Tag Archives: NGOs

Aerial view of Funafuti, Tuvalu. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

MissionCreep #5: Founders, NGOs and climate change

We know you’ve missed our fresh and frank voices in global development, but Brendan Rigby, Weh Yeoh and Laurie Phillips are back with episode 5!

Today on MissionCreep, we’re talking about the trouble with founders and the messy politics of NGOs. Plus, what’s happening to people affected by climate change?

Join the conversation! Weigh in on what organisations can do to avoid “founderitis” and how NGOs can be more accountable to the people they serve. And if you have legal expertise, let us know how things look for people affected by climate change.

Leave a comment here or on Facebook, e-mail us at info[AT]whydev.org, and use the hashtag #MissionCreepDev on Twitter. We’ll respond online or on the next episode of the podcast.

You can also listen to the podcast here or download it on iTunes (and check back soon for a transcript).

Brendan Rigby
Brendan Rigby
Weh Yeoh
Weh Yeoh
Laurie Phillips
Laurie Phillips





Articles referenced throughout the podcast:

Five ways I hope to avoid Founder’s Syndrome on my project

NGOs – Do they help?

No “climate refugees” in New Zealand

Featured image is an aerial view of Funafuti, Tuvalu. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


NGOs can learn from YouTube celebrities

This post originally appeared on Rachel Kurzyp’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.

I’m a massive fan of video. Often I think it’s an underrated or forgotten about platform in communications, especially in development. And while some NGOs do it well, most use video for the purpose of presenting marketing and advertising material. Few use it for establishing, aiding or developing their brand and online community.

While it is often easier for individuals to establish themselves on YouTube than it is for organisations, there is still a lot NGOs can learn from YouTube celebrities.

Jenna Marbles
YouTube celebrity Jenna Marbles (and her dog, Kermit)

Video is unique because it allows you to create longer content and therefore you can flesh out ideas and issues.

Also, people who are interested in watching a video – longer than 30 seconds and that isn’t about a cat – have decided to invest their time so you have their attention, unlike, say, Facebook and Twitter, where you are competing with your supporters’ friends and family.

Two YouTube celebrities that I love are Jenna Marbles and Miss Coco Peru. What makes them different, I feel, is that they are real people who look, act and sound genuine.

Video allows you get a sense of a person. It’s a chance for an organisation to establish who they are and then encourage their viewers to interact with them on a deeper level. Coco became a hit at my work after a friend who had gone through a similar quest to find Temper Tamer Tea, and found her video. We then contacted her by email. Although we didn’t expect a reply, she responded, and we chatted back and forth. Soon, she became more than just a character or celebrity to us. She became a person we could talk to and get to know. And we loved her more because of it.

Jenna, in particular, talks about everyday topics that are relatable to most people.

Sometimes she sets topics; other times, she touches on areas that she knows people want to talk about, but may not have had the chance to; or, she asks the community outright what they want to discuss. NGOs can learn from this, as they don’t always focus on two-way conversations and forget to ask their supporters what they want to know about the organisation and its work. In all cases, video lets Jenna create a space for discussion, and it’s through this two-way dialogue that her viewers realise their similarities. The space she creates isn’t some obscure world, either. Because of the nature of video, we talk with her in our everyday world; on the tram or at home, as if she were our friend. I believe this is what has helped her form her huge community of 12,790,673 YouTube followers alone. I like knowing there’s millions of other people who question, think about and laugh at the same things I do.

Finally, what I love about both Coco and Jenna is that they have a clear personality or brand.

When you watch their videos or go to their websites, you enter their world – Coco greets you with her voice while Jenna makes you “awww” out loud with pictures of her dogs, Kermit and Mr. Marbles. Both celebrities know how to use their talent and personality to their advantage, but they aren’t trying to please everybody. Because they know who they are and stick to what they know, they are quick to respond to criticism and support their views. NGOs can fall into the trap of trying to speak to everyone or trying to discuss every issue at length. If an NGO specialises in water or restoring eyesight, then it’s ok if they only talk about this, and some do this well. I wouldn’t normally engage with personalities like Coco and Jenna, but friends shared their YouTube videos with me, and now I really enjoy watching and listening to them.

NGOs should look to YouTube celebrities when trying to create genuine dialogue, spaces where two-way conversations can take place and a holistic brand. While NGOs and celebrities might start and end in different places, the tools and motives are the same – to tell stories in new and engaging ways to their community.

