourself, referring to – and learning from – them often.

I’m a believer in having opinions based on evidence and in the value of real, long-term, first-hand experience topped with healthy doses of skepticism (of which Jonathan lacks not). Ultimately though, we all must strive to first, do no harm – even the best of intentions have the potential for unintended consequences.

On recognising problems while continuing to work in this field, I’d challenge Jonathan to find a profession that does not toil with this (somewhat existential) question.

To most (in our “industry” at least) who look hard enough, the systemic flaws are readily apparent and littered with political, financial and sometimes even nefarious roadblocks. The challenge (and great reward if you succeed) is to find solutions that are politically supportable, administratively feasible and technically correct. If you can manage to do that, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and scale up!

As for motivation on those ever-present tough days where doubt creeps in? This is a very personal struggle that we all face at points, even while working on the most impactful of projects. Am I truly doing no harm? Am I actually “making a difference?” Alas, there is usually no black and white answer; there rarely is in life. However, the pursuit of impact should drive us to better understand and continually refine our efforts.

This desire for more evidence has even spawned a research-based “industry within an industry” (J-PAL, IPA, EPoD, Evidence Action, etc.) whereby some of the smartest people on the planet (full disclosure: though I work for one of these organisations, I am not one of said geniuses) study the most intransigent development issues. We’re learning more about our impact than ever before.

So, for an inquisitive mind like Jonathan’s, never was there a better time to lace on the boots and head to Busia. Along the way, try not to get overwhelmed with the scope and magnitude of the problems, but to break them into smaller, much more manageable (and ideally measurable) pieces.

My last bit of advice for Jonathan is to accept his barber’s praise. He chose to work in development in order to make a difference, something at which he will undoubtedly get better over the course of his career, as the “dual tides” of experience and healthy scepticism drive him towards greater impact. Jonathan – feel good about what you’ve done, and use the praise as motivation to improve the aid world, or whatever small corner of it you decide to call home.

Erol Yayboke is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can check our his blog and follow him on Twitter. (Erol’s views are his own and do not represent the opinions of these or any other organisations.)

Featured image by Tippy Tap.

Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained

We’re pleased to announce that Liza Moiseeva is joining us as a regular contributor! She’s previously written for WhyDev on impact investing, and her monthly articles will focus on social enterprise and private sector-approaches to development.

Green fashion, eco-fashion, slow fashion, fair trade. Not to mention the “buy-one-give-one” models that companies like TOMS and Warby Parker so successfully implement, despite ongoing criticism from aid professionals. What hides behind all these trendy terms? And do any of them actually translate into positive social impact?

Why Fashion?

You might be wondering why I’m writing about fashion on a development blog – surely, fashion is the last thing on the minds of aid workers! Social impact, however, is always on our minds (or at least should be), and the global apparel industry has the means (read “money”) to create it. According to a recent report from Euromonitor, global apparel and footwear sales currently total about US $1.8 trillion and are expected to reach US $2 trillion by 2018. That’s a lot of dough.

Graph from TMD 433 Textile Markets.

Unfortunately, it feels like about 99.9% (my personal estimate) of these revenues go to fast fashion – a term that expresses the speed at which designs move from catwalk to stores in order to capture the latest trends – companies, which spit out new collections and catalogs of “must-have” items that will be heavily discounted and forgotten after six weeks, when the ever-shortening fashion cycle comes to an end.

How much of these revenues go to the producers, whose hands actually stitched together your pants or my dress? The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh last year, which took the lives of 1,100 garment workers, showed just how bad things are on the flip side of the fashion industry. Workers are not only underpaid, but they often work in unsafe – even deadly – conditions.

But what if the fashion industry could be a source of empowerment instead of exploitation? What if the workers, most of whom are from developing countries, could receive fair pay and work in safe conditions?

Slow Fashion: Beyond the Fair Trade Movement

We all have some idea of what “fair trade” is. According to FairTrade International, it’s “an organised social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability.” Essentially, this means producers get a say in how much they receive for their products. Unfortunately, fair trade is mostly about coffee, cotton, and chocolate.

The apparel industry is a whole other game, and big fashion brands aren’t embracing the ethical consumerism trend as wholeheartedly as they would have us think. Take for example H&M’s Conscious Collection, which abides by seven commitments:

  • Provide fashion for conscious customers
  • Choose and reward responsible partners
  • Be ethical
  • Be climate smart
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Use natural resources responsibly
  • Strengthen communities

The company claims to pay fair living wages to all its workers and impose strict regulations on all its factories. It sounds great, but is it really having an impact? And what about all the rest of H&M’s collections? And the fact that they change every three weeks and that, in the end, they still promote unnecessary and wasteful consumption?

