Tag Archives: development work

The 1st Annual Primetime Devie Awards!

You know when you see it in action.

A development practitioner who excels at what they do.

This development practitioner is the first to admit that working in the sector is complex and doing meaningful work requires navigating this complexity. This practitioner isn’t afraid to advocate for change and try new things. They understand success is rare, and admit when work has failed. This practitioner knows their biggest contribution often involves stepping back and creating space for others. And they spend most of their time investing in their peers and colleagues. Continue reading The 1st Annual Primetime Devie Awards!

8 reasons Orwell matters to aid workers

After the recent National Security Administration (NSA) scandal in the United States, people other than English teachers and lit majors started talking about Orwell. Sales of his classic 1984 skyrocketed.

Obama even referenced 1984‘s authoritarian Big Brother character in his defence of the program, reassuring everyone the program had not overstepped any lines, so that was a relief. (Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel might disagree with Obama on that point.)

While 1984 is certainly worth a read if you haven’t already read it, I also recommend Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days. After reading it, it’s clear why Orwell matters to aid workers.

Burmese DaysThe novel paints a dark picture of British colonialism in 1920s Burma. John Flory is a British timber merchant who befriends Dr. Veraswami, an Indian supporter of the British Empire. The doctor needs Flory’s help, as the magistrate of their district is plotting his downfall, and Veraswami’s membership into the all-white British Club is the only thing that can save him. As Flory decides what to do, the beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives from Paris, appearing to provide Flory an escape from his solitary life and the stresses of colonial life.

As a depiction of life in imperial Burma, the novel has nothing and everything to do with aid work. You should read it, but in case you don’t, here are eight relevant lessons from the novel. (Some spoilers.)


1. Our existence is full of competing tensions. 

Flory has an uncomfortable relationship with British imperialism. On the one hand, he hates it and the racist attitudes it perpetuates. On the other hand, if it comes to an end, he’s out of a job.

Similarly, a good development worker should be working themselves out of a job, so there is an uneasy tension that as life improves for poor people there won’t be (or shouldn’t be) jobs for development workers.

Additionally, there is the tension that if the standard of living where we work improved to the standard of the places we come from, we wouldn’t be able to afford the comfortable lifestyles many of us enjoy. Gone would be our easy existence of eating out and drinking cheap beers, and of being able to afford spacious apartments and maids to clean them.

(For an interesting discussion of this issue, see this article on living well while doing good.)


2. Despite their choice to live in whichever country you find yourself, there are people who despise the nationals of that country.

Orwell describes a character who hates the Burmese, describing him as “one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.”

You will meet people who should not be in the country you live, given their prejudice against the people who live there. It will be weird. You will be tempted to point out to such people that if the nationals are so terrible, an easy way to avoid them is to leave their country.

Don’t think the aid world is immune to these attitudes. A friend living in Cambodia recounts hearing an aid worker casually comment “we all know that if we leave the (Cambodian) child here (in Cambodia) with a foster family or whatever, they either going to be trafficked, or become maids.” Um. No, we don’t.


3. Getting involved with a national can be messy… 

Flory takes a Burmese mistress and learns that disentangling himself from the relationship is more difficult than he had thought. Plus after being involved with him, the other villagers view her as damaged and she cannot find a husband to support her. It’s not a great situation.

Different cultural norms and various power dynamics make cross-cultural dating difficult, particularly if “dating” as a concept doesn’t really exist in one of the cultures. I know someone whose ex-girlfriend didn’t really understand the “ex” part of that title, and so she popped up in his home country long after he’d returned home. It was awkward.


4. … but sometimes it’s one of few dating options. 

After various romantic encounters, including one with a guy who leaves town rather than pay his debts, a young British woman in the novel settles for marrying someone much older than her.

Having rigorously studied the topic at WhyDev, we can confirm that you may be able to sympathize with this predicament, particularly if you’re a woman.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 1.47.25 PM
Working in aid may leave you feeling like Jane Austen’s character Charlotte Lucas, from “Pride and Prejudice.”

5. Not having people around that you can talk to is detrimental to your mental health.

As is a common experience while living in a foreign country, Flory is sometimes stifled by his loneliness and feels there is no one who truly understands him.

This, combined with the stresses of work, can be a huge problem for aid workers. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and have a support network around you.

We’ve had some bright people write their thoughts on this topic and provide some resources on self-care, if this is something you’re struggling with.


6. Feeling torn between places is painful.

When you’ve shuttled between countries or just been away from your home country a while, it will probably mess with your head and your idea of “home.”

Flory describes the loneliness of not quite knowing where home is far better than I ever could:

“It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?”

This feeling will be really hard to explain to those back home, some of whom may perceive your life to be nothing more than one big exotic vacation.


7. You will probably have an uneasy relationship with missionaries. 

Granted, in Burmese Days the complaint about missionaries is that once they converted the Burmese, the Burmese Christians had the nerve to believe they were as good as the British.

Hopefully this won’t be your complaint, but it’s likely that your relationship with missionaries will be complicated. (Even if you’re religious. Maybe even more if you’re religious.)


8. Your life will be challenging, but it will also be good. 

Orwell describes Flory’s life as being “a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”

What was true for a twenty-something timber merchant in 1920s Burma is true ninety years later for a twenty- or thirty-something aid worker in Kenya or Ecuador or Kosovo or Cambodia.

It’s a strange and sometimes frustrating life, but it’s also a good one.


