There is nothing particularly remarkable about Mae Sot. The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge can be reached by following the AH1 for just a few kilometres west. A short bicycle ride, as trucks and lorries kick up dirt and dust, brings you to what is typical of any border town; markets full of electronics, home-wares and food. The bridge links two countries that couldn’t be more different, yet are seemingly forever linked by the presence in Thailand of over 500,000 refugees from Myanmar.
Durable solutions for refugees who have been living in camps for more than two decades is as seemingly out of reach, even as a political transition across the border opens the door to expanded operations from international aid, trade and diplomatic sectors. A question posed by Brookings last year asks, “whether the outpouring of foreign aid to Myanmar expected in the medium term (three to five years) will be more of a blessing than a curse”. It is a question that any student or professional in the humanitarian sector should seriously be considering.
What makes Mae Sot remarkable for me personally is WhyDev. I spent a few weeks in the first quarter of 2010 in the town, having returned from India on an internship with the Centre for Refugee Research. My partner was researching education and language policy in the refugee camps with the same organisation, and I was visiting. We were both in the middle of completing our Masters in development studies at the University of NSW. I spent much of my time in Mae Sot either eating Burmese tea leaf salad or drinking tea at a cafe with free WiFi.
I had experimented in unsuccessful travel blogging while moving through India in 2009; unsuccessful in the sense that only mum read my posts. I started to study and read the aid and development blogging scene, or blogosphere, while in Mae Sot. (People were still using the term ‘blogosphere’ back then). We are spoilt for choice in writers, voices and platforms today, but this was not so in 2010.
J’s, of Tales from the Hood, first post was only in April 2009, Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters in June 2010 and Duncan Green in 2008. There was a lack of young voices questioning, discussing and debating what we were being exposed to in development theory seminars or right-based approaches to programming. So, I registered the domain name, thewhyofdevelopment.com.
The rest is far from history. We had our Facebook moment. Mike Clay, friend of the site, suggested that we drop ‘the’ and shorten to ‘WhyDev’. (Thanks Mike!). I reached out to eight other Masters students at UNSW and friends to collaborate. We met at a cafe in the suburb of Glebe, Sydney. Four years, and 400 posts later, WhyDev is on the front lines of questioning everything we hold dear in global development.
One particular person stuck around after that meeting in Glebe. Weh Yeoh has been the other half of WhyDev since its inception, bringing new meaning to the concept of ‘bromance‘. He shares a spirit of critical inquiry, grounded in empathy and compassion. Together, with Allison, Daniel and Laurie, we are planning for the future of WhyDev. A future built on the foundations of an incredible community of engaged humanitarians, where the needs and strengths of those on the margins are prioritised. We are committed to getting development right.
This starts with Weh’s current work at CABDICO, a Cambodian NGO dedicated to supporting and empowering people with disabilities. Community development in action. He was recently featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighting the economic and moral argument for speech therapy for 600,000 people in Cambodia. On the back of it, they are also running a crowdfunding campaign that you must support within the next three weeks.
This is the future of global development; in particular, how humanitarian and development professionals work, support and empower individuals and communities. It is about focusing on the equitable distribution of knowledge, resources and capital within global development; moving from saviours to savoir-faire,top-down to bottom-led, duplication to replication, global development to why development?
But from where I sit, I don’t see too much hope for post-2015 development, which is driven by a deceptively benign-sounding ideology that manages only to alleviate symptoms of disease that it simultaneously perpetuates.
I call the ideology “starting from scratch,” and it is especially disappointing to hear this ideology expressed by highly-regarded aid reformers like Paul Farmer. His recent article re-thinking foreign aid says that aid is needed to alleviate human suffering, and he calls for more aid to be delivered through local public systems. It’s a worthy-sounding argument, but it starts from scratch, ignoring the causes of continued vulnerability of children, of non-literacy, of inaccessibility of basic infrastructure and services.
Can we know how aid affects problems without also understanding what is causing the problems? Without analysis, not only of the historical roots of current problems, but also of the ways that need is recreated and perpetuated in the very fabric of today’s global society, we end up with an unexamined assumption that poverty just “is.” This implies that poverty is somehow innate or genetic to those who experience it. With that worldview, any effort to address poverty is going from nothing to something, from stasis to action, because we are “starting from scratch.”
But there is an alternative ideology. More and more aid critics and development justice activists espouse the view that development is an ordinary, instinctual, human process that, if allowed, will proceed naturally with the momentum of gravity and humanity. We are not “starting from scratch” but rather joining ongoing processes driven by inherent strengths and utilizing historically-nurtured assets and capacities.
Working from this ideology, the task of the international development community should be first and foremost to get out of the way. The second task should be to stop others from getting in the way. Only then should the international development community embark upon the third task—to humbly inquire if there is any way they can help. I call this ideology “supporting responsibly,” and if taken to heart, this would require a fundamentally different approach to international “development” work.
