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The poor within our ranks

A related post previously appeared in The Guardian.

By Michael Keller

“Men don’t know what it’s like to be women…. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”

Despite a few of its luminaries, such as Paul Farmer, hailing from humbler backgrounds, the unique perspective of international aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds is not often heard in the sector. But, we have recently seen widespread, welcome discussion of the overrepresentation of “Posh White Blokes” in aid. This year’s excellent World Development Report even explores how most development professionals “have never personally experienced the psychological and social contexts of poverty or scarcity; as a result, their decision-making processes may differ from those of people living in poverty.”

Perhaps 2015 will be the year we hear more from expat aid workers for whom a steady salary and free housing are viewed as privileges, rather than a sign of sacrifice compared to what could be earned back home.

Increasing the number of international aid workers who grew up poor would bring several significant advantages to the sector, which remain beyond reach if we continue simply hiring elites from developing countries and calling it “diversity”.

First, heightened awareness of the impression one gives as an aid worker in poor communities can ensure a minimal level of alienation. It is much easier to be attuned to beneficiaries’ disdain for privileged classes when you have stood on the outside of your own society looking in. For this minority of aid workers, running loud generators all night to keep the AC on is not normal. Having the driver wait with the always-pristine Land Cruiser while you enjoy a restaurant he could never afford is not normal. Popping over to the other side of the continent for a vague workshop is not normal. Because these things are not normal for the majority of our planet. And doing them makes us even more incomprehensible to impoverished locals… and, more importantly, vice-versa.

Knowing what it feels like to come into contact with people from an economic class far above your own can serve as a powerful tool in understanding how communities perceive the behaviour of aid workers and how foreigners can better gain local trust and respect.

Second, the minority of aid workers who did not grow up in relative wealth are, I suspect, healthily sceptical of the presumed expertise of external actors, including their own organisations. Having witnessed the limitations of domestic NGOs, as well as the habitual failure of their own political leaders to adequately address the needs of the poor, these aid workers are less likely to put unrealistic amounts of faith in the ability of outsiders to solve an issue as intractable as poverty. True change, they realize, tends to start with the will to change.

Third, an aid worker who herself has been the subject of charity might expect beneficiary humiliation rather than gratefulness when the goodies are loaded off the truck, and think of tactics to mitigate it. Personally, I can’t claim to have been raised in a refugee camp, but the day I found a holiday basket of food donated by a local charity on my family’s doorstep after school was not exactly a highlight of my youth.

Fourth, money is valued more by those who have had less of it, with important consequences for aid programming. I’ve often been struck by most aid workers’ incomprehension of the strongly incentivizing (or disincentivising) effects of small sums of money on local populations. People who value USAID cardboard boxes for their roofing qualities can change their behaviour considerably for a few extra cents.

A common lament today centres on the absurd inability to hold workshops in some countries without distributing hefty per diems. Yet at some initial point, someone thought it would be appropriate to pay people the equivalent of several days’ wages performing back-breaking labour to sit in a room for several hours while getting free meals and having tea or Fanta breaks throughout the day. And enough aid workers thereafter felt that the amounts of money involved were small enough not to bother eliminating; as long as they fit in the budget, why bother worrying about the effects of a few dollars at the household level? Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much money to cause significant damage to aid programming.

This value attached to a single dollar, along with a more personal sense of solidarity, may also be an important clue as to why lower-income people tend to give more money to charity than the well off. The poorest quintile in the U.S. gives more than twice as much to charity as a percentage of income as the top quintile. Perhaps this also means workers from less well-off backgrounds feel more personal injury and are less tolerant when $20 that they, or their grandmother, donated is wasted or stolen.

Fifth, personal experience with unusual coping mechanisms can add insight into seemingly odd beneficiary behaviour. The fear of not knowing whether basic necessities will be available to you can lead to all sorts of seemingly irrational decisions that cannot be captured in any logframe but must nevertheless be considered and mitigated. A farmer keeping his children out of school to work in the fields perhaps makes more sense to someone who has skipped doctor’s visits for lack of health insurance.

Sixth, many of the most committed aid workers I know are not only the poorest, they actively avoid climbing the career ladder to more “desirable” posts. “Making it” to a cushy UN job can be viewed as joining the elitist club they see as out of touch with the realities of aid work, which are best witnessed close to the ground, far from cluster conference rooms.

Career advancement in aid means becoming a manager of other aid workers, leaving direct, front-line work to newcomers, the less qualified, and eccentrics. On a bureaucratic level, therefore, aid organisations would benefit from fostering a culture in which frugality and a deep affinity for “down-and-dirty field work” are virtues, rather than signs of madness or failed careers.

Where can we go from here?

While aid workers from poorer backgrounds could bring numerous benefits to the sector, the priority must of course remain on having a professional and quality workforce. The good news is that aid organisations don’t need to sacrifice quality of staff to hire more aid workers with personal connections to poverty. Plenty of them are getting the same quality education as wealthier aid workers, but they are held back by several factors the aid sector needs to more consciously mitigate.

Getting a foot in the door of the aid industry is a daunting task for all newcomers. For those with no connections and not enough money to self-fund internships (or even flights to interviews), the door can seem firmly shut (see: the unpaid internship question). Employers should ensure that at least some funded internships are set aside on a needs basis, and make it clear to university career centres that they are interested in addressing the underrepresentation of poorer aid workers.

In hiring, meanwhile, the industry fails to assign any usefulness to employee (expat or local) experience of poverty. However, placing more value on this factor, and looking for applicants with the qualities described above, could dramatically influence the direction of the sector’s most fundamental debates and give voice to the poor to a degree that no empowerment initiative or listening exercise has managed to do.