What has literature taught you about aid work? Tell us in the comments below.

Send them to the field!

This post originally appeared on Alison’s blog, Land of the Blind, and is reprinted here with permission. 

Development workers are living developed lives. Getting out into the romantically portrayed “field” is a rarity, a special opportunity, something to be bragged about over the internet. Although development workers are mostly working on rural development issues (in most developing countries a majority of the population is rural and depends on agriculture for livelihoods), they are living in the cities, far from those they are supposed to “develop.” The separation between cities and the countryside is not only geographical, but also cultural. How then can development workers in the cities know how to resolve issues affecting their “beneficiaries” in a faraway land?

To be most effective, development workers need to go to the field and stay there.

Working in the field would give development workers an opportunity to have a new lifestyle, localize their experiences and knowledge, cut costs, and ultimately give them the ability to do their jobs and deliver aid more effectively and efficiently.

There is very little information on this, but I think all of we development workers can agree that most of us live in city centres packed with expats of all shapes and sizes. It is unclear how this happened.

From higher-up academic-y levels that often influence how we do our jobs, some have argued that NGOs need to be close to country power centers in the city. Ironically, decentralization is now widely promoted as a vital component to “good governance” and “democracy-building.” And in developing countries where rule of law is often lacking, the top-down, state-centered approach tends not to work anyway. This point alone has made up many a doctoral thesis.

NGOs continue to perpetuate concentration of power in city centres due to their inability to communicate with local governments. International aid workers’ largely urban presence legitimizes undue power-wielding by national authorities and perpetuates the unequal development progress they are supposedly mitigating.

Theoretical issues aside (this is just a blog entry, after all), development workers’ distance from the field is problematic from the most practical point of view. The field is where the people are and where the culture is. We’ve all bragged about our Western “efforts” to “get down with the people” and “be more local,” which, in the cities, is much more difficult to do.

Development workers believe they are making an effort by taking a language course once a week with friends during their two-hour lunch breaks. They claim they love the local cuisine because they have a cheap set meal with English-speaking co-workers a few times a week in an open-air restaurant. They are so close to the local people because they had a five-minute conversation with their English-speaking landlady last night. Of course, this is all a cynical exaggeration, but there is some truth to it.

A field. See, it's not so bad!
A field. See, it’s not so bad!

Locals know what’s up 

Our best resources are the people affected by the projects we are trying to implement, and most likely these people are not in the city. International development workers’ main cultural and human resources are their local co-workers in their white-walled, air-conditioned offices. When working on issues affecting disadvantaged populations, however, local development workers are not omniscient. They too have a geographical and class distance from the populations that NGO projects tend to target.

From my experiences in Asia, getting at the root of the problem takes time and intimacy with the local people and culture in “the field” – a field visit or two is not enough. A person can ask as many questions as they possibly can think up over a three-day period and not get a straight answer that touches on the real issue. Situations are most effectively and thoroughly assessed through everyday relationships, through which free-flow, long-term conversations can take place.

The result of this would be actual outcomes, realistic approaches, improved partnerships and lines of communication, and generally more effective projects. (Not to mention the theoretical decentralization advantages of giving local governance a voice, see above.) The field gives easy access to our most knowledgeable informant: the beneficiary.

Culture is good for you

Sure, living in the field is difficult. I’m an extrovert, and the quiet of the countryside has sometimes felt isolating. I’ve been frustrated by cultural working differences. The internet speed leaves something to be desired. I crave a good burger every once in a while. Yeah, life is so hard.

Some might argue that because life in the field lacks pristine living conditions and Western-ish salaries, it might not appeal to the best and brightest. The assumption here, however, is that development workers have the same motivations as those that go into other lines of work, i.e., money.

On the contrary, many fellow aid workers I know came into this line of work wanting to accomplish the cliché but genuine goal of “helping people.” I’ve heard many development workers say how they were surprised, and even felt guilty, at the Western form their foreign lives have taken. They generally eat the same food, hang with similar people, and spend their days typing over their computers without breaking a sweat, much like they did in their home countries.

Many aid workers I know are not satisfied with this lifestyle– they recognize their distance from the “beneficiary,” shamelessly and blatantly noting the ineffectiveness of their own work. Many took on aid jobs expecting them to be more local or exotic, but city life sucks them into an international lifestyle, increasing their distance from the people they came to help. Although it is “difficult” to live and work in the field, at the same time, many aid workers in the city crave the experience.

Development jobs should fulfill their expectations and send them to the field.

The added bonus is that administrative costs would be greatly reduced. Office spaces in the field are exponentially cheaper than in the city. Overhead would further plummet when you cut out field visits and per diem expenses, which spoil us (get real people, we’ve all pocketed per diem money). Due to decreased living expenses, international salaries could also be reduced. Donors, are you drooling yet?

Western people flock to Western things, and some might argue that all of this will only bring Western food, lodging, and entertainment (in its worst forms) into the field. Studies have shown that people prefer to associate with people and places that reaffirm who they already are. This argument assumes that development workers may always prefer distance from local customs and populations, preferring instead to associate with each other over three dollar cappuccinos.

This may be true for some people that work in development, but much like we came into this field to help people, we also did it because we love living in a totally different place, we are fascinated by cultural differences, we enjoy ethnic foods, and, again, we have a heart for the disadvantaged. If this fact isn’t enough, development jobs could be re-drawn to attract people who are dedicated and passionate about foreign culture, language, and people, not just wanting an opportunity to be cool living in a city where they can have a fancy Western lifestyle. Job advertisements should promote cultural intimacy from the beginning.

