Tag Archives: Reflection

Monitoring, evaluation and the search for ‘impact’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Systems approach to development

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

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


Hey aid worker! It’s not about you

You’re either going to love this post or hate it. You’re either going to see it as nothing more than an extended rant, or you’ll think it makes a valid point or two. Either way, I hope it makes you think. Although I do mention Gen Y a few times, let’s kick things off on the right foot by stating that I do not in any way think I speak for an entire generation.

As someone who just sneaks into Gen Y, I’ve come to realise that we’ve had things better than pretty much every other generation before. Most of us haven’t experienced major wars. Life expectancy is getting longer, our general health is improving, and we have information literally at our fingertips. The very fact that we have ever-evolving “First World Problems” memes, Twitter hashtags and websites tells us that although we’ve got the good humour to laugh at it, our lives just ain’t that bad.

We are also one of the first generations where our parents repetitively said to us: “You can be amazing. You can be a world-beater. If you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want.” I can’t help but think that while it’s nice to be told that, with a bit of dedication and hard work, I can legitimately cycle faster than the peloton at Tour de France, it also has some downsides.

Think about it. If I grow up with someone telling me that I’m unique and interesting, chances are when I’m get older, I’m actually going to think that I am unique and interesting. But what if, as my former high school friends enjoy repetitively telling me, I’m not? Just as importantly, what if it is helpful to actively deny this?

As Gen Y increasingly fills the workforce of aid and development, there’s a growing trend amongst us about how we talk about the work we do. One could easily get the impression that, looking from the outside in, doing work in this space revolves around us. A quick scan of the internet seems to reinforce this.

You have the aid worker who, on a field trip, was put up in an expensive hotel. She posted selfies, clad in a bathrobe, standing in front of an enormous spa bath in her ensuite. Underneath was a caption, commenting on the ostentatiousness of her surroundings that she had just been posted to. On a work trip. Paid for by donors.

You have the development worker who blogs like she is a travel writer. Today I visited people in poor villages. The most amazing thing happened. A girl who could have been no older than 7 years old came up to me, and told me that she wanted to be my best friend. She placed a band around my wrist signifying our friendship, and told me that I had beautiful hair. You get the idea.

You have those unoriginally ironic “my life is tough” photos, posted from the poolside, with a cocktail and a laptop placed side-by-side on a table. Bonus points if there’s a sunset in the background. Usually, such a photo will be accompanied by a caption saying something along the lines of “my office for the afternoon” or “all in a day’s work.”

If you can't find an exotic hotel pool, just make do, okay?
If you can’t find an exotic hotel pool, just make do, okay?

Think about it for a second. Do we really want to portray aid and development as revolving around the glamorous life of the aid worker?

Sure, these examples are extreme and they don’t prove anything in themselves. After all, working in aid and development can be exciting. You get to go to exotic places, and mix with people from different backgrounds. You will stand out (or, if you’re like me, constantly asked why your Khmer, Chinese or Malay is so terrible). Surely there’s nothing wrong with sharing this excitement with the world?

I believe working in aid and development should involve forgetting about your sense of self as much as is humanly possible. Those people who have real and complex problems, that’s what should be keeping you awake at night, not manicuring every picture on your Facebook profile to present the most attractive you.

In fact, the more you deny the very existence of your own self, surely the better job you will do.

There’s another, more extreme, possibility if we don’t constantly remind ourselves that doing this job is not about us. Stuff like this happens.

Who is the focus of the voluntourists mission? Photos like this speak volumes.

The above photo comes from an organisation* that provides “ethical tourism” opportunities for people to change the lives of those living in poor counties. In the picture, you will you see an unfortunate byproduct of the self-centredness I described earlier. The volunteer is digging a well, while entranced “locals” stand around and watch. The message here is clear. The white volunteer is noble. She is doing something special (clearly, no one else in the picture is capable of wielding a shovel with such aplomb). She is making a difference.

The crucial word in that last sentence should be highlighted. She.

