Not so long ago, I was wondering about the interaction between my disability and the career I’m starting in international development. I don’t feel discriminated against; on the contrary, I feel very privileged working in Bangladesh in an international position. Plus, I’m white, European and male, and I studied at some fancy universities. Continue reading There are more aid workers with disabilities than you think→
Last month (in honour of our 500th blog post!), we launched a new feature called Why We Dev, which gives you a chance to ask all your questions to a special guest.
Our first guest is J. (aka, Tales from the Hood), veteran aid worker, well-known pseudonymous blogger and indie author. Today’s post is the final installment of J.’s answers to your questions, focusing on his experiences and writing (see part 1 on volunteering and effective aid and part 2 on a bunch of other topics).
There seems to be two J.’s: the crusty, old-school “stop-reinventing-the-wheel” J., and the hopeful “there-must-be-a-better-way” J. If you were you, knowing what you know now but 20-odd years younger, which side of your personality would you nurture more, and why?Continue reading Why We Dev with J. (part 3): Let’s get personal→
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 highlycontentious 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.
First, a note from the founders of AidSource (J., Alanna Shaikh & ShotgunShack):
The founders and owners of AidSource: The Humanitarian Social Networkwould like to announce that, effective immediately, AidSourcewill 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 AidSourceinto 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.
What does it take to be an effective and happy aid worker, not just for a few intense months or years, but over a lifetime?
A recent white paper published by the Garrison Institute on “The Human Dimensions of Resilience” demonstrates how certain contemplative practices can strengthen personal resilience. Integrating findings from more than 280 interdisciplinary research studies, the paper argues that under the right conditions, personal resilience can also be contagious.
In other words, strengthening one’s own resilience and health could be part of a chain reaction that leads to colleagues and peers being more resilient and healthy.
So what, you may ask, are “contemplative practices,” exactly? The paper defines them as “a collection of methods intended to systematically train the mind and body,” and it specifically discusses meditation and yoga as the practices that have been most extensively researched. A broader description of contemplative practices from The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website includes as examples “various forms of meditation, focused thought, time in nature, writing, contemplative arts, and contemplative movement.”
This is not such a radically new idea. Weh Yeoh recently talked about the transformative effect of “making time to make myself a cup of tea and stare out the window” and practising gratitude. Marianne Elliott, author of Zen Under Fire and co-creator of 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers, has talked about how yoga helped her remain sane in Kabul. Alessandra Pigni, psychologist, organisational consultant and author of the blog Mindfulnext, often writes about how mindfulness, empathy and emotional intelligence are essential to effective aid work and healthy aid workers.
Even if we haven’t thought of them as contemplative, the value of such practices is known to many of us. But the Garrison Institute White Paper is the first time (as far as I know) that a comprehensive scientific argument has been published to explain why and how they help aid workers be more resilient in the face of stress.
“Resilience” is a buzzword often invoked in relation to emergency preparedness and response, or perhaps environmental work. But what does it mean to talk about personal resilience in aid workers? The paper notes that “…individuals considered to possess resilience have a greater capacity to endure and even thrive in response to challenging circumstances.” It frames resilience not just as getting back to baseline, but adapting and thriving, in effect turning stress and trauma into material for positive growth.
The authors list Ten Resilience Traits, including such things as helping others (motivated by empathy and compassion), self-awareness, effective problem-solving skills and seeking help. Those familiar with Daniel Goleman and Emotional Intelligence will recognize these themes.
The paper then identifies five dimensions through which these Ten Resilience Traits can be influenced: changing the way we relate to others; modifying brain processes and structures; mediating our physiological responses to stress (e.g., the flooding of cortisol and adrenaline in your system, muscle tension, and chronic shallow breathing); even gene expression. It cites a wide range of scientific research to explain how contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga work on each of these fronts.
The paper also features appendices on “Resilience and Stress” and “Modeling Community Resilience,” which are less technical and especially useful for aid workers. If like me you work in community resilience programming, the second appendix may be of particular interest. It maps models of ecosystem resilience onto human communities (such as communities of aid workers), and draws on epidemiology to describe “the spread of resilient behaviours in social networks.”
The upshot is that there’s a solid scientific basis for how and why things like meditation, yoga and gratitude practices can help us manage the challenges of aid work in a healthier and more constructive way, and how they can contribute to training designed to strengthen resilience traits. What makes this even more interesting to me is the idea of resilience spreading through a kind of positive social contagion. If, as the white paper argues, strengthening personal resilience can impact other people, and affect organisations and communities, then investing in resilience training could have exponential returns.