Living in the field is sometimes difficult , but it is not agonizing. It is always possible to fill some of my Western desires (a lady I know at the market always sells peanut butter). At the same time, being deprived of the opportunity to eat a burger over English conversation every night has made my experience much more enriching. It didn’t hurt, either; the countryside life easily drew me in once I let it.

As for the rest of us still in the cities, we must make a concerted effort to resist our every Western whim and try to our best to get in touch with the local culture –that is, until the donors buck up and put us where we belong. Send them to the field!

Update 27 July

Reactions and comments from Twitter in response

Featured image shows the outskirts of Chipata, Zambia. Photo by Jennifer Ambrose.

Stop reinventing the wheel, you tool!

A couple of years ago I was hired to work on a project that provided $100 grants to Cambodian women living with HIV. To measure whether the project was successful we needed to know how many of the women were living below the international poverty line ($1.25 Purchasing Power Parity per day) at the start and end of the project. The only problem was that I’m a public health specialist, not an economist, so I had no idea how to measure if they were below the poverty line.

I figured I couldn’t just ask the women how much money they made every day, since most of them were raising crops or animals to eat or barter with. So, I did what any self respecting person would do in this situation; I asked Google.

The first thing I searched for was “how to measure the international poverty line”. After trawling through pages and pages of results I found essays from the Word Bank defending their $1.25 cut-off, Wikipedia articles explaining the difference between relative and absolute poverty, and passionate debates from Oxfam on whether it’s even reasonable to have an international poverty line at all. But despite all those opinions, I still couldn’t find a single website, blog or article that could tell me what questions I needed to ask the women to find out if they were under or over the poverty line.

After days of aimless clicking I eventually stumbled on the Grameen Progress Out of Poverty Index®, which uses just 10 simple questions to assess the likelihood that a household falls below the poverty line. It was a revelation! Finally I could measure how many of the women were actually below the poverty line, and shockingly it was only around 30% (for a video of me ranting about this, see my TEDxPhnomPenh talk).

Is it only me?

Ever since I started working in international development, I’ve run into practical problems on an almost daily basis. How do you measure if people’s quality of life is actually improving? How big should a per diem be so that it covers costs without bribing participants? What’s the best way to write a focus group guide? How can you write survey questions that people will answer honestly?

At first I felt that everyone else must already know how to do these things. But, over time I’ve realised that most other people are in the same boat. Many people working or volunteering in the aid & international development sector don’t have specialist qualifications in the area. Even those with qualifications can be overwhelmed by complicated buzzwords, academic frameworks, and a fear that “everyone else knows exactly what to do” (even though many others are thinking the same thing). Online there seems to be plenty of opinionated debate about aid, but it’s hard to find the practical tools you need to actually do your job.

Launching tools4dev – www.tools4dev.orgScreen Shot 2013-05-17 at 8.00.22 AM

I’ve always believed there’s no point complaining about a problem if you aren’t going to do something about it. A few months ago, my partner and I started working on a new website called tools4dev. The aim of tools4dev is to help people find the many useful tools that are already available and explain how to use them in easy-to-understand language. We’re also creating our own templates and how-to guides with practical tips and tricks on common tasks (as we learn them ourselves!).

At tools4dev we’re all about tools, so we’ll be leaving the blue sky thinking to those hip millennials at WhyDev and the other aid blogs. This month we’re launching our first round of practical articles, including how to write awesome survey questions, 7 things you can do to help stop per diem abuse, and a review of the Progress Out of Poverty Index®. There are also some book reviews and free templates already available.

Over the next few months we’ll be testing the site and adding more content. If you have any feedback, or you’d like to contribute by writing a review, how-to guide or template, please contact us or tweet us @tools4dev. You can also sign up for email updates if you want to receive the latest articles from the site straight to your inbox.


Are development workers foxes or hedgehogs?

I was getting up to date on WhyDev and came across the post ’8 things I wish I knew before I started in development’ by Rachel Kurzyp.

This post makes a lot of valid points and is well worth the read. I must admit that I clicked on it with an expectation of banality – ever since the Huffington Post took the format of ‘X things to know about Y’ and flooded the internet with vapid articles such titles immediately provoke a sense of wariness – but was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I found one point, the second, stuck with me for several days:

2. It’s important to be a generalist

While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.

I think this is sound advice. Trends and fashions change the prevailing winds in development at least as much as in any other sector. As nurses or teachers will tell you, any industry that politicians have direct and immediate access to is liable to get shaken up, oh, every four years or so. It would, therefore, be cruel to advise any wannabe development types (like myself) to specialise too soon. Besides, there are a lot of ‘basic’ skills and experiences you have to get under your belt before you can think about hunkering down into a speciality and living up to that possibly dubious ‘expert’ tag you’re itching to add to your Twitter bio.

This got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay The Hedgehog And The Fox which opens by examining the divide between specialists and generalists:

There is a line amongst the fragments of the Greek Poet Archilochus which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”… Taken figuratively,  the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writer and thinkers and, it may be, human beings in general.

Source: Flickr

It would seem to me that development workers are foxes, or, at least, better off being foxes. These are not categorisations intended to be taken as gospel truth, of course. Berlin goes on to point out that these lines could be, very specifically, about actual hedgehogs and foxes – i.e. hedgehogs know one way to stop a fox from eating them and it is a successful one despite the different techniques of the fox. But, as a thought experiment, it is a nice way to start thinking about colleagues or thinkers or professors or writers or, if you’re feeling particularly  brave, even yourself. It is especially interesting to examine the industry in light of this artificial definition.

