Tag Archives: Aid work

"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.

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AidSource: Under new management (ours!)

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

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

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

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

***

With great power, comes great responsibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

52 pick-up lines that will win the heart of an aid worker

Even with the advent of online dating services and Tinder,  love in the field can be a battlefield. Isolation, gender imbalances and reruns have aid workers forlorn and looking for love. In all the wrong places. Dr. WhyDev is on hand to get you back on that horse with 52 pick-up lines that are sure to win the heart of any cynical aid worker.

  1. Are you an orphanage? Because I want to give you kids.
  2. You must be tired, because you’ve been running around the field all day.
  3. Let me be your logframe of love.
  4. The UN must be missing an M&E Officer, because you’ve been monitoring me all night.
  5. Hey baby, I’m going to make you MDG #9 and give you 100%-access to my love.
  6. This first date has been pretty successful so far. Now let’s bring it to scale.
  7. Your presence here is having a significant effect on me.
  8. Do you have foreign aid? Because I just fell into a poverty trap.
  9. I thought robust started with an ‘r’. Why does mine start with ‘u’?
  10. Do you live in a corn field? Because I’m stalking you.
  11. My love for you is like diarrhea – I just can’t hold it in.
  12. Are you a refugee? Because you must have fled from heaven.
  13. Do you believe in love at first sight, or would you like me to conduct an RCT with treatment and control groups?
  14. Hey, girl. I’m Mr. Human Right. Someone said you were looking for me?
  15. Can I borrow a micro-kiss? I promise I’ll give it right back with a lot of interest.
  16. I’m a disaster and need UN assistance right now. I need U. Now.
  17. Do you have any Cambodian/Kenyan/Haitian in you? Would you like some?
  18. Let me into your bed, and I’ll be your Haiyan all night long.
  19. This ain’t no participatory process baby, you’re coming home with me right now.
  20. I hope you’re not a monk ‘cos I’d love to go Tibet with you.
  21. I don’t need no Viagra to build my capacity. I’ve got you.
  22. You don’t need to worry about my sustainability. I can go all night.
  23. What’s your favourite position when you’re out in the field? Reverse Consultant or Missionary?  How about Emancipatory Style?
  24. Are you taking malaria prophylaxis? ‘Cos you’ve been Doxycycline through my mind all night long.
  25. Your body is a wonderland that I’m gonna need security clearance to evaluate.
  26. Damn, girl. If being sexy was a crime, you’d be taken to the ICC.
  27. Do you work for the World Food Programme? Because you got me starving for your attention.
  28. I Ecua-dor you!
  29. Do you have a staph infection, or are you just blushing since I walked in the room?
  30. Are you Australian? Because you meet all of my koala-fications.
  31. After one night with me, you’ll be going all Dambisa on me, screaming Moyo, Moyo, Moyo.
  32. Hey baby, are you from the Red Cross? Because I’ve got some sexual health humanitarian needs.
  33. Don’t worry, baby. The safe word is “Kony.”
  34. Hey baby, come take a shower with me, so we can do some participatory M&E on our WASH practices.
  35. There’s some serious flooding going on in the north of Thailand. I suggest we take shelter at my place and Bangkok.
  36. Oh come on, don’t knock me back. That’s hardly following inclusive best practices.
  37. I’d like to buy you some donuts, so we can see some real bottom-up development, if you know what I mean.
  38. Let’s go back to my place so you can investigate my low hanging fruit (deliberately ambiguous if spoken by a man or woman).
  39. Hey baby, you’re hitting all the right indicators. It’s time to take this to the field.
  40. I’m not looking to put a ring on it, baby. I’m all about the low overhead.
  41. You look like just the person to help me scale up what I’ve got going on down below.
  42. I think about you at least 50 times per diem.
  43. I couldn’t help but notice you at the shelter cluster meeting. Why don’t you take refuge at my place tonight?
  44. From the bottom up and the top down, you got development in all the right places.
  45. I hear there’s grant money out there for family planning. Let’s do a joint scoping mission.
  46. We’d better call the disaster response team, because I think I just felt the earth shake beneath me.
  47. Hey baby, I like my women like I like my anthropology. Thick and cultural.
  48. You’re so hot, I’m declaring you a crisis zone!
  49. Just like Bono, I want to push you closer and closer to The Edge.
  50. I’d be great in a hostage situation. There’s a lot I can do with my hands tied behind my back.
  51. We gotta stop with the whole Easterly-Sachs thing, and get more like Rigby-Yeoh.
  52. UNAIDS, UNOCHA, UNHCR. There’s something missing from all of this. UN me.