The slow fashion movement goes beyond “sustainable collections.” The term was coined in 2008 by sustainable design consultant Kate Fletcher and is “about the consumer becoming aware of the whole process–from design through production through use and through the potential to reuse.”

Perhaps, the best example of slow fashion is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company (and a certified B-Corp) that not only promotes fair labour practices through it whole supply chain but also advocates responsible consumption. Through its Common Threads Partnership, the brand actually encourages customers to buy less, by promising apparel of great quality that Patagonia will repair if and when needed.

Graphic by Patagonia.
Graphic by Patagonia.

Now that’s whole different story, isn’t it?

Supporting Artisans

Next, there is a whole generation of companies who work with artisans from developing countries. Artisan trades are the second-largest “employer” in the developing world. However, most of this economic activity is offline, and it faces increasing threats from retail globalisation. But more and more emerging fashion brands are starting to work with artisans – not only providing employment, but also preserving and promoting traditional cultural crafts.

One such brand is Matr Boomie (formerly Handmade Designs), “a wholesale fair trade collection from India that marries modern design sensibility with inspiring traditional art forms.” I’m singling this company out particularly because of their fair trade Artisan Assessment Index (the first of its kind to my knowledge), which strives to quantify Matr’s social impact. While I’ve yet to see the full index, their sustainability report details their wages paid to artisans, sums reinvested in artisanal communities, material scorecards (measuring their environmental effects), air shipping reduction, etc. This is one of the few examples of social impact reporting by a fashion company.

Bringing Artisans Online

E-commerce is taking over global retail, but most artisans have typically worked entirely offline. Now, companies like Ten Thousand Villages, Etsy and Fair Trade Winds sell artisans’ products on the Internet, giving them a global market base. At GlobeIn, the social start-up I work for, customers buy directly from artisans, who receive 100% of the asking price for their products (higher than the price paid to them by resellers from local markets and bazaars.) GlobeIn provides its services for free for all artisans, making the platform affordable for even the artisans living in the poorest and most remote regions of the world. Besides being an e-commerce platform, GlobeIn is also a network of individuals and partner organizations who support artisans on the ground and often provide them with business and computer training. The company has just launched its first iOS app, which turns your phone into a street market – one where artisans get fair prices for their creations.

In conclusion, I have great hopes for the future of ethical fashion and I hope you will as well! If you look hard enough, you’ll discover a whole new generation of new fashion companies, which have a new vision for themselves: good quality products and fair wages and safe conditions for workers.

However, these idealistic new fashionistas are up against a strong enemy (big-name, mainstream companies), who can confuse buyers in no time: what is ethical fashion and what it is not? As with any new movement, there is a lot to be done. Particularly, there’s a need for clear definitions, and a better understanding among the newcomers about what they want to achieve. Do these companies want to create a real social impact or just make millennials feel better about their excessive shopping habits?

Featured image by The Hudson Company.


Last Week Today: 26 September 2014

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

Peruvian writer Isabella Tanikumi is suing Disney for $250 million, claiming they  stole her life story – the story from the movie Frozen.

Yes, she says a movie that features a talking snowman and a kingdom that’s trapped in winter was based on her life. Because she wrote a book about growing up in the mountains, and, you know, Frozen has mountains. And also, it has the same “feelings” as the book. We wonder if Tanikumi has a pet reindeer, too?

The week in news

Tragically, Soldiers of the Caliphate, an Algeria-based group loyal to ISIS, beheaded French hiker Herve Gourdel and released an all-too-familiar video online.

The U.S. has begun launching airstrikes against ISIS, a move that’s facing an unusual lack of resistance from peace activists. Meanwhile, the French government has a new name for ISIS, and they’re not too happy about it.

Despite intense scrutiny from human rights groups, Australia is set to sign a resettlement deal, which will send refugees seeking asylum to Cambodia.

This time last week, we were waiting to see if the world would have a new country – but Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K. (although Scots will be “incandescent” if London backs out on promises of increased sovereignty).

Emma Watson gave a speech on feminism, which introduced the UN’s “He for She” initiative, and it went viral. The speech earned her a huge amount of fanfare, a lot of criticism and a threat to release nude photos, which turned out to be “just a hoax” (but, really not).

Photo from MoodyChick.
Photo from MoodyChick.

The week on the blog

From voluntourism to ice buckets: Narcissism in social media

With the hype of the #IceBucketChallenge mostly over, Alison Rabe explains what it revealed about our narcissism and social media addiction – and how it’s not so different from voluntourism. Really, we’ll do anything for a good profile pic.

Disability is not our priority area

After submitting proposals for disability-focused projects, WhyDev Co-Founder Weh Yeoh has gotten too many rejections saying, “Disability is not our priority area.” In an open letter, he explains why it should be.

Death on the mission

Being an aid worker often means living in countries with low life expectancies and high mortality rates. And that almost inevitably means losing friends and colleagues at some point. The Guerilla Researcher wants to start a conversation about coping with death in the field.