This is not an attack on voluntourism per se, but rather how it is portrayed. Who is this all about? The volunteer, or the other people in the photo?

It is true that these forms of narcissism have been around for centuries, and it’s nothing new to think that you’re the centre of the universe. Facebook, social media, and the internet more broadly have perhaps not changed this one bit. But they have changed the avenues through which we express this narcissism. It has made it easier to share, to brag (even if it is humblebragging), to broadcast. And most importantly, all of this is done so easily, with just the flick of a finger.

It is also true that those responsible are just displaying enthusiasm for their own lives. True, it is up to us to ignore them if we find them irritating or offensive. The behaviour itself is harmless. But the mindset that accompanies it is one that takes the focus away from those whose lives we are trying to improve, and onto the person doing the work. Even if momentary, I find it difficult to accept.

As importantly, the message that it sends to the public is poor. At a time when people are increasingly sceptical of aid’s efficacy and concerned about wastage, is this really how we want to portray ourselves to those outside the sector?

Image Credit: PLR Internet Marketing

Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” If you read anything about Gandhi’s life, as imperfect as he was, he always pushed himself towards removing his sense of self completely.

But what if he hadn’t? What if every time Gandhi completed something ground-breaking, he leaned over, picked up a device, and broadcasted to the world? What if others did the same?

Gandhi   Aung San Suu Kyi2

I cannot imagine that Gandhi or Suu Kyi ever thought it necessary to broadcast their achievements. Nor would they, even for a second, want to take the spotlight away from what they were trying to achieve or those they were achieving it for, onto themselves. Sure, they never had smartphones (perhaps why they managed to get so much work done), but if they had, would they have taken advantage of them in this way?

I’m blessed to have worked alongside some extraordinarily humble Chinese and Cambodian colleagues, who are achieving some amazing things daily. The vast majority are happy to chip away at their work, but don’t broadcast in the ways I mentioned above. These are people we could take cues from, where the focus really is all about the work, and not about themselves.

Kayla McClurg had something very insightful to say about Martin Luther King Jr’s life:

When I reflect on the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr, one thing that strikes me is obvious: he didn’t start out to be who he ended up being. He didn’t set out to be a visionary leader, intent on making an impact on the country and culture of his day. He allowed himself to be created. Slowly, layer by layer, choice by choice, he became himself. He didn’t choose “leader of a mass civil rights movement” from a list of vocational options. His identity emerged gradually from within as he yielded to the guidance of the community and listened and prayed and read and participated and took the risks of creativity that were uniquely his to take.

I can’t help but think that his approach is completely at odds with the broadcasting I’ve described above. For him, it was never about portraying an image of himself, let alone even being a world-beater. He simply wanted to become the best person he could, without thinking about where that could lead him. When the time came for him to lead a resistance movement, MLK was simply the right person for the job.

I propose that before the next time we hit “post” on that picture of our laptop, the mojito and the sunset in the background, overlooking an African beach, we pause and take a deep breath. Does the internet really need this? Or would we be better off sharing something more valuable? Cat videos, perhaps?

Is broadcasting unnecessary, harmless, just good fun or potentially damaging? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


* For the interests of transparency, this is a company that I have had professional dealings with, though they do not in any way relate to this photo, or what is happening in it.

Moving from stew to stewardship: eating sustainably in 2012

It used to be so simple. Buy or harvest food, cook food, enjoy food.

That is probably an oversimplification – food has always been political, as anyone familiar with the history of sugar or bananas knows, but it seems that now its politics have entered the mainstream, and that with the rate of our economic development, its politics have become more urgent.

In this politicised environment, hosting a dinner party becomes an exercise in diplomacy and a test of how many dietary restrictions one cook can accommodate. You’ll have people who eat white meat but not red, vegetarians who prefer not to eat tofu, those who are lactose intolerant, and people who prefer their bananas organic – and that’s just if you’ve invited me and my roommate for a meal.