We acknowledge that there was a discussion on AidSource in 2012 that managed about 10 pick-up lines. We are building on this participatory framework developed by our colleagues, and adding 52 more for testing, benchmarking and evaluating in the field.

Haitians wait in line for water and humanitarian rations. Photo by David Gilkey/NPR.

Cognitive dissonance: An unspoken qualification for aid work?

An earlier version of this post appeared on Development Intern.

Wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while studying abroad in Senegal, I used a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locale you might be expecting from this blog) to get a dearly overdue haircut.

After a few wisecracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long, I was describing my work as an intern at Roots of Development. Deeply interested, the barber prodded me for more information. As he tamed my wild hair, I gave him what details I could – since I had taken the position only a few weeks prior, it was really not all that much. Seeking to describe the organisation fairly, and hoping to avoid industry jargon, I oversimplified and murmured something along the lines of, “We help poor people in a small town in Haiti escape poverty.”

I cringed as I repeated silently the organisation’s chosen discourse. “We work WITH communities who choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects. We support development without dependency.” Nonetheless, the clumsy summary I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake from the barber when I rose from his worn-in leather chair.

As he squeezed my hand, he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip and walked out.

The next time I peered into the mirror, I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise.

Working in development. By Ahmed El-Mezeny.
By Ahmed El-Mezeny

Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good. That said, the disturbing truth is that academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely negative.

Pondering these critiques, I stopped short of patting myself on the back.

In that moment of self-reflection (cue dramatic soap opera music and flashback effect), I recalled a particular conversation I’d had the previous spring in Senegal, with a group of five Peace Corps Volunteers serving there. They had diverse areas of work, two focusing on sustainable agriculture in rural areas and the other three partnering with small businesses in some of the country’s cities. A curious undergrad with similar interests, I used the opportunity to inquire about the Peace Corps experience, eyeing it as a potential post-grad plan.

“Do you feel as though you are getting a good cultural experience? Are you learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society?” I asked.

They replied with a resounding yes. “The most powerful cultural experience of my life,” answered one. “It’s an opportunity like no other to spend some time in a country I might otherwise never visit,” said another.

I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received. “Do you think you are making a difference here?”

A long silence followed, broken at last by a muffled, “Well…” Each articulated to me a well-processed answer, indicating it was a question they had received prior or, even more likely, frequently asked themselves. No answer was absolute. Soft, uneasy yes’s and very tentative no’s. Obviously, like me, they had gazed uneasily into the mirror a few times. Like most development practitioners, the Peace Corps Volunteers had chosen this line of work with a healthy dose of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance, or at least developed it during their time in the field.

A great wealth of criticism has come from professional, academic and institutional circles in the development community, forming a chorus of impassioned, and persuasive, condemnation. The age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone.

Most practitioners know aid can be problematic and that development rhetoric tends to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. They know the minimal funds that emerge from the “developed” world have a tinge of political interest or a bitter ideological after taste. Most are well-versed in development theory and criticism, having read books like The White Man’s Burden, Dead Aid and The Anti-Politics Machine.

Yet, despite their knowledge and concerns, most practitioners will, from time to time, be lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity. Many – like me, following that overdue haircut, and my Peace Corps buddies in Senegal – will take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if they deserve such accolades.

