Tag Archives: Aid

People wait at a UN distribution centre in Haiti.

On cognitive dissonance: Local ownership & constant learning

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

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

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

Chris Planicka – Program Associate, EcoAgriculture Partners & Aid Blogger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Last Week Today: 22 August 2014

Would you pick up a hitchhiking robot?

HitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot
HitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot

If you thought you saw a robot on the side of the highway during your last road trip, you might not be crazy. HitchBOT, a child-sized solar-powered robot built by Canadian researchers, just hitchhiked 6,000 kilometres, to explore the relationship between people and technology. Past research has examined whether humans can trust robots, but HitchBOT was created to address the question, “Can robots trust humans?” (Apparently the answer is yes: the robot made it all the way across Canada by getting free rides, and arrived unharmed in British Columbia this week.) Not strange enough? HitchBOT also uses social media.

What’s next, robot aid workers? Well, hey, we’re supposed to be working ourselves out of a job, right?

The week in news

Perhaps the most alarming story this week is the ISIS beheading of American journalist James Foley, which the group recorded and posted on YouTube. News outlets have come under fire for publishing pictures taken immediately before the execution, with critics saying the dissemination of the photos only exploits his death. Read Foley’s obituary and some highlights from his career instead.

Meanwhile, Romeo Dallaire argues Iraq is experiencing the same warning sounds of genocide that he witnessed in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Thailand’s junta leader was just appointed the country’s Prime Minister, and Liberian police fired live rounds and tear gas into crowds of protestors trying to break an ebola quarantine.

In other important world news, North Korean officials called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “a wolf with a hideous lantern jaw.” Diplomacy at its finest.

The week on the blog

Dear Supporter: We’re sorry, the project you supported failed…

NGOs make mistakes. Aid projects fail. Money gets wasted. Not surprisingly, most organisations don’t want to talk about it, but Ravinder Casley Gera has an example for how they can communicate failed projects without looking bad.

Mission Creep #2: SWEDOW, being smart and sexual healing

We’re back with the second episode of the WhyDev podcast, Mission Creep – bringing you fresh and frank voices in global development. This week, Brendan Rigby, Weh Yeoh and Carly Stephan are talking SWEDOW, looking smart and sex as a coping strategy. Give it a listen, and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #MissionCreepDev.

The week in globaldev

Where are the examples of “good donorship?” | From Poverty to Power

Self-reflection, volunteering and the development entertainment industrial complex | Aidnography

Debating hashtags and slacktivism | Wait… What?

The launch of EMERGENCY AIDio, the new online radio program for aid workers | The Healthy Nomad

UN internships for Canadians no longer unpaid – now they cost $2,500! | Humanosphere

Are humanitarians heroes or sidekicks? | AidSpeak

Why ebola is killing more women than men | BuzzFeed

Is Australia’s scholarship program an effective aid strategy? (also, Parts One & Two) | DevPolicy

What can we learn from the history of foreign aid? | Politics of Poverty

Upcoming Events

Expanse: The one-day conference to empower young humanitarians | Melbourne, 30 August Register with the promotion code: WD896 for a $5 discount!

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Last Week Today: 8 August 2014

Don’t have time to scan the web for global news? Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox?

Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox? – See more at: http://www.whydev.org/8-august-2014-the-week-in-links/#sthash.xI7M0fJI.dpuf
Don’t have time to scan the web for global news?
Don’t have time to scan the web for global news?Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox?

We’re here to help.

Today we’re launching Last Week Today – a weekly post that has the best stories, news, events and jobs in global development.

Now you can breathe a sigh of relief. Last Week Today is all you need.

So grab a coffee, sit back, and enjoy the week’s best in global development.

The week in news

Niger is the French word for Nigeria, right?


CNN’s on-air mistake has reignited discussions about ignorance of developing countries, and brought attention to the network’s past misplacing of Ukraine, and Hong Kong, and London, and…

Washington, D.C., was abuzz this week with President Obama’s parade of autocrats (aka, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit) which brought over 40 heads of state to the White House.

In the rest of the world: this was a tragic week in parts of China and Nepal, and Afghanistan’s election crisis is worsening. South Sudan is facing a triple threat of violence, famine, and cholera. The ebola outbreak is reportedly spreading, though not as fast as our fears of it.

It’s not making global headlines, but our love affair with coffee may have some seriously damaging environmental consequences.