Beneficiaries have often seen me as a Posh White Bloke simply because I am a white bloke. Let’s hope for a day when the ironic association between foreign aid worker and wealth is no longer as instinctive. Aid organisations and academics can play a big role in getting us closer to that point; they can start by exploring this issue in greater depth and seeking out the perspectives of aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For an extended discussion on this topic, see Michael’s Facebook page. 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 shows a row of homes in Camden, New Jersey. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person

This post originally appeared on Emily from Charm City and, and is reprinted here with permission.

By Emily Roenigk

Generally, the objectification and exploitation of human beings in the media bothers us. At least to some degree, we are bothered when media simplify humans, women and men, down to the characteristics that can be used to prove a point, elicit a high emotional response and generate profit. We see this in advertising, movies, pornography.

There is a similar problem with the way we represent the poor in our media, exploiting their condition and even their suffering for financial gain. As we often do with the objectification of women, we need to pause and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of a human being to Western audiences for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience and, ultimately, money. It is a practice called poverty porn, and it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty. Here are five major issues with this common practice:

1. Poverty porn misrepresents poverty.

According to critic Diana George, organizations have a hard time convincing Western audiences that real poverty exists outside their day-to-day life in a culture that is completely saturated with images. She writes that showing extreme despair may seem like the only solution. Poverty porn shows grotesque crises, often through individual stories, that audiences can easily mend through a simple solution or donation. Poverty porn makes a complex human experience understandable, consumable and easily treatable.

2. Poverty porn leads to charity, not activism.

According to George, poverty porn leads to charity, not activism: donors, not advocates. Poverty porn fails to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it. Instead, poverty porn says that material resources are the problem and the solution, where poverty can be addressed through a simple phone call or monthly donation.

To be clear, this kind of giving has the potential to make significant impacts, once in the hands of organizations that address poverty in a sustainable way. However, it perpetuates dangerous ideologies along the way that do more harm than good. It tells the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries, and it tells financially secure donors that they are the saviors. In this dynamic, donors are told that they are the only ones with the ability to make a difference. Nothing is said about what it would look like to empower the poor and walk alongside them to help them realize their inherent ability to be the change agents in their own communities.

Gary Haugan, President & CEO of International Justice Mission and co-author Victor Boutros recently released The Locust Effect, a compelling book about why the end of poverty requires the end of violence. Haugan addresses this necessary shift from treating the symptoms of poverty to treating poverty itself.

He writes, “The history of the world’s effort to fight severe poverty is largely a story of seeing what’s obvious and simple and trying to do something about it, and in the process, discovering the hidden and complex realities of poverty, and then trying to re-engineer solutions that better fit those realities.”

3. Poverty porn misrepresents the poor. 

George writes, “In such images, poverty is dirt and rags and helplessness.” In reality, poverty has “many faces” and no simple solution. Poverty doesn’t only look like a starving child with flies on his face. In fact, poverty doesn’t look any particular way. It is multi-faceted and should be depicted as such. Reporter Tom Murphy writes, “Suffering is a part of poverty, as is good news, as is a family sitting down for a meal.”

Women in Burundi work together to save money and provide loans to one another so they can buy land, start micro enterprises and support their families. Photo by Sean Sheridan for World Relief.
Women in Burundi work together to save money and provide loans to one another so they can buy land, start micro enterprises and support their families. Photo by Sean Sheridan for World Relief.

Poverty is holistic, affecting the whole person and not just what is seen. In their book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain that the helper and the helped define poverty very differently. Most North American audiences define poverty by physical suffering and a lack of material resources, while the poor define their condition psychologically and emotionally. They use words like shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.

Additionally, poverty porn becomes competitive because organizations must constantly convince audiences that they are dealing with the most needy or the “deserving poor,” as opposed to the “undeserving poor,” according to George. It is about staying relevant and attractive to donors, and it is almost never about the subject, writes critic Lina Srivastava.

4. Poverty porn deceives the helper and the helped.

One of the biggest problems with poverty porn is that it is incredibly successful at empowering the wrong person. It does this in two ways. First, poverty porn tells donors that, because of their position in society and because of their resources, they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about. It fails to awaken Western audiences to the mutual need for transformation they share with their poor brothers and sisters and instead perpetuates dangerous paternalism.

Second, poverty porn debilitates the helped. Poverty porn objectifies its subjects, defining them by their suffering and stripping them of the vital components of all human life – agency, autonomy and unlimited potential. Advertisements and marketing materials depicting the suffering of the poor and soliciting financial support may inadvertently tell subjects that they are indeed helpless beneficiaries, dependent on the support of the wealthy for any lasting transformation.

In reality, successfully addressing poverty means empowering the poor to transform their own communities, even admitting our own inadequacy and ignorance in understanding the true nature of poverty. I have the honor of working for World Relief, a humanitarian agency committed to empowering the local Church to serve vulnerable groups around the world. I love the words of World Relief President & CEO Stephan Bauman in the book Shared Strength when he writes, “Seeking ways to allow the poor to become helpers or actors in their own community change represents the difference between a program and a movement.”

5. Poverty porn works.

There’s a reason this depiction of poverty has become so popular among humanitarian aid organizations. When it comes to profitability, poverty porn delivers on its promise. Murphy explains that NGO marketing and communications teams are producing these messages because they have been proven effective through rigorous testing. In fact, audiences are more likely to make a financial donation when an ad shows a child that is suffering, rather than happy and healthy. At the end of the day, poverty porn is the result of well-meaning organizations attempting to raise money for their programs, and it works.

This raises an important question – is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes? I say no. This may sound counterintuitive to the capitalist nature of Western culture, but it’s really not. Sustainable change in poor communities is more than the sum of its financial donations. According to Srivastava, if we want to truly transform communities so they are economically and socially just, we have to create avenues for their voices to be heard. We cannot impose our constructs on them.