Though I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, I’ve yet to reach a satisfying conclusion. I’m still not sure how to continue on as a practitioner without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. So instead of leaving you with some profound realization, I’ll end with a question to older, wiser (just take the compliment) development practitioners.

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?

I hope dearly it’s more than the dual tides of time and apathy that have allowed the leaders of the field to remain there for a decade, or a few.

[Check back next week for a follow-up post featuring responses to these questions from several experienced development practitioners (and some of your favourite aid bloggers).]

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Will the real humanitarians please stand up?

May I have your attention please?

155. The number of aid workers killed in 2013.

134. The number of aid workers kidnapped in 2013.

79. The number of aid workers who have already died in 2014.

@morealtitude has analysed the trends in security, and finds that between 2000 and 2013, 82% of aid worker fatalities were among national staff. International staff are at a higher risk of being kidnapped in a hostile environment, as the number of international aid workers kidnapped since 2000 has risen 1,218%. The security threat is largely confined to five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria.

May I have your attention please?

Global Citizen, to mark World Humanitarian Day last week, released a link-bait list highlighting “30 humanitarians making zero poverty by 2030 possible.” It is an unusual list to say the least. The author, Michael Wilson, claims it’s in no particular order. However, Xi Jinping and Li Ruogu come in at #2 and #4 respectively. Xi Jinping is the successor to Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (not ‘President’). Xi’s leadership will focus on slower growth rates, social stresses and domestic political issues.

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China
Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

Li Ruogu heads the Export-Import Bank of China. Over the next 10 years, China will provide US$1 trillion of financing to the African continent, 70-80% of which will be provided by the Exim Bank. The region also received over 50% of China’s foreign aid allocation between 2010 and 2012. Both men’s efforts may contribute to making zero poverty by 2030 possible, but their intentions, motivations and goals are just as important.

The Communist Party of China’s “number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security.” That is, to remain in power. (Read Richard McGregor’s The Party for the clearest insight into how the government and Communist party function.)

Will the real humanitarian please stand up?

The term ‘humanitarian’ is quaint. It is an adjective that can qualify a noun or noun phrase – “The humanitarian situation in South Sudan is dire.” It is also a noun denoting a person – “The job of a humanitarian is exhausting.” Urban Dictionary describes a humanitarian as, “Someone very generous, and dedicated to the healing of the world. Or, if you want, someone who gives a shit about the planet.” Or, as one commenter cheekily replied, “someone who only eats vegans.”

The first humanitarian was the person who brought fire to life, and spent the rest of his/her life building the capacity of others to make fire.  In everyday dictionary-speak, it refers to a concern with seeking or promoting human welfare.  The Global Citizens’ 30 can all squeeze under this leaky roof.  Indeed, insurance salespeople can too.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s often quoted question asks, “What are you doing for others?”

The 30 are doing lots, but we have to ask how and why are they doing for the welfare of others. How and why do they give a shit about other people and the planet?

I repeat, will the real humanitarian please stand up?

This list is also in no particular order. It was made on the basis of identifying a small sample of those who embody the how and why of being humanitarian. That is, they exemplify how to promote human welfare and demonstrate a clear “why” for doing so, usually justice, humility and compassion.  Most importantly, they give a shit. Please add your contributions in the comments.

1. Jina Moore is a compassionate journalist covering women’s issues in African countries right now for mainstream media. Her narrative is at the same time intellectual and emotionally engaging. She has a deep respect for the people she writes about and does not steal their stories or take away their rights and dignity. These kinds of narratives are important, especially in humanitarian crises. The world needs more bridge builders like Jina.

2. Saaed Wame founded Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) of Malawi in 1996 with zero dollars, a heart for children facing the difficulties he had faced as a child and a vision for his community. Today, NACC has a US$100,000 annual budget, operating in 400+ villages in four districts in southern Malawi with 5,000 active volunteers. NACC has grown from strength to strength, adding programs and deepening its presence at the community level over the past 15 years. Saaed exhibits spirit, confidence and connectedness that are evident throughout NACC’s programs.