The week in globaldev

“Asia” is a Western construct. | The Diplomat

Traits of politically-smart, locally-led development | From Poverty to Power

Wartime sexual violence is more than a “weapon of war.” | Monkey Cage

A take-down of Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s empire | Truthout

Why is West Africa so spectacularly ill-prepared to handle Ebola? | Africa Is a Country

Drones as a tool for activism? | ICTworks

The crippling costs of measuring progress on the SDGs | The Guardian

Just in case anyone still thought One Laptop Per Child was effective | Development That Works

What about the safety of national NGO staff? | Aid Leap

Upcoming events

Learn how to utilise crowd funding in your organization: A NetSquared Meetup | Melbourne, 7 October

You can also check out our other events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

Always on the go? Have a version sent to your inbox every Friday. Just sign up to the Last Week Today newsletter.

Featured image from Disney.

Death on the mission

An earlier version of this post appeared on Guerilla Researcher.

By The Guerilla Researcher

This article is about death. The kind that gets personal, and possibly too personal for anyone who wants to continue reading. I am talking about the untimely death of people we meet in our work and its effect on us. I am talking about the death of colleagues, friends and acquaintances who share the sphere of aid and development work with us.

I should start by declaring my standpoint. I am an ex-pat, born and raised in the U.K., and this means I come with the expectation of knowing people for a very long time. Friends, relatives, peers and acquaintances drop out of our lives through social drift, not because of a high mortality rate. The first people to leave my life were my grandparents. As with other children my age, I had family around to help explain to me what had happened, and that dying was a result of great age. For me, the natural order of things is that those close to me pass on when they are old. This is normal to me, and to most Westerners. However, during my first few years in aid and development, I have quickly come to the conclusion that this normality is no more. The altered normality has affected me greatly, and I wonder how it affects other ex-pats working in the aid sector.

We chose a career path where we deliberately place ourselves in countries with high mortality rates. The chances of losing people to an Ebola outbreak, the latest round of violence or even a car crash are exponentially higher in the places we work than where we come from. Despite this, I cannot find this subject in any humanitarian blogs or webpages or the literature on aid work. Most tellingly, I’ve not been able to bring it up with my colleagues and friends in conversation. It seems like something too difficult to broach.

Imagine slipping the question “So, how do you think death affects mental well-being in our line of work?” into the conversation across the guesthouse dinner table.

Let me tell you a few stories about the people I have lost. I worked with a translator, whom I shall call Dom, on one long project. He was a clever man, able to speak several languages very well, but my reliance on him extended beyond that. He was an intermediary, guide and fixer. A man who contributed regularly and conscientiously to the success of the aid programs in his hometown. Unfortunately, he had a weakness. He was a heavy drinker, and the only thing available in his home area is moonshine. After spending several days drinking in a lawless town that is the closest thing you will ever see to a Wild West, the local brew got to him. No family or friends were around to look after him when he finally collapsed and started convulsing. No stranger cared enough to take him to a clinic. I hear it took a few days him to die. I was told about this by a friend, and the only thing I could do was send e-mails and text messages of consolation.

Rafe, another translator, is a really cool guy. The only man in the country with dreadlocks. We took a long journey to a remote village, which took us through his hometown. When we got to his town, we were forced to stay for a few days while the local authorities decided whether to allow us to carry out our work. We stayed with his family, and his father became one of my interviewees. He was an elderly man; cane, dusty hat, suit jacket. He was a knowledgeable guy. The town held a small barracks for troops. A couple of months after I stayed in Rafe’s home, a gunfight erupted in the street, and the thin wood and tin walls offered no protection for his father. This time, I could not even contact Rafe directly, and had to send condolence messages through intermediaries.

Camille LePage was a young photojournalist. Born in France, educated in England, a fierce and fearless advocate for action and change. She worked in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), travelling independently to the furthest and most dangerous areas, looking for underreported stories of struggle and conflict to tell. The youths that raided for cattle. The tribesmen and women who hid from artillery shelling in caves. She traveled a lot in the short time I knew her, going from hotspot to hotspot in search of stories, then flying to New York and Paris to tell them. I have not been able to find out what killed her, but it happened when she had to go off the radar, searching for people in CAR who had been the target of a militia raid. Her body was found by peacekeepers, in a car being driven by rival militia members. I remember her constantly laughing, often worried about the success of her pictures, always overcoming fear of danger. Somehow, the danger caught her. We had mutual friends, and luckily I was able to speak to them about this. If they were not there, I am not sure what I could have done with the feelings of despair.