Who are your favourite YouTube celebrities, and what do you like about them?

Frustrated Athlete

How to prevent burnout in aid work

Earlier, psychologist Alessandra Pigni discussed the difference between burnout and PTSD, and explained how burnout has to do with the quality of the work environment, as well as personal tendencies towards perfectionism and workaholism. In this post she explores what aid workers and aid agencies can do to prevent burnout.

The majority of aid organisations fail to prepare and support their employees and volunteers psychologically. What more could they do to prevent staff burnout?  

In 2011 I initiated a discussion on LinkedIn among humanitarian professionals on the psychological health of aid workers. I simply put out this reflection/question ‘Aid workers are psychologically unprepared for aid work. Any views from field and HQ staff?’.

The response was overwhelming, with over 200 comments pouring in non-stop. I knew from my work in Palestine that aid workers were at high risk of burnout, and I was hoping to gain a more global understanding. I wanted aid workers to speak up, open a space where they could express their needs, which turned out to be remarkably similar no matter where they worked.

It seemed like the discussion I initiated nailed it. Aid workers offered examples of how their organisations failed to provide adequate psychological preparation and support in the field. From being thrown into the field with no pre-departure briefing, to being at the mercy of managers who lacked emotional intelligence and people skills, from self-medicating with alcohol and pills, to suffering in silence because of the stigma attached to asking for help. One contributor summarised it for us: “It would be great to have proactive measures in place such as adequate pre-deployment preparation, ongoing mentoring and coaching, instead of just relying on reactive counselling.”

Humanitarian professionals also gave examples of how small, everyday acts of support and kindness in the workplace made a huge difference. A story that stayed with me is that of an aid worker who had been working in the Balkans nonstop for months during the war. One day his manager told him she had booked a hotel for him and send him off on a well-deserved break. In his words he was “eternally grateful for this.” “Such simple act” he added “made me much more aware of my own stress and stress being felt by team mates.”

Such acts of attention are what help to prevent burnout. They involve mindfulness, empathy and emotional intelligence, and show how managers with people skills make a significant difference.

A little human kindness can make a big difference.
A little human kindness can make a big difference.

Research shows we can learn to care and we adapt to the environment that surrounds us. This brings to mind the famous “broken window theory” which shows that people are less likely to care for a run-down environment than they are for a well attended one. Burnout in organizations is kind of the same: if the dominant tone is disrespectful and toxic, newcomers will follow that trend. Conversely, if it is healthy and caring people will adapt to such culture.

Realistically, there is no recipe to create burnout-proof organisations, but there are some simple ideas that managers can start to implement with the support of headquarters. I find it helpful to remember what Anton Chekhov said: “Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.”

So that’s where we can start: caring for ourselves and each other on a day-to-day basis.

Easier said than done. Where to begin? Here are some practices to keep you sane in the field and build healthy organisations.

In terms of personal self-care consider this:

  1. Are you overworking in non-emergency situations? Are you thinking about work when you are not working? Do you have a life outside work?
  2. Are you able to say no to unreasonable work requests and put some healthy boundaries in place? Hard at first, saying no is a sanity factor in aid work.
  3. Can you unplug? Try and go offline one day a week. As hard as it may seem, this is possible even in the field.
  4. Are you making time for physical exercise in the field? Consider what Mandela said: “Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.”
  5. Can you spend time alone? In a highly active job can you practice doing nothing and just being? Exploring guided meditation or yoga can help.
  6. Are you keeping up with friends and family outside the aid circle? Connecting with people beyond work is essential: sometimes it’s hard in the field but it’s good to remind yourselves that the world does not revolve around your aid project.

In terms of organisational health it can help to reflect on the following:

  1. How is the “headquarters-capital-field dynamics” in your agency? For aid workers navigating the human interaction between HQ demands, capital requests, and field needs represents one of the biggest sources of stress. Issues of responsibility, trust, power and control come into play. These are the very issues that need to be addressed in order to prevent staff burnout and create healthy work environments. 
  2. Is your agency open to learning? Most learning does not happen in a formal training, but rather it is part of a way of working together where employees are encouraged to share ideas, best practices, and skills in a formal and informal way. At times an informal conversation over a coffee means more than a workshop.
  3. How do you give each other feedback? Are employees encouraged to learn from their mistakes? Try and introduce appreciative feedback in the workplace. When used skilfully this practice opens up a whole new way of communicating, allowing people to discuss what works and what doesn’t.
  4. How does your organisation show appreciation and reward staff? Treating people with fairness when it comes for example to salaries, career progression, and job stability/flexibility is a way to improve staff retention. Aid workers’ intrinsic motivation to do good is simply not enough, people need to be rewarded and appreciated.
  5. As a manager, how do you model self-care and leadership? Spending time with your colleagues informally, over lunch for example, helps to create a supportive work environment. Many aid agencies are based in countries where the society values sharing a meal together. We can learn from that instead of exporting the bad habit of eating alone in front of our computer!
  6. How does your organisation take stock? Making time for periodical retreats or reflecting time to pause and explore how to move forward makes individuals and organisations more effective and resilient. No one can drive on an empty tank, no matter how powerful the engine is.

I guess you could say that more than a recipe for success, this is an anti-recipe because its course cannot be charted with a one-size-fits-all intervention. Creating “learning and caring organisations” is certainly not an easy task, but some social purpose organisations are exploring it with promising results, and I think that aid agencies can learn by looking beyond their sector. There’s a certain hubris that needs to be overcome: we can learn from others even if they do not work in war-zones.

A manager with over 20 years of experience working in Palestine shared this powerful thought during a staff meeting: “institutional change and community empowerment can only happen when staff needs and priorities are properly attended to.”

In other words, personal and organisational wellbeing are linked to global wellbeing. By taking care of ourselves and creating healthier organisations, we can better affect change – the reason most of us got into this field in the first place.


Your organisation isn’t going to help you, help yourself.

This post originally appeared at How Matters

Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter how large or how small the organisation you work for is. If you work in aid and development, it’s up to you to look after yourself. Sure, there are exceptions out there. Anecdotally, Save the Children and MSF are both large organisations that are investing time and money into the mental health of their staff. But the reality is, for the bulk of them, the onus is still on the individual to take care of their emotional and mental wellbeing.

A volunteer in a large government volunteer program was working in an area of considerable stress, dealing with victims of sexual violence on a daily basis. She had put in an application to continue her association with this small local organisation, through another volunteer scheme managed by the same company. After she experienced mental health issues, she informed her employer that she was struggling and needed help.

The response that she was given was that she was jeopardising future placements through this company by requesting help. Quite simply, she was showing that she was not of the right fortitude to deal with the requirements of the job. They did however tell her that she was entitled to three hours of free counselling services. Over the 12-month period of her contract.

We put people in places where we demand a great deal from them, and expect our pound of flesh. But rather than give them the tools to do the job that is needed, we treat them with suspicion that they are incapable or weak when they need help.

How did it get like this?

Two years ago, WhyDev ran its first pilot program into peer support, aiming to match isolated aid workers around the world together, to support each others mental, emotional and professional well-being. Back then, the idea that aid workers were able to reach out for this kind of support was something of a novelty in itself, even more so than it is now.

An older man who had worked in the aid and development sector for a couple of decades felt the urge to write to me out of the blue. His email started politely, though (unsurprisingly perhaps) condescendingly.

“I am sure that you are a nice and well intentioned chap”, he wrote, much like the old uncle with a pipe in one hand and a cricket bat in the other, poised to strike you on the bottom just as you think you’re getting off with only a verbal warning. He continued to tell me how in his considerable experience working in conflict and post-conflict areas, he was yet to meet anybody who could benefit from this kind of support. What we were doing at WhyDev was, in his own words, “creating yet another coffee-club for people who ought to pull themselves together and stop whinging.” He urged that I “should put my considerable energy and brainpower into something worthwhile.”


It speaks volumes about the capacity of someone to provide empathy when their solution to a problem is to grin and bear it. It also says more about the aid and development sector when people who we can assume are in higher management positions have this attitude. When they were our age, they toughed it out, and learnt how to “stop whinging”, the younger generation simply needs to do the same.

It is for this very reason that progress from organisations towards true comprehensive mental and emotional support for aid workers is slow. Look at an example of who is green-lighting them (or not, in this case).

I have two simple suggestions on how we can start to improve the situation from an organisational point of view. The first is employ more women in management positions. The science has shown again and again, that on balance, women have more characteristics than men that are suitable for management. Humility, sensitivity and emotional intelligence, just to name a few. Surely these sorts of characteristics, not the overconfidence that male managers tend to display in their own opinions, are more likely to result in organisations that know how to care for their employees’ mental and emotional health. Not only care, mind you, but give them the right tools to do the job.

