All posts by Gregory Pellechi

Gregory Pellechi is a freelance journalist, editor and media consultant in Phnom Penh. He has a Masters in International Humanitarian Action from Uppsala University in Sweden. Like all good journalists he has that one novel he’s perpetually working on but work keeps getting in the way. He has worked in Europe, Central Asia and Southeast Asia and hopes to add the Middle East, Africa, South America and just about everywhere else to his curriculum vitae. He can be reached at greg.pellechi[at] or via his blog and Twitter.

The silent alarm sounds… again

Disasters strike all the time without warning. Their elusive and unpredictable nature is part of what makes them deadly. What makes them deadlier is our own unresponsiveness, whether it’s an act of will or simple ignorance.

Those disasters that grace the headlines of the major news networks and newspapers inevitably receive a greater response – if for no other reason than the public demands that something be done. Which is why the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) along with the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection (ECHO) have just launched a new campaign on Silent Disasters – those events that incur a substantial impact on humanity yet do not receive the coverage or the response of others.

Case in point – when Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the US last year, it received significantly more news coverage than any other disaster in 2012. This great infographic, courtesy of ECHO and the IFRC, illustrates it wonderfully.

Silent Disasters Infographic

On the other hand, Cambodia’s floods in 2012 received a lot less coverage than the floods in 2011. When I was working at the Phnom Penh Post, during the rainy season as it was, there was scattered coverage. But the rains were just as scattered and the flooding at the time was primarily in the north near the Thai border. The perceived impact and worries within the paper were not for the floods, but finding something more front page worthy. Sitting in on the front page meetings, I can’t remember a single day when the floods were presented as a possible lead.

While the 2012 floods were not a major disaster like Hurricane Sandy, their impact was made greater by the fact that much of the country was still recovering from the 2011 floods. Depending on the flood, between 3,000 and 15,000 families were displaced and/or evacuated between September and November of 2012, with 14 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces severely affected when the rains were heaviest. Yet compared to the 170 deaths in 2011 the death toll was significantly less. While this was a good thing, it cannot be taken as the sole indicator of the impact of the disaster, as such disasters have many long term effects beyond the death toll.

As the 2012 floods weren’t as severe as those in 2011, it’s possible this was reason enough for them not to merit more media coverage. Additionally, the death of the King Father Norodom Sihanouk at the same time may have overshadowed them. At this point I was no longer with the Phnom Penh Post, so I can’t account as to why they didn’t receive greater coverage.

The media was presented with a choice – on one hand you have the death of a polarising political figure, who had the dubious honour of coining the term Khmer Rouge, and on the other a seasonal event which requires the acknowledgement of the government to allow many disaster assistance programmes to respond.

The regularity with which such an event occurs, given the lack of effective flood prevention measures or other disaster risk reduction (DRR) preparation put in place by the government, just may lead to “boy who cried wolf” syndrome amongst many.

Those tasked with implementing DRR or humanitarian response are very constrained by the requirement for the government to acknowledge that there has been a disaster and that there is a need for aid.

Both of these criteria were met in the US, where a state of emergency was declared along sections of the east coast, but no such statement was made in Cambodia. Thus international help could not be activated and brought – similar though not as catastrophic to the Burmese denial of Cyclone Nargis.

In August 2012 the Cambodian National Committee for Disaster Management only asked for 9,000 troops and 16,000 tonnes of food along with other supplies in preparation for the coming floods. They later reported that of the $30 million (USD) that was set aside for disasters they came in under budget due to less severe than expected floods.

In both cases of Hurricane Sandy and the floods in Cambodia, many people were affected by the disaster (although affected can mean different things, after all having your power cut means you’re affected, but if you never had power to begin with…).

Yet, the preparation of the Cambodian government was more robust than that of the American government, and it set aside funds and personnel to respond to the floods. In contrast, the US, as we’ve seen before with Hurricane Katrina, had little to no planning in effect. Their funds for recovery had to come from sources that require that a ‘state of emergency’ be declared. It’s an important line in much legislation and one that affects international humanitarian response, for without that call for help nothing can be done or contributed.

