AidSource: Under new management (ours!)

First, a note from the founders of AidSource (J., Alanna Shaikh & ShotgunShack):

The founders and owners of AidSource: The Humanitarian Social Network would like to announce that, effective immediately, AidSource will owned, maintained and moderated by our friends and aid blogosphere colleagues at WhyDev.

Some of you will wonder why. The answer is that over the past year, each of us have made significant changes in various aspects of our lives and jobs, and at this point, we simply lack the collective and individual bandwidth to give AidSource the time it needs and deserves. We will remain “normal” members of AidSource, and we expect to continue to interact there from time to time. We’re very pleased to have found such capable hands to take over what we still believe is a great resource for anyone in or interested in the humanitarian aid and development industry.

We wish to express our sincere thanks to everyone (too many to name individually) who helped bring AidSource into being, as well as all those who cared enough to join and participate as members. Lastly, we wish the very best to our friends at WhyDev as they take on the task of managing The Humanitarian Social Network.


With great power, comes great responsibility.

It is with tremendous pleasure and trepidation that we take on the job of managing AidSource: The Humanitarian Social Network. As we move towards a post-2015 brave new world, fostering a community of practice in global development remains critical. We need to continue to break down institutional and organisational barriers to form true partnerships and change how development works. This is at the heart of WhyDev’s mission.

We believe AidSource is a lynchpin of this community. With 1,700+ members from around the world, it brings together aid workers, NGO staff, nationals, ex-pats, academics, journalists, students and donors. AidSource is the space for you to network with industry colleagues, share your knowledge, reflect critically and have a little fun.

Want to get more involved? We’re recruiting a volunteer Community Manager to help manage and run AidSource. This is a great opportunity for someone looking to gain experience in community engagement, social media, communications or partnerships. If this sounds like you, please review the position description, and send your resume and a cover letter describing your vision for the AidSource community (max. 600 words) to info[AT]whydev[DOT]org by 4 December.

We’ll be making some exciting updates to AidSource in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Featured image is Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo by Brendan Rigby.

Karakoram mountain range, the site of Greg Mortenson's now disproven story about launching an NGO. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Famous founders: A blessing or a curse?

By Anna McKeon & Natalie Jesionka

Bob and Jane take a sabbatical from their careers in Sydney to travel the world. On their trip, they travel comfortably but authentically and are moved by the poverty and daily struggle they encounter for the first time in their life. They are especially moved by the children they see begging. Having had a transformative experience, they talk about how they can “give back” in some way. When Bob and Jane get back to Australia, they decide to establish their own non-profit organisation to promote education, so the children they saw will never have to beg again. Enlisting high-powered friends to help publicise their mission, they raise half a million dollars within two months. They’re bombarded with requests from radio and TV shows, get featured in magazines and are soon hailed as heroes.

The rise of the hero NGO founder is becoming an all-too-familiar story in the development sector. Whether it’s people we know or individuals we discover through magazines and TV, we quickly place a trust in those who inspire us, giving them our respect, our support, and often our money, with few questions asked.

As a result, such individuals can quickly become beyond reproach. Blessed with unrestricted – often private – donations, they’re working in a system with few checks and balances. It is in these circumstances, when the PR machine can take over, that the individual begins to overshadow the organisation, and significant problems go unchallenged.

What we as supporters don’t often see is what happens when Bob and Jane actually go back to the country they visited to launch their project and their NGO. We don’t hear much about their struggles in establishing an education organisation without a background in teaching, dealing with legalities in a language they cannot speak or working in cultures they don’t understand.

While they may remain dedicated to their mission, they now inhabit two worlds – and neither one properly understands them.

Inevitably, the times we do hear of those struggles is when problems become too big to be ignored. The exposé of Somaly Mam earlier this year is perhaps the most compelling example of a hero NGO founder whose public profile overshadowed not only her whole organisation, but also her entire cause. Mam’s was the classic hero’s journey, complete with the tragic fatal flaw and fall from grace. As Laura Agustin points out, even in apparent disgrace, the media is still focused on the founder: most people became involved with the Somaly Mam Foundation because of Somaly Mam – not because they were interested in understanding how to change the structures and systems that create and sustain human trafficking.

It’s time for a reality check: in order to improve the way founders and organisations do good, we need to start talking about the challenges of managing a high profile. Here are some ideas of how to recognize the red flags and avoid falling into the trap of Founder’s Syndrome:

  1. Overshadowing the organisation

The problem that frustrates many people in the development sector (aid professionals and commenters alike) is that the focus on an individual founder’s story often quickly overshadows the mission and activities of their organisation. One way to demonstrate that your passion is for your cause and not your profile is to refrain from propagating such an attitude. Lose the “About Me” or “My Story” page from the organisation’s website. Organisations demonstrating a strong foundation try to reduce the focus on any one individual and ensure their visual media and narrative represent the people they’re working with.