Development actors would need to find the existing developmental energy–which means recognizing its value–analyze and confront the obstacles that impede those natural forces, and remove the obstacles (which will likely require them to give up privileges). This is political work, systemic work, and self-work. It is not comprised of conducting assessments, running workshops and producing reports. Working from the “supporting responsibly” ideology would require development actors to be self-reflective, power-aware, and sensitive listeners, never competing with, ignoring or looking down on “locals” and certainly not trying to transform them.
Sadly, Paul Farmer, like so many other well-intentioned development actors, seems to be caught in a trap of oblivious self-righteousness that I consider part of the problem. He says the phrase “Local solutions for local problems” is “a commonly encountered liberal piety of development work.” He explains: “Many problems originate outside of people’s own communities: most trade regimes, all epidemics, and just about anything to do with climate change.”
This is true! But he goes on to argue that vaccines, pedagogic materials and shoes should not be manufactured locally. To me, this is a non sequitur. If Farmer admits the problems originate outside, then they should be solved outside (in other words, fix the trade regimes!) rather than alleviating the symptoms with externally imposed, short-term fixes, that enable the perpetrators to keep on causing damage.
Moreover, Farmer’s wrong-headed “starting from scratch” ideology leads him to say, “If we are able to strengthen in-country capacity so recipients can manage their own affairs, one day we will eliminate the need for anything other than partnerships.”
But if he spoke from the “supporting responsibly” ideology, he would say, “If we stop actively and intentionally destroying in-country capacity, then surely recipients, like all human beings, can manage their own affairs, and until then, anything we do except in full partnership with locals will be contradictory to that goal.”
Without understanding aid-givers’ role in creating the problems they seek to address, then it’s impossible to assess if and how aid may be “helping.” To use a harsh analogy: Should home invaders pat themselves on the back and take credit for letting hostages eat from their own refrigerator?
The expiration of the Millennium Development Goals provides an opportunity for those who claim to care about development to think about what’s next. I suggest we think first about how we got to the state of inequality, unnecessary suffering, and climate devastation that we find ourselves in now.
Nora Lester Murad is a writer and activist in Jerusalem, Palestine. Her blog, “The View from My Window in Palestine” at covers issues of aid, development and life under Israeli military occupation. She is a dedicated volunteer with Dalia Association, the first Palestinian community foundation, where she works on aid reform, philanthropy promotion, and civil society accountability.
Oxfam GB began a new ad campaign for Africa this month that has immediately come underscrutiny. At the same, time Oxfam America is launching a new campaign that is also centred largely on Africa, but not entirely. Only a few days younger than its British counterpart, the American campaign has yet to draw the ire of anyone, while the British has required justification from Oxfam GB’s CEO, Dame Stocking.
Sharpening the same old rusty tools
Times have changed, and the audience along with it. They are a more savvy consumer of advertising, but also more globally aware. To compare an ad from today, and the message it’s attempting to purport, is to deny not only the use and effects of previous campaigns, but also the changes that have occurred within society at large.
The situation in Africa or Central America, Asia and elsewhere for that matter, is different from that of 20, 30, 40 years ago. The means of communication have changed, but then so have the organisations (especially the communications staff). Advertising and advocacy campaigns have grown rusty amid the changing global environment. Advertising is a tool that needs to be sharpened constantly – particularly as it’s a tool that’s been inherited. If your grandfather gave you an old spade you’d simply hone the edge or maybe replace the handle rather than tossing it aside.
Newly honed: there’s a definite edge
Both the British and American Oxfam campaigns for Africa are a fresh take on an old issue. Vibrant colours, stunning photographs and a funky font make for eye-catching yet clean material. The differences though are immediately apparent. The British have gone in for landscapes, showcasing the verdant and varied biosphere, while the Americans have gone for the individuals, encapsulating the personal side to Africa.
Each is a distinctly different approach. Yet through both of them you can see the unifying essence that is Oxfam and their mission. How each campaign is being wielded does more than simply identify the nascent development of the campaigns’ consumers, who want more than the blatant messages of conflict and famines of the 80s and 90s. It shows a great understanding on the part of all stakeholders that advertising is a tool that all should have a share in.
A committee need not be convened to approve every message from every stakeholders’ standpoint – the gods know there are already too many committees involved in aid and development. The mere fact that organisations like Oxfam are taking into account the wider cultural effects shows they’ve graduated from swinging a machete to pulling out the pruning shears. It doesn’t mean they’re as deft as they could be, but you cannot grow and nurture a bonsai overnight even with tiny tools.
Calling a spade… something with a handle
Oxfam GB and Oxfam America target different audiences with their respective campaigns. There are similarities between the target audiences, but there are enough differences that varied campaigns are a prerequisite. Each campaign is also focused on different issues; for GB it’s about reimagining Africa, for the US it’s about not cutting foreign aid for the sake of the national budget. Both campaigns want to see aid to continue to flow to Africa (particularly through Oxfam GB; Oxfam America doesn’t take USAID funding), though the issues each organisation faces differ drastically.