The difference is that Sandy hit a major urban area and presented the news with some iconic images, such as the one of lower Manhattan without power, as seen below. Sandy and its impact on the eastern seaboard of the US was such a visceral story capable of selling papers, but at the same time is a great example to those working in DRR of how important it is to be prepared for large scale urban disasters.

Lower Manhattan Comparison Photos from Business Week
Lower Manhattan Comparison Photos from Business Week

That leaves us with two clear culprits when it comes to silent disasters – the media and the government. The media seeks to cover the more visceral story, the one with the ‘greatest impact’ and the one that will sell more copies.

While governments, donors and humanitarian responders, regardless of whether they are prepared to respond or not, are constrained more often than not by legislation that requires the declaration of a ‘state of emergency.’  If they’ve got the funds and personnel in place, as Cambodia did, they don’t need to declare an emergency and instead can go it alone.

But is there a third culprit? Where do we as consumers of media, responders to humanitarian needs and the general populace fit into this framework of determining needs?


The MDGs: human rights in small doses?

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of editing the previous two posts (here and here) regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It’s clear now that not many if any will be met. Those that have been or are being met are not being welcomed with the cheers of a rousing success, but the pursed lips and raised eyebrows of concern. And rightly so – there is much still yet to be done.

A little late to the game but relevant to this matter nonetheless is a podcast I was listening to. The Guardian Global Development podcast episode from March 27, 2012. On it the panel members were discussing the MDGs and what was to be done next, whether they are a success and what needs to change for the next go round. It was at roughly at the 32:30 mark that an audience member asked about human rights and human development.

Global development podcast

The audience member asks about human rights in regards to the MDGs, which have no explicit element to them. Rather, they focus on more tangible and ‘acceptable’ development goals that any government can accept. Listening in, the panel sounds like they’ve immediately dismissed the question, never harkening back to it or specifically speaking about human rights. Rather, they address the MDGs relevant to their particular area of expertise.

The big one mentioned was maternal health and the right to it, which Mike Miesen discussed in his post ‘MDG 5a: An Update On Maternal Mortality‘. Mike writes about the need for the world to re-evaluate and ramp up its work on reducing the mateernal mortality rate, as at the moment we’re failing to reach that 75% reduction rate. Scott Weathers also contributed a post about the MDGs, ‘Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?‘ Soctt asks the equal vital question of how to make the goals manageable and understandable. This though may have an adverse effect on any human rights aspects, if they exists, included in the MDGs as they could be left out entirely or watered down to such a degree that few would recongise them as human rights.

In discussion with a friend, who initially told me about this very episode, we came to wonder – have human rights in fact been included in the MDGs? She like me, not so much waffles between opinions, but remains unsure – and for the following reasons.

1. One argument is that the MDGs been broken down into their relevant sectors reflected and thus made manageable for governments, without the obvious tropes commonly associated with human rights – no direct calls for votes, democracy, representation or judiciary measures. Supporting evidence would be the focus on women’s health, equality and education for all, both implicitly grounded in human rights.

Good Ol' Gurban Berdimuhamedov aka Berdy aka Big Berdy aka Big Bird
Good Ol’ Gurban Berdimuhamedov doesn’t want to swallow something so difficult as human rights.

Those human rights that certain countries, like Turkmenistan, argue as a right such as ‘the right to food’ are included – even as the debate, albeit small, remains as to whether this in fact a right. The argument here often falls on the definition of ‘the right to life’, given that food is a necessity for life but there is no guarantee that anyone should have access to/receive it. Hence, countries such as Turkmenistan will provide bread, rice, salt and other rations as part of the state’s ensuring the ‘right to life’ of its citizens, while arguing that the US does not as they do not provide such staples.

2. The contrary argument being the fact that there is no clear language in any of the MDGs calling for human rights as a whole, especially those that extend to housing, governance and rule of law. Instead there is talk of trade, debt relief and aid coordination – all worthy in their own rights and not to be dismissed, but not directly connected to human rights either. Many of the matters associated with everyone, not just women, are not included in the MDGs.