  1. Believing the PR machine

Somaly Mam’s story (and Greg Mortenson’s before hers) demonstrates that it’s all too easy for a PR machine to run away with itself. If some details are slightly wrong, but the coverage is generating donations for a good cause – where’s the harm? Once a hero has been created, few people are keen to question their standing. As Daniela Papi put it,

With aid, it often seems that all you need to do is state the dedication of your life to some cause, and that statement of altruistic intent alone is all you need to get the media and donor community supporting your stock.

This can mean the opinions of high-profile founders are sought above experts, regardless of their actual level of knowledge of an issue. The founders become the face of the movement, the coveted photo-op and editorial, but may not have the skills or knowledge to actually implement what they represent in the field.

Some founders keep connected with reality through talking openly about their organisation’s challenges. If the media does get caught up in your personal story, make sure to correct their version of events. Make it clear that there are always things the organisation can do better. All NGOs are (or should be) constantly learning, constantly developing. In role modeling this attitude, you’re less likely to get caught up in a cycle of PR fluff and fabrication.

  1. Threatening organisational sustainability

How Matters has a great overview of some of the problems of Founder’s Syndrome. If an organisation relies solely on pedaling an individual’s profile, donors will likely dry up if that individual leaves the organisation. In addition, the presence of a high-profile founder can make staff or board members more likely to defer to their opinions. This may not only result in misguided choices, but may also leave a decision-making vacuum when the founder moves on.

To ensure that your organisation can function without your involvement, prioritise capacity building and local leadership, encouraging program and strategy decisions to be made by those with the most knowledge and experience. Decide how to evaluate your impact, and use measurables to back it up. Go beyond the anecdotes and the easy visuals.

  1. Perpetuating unhelpful “saviour / victim” concepts in aid and development.

Representations of founders as “saviours” and communities as “victims who need saving” are not helpful to overall portrayals of global inequities. It’s all too common for such “victims” to be turned into commodities in the name of fundraising. To try to avoid this, integrate your communications into your organisational structure. Let your staff tell the stories of their work, and decide as an organisation how best to communicate about the issues you’re tackling. Be respectful of those you serve, and know where to draw the line when fame does hit. Having a media policy can help you avoid exploiting individuals or communities in the name of publicity.

It’s clear the top-down founder model needs serious overhaul, but new models of social good and high-impact development are still lagging behind (or getting lost in the hype of the next founders like Bob and Jane trying to change the world). Just as we look at corporate CEOs and politicians, we need to start looking at founders with a critical eye–understanding that it’s a difficult place to be in, but also pushing them to be better, more accountable and ever more transparent about their work. With this in mind, we’ll be able to move beyond sensation-driven development work and really consider our impact and best practices on the ground.

Anna McKeon is a communications consultant, specialising in research and strategy development for social change initiatives. She has a background in television and digital media in the UK, and has recently worked with Save the Children UK and The Better Care Network to lead a global, inter-agency project aimed at discouraging orphanage volunteering, as well as with Bigger Boat and PEPY Tours. Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict and human rights at Rutgers University. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.

Featured image is the Karakoram mountain range, the site of Greg Mortenson’s now disproven story about launching an NGO. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Tinder app. Photo from StunnaLife.

Last Week Today: Four magic words

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

It’s happened to all the humanitarians on Tinder. A pic of some hottie pops up, you’re only half paying attention – maybe you’re preoccupied with your swag bag or indigenous alcohol – and you accidentally swipe left. And the person who could’ve been The One is gone from your life, forever. (So are the African children in their profile picture.)

Soon, you won’t have to worry about accidentally left-swiping that sexy humanitarian. Tinder is releasing an “undo” feature – you’ll get a second chance to swipe right! It’s going to cost you, though, maybe as much as $20. That’s sure going to eat into the per diem.

The week in news

Aung San Suu Kyi makes a disappointing announcement that reforms in Burma have stalled.

Thousands of people in over 450 cities worldwide took part in masked protests on Wednesday, put on by the anti-capitalist hacktivist group Anonymous.

A Palestinian man drove a van into a crowd of people waiting at a train platform in Jerusalem, injuring at least 15 and killing an Israeli policeman.

The week on the blog

Five ways I hope to avoid Founder’s Syndrome on my project

Found-er-i-tis (noun): When more focus and recognition is on the founder of an organisation than on its work (see also: Somaly Mam). As a new founder, Weh Yeoh explains how he’ll avoid the disease.

