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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.

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.

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.

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.

People wait at a UN distribution centre in Haiti.

On cognitive dissonance: Local ownership & constant learning

Jonathan Favini’s recent WhyDev post on cognitive dissonance in development raised issues that are near and dear to many in the sector, from recognising aid failures to working in a flawed industry to receiving praise from outsiders. A recent college grad, Jonathan ended his piece with some thoughtful questions to more experienced aid workers.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

We’ve compiled several interesting and insightful responses from people with varied experience in development (and blogging!). This post is the first in a short series of reflections on these topics.

Chris Planicka – Program Associate, EcoAgriculture Partners & Aid Blogger

“These types of doubts and questions help me to remain humble in my work. I try to present myself as a facilitator or enabler, one who helps people to achieve their own goals but whose own role is minimal. Most people I work with, especially at local levels in developing countries, appreciate this stance, as they can see the problems in development work all too clearly.

Indeed, I am quite aware of the many problems in this industry, and sometimes the doubts Jonathan described, and other challenges, can be overwhelming. To motivate myself in this work, I try to do the following: learn from mistakes and errors (both mine and others’) to avoid repeating them and to improve other work; make special note of success stories when I do find them and remember them for future reference; and never take myself too seriously, especially in interactions with people offering praise for ‘doing good work’ or ‘helping people.’ They may mean well, but they do not fully understand the work I do (and that’s not really their fault, either).”

Chad Bissonnette – Co-founder & Executive Director, Roots of Development

“I couldn’t incorporate the industry’s flaws into my identity, so I decided to start my own organisation. That way, I decided I could work within the field, but as ‘outside the industry’ as possible.

Like most in the field, I am constantly observing and analysing the flaws of the industry, and using my conclusions about them to form the approach we use at Roots of Development. Since most of our budget comes from individual donors, we have even greater flexibility to do it differently. Most individual donors trust us enough and believe in our approach enough to allow us to do it the way we feel we need to do it. They let us mold, form and change our programming based on the direction of the communities with whom we work and the lessons we learn from working with them.

I think the days you find yourself doubting the impact of your efforts are very important. I have learned to take those days and use them to analyse two things: 1) Look at the effort to try and see where we may have gone astray or strayed from our core principles. 2) Make sure I am not solely evaluating the impact through my culturally-biased understanding of it and of standards of success.

I believe that when you doubt the impact of your effort, it’s either because the effort is actually flawed or because you’re judging it from your cultural context. In the first case, it’s important to identify where you went astray and get back on track. In the second, it’s likely you need to remind yourself whom the effort is actually for, and find out how they are feeling about the impact.

It is once again a reminder to me of how important local ownership is in every aspect of international development and how important it is for me (us) to remain in a supportive role instead of a managerial one.”

Check back next week for thoughts from more of your favourite aid workers and bloggers – and share your own responses in the comments.

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Young humanitarians: Challenging the stereotype of Generation Y

By Agency team

Gen Yers who are reading this will be familiar with a battle we share. A battle we could probably fight and win, if we could be bothered to get up off our parents’ couches and tear ourselves away from the screens we apparently love…but, well… “Meh.” Plus, I’m way too much of a commitmaphobe to risk engaging in a battle.

In case you’re not picking up on my sarcasm, the battle I speak of is the battle against the Gen Y stereotype. And for those of us who don’t identify with this stereotype, the message that we’re “self-centred, irresponsible, apathetic leechers” is getting pretty old.

Like every generation, ours has its faults. And sure, some of us need to say YOLO a bit less often and start thinking more of others. But, at least in the circles I move in, there’s also an abundance of millennials who are looking outside themselves and are fully awake to the world around them.

We care about global inequality, politics and the environment, and we’re optimistic enough to believe we can leave the legacy of a world with fewer scars than the one we’re inheriting.

If you’re in Melbourne on 30 August, you could be lucky enough to witness a 250-strong group of said humanitarian millennials converge on the Royal Exhibition Building for Expanse, a conference that aims to give Gen Yers “the tools they need to start the fight for greater justice and equality in the world.”

Expanse is the brainchild of Agency, a creative studio working in communications and media, and brings some of the biggest charitable organisations in the world together in one room. World Vision, Oaktree, UN Youth and ONE.org are all taking part, and they’re calling on “student leaders, advocates, speakers, thinkers and dreamers to join them.”