Leaving certain rights out, one can argue that human rights are being dismissed entirely – as its a one for all and all for one deal. Piecemeal implementation allows for privileged application, creating the inequality that the MDGs seek to eradicate. But, given the UN’s perennial inability to implement anything beyond its obligation to annual pay raises for its employees, how are they are expected provide for and guarantee rights for all?

The line between human rights and development, in my opinion, is never an easy one to walk. It’s why there are so many organisations with a range of operating procedures. It’s the impetus for MSF’s creation. To say their entirely separate is if anything to deny the very reason that we’re in this business to begin with – to help people – because not everyone needs the same sort of help.

My questions for the readers of WhyDev are these:

  • Are human rights included in the MDGs? If not should they be?
  • If they are, then have they been blunted or reframed to be more acceptable?
  • Do human rights have a place in development, particularly on the global scale?


The changing landscape of advertising on Aid & Africa: Oxfam’s new campaigns

Oxfam GB began a new ad campaign for Africa this month that has immediately come under scrutiny. At the same, time Oxfam America is launching a new campaign that is also centred largely on Africa, but not entirely. Only a few days younger than its British counterpart, the American campaign has yet to draw the ire of anyone, while the British has required justification from Oxfam GB’s CEO, Dame Stocking.

Dame Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam UK
Dame Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam UK

Sharpening the same old rusty tools

Times have changed, and the audience along with it. They are a more savvy consumer of advertising, but also more globally aware. To compare an ad from today, and the message it’s attempting to purport, is to deny not only the use and effects of previous campaigns, but also the changes that have occurred within society at large.

The situation in Africa or Central America, Asia and elsewhere for that matter, is different from that of 20, 30, 40 years ago. The means of communication have changed, but then so have the organisations (especially the communications staff). Advertising and advocacy campaigns have grown rusty amid the changing global environment. Advertising is a tool that needs to be sharpened constantly – particularly as it’s a tool that’s been inherited. If your grandfather gave you an old spade you’d simply hone the edge or maybe replace the handle rather than tossing it aside.

Newly honed: there’s a definite edge

Both the British and American Oxfam campaigns for Africa are a fresh take on an old issue. Vibrant colours, stunning photographs and a funky font make for eye-catching yet clean material. The differences though are immediately apparent. The British have gone in for landscapes, showcasing the verdant and varied biosphere, while the Americans have gone for the individuals, encapsulating the personal side to Africa.

Oxfam GB's new ad campaign
Oxfam GB’s new ad campaign

Oxfam Africa campaign

Oxfam Africa campaign

Each is a distinctly different approach. Yet through both of them you can see the unifying essence that is Oxfam and their mission. How each campaign is being wielded does more than simply identify the nascent development of the campaigns’ consumers, who want more than the blatant messages of conflict and famines of the 80s and 90s. It shows a great understanding on the part of all stakeholders that advertising is a tool that all should have a share in.

A committee need not be convened to approve every message from every stakeholders’ standpoint – the gods know there are already too many committees involved in aid and development. The mere fact that organisations like Oxfam are taking into account the wider cultural effects shows they’ve graduated from swinging a machete to pulling out the pruning shears. It doesn’t mean they’re as deft as they could be, but you cannot grow and nurture a bonsai overnight even with tiny tools.

Calling a spade… something with a handle

Oxfam GB and Oxfam America target different audiences with their respective campaigns. There are similarities between the target audiences, but there are enough differences that varied campaigns are a prerequisite. Each campaign is also focused on different issues; for GB it’s about reimagining Africa, for the US it’s about not cutting foreign aid for the sake of the national budget. Both campaigns want to see aid to continue to flow to Africa (particularly through Oxfam GB; Oxfam America doesn’t take USAID funding), though the issues each organisation faces differ drastically.

Oxfam GB is focused on an issue that they personally have been a part of and responsible for. There’s no denial. And, there’s no apology – this isn’t a debate on poverty porn, but recognition that it has been used in the past – good or bad, Oxfam and others must move on. Consumers are equally complicit in the previous ad campaigns, as they needed such crass images to get involved. Oxfam GB calls the consumer on this fact with one word ‘Let’s’. It is a social contract.