The Garrison Institute offers a Contemplative Based Resilience Training program for aid workers based on the science presented in the white paper. The Institute is conducting further research on the effectiveness of contemplative practices in improving aid worker psychosocial resilience over time. If this and other studies underway corroborate the findings of the white paper, it will help bolster the argument for aid agencies to adopt resilience training more widely, and make it a professional development standard in the future.
The full white paper can be downloaded free of charge from the Garrison Institute website here.
Featured image is Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park – San Francisco, California. Photo from Wikimedia.
This post is the second in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s recent piece on cognitive dissonance. Stay tuned as the conversation continues, and share your own thoughts in the comments.
By Erol Yayboke
Jonathan’s post on the “cognitive dissonance” required to work in development aid concludes with a series of broad questions that can loosely be translated into: how do you (i.e. “older, wiser” development practitioners) sleep at night? Though not an entirely fair translation, his broader aim to question the “development industry” is well taken. Most of us have had similarly awkward encounters with our barbers, taxi drivers and cousins that left us wondering whether we deserved such praise.
Before offering my “sage” responses to the valid questions every development aid worker should ask of him/herself and others, there are a couple points I’d like to make about the arguments that led up to Jonathan’s questions.
First, the “development industry” is a totally theoretical construct that includes countless non-profit, public, private and multi-lateral players, all with competing resources and agendas. We (including yours truly) overuse and abuse it regularly. Also, “development” as presented in the article is heavily skewed towards how “we in the West” have an impact on “those in the rest.” It’s important to note that part of the complexity of development is the fact that this West-centric viewpoint is simultaneously paternalistic and not entirely accurate.
Employees at India’s Ministry of Environment don’t see themselves as working in “development” per se; much like my friend at the U.S. Department of Energy, they’re working within the bureaucracy to improve their country. In other words, there is simply no utopian singular entity called “development” – it is a complex web that doesn’t even begin to understand itself (just ask any UN OCHA employee).
In spite of this, some groups have shown remarkable successes in health, food security and generally getting people to care about things outside their own communities (which I posit is better than the isolationist alternative).
I recommend focusing on criticising and offering improvements to specific sectors and programs based on concrete evidence, as opposed to chastising “development” as a whole.
Second, some of Jonathan’s article relies on one unfortunate tacit assumption: that the Peace Corps is a “development” organisation. Despite claiming that it “[sends] Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world” and work towards “sustainable change,” at best, the Peace Corps is a diplomatic ideal; it was arguably set up as such by Kennedy during the Cold War.
An admirable service organization that has undoubtedly “helped people build better lives,” Peace Corps is nonetheless one whereby, in practice, (mostly) young, energetic, bright Americans who often lack relevant technical skills (how many of us have met a health volunteer who didn’t know First Aid?) ingratiate themselves to communities that would otherwise probably never meet such aliens (double entendre intended).
More realistically (and acknowledged by the organisation itself), Peace Corps service is a time for self-discovery – as was the case for the volunteers Jonathan knew in Senegal – a time for Americans themselves to grow in compassion, worldliness and resilience. All noble outcomes, none of which have anything to do with “development.”
Now to the “sage wisdom.”
On reconciling the “industry’s flaws” with my own professional identity, I’d say that we live in a flawed world where nothing is ever perfect. Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us. As professionals, we should constantly be in pursuit of more efficiency, effectiveness and impact. It’s important to establish meaningful metrics for your project (NGO, sector, industry, etc.) and for yourself, referring to – and learning from – them often.
I’m a believer in having opinions based on evidence and in the value of real, long-term, first-hand experience topped with healthy doses of skepticism (of which Jonathan lacks not). Ultimately though, we all must strive to first, do no harm – even the best of intentions have the potential for unintended consequences.
On recognising problems while continuing to work in this field, I’d challenge Jonathan to find a profession that does not toil with this (somewhat existential) question.
To most (in our “industry” at least) who look hard enough, the systemic flaws are readily apparent and littered with political, financial and sometimes even nefarious roadblocks. The challenge (and great reward if you succeed) is to find solutions that are politically supportable, administratively feasible and technically correct. If you can manage to do that, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and scale up!
As for motivation on those ever-present tough days where doubt creeps in? This is a very personal struggle that we all face at points, even while working on the most impactful of projects. Am I truly doing no harm? Am I actually “making a difference?” Alas, there is usually no black and white answer; there rarely is in life. However, the pursuit of impact should drive us to better understand and continually refine our efforts.