What really happens to your donated clothing?

Want to get rid of torn or out-of-date clothes you don’t want and help people at the same time? Shannon Whitehead explains why donating them to charity is not the answer.

The week in globaldev

An MSF doctor in Sierra Leone

The future of ex-pats

Four magic words in development

Coup or no coup?

Ebola and comms4dev

Video John Oliver explains what actually mattered in Tuesday’s elections in the U.S. (17:17)

Upcoming events

OIC: The Cambodia Project: Launch extravaganza | Melbourne, 12 November (Use the promo code “BONO4AFRICA” for a discount!)

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 is from StunnaLife.

Roadside market in Chipata, Zambia, Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What really happens to your donated clothing?

This post originally appeared on Shannon Whitehead’s blog and ONE.org and is re-printed here with permission.

By Shannon Whitehead

How often do you drop off clothes at your local charity shop?

If you’re anything like the rest of the country, Goodwill and Salvation Army are the perfect resources for discarding the stuff that you don’t need.

The pair of jeans that don’t fit you anymore? Donate. The sweater with the small hole in the armpit? Donate. The dress that’s been pushed to the back of your closet? Donate. Most of us see these donation centers as a way to throw out what we don’t want without actually throwing it out.

In fact, we believe we’re doing the world a service by giving our old clothes to those living somewhere in need.

In reality, what we’ve come to believe isn’t that simple. I’d go so far to say it’s fundamentally flawed. Here’s why:

  • About 4.7 billion pounds of clothing are donated by Americans each year. Some of that ends up in landfills, some of it is recycled into rags and insulation, and some of it ends up in the markets of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Whether it’s Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers or another charity shop, employees at all of these stores are sorting through the hundreds of bags of discarded clothing that comes in every day. Sifting through mostly worn, old and faded garments, only about 10 percent of the clothing donated is good enough to be resold in the retail store.
  • So what happens to the other 90 percent? The charity shop sells the garments by weight or by the bin to textile recyclers. The clothing is shipped to a recycling plant where employees sort the garments by “grade” and fiber. As shirts, dresses, pants and jackets come off a conveyor belt, an employee must make a snap decision as to where that piece of clothing will end up next.
  • The clothing deemed “re-sellable” is shipped in containers by the tons to countries such as Ghana, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Tanzania and Rwanda. One hundred pound bales are then sold to sellers in these countries at a profit for the recycling plant. One bale costs around the same amount as feeding a family of five for a month in a country such as Cameroon.
  • The bales are not allowed to be opened until the purchase is final. So, the seller is relying completely on the employee who made a snap decision in the recycling center. If a recycler missed a hole in a shirt or a broken zipper on a pair of pants, the seller ends up paying for the mistake. The quality of the clothing is only as good as the recycling plant’s sorting method.
  • So, the plant must be pretty strict then, right? Actually, it’s a toss up. While there are responsible recyclers, there are just as many that are lenient and careless. In fact, there is no auditing system or accountability control should an entirely damaged bale show up in Africa. Because the seller needs to make the money back to buy his or her next bale, one bad purchase can result in bankruptcy.
  • The global trade of second-hand clothing is a multi-billion dollar industry for developed countries. With our clothing waste being sent overseas by the tons, there’s little chance of African countries, as a whole, developing their own textile trade. In the last 10 years, local industries, such as garment-making and tailoring, have collapsed, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed.

People will argue that the second-hand clothing industry in Africa is booming. And, on the surface, it is – over one-third of sub-Saharan Africans wear second-hand. The reality, though, is that for as long as the second-hand clothing industry thrives, Africa’s economy is unlikely to improve.

According to Professor Garth Frazer from the University of Toronto, no country has ever achieved a sustainable per-capita national income (at a level associated with a developing economy) without also achieving a clothing-manufacturing workforce that employs at least 1 percent of the population.

Over the years, certain African nations have attempted to ban or restrict the influx of Western clothing imports. In an effort to give existing industries a chance and to maintain traditional culture, countries such as South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria have tried to implement regulation. While it’s done some good for those countries, it hasn’t provided a solution.

Simply put, as long as we, the consumer, continue to buy and discard at our current rate, there will be a market for our wasted fashion. And we will likely continue to believe that once it’s out of our closet it’s out of our hands.

The facts in this post can be attributed to the research of Lucy Siegle, author of “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?”, an op-ed by Tansy Hoskins and various other sources.

Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory45, an accelerator program that gives designers and makers the resources to start sustainable businesses in the USA. Shannon got her start in 2010 when she co-founded {r}evolution apparel, a sustainable clothing company for female travelers and minimalists. Applications for the Factory45 2015 program will open in February.