How did it become this way? What does eating ethically and sustainably look like in 2012? How do we balance a desire to eat sustainably with a desire to respect cultural attitudes toward food?

Growing up with dinner in the backyard

Food at its most basic exists as sustenance, but it also a powerful part of culture. Many religious rituals centre on food or refraining from eating it, from the Christian breaking of bread, to the Jewish Passover Seder, to Islam’s Ramadan. And religion aside, what would any wedding or gathering of family be without a meal to bring people together?

My brothers and I were forbidden from telling our younger sister that this guy would end up on our plates. (Jane Smith)

Food was important to my upbringing. As a child, the vegetables I ate were from the garden, and the steak on my plate came from the pasture behind our house. (One year my mom christened the bovine my dad chose to be butchered “Stu,” as stew was his ultimate fate.)

I wear this history on my skin. Years ago, I caught my arm on one of the barbs of the barbed wire fence that pens the cattle in. The scar remains there today, my agricultural roots  tattooed on my body.

We all have powerful memories associated with food. Learning to cook from our mothers. The first time cooking for a partner. Experiencing the hospitality of those with far too little yet always enough to share a meal.

Facing our upside-down food system

Yet as many of us know, food is much more than our culture and our upbringing. Sadly, much in our food system perpetuates inequality, drives unsustainable growth, and harms our environment.

Here are a couple of facts about food and our food system that continue to boggle my mind:

Pippa Black in a dress made of leaves
As all vegetarians do, I own a dress made of leaves but I generally save it for special occasions. (PETA Asia-Pacific)

When looking at these figures, and taking into account other concerns about health and animal rights,  it’s no surprise that new dietary habits like eating local and vegetarianism are becoming more common, and they’re making their way beyond environmentalists and food activists. (Although there are those who challenge the focus on agricultural productivity when discussing food security.)

I gave up meat four years ago, initially making an exception for the cattle raised on my family’s farm, but then giving that up too. (My family is very proud of me.)

It’s become a point of connection with others, providing instant affinity with other vegetarians.

Yet when a vegetarian colleague, who has previously had postings Tajikistan, Congo, and other far-flung places across the world, told me she used to decline meat from Tajiks and Congolese, I was taken aback. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way – is it rude to  refuse such hospitality, even with the best of reasons?

And if so, then why is it okay for me to refuse such hospitality from my family?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I feel the tension between wanting to eat sustainably and wanting to respect and partake in others’ (and even my own) culture.

Tensions at the intersection of food, culture and sustainability

My own complicated relationship with food illustrates the difficulties of untangling the personal and political aspects of food. While I haven’t had meat in years, I can’t quite bring myself to completely sell my (much more symbolic than lucrative) shares in the family farm.

I remember cold nights spent bottle-feeding newborn calves in the barn with one of my brothers, the way the cattle would lift their heads from grazing and run towards my dad at the sound of his voice, and the memorable times the cows broke free from the pasture and traipsed through our vegetable garden, and I can’t bring myself to sever ties with this.

Yet in the future we may have to, collectively as a society. Our rate of economic development may make meat a thing of the past (or a thing of test tubes), and there are many other elements of our food system that need to change.

While I understand that, I still wonder about the impact on cultures, on traditions, on families.

So I’ll keep holding onto my shares in the family farm even as I decline its meat, and I’ll continue to think about these tensions every time I make myself a lentil burger or pass on the roast my family is having.


What is your relationship with food like?


When dreams become reality

It has been a long couple of weeks of travel throughout Africa. On my way to Cameroon I was stranded over night in Cotonou, Benin, my connecting airline suddenly deciding to have a day of maintenance for their planes. In Cameroon I had to venture back and forth through the catacombs of the airport in order to secure a visa. To arrive in Gabon from Yaounde I had to fly through Lagos, Nigeria TWICE on the day after 150 people perished in a flight at that same airport. The frustrations and inefficiencies of the developing world can eat away at a foreigner if a high degree of patience and understanding is not exercised. Nevertheless, seeing different parts of Africa and the vast differences in culture and behavior has been eye opening. I now have a greater appreciation for the words of Ryszard Kapuscinki:

“The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

Being back in Ouagadougou I feel relieved and I have a much greater appreciation for the distinct characteristics of this place and its people. Somehow this hot, dusty, impoverished country in the heart of West Africa is starting to feel like a home.