Do you think “poverty porn” perpetuates stereotypes? Tell us in a comment below.

Emily Roenigk is the Social Media Coordinator for World Relief, a global humanitarian organization committed to empowering the local Church to serve the most vulnerable. She blogs about a variety of topics, both personal and professional, including the role of the media in shaping public perception of poverty and other complex, global issues. You can follow her on Twitter.

Featured image shows a local church in Rwanda building a new home for a family in their community. Photo by Sean Sheridan for World Relief.

Instant communications: A tool for disease prevention

By Firdaus Kharas

The development industry has been slow to grasp the fact that the world is at a new – and more connected – stage in history.

This age is characterised by:

  •  The possibility of reaching most people on the planet with two-way communications;
  • The increased ability to understand and overcome the barriers to communications that separate human beings, like culture, language and religion;
  • The diminishing control of the state and, relatedly, the empowerment of non-state actors and ordinary people.

These changes are creating new challenges and opportunities, and a greater need for us to better understand the barriers to and impacts of instant communications.

The combination of computers, mobile phones, tablets, television and radio has ensured that most people on this planet now have some means of direct access to information. Few people are unreachable if they want to be reached and their government allows it.

The International Telecommunications Union estimates there are nearly as many mobile phone subscriptions in the world as there are people – seven billion – with 69 percent of the population of Africa and 89 percent in Asia and the Pacific having mobile phones. Nearly three billion people, two thirds of whom come from developing countries, are online.

What development experts have not yet fully grasped is how this can directly and immediately improve people’s lives. One of the best examples is the ongoing Ebola crisis, which the international community was excruciatingly slow to respond to. When it did, it spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting doctors and nurses, both local and international, to treat those infected, while largely ignoring how to prevent people from getting infected in the first place.

Slowly, and too late for some, creative local people started making music and spraying graffiti in a desperate attempt to spread the vital information people needed. International organisations and local governments largely only created pamphlets and posters, despite large numbers of those contracting Ebola not being able to read or write.

What was needed, as Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) raised the alarm in March 2014, was swift creation of visual media to saturate Ebola-affected countries with information on how the virus is spread and how to avoid infection. Modern technology could have been used much more effectively as a means of prevention, long before over 20,000 people became infected with Ebola.

As Claudia Evers, MSF’s Ebola emergency coordinator in Guinea, said, “In the first nine months, if people had been given proper messages, all this could have been prevented.”

Media could have been disseminated in a variety of ways, including by mobile phones, television and radio; playing on Jumbotrons in stadiums and closed-circuit TV systems in hospitals; and via NGO personnel’s laptops, among other means. Such sustained, systematic use of repetitive messaging could have swiftly reached millions of West Africans.

In response to the lack of visual media available by August 2014, my South African colleague Brent Quinn and I created a short animated special called Ebola: A Poem For The Living. The film, in which a young Ebola patient advises his family on how to avoid becoming infected themselves and pleads with them to listen, confronts myths, superstitions and fear, stressing the importance of isolation of the person infected.

Liberia started playing the film on national television, many radio stations put it on air, and multiple churches and grassroots organisations showed it in their communities. A Nigerian foundation posted it on their Facebook page, where it swiftly drew over 354,000 views and nearly 2,700 “likes” and was shared more than 10,000 times. Interestingly, in Guinea, the most common way of distributing the video has been transferring it over Bluetooth between cell phones.

We initially only created English and French versions. But as the video spread, more and more organisations requested local-language versions. Volunteers offered to create voiceovers in new languages so their communities could receive the video’s message. Families brought their children to the recordings under very difficult circumstances during the height of the crisis, and radio stations opened their professional recording studios for free. West Africans’ extensive engagement with Ebola: A Poem for the Living suggests there was a thirst for a well-made video with a clear message on how to prevent Ebola. Yet even today, in some languages, this video is apparently the only visual media available on Ebola.

Mass communications need to become a more central component in development programming, especially in preventative medicine. It is not enough to plan for sending doctors to the next Ebola crisis after it breaks out. We need to better use modern communications to spread information about preventative measures, to ensure that fewer or no doctors are ultimately needed.

Firdaus Kharas is a Peabody Award-winning creator of media for social change and the Director of Chocolate Moose Media. You can follow him on Twitter. At this writing, 16 versions of Ebola: A Poem for the Living can be viewed and downloaded here.

Featured image is a still from Ebola: A Poem for the Living, courtesy of Chocolate Moose Media.

How to hire aid workers with disabilities

This is the final piece in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities.  Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2!

By Rebecca Berman

My previous two posts have discussed the lack of people with disabilities working in development and reasons this should change. Now, for the final step: how can we ensure more people with disabilities are included in the aid sector? While I’m not a human resources expert, these suggestions come from my experience in the hiring process.

1. If your organisation isn’t accessible, make it so!

As Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities states, signatories “recognize the importance of international cooperation and its promotion…Such measures could include… (a) Ensuring that international cooperation, including international development programmes, is inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities.” Publications like these are currently being disseminated that discuss how international programs can increase their accessibility:

As with any changes, it doesn’t happen overnight. But the plethora of resources available show it’s possible, and will be made possible, as long as people with disabilities are part of the process of increasing accessibility.

2. Budget for accessibility.

As budgeting concerns are sometimes a barrier to employment, disability accommodations must be considered in all organisations’ budgets. Grant makers should also encourage organisations to budget for accessibility in proposals, thus increasing the chances of programming including people with disabilities.

If accessibility is considered from the beginning, the cost factor won’t be a barrier to inclusion. It costs less to build an accessible building than to renovate an existing building to increase access, and the same is true for building websites. This concept can also be applied to development programming and budgeting.

