Tag Archives: international development

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister

Last Week Today: The Global Legacy Award goes to?

The week in global news

The Global Legacy Award goes to…?

Cue drum roll.

Tony Blair.

Right. Naturally. Of Course. We totally picked him too.

We don’t understand why people are so outraged at Save the Children’s decision to choose an accused war criminal to receive the award. He totally deserved it for his “leadership on international development.” And while this may signify that we can no longer rely on political activism from large and professional charities, we don’t believe any mistake was made because if a mistake had been made surely STC would have said, right?

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister


American’s are protesting across the country due to a grand jury’s decision not to prosecute white police officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson.

Police cleared large protest sites in Hong Kong on Wednesday but protestors returned and violent clashes continue.

And 40,000 Masai people will be evicted from their homeland in Tanzania, because the Dubai royal family brought the land to hunt big game.

This week on the blog

Volunteering abroad with children: Double standards?

Working with children in Western countries requires qualifications and background checks. Not so in developing countries. Ruth Taylor asks what’s with the double standards?

Fair trade: All it’s cracked up to be?

Fair trade-certified companies are ethical and sustainable, and they pay their workers a living wage. Right? Liza Moiseeva investigates how fair trade really affects farmers.

Coffee in El Salvador


This week in globaldev

Pictures: Workers in the informal economy

The death of international development

Say ‘burn rate‘ one more time

Raising the minimum wage isn’t enough

Doing development differently

Video: Why are some people poor and others are rich? (08:47)

Current opportunities

Community Manager: Use your experience in content and community management to grow the AidSource network. | WhyDev

Fundraising Director: An experienced fundraiser is wanted to raise much needed funds for a Speech Therapy program in Cambodia. | OIC: The Cambodia Project

You can also check out our events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

 

Featured images Tony Blair, UK’s former Prime Minister. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. And coffee farmers in El Salvador. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

peacefully-asleep

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.

Bar Graph

MDG 5a: An update on maternal mortality

With two years left, it is highly unlikely that Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5a – in the clunky verbiage of the UN: “Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio” – will be met worldwide.

But, substantial progress has been made, which in human terms, means that hundreds of thousands of maternal deaths have been prevented. It’s worth taking a step back to understand the scope and scale of the problem, and to think through the interventions that have been successful in myriad developing and developed countries.

The Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) is calculated as the number of pregnancy-related deaths (from any point in the pregnancy to 42 days post-birth/termination) per 100,000 live births. In 2010, an estimated 287,000 mothers died from pregnancy-related causes, or 210 deaths per 100,000 live births; it’s an almost 50 percent reduction from 1990, when an estimated 543,000 mothers died, or 400 per 100,000 live births.

These roll-up figures mask a wide variation in the distribution of maternal mortality. In 2010, an astounding 99% of deaths occurred in the ‘developing world’ (56% in sub-Saharan Africa alone), and the MMR in developing countries is, on average, 15 times higher than in developed countries. According to the World Bank, the country with the highest MMR in 2010 was Chad, the lowest Estonia, at 1,100 and 2 per 100,000 live births respectively. A chart showing the 40 countries with the highest MMR is below, with the United States – at 21 – added for reference:

Bar Graph

 

Scan the list of countries and it becomes clear that the MMR problem is clustered in Africa, with few exceptions. There’s wide variation among these countries too. The question is: why?

Worldwide, the leading direct causes of maternal mortality are: Post-Partum Haemorrhage (PPH); Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia; and sepsis (see the Figure 2 below). Together, these three conditions account for 60% of maternal deaths.