I thought I would take this opportunity to share some important thoughts that I have been having lately about international development – philosophizing about the field is often the only thing that keeps us going.

Those working in international development often love what they do, I certainly do. But my most recent spell of stress, exhaustion, and mysterious West African stomach sickness has really got me thinking about the work that we do and the expectations that surround it as a profession. Just a few months ago I never expected to find myself in Africa, but now here I am, in the thick of things, deep in the heat of the sub-Saharan sun.  I can’t even really trace the pattern of events that led me to arrive here. Regardless, it has been within the last few weeks that I have come to the realization that I am now a full-fledged development worker, and I am grappling with how that actually feels.

A lot of others have written about why we work in aid & development, or on becoming an aid worker. These are all really great discussions that stimulate important thinking about the nature of aid and development and the people that are involved. A great article was written not long ago about living out our dreams, and about being cognizant of the moment when we finally achieve that dream, and how that moment feels. But even though working in aid and development is a dream for many, for others it is simply just a reality. And often, that reality is a harsh one.

Ultimately, foreign aid and development workers are living for long periods of their lives in foreign places that they have to become accustomed to – an incredibly difficult and often “uncomfortable” task in itself. Working in the field of international development can be incredibly tolling, both physically and mentally. The sicknesses and the daily malaria pills, the never ending travel and the inevitable culture shocks. Often, it is difficult to find peace of mind and an escape from ones work. The brainstorming and formulation of ideas never seem to end – how can I stop my mind from thinking about my work when my entire life revolves around it? Speaking generally, I am here to support the development of an impoverished African region, and I am reminded of this every day that I head out into the city streets.

I have realized that I am finally where I planned to be about four years ago when I took off traveling to gain experience in the developing world. Now I have a paid job, with a niche and a growing specialization that will keep me doing this work throughout my career.  I have realized that the glamour of my dream was only partially real, that the transient life – life in an impoverished country – is no easy experience. I have come to realize that my closest of friends will be those who I meet wherever I go, or those who somehow take the time to maintain email communications with me once in a while. As I move on to the next project or next country, I move on in life and leave behind all the things that I have grown to cherish, the only consolation being the excitement of the next experience.

The point here is not to complain about the perils of life as an aid and development worker, but rather to explore the disconnect between the image of development work – the one that drives people’s dreams – and the reality of it. I often question my choices in life, we all do, but more often than not I think about what I am doing and I realize that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

This is a cross-post with Anthony’s own blog, Finding The Balance

When talking about human rights is irrelevant

Go in search of your people;
Love them;
Learn from them
Serve them;
Begin with what they have;
Build on what they know;
But of the best leaders when the task is accomplished, their work is done, the People will remark: “We have done it Ourselves”

Chinese Verse (source unknown)


I had the pleasure of working with Handicap International in China last year. As someone who had recently graduated from studying an MA in International Development Studies, it was an amazing opportunity to compare theory with practice. We all know that what we learn in a classroom is often miles away from what happens or works in practice. How it actually differs though, is something that is difficult to predict.

In my very first week in China, I gave a presentation to a group of young university students who were volunteering to raise awareness about issues related to disability. During my presentation, I spoke heavily about human rights. What I found was that there was almost no reaction to the idea that people with disabilities had human rights that needed to be realised. Why wasn’t this resonating?

While studying development, one of the central tenets stressed is the rights-based approach. For those who are unfamiliar, this approach is a conceptual framework based upon international standards that should be used to promote and protect human rights.