If you are a Gen Yer with dreams for a more just and equal world, then Expanse is the conference for you. You can use the Internet (coming out of the screen you’re glued to) while you read this to learn more and register for Expanse.

Oh, and in case you’re feeling anxious about it, you can check-in to the conference on your smart phone, and there will be hashtags and selfies-a-plenty, so you can ease your FOMO. We’ll just be using social media for social good, not evil.

Agency is a creative studio and social enterprise based in Sydney. The company works on branding, design, video and digital and interactive experiences for projects that further human development, foster human rights and drive social equity. You can check out their website or follow them on Twitter.

[Expanse is a one-day conference that uses interactive and engaging ways to teach young people about global issues and help them develop the tools to solve global problems. Organisations like WhyDev will be at the event to help participants understand global development networks and how they can participate in the community. If you're around (and aged 16-24), consider attending the conference, and be sure to stop by our table! We'd love to learn more about your interests and hear your ideas on how we can make WhyDev a better resource for young people. Use the code WD896 to get $5 off your registration.]

Rations

Starving for awareness

By Francisco Toro

Like most right-thinking people, I had decided to devote 1 July to football. After Argentina’s grinding, 1-0 defeat of Switzerland, I was getting ready to enjoy the USA-Belgium match, when a link on Twitter caught my eye. “As food shortages hit 800,000 African refugees,” warned the press release, “UNHCR and WFP issue urgent appeal.”

The story is entirely garish: the kind of too-awful-to-be-true story we’ve all gotten so adept at seeing-and-not-seeing. Due a budget shortfall, UN agencies had to cut food rations for refugees throughout Africa. In some cases, people are getting as much as 60% less to eat. The new rations, The Guardian warned, come to scarcely 850 calories a day.

We’re all supposed to be grown ups, able to read-but-not-read a story like that, right? And yet, this time, I couldn’t. As I tried to concentrate on the USMNT’s valiant-but-doomed stand against the tactically superior Belgians, my mind kept drifting back.

“850 calories. How can you even live on that?”

One day's rations
One day’s rations – 150g sorghum, 30g lentils, 25g oil, 5g salt, 5g sugar

I think most people who go into advocacy have a moment like that, when a story not so different from the ones you’re used to just passing over stays with you, tugs at you, worms its way into your every thought, becomes unignorable. That night, I found myself up at 3am, turning it over on my mind, re-reading the UNHCR story, looking for extra information (of which there wasn’t any).

I guess I’m pretty green on these issues, because I really thought over the next few days I’d start to see this story crop up other places. I mean, this is a famine brewing inside UN facilities, affecting people living under the international community’s protection. Surely the story had legs.

The days went by, and I found myself first confused, then dismayed, and finally shocked to be disabused of this hope. The story about the food crisis inside UNHCR refugee camps was going absolutely nowhere. It came, it blipped, it disappeared into the digital oblivion of a public sphere saturated with football and Hobby Lobby and downed Malaysia Airlines jets.

“These Africans sure picked a lousy weak for the UN to run out of money to feed them,” I mused darkly and tried to move on. But I couldn’t move on. I was stuck.

“How would you like it if you had to live on…” I found myself ranting at my wife. And at that moment, the idea came to me.

By the end of that week, a first draft of 850 Calories was online, and I was frantically trying to figure out how to get people to join me. I bet if people experienced for themselves what it’s like to live for even one day on African refugee rations, they wouldn’t be comfortable to know this is happening to 800,000 people whose only “crime” is fleeing from conflicts that threatened their lives.

So there’s indignation, of course, at the wellspring of the campaign, but there’s also analysis. There’s a reason UNHCR and WFP face the kind of funding gap that’s left them no choice but to drastically cut back on African refugees’ food rations. And it comes back to that complete information gap I saw in the days following their joint appeal. Nobody’s heard this story, so nobody cares to tell this story, so nobody writes this story – with some very few, fantastically brave exceptions.

Refugees in Central Africa are suspended in a vicious cycle of Western disengagement and international neglect, the cost of which is measured in stunted children, anemic mothers, child brides and community breakdown. The Western politicians who ultimately control the purse-strings find it eminently easy to ignore the agencies’ pleas for money, because none of their constituents have ever heard this story, and they’re thus under no pressure whatsoever to act.

This, I think, is why 850 Calories is different from things like One Day without Shoes or the infamous Kony2012 campaign. Those are cases where the fact of Western awareness, of it “being a thing,” didn’t necessarily do anything to solve the problem. Shoelessness is an intractable problem, and Boko Haram is a war machine the West would struggle to face down even if it made military commitments many orders of magnitude larger than what hastagtivism can accomplish.