Featured image is a roadside market selling second-hand clothes in Chipata, Zambia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Weh Yeoh and Roum Phearom traveling outside Siem Reap. Photo by Anna Bella Betts Photography.

Five ways I hope to avoid founder’s syndrome on my project

“Oh, so you’re the founder?” the young blonde woman asked coquettishly, as she batted her eyelids and flicked her hair back suggestively.

While only 10% of the above sentence is factual, it’s true that we often view founders of organisations with awe. Everyone remembers the Steve Jobs, the Richard Bransons, the Somaly Mams. We identify with organisations through the person who represents them. This is no surprise, considering that many organisations take on the personality of their founder.

And yet, founder’s syndrome, or founderitis, can be a huge problem if left unchecked. Romanticising the role of founders is hugely dangerous, as supporters tend to gather around the person, not the cause. If a founder falls from grace, people are suddenly less inclined to support their cause, no matter how worthwhile it is.

People were drawn by the founder’s personality, not the cause itself.

I recently launched OIC: The Cambodia Project. OIC aims to bring speech therapy to Cambodia, for the more than 600,000 people who cannot communicate or swallow properly. The absence of speech therapy is the biggest health service gap for people in Cambodia.

As a founder, how do I hope to avoid founderitis? Here are five ways:

1) Starting a project, not an NGO

Cambodia has over 3,500 NGOs. That’s about one for every 10,000 people. Put another way, it has the second highest per-capita number of NGOs, behind Rwanda.

In the field OIC works in, there are at least 11 small Cambodian organisations doing elements of the same work. One of the things I hear our co-founder Brendan Rigby say most often (second to “You are the wind beneath my wings”) is, “Don’t start your own NGO.”

OIC: The Cambodia Project is a project, not an NGO. This means we did not establish an organisation; rather we work with existing partner NGOs, to build upon what they do best. They don’t need another foreigner to come in and start something from scratch.

2) Working with people who disagree with me

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” -Ralph Nader

The easiest thing in the world when starting something is to hire people who agree with everything you say. The more counterintuitive thing, but something far better in the long run, is to hire people who disagree.

The first person to join OIC was Allison Smith, who was charged with the difficult task of telling the story of OIC. Allison’s the best person I know to translate a complicated program into something people can understand, without dumbing it down. She is also someone who’s unafraid to disagree. As irritating as this can be at times, it’s hugely vital to making sure our work is headed in the right direction.

Allison and Weh laughing it up on a dusty road in Siem Reap
Weh and Allison hard at work in Siem Reap. Photo by Anna Bella Betts.

3) Working with people who are better than me

Steve Jobs has a saying that A players hire A players; B players hire C players and C players hire D players.

I am not a speech therapist. Therefore, the first person who joined me to volunteer at OIC was Dr. Chyrisse Heine, a dual speech pathologist and audiologist with over 20 years of experience. Chyrisse is, in every sense of the word, an A player (I’d give her an A+++ if possible). An invaluable person to have on the team? Yep. Better than me? Absolutely.

4) Knowing when to get out

Starting OIC has been far and away the most difficult thing I have done, professionally, in my life. Here is an issue that affects 1 in 25 Cambodian people. Thousands of children are unable to go to school because they can’t communicate. Thousands of people are dying because they don’t receive treatment for their swallowing disorders. The enormity of the challenge has taught me a lot about myself.

It takes a certain type of person to look at that situation and decide to do something about it. I’ve realised that it feeds a part of my personality that likes to fight for the underdog. But the kind of person who wants to start something isn’t necessarily the person who should continue it.

If the day comes when OIC’s work would be better off without me, then I will step aside.

5) Making it about the work, not about me

The incredibly wise Daniela Papi coined the term “NGegOs” to describe egos that are masquerading as NGOs. The danger, she says, in focusing on the individual is that we tend to immediately trust individuals who work for social good (whereas we distrust those who work in corporations). When the sh*t hits the fan, as it has done on numerous occasions, often the good work of the organisation falls to pieces.

The reality is that, while people and organisations are fallible, a cause doesn’t have to be.

These are five ways in which I hope to avoid contracting that most deadly of diseases, founderitis. Certain causes gain support through the mysticism and dynamism of the founder. This is an effective avenue through which to attract followers, but it isn’t sustainable. OIC: The Cambodia Project needs to be about what we are trying to achieve, not about me.

OIC: The Cambodia Project launch extravaganza

Come and hear Weh talk about the cause, not himself, at the OIC launch extravaganza in Melbourne on 12 November. Enter BONO4AFRICA to receive a 50% discount – good for the first 20 WhyDev readers!