The second comes back to title of this piece. Realise that, for now, organisations are generally not going to provide staff with the sort of support that they need. This doesn’t exonerate them of their responsibility to do so. It means individuals who work in aid and development need to let them know that it is something valuable to them. And support each other. Changing the perception of mental and emotional needs of aid workers will take a long time. But collectively, it is possible.

John Steinbeck’s quintessential bromance novel, Of Mice and Men, contains one of my favourite passages that encapsulates what working in isolation feels like.

A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.

Crooks, a black, stable hand with a physical disability, is always someone who is on the periphery of everything. He has no measuring stick to which he can exist in his life. It’s just him. But we can help each other, by first helping ourselves.

DevPeers: Improving aid through peer support from Weh Yeoh on Vimeo.

Early results of the largest survey of humanitarian workers ever show that burnout is a key issue already. At WhyDev, we are raising funds for the next iteration of their peer support program: DevPeers.

We are currently halfway to what we need to get the program launched. Without it, we cannot support the hundreds and thousands of aid workers out there. All help is appreciated.

You can also register your interest in DevPeers as a participant.

Stress vs Burnout

Burnout and its causes

Burnout is a problem many aid workers face. In this post, psychologist and organisational consultant Alessandra Pigni discusses the causes of burnout and how it differs from stress or PTSD. A follow-up post will appear next week and will look at what (aid) organisations can do to prevent burnout.

Why does burnout, rather than PTSD, seem to be more common among aid workers?

We need to make a clear distinction between the psychological conditions aid workers may experience following traumatic events, and the distress they experience in their day-to-day work. Both can lead to psycho-somatic suffering, but the causes and remedies are different. Aid workers do not experience burnout following the exposure to a traumatic event, but they may experience trauma-related conditions including (but not exclusively) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead burnout is related to a way of working and to a particular type of organisational culture that I shall describe.

Research suggests that 5% to 10% of aid workers suffer from PTSD. Between 30% and 50% suffer from moderate to severe levels of emotional distress, and 40% are at high risk of burnout. What we need to understand is that given adequate support, most people have the strength and resilience to overcome a traumatic episode without developing PTSD.

This means that aid organisations need to provide tailored support to those professionals who may need it, offering a range of options and not exclusively trauma counselling. The work of trauma therapist Babette Rothschild is excellent if we want to understand PTSD: the author warns us about avoiding the common mistake of thinking that exposure to a traumatic event equals PTSD, and consequently rushing people into counselling.

Burnout is a different issue and unlike PTSD it is a widespread problem across the aid sector. Burnout is a “man-made” condition over which individuals and mostly organisations have a high degree of control. As burnout experts Prof Maslach and Leiter illustrate, burnout is a condition caused by being exposed to an unhealthy work environment, meaning the internal organisational environment.

So while people need to figure out what they can do on an individual level to prevent burnout and, for example, keep their perfectionism and workaholism in check, change will be limited without a shift in organisational thinking.

Aid workers have a pretty good idea of the challenges that they will face in a humanitarian/developing context: power cuts, at times violent and insecure surroundings, gunshots, checkpoints, etc. Place a group of aid workers around a table and you can almost feel that there is a sort of pride in how much they have endured, they always have a story to tell about showering out of a bucket and having to negotiate with the rebels the access to remote areas!

While these though conditions are far from easy, aid workers make an informed career choice. They know that these ‘rough edges’ come with a job that they expect to be meaningful, and full of action, a job that will allow them to experience the world, while being part of a community of people driven by common values. This is where burnout comes in because often these idealised expectations are betrayed by reality.

In order to understand how burnout is not simply a stress problem over which a single individual can have full control, let me go back to the research by Maslach and Leiter who clarify that “while most people think job burnout is just a matter of working too hard, that’s not necessarily true.”

Stress is to burnout what feeling a little blue is to clinical depression. “Burnout is when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.” The authors list six areas that can result in burnout:

  1. work overload;
  2. lack of control over the work;
  3. insufficient rewards;
  4. workplace community problems, such as incivility and a lack of support among co-workers;
  5. a lack of fairness, such as inequality of pay, promotions or workload;
  6. and a conflict between one’s personal values and the requirements of a job.
If this sounds familiar, that is a bad sign.

Do you recognise any of these traits in your organisation?