I was once told by a large international affairs organisation that they couldn’t afford an interpreter, as it wasn’t in the budget, since “no one ever asked for an interpreter before”. I think situations like this tend to be self-perpetuating. If deaf people are discouraged from attending events, no one asks for an interpreter, and people don’t consider hiring interpreters. Like in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he they will come.”

3. Remove discriminatory “health criteria” for hiring staff.

From a human resources perspective, this one is easier said than done. As stigma towards disabilities run deep, many organisations have well-ingrained policies barring people with disabilities from employment, intentionally or unintentionally. As we move away from a medical model of disability and toward a social model, we shouldn’t be perpetuating “disability shaming” hiring policies.

Reconsider hiring policies that may be well-intended but come across as discriminatory, especially those that only view disability as a medical problem. This may not be obvious to people without knowledge on disability issues, and is a good way to include people with disabilities in changing policy.

I could not be medically cleared for employment with a development agency until I purchased new hearing aids, which had nothing to do with my ability to perform the job. Audism policies like this deal with the old standard of inability. Similar issues occur for people with psycho-social disabilities, people who are blind and people with other disabilities, who face pre-existing stigmas that prevent them from being active participants in the workforce. Or, they go into “hiding,” going to lengths to make sure their disability isn’t “discovered.” This sometimes happens with disabilities that are “hidden,” such as learning disabilities.

4. Practice what you preach.

You’d think this would go without saying, but you would be surprised. It’s easy to write policy statements such as “We do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability…” However, does your organisation truly embody the principles of inclusion?

Still not convinced? As Weh Yeoh wrote here on WhyDev, “There are over 1 billion people in the world who must become our priority.” I would like to add, people with disabilities must not just be a priority as recipients of aid, but also as active agents of change. Now is the time to get started. Nothing about us without us.

Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Featured image shows Australian volunteer Ben Clare, himself blind, training teachers and students to read in Braille in Samoa. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Pounding the pavement: DevQuest-ing your way into a development career

By Giles Dickenson-Jones

What I’d probably classify as my international development origin story was a short-term research project with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Essentially, during the year, the ADB advertises research and work they need done, which you (and hundreds of others) apply to do as part of their internship program.

In my case, I applied to help them develop a model to predict which roads would be impacted by climate change, so they could target where to do more detailed analysis or invest in climate proofing. And as comparatively boring as this origin story might sound, it crucially altered the way I viewed working in international development.

For one, I realised the development community is full of high achievers. People at the ADB were clever, good-looking and fluent in multiple languages. International development seemed to be as competitive as I’d been told.

But I also quickly realized that most people there were extremely approachable and happy to help. In fact, people came to speak to me, probably both because of how undeniably interesting road engineering is and because they guessed I had questions about building a career in international development.

And while this is partly a testament to the ADB placing a high value on their interns, I think it was also because many professionals there had, at one point, asked the same questions:

  • “Should I apply to an international organisation through the young professionals program?”
  • “Is it more important to network, or to apply to jobs through formal channels?”
  • “Is a Masters degree enough, or do I need a PhD?”
  • “How important is field experience? Where do I start?”
  • “Why do people love karaoke so much here?”

Some people thought that to be a professional economist, a PhD was a minimum. Others suggested accruing a good chunk of experience outside international organisations was the way to go, as it provided a wider view of the development sector. By and large, field experience was recommended – not for the purposes of “slumming it,” but to ensure you receive an adequate dose of humility through being exposed to the day-to-day challenges faced in communities being “developed.”

On the other hand, advice on how to acquire this experience varied, with some people working it into their PhD research, some undertaking internships in the field and others having studied overseas.

"One does not simply...get field experience." Meme by WhyDev.
“One does not simply…get field experience.” Meme by WhyDev.

Not only that, but the advice was (as one would expect) extremely different depending on people’s specific sector, as well as both where and when they started their career. International development seemed to be a field involving an intricate web of vertical and horizontal links between organisations, specialisations and regions.

After attending enough lunch events to give me a pronounced “networking belly,” a key theme, it seemed, was that there is no set path to getting your foot in the door. While persistence, international experience and a specialisation in a useful field will help, don’t expect the combination to necessarily result in an interview. In fact, whether you’re even considered might depend on where you fit with nationality quotas, whether other high-performers have come from your university and whether you’ve worked in-country before.

And this is what can make development seem like the career equivalent of getting a backstage pass – if you don’t fit the club’s demographic, you’d better know the bouncer.

While I’ll never be the kind of person who looks like he belongs backstage, I do realize how valuable my experience was in providing some clarity about where I might fit in the sector. But two years later, as I came to the end of my post-graduate studies in development, I also realised I’d been lucky. I had the right skills at the right time, and the right person in ADB’s human resources department had seen my application.

But not everyone gets a backstage pass. In fact, few do. Perhaps as a result of this, many people I was studying with seemed to be afflicted by professional paralysis. These feelings made a world of waning development funding all the more intimidating and uncertain, particularly when many had no idea where their skills might fit into the development sector.

And perhaps this was the most difficult thing for people I spoke with. How does a person make an informed choice about the value of doing an internship, earning a degree or even pursuing a career in development, without having a mentor to learn from or a sounding board to bounce ideas off?

Should I seek a role in the field or target an organisation that has offices in regions I’m interested in working in? Should I self-fund an internship in a United Nations field office or with an NGO, or am I better to target private consultancies?

And whilst analogous problems are faced in any field, the non-linear nature of development careers makes it that much harder, especially with there being relatively limited pieces of good advice from seasoned professionals.