Pie Chart
Figure 1

At the patient-level, interventions to prevent or treat all three are well-understood, cheap, and straightforward:

  • Prevention of PPH is facilitated by following a protocol known as Active Management of the Third Stage of Labor (AMTSL), which involves the administration of an uterotonic (e.g., oxytocin, ergometrine, misoprostol) and massaging/monitoring for two hours post-birth. A Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) found that women who received AMTSL experienced PPH 6.8% of the time vs. 16.5% with passive/conservative management; almost a 60% decrease
  • Treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia involves the injection of magnesium sulphate, a cheap compound (in the West, the non-pharmaceutical preparation is known as Epsom salt). A highly-regarded RCT found that magnesium sulphate halves the risk of eclampsia in pregnant women
  • Prevention of puerperal fever*, or sepsis more generally, is a matter of maintaining proper sanitation before, during, and after a birth. If a mother develops sepsis, a full course of antibiotics can be administered as treatment.

Here’s what’s clear: the devil isn’t in the details. It’s in the diffusion of pharmaceuticals, health care workers, and knowledge through health systems, and in improving those systems holistically. It goes deeper than the health system of course; to administer AMTSL, for example, requires the drug being available (partially a supply chain/regulation issue), a health care worker who is trained to administer the drug (an education issue), and a health care worker who has the time to administer the massage every 15 minutes for two hours (a financing issue). And keep in mind, that’s only if the mother has a trained health care worker by her side, which in sub-Saharan Africa puts her in the minority, with only about 46% of births attended by skilled health personnel in 2008.

The complex task of reducing maternal mortality demands a multifactorial solution that draws on a wide coalition of government departments and private organizations; and each country has to find a solution that meshes with its own cultural and structural realities. Nevertheless, there are broad themes that transcend these inter-country differences and show up in the success stories of many positive deviants:

  • Increase access to family planning and contraception
  • Strengthen demand for antenatal check-ins through education campaigns, conditional cash transfer programmes, or easier access to skilled professionals
  • Increase the percentage of births attended to by a skilled professional; ensure skilled professional is able to provide necessary care (e.g., equipment, pharmaceuticals, knowledge) for non-complicated birth and is able to refer complicated cases
  • Ensure Emergency Obstetric and Neonatal Care (EmONC) services are comprehensive and of high quality, and that health centres are staffed with skilled workers; stocked with maternal medicines, antibiotics, and proper equipment; and accessible to remote populations
  • Establish or strengthen monitoring systems to highlight successes and areas of opportunity.

All of which goes a long way towards our understanding of why some countries have already reached MDG 5a and others are unlikely to do so; the interventions require sustained political will, ‘soft’ infrastructure (e.g., regulations, communication), consistent funding, and a systems approach to process improvement. Unfortunately, it may take more than 20 or 25 years to build out this basic scaffolding on which to build sustainable change.

The imminent failure to reach the goal of reducing the MMR by 75% by 2015 shouldn’t obscure the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of mothers alive who, without the focus on maternal mortality, may not be otherwise. Much more can – and will – be done in the next two years, and in the next two decades.

In many ways, 2015 is just the start.

Text Box
Figure 2

 

*If you’re a public health or history of medicine wonk, you may recall that puerperal fever (or childbed fever, as it was known) was the disease that led Ignaz Semmelweis to call for basic hygiene measures in his Viennese hospital pre-Germ Theory of Disease – and was promptly rejected from the establishment for his heresy. As one contemporary doctor put it, “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.”

 

MDG

Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?


MDG
If the recent US presidential campaign felt more acrimonious and hard-fought than ever before, remember, there’s probably good news for global development. According to the UN, the world has met two critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including halving extreme poverty and doubling access to clean water. Although success is not evenly spread and some of the MDGs will probably not be met, we have considerable reason to celebrate the most significant gains we have seen in our lifetime.

In order to ensure that this progress is equitable and accelerating, our goals for the post-2015 framework must take a different shape. Simplifying the MDGs to just four goals encompassing global well-being, extreme poverty, health and climate change will make the MDGs more memorable and reportable.