Featured image is Weh Yeoh and Roum Phearom traveling outside Siem Reap. Photo by Anna Bella Betts Photography.

Weh Yeoh and Roum Phearom providing speech therapy services. Photo by: Anna Bella Betts Photography.

Last Week Today: Oh, I see!

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

By the water cooler: An impromptu chat with Weh Yeoh about OIC

Who is OIC: The Cambodia Project, and what do you do?

OIC is a project that aims to bring speech therapy services to the 600,000 Cambodians with communication and swallowing problems. Despite this huge need, there are no Cambodian speech therapists. OIC stands for that moment when you suddenly understand something you didn’t before. “Oh, I see!”

Why did you create OIC?

I never wanted to go to Cambodia and create another organisation for the sake of it. OIC is a project bringing together existing organisations that are doing great work. For me, it’s very much about Cambodians helping other Cambodians, so that one day, as a foreigner, I can walk away.

What motivates you to do your work?

For over a year, I worked side-by-side with a Cambodian health worker named Phearom, who told me that about 70% of the children she worked with had a problem with communication. Yet, she was unable to use speech therapy to help them. There are 600,000 people like the children she works with, who struggle to communicate with their family, friends or community every day.

Why should WhyDev readers support OIC? 

There are issues in the world that get lots of the attention and therefore plenty of resources, and then there are those that get swept under the carpet. WhyDev readers should support OIC because it’s addressing something that is a huge need, yet doesn’t receive the attention of other issues. People who are in Melbourne can come to our launch extravaganza on the 12th of November to find out more.

Can our readers get a discount on the OIC launch tickets? 

Absolutely! As a limited offer, we’re offering a 50% discount on tickets to the first 20 WhyDev readers who sign up to come to the launch. Simply enter the promo code “BONO4AFRICA” at the check-out.

Stay up-to-date with OIC through Facebook, Twitter, or their newsletter.

The week in news

Zambian President Michael Sata died in a London hospital at the age of 77. VP Guy Scott is the acting President until elections in 90 days, making him continental Africa’s first white leader since apartheid. Under the country’s constitutional “parentage clause,” Scott, whose parents were born in the U.K., won’t be allowed to run in the election.

A contingent of at least 150 Kurdish fighters has started crossing into Syria, to join the fight against ISIS for the town of Kobani.

In response to President Blaise Compaore’s effort to change the country’s law on term limits so he can stay in power (27 years wasn’t enough!), thousands of protestors have taken to the streets and set  fire to the Parliament building and government officials’ homes. Today, the President declared a state of emergency and dissolved the government.

The week on the blog

A dangerous crossover: Non-profits and the “view from nowhere”

That journalism – and, by extension, NGO communications – should be objective seems like a given. But Rowan Emslie questions the conventional wisdom, and the real implications of objectivity.

Bringing sexy back to resilience and well-being of aid workers

In her effort to usher in an era of aid worker wellness, Nuran Higgins launched Emergency AIDio, an online radio show. She shares the impetus behind the show – and chats with WhyDev co-founders Brendan Rigby and Weh Yeoh on the latest episode!

Resilience: Moving the focus from our projects to our selves

We talk a lot about aid worker wellness practices, and now there’s scientific evidence they really work. Amanda Scothern explains the latest research findings on well-being.

Globaldev special edition: Catching up on disability and development

More than just a statistic

An underdog story

The people who “don’t count”

Seeing past disability

The therapy that speaks volumes

Payment for the people in NGO adverts?

It’s easy to criticise.

Social justice tours, or poverty tourism?

Video International migration and remittances – explained with Legos. (01:59)

Upcoming events

OIC: The Cambodia Project: Launch extravaganza | Melbourne, 12 November (Use the promo code “BONO4AFRICA” for a discount!)

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 is Weh Yeoh and Roum Phearom providing speech therapy services. Photo by Anna Bella Betts Photography.

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park - San Francisco, California. Photo from Wikimedia.

Resilience: Moving the focus from our projects to our selves

What does it take to be an effective and happy aid worker, not just for a few intense months or years, but over a lifetime?

A recent white paper published by the Garrison Institute on “The Human Dimensions of Resilience” demonstrates how certain contemplative practices can strengthen personal resilience. Integrating findings from more than 280 interdisciplinary research studies, the paper argues that under the right conditions, personal resilience can also be contagious.

In other words, strengthening one’s own resilience and health could be part of a chain reaction that leads to colleagues and peers being more resilient and healthy.