And in this week’s edition of is-this-for-real, USAID has evidently been sending young Latin Americans to incite rebellion in Cuba, using the cover of HIV-prevention workshops.

The week from the blog

NGOs can learn from YouTube celebrities

Most NGOs these days blog, tweet, use Facebook – but not many of them use video effectively. Our Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp explains how organisations could pick up some tips from (who else?) the celebrities of YouTube.

Starving for awareness

The UN is feeding refugees a starvation diet: 850 calories a day. When Francisco Toro found out about it, he didn’t “like” a post or order a bracelet. Instead, he ate a tiny bowl of sorghum and lentils – and nothing else.

The gendered lens is always a good bet for looking smart to your development friends. Cartoon by Kirsty Newman.
The gendered lens is always a good bet for looking smart to your development friends. Cartoon by Kirsty Newman.

The week in links

Tips for looking smart to development geeks | Kirsty Evidence

New research suggests there are three types of female aid workers. | Women in Aid

Africa’s rising, Africa’s falling…but it’s mostly rising. | The Washington Post

Two theories on why we’re so obsessed with giving away our old stuff | Blood and Milk

Beggars can’t be choosers, but are they really beggars…? | Good Intentions (courtesy of USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information)

Can volunteers really cause harm? | AidSpeak

No doubt about it, 850-calorie-a-day food rations aren’t enough to survive. | 850 Calories

Is Bitcoin the next big thing in financial inclusion? | Development Channel

Are health gains in developing countries really helping the poor? | Brett Keller

New evidence for the impact of education on women’s health | Humanosphere

The week in events

Complex? Nah just a Tuesday | Melbourne

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Thank you, Allison – it’s not goodbye, but see you soon.

When Allison joined the WhyDev team in January 2012, the blog was a mess. The audience consisted of our mothers, our old university lecturers and that angry bespectacled guy who spends too much time on the Internet. We had some great contributions coming in, and the number of hits were gradually climbing, but we needed someone to take us to the next level. This person was Allison.

Although we (Brendan and Weh) know a lot about bromance and a little about development, we needed someone with a good vision for the blog and site to make it really sparkle, in a way that two straight men with the absence of the word “sparkle” in their own vernacular could ever achieve. Just for comparison, here is a screenshot from our old website. It’s functional, but a far cry from what we have now.

WhyDev screenshot, circa June 2012
WhyDev screenshot, circa June 2012

Two and a half years down the track, we have a new website, over 65 contributors – the bulk of them female – over 400 critical insights into how to do aid and development better and, as importantly, a reputation offline. Both of us have had countless individuals come up to us at conferences, workshops, and karaoke bars (Brendan only), expressing their admiration for the strong voices that have come out of WhyDev. Allison, you’re a big reason for all of this (Weh would particularly like to thank you for the random phone numbers from female followers).

As of today, Allison is vacating the Editor-in-Chief position at WhyDev, but no doubt she will be around and still heavily involved in other ways. So for that reason, it’s not goodbye, but see you soon. Thanks for all your hard work and help over the years.

Brendan, Allison, and Weh
She’s not that short, we’re just taller.

Despite her obviously diminutive stature, filling Allison’s shoes is going to be a big task. Fortunately, we’ve got some exciting announcements to make.

First of all, joining the team as Communications Director is Rachel Kurzyp. Longtime friend of WhyDev and prolific blogger, tweeter and all-round comms guru, we are extremely lucky to have her stepping up to guide the communications aspects of where WhyDev is going. Rachel has a great background in journalism, business and international development, and has the kind of adorable cynicism that we need. She’s fascinated by the intersection of international development, storytelling and digital technologies – all of this speaks to the direction in which WhyDev is going.

As impressive is the addition of our new Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Ambrose, who won us over recently when she wrote “this is just another way in which the aid system is broken.” Jen’s background in research, international development and writing are perfect. Her main interests are in aid effectiveness, ethics in development, and narratives of developing countries, which align well with WhyDev’s values. Furthermore, she adds a lot to the team being based in the U.S. We might even have to start spelling organisation like “organization” from now on. Maybe not…

We’d like to leave the final word to these two, to answer the simple question – “How are you committed to getting aid and development right?”