The acknowledgement of all parties’ share in a stereotyped perception of Africa as a continent of starvation is a step towards dialogue and the change of that image. However, the changing of an image or even a person’s view is not done through one medium alone, which is why Oxfam GB’s campaign needs to be seen in the wider context, not just next to that of Oxfam America’s.

The message from Oxfam America’s campaign is one that is intrinsically tied to the political culture of the US. Oxfam America is discussing American politics and how they shape the world, but it’s doing so through a prism that many Americans would understand. Foreign aid, slightly more than 1% of the US budget, is being shown not as a hand-out but a means to support self-starters – those very same people which the US prides itself upon for making it what it is today – and not something that should be cut.

Oxfam America's new ad campaign
Oxfam America’s new ad campaign


Manuel Dominguez no click

Oxfam America is asking the American taxpayer and their elected representatives to allow Oxfam and its partners to do its job. In highlighting the similarities between individuals in Africa and the US, Oxfam America is attempting to engage people on a level they can understand, on the same issues they’re feeling at home. Because the issue of foreign aid is a personal one for Oxfam America, the organisation appear to have made its campaign personal for everyone.

The immediacy of Oxfam America’s goal can’t be underscored enough. Given that the US government only managed to put off issues relating to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by a further two months, and that the Congress and Senate will be meeting once again to decide the future of the American national budget, the timing of the new campaign is apt. But, it isn’t so much a campaign for Africa or even Oxfam as it is an attempt at lobbying. Just look at where some of the ads are placed: within Reagan National Airport and the metro system in Washington DC.

However, from a design perspective, the font is a sore point. The font, as bright and cheerful with that African edge as it tries to be, comes across a little callous. Oxfam should keep in mind the thoughts of Jonathan Barnbrook, “A good typeface creates an emotional response in relation to the message it is conveying. You’re trying to get that tone of voice right – you can shout or whisper. And you want to sum up the spirit of the age, because they do date quite quickly”. The playfulness of it undermines the impassioned and serious plea that both organisations are broadcasting and could in the end be detrimental to their overall message.

It is about generating discussions, rather than impressions

Each of these campaigns has been crafted by professionals who are well aware of the limits of the mediums they are working in and what they hope to achieve. They are also keenly aware of how messages, images and memes are itinerant between mediums. Social media, whether explicitly expressed or not, is a large part of spreading the messages of both organisations and is being utilised to do so very effectively.

Both Oxfam GB and Oxfam America have, in effect, not merely provided the campaigns’ consumers with the very tools they use – they’ve invited the audience into the tool shed. Showing how these tools are shaped to the task spurs the discussion of each campaign. Both organisations are involving you in the discussion by getting you to hold the discussion.

They’re not asking you to have it, or even demanding that such discussions take place. The enticement comes from the ideas they present so that the audience stops and looks at what each organisation is doing and how. Dame Stocking’s comment of, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different”, and concise feedback from Tolu Ogunlesi is nothing more than presenting a different perspective of Africa and aid, but with a caveat – the audience is forced to determine what that picture is.

Oxfam GB is not purporting to be the final or even an authoritarian voice on aid and Africa. The offer to make a cultural change within the UK with the audience by saying ‘Let’s’ allows for the differing views and constructive suggestions of others. It opens the tool shed to everyone to discuss not just the work to be done but how. Much of what is done today in terms of advertising, particular on complex issues, is about generating discussions rather than impressions.

Oxfam America’s discussion includes the tool shed and those in it, but never to the same degree. Their concern is being able to keep the shed and the tools in it. It seeks a far more tangible effect, but one that can only be determined in the future – not by impressions, Likes or click-throughs. The success of Oxfam America’s campaign rests in the hands of the American taxpayer and their elected representative.


Whatever you’re feeling about these ads isn’t wrong or right. They probably elicited a response, which they’re supposed to. They’re generating a discussion, but for them to be really successful it needs to be elsewhere. Take your comments and your feelings to your personal blogs, to Facebook, Twitter and any other medium that connects to those who aren’t in the aid and development community.

Talk to those who are not inside the ‘Aid Beltway’. Share with them and see what they have to say.


When does experience trump education?