So what, you may ask, are “contemplative practices,” exactly? The paper defines them as “a collection of methods intended to systematically train the mind and body,” and it specifically discusses meditation and yoga as the practices that have been most extensively researched. A broader description of contemplative practices from The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website includes as examples “various forms of meditation, focused thought, time in nature, writing, contemplative arts, and contemplative movement.”

This is not such a radically new idea. Weh Yeoh recently talked about the transformative effect of “making time to make myself a cup of tea and stare out the window” and practising gratitude. Marianne Elliott, author of Zen Under Fire and co-creator of 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers, has talked about how yoga helped her remain sane in Kabul. Alessandra Pigni, psychologist, organisational consultant and author of the blog Mindfulnext, often writes about how mindfulness, empathy and emotional intelligence are essential to effective aid work and healthy aid workers.

Even if we haven’t thought of them as contemplative, the value of such practices is known to many of us. But the Garrison Institute White Paper is the first time (as far as I know) that a comprehensive scientific argument has been published to explain why and how they help aid workers be more resilient in the face of stress.

“Resilience” is a buzzword often invoked in relation to emergency preparedness and response, or perhaps environmental work. But what does it mean to talk about personal resilience in aid workers? The paper notes that “…individuals considered to possess resilience have a greater capacity to endure and even thrive in response to challenging circumstances.” It frames resilience not just as getting back to baseline, but adapting and thriving, in effect turning stress and trauma into material for positive growth.

The authors list Ten Resilience Traits, including such things as helping others (motivated by empathy and compassion), self-awareness, effective problem-solving skills and seeking help. Those familiar with Daniel Goleman and Emotional Intelligence will recognize these themes.

The 10 resilience traits. Image by the Garrison Institute.
The 10 resilience traits. Image by the Garrison Institute.

The paper then identifies five dimensions through which these Ten Resilience Traits can be influenced: changing the way we relate to others; modifying brain processes and structures; mediating our physiological responses to stress (e.g., the flooding of cortisol and adrenaline in your system, muscle tension, and chronic shallow breathing); even gene expression. It cites a wide range of scientific research to explain how contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga work on each of these fronts.

The paper also features appendices on “Resilience and Stress” and “Modeling Community Resilience,” which are less technical and especially useful for aid workers. If like me you work in community resilience programming, the second appendix may be of particular interest. It maps models of ecosystem resilience onto human communities (such as communities of aid workers), and draws on epidemiology to describe “the spread of resilient behaviours in social networks.”

The upshot is that there’s a solid scientific basis for how and why things like meditation, yoga and gratitude practices can help us manage the challenges of aid work in a healthier and more constructive way, and how they can contribute to training designed to strengthen resilience traits. What makes this even more interesting to me is the idea of resilience spreading through a kind of positive social contagion. If, as the white paper argues, strengthening personal resilience can impact other people, and affect organisations and communities, then investing in resilience training could have exponential returns.

The Garrison Institute offers a Contemplative Based Resilience Training program for aid workers based on the science presented in the white paper. The Institute is conducting further research on the effectiveness of contemplative practices in improving aid worker psychosocial resilience over time. If this and other studies underway corroborate the findings of the white paper, it will help bolster the argument for aid agencies to adopt resilience training more widely, and make it a professional development standard in the future.

The full white paper can be downloaded free of charge from the Garrison Institute website here.

Featured image is Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park – San Francisco, California. Photo from Wikimedia.


Bringing sexy back to resilience and well-being of aid workers

By Nuran Higgins

Have you heard about Emergency AIDio?

If not, now’s the perfect time to tune in and sign up. It’s an independent radio show for aid workers, presented by Nuran Higgins. Emergency AIDio is all about creating an accessible and safe space that connects aid workers, by bringing issues of aid worker health and well-being to the forefront of people’s minds. Nuran Higgins shares the impetus behind the show and why you should tune in.

The Why behind Emergency AIDio?

Over the last 15 years I’ve been in the sector, what’s become more and more evident from my own personal experience, and also through listening to and observing colleagues and coaching and mentoring aid workers, is that an epidemic has been quietly living amidst us. It’s an epidemic that has resulted in our human dimension being lost as aid workers.

The humanitarian landscape is changing and has become increasingly dangerous over the last decade. Aid workers are now faced with working in environments that are more complex and multi-faceted than ever before. Growing recognition, both in the aid sector and in evidence-based research, has shown an increase in the prevalence of aid workers suffering from stress, burnout and other health and lifestyle issues. I have always been a strong advocate that prevention is the best medicine, and am hoping the radio show will have an impact in some way, by providing a space whereby we can openly have the conversations needed to bring about change related to aid worker health and well-being.