Oxfam GB is focused on an issue that they personally have been a part of and responsible for. There’s no denial. And, there’s no apology – this isn’t a debate on poverty porn, but recognition that it has been used in the past – good or bad, Oxfam and others must move on. Consumers are equally complicit in the previous ad campaigns, as they needed such crass images to get involved. Oxfam GB calls the consumer on this fact with one word ‘Let’s’. It is a social contract.
The acknowledgement of all parties’ share in a stereotyped perception of Africa as a continent of starvation is a step towards dialogue and the change of that image. However, the changing of an image or even a person’s view is not done through one medium alone, which is why Oxfam GB’s campaign needs to be seen in the wider context, not just next to that of Oxfam America’s.
The message from Oxfam America’s campaign is one that is intrinsically tied to the political culture of the US. Oxfam America is discussing American politics and how they shape the world, but it’s doing so through a prism that many Americans would understand. Foreign aid, slightly more than 1% of the US budget, is being shown not as a hand-out but a means to support self-starters – those very same people which the US prides itself upon for making it what it is today – and not something that should be cut.
Oxfam America is asking the American taxpayer and their elected representatives to allow Oxfam and its partners to do its job. In highlighting the similarities between individuals in Africa and the US, Oxfam America is attempting to engage people on a level they can understand, on the same issues they’re feeling at home. Because the issue of foreign aid is a personal one for Oxfam America, the organisation appear to have made its campaign personal for everyone.
The immediacy of Oxfam America’s goal can’t be underscored enough. Given that the US government only managed to put off issues relating to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by a further two months, and that the Congress and Senate will be meeting once again to decide the future of the American national budget, the timing of the new campaign is apt. But, it isn’t so much a campaign for Africa or even Oxfam as it is an attempt at lobbying. Just look at where some of the ads are placed: within Reagan National Airport and the metro system in Washington DC.
However, from a design perspective, the font is a sore point. The font, as bright and cheerful with that African edge as it tries to be, comes across a little callous. Oxfam should keep in mind the thoughts of Jonathan Barnbrook, “A good typeface creates an emotional response in relation to the message it is conveying. You’re trying to get that tone of voice right – you can shout or whisper. And you want to sum up the spirit of the age, because they do date quite quickly”. The playfulness of it undermines the impassioned and serious plea that both organisations are broadcasting and could in the end be detrimental to their overall message.
It is about generating discussions, rather than impressions
Each of these campaigns has been crafted by professionals who are well aware of the limits of the mediums they are working in and what they hope to achieve. They are also keenly aware of how messages, images and memes are itinerant between mediums. Social media, whether explicitly expressed or not, is a large part of spreading the messages of both organisations and is being utilised to do so very effectively.
Both Oxfam GB and Oxfam America have, in effect, not merely provided the campaigns’ consumers with the very tools they use – they’ve invited the audience into the tool shed. Showing how these tools are shaped to the task spurs the discussion of each campaign. Both organisations are involving you in the discussion by getting you to hold the discussion.
They’re not asking you to have it, or even demanding that such discussions take place. The enticement comes from the ideas they present so that the audience stops and looks at what each organisation is doing and how. Dame Stocking’s comment of, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different”, and concise feedback from Tolu Ogunlesi is nothing more than presenting a different perspective of Africa and aid, but with a caveat – the audience is forced to determine what that picture is.
Oxfam GB is not purporting to be the final or even an authoritarian voice on aid and Africa. The offer to make a cultural change within the UK with the audience by saying ‘Let’s’ allows for the differing views and constructive suggestions of others. It opens the tool shed to everyone to discuss not just the work to be done but how. Much of what is done today in terms of advertising, particular on complex issues, is about generating discussions rather than impressions.
Oxfam America’s discussion includes the tool shed and those in it, but never to the same degree. Their concern is being able to keep the shed and the tools in it. It seeks a far more tangible effect, but one that can only be determined in the future – not by impressions, Likes or click-throughs. The success of Oxfam America’s campaign rests in the hands of the American taxpayer and their elected representative.
Whatever you’re feeling about these ads isn’t wrong or right. They probably elicited a response, which they’re supposed to. They’re generating a discussion, but for them to be really successful it needs to be elsewhere. Take your comments and your feelings to your personal blogs, to Facebook, Twitter and any other medium that connects to those who aren’t in the aid and development community.
Talk to those who are not inside the ‘Aid Beltway’. Share with them and see what they have to say.
With the current discussion going on about the proposed cuts to the Australian overseas aid budget, there are plenty of misconceptions and downright falsehoods being bandied about. Here are a few of the most common myths about overseas aid – busted.
1. “If we keep giving people money they will never learn to look after themselves.”