In her book “Human Rights Approach to Development”, Julia Häusermann justifies using a rights-based approach because it is a normative framework to protect and promote the human rights of marginalised groups. The idea is that by stipulating a set of internationally agreed standards, which are often backed by international law, this should provide the impetus for the realisation of rights. At times during my studies, we were encouraged to give trainings about human rights, and to try and get local people thinking about this issue so that they could push for change in their own communities. This concept was one that I always struggled with at the time. How is it possible for bottom-up change to occur through a set of standards that are determined in a top-down fashion by the UN? It seemed paradoxical.

In China, I soon realised how limited the rights-based approach was in trying to instigate change. Although the rights-based approach may be a good foundation and framework upon which development workers can base their own approach, thinking that it will create change in countries like China is perhaps a little naive. What strikes me about using this approach is that it falls under the information deficit approach to creating change. In other words, once you educate people about human rights, and outline the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), they will be able to grasp this concept easily and energise themselves to create positive change. Simply not knowing about something is the reason why these rights are being ignored.

If this logic holds true, then the people who heard my presentation should be able to analyse gaps in human rights issues and demand that their government brings about change so that human rights are no longer ignored. Right? Wrong.

In China, my experience was that most people perceive human rights as a ‘Western’ concept. This means that plugging knowledge gaps with information about human rights is futile, because it isn’t locally appropriate. I learnt that Chinese people tended to have a very pragmatic view about solving problems (see photo below); if there was a problem, people wanted to know how to go about solving it (and more often than not, they wanted someone to tell them how to do it).

The pragmatic approach to solving problems in China (photo my own).

During my presentation to university students, I learnt very quickly about the gap between this “Western concept” and Chinese perspectives. The students were young people who were more likely to be “Westernised” than many of their older counterparts. I explained the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and linked that to people with disabilities. I explained that if we all accepted that people with disabilities were human beings, then it follows that they too have human rights that need to be respected and realised.

However, this topic hardly provoked any reaction. It just didn’t seem to gain traction. Puzzled, I went back to my colleagues to ask them how I could improve my talk. They were generally polite (possibly a little too polite), but one hinted that while the human-rights approach was interesting, it was a little bit too theoretical for the intended target group.

After some reflection, I decided to change my approach. Instead of talking about human rights as a conceptual framework, I decided to focus more on barriers.

I discussed how, for a child who uses a wheelchair, a disability is created by the barriers that society erects in front of this child. How it is not so much the fact that the child cannot walk in school, but the fact that there are no ramps in place, or no policy on how he or she can participate while the other children are running around during sport.

Looking at the problem from this angle is actually quite refreshing. Because no matter how clever you are, or no matter how much you care, you cannot go back in time and prevent a child with cerebral palsy from being born with that impairment. We cannot change what happens to the body. But, through society as a whole, we can lower barriers. We can promote inclusion by collectively focusing on  steps that lower barriers that prevent participation.

Immediately, I saw a change in the students’ response. Rather than talking about a conceptual framework that meant very little to them, they had a real tangible way in which they could improve the lives of those around them. It helped them see past people with disabilities as pitiable and helpless. It kick-started change and a desire for action.

The rights-based approach is not a useless concept. It can be a good start for us, particularly those with a ‘Western’ education, to wrap our heads around why we do what we do. It can be the underlying foundation for development work. But it cannot be a driver for change in a local context, when it clashes so heavily with the national psyche. Coming into a country like China and expecting to create change by throwing around concepts such as human rights is naive, and antithetical to the very nature of a bottom-up approach to development.

Thankfully, I was able to use the good advice of my local colleagues to develop a more effective strategy for promoting disability awareness. Hopefully, it enabled at least some Chinese people to begin creating their own change, and lowering barriers for participation for people with disabilities. Then, and only then, would they be able to say, “We have done it Ourselves.”


On dreams and those who live them

Richenda Vermeulen, friend of whydev, sent out the call for bloggers to write about dreams and how they enrich, fuel and motivate our lives. But also how they change, how they come true, and how we struggle to reach them. You can see the posts others have written on her blog here. Here’s Allison’s take on what she’s learning about the nature of dreams and those who attain their dreams.