When reflecting on aid worker health and well-being  over quite a number of years now, there have been a few key areas that have essentially been the catalyst behind moving forward to get Emergency AIDio up.

The first area has been related to aid worker health and well-being and its connection to resilience.

Now for the majority, this issue will probably come as no surprise, given the extant literature that highlights some of the common issues that affect aid workers, from burnout, PTSD and vicarious trauma to anxiety, depression and even self-harm practices.

Yes, we are aid workers, but it’s also important to remember that, inside the role you carry out every day with passion, there’s a human being. A human being who has feelings, emotions and desires. A human being who is supported and connected to family and friends. And a human being who is worthy of receiving and giving love.

When we refocus discussions related to aid worker health and well-being to take into account the whole person rather than just the role, at individual and organisational levels, we are far better equipped to strengthen our overall level of resilience.

The second area has been related to the disconnect often found between academic institutions, humanitarian organisations and practitioners.

Over recent years, we can see that efforts have been made to bridge this divide. And, having been in the fortunate position over the last year to move into the world of academia as a Lecturer in Humanitarian Assistance and still remain connected to the field with short deployments, I have seen some of the innovative progress being made. However, there’s still more work to be done.

It doesn’t matter where or what level you are coming from; we all hold a unique piece of the jigsaw puzzle that brings together the full picture. What’s often missing is communication and a space to have such discussions that are not dominated by one party or another.

I do believe that if we really want to be able to influence organisational change and the direction the humanitarian sector is going, then as aid workers, we need to first and foremost be part of the discussion, even if it means sometimes taking that leap of faith to drive the discussion ourselves.

And the last area has been really about the importance of remaining connected with our inner selves, being gentle with ourselves and comfortable with the feeling of  just chilling out, having a bit of  fun.

We all have our own unique story of why we’ve chosen the path of wanting to serve humanity. But, somewhere along the journey, this often gets put to the side, against other competing priorities to keep the ball rolling. Yes, we are very good at helping others, but we’re not as good at finding a balance and redirecting the compassion and love inwards to ourselves.

Which is Why we need to shift this mindset.

Choosing to redirect some of the altruism that drives us back to the self doesn’t mean you can’t still be just as professional or hard working. The whole superhero/superheronine culture of aid workers is so 1990s; we’re living in 2014, which is all about bringing the sexy back into the resilience and well-being of aid workers.

You can check out the latest episode below, sign up at The Healthy Nomad and stay tuned on Facebook.

Nuran is an expert in conflict, post-conflict and disaster contexts, working extensively in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East in various technical, senior leadership and operational roles. She holds academic credentials in Public Health and International Community Development, and has researched and written on Afghanistan, women, peace and security and operational humanitarian health interventions. She is also a public speaker on humanitarian issues, women and leadership, resilience and well-being. She is a lecturer in the Master of Humanitarian Assistance at Deakin University in Australia and is a member of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP).

Featured image is Nuran Higgins, host of Emergency AIDio.

Rae O. Weimer Hall at the University of Florida. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A dangerous crossover: Non-profits and the “view from nowhere”

This post originally appeared on Beacon Reader and is re-printed here with permission.

The notion of editorial impartiality can be a very seductive failing.

The rise of data-driven explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight has heralded a resurgence of this “view from nowhere,” an insistence on editorial ‘impartiality’ that, at best, leads to imbalanced reporting and, at worst, is used to obscure the actual editorial line from the public. Either way, it is a widely derided practice within journalism for a number of reasons. For the purpose of this piece I will focus on one of the core problems — as a public communicator, is it ever ethical to obscure your subjectivity?

“If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.” -Jay Rosen

The ethical issue, in journalism, centres around deciding what exactly a media organisation is supposed to be doing. On the face of it, “informing the public” would be a clear, understandable, boiler-plate answer. But does that mean informing the public about everybody’s views, regardless of context, or indicating which way the wind is blowing on various issues?

To do the latter is to be accused of subjectivity, a dreaded insult for reporters. But what is actually more useful for the public?

Objectivity is something to strive for in the news business. To abandon it completely is to abandon your purpose of informing the public. On the other hand, to replace editorial understanding, nuance and instinct with “pure” objectivity is another abandonment — of the truth.

Here’s the secret: nobody is objective. To suggest that your editorial line is totally impartial is fundamentally a lie. Every individual has prejudices and opinions informed by their specific life. You cannot truly step outside of yourself and deliver totally impartial reflections on anything. You can try and fail, that is all.

Unless you own the fact that you are aiming for and missing true objectivity, you are misrepresenting your organisation and the content it produces to the public.

There’s nothing ethical about that.