Not all aid is created equal. The kind of aid that helps support dramatic decreases in aid dependence is what ActionAid calls Real Aid – that’s aid which empowers poor people to realise their rights. It might do this directly by supporting smallholder farmers or building schools, or indirectly by helping to create better tax systems and governance.
Real Aid is accountable, transparent, and gets the most out of every dollar spent. It supports developing countries to make their own decisions.
Real Aid is actually making poor countries less aid dependent. For example, 14 of the 30 most aid-dependent countries in the year 2000 had reduced their dependence on aid (the percentage of government spending that comes from foreign aid) by more than 20% by 2009.
2. “We can’t afford to give money away to people overseas when we have poor people in Australia. Charity begins at home.”
It’s not a case of ‘either or’. The Australian Government spends over $125 billion a year on welfare compared to $4.5 billion on overseas development. Only $1 in every $30 spent on charity is spent overseas.
Australia is the 14th richest country in the world. And yet the currently amount spent on aid represents only 35c in every $100 of our national income, well below average compared to other developed countries.
3. “Aid doesn’t work. Look how much we’ve already spent and people are still poor and dying of diseases and starvation. What’s the point?”
Not true. Arguing that because aid is found in countries that are poor, it must be the cause of low growth, is like arguing that fire engines cause fires because they can be found at the scenes of burning houses. Real Aid that genuinely targets poverty is very effective.
Real Aid has contributed tohalving the number of people in poverty since 1990 and reduced the number of children who die needlessly by 10,000 a day. A DAY.
But despite this huge impact, the world spends less money on Real Aid than it does on video games (seeReal Aid – 3, Reuters Online June 2011). Puts the whole thing in perspective, doesn’t it?
4. “Aid is wasted on corrupt regimes. Look how much money all those African politicians earn!”
Aid FIGHTS corruption. Real Aid, which empowers poor and excluded people to stand up for their rights, has been used successfully to combat corruption by investing in independent auditing, free media, community accountability, and parliamentary structures.
Aid also empowers poor countries to increase tax revenues from their wealthier citizens, boosting the amount of money earned to be spent on vital services that help the poor. And speaking of corruption, developing countries lose more money due to tax-dodging by global corporations than they receive in foreign aid every year (see Death and Taxes, Christian Aid, 2008)
5. “Aid money is wasted by NGOs who spend it all on administration, not helping the poor.”
A little administration goes a long way. NGOs on average spend less than 20% of the money they receive on administration, and independent assessments have found that spending less than this actually increases the likelihood that donations will be ineffective. Would you buy a car because 90% of your dollar went to building it, and only 10% towards designing and testing it?
Money spent to run programs efficiently makes sure aid is effective for the people it’s supposed to be helping. That’s a sound investmentin quality control, not money wasted.
Archie Law is currently the Chief Executive Officer at ActionAid Australia (formerly Austcare). Archie has worked in conflict affected environments throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining ActionAid, Archie worked for the United Nations Development Program in South Africa and the UN’s Peacekeeping Operations in New York.
*This is a crosspost with ActionAid Australia’s original blog post here.
Everything that we do in development is about selling a message. Whether it’s conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor, convincing the public that foreign aid actually works, or recruiting people for a local HIV-testing program in Zimbabwe, we all need to convince people of what we ourselves believe.
Despite all his, discussion in development rarely revolves around the most effective ways in which we can influence other people. Previously, on whydev.org, we talked about the tendency to hold onto existing biases more strongly whenever views are challenged. When a message goes against the grain of what people already believe, convincing them of this message is complex, and requires effective strategies.
Courtesy of a recent study cited in New Scientist, here is one strategy that may work better: change the messenger, not the message.
Around the middle of last year, Republican politicians in the United States claimed that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was a potential cause of intellectual disability, despite a lack of strong scientific evidence. Unsurprisingly, whether or not people believed them was highly correlated to their political stance. In one study, subjects were questioned on their beliefs across a wide range of issues, and then classified as liberals or conservatives. Scientists then examined their attitudes towards the HPV vaccine. When presented with balanced arguments for and against administering the vaccine, 70% of the liberals and 56% of the conservatives thought it was safe to do so.
The experimenters then created fictional experts who portrayed themselves as liberals or conservatives. With the more “natural” pairing of the liberal expert arguing in favour of the vaccine and the conservative expert arguing against it, the number of liberals who supported the HPV vaccine increased, and the conservatives who disagreed decreased. No surprises there.
The interesting result occurred when they swapped the messengers around, so that the liberal expert argued against the vaccine and the conservative expert argued for it. Under this scenario, 58% of liberals and 61% of conservatives supported the HPV vaccine. In other words, simply swapping the messenger around resulted in more conservatives than liberals being convinced by the safety of the vaccine, a complete reversal to initial findings.