Rachel Kurzyp, WhyDev's new Communications Director
Rachel Kurzyp, WhyDev’s new Communications Director

“I’m committed to helping the poor have an equal voice in global communications so they can control how they are represented, how their stories are shared, and choose if they want to participate in the digital world.  I’m excited to be joining WhyDev because we are all working towards the same goals and the team welcomes my need to question things, which is rare.” – Rachel

Jennifer Ambrose, WhyDev's new Editor-in-Chief
Jennifer Ambrose, WhyDev’s new Editor-in-Chief

“I’m committed to using evidence to better understand what works in development and advocate for organizations to create more effective programs. At the same time, I’m committed to making aid more empowering and responsive to local needs, by listening to people who are affected by aid projects and supporting grassroots development efforts. I’m excited to join WhyDev because I think it provides a much-needed space for critical reflection on all things development-related.” – Jen


Significant aid stories of 2013 | AidWorks

To discuss some of the major issues of 2013, AidWorks host Albion Harrison-Naish, was joined by the heads of three prominent Australian aid NGOs. CARE Australia’s Dr. Julia Newton-Howes, ActionAid Australia’s Archie Law and Act for Peace’s Alistair Gee provided an engaging conversation about a variety of issues.

After a brief discussion of the recently-announced further cuts to Australia’s aid program, the panellists discussed the various cuts, diversions and delays suffered by Australia’s aid program over 2013. The conversation also covered issues like climate change and the developing world, the evolution of emergency humanitarian responses, the rise of the BRICS nations and how this will likely impact on development models, as well as the debates over the post 2015 development agenda.


Jeffrey Sachs answered questions on Reddit, here are the highlights

by Rebekka Bond


Recently, the online community of Reddit provided us with yet another great opportunity to question one of today’s top minds in a social-convention-free zone. On January 15th, Jeffrey Sachs took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session where hundreds of Reddit users were able to ask him educated and insightful questions about his work, beliefs, and opinions. If you’re wondering what Sachs could possibly be doing on Reddit, or what Reddit even is, be sure to check out this great article by Rowan Emslie which should help to clear that up.

Part of Sachs’ motivation for doing the AMA was likely to promote his upcoming free online university course ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. This 14-week course begins on January 21, and if your interested you can learn more or register for it. Sachs encouraged many of those participating in the AMA to take the course and “join the generation-long quest to achieve sustainable development”.

For those of you who may not have the time to read this entire (rather long) article, here are some of the main takeaways from the AMA:

  • The importance of public health and environmental sustainability dominated the discussion
  • Sachs stood adamantly behind his views about foreign aid (as expected)
  • He often used the AMA as a vehicle to help plug his main causes and give them more exposure

Over the course of the AMA, Sachs also expressed his opinion on some topics you may have not expected, including the recently leaked draft of the TPP´s (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Environment Chapter, how automation and robotics will affect development, and even Sachs’ favourite novels. While these were definitely interesting insights, below I will focus mainly on recapping the main themes and top comments for anyone who missed the AMA.

What is Sustainable Development?

“We’ll discuss that at length in class. I am using the term “Sustainable Development,” meaning a holistic approach that combines economic, social, and environmental goals.”

Enough said.

Global Health as the Key to Development

Public health and economic development have always been a key components of Sachs’ policy and academic work. He makes it no secret that he views global health as the first stepping stone towards development.

Prioritizing development goals:

“I’d start with the health goals, since those are life and death. And then (or simultaneously) the hunger goal (obvious reason) and then education. Of course once people are alive and properly nourished, education becomes the KEY!”

On strategies to end poverty while increasing sustainable development:

“I think that the key to ending poverty and increasing sustainable development is ‘investment-led growth,’ with investments in people (health, nutrition, education, training), plus investments in infrastructure (such as low-carbon energy), plus investments in ‘smart’ systems using information technologies.”

The Great Aid Debate

As a champion of foreign aid and constant presence in the great aid debate, it was inevitable that the effectiveness of aid would be questioned and that some of Sachs’ top critics would come up in the discussion.

On Dambisa Moyo:

“Unlike Dambisa Moyo, I believe that aid is needed and can be organized effectively and respectfully. I am very happy with the successful scale up of aid for public health in the past decade. It has saved millions of lives and helped to promote economic development.”