3. Mulugeta Gebru, founder of Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organization (JeCCDO), is a man of undying vision and perseverance. Grassroots-based organisations are part of the social fabric of the community in which children live and grow. When violence breaks out, a flood hits, or a case of abuse is discovered, committed people at the community level are the ones who snap into action to make sure kids are safe and cared for. This is why Mulugeta closed down JeCCDO’s orphanages that were operating across Ethiopia in favour of community-based care in 1996.

4. Roum Phearom’s organisation, Capacity Building for Disability Cooperation (CABDICO), is facing a funding crisis and is only able to pay her $200 a month. Recently, she was offered another job that would see her salary double. She turned it down. “I refused the job that paid more because I have had the opportunity to learn about speech therapy. That convinced me to stay.” Phearom works with children with disabilities in Cambodia, tirelessly visiting their homes each day to help them walk, talk and go to school. She has given up opportunities elsewhere to do the thing she loves the most, support children with disabilities to have a bright future.

5. The polio vaccination teams in Pakistan are known as the Lady Health Workers (LHW). It is a team of over 100,000 community workers, who have been delivering health services across Pakistan since 1994. More than 30 have been killed in the past two years alone, targeted by anti-government groups. They risk their lives each day for less than $5 a day. Despite the challenges of their work, research has shown that households served by LHW are 15 percentage points more likely to have children under the age of 3 immunised.

6. Kon Karapanagiotidis is the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). I am also his fanboy. With more than 95% of its funding coming from the community and philanthropy, the centre is able to operate as a true advocate and firm voice for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. It also provides numerous services to over 1,200 asylum seekers, through the work of 30-odd staff and 800+ volunteers. Kon is the antithesis of “why bother?” and hopeslessness. I believe he embodies what it is to be a humanitarian: service, compassion, humility, passion and unwavering addiction to justice.

We’re gonna have a problem here if we keep fetishising and praising the efforts of the rich and powerful, and overlook the everyday service and commitment of real humanitarians.

Thank you to Weh Yeoh, Linda Raftree and Jennifer Lentfer for their recommendations.

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What are the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes?

The WhyDev team (minus a couple of internationals) went out for karaoke last Friday night in Melbourne. This is not an unusual event for us; three team members have lived in China and performed karaoke during the middle of the day, stone-cold sober with work colleagues. Karaoke is to us what water is to fish. However, what was unusual was our song selection. Missing were many aid work classics. (And some not-so-classics.)

That got us thinking – what are the classic aid worker songs that define how we see the world and our role in it?

We have our own ideas, but we’d love to compile a playlist of the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes through crowdsourcing. We’ve chosen a shortlist. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, Toto’s “Africa” features. Yes, you can enter your own choice. You get five picks. Like Indiana Jones in Last Crusade, choose wisely.

Please take this as seriously as you like. The poll will be open for one week. We will then tally the results and post the definitive, annotated guide to the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes next week. Continue reading

Stress vs Burnout

Burnout and its causes

Burnout is a problem many aid workers face. In this post, psychologist and organisational consultant Alessandra Pigni discusses the causes of burnout and how it differs from stress or PTSD. A follow-up post will appear next week and will look at what (aid) organisations can do to prevent burnout.

Why does burnout, rather than PTSD, seem to be more common among aid workers?

We need to make a clear distinction between the psychological conditions aid workers may experience following traumatic events, and the distress they experience in their day-to-day work. Both can lead to psycho-somatic suffering, but the causes and remedies are different. Aid workers do not experience burnout following the exposure to a traumatic event, but they may experience trauma-related conditions including (but not exclusively) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead burnout is related to a way of working and to a particular type of organisational culture that I shall describe.

Research suggests that 5% to 10% of aid workers suffer from PTSD. Between 30% and 50% suffer from moderate to severe levels of emotional distress, and 40% are at high risk of burnout. What we need to understand is that given adequate support, most people have the strength and resilience to overcome a traumatic episode without developing PTSD.