Of late I’ve been trying to parse the general opinion among friends and colleagues as to what sectors of aid and development require some form of educational expertise and which benefit from experience. I ask in part because I don’t think my own work in communications requires the sort of skills that can’t be obtained on the job or through training, but also because I’ve encountered circular logic in arguments from people in other sectors.

Most people would agree that there are certain sectors that require technical qualification – say water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and agriculture – though the level differs depending on the job. Other sectors like security, communications, rights work and even monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are consistently deemed areas where experience counts for as much, if not more, than a mere qualification from a well-regarded place of higher education.

Within the three aforementioned sectors, we prefer to have professionals with recognized qualifications. Yet even there we find inconsistencies. Doctors and nurses have to have a qualification from a certified university, but midwives, in particular if they are nationals working in aid and development, often seem to be exempt because they have experience.

We want our engineers to be certified if they’re from a developed nation and drilling wells, but again nationals who’ve been digging wells for years need no such pieces of paper. The same goes for those working in the agriculture sector – birthing goats on the family farm can be experience enough for someone working on an animal husbandry project.

But, then you have sectors where a background in economics is highlighted in the job description because the work is focused on the value chain or small business development, or something equally ambiguous yet remotely tied to economics.

That education requirement inevitably lends itself towards someone with a formal education in economics or a related field rather than a person who has experience in running their own business, but no formal education or even an education in another sector. The job description focuses on the theoretical level where quite possibly it should concentrate on the practical level. The technical expertise of experience may be better suited for the job, but the job requirements become exclusionary.

More a support function than implementation, communications as a sector would clearly benefit from employing those with backgrounds in other sectors, be they education or experienced-based. Why?

Well, for one, the person would actually know what they’re writing about, and hopefully be able to impart some of that understanding to the media, stakeholders, donors and even others within the same organization.

At the same time, everyone thinks they can write (yours truly included) but few are willing to take the time to do it. Hence, job descriptions for communications positions that highlight experience as a journalist or in public relations or something else that required the person to tap away at a keyboard day after day.

Added to this is the fact that to a greater extent a large portion of the degree and diploma programs in developing countries are effectively worthless for those that attend them. Many certifying bodies consider them to be nothing more than diploma mills and anyone who receives a qualification from there is unlikely to have it recognized by a foreign body.

This also means applying for aid and development jobs elsewhere is restricted to those with a formal education in Europe, Australia, North America. The push for localization from donors can also be a hindrance as often they still require the same educational qualifications without taking into account the country of operations – oftentimes nationals will have experience, vital experience, but not the formal education demanded.

I recognize that these are very general statements and I only mean for this discussion to take place in the widest possible context, so with that in mind – when does education trump experience?

What sectors have truly technical requirements to their work that, regardless of someone’s experience or the national operating procedures, the person doing the job needs to hold some sort of certification in that field?

Personally, I want anyone providing me with an injection to be thoroughly trained, though I recognize that they need not be a registered nurse or doctor – for more complicated tasks and in particular diagnosis or surgery then of course I want the “professional.”

To come out and say that a sector needs people with an education in a certain field is all well and good – if you can provide the evidence of how your duties can only be performed by someone who has that education and not someone with experience but no education.

The argument that “You will not understand because you don’t have a background (sic educational) in that sector” is one that is too often bandied about. It fails to recognize its own supporting logic to the person being questioned and denies those with no formal education but extensive experience their due.

As a journalist I have to ask not just “why?” but “why you?” If I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing my job. Education, particularly from established institutions, is often of a theoretical level, hence the need for accountants, engineers, architects, nurses, doctors and others to become certified beyond having received a diploma.

Aid and development is more often than not about doing practical work that has real world consequences and a lot of people doing said work have extensive experience but not necessarily the qualifications for it. That in itself is another discussion- should jobs be constrained to those with formal education?

So, where in any sector of aid and development is a formal qualification truly  necessary? What are the technical aspects of M&E, gender, communications, health, agriculture, disaster risk reduction, climate change, emergency aid, shelter, education, etc. that can only be done with a recognized qualification? Or does it just take a certain amount of experience to conduct the same work but have a different or no qualification at all?