This evidence-based understanding of burnout and of its key features is essential to appreciate how this condition is an organisational challenge. Most aid workers do not simply overwork, they may also be immersed in an organisational culture that resembles the points highlighted by Leiter and Maslach. It is not unusual for aid workers to experience a sort of ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what they thought it was going to be and what it is.

This gap between expectations and reality, the mismatch between official mission statements and work on the ground, a defensive culture of overwork and sacrifice, and the lack of rewards and fairness is what leads aid workers to burnout. Burnout feels like falling out of love with your job.

If you are just tired, a break and some self-care will do. Burnout requires a different kind of approach, and the best approach is preventing it at the organisational level by strengthening a supportive and respectful work environment.

[Ed. note – participants in WhyDev’s pilot peer coaching program indicated a range of benefits to participating in the program, including feeling less stressed and isolated. We’re currently fundraising to launch DevPeers, the next iteration of this program. 

For more information and to support our campaign, visit http://www.startsomegood.com/devpeers.]


Learning service as an effective alternative to voluntourism

By Amanda Mitchell

“Maybe I’d like it there if I was volunteering in an orphanage and got to play with the kids.”

I slapped my hands over my face, shaking my head. I’ve been living in Cambodia for over three months now and probably haven’t been Skyping my best friend back home as much as I should, but I couldn’t believe she still had no idea what I was actually doing here.

Work-mode took over and I began spitting out numbers like, in Cambodia over 75% of the children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans at all and even though the number of orphans is decreasing the number of orphanages is increasing with the rate of tourism. I explained how visiting and volunteering at orphanages can perpetuate child exploitation.

“I didn’t know that,” was all she said after I’d finished my spiel.

Had my friend acted on her desire to volunteer, not just at an orphanage but anywhere, she’d be bombarded with an overwhelming number of options, good and bad. When you’re surrounded by talk on development and the effects of volunteering it’s easy to forget run-of-the-mill voluntourism projects can be indistinguishable from programs making sustainable contributions to those hearing about it for the first time. Even though I know spending a week painting a classroom will unlikely make any kind of difference in the local community my friend may see it as an excellent opportunity to “give-back”.

In Cambodia I work with two different organizations. PEPY Tours is social enterprise tour company running culturally immersive, educational trips. They started out offering short-term volunteer trips and quickly learned that even though those participating left feeling like they had made a difference, more often than not their contributions didn’t offer any long-term solutions. Learning Service is an advocacy group that stemmed from the lessons PEPY Tours learned and promotes the idea we must learn about a community and the issues they face before we can offer any kind of service.

In January, Learning Service launched a series of videos designed to engage the volunteer-travel community and spark discussions about how to put their good intentions to good use. Online you’ll find numerous lists explaining how not to volunteer and quite a few articles that point fingers at volunteers for adding to dependency problems but not a lot of information about how to volunteer responsibly.

The first Learning Service video, Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement, reminds viewers to analyze the financial transparency of any organization they are considering. If you are paying a fee to join a volunteer project know where that money is going. Also, take into account the implication of foreign volunteers. You shouldn’t be given high-level roles or jobs that could be done by locals just because you are foreign or speak fluent English. Other videos in the series tackle topics such as being a valuable volunteer, staying involved once you’ve returned home, and orphanage tourism.

All of the Learning Service videos are available online:

Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement

Being a Valuable Volunteer

Returning from your Volunteer Experience

Orphanage Tourism

How can I do good in the world?

Tips for responsible travel: Southeast Asia

While videos alone won’t change the volunteer travel community, they hopefully can start the conversation and inspire thoughtful discussions about the impacts our actions have on the world.

To learn more about Learning Service and their resources visit their website: learningservice.info or contact them directly via contact@learningservice.info.

Amanda Mitchell is interning in Cambodia with an educational travel company and responsible volunteer travel advocacy group. In her post she refers to the Learning Service video series.


The Samaritans: Mocumenting the NGO world

By Hussein Kurji

The Samaritans is a mocumentary comedy series about an NGO that does nothing. It is centered around the Kenya field office of “Aid for Aid” where Martha and her multi-cultural team at “Aid for Aid” have to grapple with their own shortcomings, ignore the demands of head office, continue the never ending search for funding, attempt to write plenty of useless reports and battle with local bureaucracy, all under the guise of ‘saving’ Africa.