This seems to suggest that it’s not so much the message that is crucial, but instead, the messenger. Recent calls from British PM David Cameron to end foreign aid to African governments who do not uphold gay rights do not acknowledge this research. Apart from the futility of such a threat, the British leader is only likely to bring up not-too-distant memories of Western imperialism and aid conditionality.
Who then, is the best messenger to convey the message we want to give? Let’s go back to the three examples that I opened with individually.
Conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor
Often, it is the fundraising department, sometimes coupled with someone who works “in the field”, that tells corporate donors how money donated impacts people’s lives. However, a more ideal messenger could be someone who doesn’t even work for the NGO – perhaps someone who works within the corporate sector itself. Apart from speaking about the good work of the NGO to colleagues, this person is also able to discuss the tax benefits of regular workplace giving.
Convincing the public of the merits of foreign aid
Again, having someone outside of the aid sector could be the best messenger. A trusted public figure with an average income (i.e. not Bill Gates) might be best able to explain how he or she saw the impact of aid work on a recent trip overseas. It is crucial that this figure is someone the public can relate to. Recently, Jet Li was criticised for encouraging people in China to donate more willingly to good causes, as they believed it was his responsibility, as someone wealthy, to do more of the donating himself.
Recruiting people for an HIV testing program in Zimbabwe
Rather than foreign NGO workers, a local Zimbabwean who was diagnosed with HIV and successfully treated for tuberculosis may be a more effective person to convince local people of the need for testing. Having a voice that local people can relate to could lead to the message being more influential and believable.
In life, there are many other instances where we also need to sell a certain message. It could be telling friends about the value of caring for the environment, eating foods that we think are healthy, or why watching back-to-back episodes of Glee on a Saturday night is not only bad for your social life, but also your general health and wellbeing. In development, we need to give serious thought about how the issue is being framed. But, before we even do that, we need to be selective about who it is that is doing the framing.
This post originally appeared on How Matters, a site that explores the “how” of doing development work, in all it’s shapes and forms. I highly recommend you add it to your list of regular reading.
A major obstacle to this, however, is the estimated 595,000 aid workers (ALNAP, 2010) who are rarely called to examine the bureaucratic rigidities that govern their day-to-day work and that deflate and/or marginalise local activists and changemakers. Cynicism, burnout, and jadedness on the prospect of any “real” progress can seriously compromise the hopefulness that many workers had when they entered the aid industry (see discussions with Satori Worldwide and Mindfulness for NGOs, for example). Much of the time, the needs of aid institutions and philanthropies overshadow the needs of grassroots-up initiatives, with SO much being lost in the over-technicalisation of aid work and grant-making.
Yet in my experience as a loudspeaker for “local changemakers,” I’ve seen a growing cadre of skilled professionals that openly, bravely, and constructively question “business as usual” in the aid industry. And they are so needed. Connecting aid workers who want to instill and/or re-cultivate a sense of public service and downward accountability within their roles is the first step to change.
Imagine if just a small percentage of the large-grant aid resources are “unlocked” for grassroots-up initiatives. To re-direct even 0.01% of industry resources for local changemakers would be a tremendous win.
By supporting and encouraging dedicated and self-identified change agents within aid institutions to create more trust, equity and mutual accountability with those we serve in the developing world, the system-wide reform needed becomes possible. Like you, I no longer want to see local civil society organisations as the lowest common denominator of international development assistance. It’s time to recognise local initiatives and indigenous organisations as vital to supporting demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries, and unleash social change.
No matter how you relate to your role in making the world a more equitable and peaceful place for its people to share in its prosperity, you have to do the internal work to know yourself first. In order to “be there” for anyone else, whether it’s your partner you sleep next to or the partner to which you give money, your own sense of well-being is the first thing that affects how effective you are in relating to and supporting others.
In February 2012, the Ugandan government’s reintroduction of the controversial bill that would create stricter punishments for homosexuality (which is already illegal) got me thinking. Not just about how heinous I think the bill is, but about the power struggle that the Ugandan government is engaging in with the US and the UK, both formidable sparring partners. In recent months, leaders in both the US and the UK have made public statements regarding the importance of respect for homosexuality and demanded that this priority be expressed in their nations’ aid packages. In essence, rather than simply (or not so simply) tying aid to the fiscal and economic priorities of “developed countries,” (terminology is a discussion for another day) aid may also be tied to their policies regarding gender and sexual orientation, as well.
Now here is my disclaimer: I am unabashedly, strongly, march-on-the-streets pro-gay rights and am proud to work on a team that researches how best to address gender inequalities across Africa. I also lived in Uganda, outside the small town of Mbale, for about 18 months, during which time I fell head over heels in love with the country – with the enormous, glaring hole of the climate of loathing for homosexuality.