Although global well-being may not seem to fit in the context of the MDGs, it makes sense to measure what we’re actually trying to impact by examining the degree to which we’re improving lives. This will require new resources and thought around what is an acceptable measure of well-being, as Bhutan’s interpretation of “Gross National Happiness” illustrates, but these are details that deserve to be debated in the full light of greater research and commentary. Importantly, creating an MDG that aims to raise overall global well-being will not only spur research and aid funding to more accurately assess whether our anti-poverty efforts are achieving this goal, but also receive attention from some who may not otherwise pay attention to global development.

But in this respect, attracting attention to the MDGs, simplifying our broader aims to just four will give us more freedom to make the MDGs a cause to advocate for in and of themselves. Currently, activists advocate for the end of AIDS or the capture of Kony, but few clamour for the achievement of MDG five, if anyone can even name what it actually is (improving maternal health). But by consolidating our aims to a distinct four, MDG progress can be sped along by activists advocating for the end of climate change, for example. Making the MDGs marketable for the purpose of activist involvement isn’t about reaching for inclusion where it doesn’t exist, but finding alternatives to waiting for governments to chip in.

And though I’ve earlier called the MDG gains the most significant of our lifetime, exaggerating successes and drowning in failures is probably an unhelpful trait of development writing. Although it’s wonderful that extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, China’s recent growth has much to do with this, which is largely not a product of humanitarian development dollars. If our post-2015 MDGs are destined to merely measure our overall progress against poverty, then there is nothing wrong with claiming success when we succeed as a result of a factor we didn’t expect. But this isn’t the goal of the MDGs. The MDGs should seek to compel individuals and nations to up their contributions to development. This is only possible if we judge success by the amount we increase our commitments every year—in dollars, contraceptives, bed nets, medicines, and anything that improves lives.

Certainly, this approach will encourage help of all kinds, but it’s crucial that we aren’t misled to believe that charity given regardless of context or need is a victory. The MDGs should not just be a reflection of where we wish to see the world in the near future, but how we should prioritise our spending. For example, the Copenhagen Consensus, an organisation that attempts to gauge which development interventions are the most cost-effective, ranked providing malaria treatment as one of the best ways to save lives and improve health in 2012. Although HIV/AIDS is arguably a more pressing issue than malaria if judged by a simple number of deaths, money spent treating malaria will have a greater impact than treating HIV/AIDS according to their research. Many people are understandably uncomfortable with the premise of determining who lives and dies on the basis of cost-effectiveness, but compassion does not justify ineffective approaches.

While the MDGs may not contain the adrenaline and energy of a costly election, activist engagement may allow us to achieve success where government funding hasn’t. Four MDGs, encompassing most of the interests of the current MDGs, will pull us through every MDG success, every failure and every unsatisfying outcome in between.

 

Oxfam Africa campaign

The changing landscape of advertising on Aid & Africa: Oxfam’s new campaigns

Oxfam GB began a new ad campaign for Africa this month that has immediately come under scrutiny. 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.

Dame Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam UK
Dame Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam UK

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.

Oxfam GB's new ad campaign
Oxfam GB’s new ad campaign

Oxfam Africa campaign

Oxfam Africa campaign

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's new ad campaign
Oxfam America’s new ad campaign

Chief-Kondua-Job-Creator

Manuel Dominguez no click

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.

 

Numbers can be confusing.

8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development

If you’re looking for a guide titled ‘10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Humanitarian Worker,’ you can stop now because you won’t find it. What’s great about working in development is in most cases you can bring your previous qualifications and experience with you. You’ll find that many humanitarian workers have been teachers or journalists in a past life and have used their love of people, sharing knowledge and building relationships to help them move into the development sector.

So, to kick off the new year, and to get those of you starting out in development to think ahead, here are 8 things I wish I knew before I started working in development.

1. There’s no one way to become a humanitarian worker

If you are keen to break into the industry  it’s great to have a relevant degree or Masters in International Development, to have volunteered either in your home country or abroad and to know another language/s. These will help you get you noticed, but more importantly they will help you hone in on what excites, motivates or inspires you about development. And, you can use your findings to land the ideal position in the right organisation for you.