A few years ago I was given a chance to pitch a comedy show at a TV & Film conference. I was looking for new material and a new world that had not been explored in this medium and in this particular genre .

I then started reading more and more about NGO’s and found that Kenya has over 4000 registered NGOs and its capital Nairobi is the hub of the development world in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the years, I have heard numerous stories from many different people about general office politics at some, not all, of these NGOs. In this space I also saw the chance to showcase Kenya as a diverse, rich and multi-layered country that is beyond the usual “slums and guns” storyline we often see depicted in the news; that Kenya can create engaging content, that it does have an expanding consuming middle class and that with this growing trend Kenya has an investible future. And so a culmination of these factors led to the creation of The Samaritans. Eventually with a base story line of 100 words, I pitched The Samaritans and won the pitching contest.

From that initial research and pitch I developed a short script, filmed an 8-minute demo and joined forces with my now business partner, Salim Keshavjee. We used the demo in our Kickstarter campaign and after a successful campaign we were able to film a pilot and one episode. Previews of these two episodes can be viewed on our website where they are also available for rent.

The mocumentary format lent itself well to the subject matter as it allows the viewer a closer bond with the characters and the world they inhabit. Plus you have a pool of ready storylines, a plethora of cast members from all walks of life and plenty of juxtaposition! All in all a good recipe for comedy.

The major story-arc of season one is the Kenya office submitting the largest grant they have ever submitted. Everyone is quite overwhelmed and the new inexperienced Director, Scott, does not know how to get his team together nor does he know anything about grants. The only person who can actually get it all done is slowly loosing her mind since she cannot get over being passed over for a promotion. The company is also reeling from the public outcry when images emerge of the former Director having hunted a Rhino, a scandal no one is really ready to handle.

Story-arcs have already been thought of for the next three seasons and a lot depends on the success of the first season. If The Samaritans continues to garner the kind of support it already has then hopes are high; the social media buzz has been great.

People have responded to the series positively and the next step is to develop the entire season. In order to do this we need to raise the budget for production and we are actively out there talking to international distribution channels and trying to navigate ways to generate the required budgets. In the mean time, we have two episodes for rent on our websites and are asking people to get involved, both by submitting their own NGO stories, which people have been doing and by renting or pledging to the production.

Hussein is the writer and producer of The Samaritans. He began his media journey in the United States in 2004. After gaining a solid foundation in interactive media design, Australia opened its doors to him where he continued to work in 3D animation & Film and graduated with a masters in digital media. After working for two years in Sydney, Hussein moved back to Kenya and founded Xeinium Productions. 



The TL;DR of global development concepts and practice

“Then, things got worse.”

This is the TL;DR of Russia’s history as presented by ‘kronosO’, a Reddit user. TL;DR is, according to Urban Dictionary, “Said whenever a nerd makes a post that is too long to bother reading.” Too Long; Didn’t Read; an acronym that should certainly be used more in global development. A recent Reddit post asks users to give the TL;DR version of their country’s history. Highlights of this post include:

– Sheep slurs give way to hobbit jokes. (New Zealand).

– All is fine. No more questions. Eternal President will lead us to victory. (DPRK).

– Started 2 world wars, lost both. (Germany).

– Freedom.* (United States of America).

*terms and conditions may apply.

Reddit. To outsiders like myself, it is hard to pin down exactly what Reddit is. Some know it as the ‘Front page of the Internet’, others as the primordial ooze for memes. I’ve been a ‘Lurker’ for some time now, (Reddit-speak for those users who read, view posts but do not post content or comments) and have recently dipped my toes in the water. Rowan Esmlie recently argued that NGOs, and the development sector more broadly, should engage in Reddit. In the landscape of social media, it is the black sheep of the communications family. Everyone dotes on the first-born (Facebook), has given the middle-child a complex (Twitter), and lets the youngest get away with going viral (YouTube). Actually, Reddit is the lost sheep of the family.

Bill Gates just this week hosted an AMA – Ask Me Anything. A subreddit where any of the 4.3 million registered users can ask the host, well, anything. (Within reason). He joins the ranks of Jeffrey Sachs and Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes at UNICEF. Chaiban’s AMA generated 650 comments. As Rowan asks, “When is the last time, for example, an article about humanitarian aid generated more than 600 comments?”

In Sachs’ AMA, this question from user ‘lanks1‘ would make Bill Easterly proud:

“Professor Sachs, one of your proposed solutions to global poverty is for developed nations to hand over billions of dollars more in aid to poor countries.