With that said, one might assume that I am rejoicing that the US and UK have made protection of gay rights abroad a priority. To be honest, a part of me really has been celebrating this. But there’s another part, the overly contemplative, trying-to-hide-from-the-ugly-side-of-aid-but-can’t development worker part. The fact is, the US and UK may not be discussing legalizing the death penalty for homosexuality in their own legal codes, but there are still very significant and meaningful gaps in their treatment of hetero vs. homosexual citizens.
For example, in the US, sexual acts between persons of the same sex were only legalized at the federal level with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 –just nine years ago! Before that, fourteen states had sodomy laws on the books, including Idaho, which punished “offenders” with “imprisonment in the state prison not less than five years” and theoretically up to a life sentence. Furthermore, there is currently no federal prohibition against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and it is, in fact, legal in the majority of states (29). Though the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was first introduced in the US Congress in 1994 and has been reintroduced in every Congress except the 109th, it has never been passed. This is not to say that the US has not made strides against anti-homosexual discrimination, but there is still a long way to go. Of course, with an election looming, Obama may have a vested interest in showing his pro-gay rights constituents that making progress on the issue is a priority, though he lacks the political capital to pass the ENDA or a federal marriage equality act. Enter foreign policy.
In the global arena, governments and citizens of developed countries can identify problems that exist in their own countries, such as poverty, economic inequality, and female empowerment, and quickly turn their –and their electorate’s — gaze outward. Problems in one’s own country may appear complex, historically rooted, and challenging (perhaps nearly impossible) to tackle. But in other countries, where one can adopt a sufficiently distant and simplistic perspective, it can all seem so easy. For example, racism in the US – well, now, that’s a tricky issue, embedded in a sad and guilty history of slavery and oppression, and entrenched in a complex cultural and socio-economic context. But tribalism? Well, that’s just stupid. Get it together, Africa! Stop the needless discrimination and fighting! Surely it’s that easy… isn’t it?
By adopting this attitude, it allows those living in developed countries to avoid acknowledging or addressing the imperfections, contradictions, and inequality existing in their own societies, while still feeling like crusaders for global justice. Then, of course, it becomes possible to demonstrate their dedication to “the cause” by flexing a little muscle since, after all, aid is a gift, right? And what’s a little manipulation nudge between friends?
In the US, Obama would need to find a way to pass legislation through Congress. However, in Uganda, a little tug on the purse strings requires no such dance. Before than attempting to control legislative outcomes in developing nations, though, it may be worthwhile to consider why and how proposals, such as Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, managed to get popular support in the first place.
I am not suggesting that the US or the UK should stop pursuing a rights-based agenda abroad, nor am I attempting to comment on Uganda’s legislative priorities. Rather, I suggest that these countries take a long, hard look inward and ponder their own selves – their values, motivations, and the actions that result – before deciding what other nations should or should not do.
Well, it seems like we missed our first birthday. The very first article on whydev was published on the 14th of May, 2010, which means that we are over 2 months late to celebrate. It’s been an amazing year, and the list of contributors evident on the side bar of this page just keeps growing and growing. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every contributor to whydev. Almost everybody who contributes is an extremely busy person, with many other things on their plate, which makes contributing to the discussion at whydev all the more special. Now would also be a good opportunity to encourage all those who are considering writing something to pull the finger out and have a go, and join the discussion. If it’s relevant, we’d welcome almost anything (except perhaps limericks).
There have been so many good posts over the past year or so, from so many different voices. Choosing the top four or five was always going to be a struggle, with so much good stuff out there.
However, in picking our favourite posts from the past year, we decided to go for the ones which were the most insightful, where we thought that we had learnt something really valuable, and it was an original idea. Also, because we wanted to compile this list for people who may have missed some of these earlier posts, we may have left out some brilliant, yet topical posts, because they may be of less relevance now.
So, without further ado, here are Weh’s top 5 picks:
How could you not start here? Rachel explores what development means to her, and in doing so tackles a very difficult topic in a very intelligent way. What is development? Having finished a masters in the topic and now working the field, I don’t know if I’m any closer to answering that question myself.
Easily our most popular post, which makes me think that people in the field of development are really keen to get in, but often don’t know how. Personally, the greatest message I gained from this post was that being passionate about helping people is not enough, you need tangible skills to back it up. Reading Dave’s links and concise summaries helped me to land the job that I currently have. Not bad for 20-30 minutes of light reading!
Apart from some superb shots of Conan the Barbarian and hipsters, this was the last in a series of posts written by Brendan which really got me thinking about language, power and privilege. Ultimately, it bound up the idea that being most effective in development is often about closing the gap between “aid workers” and “beneficiaries”. It was controversial, but the best posts often are.
I admire Janet’s ability to cut through the bullshit and get straight to the point, and this piece highlights that perfectly for me. Another piece that examines language that we use and the creeping power of business to sway our society in the direction that it wants. Overt skepticism towards corporations…what’s not to like?