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.

3. Learn about the country before you arrive

There’s nothing worse than arriving in a country and realising you have no appropriate clothing, you can’t speak the language/s and you aren’t sure if shaking hands is an acceptable form of introduction. Mmm… probably should have read the brief notes or done a bit of Googling. While you may be able to initially get way with ‘I’m new around here,’ this safety net won’t last forever. Understanding the political, cultural and social nature of the country you are visiting and/or working in should be a high priority. Knowing these will inform you about: who to talk to; how to conduct yourself; and allow you settle into your role quicker and help keep you safe. Although this may sound like common sense, you’d be surprised how many people make a cultural blunder in the first few days of their placement. Don’t worry, in most cases it ends with both parties crying with laugher.

4. Building relationships in a cross cultural setting takes time

Working in development is all about relationships. You’ve got your partners, colleagues, supporters and recipients just to mention a few. Both business and personal relationships take time to establish and can be hard at first. There are time differences, cultural norms and taboos, not to mention language barriers. It might sound a bit too hard but it’s worth hanging in there because once you finally understand each other you’ve made a friend for life. It’s important you take the time to nurture these relationships because working together is the only way to job can get done.

On another note, leaving friends and partners behind can be really hard too. Thank god for the Internet! Although you could get lucky and find yourself someone special (it happens more than you think) while your on placement so it can work both ways.

5. You will make tough decisions that affect lives

This is probably the hardest thing to accept. At some point in your career you may find yourself responsible for deciding who receives your help and who doesn’t. The reality is you can’t help everyone. You are always limited by time, resources, laws and money. One day, you will realise you’ve made mistakes, maybe big maybe small. The development sector, like other industries, learns from its mistakes and has measures in place that limit them from happening. You will be working in complex environments and sometimes things happen that you can’t plan for and wouldn’t have expected. This is the hard truth of being a humanitarian worker. However, there is no need to fret as you’ll be trained and coached on how to handle these situations and you aren’t alone. Your team will become your extended family. Everyone’s family in the development sector; cherish and support them and they’ll do the same for you.

6. Listen to project participants

One thing you will learn quickly when starting in development is that you don’t have all the answers. No one does! That’s why it’s crucial you listen to your participants’ feedback. Everyone has a preconception; that’s normal, but be willing to change your mind. You need to be able to see a situation for what it is, not what you want it to be. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and give participants, partners and colleagues the chance to answer and ask questions, too. That way you won’t be kicking yourself when you build a new health clinic only to find out you could have refurbished the one already being used by the community around the corner.

7. You will find yourself in the office at some point in your career

Most of us think of working overseas, but development work happens in your home country too. Not everyone gets to experience the dry and dusty Harmattan or eat Mohinga in Burma. I’m sorry to tell you that during your career you will find yourself in the office. Work in the office is just as important as the work on the ground and as exciting! It’s good to know this up front because so many people get into development work because they want to ‘see how they are helping people abroad’. Enjoy your time in the office and if you’re missing the personal contact why not volunteer in your home country’s programmes or find out other ways you can be involved with the work on the ground.

8. It’s really addictive

Being a humanitarian worker is really addictive! The late nights; brain storming sessions; team bonding; the travel and meeting so many amazing people. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs. The downside is it can be hard to adjust to your old life when your placement has ended, especially when you’ve seen things you wouldn’t wish on anybody. It’s good to have a mentor or coach that can help you through your ups and downs and generally just listen when you need to talk. Overall, being a humanitarian worker is challenging, inspiring and rewarding. This explains why so many people dream of working in the development sector.

 What is the ONE thing you wished you knew before you started to work, study and/or volunteer in aid and development?

 

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Games in International Development: Fad or Innovation?

People have been playing more games these days in Washington D.C. And I don’t mean the strategies of the Obama and Romney spin teams.