Not only that, there isn’t a standard recipe for pursuing a career in development, meaning the “one size fits all” advice provided by many Human Resources departments and Career Services offices isn’t always helpful. Following their advice, newcomers risk forcing themselves into a cookie-cutter mould of selection criteria, pursuing a role they might not be passionate about or simply trying to accrue qualifications or experiences that in fact place them no closer to securing their first position.

And this is the first reason we started DevQuest: as a simple avenue for newcomers to learn from their peers, hopefully making those initial steps a little less daunting. But there is another reason we thought the idea was long-overdue: despite a trend towards unpaid internships and young professionals programs, there is nowhere a person can read reviews of development entry points. Unless you know somebody who has gone before you, it’s hard to know what to expect when taking those first steps in your development career.

After all, how can someone tell the difference between an entry-level position where they’ll be forced to restock printers and one where they’ll get the opportunity to use their experience and even learn some new skills?

And whilst some Human Resource departments suggest interns and young professionals should be honoured to have even been selected, we think that every hour someone with a PhD spends getting coffee is an hour lost for an organisation that needs their skills.

We also believe personal stories can provide a powerful way to help newcomers cross that first bridge into development, by providing clarity about what’s out there – and assurance that they’re not the first person to have put in twenty applications without receiving a single reply.

Giles Dickenson-Jones is a Coordinator at DevQuest. Currently, he is an economist working in Myanmar, where he is responsible for developing and advising on economic policy. Before this, he worked in a range of roles for NGOs, government and the private sector. Giles holds a Masters degree in Development from the University of Sydney and an Honours degree in Economics from the University of New England. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows a silhouette of a businessman running up steps. Photo from Pixabay.

4 benefits of hiring aid workers with disabilities

This is the second piece in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities. See part one, and check back next week for the final installment!

By Rebecca Berman

In the previous post, I discussed some of the reasons there are so few people with disabilities working in international development. Now, I want to talk about why this needs to change.

I would like to make a public call to development professionals – individuals, NGOs, government agencies – to not just include people with disabilities in programming, but to make hiring them a greater priority. It’s time to move past the “We need to include people with disabilities” rhetoric often heard at international conferences, and start asking, “How can people with disabilities be active participants as employers, diplomats and field workers in international programs?”

This way, people with disabilities aren’t just recipients of aid, but are active participants in the process of creating change.

These are some of the benefits of hiring aid workers with disabilities:

1. Visibility is everything.

In a development context, there are often discussions on hiring both international and local staff. This is due in part to the idea of cross-cultural exchange that both parties can contribute to. The same can be said for what happens when people with disabilities are involved in projects at a leadership level. As many people may not know about disability issues, the visibility of leadership can create learning opportunities and change existing stigmas towards disabilities.

In Tanzania, I am currently taking Kiswahili classes. Someone asked my teacher, “How can she learn?” in relation to my deafness. My colleague here (also with a disability) has been working on creating accessible infrastructure – a task in which the accuracy of accessibility may not have occurred without the expertise of a local person with a disability. Thus, visibility reduces the lack of knowledge that is often a barrier to disability employment and related programming.

2. Accessibility for one person means accessibility for all (or getting closer to “all”).

When an environment is made accessible (if it isn’t already), it enhances the environment for everyone, not just the person with a disability. A recent article detailed how image descriptions on websites benefit not just people who are blind or with low vision. They’re also useful to people with slow Internet connections, and they’re beneficial by calling attention to important aspects of the picture. The same can be said about “Easy to Read” versions of booklets, which also benefit people who aren’t fluent in the language or who want a condensed version of a longer text. Thus, accessibility has hidden benefits that people aren’t aware of until they’re exposed to the accessible materials (or the need for such).

3. Overcoming the socioeconomic effects of disability unemployment

The mindset of exclusion of people with disabilities from the workforce has damaging results that lead to economic losses. A 2014 project by the British Council reported that Pakistan is losing up to 6% of its annual GDP by excluding people with disabilities in multiple sectors. Since many areas interweave with employment (such as education, training and health), increased focus on inclusion in all sectors is not just good for “moral purposes,” but also serves a practical purpose in boosting the economic well being of an entire country.

A country’s labour market also faces losses due to exclusion. This has been seen in the labour markets of Bangladesh and Morocco, with $891 million and $1.1 billion lost per year, respectively.

4. Disability will soon be “the new gender” (if it’s not already).

With the Sustainable Development Goals and 159 countries ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), disability will also become more prominent in future development programming. The past decade has seen an increase in gender mainstreaming; I think the next decade will see more disability mainstreaming, along with a focus on other minority communities.

Like gender, disability is a cross-cutting issue. Disability is related to poverty, democracy, climate change, WASH, refugees, gender, and so on. For instance, women with disabilities are three times more likely than those without disabilities to experience sexual violence. Thus, there is a need to integrate women with disabilities in gender programming. The same can be said with poverty initiatives. Since people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty due to unemployment (and other factors), they should also be targeted in poverty-reduction programs. As they say, if you don’t have a disability in your lifetime, you will know someone who does.

Even if it isn’t your primary focus, issues concerning people with disabilities will inevitably appear in your field. Besides, aren’t we supposed to ensure that the greatest number of beneficiaries are reached by our programs?

Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Featured image shows volunteer Kate Nelson, herself deaf, working with colleagues in Fiji. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The glamorous double standards of celebrity humanitarianism

By Tom Jarman

No experience needed – Apply within.

Development is a strange field in that virtually any John, Dick or Mary can do it. This isn’t to suggest that such work is a walk in the park, far from it. Yet, a culture has emerged in which nearly anybody can be actively involved, regardless of experience, knowledge of poverty or even maturity level. This has enabled a booming voluntourism trade, a global movement of slacktivists and, (my personal favourite) a trend of celebrity humanitarianism. In fact, the only real “skill” you need to do humanitarian work is wealth (it also helps if you’re white), making celebrities some of the most skilled professionals in the business.