This means that aid organisations need to provide tailored support to those professionals who may need it, offering a range of options and not exclusively trauma counselling. The work of trauma therapist Babette Rothschild is excellent if we want to understand PTSD: the author warns us about avoiding the common mistake of thinking that exposure to a traumatic event equals PTSD, and consequently rushing people into counselling.

Burnout is a different issue and unlike PTSD it is a widespread problem across the aid sector. Burnout is a “man-made” condition over which individuals and mostly organisations have a high degree of control. As burnout experts Prof Maslach and Leiter illustrate, burnout is a condition caused by being exposed to an unhealthy work environment, meaning the internal organisational environment.

So while people need to figure out what they can do on an individual level to prevent burnout and, for example, keep their perfectionism and workaholism in check, change will be limited without a shift in organisational thinking.

Aid workers have a pretty good idea of the challenges that they will face in a humanitarian/developing context: power cuts, at times violent and insecure surroundings, gunshots, checkpoints, etc. Place a group of aid workers around a table and you can almost feel that there is a sort of pride in how much they have endured, they always have a story to tell about showering out of a bucket and having to negotiate with the rebels the access to remote areas!

While these though conditions are far from easy, aid workers make an informed career choice. They know that these ‘rough edges’ come with a job that they expect to be meaningful, and full of action, a job that will allow them to experience the world, while being part of a community of people driven by common values. This is where burnout comes in because often these idealised expectations are betrayed by reality.

In order to understand how burnout is not simply a stress problem over which a single individual can have full control, let me go back to the research by Maslach and Leiter who clarify that “while most people think job burnout is just a matter of working too hard, that’s not necessarily true.”

Stress is to burnout what feeling a little blue is to clinical depression. “Burnout is when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.” The authors list six areas that can result in burnout:

  1. work overload;
  2. lack of control over the work;
  3. insufficient rewards;
  4. workplace community problems, such as incivility and a lack of support among co-workers;
  5. a lack of fairness, such as inequality of pay, promotions or workload;
  6. and a conflict between one’s personal values and the requirements of a job.
Dilbert_WorkLife
If this sounds familiar, that is a bad sign.

Do you recognise any of these traits in your organisation?

This evidence-based understanding of burnout and of its key features is essential to appreciate how this condition is an organisational challenge. Most aid workers do not simply overwork, they may also be immersed in an organisational culture that resembles the points highlighted by Leiter and Maslach. It is not unusual for aid workers to experience a sort of ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what they thought it was going to be and what it is.

This gap between expectations and reality, the mismatch between official mission statements and work on the ground, a defensive culture of overwork and sacrifice, and the lack of rewards and fairness is what leads aid workers to burnout. Burnout feels like falling out of love with your job.

If you are just tired, a break and some self-care will do. Burnout requires a different kind of approach, and the best approach is preventing it at the organisational level by strengthening a supportive and respectful work environment.

[Ed. note – participants in WhyDev’s pilot peer coaching program indicated a range of benefits to participating in the program, including feeling less stressed and isolated. We’re currently fundraising to launch DevPeers, the next iteration of this program. 

For more information and to support our campaign, visit http://www.startsomegood.com/devpeers.]

resilience

Are aid workers more ‘maladjusted’ than others?

Are aid workers more ‘maladjusted’ than others – or does our work just make our maladjustments more obvious?

“According to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a staggering 50% of aid workers could be classified as non-psychotic psychiatric cases. The authors offer three possible reasons for the result, the third being the most intriguing: the tendency of maladjusted individuals to choose to become aid workers.” (Brendan Rigby, WhyDev)

I first came across this notion of “maladjustment” many years ago in a study on what motivates international volunteers, and I was curious – was it my “issues” that motivated me into volunteering and aid work?  Certainly I felt like the choices I was making brought out my insecurities, but on the other hand everyone else I knew had their own issues, and most of those people hadn’t gone into aid work.

