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"Always more paperwork." Photo by Robert Francis.

The reality (and absurdity) of the aid sector

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

By Michael Keller

“Are you joking?” That was the written response I got from my boss when I suggested moving our cumbersome reporting process to the cloud a few years ago.

Before I bolted for the relative tranquility of the private sector, like most aid workers, the question of efficiency was on my mind at least once a day. Not the effectiveness of the programs I managed, but my own organization’s efficiency, or lack thereof.

Echoing countless colleagues in the field, I often wondered things like, “Why are we doing things this way when the rest of the world uses a cheaper, faster method to achieve the same result?” and “How is it possible that no one in the chain of command has developed a system to keep track of reporting?”

From just a few years in the field, I amassed enough stories of bureaucratic absurdities to fill a book.

In fact, I realized that the majority of my co-workers had similar complaints. Worse, no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. Organizational momentum was always geared towards implementation or fundraising, while fleeting yearly workshops tended to focus on strategy and capacity building. Systems to improve the quality of our work always seemed to slip through the cracks, replaced by ad hoc approaches developed in spite of the bureaucracy rather than as a part of it.

Here are just a few anecdotes to highlight an institutional weakness familiar to most aid workers:

  • One respected, well-funded organization I worked for had many small projects going on in various parts of the country, and a motivated boss developed the mother of all Excel files to track them. The solution was great, but contained obvious drawbacks. Staff adoption was almost zero because no one intuitively understood the system and training time was limited. The file was offline, and so large that new data had to be regularly copied and pasted into a new file, then e-mailed up the chain of command to be pasted back into a master file. Updates required my boss to drive around to 7 offices with a flash drive and new set of operating instructions. Aggregating data input by different people on different projects, with no clear standardization of data values, became a nightmare. And, unfortunately, the macro-heavy file became increasingly buggy; once the boss rotated out to a new mission, no one had the time and knowledge to fix it, and it was abandoned.
  • Arriving in a remote part of Africa to assess refugee needs after my predecessor was prematurely evacuated, I was lost. No handover. Just 3 short reports from my predecessor, found by chance. Hundreds of reports by others concerning my region, but saved to mysterious locations with inconsistent file names. And for orientation, a scan of a hand-drawn map. I spent my first week skimming the reports, furiously copy/pasting paragraphs relating to similar topics into a 180-page searchable document, just to get a basic idea of what had been done where. In the field, I made diligent use of my GPS unit so I could create maps back at the office. I quickly realized we were providing “one-time emergency” assistance for the fourth year in a row to the same population. By the end of my mission, I had the most detailed maps ever made of my region and a well-organized stash of reports for my successor. But the combination of high turnover and lack of institutional backing for these systems meant the maps faded from memory and the reports got lost in the jumble of colleague’s personal filing systems.
  • In another job, I was overseeing multiple local implementing partners. They had to submit their project plans via e-mail in Word documents. I would modify and comment, and send them back for revision. Once I was satisfied with the proposals, I would repeat the e-mail exchange with my own boss. Her revisions and comments would then get e-mailed through me back to the local partners. Throughout this process, entire sections of the document would get accidentally deleted, and information I had intentionally deleted in one version would sneak back in the next. As a direct result of this document daisy chain, projects often did not start until half-way through the fiscal year.

I regularly discussed these frustrations over drinks with a good friend. Despite our years of experience in the sector, we just could not believe that these simple bottlenecks had not yet been addressed. We realized that, though individual demand for innovations was extremely high, the institutional momentum had failed to materialize, despite decades of talk about accountability, transparency and the Big Foot of aid, Results-Based Management (universally recognized but rarely seen).

To overcome the inertia – and the tendency to develop proprietary software that quickly morphs into an outdated legacy platform – a private-sector solution was needed, one tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the industry. My friend jumped on the opportunity and founded AidBits with almost no hesitation; the idea was that obvious. He had his first eager client before even coming close to finishing the beta product.

Moving many of the daily chores of project and program management into browser-based software was an idea way overdue by the early 2010s.  Perhaps no one in the private sector saw the profitability in addressing the problems of the non-profit world. But Feras and Ibrahim knew that with their solution, they could not only turn a profit, they could do so while greatly improving the quality and timeliness of aid work.

Imagine a field office in which data reporting is standardized, with easy-to-understand online tutorials to remind staff of the need for and meaning of key terms like “goal” and “S.M.A.R.T.” Picture a donor institution using a platform to aggregate relevant information with a simple click and chart program progress automatically. Envision a work environment in which past reporting is archived and searchable, maps can be generated by non-GIS specialists, and workflow shifts from MS Office and e-mail to the browser.

AidBits won’t solve all the problems facing development and humanitarian work. But it will make errors easier to catch, reports faster to file and time harder to waste. The drudgery avoided and money saved will allow for a greater focus on the quality results that beneficiaries deserve. AidBits is forging ahead to enhance a multi-billion dollar industry currently stuck in the 20th century. And no, these guys are not kidding around.

Michael Keller is an international development expert, having worked in Africa and the greater Middle East for a number of international aid organisations. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image from Robert Francis.

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.

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.

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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.]