But the food crisis inside UNHCR’s camps is different. Here’s a situation where, in fact, just making it “a thing” would produce pressure for Western politicians to solve the problem. If people start to take the 850 challenge, post about it, tweet about it, get their friends doing it and get them posting and thinking about it, the problem could go from total invisibility to cultural ubiquity a lot quicker than folks realize. That would create the kind of environment in which politicians have strong reasons to fund the UNHCR-WFP appeal, and the funding is all that’s missing now. After all, the camps are already there, the refugees are already registered, the logistics are already in place, the only thing missing is the money. Well, the money, and the will.

850 Calories is just starting, and I have no idea if it’ll ever have its “viral” moment. Experts tell me that, with its absence of a clearly identifiably bad guy and its focus on a largely unheard-of crisis, it may not.

It may be that we just let refugees in Central Africa starve to death slowly under our “protection.” That’s the crude reality – the least we can do is face it squarely.

I’m just one guy with a keyboard in Montreal. It may be that there isn’t really anything I can do to stop that. But Thomas Friedman’s been boring us to death for years now about how we’re all “hyper-empowered” thanks to the net and, personally, I’d much rather give it a shot and fail than never try at all.

Francisco Toro is a Montreal-based journalist, blogger and activist. He blogs at Boring Development, and you can follow him on Twitter.

Complexity-2

Complex? Nah, just a Tuesday.

By Katherine Gilbert & Rebecca Spratt

Complexity is the latest buzzword in development, but with good reason. Our work is complex, not just because of the kinds of issues we work on or the contexts in which we work, but also because being an international development practitioner is a complex thing.

Whether we are staff of an NGO, an academic or an independent consultant, we are continually playing multiple roles and meeting multiple, at times conflicting, demands. Every day, we work across cultures and through multi-layered relationships of power that we must learn to navigate and that frequently challenge our values, beliefs and assumptions.

Unfortunately, there are no simple, universal instructions on how to manage these complexities. Reams of butcher paper and megabytes of PowerPoint presentations have been used to provide guidance on being a good development worker. Our personal experience is that the conversations with our colleagues (typically over a drink, often in dingy hotel rooms and airport lounges) have been the most valuable.

Our best source of professional development and support has been the opportunity to share experiences and perspectives, to challenge and be challenged, and most importantly to laugh at ourselves.

With this in mind, we are running a series of conversations in Melbourne on the second Tuesday of every month, beginning 12 August (ahh, now the name makes sense!). The series is aimed at middle- and senior-level international development practitioners, from across the NGO, academic, consultancy and volunteer sectors.

With the help of a few of the leading voices on development practice in Australia, we will reflect on the complexities that we face in our day-to-day work, how we manage them now, and how we might do better in future.

Melbourne Development Futures
Last year’s Melbourne Development Futures event

If you like the idea of some structured ranting, accompanied by Shebeen’s excellent selection of beverages, come along! The sessions interlink, and we hope that over the course of the sessions you will feel increasingly comfortable to speak openly and honestly.

To contribute to this kind of environment where people will feel comfortable, we ask that you register for all five sessions, although we know you might not make it for all of them. A small contribution is requested to cover the venue fee.

For more information and to register, visit our Eventbrite page.

Katherine Gilbert worked on strengthening social service delivery and improving aid effectiveness with the UN in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Haiti for seven years. Over the past six months, she has worked as a research fellow at a Melbourne-based university on a health sector study in the Solomon Islands.

Rebecca Spratt has worked in international aid and development for over ten years, mainly in the areas of education, civil society strengthening and advocacy. Rebecca is currently based in Melbourne as an independent consultant, having previously worked for government, NGO and private sector agencies in New Zealand and Australia.

10-tricks

10 tricks to appear smart during development meetings

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

There’s nothing I enjoy more than meetings. Particularly meetings with the donor, who’s the person who’s supposed to sign the checks that make sure you have a job for just a little bit longer. So while you may work for the good of the people of [fill in the name of the pile of smoking rubble you’re standing on that people insist is still a country], you actually work for the donor.