Although not many of us have a soft spot for investment bankers, this post from Mario will leave you rethinking previously held conceptions. You may even rethink your career. It left me asking a number of questions, ‘What is the most effective way for me to have an impact on issues of equity and justice? Is it through development work? Or are there other pathways?’ It also left me with a greater appreciation of others’ choices and professions, and that development work is not necessarily a higher road.
China is already playing a very pivotal role in international development, albeit, one many of us are perhaps unaware of. As China continues to expand its influence and presence across the globe, it is vital that we try to understand the why, how and what of China’s presence in the development space. Philippa gives us a very insightful and critical glimpse into Chinese aid architecture. A must read for students and professionals of international aid.
Alex does not hold back on the bluntness or realism in this forward looking post. Once you have a job in development, what can you expect? What should you expect? Alex breaks it down for you in this post, but reminds you to take it all with a grain of realistic salt.
I really encourage you to read any one of Weh’s posts (well most of them), and not just because I agree often with his world views. In this particular post, he really gets to the heart of personal motivation and challenges you to look at your own reasons for wanting to work in development.
Well, that rounds out our pick of the best whydev posts that we’ve had in the past year or so. We wholeheartedly encourage you to go back and read them if you haven’t. And even if you have, maybe you can pick up something new that you hadn’t noticed before.
Do you think there’s an outstanding post that you remember, that we have missed? If so, do let us know in the comments.
The 7th Annual Lowy Insitute Poll, surveying the public opinion of Australians on a wide variety of issues, was recently published. New questions this year included those on foreign aid.The Lowy Institute asked Australians to give their ‘hunch about what percentage of the Australian Federal budget you think is actually spent on foreign aid.’
The research reveals that 31% of Australians think the Federal Government spends a whopping 20% of the budget on foreign aid. In fact, it is only 1.3%, representing 0.35% of GNI or $3.30 each week for Australians earning $1,000/week. Australians were also asked ‘what percentage of the Australian Federal budget, if any, do you personally think should be spent on foreign aid?’ On average, Australians suggest that 12% spent on foreign aid, less than the estimate of what is spent but an enormous increase on the actual amount. Only 4% say nothing should be spent and a further 3% that less than 1% should be spent.
Similar surveys overseas have found similar misunderstandings of foreign aid allocation in national budgets. On average, Americans estimate that 27% of the budget was spent on foreign aid, compared with an average of 16% in Australia. In the same survey, conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, Americans believed that 12% of the budget should be spent on foreign aid. Another survey (above) by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that Americans think 25% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. When asked how much would be appropriate to spend on foreign aid, the median response was 10%. These perceptions would probably explain why 59% of Americans would favour cuts to the foreign aid budget. I think we would find similar support for cuts to aid in Australia.
There is a high level of consistency across these and other surveys. They raise a number of questions about our understanding of public policy, our shared values and how democratic governments manage their relationship with electorates. In particular, how they communicate nationally shared values and public policy decisions to the electorate. Governments have a responsibility to clearly communicate and educate about public policy. But, do they do it well?
Spencer Henson, at an event co- hosted by the Insitute of Development Studies (IDS) on UK public perceptions of aid, concluded that
“we need more research, to allow us to interpret the data we have and understand causality better. We have problems with communication as we do not understand the people we are trying to communicate with…we would be better off to tackle the issue of failure head on, acknowledging it and explaining it, and contrast to examples of aid working well in other contexts”.
Is it about selling and understanding your audience? Democratic governments often try to understand its audience through polling data. Statistics help mediate the relationship between the elected and elector. However, how we interpret such numbers can be flawed and short-sighted. The West Wing provides a great example of this. Characters Joey Lucas and Josh Lyman are arguing about what the polling numbers on gun control mean for a certain Congressional district. Josh argues that they need to dial the rhetoric down on gun control. Joey counters, arguing
“You say that these numbers mean dial it down. I say they mean dial it up. You haven’t gotten through. There are people you haven’t persuaded yet. These number mean dial it up. Otherwise you’re like the French radical, watching the crowd run by and saying, ‘There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them’”.
Advertisers understand their audience, particularly those hired by condom makers.
I am not suggesting that the government should use sex to sell foreign aid, but that it should get serious and creative about communicating the subject. Aid that is, not sex. More money should be allocated in the aid budget to selling and educating the public about Australia’s aid program. There are many objections I am sure to this suggestion. However, there are also benefits, as condom ads so well explain. For Australia’s aid program, this could lead to more public support for the proposed increase of the aid budget to 0.5% of GNI and eventually to the international benchmark of 0.7%. There has beenmuchdiscussion around Australia’s aid program recently, promopted by the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, which has now been submitted to the Federal Government. The debate has been lively, insightful and needed. How widespread, inclusive and visible it was is another matter. It is another missed opportunity by the Australian Federal Government to dial it up, as with climate change and the contribution of refugees.