Changes in non-profit communication

A long-standing interest of mine is the interactions between non-profits, media organisations, and government bodies (particularly on the issue of transparency). Usually, my criticism is that these different sectors do not share enough when they could often benefit from closer collaboration. In the case of the view from nowhere, however, crossover simply exacerbates the problem.

A number of excellent articles in the international development blogosphere in the last few months have reflected a changing mood. Essentially, this is a sector that has relied on over-simplification and shocking imagery for the last few decades, an approach often derided as “poverty porn.” For many years, lots of people have been very critical of this approach.

This current wave of backlash is extremely welcome and makes a number of crucial points, which include:

The author of that last piece, Daniel Lombardi, makes a lot of points that I agree with, but I was slightly troubled by his focus on communication that does not focus “solely on the positive or the negative.” In telling the story honestly, Lombardi suggests, you end up with more balanced content that is better able to deal with the inherent complexity of much of the work done in the development sector.

Undoubtedly, this complexity is there — from competing viewpoints to widespread ignorance of the subject matter (see: Ebola) to deep divisions within the industry on how best to achieve success, or even what success might look like. This is all tough stuff for outsiders, which is 99% of the potential audience. For me, his take on honest story telling does not take in another vital component — the storytellers themselves.

Non-profits aren’t impartial either

Development agencies communicate largely to raise either funds or awareness. They are not making content to inform the public. Non-profits have agendas just like everybody else.

The stated aim of most non-profits is to alleviate poverty in some form or another. It is not to make the public more knowledgeable (although that could align with their aim). In fact, their strategy could well be to make the public shocked enough to give money very quickly — hence poverty porn — or to tell the public that their relatively meagre support will make a huge difference — hence Live 8 or Kony2012. Those aims are often better achieved by misinforming the public, by dumbing down the message to the point of dis-ingeniousness.

I don’t think that the Make Poverty History team actually thought that they would end poverty by getting people to buy wristbands. They just wanted maximum coverage and support and figured that’d be a fast way to get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of the development bloggers are actively endorsing the view from nowhere. Embracing complexity and rejecting the classically paternalistic approach of development communication should be applauded. But there is a danger that this could lead to communication that seeks to hide the agenda of the NGOs and agencies creating it — all in the name of letting their beneficiaries take centre stage. This is the ethical dilemma that has faced journalism for many years.

For me, the stakes are much higher in the world of development: ultimately, development agencies seek to serve the poorest, most vulnerable people on earth. They have no way of combating the agendas of development organisations. If those organisations do not take ownership of their agendas and seek to communicate that, alongside their more nuanced telling of the stories of their work, they will have misrepresented their beneficiaries.

There’s nothing ethical about that, either.

Featured image is Rae O. Weimer Hall at the University of Florida. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Hazmat Legos. Photo from Flickr.

Last Week Today: Stop. Donating. Your. Crap.

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

WhyDev presents: An Ebola update

Tragically, the Ebola outbreak continues to ravage the United States, a country whose third-world healthcare system is already devastated by one of the highest obesity rates in the world. The country is so unequipped to handle this threat, future Ebola patients will be sent to a provincial health center in Montana, an isolated state in the West even locals refer to as “Wild.”

Some locals, mostly members of a group that calls itself the Republicans, are purchasing special clothing, in the belief it will shield them from the disease. Well-to-do Americans have also tried seeking refuge in Ebola-free areas, such as Rwanda – sometimes in tandem with delivering unfashionable clothes and expired medicine – only to be subjected to invasive and humiliating tests upon arrival.

The week in news

An unprecedented shooting at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa left a soldier dead, two days after two other soldiers in Quebec were run down by a man believed to be an ISIS supporter.

Sadly, Australia’s former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the country’s first to visit China, has passed away.

Following the disappearance of 43 students and the discovery of numerous mass graves and unidentified bodies, protests have broken out across Mexico.

Students in Hong Kong are holding meetings with officials, but little progress has been made. The protestors have a new supporter, though – Kenny G.

The week on the blog

Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories.

When it comes to NGO communications, Daniel Lombardi argues that telling a story well is more important than whether it’s happy or sad.

No amount of yoga will spare you from burnout. Unless…

Yoga is often touted as a good coping mechanism for aid workers. Marianne Elliott explains what it really takes to benefit from the practice.

The week in globaldev


The Ebola stories you should be looking for

Making non-profits lie

The value of a floor

Once more, with feeling: Stop. Donating. Your. Crap.

Do they want our help?

Video Saturday Night Live made a charity commercial. Enough said. (3:00, U.S. only)

Upcoming events

OIC: The Cambodia Project: Launch extravaganza | Melbourne, 12 November

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Featured image from Flickr.

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