This desire for more evidence has even spawned a research-based “industry within an industry” (J-PAL, IPA, EPoD, Evidence Action, etc.) whereby some of the smartest people on the planet (full disclosure: though I work for one of these organisations, I am not one of said geniuses) study the most intransigent development issues. We’re learning more about our impact than ever before.
So, for an inquisitive mind like Jonathan’s, never was there a better time to lace on the boots and head to Busia. Along the way, try not to get overwhelmed with the scope and magnitude of the problems, but to break them into smaller, much more manageable (and ideally measurable) pieces.
My last bit of advice for Jonathan is to accept his barber’s praise. He chose to work in development in order to make a difference, something at which he will undoubtedly get better over the course of his career, as the “dual tides” of experience and healthy scepticism drive him towards greater impact. Jonathan – feel good about what you’ve done, and use the praise as motivation to improve the aid world, or whatever small corner of it you decide to call home.
Erol Yayboke is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can check our his blog and follow him on Twitter. (Erol’s views are his own and do not represent the opinions of these or any other organisations.)
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.
Are you an orphanage? Because I want to give you kids.
You must be tired, because you’ve been running around the field all day.
Let me be your logframe of love.
The UN must be missing an M&E Officer, because you’ve been monitoring me all night.
Hey baby, I’m going to make you MDG #9 and give you 100%-access to my love.
This first date has been pretty successful so far. Now let’s bring it to scale.
Your presence here is having a significant effect on me.
Do you have foreign aid? Because I just fell into a poverty trap.
I thought robust started with an ‘r’. Why does mine start with ‘u’?
Do you live in a corn field? Because I’m stalking you.
My love for you is like diarrhea – I just can’t hold it in.
Are you a refugee? Because you must have fled from heaven.
Do you believe in love at first sight, or would you like me to conduct an RCT with treatment and control groups?
Hey, girl. I’m Mr. Human Right. Someone said you were looking for me?
Can I borrow a micro-kiss? I promise I’ll give it right back with a lot of interest.
I’m a disaster and need UN assistance right now. I need U. Now.
Do you have any Cambodian/Kenyan/Haitian in you? Would you like some?
Let me into your bed, and I’ll be your Haiyan all night long.
This ain’t no participatory process baby, you’re coming home with me right now.
I hope you’re not a monk ‘cos I’d love to go Tibet with you.
I don’t need no Viagra to build my capacity. I’ve got you.
You don’t need to worry about my sustainability. I can go all night.
What’s your favourite position when you’re out in the field? Reverse Consultant or Missionary? How about Emancipatory Style?
Are you taking malaria prophylaxis? ‘Cos you’ve been Doxycycline through my mind all night long.
Your body is a wonderland that I’m gonna need security clearance to evaluate.
Damn, girl. If being sexy was a crime, you’d be taken to the ICC.
Do you work for the World Food Programme? Because you got me starving for your attention.
I Ecua-dor you!
Do you have a staph infection, or are you just blushing since I walked in the room?
Are you Australian? Because you meet all of my koala-fications.
After one night with me, you’ll be going all Dambisa on me, screaming Moyo, Moyo, Moyo.
Hey baby, are you from the Red Cross? Because I’ve got some sexual health humanitarian needs.
Don’t worry, baby. The safe word is “Kony.”
Hey baby, come take a shower with me, so we can do some participatory M&E on our WASH practices.
There’s some serious flooding going on in the north of Thailand. I suggest we take shelter at my place and Bangkok.
Oh come on, don’t knock me back. That’s hardly following inclusive best practices.
I’d like to buy you some donuts, so we can see some real bottom-up development, if you know what I mean.
Let’s go back to my place so you can investigate my low hanging fruit (deliberately ambiguous if spoken by a man or woman).
Hey baby, you’re hitting all the right indicators. It’s time to take this to the field.
I’m not looking to put a ring on it, baby. I’m all about the low overhead.
You look like just the person to help me scale up what I’ve got going on down below.
I think about you at least 50 times per diem.
I couldn’t help but notice you at the shelter cluster meeting. Why don’t you take refuge at my place tonight?
From the bottom up and the top down, you got development in all the right places.
I hear there’s grant money out there for family planning. Let’s do a joint scoping mission.
We’d better call the disaster response team, because I think I just felt the earth shake beneath me.
Hey baby, I like my women like I like my anthropology. Thick and cultural.