Describing his relationship with William Easterly (with a passive aggressive smiley):

“There are days when I’m happier and days when I’m less happy. We’re colleagues and friends, but sometimes I’m simply amazed (and not happy) when he declares that ‘aid has failed.’ This is simply NOT RIGHT!!! :-)”

On ‘The Great Escape” by Angus Deaton:

“I did not agree with his very blanket statements against aid. In my view, such statements are contrary to the evidence. When somebody declares so categorically that all aid fails, raise your doubts. Such generalizations are not accurate. Much aid is very important. We need to understand why some aid succeeds and other aid fails, so that we can improve the design of aid programs.”

The Millennium Villages Project

The Millennium Villages Project has become one of Sachs’ most controversial endeavours, and has been the source of heavy criticism. This contentious debate arose following the first independent evaluation of one of the villages, and erupted in a series of online articles and duelling editorials. This past September, the commentary resurfaced with the release of Nina Munk’s book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Despite this, Sachs is quick to challenge any criticism and stands firmly behind his project.

Sachs’ response to those who criticize the Millennium Villages Project:

“The project has had enormous positive impacts, way beyond the villages themselves. Governments have taken the successes of the villages as a basis for national policy, e.g. the control of malaria and the scale up of community health workers. There were originally 10 countries in the program, but its so useful for governments that the program is now operating directly or indirectly (through policy advice for example or as a template) in 23 countries. Please see www.millenniumvillages.org By the way, there will be a comprehensive evaluation of the project, and a comparison with other places nearby, in 2015, to be reported in 2016. It will be interesting for all, including of course the project participants, to learn from these results!”

On the Millennium Villages Post-2015:

“The MVs will be evaluated at the end of 2015, and we will make course corrections and improvements as needed in several national programs underway to scale up the MV model. So the basic notion of using community-based rural development will continue past 2015, for sure. It’s working in many powerful ways, but will have even clearer evidence in 2015 on many important detailed issues.”

The Global Fund

In 2000, Sachs worked with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to design and launch the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and has worked to support the organization ever since. Last month, Sachs called to task many developed countries for failing to come up with the necessary $5 billion to maintain the momentum of the Fund. He continued his campaign to gain support for the Fund through his AMA.

On using empirical studies to evaluate aid programs:

“We need to be smart in our aid policies, using knowledge, experience, and EXPERTISE outside of economics (such as in public health). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and GAVI are examples of aid success. We should measure and evaluate programs, but use methods that are appropriate to the circumstances. There is too much of a one-size-fits-all strategy to evaluation these days (too much on randomized trials, excluding other means of evaluation).”

On the continuation of the Global Fund agenda:

“The Global Fund is still trying to close the $5 billion. I’ll be speaking with several governments over the next few weeks as well to help close the deal. The name of the game is PERSISTENCE. It takes time to convince governments!!!”

On getting governments to work in the interest of their people:

“I believe that aid can be designed in ways that promote accountability and transparency. This is how the Global Fund has worked most of the time. It’s been a good and successful model. Yes, we should promote a high degree of transparency. Remember that much of the corruption starts from the side of the rich countries and their companies.”

Throughout the AMA, Sachs maintained his idealistic persona and most of his responses had an upbeat tone to them. While he frequently spoke about the success of his projects, he often rebuffed any commenter who brought up critiques of his work. One thing that I found particularly interesting was that Sachs often lumped those who disagreed with his work into the same category as those who simply didn’t ‘understand’ or ‘get’ his work and ideas. A little condescending don’t you think? That being said, what really shined through for me was Sachs’ talent as a campaigner, as it’s undeniable that he is quite effective at garnering support and drawing attention to his principle causes.

So what did you think of Sachs’ AMA? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section below!

This post originally appeared on Development Internwhere two writers  are going to be taking the new course from Jeffrey Sachs and will be blogging about it. Check Development Intern in the coming weeks for more information.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

The myth of “the field”

Last July, Alison Rabe argued that aid workers belong in the field. J. responds by saying the field doesn’t exist. 

A few months ago I wrote a little rant about “the field.” Continuing that train of thought, now…

There are few fixtures of the aid industry which hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field.” No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conferences room in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on.

By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador (and, for reasons I fail to grasp in 2014, Cambodia) make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC (the latter, at least as dangerous as Phnom Penh) makes you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read.