Our obsession with celebrity culture means those involved in aid work often provide the public with a window into the world of development. Yet, this window offers an extremely distorted view, in which poverty can be easily addressed by the mere presence of a celebrity. In this way, celebrities individually shoulder the burdens of development whilst the efforts of others, such as local doctors and human rights lawyers, are masked.

Worse still, the commitments of many celebrity humanitarians are part-time at best, and the gospel they preach is rife with double-standards.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Many celebrities view charity as something that can be taken lightly alongside other leisure activities, outlandish materialism, lucrative business deals and reality television. Take Kim Kardashian, who feels that visits to children at rehabilitation centres in Botswana are compatible with $750,000 Lamborghini birthday presents. Of course, Kim is an easy target, but even the more “sophisticated” humanitarians are fraught with contradictions. Whilst Angelina Jolie is renowned for her work as a humanitarian, some of her personal choices seem at odds with her pro-peoples stance. It’s strange that an anti-poverty campaigner is happy to spend $23,000 on facials, and is also opposed to a tax on the wealthy that’s intended to support the National Health Service.

But when it comes to flagrant hypocrisy, Scarlett Johansson really takes the biscuit. Followed by entire packet. Earlier this year, Johansson became embroiled in a scandal after joining forces with Israeli soft drink maker SodaStream, which controversially operated a factory in occupied Palestinian territory (though this is now due to close). This alliance was in direct conflict with her 7-year position a global ambassador for Oxfam, which opposes all trade with the occupied territories. Amazingly, Johansson refused to admit any wrongdoing, and instead ended her relationship with the organisation in favour of delicious bubbles; not to mention the delicious money to be made from the Super Bowl half-time show, which featured her SodaStream promo.

In her response to the public backlash that followed, Johansson insisted that she “never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance.” This illustrated her failure to grasp the fact that poverty is not a natural occurrence, but a fundamentally political phenomenon. Moreover, it highlighted an unwillingness to seriously commit to social change and a decision to instead adopt a cynical soft approach. The lack of conviction of many such celebrity endeavours is beautifully illustrated by Johansson, who made clear that, when push came to shove, profit came before people.

People don’t save people, rappers do.

Aside from the dubious commitments to development, celebrity humanitarianism is particularly problematic because of the messages it conveys about the players in developmental processes. In conflict zones such as Darfur (and any humanitarian situation), a myriad of local actors, such as doctors, human rights lawyers, grassroots activists and journalists, are doing the real work. Yet, these key figures are often displaced by crusading celebrities, who dominate the scene whilst everybody else takes a backseat. In doing so, development becomes very much an individualistic affair. In fact, many celebrities go one step further by personalising the whole experience. In many cases, the focus hones in on how a tearful celebrity is dealing with a crisis, whilst those affected by it disappear into background noise. In this clip, a young child who has escaped trafficking actually has to comfort a sobbing Lindsay Lohan. Priceless.

Bob Geldof infamously exemplified similar self-absorption when he hijacked the Make Poverty History Campaign in 2005. Originally, the campaign was meant to be a coalition of hundreds of NGOs from around the globe raising awareness on important issues of poverty. But instead it turned into a one-man band as the campaign became synonymous with Band Aid and the struggle of Saint Bob. What could have been an effective campaign was instead reduced to another song of “Powerful Giver” and “Grateful Receiver.” Band Aid: a broken record since 1984.

Goodwill hunting

Despite their shortcomings, celebrity ambassadors are an extremely popular tool for international NGOs, now as concerned with branding as the private sector. This is understandable, as such high-profile figures are excellent for garnering publicity and attracting funding. In light of Johansson’s SodaStream shambles, one wonders how organisations can choose an ambassador potentially bereft of integrity, but perhaps it boils down to style being more important than substance.

Style is certainly the order of the day for the UN Goodwill Ambassador programme, which has included the likes of Victoria Beckham for HIV/AIDS and Emma Watson for Women.   Not that I have any huge issue with the latter, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly confused that she was appointed Ambassador for Women around the same time Malala Yousafzi was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. Emotive though her speech was, human rights is certainly not Watson’s specialty, nor do I recall her taking a bullet for gender equality. Ultimately, it seems glamour trumps merit when it comes to brand ambassadors.

People may defend such celebrities, pointing out that “something is better than nothing”. However, I believe those who profess to be role models in society should be subject to scrutiny, because they often set a precedent that others follow. Those who wish to help tackle poverty must go further than field visits and photo ops – it will take engaging with the issues of poverty, challenging the policies of institutions that perpetuate it and, perhaps most importantly, reflecting on the ways lifestyle choices contribute to such issues. Let’s hope that in the future, the commitment of brand ambassadors goes deeper than the lens of camera.

Tom Jarman works for Zimele U.K., a small charity in Wales, and blogs about international development.

Featured image shows William Hague and Angelina Jolie visiting Nzolo Camp in the DRC. Photo from the G8 U.K. Presidency.


Where are the aid workers with disabilities?

This is the first in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities. Check back next week for the second installment!

By Rebecca Berman

Even though people with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population, with 80% living in developing countries, they are rarely part of the international development agenda (or haven’t been until recently). As disability issues are becoming more prominent – especially with post-2015 discussions – valuable opportunities exist for people with disabilities to take ownership and showcase their expertise. WhyDev has already featured articles about the lack of inclusion of people with disabilities in international development programming. However, there needs to be more discussion about another equally important issue.

Where are the people with disabilities who work in the development and humanitarian aid sectors?