And donors love nothing more than holding meetings. Some common varieties are:

  • Synch meetings
  • Coordination meetings
  • Working group meetings
  • Budget meetings

And the dreaded, avoid-at-all-costs:

  • Pre-meeting

This last one’s the one you have before the really big meeting, so you can all go over what you’re going to talk about at the actual meeting. That meeting will usually involve multiple donors all brought together for some kind of conference or seminar or something else equally mind numbing. Those meetings generate things like “action plans,” which are promptly forgotten or subtly sidetracked because coordination means someone’s going to have to share with others, and that’s not how development work is done.

But rather than just surviving these meetings, here’s a handy guide for coming out of those meetings looking like someone who a) genuinely cares about the work you’re doing, and b) is a recognized thought leader among your peers. (Put that last one on a LinkedIn profile…it’s CV gold.)

Development meeting
Surefire ways to impress everyone in the room

1. Ask for milestones

This is a great way to get a lot of nods and approving noises from those around the table. It’s also a great way to throw a peer under the bus, and if it’s not a peer, good times can be had by all as you watch that person scramble to explain the various milestones in their amazing five-year plan.

2. Use “sustainability” whenever possible

This ties back to the first one, because if something doesn’t have “milestones,” it’s probably not going to be “sustainable.” Asking any presenter if they have a sustainability plan usually yields the same fun as the milestones question.

3. Flip through the handout while the presenter is still talking

Nothing tells a room “I’m already thinking a few steps ahead” better than rustling paper and moving ahead through slides that haven’t been presented yet. Combine this with questions about sustainability, and you’re sure to get that next Chief of Party gig.

4. Make notes on upcoming slides

This reinforces the idea that you’re looking ahead, past the point that your presenter is making, and are about to make some kind of statement that should make the rest of the group start shuffling through the handout as well.

5. Say, “I don’t see a gender component.”

Letting the group know you care very much about gender issues is something that will endear you to peers and supervisors alike. Donors love people who are looking for the gender angle, even if the project is the artificial insemination of goats in the Andes Mountains. It also puts the presenter on the spot and usually means they get to scramble to make that point out of sequence with their other slides.

6. Start a few sentences with variations on “I’m worried that…”

Some examples:

  • I’m worried that we’re not reaching the children enough with this.
  • I’m concerned about the optics of that distribution plan.
  • I’m guess I’m not sure how that can be sustainably implemented.

Nothing shows insight in development work like vague concerns. And you’ll never have to explain that concern because someone else in the room will second your thought immediately. Since you’re already planning on leaving the meeting early to demonstrate how busy you are, you’ve just generated about 15 minutes of discussion, which means you won’t have to hear many of the rest of the slides.

7. Suggest a follow-on working group.

Once the discussion generated by #6 has gone on long enough, speak up and suggest that a follow-on working group be convened to deal with that particular issue. It sounds like you’re creating more work for yourself, but one of two things happen now:

  1. Everyone is secretly hoping this won’t happen since it will mean more meetings. So you can keep re-scheduling that working group until everyone who was at the meeting leaves the country.
  2. Someone wanting to make a name for themselves will volunteer to chair that group. And then they’ll execute the plan in #1.

8. Humorously reference the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy.

During the course of the meeting, which is keeping anyone in the room from doing any actual real work, make an offhand comment like, “Well, you how long THAT’S going to take.” This is a tricky one, since the people who actually slow your work down are probably sitting around the table at the moment, so use carefully.

9. Openly mock the standing government.

The only real barrier to your success as a development organization is whoever’s currently sitting in the presidential palace/mansion/hut/hovel. You and the donor are the most effective team ever assembled for this kind of work, and the plans you’ve collectively put together would be an unmitigated success if not for the policies of the president/king/high lord of all he surveys.

10. Leave early because of a field visit.

No one in a development meeting would dream of keeping anyone from visiting the field. This is effective for a few reasons:

  • A lot of the people in the room have never been to “the field,” so they will be suitably impressed and will see your value to the organization.
  • Your friends in the room (and there won’t be many) will be impressed with your temerity, since they know you don’t have one.
  • If questioned later, you can complain that security canceled the movement because they don’t understand the real work that’s being done here.

Gary Owen is a pseudonym for a Former U.S. Army Infantry and Civil Affairs officer with two tours in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, who has been working in Afghanistan as a civilian development worker since 2009. A self-proclaimed “idealist with a mortgage,” his home on the web is the blog Sunny in Kabul, and you can follow him on Twitter. He’s also a semi-regular contributor to the Afghan Analysts Network and occasional writer for Vice News. Gary and his wife call Texas home, where they live with a couple of retired racing greyhounds and three overly needy cats.