Some of you will call me an aid world heretic for this, but it’s got to be said: It’s time to recognize that “the field” is a relic from a previous era in aid history. Like VHS tapes and personal CD players, “the field” is an artifact left over from a time when white guys in khakis and untucked shirts (or maybe white women in a sexy, black tanktops) left someplace comfortable and civilized to go someplace difficult and dangerous, where they would do aid to beneficiaries.

Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders
Angelina Jolie saving lives in Beyond Borders

I can think of few aspects of the culture of the aid industry which are more counterproductive to what we say we’re trying to accomplish, than to keep alive this notion of this mythical place called “the field.”

The reality of the aid industry today is that it no longer (if it ever did) conforms to a field/everywhere else way of thinking. It is far too common, even now in 2014, to think and say that there’s this place called the field where aid actually happens, and then there’s everywhere else—HQ, maybe—where other things get discussed or done, but what does not happen in the field is not really aid.

It’s time to recognize that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in Washington, DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings, strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing, or being the accountability officer in Goma.

More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions which truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field. Implementation and technical teams at or very near the point of delivery need to be staffed by competent practitioners, and they need to be well-led, of course. It’s important to have solid people there. But look at what gets decided where:

At the project site, or at the country office you get to decide things like the training schedule for the nurse/midwives. Or maybe you get to decide on the wording of the questions in the household survey instrument. You get to decide which trucking company to go with for next month’s shelter kit delivery. Those are all important, of course, and they must be decided well.

But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritized. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal Child Health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy which focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference. I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.

To use another example, in the early weeks of the Haiti earthquake response, World Food Programme (WFP) provided nearly 50 metric tonnes of food for earthquake survivors. The decision to make this amount of food available was made in Rome. The decision about how the food was to be divided up was made—well—globally, via email and internet, by the heads of relief and food programming of the various INGO partners (several INGOs did the distribution for WFP). The decisions about targeting (they targeted women on behalf of households) and ration size (50 kg. bags) were made by WFP with some input from NGOs, again more or less globally.

In the end, the relief operations teams in “the field” got to decide things like how to divide the tonnage and territory among themselves, where the distribution sites would be, exactly, and to some extent their own individual modes of beneficiary registration. I was in Port-au-Prince at this time, working for one of the INGOs tasked with distributing that WFP food, and I remember that period very well as a time of crazy ‘round-the-clock work. But in the end, we were implementing decisions made by others who, in some cases were thousands of miles away.

Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field versus everywhere else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalizes residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”, to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats, we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.

Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development, but every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”, whether the “them” is those we claim our projects and programs help, our local colleagues with whom we like to say we’re so close, or our colleagues hunched over desks in nice offices, writing the grants which keep our salaries flowing, and the position papers which (hopefully) keep our employing agencies credible.

Yes, the field sounds exciting. The field sounds romantic. Set in UN cubicles of New York or Geneva, Emergency Sex would hardly be worth reading (although I think it’s safe to say that more or less the same shenanigans go on there, too). But set in the field, it feels like a furtive peek through the locker-room door into a world that seems both exotic and foreboding. But the romance and the exotic factor of the field are chimera. The number of places in the world where you truly cannot get good internet or a cappuccino become fewer and farther between by the day. And in this context, the field becomes a huge distraction.

I can’t say I have the answer to the question of, “if not the field, then what?” I do know that how we think and speak (or write) about aid matters. I prefer to think about what I do and how that fits into the overall picture more than the where I do it. How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better? It’s not about the where: I know people living in places which, if I was to name them, would make anyone’s list of places in “the field”, but who cannot articulate a straight line of logic between what they spend their days doing and the amount of poverty in the world becoming somehow less.

And so, if I could be indulged to deliver one bit of unsolicited advice, it would be simply this: Understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done.

But stop fixating on the where. There is no field.


Branding hope: The anatomy of disaster relief in the Philippines

It is a scene immortalised in cinematic and pop culture history: the Huey helicopters flying low over the ocean in tight formation, descending on a Viet Cong base beside the beach. The surfboards on the side of the helicopter. Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries blaring from the sirens. (“It scares the hell of the slopes”, says Lt. Col. Kilgore. “My boys love it.”) The devastation that rains down. Indiscriminate gunfire. The smell of napalm in the morning. “Charlie don’t surf”, explains Kilgore, eager to hang ten before the fighting subsides.