You’re so hot, I’m declaring you a crisis zone!
Just like Bono, I want to push you closer and closer to The Edge.
I’d be great in a hostage situation. There’s a lot I can do with my hands tied behind my back.
We gotta stop with the whole Easterly-Sachs thing, and get more like Rigby-Yeoh.
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.
The results are in! 475 votes were cast, despite no incentive being offered and a lack of Ryan Seacrest. What follows is an annotated bibliography of the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes, starting with #5.
#5 Chop My Money (P-Square)
No surprises this dance floor classic made the Top 5, particularly for those aid workers who have been on assignment in West Africa. Nigerian twin brothers, Peter and Paul Okoye, signed a record deal with Akon’s Konvict Muzik record label in 2011, and Akon himself features on this track. Amassing over 21 million views on YouTube, “chop my money” essentially means “spend my money,” which the Brothers P proclaim again and again that they don’t care. I’m not sure on the origins, but “chopmoney” in Ghana at least refers to money usually given by a husband to his wife for food.
#4 99 Problems (Jay Z)
Like Katy Perry, a dark horse where this list is concerned. Personally, I’m very happy to see it made the Top 5. It is another problem less that Jay Z has to worry about. “If you having list problems I feel bad for you soon. I got 99 problems but WhyDev ain’t one.” Produced by legend Rick Rubin, the title and chorus actually come from an early version by Law & Order’s Ice-T. According to Jay-Z, he is referring to a police dog, and not to a woman.
#3 Circle of Life (The Lion King)
Further embedding stereotypes of the African continent and providing parody material for years to come, “Circle of Life” is a classic late night, drunken aid worker house party anthem. Usually played around midnight or soon after, the song unites the inebriated in a joyous celebration of childhood, white man’s burden and arms raised to the sky. (Do you realise The Lion King is 20 years old? There are students studying development as undergraduates right now, who did not grow up with the film and its glorious soundtrack).
#2 Imagine (John Lennon)
Imagine if this song didn’t make it into the Top 5? Not so much a party anthem, but rather a war cry for peace, unity and the dissolution of government, religion and statehood, “Imagine” is an aid worker’s wet dream. Lennon stated that the song is “virtually a Communist Manifesto even though I am not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.” It’s also in Rolling Stone’s top 5 of the greatest 500 songs of all time.
#1 Africa (Toto)
The odds of “Africa” coming in at #1 were about 2 to 1. Although the YouTube video has fewer views than “Chop My Money,” this is the anthem of ex-pat aid workers all around the world. The rest of the world was introduced to it by the animated series Family Guy, in which a flashback shows Peter’s neighbour Joe (cop, eventually wheelchair-bound) meeting his wife Bonnie for the first time. In a strip club. To the music of Toto. As she gives him a lap dance. The actual music video is far stranger. It features a library, a globe and a spear. Oh, and there is a book he takes from the shelf entitled “Africa.” However, the real kicker is the idea behind the song, which is aptly explained by the drummer, Jeff Porcaro: “… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” Lead singer, David Paich continues and tell us what we all knew deep down:
“At the beginning of the ’80s, I watched a late night documentary on TV about all the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It both moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about if I was there and what I’d do.”
In addition, I’ve chosen one song from the list of “Other” songs nominated by voters for the inaugural Kenny Loggins Honourable Mention WhyDev Award for Merit. It of course goes to “Danger Zone,” by the award’s namesake. Thanks to the music video and its counterpart Top Gun, Navy recruitment spiked in 1986 when the film was released. Somehow I don’t think Brad Pitt’s World War Z had the same effect for NGOs and the UN.
The rest of the nominations:
Give a Little Bit (Goo Goo Dolls)
Emma (Emmanual Jal)
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads)
Inner Ninja (Classified)
Moonshine (Bruno Mars)
Redemption Song (Bob Marly)
Living Darfur (Mattafix)
Roar (Katy Perry)
Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins)
Disparate Youth (Santigold)
Fix You (Coldplay)
Sleep Now in the Fire (Rage Against the Machine)
Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver)
Wavin’ Flag (K’naan feat. David Bisbal)
Taking Care of Business (BTO)
My Heart Will Go On (Celine Deon)
Hall of Fame (The Script)
We Found Love (Rihanna)
Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
Leaders of the Free World (Elbow)
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Whitney Houston)
If I Was President (Wyclef Jean)
On the Floor (Jennifer Lopez)
Last Night on Earth (U2)
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.
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 Dictionarydescribes 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.
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.