I’m in that shimmering phase of life where your dreams start to find you.

I used to think dreams started from the inside and worked their way out, that they came from your core and grew until they got so big you couldn’t contain them anymore and had to act.

I still think that’s true to a degree, but as I said, I’m now seeing that my dreams are finding me.

My dreams didn’t include working on a project to potentially help thousands of people across the world; now I’m one of three people here at whydev working on a peer coaching initiative for aid workers that may in fact do so. (You can support us as we work towards this dream over at StartSomeGood.) They didn’t include learning how to improve how organisations run until I started my first real job in an organisation; now I have dreams of doing an MBA. (One day, I hope to meet someone that makes me dream about family and domesticity in a way I don’t right now.)

These are just two examples of how two of my dreams found me. Now they influence the conversations I have, the plans I make, the things I read, the people I learn from, the friends I have, the way I perceive the world. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say they influence every aspect of my life.

As my dreams have found me, I’ve been more and more interested in observing those around me who have reached their goals and lived their dreams. As I work towards my personal and professional dreams, I find it helpful to look to those who are living their own dreams.

Here’s what I’ve observed about those who realize their dreams.

  1. Their dreams are feasible for them

This does not mean that they will find it easy to realize their dreams. It just means their dreams are possible for them, that these people have figured out what they’re good at and passionate about and have a dream at the intersection of the two.

This seems obvious, but it’s not to everyone. I think of people who dream of being teachers without recognising their impatient personalities make working with children impossible, or those who dream of success on Broadway without facing that they can’t really dance. These are dreams that aren’t feasible.

The best dreamers know themselves well so that their dreams line up with their passions, skills, experiences, and personality.

  1. They are surrounded by others chasing their dreams…

Chasing your dreams can require single-minded focus, at times to the exclusion of other aspects of your life. I’ve found it to be much easier to lock myself away to work on a project when others around me have understood why I would choose studying/blogging/working on a Saturday night over going to a wine and cheese soirée.

The people who truly understand those kinds of things are the ones also sacrificing things for their dreams. They understand, and they encourage and support you as you pursue your dreams.

  1. … but they’re not afraid to go it alone

I was recently reminded of a quote from composer Jean Sibelius: “Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

Well, I may one day put up a statue to William Easterly, but for the most part Sibelius is correct. The best dreamers understand this, as they inevitably face some robust criticism.

In a post on dreams, this may be the time to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. Thank goodness he didn’t abandon his dream when faced with opposition.

  1. They learn from others smarter than themselves

It requires humility to learn from others when pursuing a dream, and it’s not always easy to open yourself up to suggestions from others for something as personal as a dream. But it’s worth it.

I’m never so excited about my dreams as when I have the chance to discuss them with other like-minded people who are smarter than me. They make me think about achieving my dreams in creative ways I never would have considered, and that’s exciting.

  1. Their dreams are dynamic

There’s a poignant passage in the book “The Alchemist” where a merchant describes his dream to visit Mecca. For years, he’s watched people pass through his shop on their pilgrimage to Mecca, and now he can finally afford to go himself.

Yet he doesn’t. Instead he confesses, “I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.”

I can’t imagine anything sadder or more untrue. I’m continuously amazed by the dynamism of those who dream big, how their dreams expand and evolve and lead to new dreams. For these people, the realisation of one dream often leads to another.

This gives me incredible hope. When I’ve achieved a dream, it doesn’t mean I’ve reached the end of dreaming. And if one dream doesn’t come true, another dream will find me.


I feel blessed to be chasing my dreams, and there have been many times that I’ve turned to a friend and said, “We’re living the dream!” Indeed, as I was mid-way through writing this post, a good friend called to excitedly share how she’s getting closer to realising a dream she’s had for a while. Dreams are all around me.

Often I’ve said it facetiously, but here I’ll say it seriously: I’m living the dream, and I’m fortunate to be learning from others who are too.