Around the world, people with disabilities face higher unemployment rates than those without. Nearly 90% of people with disabilities in developing countries are unemployed, and 50 to 70% in developed countries. Why do people with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment? The obvious reason for this is due to pre-existing stigmas. Two others, particularly related to the development context, include:

“It’s too expensive.” / “We already have limited resources.”

Cost is often cited as a barrier for not hiring people with disabilities. In the development field, organisations are often working with limited resources and with an extra sense of urgency in using every last dollar.

But, according to estimates in UNICEF’s 2013 State of the World’s Children report, including people with disabilities costs less than 1% of a program’s total budget. In addition, a study in the U.S. found that two thirds of disability accommodations cost less than $500, with nearly a quarter at no cost. Examples of cost-free accommodation include adjusting tasks or schedules for maximum performance efficiency.

“The accommodations or medical care are not available overseas.”

People with disabilities are, unfortunately, used to inaccessibility. Thus, we have the knowledge and resources to create better systems and to increase accessibility. We know what works and what doesn’t. Many times, disabilities are barriers to joining the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps (or similar programs). In the end, if a person with a disability is applying, they will have the resources to overcome the anticipated barriers that the job entails. For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair would be more likely to know the best mechanisms for upkeep and repair in a development setting. The dialogue needs to center on how the person’s needs can be met on the job, rather than perpetuating the status quo by continually excluding those with disabilities and viewing disability as a medical condition (rather than utilising the modern social model of disability, which views it as being an effect of how society is organised, rather than the person’s “impairment” or “difference”).

The vicious cycle of inaccessibility and invisibility

I have seen firsthand the social capital cost of exclusion. For instance, international development conferences are often not interpreted. By not having a sign language interpreter, a segment of the community loses out on learning and networking opportunities. In addition, the “voice” of people with hearing loss is missing from international discussions, which perpetuates their invisible minority status. Similarly, language classes often do not provide interpreters, limiting deaf students’ opportunities for learning foreign languages, which are crucial in the aid sector.

The same can be said for discriminatory medical requirements that prevent people with disabilities and/or other medical conditions from participating in international jobs. These definitions and the link between disability and medicine/illness is a highly contentious one. Regardless of the person’s identity (as a “person with a disability,” a “person with a medical condition,” etc.), based on their “symptoms” or perceived inabilities, they are often lumped together in the eyes of human resources.

This is not to say that these policies should be thrown out entirely. Rather, we need to consider the actual reason for the exclusion, and not just accept this as the “norm.” For instance, is the reason because there are actually no accommodations that can be made, or is it because of pre-existing conceptions that exist in-country? If people with disabilities don’t get hired due to their “condition,” the condition stays invisible, and no real progress can be made in changing the situation for those with similar conditions.

In addition to my own experience as a Deaf person, there are plenty of stories about internal hiring and firing biases against people with disabilities and medical conditions, including from agencies and organisations that claim to support those with disabilities. Change like this is a complex evolving process, and the first step is creating visibility.

A Post-2015 World

Since 2007, 159 countries have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 27 focuses on employment and aims to “Promote the employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector through appropriate policies and measures, which may include affirmative action programs, incentives and other measures.” As we move towards more equity-based post-2015 goals, this will be important for all people, regardless of background.

Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Featured image shows multiple sign language interpreters for multiple languages at the EMPOWER Conference. Photo from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs.

6 ways to make the most of your time outside the development sector

By Jessie Date-Ampofo

What challenges do you face in starting a development career? You have to try to stand out amongst thousands of qualified candidates. Perhaps $15,000 is not pocketed away for your next international volunteer trip.

If you live in an international hub like D.C., Nairobi, or Bangkok, there are at least events and networking opportunities, so hopefully you can make connections and stay up-to-date.

But maybe, like me, you live in a place void of international development opportunities. As isolated as you feel, here are a few ways you can stay connected to the development sector when you can’t compare travel maps with your co-workers just yet.

1. Stay updated

The Internet is filled with resources to help you get started when field experience or a Master’s degree are out of reach. Make a list of bloggers and news sites that cover different aspects of development, and do your best to keep up. I use Last Week Today (Ed: Yes!!] and DAWNS Digest to stay current. Twitter is a gold mine of conversations (debates), links to relevant news and different perspectives. You can use the #globaldev hashtag to follow live updates.

Twitter badge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Twitter badge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Another way to get information is to start reading books and journal articles. Knowing what everyone is blogging and tweeting about is fruitful, but your own research is necessary if you need to form an opinion. Find books on the topic areas that interest you, or search for syllabi to see the readings assigned in different development courses. Then, start learning on your own. You’ll gain an understanding of the core issues and prominent viewpoints in development, and have a stronger foundation when you finally start working in the field.

2. Take an online course

Platforms like Coursera and edX offer free online courses on research methods, writing and even designing sanitation systems. Jeffrey Sachs has a Coursera class on sustainable development, and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have an edX one on global poverty. There are also tutorials available online for things like learning basic statistics, advancing Excel skills or studying foreign languages.

3. Get local

Of course, you don’t have to live in a ‘developing’ country to contribute to development. Shop consciously, and consider the effects your purchases will have on the environment and other people’s livelihoods.

You can also help people in need where you live through volunteering locally. From advocating for a bill to helping with an after-school program, volunteering can make a big impact in your community. Getting involved locally is especially important if you don’t plan to move somewhere with more development opportunities – improving your own community is a good way to invest your time.

Some development organisations also have remote volunteer options. Websites like UN Volunteers and Idealist post the latest volunteer opportunities, which also include remote positions.

Your community may not have development organisations, but there are probably other service groups available for gaining skills and some friendships. I joined my local Young Nonprofit Professionals Network chapter, and, though no other members are interested in development, the group provides management training and networking opportunities that will be useful in any work environment.