Paul Mylrea, Director of Communications at the Department for International Development (DFID) explained that DFID has attempted to segment its audience.
“…but has done so according to their level of support for development appending, starting with ‘Active Enthusiasts’ and down to ‘Distracted Individuals’. DFID focuses their communication efforts on the first two groups rather than trying to convince sceptics. Mylrea explained that DFID is also actively exploring how these attitudes are formed, and how people might be moved from one group to another. A recent initiative of the department’s is the rebranding of British international aid spending as ‘UKAid’ – something more meaningful to most people than the ‘DFID’ acronym. The idea is to label government activity, and thereby show that the 0.7% of GDP to be spent as aid can make a real difference. The challenge is to remain accountable to the British public at a time when polls suggest a downturn in support and a shift from international to domestic concerns”.
As in some of the condom ads, you do not need to sell sex, sex sells itself. You do not need to sell effective, smart aid. You just need to communicate it well. Aid sells itself.
Update 5th July, 2011
ChildFund Australia just released the results from their survey of 1,000 Australians, which found that 2/3 believe that aid was effective to some degree, but that 1/3 did not believe that aid was effective in reducing child mortality.
ChildFund Australia’s CEO, Nigel Spence, had this to say in the accompanying media release
“It is encouraging to know that most Australians continue to believe aid is effective. But it is also evident that there are many inaccuracies and contradictions in understandings about aid, and there are indications that public support could be declining.
Australian aid agencies have a critical role in engaging the Australian public in global development issues, but must find ways to communicate the complexity, successes and limitations of aid. It is time to deliver a more contemporary, humane and accurate story about aid and global poverty.”
I was invited to speak at my alma matter last month. In preparation I jotted down some bits of advice for international development students and aid career seekers. Here’s a collection of those thoughts…
When I came out of grad school, I was programmed to think macro, think sustainability, to think that development economists had a clue (do they?). In other words, to think, think, think. Nothing in my training prepared me for what I would feel as an aid worker.
The mantra “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind. And the trauma, the vicarious trauma, the loss, and the isolation that aid workers can face indeed may make you stronger. Unfortunately, what makes you stronger might also make you less sensitive, hardened, more disconnected, less caring. Thus with all of our conditioned tendencies to avoid suffering, self-critique and self-compassion must be your constant (and sometimes adversarial) companions.
The over-intellectualization of professional aid work is staggering to me at times. Yet I still often find myself wondering, in relationship to various projects, “What were they thinking?”
No matter how self-aware you come into this work, most people in the beginning will be operating from a worldview in which change in poor people’s lives is possible with our help and that it was something that can be “managed.”
In my mind, the jury is still out on this.
When I first saw this graph, I thought, “Gee, this would have been helpful” as I worked to discern my ‘calling’ from what the aid industry was requiring of me, i.e. think-think-manage-manage, and what was actually happening on the ground. The difference between helping, fixing and serving presented below is intended for health care providers, but I think it has real relevance for aid workers and do-gooders alike:
A quote I always keep nearby:
“If you believe if you’re going to…change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.” (Chris Hedges)
Even when real changes in people’s life conditions are not imminently possible, our role can be to enable hope in the face of adversity.
What is required of aid workers to serve rather than help, is illustrated further by a concept my friend Silvia brought to my attention, that of “cultural humility.” She works in hospice in California, working with healthcare professionals to offer more appropriate and compassionate care to the Latino community. In healthcare settings, cultural humility involves active engagement in self-reflection, bringing power imbalances into check, relinquishment of the role of expert, becoming the student, and seeing a patient’s potential to be a full and capable partner in their recovery.
The most effective and inspiring development practitioners I’ve ever worked with embody cultural humility.
Do you have the courage to battle the modernist viewpoints, privilege and racism at the roots of international aid, as well as to question your own personal prejudices, stereotypes, and agendas? Be prepared to go deeper to examine your own beliefs, values, assumptions, and biases. Karen Armstrong describes the “hard work of compassion” as constantly “dethroning” yourself to challenge your own worldview.
Don’t take only my word on any of this. Other bloggers share their seasoned advice too:
Maybe the title of this talk should be “What I had to un-learn from grad school.”
I do think there is room for aid workers and do-gooders to redefine our role as translators, between what people on the ground really need and that of the demands of donors. Not as providers of what people need. Not as enforcers of policy, or rules, or regulations. Not as helpers or saviors or martyrs.
Results, results, results. Yes, they are important. Results are not possible, however, without tending to “the process.”
You will have many bosses who do not understand this.
You will have to fight hard to not let the overly technocratic, abstractionist tendencies of aid work pull you under.
You will have to fight against “charitable” urges towards impoverished and marginalized people you encounter, which can ultimately debase their dignity.
You will have to fight to experience the full range of our human condition.
Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It will take much more skill and strength to wake up everyday and help identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where incremental changes can occur.
…Just a few of the things I wish I had known. What about you?