As I considered this question further in subsequent years it also occurred to me that the aid worker experience often cuts quickly through the superficial.  Any demons, vulnerabilities or insecurities you have will be exposed by the emotional, physical and intellectual pressure-cooker of aid work – particularly humanitarian work.

The authors of the paper referenced above speculated that their results could be explained by “a high incidence of people with psychological problems choosing to become aid workers.”  But the study did not compare pre- and post-mission data to check this hypothesis or provide other evidence to support it.  Another well-known study that did involve longitudinal research found on the other hand that aid workers with experience of severe childhood stress seemed less at risk, and postulated that this may be because their earlier experiences had helped them develop more effective coping strategies. This is intriguing, because exposure to early life stress is often considered to predispose a person to greater vulnerability later in life, not less.

So I was very interested to hear psychologist Carla Uriarte’s opinion about this.  She has been working in aid worker psychosocial health for more than a decade and in a recent interview about a new aid worker resilience training program she is co-teaching for the Garrison Institute in New York, she said:

“I’ve been intensively working with aid workers for the last eight years. Many aid workers, from a general perspective, show an exceptionally good resilience capacity.  I’ve worked with people who have better personal coping mechanisms than the majority of people, but they are confronted with very extreme experiences, which overwhelm in some cases, some instances, some moments, those coping resources.  [I think it is also true that] very stressful experiences bring out our vulnerabilities in a more clear way.”

She points out that when you put all of these individual cases together, the effect intensifies: “Now when you’re working with a team of people who don’t know you, and are trying to cope with their own difficulties, then it’s a lot more difficult for those issues to calm themselves.  So I think what happens is they get more acute.”

In her chapter on aid worker safety and security in the anthology Workplace Violence, Ros Thomas draws on research done with mental health workers to assert that: “…when aid workers experience trauma it brings to the surface uncertainties, fear and vulnerability in colleagues who have contact with them.”

But the same characteristics that the stresses of aid work bring to the fore may also motivate and equip people to do the work.  Aid workers “seek adventure, travel and to engage in something different,” says Thomas, but they are also “motivated by a wish to engage in meaningful activities that contribute to securing a better life for those in distress.” The constant change and adaptation aid work demands are known to be stressful, Uriarte argues, but they also attract people to it.  Other research indicates a strong sense of empathy often motivates people to get involved in helping or caregiving work, even while potentially making them more vulnerable to empathic distress.

So it does seem fair to suggest that rather than being less well-adjusted than the general population, we aid workers are equally maladjusted, but have chosen a line of work that makes it harder to mask or ignore our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

If that’s true, the relevant question becomes: how do we maximise the way the “maladjustments” each of us brings to aid work make us particularly suited for it, while minimising the negative consequences?

As Uriarte points out, some claim people who choose to train as psychologists are similarly maladjusted.  But unlike aid workers, the connection between the individual’s own process and the work he/she does with others is explicitly recognized in the training of psychologists and social workers.   They’re required to maintain some kind of peer supervision and self-reflection process as part of their professional practice.

What might happen if that also applied to aid work?  The need for continuing “organisational learning” through reflection is a given (though not necessarily done well) in humanitarian and development best practice.  Systematic practice of reflection and learning at the individual level, going beyond the traditional work-output focus of an aid worker’s performance appraisal, might be equally valuable.

WhyDev piloted a Peer Coaching program for aid workers last year with a lot of success and is currently fundraising to launch a refined version of DevPeers.  For me yoga and meditation have been key in the process of self-reflection at both a mental and physical level and I recently partnered with Marianne Elliott to offer an online yoga course ’30 Days of Yoga’ targeted for Aid Workers.  The Contemplative Based Resilience Training offered by the Garrison Institute, for which Uriarte is part of an expert faculty, brings together meditation and yoga-based practices with psychosocial education in a multi-faceted resilience training program.