Two recent events suggest games’ growing popularity in D.C. aid circles: this one I attended at the World Wildlife Fund earlier this month and this Tuesday’s upcoming event hosted by the Society for International Development.

Games in international development is a pedagogical approach intended to provide experiential learning opportunities that break down complex topics into easier-to-understand parts for adults, thereby serving as more effective “thought and dialogue stimulators.” In my experience with games, they have been used in place of or alongside more conventional training to help people affected by climate change to understand it, especially the concepts of risk management and adaptation.

There are many reasons to like games: 1) those of us in aid work have had to sit through too many horrible trainings and workshops to count, 2) games are a step closer to putting the “right” people in the driver’s seat of change because they are built on an assumption of agency and rational choice, and 3) they are fun! (Not to diminish anyone’s suffering in the world, but we aid workers might stand to benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously.)

The natural comparison with games for me is participatory rural appraisal (PRA) or participatory learning and action (PLA). The key differentiation is that PRA/PLA tools can end up as a mechanism to only derive information from communities, whereas in a game, people are engaged and they “gain” the experience of having played and can relate what they learned to their own lives, regardless of what happens next in a project or program.

Skilled and experienced facilitators are needed to ensure the success of both approaches and in the context of a project or program, both PRA/PLA and games must to be supported by sound management to ensure that they are linked to action and support an overall process of development. Both approaches must also be wary of slipping into a lazy (and ignorant) perspective that uneducated people are considered “simple.”

There remain some key assumptions that need to be tested when using games within programming, namely 1) that games are a quicker and/or more effective way for organizations to engage communities, 2) that the resulting dialogue is more productive than with traditional community engagement processes, and 3) that this can “trigger” more and/or independent actions/activities at the community or individual level.

As needed in all development programs, it is vital that game designers ground themselves in the local gaming culture. We cannot only be developing and playing games from our ivory towers in D.C., but also (and perhaps more importantly) developing means to share key concepts of game design widely that would enable local nonprofits to develop games to match local contexts and purposes.

The true measure of the aid world’s success in unleashing the potential of games and sports will not be seen simply in their proliferation, but when we determine the extent of their contribution to improving community engagement and ownership within the projects and programs we support.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

[Ed. note: Leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we will be featuring a series of three posts on sustainable development. This first one examines whether the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction.]

On June 20, 180 world leaders and 50,000 people from the development and environment sectors will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as “Rio+20.”

In the lead-up to this conference, I couldn’t help but wonder – is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

A term coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is the simultaneous pursuit of the inter-related goals of ecological integrity, social equity, and economic welfare. It recognizes that all life is underpinned by the goods and services provided by nature, and acknowledges the moral obligation of contemporary society to the well-being of both present and future populations.

This is important as environment degradation prevents poverty reduction. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty.” Their survival is impacted by the poor management of the natural resources they depend upon, with use out-stripping supply, trapping them in endless cycles of poverty. If ecosystems and their services continue to be degraded, it will be impossible to find a path to long-term poverty reduction.

At Rio+20, the goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development…once again. In 1992 Rio de Janeiro also hosted the “Earth Summit,” where sustainable development was first identified as a top priority on the agenda of the United Nations and the international community. It concluded with 172 signatories to a number of important documents including the Rio Declaration for Environment and Development, containing 27 principals intended to guide future sustainable development, and Agenda 21, the comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken by the UN, governments, and major groups in the 21st century. It also resulted in the opening of two legally binding international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Earth Summit set a precedent and an agenda.

But 20 years later, our environment is getting worse, not better, as highlighted in the table below. Alarmingly, many of these changes have accelerated in the past two decades, despite the abundance of international conventions signed during this time.

Over the same 20-year period, this environmental degradation has coincided with a period of sustained progress across a range of measures of human development. Over the two decades to 2010, world gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 300%, with incomes rising faster than populations, shown by a 222% increase in GDP per capita[i]. Improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income are all reflected within an 18% increase in the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) since 1990[ii].