This is the scene I recall as I read Humanicontrarian’s assertion that the humanitarian response to Haiyan is a “Branding exercise of a new world order in humanitarian action”. The author of the post, Marc DuBois, director of MSF’s UK office, has only just scratched the surface of something far more disturbing that leaves more than a bad taste in my mouth. (I can feel the bile rising in my throat). I first noticed it on Twitter, as @USAID spewed out images and characters of relief courtesy of the American people. “When disaster strikes, Americans generously offer assistance to those in need. Learn how we are responding 2 #Haiyan”, extorts one tweet on November 12.


On one side, we are bombarded with infographics, facts, figures as we search for Reason within the devastation. We are trying to understand and find meaning in the devastation. Numbers give meaning to such incomprehensible events. (5,200 deaths, 26,000 injuries, 14.2 million affected by Haiyan.) Numbers can be changed. (“Over 10,000 families were reached in the first week food distribution in the Philippines following Typhoon”. British Red Cross.) Numbers show progress. (“Safe drinking water for 200,000 people”. DFID)

On the other, we are strafed with devastation, destruction and destitution. We marry the numbers with the images; Reason with Emotion. Nameless faces in the foreground of flattened structures that never stood a chance. Young children, mothers, sometimes men but not often. (Which is an interesting contrast to battlefield imagery which is populated by men. Disaster imagery is populated by women and children.) Not even our identifiable victim bias can stand in the way of objective suffering.

And, in the middle of this battlefield: logos.



The Ethiopian famine of 1984 was a watershed moment in humanitarian action. It created Live Aid and celebrity conscience. Disaster was televised, with images that would go on to define aid and development in the public consciousness. I was born in 1983, yet those images are familiar to me. The rib cage of a man inexorably dying of hunger. Flies perched on swollen heads.

Yet, what is striking about those same images is the lack of branding. There are rarely any logos with the exception of the occasional red cross. These images show the horror, the raw humanity of disaster. Likewise, the images of aid distribution are of people, sometimes in jeeps, sometimes not, providing assistance, be it medical, food or shelter. The subject of the image is the people. It is the service. The hardware and packaging of aid is not the focus.

Contrast with a similar Google search or aimless wandering through Twitter hashtags of Haiyan, and the difference is stark. The images we see, the information presented, is packaged as a fundamentally different type of suffering.

First,  it is more gentle. The landscape of suffering has changed since 1984. Second, it is a suffering that can be solved with branding. We are either shown the devastation and helplessness. (Look at the signs and graffiti in the images below. It reminds me of urban buskers and the homeless asking for spare change. They are familiar.) The signage, in English, appears to give people agency and gives us permission to take their agency.

Or we are shown the solution. The response is appropriately framed with recipients, preferably children, united with the goods. Before and after. Darkness and light. Interestingly, many of the images available are just static shots of the branded goods. In a truck. On a plane. On pallets. There movement is implied. We know where it’s going. The logistic neutrality of the pictures is a far cry from the naked, starving babies of Ethiopia.



What follows are a selection of branded images of disaster relief and response from the Philippines. These are the most common types of images appearing in relation to humanitarian action in the Philippines. What do they tell you? What is the organisation trying to communicate? How is the organisation expecting us to interpret its message? Think on these questions as you look over the images.

Aid Arrives Cebu





What I see in these images, or rather what I believe the organisations want me to see, is hope. Hope for a better future for those affected by Haiyan. Hope as a public good. Hope is a valuable commodity and easily branded in a humanitarian context. I believe this is the message: Hope cannot be found in disasters except when given.

The images pacify, rather than mobilise. The images tell us where the solution comes from, broken down into brands you can support and icons you can recognise as yours. But, where do they go from here? Funding has slowed. J., of Aidspeaksays the initial “life-saving” relief effort has ended and that cluster meeting rhetoric has shifted to “early recovery”.

Build back better.

A relatively new slogan appearing on the humanitarian horizon in the wake of disasters is ‘build back better‘. It is a concept imbued with the rhetorical powers of participation, accountability, bottom-up approaches and development. Charles Kenny, in a post last year about Haiti, suggests that this is a great slogan but a poor idea given that reconstruction and recovery is about “‘getting back to where we were’ as quickly as possible”. He goes on to say, “Of course we have higher hopes than that in the post-disaster period. We are going to build back better. And, surely, we all want Haiti to be better than it was before the quake. But what a terrible time to try development”.

The helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now was filmed, like most of the movie, in the Philippines. The helicopters were borrowed from the Philippines’ military, who were simultaneously engaged in a real conflict with Communist guerrillas. U.S army markings on the helicopters often had to be hastily painted over, as they would immediately be called off-set to fight the guerrillas. Doug Claybourne, who worked on the scene, recalls  that the helicopters sometimes left to fight the guerrillas with the US army markings still painted on the side.

The Heuy helicopters have been replaced by Lufhansa cargo planes; the guerrillas by disaster-affected people; the soldiers by aid workers; the US army livery by USAID logos; the heart of darkness by the light of hope.

Lt. Col. Kilgore wasn’t interested in winning hearts and minds. Aid agencies want not only to win the hearts and minds of those affected, but yours as well. This is an ongoing strategy of branding hope. Of filling you with hope of a better future. Of a future where the military play not only an important peacekeeping role, but also a humanitarian one. Of a future where only certain agencies can provide hope; a world where hope trickles down. Charlie don’t hope.


5 key takeaways from the ACFID DevelopmentFutures Conference

On the 21st and 22nd November, the University of Technology Sydney hosted the Australian Council for International Development’s (ACFID) 4th DevelopmentFutures conference. This year’s theme, ‘alternative pathways to end poverty’, brought together an eclectic mix of academic, practitioner, student, activist and bureaucrat. I was lucky enough to both attend and present, and harangued four other attendees for this post to present their key takeaways. First up is Enrique Mendizabal, one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

1. How may we work with them?

Enrique Mendizabal – Think tanks researcher, advisor and promoter, Founder onthinktanks.org

I think there is a deep sense of realism about the state of the Aid Industry. I was surprised (pleasantly, of course) that my direct attack on the development sector elicited a great del of support. Many of the reactions to my speech, which called for the dismantling of the industry and for an unmediated relationship between people, organisations, and governments, went ever further. Particularly keen on this idea were the Australian Award Scholars who, for the most part, were not studying ‘development’. Rather, they were undertaking postgraduate degrees in engineering, chemistry, underground water management, education, business, anthropology, economics, etc.

To me, this choice denotes agency. Uma Kothari’s excellent key note speech made reference to this by questioning the legitimacy of global development targets, namely the MDGs, which predefine an homogenous future; in essence, robbing people from the opportunity and responsibility of defining it themselves.

I felt the conference was successful in providing the space for different futures to be imagined and from perspectives other than of the development sector. Instead we heard of the contributions that the media, the private sector, and academia could make, not by joining the industry but by pursuing their own purposes. Not, then, ‘how to get them to work with us’, but ‘how may we work with them?’

2. A developmental ‘secret sauce’?

Gerard McCarthy – Director (Asia-Pacific) at TechChange: The Institute for Technology and Social Change

The irony of hosting a ‘Development Futures’ conference weeks after the dismembering of AusAID wasn’t lost on many of those who attended the conference. Despite the incongruence between the ‘blue-sky thinking’ focus of the conference and it’s timing, there were plenty of insightful take-outs. Unsurprisingly, the major one for me was that the next few years will be a time of great change in Australia’s aid and development program. As Robin Davies of ANU’s DevPolicy Centre observed, the imperative for NGOs to reduce their reliance on government funding is stronger than ever; whether that be by exploring ways to boost contributions from individuals or partnering with business and social enterprise where there is a good operational and values fit.

On the macro level, I was given reasons to be a bit more bullish about development outcomes after the expiry of the 2015 MDGs. As was repeated throughout the two day conference, the Rustovian ‘take-off’ model of development can and is being ‘leap-frogged’ by many developing countries who are reducing poverty and delivering public goods much sooner than the 1960s model might have predicted. Indeed, it’s clear that the emergence of centralised, bureaucratic governments are not the only trajectory to improving development outcomes. Rather, as Macquarie University’s resident ‘futurist’ Sohail Inayatullah summarised, clever governments and NGOs are recognising the weaknesses of highly centralised public-sector models and are enlisting technological innovations to ‘fly-over’ archaic institutional designs.

If ‘development’ does indeed have a future, as Enrique Mendizabal of On Think Tanks questioned, I actually think it’s likely to look much more like the health system innovations that have emerged in places such as Bangladesh and Nepal. As ODIs research on Nepal has shown, a cross-sectoral combination of strong government commitment, increased remittances and deployment of digital tools to improve data collection, service delivery and political accountability has reduced maternal mortality by 47 percent between 1996 and 2006. A remarkable outcome, and one which might just hint at what the ‘secret sauce’ of 21st century development practice might be made of.