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Perceptions and realities of the aid industry: A view from inside

The post was first published here.

Our survey of aid workers (read:  anyone who’s ever somehow been part of the aid industry, ever) has been live for about one week, now. We’re seeing some interesting patterns begin to emerge out of the quantitative portions, and we’re getting some really interesting responses from you in the open-ended boxes. Thank you, and please keep those responses coming!

One piece of the picture of who you are (and me, too. I’m an aid worker), which I find particularly interesting, is what’s starting to emerge from multiple-choice questions #44 and #46, and “elaborate your thoughts” open-ended answer boxes which accompany them both. In their entirety, these two questions read:

Question 44: Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding those few -but tragic- that will die in service, which below do you think is the *most* common reason why humanitarian aid workers choose to leave this line of work?

Question 46: Many (most?) humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. Excluding the unlikely and tragic possibility that you will die in service, if you do so by choice which below do you think will be *your* reason for leaving this line of work?

So, basically, why do you think most people leave the aid industry? And then why do you think you will eventually leave?

Bear in mind that we’re not anywhere near closing the survey, so this obviously preliminary analysis could (and very possibly will) change before we’re all done. But one week in, here’s how you answered (screenshots directly from Survey Monkey):

Responses to why *others* leave the aid sector
(Responses to why *others* are likely to leave the aid sector).

 

responses to why *you* are likely to leave the aid sector.

(Responses to why *you* are likely to leave the aid sector).

My quick read-outs:

Retirement & Leave the Sector: It looks as if it’s fairly common to assume is that you will all eventually retire. There appear to be similarly strong assumptions around simply leaving the sector, say, for work in another industry. My (again, very initial) takeaway here is that this probably points to the reality that we increasingly see work in the aid sector as exactly that: work.

Maybe we work somewhere in the aid industry until we retire. This assumes that we will retire, which assumes some sort of retirement planning, which in turn assumes we’re somehow compensated enough to enable an actual retirement. There will come a time when we say, “okay, I’m done. I going to stop making the world better, and just play golf…”

Leaving the sector, while pretty broad and encompassing, also suggests that many of us see this all as “just another job.” Other studies have shown that it is common for people to shift industries several times over the course of an adult working lifetime. The aid industry is one of those industries, like many others, that people increasingly cycle through, as one option among many.

Termination: It was very interesting to see that almost none of you view termination (being fired) as much of a possibility, either for others (0.34%), or for yourselves (o.69%). Many elaborated this in the open-ended box following question #48 (“what do you think is the most common reason humanitarian workers are fired?”). In the words of one respondent, simply:

“Overall, I think you have to try pretty hard to get fired.”

Yep. This rings true, based on my experience. Outright termination is fairly rare.

Burnout & Disillusionment: The most interesting for me, personally, were the results that came out of Burnout and Disillusionment. Look at the tables above. Almost as many of you see disillusionment as almost as common a reason as retirement for others to leave the aid industry.

Tabulating views on “others” versus “you” were interesting as well. Based on results so far, many of you see others as more likely to leave because of disillusionment than you, yourself (others, 19.32%; self, 16.96%). This contrast is even more marked if we look at “burnout.” More of you chose burnout as the reason for others leaving the sector than any other option (27.8%), but “termination” was the only option with fewer choices than burnout as the reason why you would likely leave (9.69%).

My read: Basically we see others as burnt-out and disillusioned, or at least highly at-risk, while we still see ourselves as less so, or perhaps somehow immune. What does it mean? I’m not sure—still pondering. There’s a level at which it feels as if many of us have a generally negative view of our sector, yet remain basically optimistic (or maybe wishful) ourselves.

 

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments thread below this post. You can also tweet to@tarcaro and @talesfromthhood with the hashtag #humsurvey. Be sure to follow my own snapshots of the #humsurvey results and discuss me and other respondents in more or less real time over on my Facebook page.

And of course, be sure to get as many as possible of your aid industry friends to take the survey.