How do you expect aid to work and to be sustainable, when governments have political and personal motivations that are contradictory to sustainable development?”

Sachs didn’t get around to answering this one.

Since having dipped my toes in the water, I’ve belly-flopped and created the first subreddit devoted to aid and development – /r/globaldev. It is a fairly experimental space that I would like to grow organically. I’m not sure exactly what it is or what is could be. I don’t want to be prescriptive. It could be a new space for communicating development to a different public audience. It could be a new space for building a community of practice. It could be a new space for creating funny aid work memes. I’ve reached out to a few WhyDev friends, including Rowan of Development Intern and Francisco of Boring Development, to help kick start it with content. Reddit offers a very open, self-regulating and intelligent community. An untapped resource. I don’t know how we can engage and utilise Reddit most effectively, but am keen to experiment and hear your ideas.

The first experiment that I would like to trial is a TL;DR of global development concepts and practices. Pick a particularly complex, infuriating, annoying concept and write your best TL;DR statement on it. You can even pick a journal article, blog post or book. However, I ask you to dip your toes in and post it on /r/globaldev. I’ve created a post in which to do this. For example:

– Assumptions, too many. Risks, oh hell yeah. (LogFrames).

– Aid workers have sex, drink and can be kind of douchy. (Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures).

You will have to first register. (Reddit has one of the easiest and most email-less registration processes around). You can then subscribe to /r/globaldev, post content, ask questions and get involved. Remember: don’t post your TL;DR on WhyDev. Post it on Reddit..



Who you shouldn’t be giving to on Giving Tuesday

It’s Giving Tuesday, and that means you’ll be getting a lot of emails today. You might even get to use the hashtag! (#GivingTuesday)

But there’s also a story in the nonprofit world that you probably won’t hear today—a lot of us are pretty terrible. From the shrieking headlines of the Daily Mail to the never-ending sins of TOMS Shoes, there are certainly times when we don’t have a lot to show for the effort we put in.

You might’ve even heard of some of us that are damn despicable.

Homeopaths Without Borders offers humanitarian treatment to individuals in the form of what is entirely bogus medicine. (Do I really have to prove this to anyone? Here, here, and here. Let’s add Wikipedia just to be sure.)

Working in several Central American and Caribbean nations, Homeopaths Without Borders provided emergency aid in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Beyond simply wasting resources in the name of pseudo-science, Homeopaths Without Borders is immensely cruel, offering false hope to the poor with every “treatment.” They also recently toasted graduates of their alternative healthcare education program in Haiti.

But we should remember that the vast majority of nonprofits are not like this. And this Giving Tuesday, I think we can be grateful for the work that charity evaluators like GiveWell and Giving What We Can do to recommend charities that are having a high impact. These recommended charities have been vetted for what your dollar can accomplish.


GiveDirectly is one such charity, receiving attention and praise from The Economist, The Atlantic, and NPR. GiveDirectly’s work is so simple that it’s pretty incredible no one has tried it before—give money to the poor, with no intention of guiding how it’s spent.

The latest study of GiveDirectly’s approach has shown that recipients do not spend more money on vices like alcohol or tobacco, and more importantly, seem to be much happier with their cash. Self-reported happiness and well-being shot up among those receiving the cash, and even had positive spillover effects on their neighbors’ happiness. When GiveDirectly increased the size of the cash transfer, blood measurements of the stress hormone cortisol decreased significantly.

And of course, I should mention that this approach has substantial positive impacts on income, hunger, and even female empowerment.

What makes GiveDirectly’s work so interesting, though, is that it operates off a principle not found anywhere else in development work—that individuals are the best creators of their own future. GiveDirectly trusts that individuals know the fine grain details of their lives that matter, and steps back.

Today, you will probably receive charity appeals from every corner, and most of them will have some legitimacy. (That is, unless you’re on a homeopathic mailing list.)

But let’s consider what happens when we donate to one of the most effective charities we have. Let’s consider what happens when we trust what individuals have to say for their own lives. Donate now.


5 key takeaways from the ACFID DevelopmentFutures Conference

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

1. How may we work with them?

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

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

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

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

2. A developmental ‘secret sauce’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Let’s scale down and have more events

Anthony Zwi – Professor Global Health and Development, UNSW

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

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

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

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

5. Game over man. Game over.

Brendan Rigby – Director of WhyDev

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

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

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