Is it useful for development workers to be foxes?

I agree with the WhyDev post in that it makes those workers more employable and probably easier to work with. But is that missing the bigger picture? Perhaps the generalist outlook of development is misguided. Perhaps it perpetuates a system that seems to be addicted to reinvention, to new bold narratives of change and progress. Such things fill the blogosphere with laments and generally the big guys get pointed out as culprits – donors, governments, the military. While the notion of the development worker as a fox opens up excellent opportunities in punning blog post headlines, this could well be scant reward for collusion in ineptitude.

Alternatively,  you could argue that the hedgehog is a disastrous profile for a development worker. It suggests inflexibility which makes team based projects a strained experience at best. Is there anyway a development project, let alone entire organisation, would work without an emphasis on teamwork? Sure, the fox might go low on details but at least it will try to innovate and attempt different options –  the notion of listening to stakeholders at beneficiary and benefactor level seems too sound to throw away to me. That might be worth defending the vulpine status quo on its own.

Once again, the model is something of a nonsense but, play along. Think about it in a context close to you and see if it doesn’t stick in your mind. It did for me. If you have thoughts, please post them below so readers can access more coherent thoughts than my own. If it doesn’t stick with you then… well, that’s just typical fox behaviour isn’t it?

This post first appeared on Rowan’s blog, UpLook.


Time to talk: The Practical Initiatives Network

by Eleanor Paton and Alice Jowett

Eleanor Paton has just finished volunteering for Conversations with Foreigners and the Asian International Justice Initiative in Cambodia. She has an MA Legal and Political Theory from UCL and is marketing for the Practical Initiatives Network (@PIN_Network). You can follow her at @eleanorpea and www.eleanorpaton.com.

Alice Jowett is the founder of the Practical Initiatives Network. She is a development professional and a PhD student at the University of Leeds: http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/research/students/jowett.php.

It can be frustrating to see organisations expend considerable time and money on initiatives that either reinvent the wheel, or make the same mistakes others have made before them.

The cost of doing so in the development sector is particularly high. Funding for initiatives is too hard to come by to be wasted, and intended positive changes are not achieved when an initiative is unsuccessful.

Capitalising on collective knowledge

Whilst a multitude of development organisations are running different initiatives to achieve similar goals, there is comparatively little general information and awareness about the details of other organisations’ initiatives. However, if the development sector is to avoid the charge of consistently ‘reinventing the wheel’ then there must be a means through which development organisations can access the knowledge that the ‘wheel’ already exists. (For further information see this journal article on scaling-up).

We believe the sector needs a platform for development organisations, regardless of their size, reach and background, to be able to share information about their initiatives and the lessons they have learned along the way.

The new Practical Initiatives Network (PIN) attempts to meet this need by acting as an evidence base for development organisations, helping avoid reinvention while opening the door to the scaling-up and replication of successful initiatives.

Sharing what didn’t work…

Lack of information on initiatives is particularly noticeable when they don’t quite achieve their original intentions. Development organisations are frequently under pressure to see this purely as a ‘failure’ and to hide their difficulties or mistakes, particularly from their donors.

Yet information on what doesn’t or hasn’t worked is often just as (if not more) valuable to the development community as what has. The ability to share knowledge and learn from each other has significant potential for development organisations and a failure to do so is at the very least disappointing!

With the precious few resources available for development organisations, wasting the resource of practitioner knowledge and experience should not be so common. As New Philanthropy Capital’s recent impact survey found, however, most charities would like to change this practice of ‘hiding failures’. More than 70% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Charities should be encouraged to report failures or negative results.” At PIN we hope to provide a forum where these ‘failures’ can be talked about constructively and in doing so we hope to help others avoid similar pitfalls.

…and sharing what did.

Of course collective knowledge is not only about sharing ‘failures’. Sharing information about what has worked and why can be extremely valuable. This knowledge can lead to effective initiatives being scaled-up and replicated, as well as having the potential to encourage networking and partnerships, to reduce duplication and to inspire others.

Development organisations looking for more creative ways to meet their goals could learn a lot from initiatives that have gone before them. Organisations looking for new creative funding mechanisms, for example, might learn valuable lessons from Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) and the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) listed on PIN here: CWT and CRDT.

As outlined in a recent Guardian article, CWF was established in response to CRDT’s search for a more predictable and sustainable source of funding than donations. As well as providing funding for CRDT, CWF also provides low cost conversational English language classes to local students in Phnom Penh and encourages cultural exchanges with its foreign volunteer teachers.

Our hope is that PIN will become a valuable resource to the development community by acting as a searchable database of initiatives such as these. PIN encourages organisations to share their ideas and offer advice to one another in a public, searchable forum, while at the same time publicising and providing links to the work they do. We believe in this kind of dialogue and its possibilities for helping development organisations become more effective in achieving their goals.

How to get involved

PIN was founded in early 2013 by Alice Jowett who recognised the benefits of this kind of sharing but could not identify an open, free, worldwide, cross-sector platform for development organisations to share their ideas and learn from each other’s successful (and less successful) initiatives. PIN invites development organisations to add their initiatives to the site regardless of their size, reach or background and to share their ideas and experiences by commenting on other organisation’s initiatives.