3. If we can imagine a future, we can create it

Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte – Adjunct Research Fellow at James Cook University’s Centre for Disaster Studies

There is a deep sense of cynicism about the current aid architecture, and a deeper sense that anything is possible.  Conference themes cohered around futures thinking, or the idea that any future is possible. This unleashed my inner aid heretic and revolutionary.  The enormity of the dilemmas facing us as a planet, as a species, as a sector, felt pressing and insurmountable under current mechanisms that the conference discussed. There were several hundred Australian Leadership Award Scholars present, ostensibly as part of their leadership training. The trouble was that most were there under duress, and the program had not been structured to accommodate them or nurture their leadership skills. If grassroots empowerment is a cornerstone of a better development future, this was a perplexing and missed opportunity.

But, the very great intellect, integrity and straight talking at the conference profoundly energised and emboldened me. During Suhail’s workshop, for example, I imagined women and men experiencing themselves and each other as unconditioned, authentic, empowered, and imagined how we might get there. I heard others sorting world hunger, and donor arrogance, and empowering grassroots development initiatives. If we can imagine it, we can create it. This is the world I have started to inhabit.

4. Let’s scale down and have more events

Anthony Zwi – Professor Global Health and Development, UNSW

Linkages between policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and teachers is crucial to broadening and deepening the humanitarian and development fields. The crowded agenda and hectic pace mimicked the real world, with people and issues championing their causes, screaming for attention or identifying their issues as the priorities. Aside from a valuable annual meeting of this sort, we need more smaller-scale events that are more focused, more searching, across the calendar year involving a wider range of people in different parts of the country. This can be done alongside enhanced virtual interaction with people working together to take forward (conceptually, strategically and practically) a number of key areas.

A wide range of issues could be placed on the agenda. Here are a few that immediately spring to mind that emerged directly or indirectly from conference debates:

  • Engaging with the general public around development and humanitarian issues: innovations and experiences in stimulating understanding and critique;
  • Interfacing with DFAT: is there place for development values within an aid and trade environment?;
  • Indigenous rights and development: learning and exchange from within and outside our borders;
  • Taking forward the ACFID Principles for Ethical Research and Evaluation in Development: strategies, challenges and opportunities to extend learning and debate around these issues and to apply these principles within the humanitarian and development fields;
  • New media – tools for voice and vision or control?;
  • Slowing down: are we expecting too much too quickly?;
  • Innovations in humanitarian and development education, training and professionalization: broadening partnerships and critique;
  • Real time learning and critique: what to do and how to get there?

The list continues and they all need work. I’ll put up my hand to organise one in the next year and maybe others can do the same as a start to extending the fertile directions uncovered during the meeting and interpersonal connections made.

5. Game over man. Game over.

Brendan Rigby – Director of WhyDev

One thing is clear: NGOs need to critically and urgently rethink their roles within the public and development space. It’s game over. NGOs are no longer intermediaries between the public and development. Consider the following put forward by Andrew Hewett and Chris Roche at the conference:

  • Development assistance has played little direct role in poverty reduction over the past two decades. (Thanks China!);
  • Inequalities are growing along multidimensional lines, and most people living in poverty are in middle income countries;
  • There are an increasing number of people affected by humanitarian emergencies;
  • The urgency of climate change is increasing as its impacts are multifaceted from peace and security to disease and poverty.

Many NGOs still operate under a transactional model with the public in their role as intermediaries. However, the way the public can engage with development, through microloans (Kiva), direct cash transfers (GiveDirectly), voluntourism and advocacy (Global Poverty Project), is rapidly changing. On the other side, ODA funding is heading backwards and government aid agencies are leap-frogging NGOs as intermediaries. Bilateral relationships are trending as the aid architecture changes. However, I do not believe that NGOs can critically address these issues without first admitting and embracing failure. It is not something they do well. And, I was struck by this again at the conference as ‘success’ story after ‘success’ story was trotted out  and failure was relegated to ‘lessons learned’ (if at all). Many experienced leaders in the Australian NGO community are convinced of this need for change. But, where that change starts and who initiates it is unclear.