While rising inequalities and pockets of entrenched poverty continue to consume development efforts, there is no doubt that average material human wellbeing is better than ever before.

Figure 1 below illustrates humans’ interaction with Earth’s natural capital, and how three causal factors – population, consumption, and resource (in)efficiency – are driving the degradation of the “hand that feeds them”… something my parents taught me to never bite.

Figure 1: Linking biodiversity, ecosystems services and people – the causal factors, drivers, and direct pressures contributing to the degradation of global biodiversity and the ecosystems services provided by it. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The latest Living Planet Report estimates that since 1996, the global demand for natural resources has doubled. It now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. This means that we are eating into our natural capital, instead of living off its interest, and therefore creating ecological debt. Humanity’s demands are greater than our planet’s ability to sustain us. We are asking for more than we have.

Figure 2: Global Ecological Footprint by component, 1961 – 2008. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Measuring “Ecological Footprint’” tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing humanity’s consumption against Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). Astoundingly, on average, the footprint of high-income countries is five times greater than that of low-income countries. If everybody on Earth lived like an average Indonesian, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be utilised, while if everyone lived like an average person from the U.S.A, not less than four Earths would be required to regener­ate humanity’s annual demand on nature! Modest UN scenarios estimate that by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us if current population and resource consumption trends persist. Obviously, we only have one.

Figure 2 shows the growth of the world’s average Ecological Footprint over time. As you can see, the dominant component of Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which accounts for 55% of the footprint.

Figure 3 outlines Ecological Footprint by region, and the growth in population as well as per capita footprint in each region between 1961 and 2008. It also highlights the almost halving of the biocapacity available to each person over the same period. So despite less resources being available to us, we are consuming more.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprint by region, 1961-2008, highlighting the change in average footprint per person and population change. Biocapacity represented by horizontal bar. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron then? Are we able to increase human wellbeing and quality of life, without using more resources than the Earth can produce for us?

Or is “sustainable development” actually about having more fulfilling development– an opportunity to ask ourselves what true prosperity and fulfillment really is, and to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves?

Science points to the tipping points we are fast approaching. I believe Rio+20 will be a critical moment in history where the fate of everyone, present and future, will be determined, for better or for worse.

But I believe humanity possesses the collective intelligence and resourcefulness needed to solve the problems it faces and move forward sustainably, whilst also alleviating poverty. I will investigate ways in which this can be achieved through the prism of a “green economy” in my next post.

Additionally, as sustainable development is essentially an issue of global ethics, I will also explore the question of responsibility and institutional frameworks for sustainable development on macro- and micro-scales, in a third post in this series.

 

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Kate Glazebrook for her words and ideas in relation to the human development aspects of this post.

 


[i] Data generated through use of World Bank Databank, 2012.

Don’t change the message. Change the messenger.

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.

You can follow this author on Twitter here.

 

Why I support isolated aid workers across the globe and so should you!

Rich countries delivered $3.2 trillion of aid to poor countries between 1960 and 2008. Yet only 36% of aid workersthink projects achieve their intended impact.

It wasn't that long ago that I was a "budding" aid worker. Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe 2003

Aid recipients agree, calling for a change in aid’s business model—from that of delivery of goods and services to one focused on relationships.

I have experienced the impact and potential of alternative funding and support mechanisms that could serve the conservatively estimated 1,000,000+ local groups and grassroots movements operating across the globe – see Wiser.org, for example.

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.

I support whydev.org‘s initiative to build an international support network for isolated aid workers because I think this effort could help share the good practices and actionable insights about how to better serve local partners, from within the system and outside of it. Now is the time to be corrective and imaginative, shifting the cognitive frameworks with which we talk about international aid.

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.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we will have to “flip the aid system” to put more local and national actors in the driver’s seat of development. I, for one, want to make sure the next generation of aid workers is ready.

 

You too can support whydev’s campaign to build a support network for aid workers across the globe here.