As a new start-up, PIN has a lot to learn when it comes to getting a website like this off the ground. With a few crash-courses in social media behind us, we now have a Twitter account (@PIN_Network) and Facebook page (Practical Initiatives Network – PIN), which we invite anyone with an interest in development to join. Through these sites we are able to provide regular updates and information about initiatives, as well as spread the news when a new initiative is added to the website.

Central to PIN is the idea that it will continually evolve with the needs of its users, and so we invite and very much encourage feedback and suggestions for improvement. We’re also continually looking for ways to build the network and spread the word so appreciate any hints, tips or direct action to help us manage this.
PIN also has a page for useful websites so please let us know of any that people might find useful.

Most of all, if you are involved with a development initiative, or know someone who is, please make sure it is uploaded to the website and joins the PIN network! You can visit and communicate with PIN at: www.practicalinitiatives.org.

Beasts of the Global North and South

After all, when evaluating a Redfin job applicant one of the big questions I’m trying to answer is “when did she do something hard?”

It could be something you put yourself through for fun like running a marathon or far more serious like fighting in a war. It could be the grinding repetition of preparing for a piano recital or the grit required to dig ditches or paint houses for a living. It could be raising a child all by yourself.

Maybe some of these examples sound preposterous to you, but they’re what the rest of America does every day. Looking for candidates who have visited that hard place in themselves at one point in their life isn’t some Marxist fantasy of mine. It’s how capitalism works best. (“Searching For Beasts In Silicon Valley’s ‘War For Talent’,” Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, on TechCrunch)

“Searching for Beasts”. I love this phrase in the title of Kelman’s post. If anthropomorphism (“human-shaped”) is the personification of human characteristics to animals, then describing someone as a Beast is the best example of re-anthropomorphism.  A Beast conjures images of hungerdesirecommitment and strength. And, like a ‘Beast’, we must do what the head of products at Kelman’s first start-up job advised him to do again and again: “Just go figure it out”.

Beasts are perhaps not even real; at least not in our taxonomy of the animal kingdom. It is a generic term, at its base, for a wild animal. Its form does not hold shape in our consciousness. Tiger – sure. Dragon – awesome. Unicorn – majestic. Beast – ummm, what? I saw a show in Mexico once…

That is why no major sporting franchise has adopted the Beast as its flag-bearer. Viking, Titan, Jazz, Fire, Storm, Cardinal, Yankee. These all call to mind a shape. A character. A definition. The re-anthropomorphic representation of a city or geographical area and a group of people professionally employed to improve and showcase their athletic talents. What does a ‘Beast’ call to mind? Darkness. Untamed. Feral. Uncivilised. Not the best mascot for a city.

But, it appears that someone or some movement, has started to take it back as both a noun and a verb (perhaps the same movement that has taken back ‘crush’, as in “I’m crushing this essay!”). Certain athletes are described as ‘Beasts’ for their consistent performances that demonstrate something unreal (as in “Dwight Howard is a Beast!” or “Marshawn Lynch is a Beast!“). And, it is time we start talking about the search and need for Beasts in the aid and development sector.

The ‘Beast’ within

The relationship, interaction and embodiment between humans and beasts pre-dates written histories, as Tom Henighan describes.The Sumerians, Greeks and Romans all have stories that helped create this idea of the Beast.

In the famous Roman picaresque novel The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius (born 125 C.E.) , the hero is metamorphosed into a jackass, as punishment for his curiosity and lust. The beast within is embodied concretely in the transformation of his outward shape, and he is cured only by the rose of love and the goddess Isis (Tom Henighan).

Stories in the Bible depict demons associated with animals, with Beasts. They are dark side of human nature, which every one is at risk of falling prey to if tempted. More contemporary ideas of the Beast reflect more positive attributes, such as having good instincts.

We need to amend and expand the advice given to Kelman, which will better reflect the attitude of a moden Beast: “Just got figure it out and do what it takes“.

Discussions about studying and working in the humanitarian world are often timid, deferential and sentimental. Forget about whether or not it is fair to complete the mandatory internships or volunteer placements. Just go figure it out and do what it takes. Yes, there is some valuable career advice from people smarter than you or I, but just go figure it out and do what it takes.

The aid and development sector needs athletes that are tough and resourceful, from both the so called ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’. Certainly not the Harlem Globetrotters, who were technically skilful, entertaining and could win a game or two (and certainly not any one who has appeared in a Harlem Shake video).

The typical humanitarian worker is like the Beast in many ways, but particularly in terms of shape. How do you define this person? What do they look like? There is no discernable shape or form that holds. For some, it will be the UN, fishing jacket-wearing on a background of conflict, disease and displacement. Or, it is the business-casual, desk-riding bureaucrat on a background of reports, resolutions and system failures. There is no one standard mould. We need to re-imagine any and all these forms that come to mind, as they do not quite hold up.

This concept of the Beast taps into the human-potential movement, which everyone from economists to educators have been framing. However, it is critical to realise that no matter how committed, hungry or strong you are, you will fail. You will not always meet your own expectations or the expectations of others. You will not get satisfaction all the time. As Joan Acocella’s recent review of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ latest book said, in identfiying the crux of Phillip’s essay, “on occasion we’ll get satisfaction and on occasion we won’t”.

Kelmen reflects on his progress and what it took to get to the other side of the interview table. He states that one of the biggest questions that he is trying to answer in reviewing job applications is: “when did she do something hard?”