I freely acknowledge that others have a much greater right to grief than I do in all of these cases, and I don’t want to present them here to gain sympathy. In the case of Camille, many of my friends knew her better. Separated by vast distances, their way of dealing with it was to share comments on her websites, Facebook each other, post notices on walls. Alone, and away from personal contact with others that knew her, I was only able to speak to one person who knew her, and that was by Skype.

Is grief and loss something that affects us all in the field? We have colleagues nearby, but our close friends are far away. Does this lack of a close support network hinder our recovery? I feel underprepared to deal with the slow mounting cost of losing loved ones, but am I alone in this? What resources are there to help us deal with these issues?

Preparing for this kind of shock must is difficult, especially as it comes as a surprise. Dealing with it afterwards must also be complicated by our overloaded daily work lives, as the work we are doing is often essential and must carry on. At times, the reason for the death is the reason for not being able to focus on the loss. Sudden disasters and war take our friends, but as a result of these events, we may find ourselves and our organisations overwhelmed with humanitarian need, which we have to react to. Our feelings have to be buried while we soldier on, dealing with the emergency in front of us.

Fighting broke out in a part of my current country posting a couple of weeks ago, forcing the evacuation of our staff from one base. My colleagues were lucky, and all were removed to a place of safety. But at least two other organisations lost staff to targeted violence.

I have already noticed the slow drip – drip – drip of lost colleagues and its effects on me. What I don’t know is how this torture will affect me in the future, or how to prepare for it. I am not sure that we, or our employers, are equipped to allow for and alleviate grief. I wonder whether anyone else feels the same?

The pseudonymous Guerilla Researcher is currently based in South Sudan, and he has conducted research and assessments for several aid organisations throughout East Africa. You can check out his blog, where he writes about his experiences.

If you need to talk to someone you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 from Australia or find an office near you.

A bamboo construction in her family's yard helps six-year-old Tai walk on her own. Photo by: Anna Bella Betts Photography.

Disability is not our priority area

An open letter to organisations that don’t fund disability-focused projects.

Dear Funding Body Rep,

Thank you for your reply to our expression of interest. In rejecting our submission, the main reason you gave was, “Disability is not our priority area.” I’d like to explain why it has to be.

There are over one billion people with disabilities in the world.  And in the poor countries where you work, up to 20% of the population has a disability. If you ignore 20% of your target group, you’re not really working to help the most vulnerable.

You say, “Our focus is health. Disability is not our priority area.” But the two are inextricably linked.

Of those with disabilities, 98% do not have access to basic health care services. However, because of complications that arise from disability, and the fact that they’re usually poorer than most, people with disabilities are usually in greater need of health services. Amongst the people that need services the most, they are often the most excluded.

You say, “Our focus is education. Disability is not our priority area.” But the two are inextricably linked.

This is Ouk Ling. He’s a child I met recently who lives outside Siem Reap, a town in the north of Cambodia. From looking at him, most of the people in Ling’s village thought that he was stupid. After receiving a basic health care service, speech therapy, he has been able to show that he isn’t stupid, he just has a communication problem. After some simple therapy, he’s now going to school and has worked his way to become second in his class. Hopefully, one day he will use his education to be a contributing member of society.

Photo credit: Anna Clare Spelman
Ouk Ling with CABDICO Child Rehab Officer Chea Phearom. Photo by: Anna Clare Spelman.

Ling is one of the lucky ones. 90% of children with disabilities will never go to school. If we want to reach universal primary education, Millennium Development Goal Number Two, then we all need to do something about this.

Of course, getting children to school is not enough. We also need them to learn.  Statistics from around the world have shown that funds, controlled by people such as yourself, have helped an enormous number of people. Currently, 84% of adults in the world are literate. This is a great achievement.

However, the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities doesn’t make for pretty reading. 97% are non-literate. For women, it’s even worse: 99% of women with disabilities are non-literate.

You say, “Our programs must be gender-inclusive. Disability is not our priority area.” But the two are inextricably linked.

Is your work inclusive of one of the most marginalised groups of women in the world? Women and girls with disabilities face triple discrimination: they’re female, they have a disability, and they’re often poor.

If we really want to improve the lives of the women in this world, let’s start with the ones who are the most vulnerable.

Here’s what one woman had to say about her own experiences:

“I think the outside world does not really understand what the real difficulty is for women with a disability. I repeat again and again, for women with disability, it is really hard to live, so please include us.” 

Josephine Namirimu, from Uganda's Young Voices program.
Josephine Namirimu, from Uganda’s Young Voices program.

Would you be comfortable telling this woman, “Disability is not our priority area?”

There is a wealth of information out there on how to better include people with disabilities in development and healthcare programs. This is not to say that including them in mainstream programs is the panacea. We also need resources to do disability-specific work.

However, it’s not a lack of resources that’s the problem. It’s the will. There are over 1 billion people in the world who must become our priority.

Yours sincerely,

Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder, WhyDev

Committed to getting aid and development right