Similarly, if you’re currently working in another field, develop useful skills by finding tasks at work that relate to your future goals. For me, that means taking hold of social media and learning to manage budgets at my corporate job.

4. Network online

If getting local doesn’t fill your desire to connect with development enthusiasts, try networking online. Reach out to learn more about the sector and how to navigate your way into it. The willingness of professionals in the development sector to respond to e-mails and questions from a confused young professional has surprised me. Discussing your plans and questions with professionals gives you the opportunity to decide what area of the industry interests you. I have changed my direction a few times, and found some areas to improve (okay, I will learn statistics). Even when there are no development workers nearby, the marvelous Internet can quickly connect you to many people in the sector.

5. Make your own opportunities

You can also start something of your own–no, not an NGO. I started The Development Book Club after getting into a Master’s program and realising I couldn’t afford to go. Though disappointing, I realised waiting until grad school to learn was not in my best interest. I still plan to get a glittery diploma someday, but in the meantime, I’ve gained a small community of people with similar interests and covered a lot of material I should ideally know before grad school. Think about what part of development interests you, and see if you can create a community right where you are.

6. Be present

While dreaming of the day you get your big break, don’t forget to soak in where you are. Anxiety over the future won’t make it come any faster. Recognise that, if you can’t handle life where you are, it may not get better just because you leave or start something new. Use your time in limbo to work on becoming the person you want to be, professionally and personally.

Jessie Date-Ampofo studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Toronto and now lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Though not currently working in development, she volunteers locally and is reading through as many development books as she can.

Featured image is farmland overlooking Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Nigeria: What to do when wealth doesn’t mean development?

By Clare Cummings

Having just returned from a research trip to Nigeria, I’ve been struck (not for the first time) by just how difficult it is to make economic growth a force for development. It’s tempting to think that just having a slightly bigger public sector budget would really help, but Nigeria is a clear reminder that wealth alone does not guarantee better services, less poverty or more security.

Nigeria is known internationally as an economic powerhouse, a leading African economy attracting foreign investment and exporting natural resources. It’s also known to have a volatile political situation, extreme poverty and stark inequality. Despite its wealth, Nigeria rates poorly on human development indicators: it ranked 152 in the 2013 Human Development Report, just above Yemen. Compared to other, much poorer, African countries, Nigeria’s investment in public services is low and inequality in accessing services is very high. Why is this?

Why is economic growth failing to address poverty, and what can development organisations do about it?

First, it’s important not to think of Nigeria as one economy and one government. Nigeria is enormous, with a national population similar to that of Bangladesh or Brazil, and a federal system composed of 36 states and a federal capital. When taken as a whole, Nigeria has every challenge and opportunity going: natural resources, divided ethnic groups, nomadic populations, burgeoning cities, etc. Only by delving into the complexity of each state can you begin to understand what’s stopping Nigeria from transforming into a more stable country.

Map of Nigeria's states. From Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Nigeria’s states. From Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at government and politics at the state level, it becomes clearer why Nigeria’s economic growth does not guarantee better living standards. Nigerian state governments each have their own priorities, and these are often not poverty reduction but rather income generation. For example, while the governors of Northern states tend to prioritise agricultural productivity, transport is a political issue in Lagos, as the city’s congestion is a brake on the state economy. Nigerian politicians’ priorities are also swayed by those who financed their election victory. Public funds are often diverted to creating jobs for chosen individuals and awarding government contracts to particular companies. It’s only when a leader’s supporters have been sufficiently rewarded that broader development goals can be considered.

So, taking this as a starting point, how can development organisations, calling for more accountable governments and better services for the poor, persuade Nigerian state governments to change the way they work? Quite simply, development organisations need to learn to work politically. They need to understand the interests of leaders and the constraints of the political system, and find ways to encourage reform without directly threatening a leader’s source of control. Negotiation, brokering, persuasion, peer pressure and incentives are all tools in engaging in the politics of development. This is about taking a politically smart approach to development.

But what could this look like? How about the work the DFID-funded State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) is doing? SAVI works in a number of Nigerian states to support State Houses of Assembly, mass media and civil society organisations to take action on public problems. Rather than encouraging a battle between government and non-government groups, SAVI looks for ways they can cooperate, finding convergent interests in resolving shared problems, such as corruption in contractors’ building of public infrastructure.

Another inspiring approach to problem solving in Nigeria is Reboot’s work on public financial management. Financial management reforms are often found to be technically heavy, transplanted by international consultants and inappropriate to a country’s own context. Reboot, however, is taking a different approach, which they call “fiscal ethnography.” In this, a team of Nigerian and international staff are embedded in a state government for 18 months to observe how the government systems work, learn about the culture of the organisation and people working in it, and earn their partners’ trust. The knowledge they gain and the relationships they build then enable the Reboot team to tailor their tools and training to the specific needs and priorities of the state government.

Nigeria is certainly not unique in the challenges facing its public sector, and examples like these show that development organisations are beginning to learn that development is not about authority and money, but rather about brokering and negotiating change. Improving the practices of the development community may be just as difficult as improving the practices of state governments, but a movement for change has begun. Academics, practitioners, donors, and researchers are coming together to push for a new, politically savvy way of doing development: development that works.

Look here and here to learn more and join the debate!

Clare Cummings is a Research Officer for Politics and Governance at the Overseas Development Institute, where she works on public service delivery, justice, security and democratisation. She has previously conducted field research on the governance of slum resettlement in South India and worked as a researcher for a consortium of NGOs in Burundi. Claire holds a Masters of International Development from the University of Amsterdam. You can follow her on Twitter.

Featured image is an aerial view of Lagos. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.