I love this too, and it fits nicely in the Beast mould. Kelmen references actions like running a marathon, being a soldier, painting houses or a living, or being a single parent. So, ask yourself, “when did you do something hard?” When did you do something that required you to be tough, resourceful, hungry and committed?

However, a Beast like any animal also has to rest, recuperate and recover. And, the central advice still applies here to preventing stress and burnout: “Just go figure it out and do what it takes” to take care of yourself.

This does not mean finding a work-life balance. Alessandra Pigni finds the concept of ‘work-life balance’ irrelevant and outdated. She refers to creating, finding and nurturing ‘work-life meaning’. Figure out what it takes to be healthy in what you do, and do what ever it takes to find work and a workplace that has meaning. Athletes take care of themselves in everything they do, both in competition and in preparation for competition.

When did you do something hard? How are you a Beast in your development job?


Why your non-profit CEO needs to be the M&E officer

Your eyes might not be shut, you might not be snoring, or drooling on your pillow, but that glazed look in your eyes tells me that you’re definitely not as into this subject as I am.

Why not? Well everyone knows that monitoring and evaluation is tables, indicators, log-frames, databases and statistics and that those weirdos people who work in M&E just can’t get enough of those excel spreadsheets. Let’s face it: that’s boring.

But is that really what monitoring and evaluation is about? I don’t think it is. All those tools and methodologies are really just that, tools and methodologies. M&E is the questions that those tools and methodologies seek to answer, and that’s not boring at all. In fact it’s the most important thing your organisation should be doing, and it’s something that needs to come from right at the top.

M&E is essentially about asking three fundamental questions:

  1. Are we doing what we said we would do?
  2. Are we making any difference?
  3. Are these the right things to be doing?

These three questions look at internal validity, our ‘impact’ and finally at our relevancy. Within this come questions on our specific approach. Are we efficient? Are we focusing on the right partners? Donors? Most crucially, are we meeting communities’ needs? Part of these questions is learning from our experiences to improve our work, and this is what M&E is all about.

Too often M&E, much like communications, and (insert your area of work) is seen as an add-on, a luxury, or a tick-box exercise to appease funders. But M&E is not a technical issue. M&E is an organisational change issue. It is so much more than log-frames and indicators.

Monitoring and evaluation necessitates an organisational culture that is open to questioning the very fundamentals of its work, approach, and very existence. Many organisations are not ready to question these things, and therefore the true value of monitoring and evaluation is lost, and it is used mainly for accountability to donors with indicators that do not reflect the reality of projects or outcomes. We are all familiar with that version of M&E.

But if an organisation’s main use for monitoring and evaluation is learning and organisational change, then the possibilities for improving our work are immense. This requires a culture that is open to admitting failure, which embraces constructive criticism and strives for excellence. Most importantly, it requires strong collaborative processes during the planning and design phases for projects.

M&E is about learning and changing. It needn’t rely heavily on statistics, indicators or log-frames. None of that is valuable without the right culture. In fact, it is meaningless without the right culture.

To use an extreme example, it is far more valuable to have an organisation that sets informal meetings and asks these questions without any data collection methods than to have one that has elaborate data collection processes without seeking to truly answer these questions. This is where the importance of organisational leadership comes in to play.

Emanuel text box

What does your boss do?

A CEO of a non-profit has two main roles. Their first role is to look at the internal running of the organisation, which is essentially M&E. Their second role is external relations, which is essentially networking.

nonprofit donor loyalty primerLooking internally – M&E for learning and change

The real role of any CEO in a non-profit is to provide leadership, to facilitate planning and to work with the board to set strategic goals.

This person facilitates discussions on the organisation’s strategy that should be wholly based on a planning and learning process. But how can you do this?

That means creating an organisational culture that enables staff to talk openly, and candidly, about everything that comes under the scope of the organisation, where no topic is taboo. That means challenging salaries (gasp!), where we work, how we work, and with whom we work. It should all be on the table. It means creating a culture where constructively evaluating everything that you do becomes embedded in the organisation.  It becomes ‘just the way we do things around here.’

Strong, clear processes need to be developed and formalised to ensure that this culture leads to constructive change and planning, that prohibits over analysis and paralysis but that creates avenues for change. Once this happens, the relevancy and the contribution that your organisation makes to social change will skyrocket.

But because your eye is not just on making a difference but also on the bottom line, here’s the second reason to embed this M&E culture into your organisation.

Looking externally – M&E for communications

Getting the money in… It is the biggest worry for most senior management teams. But what tools do we have? Networking, communications, external relations and fundraising. That difficult sales pitch. But aren’t these things all pretty much about the same thing? Aren’t they just about telling good stories?

The reality is that storytelling is what makes or breaks an NGO in terms of funding and this has a direct link to monitoring and evaluation. In fact, it is an essential link.

Monitoring and evaluation provides you with those stories, with the information that is key, not just for looking at relevance, learning and change, but for delivering your message.

By integrating M&E and communications into the very fabric of the organisation’s culture, you will be able to generate incredible content and be able to use that content to tell stories. It can be as simple as something like including Most Significant Change in approaches to projects. But what is truly remarkable is that M&E and communications are not often thought of as going hand-in-hand.

It is true that you need a great communications team to craft the right messages for your audience, but good communications staff can do little without information. That is why investing in M&E that can bring out successes, challenges and stories is so important.

Two customers

Most NGO’s are dinosaurs. We all know that if NGO’s had to compete in the private sector they would very quickly cease to exist. This is mainly because of the fact that NGO’s operate in a unique and conflicted way.

In fact, NGO’s serve two customers with radically different needs. The first customer group are the beneficiaries of our work, the reason for the existence of the organisation and where our focus should always be. Unfortunately most organisations cannot work with only this group; they also have to work with the second customer group.

The second customer group is, of course, the money. We can all feel like slaves to donors and the funders of our work. Both these groups expect different things from an organisation, and inevitably, because of the basic need for organisations to survive, we focus on the second group.

Slowly but surely, the way we work is affected by this focus, and it skews our objectives and goals. It hampers our very ability to effectively put our first set of customers, the beneficiaries of our work, in charge.

This can change. One of the main reasons that real M&E is not part of almost all NGO’s cultures is for the fear of alienating or upsetting this second group of customers. But the fact is these customers should, and would, embrace this culture. This is what they are looking for.

It just requires leaders with enough insight and confidence to implement this kind of culture in their organisations and the results would be remarkable.

Monitoring, evaluation and the search for ‘impact’

It is hard for anyone, be it the general public, donors, governments or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not to want to commit resources to saving lives. Who wouldn’t? There is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you have contributed towards the preservation of human life, what could be better than something so worthy? Big foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres celebrate their achievements of saving lives. In fact, it is tempting for any organisation working in development to want to show that they are making a difference.

The football player Didier Drogba, Bono, Nike CEO Mark Parker, RED boss Susan Smith Ellis and Global Fund CEO Michel Kazatchine are all saving lives with football boot laces.
The football player Didier Drogba, Bono, Nike CEO Mark Parker, RED CEO Susan Smith Ellis and former Global Fund ED Michel Kazatchkine are all saving lives with football boot laces.

Due to an increase in calls for accountability in international development, and for direct results from investment to be made clear, the aid community and governments have been trying more and more to show value for money in their projects, to show that there is a true ‘impact’ to their work.

Hence the incredible growth over the last 20 years of monitoring and evaluation in international development; seeing the introduction of the much maligned log-frame, a results-based mechanism for measuring project milestones; and the search for the ever elusive impact of development projects.

Whether this is done by displaying giant pie charts on NGO websites showing that 99% of funds received are spent on programme costs with only 1% spent on administrative costs, surely the worst way to judge a charity, or by claiming that a project supporting vocational teacher training in Manila’s impact was poverty reduction in the Philippines, we are surely summarising achievements in the worst possible way.

It is no coincidence that the largest NGOs by funding are also the best at marketing. ‘Saving lives’ is an easy sell. But let’s think a little more about what it actually means to save a life, and the impact of an aid project on someone’s life.

For instance, if a child is vaccinated against measles, in an area where this is a common disease, could he be grouped into a category of children vaccinated, his life seemingly saved by the reduction in the number of measles cases contracted in this area? This attribution shows some logic, and this is why organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation make videos and campaigns about saving lives.

But let’s take a step back. What about the development of that vaccine? The countless researchers who worked on this? The other researchers who influenced them? If we look at investment in research itself, can we attribute this to a life saved? What about the manufacturer of this product? Are they also saving lives? What about the government that invested in the research? Has their investment saved this life also? Here the attribution starts to break down.

As an end supplier of a ‘product,’ it is easy for a development organisation to claim that they are saving lives, but it took a complex system to develop and deliver this vaccine, and that causality and attribution is something that is much harder to show. Ultimately what all of these actors are doing is contributing towards a reduced chance of mortality, which is hardly sexy. In reality these actors are all part of a system contributing towards a much greater whole.

I’m part of something much bigger?
I’m part of something much bigger?

Measuring impact, which by definition is forceful in its nature, is the antithesis of development, which is never successful as an imposition.

Making less grandiose and glamorous claims will also help us to put development work into perspective, no longer singling out certain parts of the system for recognition, but instead acknowledging a much greater and more complex chain of events and processes that contributes towards development, and the small but significant contribution that development projects and funding play within this.

We need to stop focusing on ‘impact’ because it encourages vertical programming and dramatic marketable programmes with easily attributable end results. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be measuring what the contribution of our work is, but that we need to stop looking at how we ‘impact’ but instead what our contribution is.

This will lead to more intelligent programming and a system-based approach that ultimately makes a much bigger contribution towards development.

Systems approach to development

This could be something as simple as adopting new measures such as contribution mapping or outcome mapping (a more commonly used approach).

If we design and measure our work in terms of our contributions, we will start to understand and see our work in different terms, and this will have a profound and positive effect on development approaches. It might be a tough sell to donors and to the general public, to whom donors are ultimately answerable, but we owe them the truth.


Making the world better does not make you better

Things No One Told Me

There is a lot (a LOT) of discussion out there right now about how to do aid work. You can get an advanced degree in International Development, or Humanitarian Aid, or a hundred permutations, all of which somehow revolve around make you a professional aid worker. There are organizations like ELHRA dedicated specifically to professionalizing the humanitarian sector; Harvard (among several others) is trying to crank out uber-aid workers via its Humanitarian Academy, Tufts U. has got a whole center devoted to humanitarian studies; not to mention a gamut of formal and less formal organizations from ALNAP to HAP to The Sphere Project, all focused on telling you (along with the rest of us) how to do aid work: how to do a proper community assessment or how to run a proper NFI distribution, and certainly how to think about important-sounding topics like “neutrality” or “impartiality.” All fair enough: the move to professionalize the humanitarian sector* is decades overdue. It’s possible to do aid wrong, and we (including you, if you aspire to the role and title of “humanitarian”) have the responsibility to do aid right.

But as I talk to up-and-coming younger colleagues, or as I eavesdrop on conversations at the expat bar, or read the email coming from some of you, I begin to get the sense that while there is plenty of guidance out there for you about how to do your job properly – how to do aid work – I begin to get the sense that no one has had a straight conversation with you about how you should live the life. I get the sense that no one has talked to you about how to be an aid worker.

It’s important to understand that these are different things, doing the work and living the life. The demands and the ideals of the work frequently pit us against ourselves. And this in not at all unique to the humanitarian sector: it is precisely the tension between doing the work and living the life that makes the majority of television worth watching, whether it’s Law & Order or MI5 or Grey’s Anatomy or [INSERT NAME OF FAVORITE PRIME-TIME DRAMA]. Although there has thus far not been a convincing television drama show about aid work, it’s still important for you to understand that this tension exists, and how get a grip on how to manage it. I’m not saying that this is the end-all, be-all. But, after looking back at those times when I personally have struggled, and after to innumerable late-night talks where other aid workers, old and young, shared their struggles with me, maybe these would be a place to start:

Get a Life.

Simple as that. Get a life. Get a life outside of the aid world. Maybe those working in other fields are the same – I really can’t say. But I do know that aid workers are horribly prone to letting aid work and the aid world consume them. Sometimes we revel in it. Maybe we revel in being a workaholic or being an aid nerd. Sometimes we truly allow ourselves to be consumed by it. Many see humanitarianism as a higher calling or a life mission or a destiny and willingly allow themselves to be taken over by it.

But, even if for no other reason than bald self-interest, get a grip, have a life. Get a hobby not related to aid work (I brew beer); have friends who are not aid workers; be a tourist; see a movie; have a beer with someone who is not an aid worker. Join a reading group. Take yoga. Have a network outside of the aid world. Find balance.

Making the world better does not make you better.

For as much energy as we all invest in self-deprecation, explaining ad nauseum that we’re contingent, subjective knowers……………we basically think we’re better than everybody else. Yes, I know, you’ll all get indignant at reading this, especially the older aid workers. But it’s true. It’s true that we all think it, but it’s not true that it’s true. Being an aid worker, dedicating your life to eradicating extreme poverty or reducing human suffering or speaking truth to power on behalf of the helpless, all the while enduring harsh conditions or low salary, does not make you a good person.

It sounds harsh, but it has to be said. It’s important to understand that doing good things does not make you good. It is important to understand that good people can and frequently do do bad things. Not all good doers (confession: I positively loathe the term “do gooder”) are nice. You need to enter the aid world understanding that you will have to work and deal and maybe even share quarters with some truly nasty individuals. You need to understand that you, too, may do things that are not nice, things that you’re not particularly proud of. And you need to understand that this is nothing at all about your competence as a humanitarian. Being deeply committed to reducing the amount of injustice in the world, and expending great amounts of energy and personal resource towards that end in no way precludes you from treating your staff unjustly. It’s the opposite of “but he/she/they mean(s) well…” argument, all too frequently used to justify everything from poor individual performance to ridiculously reasoned startup NGOs.

You can be a basically good person and do bad things; just as a bad person can also do good things.

Be an aid worker if you want. Try to be a good person, regardless of your profession. And understand that in no way does one predetermine the other.

Make Peace With Reality that Your job is about bringing change…

One of the great paradoxes of the aid world is that on one hand we want to right wrongs, level playing fields, reduce inequity, empower the marginalized, above all make the world better. While on the other hand we have a deep conviction that we must always appreciate all things “local”, we must listen to beneficiaries, we must go to great lengths to understand “our” “beneficiaries” on their terms and not judge them and not make pronouncements about their values and choices. I can remember a number of specific occasions when the lights came on for me, when it suddenly clicked: the thing I’d been missing was a local perspective, a local sensibility.

Yes, of course – of course – local matters. We have to listen to people, include them in design and strategy discussions, involve them in evaluations. If aid doesn’t work for the end-users, recipients, beneficiaries, or whatever term you prefer, then it doesn’t work. Full stop.

But I think we make a dangerous mistake by trying to hide or downplay or shy away from acknowledging the simple fact that as aid workers it is our job to bring change.

It is. It just is.

We think that things are not as good as they could be. Or maybe we can see objectively that they plain suck. We think we have answers or knowledge or skill that could be used to make things better. We believe that we have something to offer. Acknowledging this does not make us arrogant or know-it-all. Acknowledging that we think we know a better way does not preclude us from being humble or open to new learning. It doesn’t mean that we cannot be wrong or get it wrong. It simply makes us honest.

And while it may seem cool (in an older aid worker kind of nerdy way) to ramble on about how “the longer you’re in the game the less you know…”, you’d better understand and make peace with the reality that it is your job to bring change. Whether you’re local or expat, whether you’re on the tail end of the cold chain, injecting babies with live vaccines all day or, or whether you’re sitting in a cubicle editing the notes from life-saving meetings, you need to understand that you’re part of a machine that makes changes in other people’s lives. It can be intrusive. It can be invasive. It is audacious.

Have your moments of doubt, your crises of faith. Wax melancholy into your Grenache or your craft beer with your trendy friends at happy hour. But your job is about taking change from here and applying it over there.

Make peace with this reality.