What have you observed about those who realize their dreams? Are you living your dream in aid and development?

The archaeology of my professional identity in development

I sit writing this post at my small desk, in the rapidly changing city of Tamale, northern Ghana (living in this city is like watching development occur). It is a simple room, furnished with both local and foreign amenities. A simple cupboard, a bed with mosquito net unused, a floral bed sheet for a curtain, an air conditioner used sparingly, a tea set, hauled from Beijing, China – my sanity and saving grace. A book on “Reading & Writing Chinese: Simplified Character Edition”. The Second Edition of David Barton’s “Literacy: an introduction to the ecology of written language”. A small statue of Buddha, which has accompanied me for the past five years. A small novelty Minnesota Vikings helmet, given by a visiting consultant who is based in Minneapolis/St. Paul. A six-picture photo frame given by my girlfriend when she visited over Christmas. My identity, at least how I perceive myself, is largely captured in this simple room. I draw comfort from it.

Yet, my professional identity is another matter, found elsewhere and not so clear. It has been a rough two weeks. A depression. I look upon my professional life as an archaeologist would the cross-section of a trench, with each layer quite distinct, representing certain periods of time, settlement and abandonment. However, the cross-sections are anything but clear. Artefacts from seemingly different time periods are to be found in the same layer. There are visible signs of destruction. But, most of all, there is a entire landscape of unanswered (and sometimes, unanswerable) questions. I have found it hard to keep my role in focus here. I am in a long-distance relationship. My professional future is uncertain. My current professional life is uncertain, ill-conceived. My role is largely determined by how I perceive myself as a professional and a worker. But, I am unsure how I see my professional self. It is perhaps a result of looking into the future, of trying to determine where I will be or want to be next. What do I want my role to be? Who do I want to work for? How can I get there? This focus on the future, I think, is leading away from what I am doing now.

I am tempted to use the “we” in writing this reflection, to have the arrogance to speak for all aid and development workers. Rather, I want to reflect on my personal experience, and allow you to respond and speak for yourself. A kind of group therapy, because although I may feel alone in having this swirling uncertainty of professional identity, I know I am not alone.

I try to separate my online identity from my professional one and keep my work quite separate from my engagement with issues and people online. I don’t want either to define me. Part of it is self-interest. I believe that my contribution to this site, and my connections with others, will support my professional career either indirectly or directly. However, I don’t believe that my online engagement will change how I professionally work. I do not want to get caught in the rhetoric and polemic. This is probably why I decided to collect and collate posts on #Kony2012, rather than write about it.

I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of online engagement, but think it naive to believe my perspectives will change people, prejudices, paradigms. Is Dr. Kim a good choice for the World Bank Presidency? What should a post-2015 agenda look like? How are the BRICs reshaping the aid system? I enjoy reading about such, and occasionally add my own or engage others online (and off), but to what effect? Social media and blogging is more of a way for me to socially and intellectually connect with others. Social media allows for this; power does reside within it, in the people who use it. Sometimes, I want to display my intellectual prowess and cunning, or try to be humourous. But, ultimately, I am engaging in these activities to connect with others (and probably, more often than not, to put others in their place).

To think that social media will give me the power to challenge orthodoxy is arrogant. To believe that I can challenge in my professional life is also foolhardy. I am not an Amartya Sen or Ester Duflo, nor a Scott Gilmore or William Easterly. I enjoy research and see my career heading down this pathway, with a hope to make my research applicable and participatory, and not purely academic or esoteric. I believe I have the smarts for it, without being brilliant; I have a good education, a critical mind with technical knowledge and expertise, some modest publications and a variety of foundational employment experiences. My moral and ethical compass points due justice, but gets knocked around by the magnetic forces of universalism and utilitarianism. I find snark and cynicism easy bed companions that feed off each other, but unhelpful in trying to develop my professional identity. I think they would corrode it. I try to practice being mindful, and believe this can support and shape my professional work. Reflexivity can be learned, is of undiscovered value, but is perhaps the hardest to practice.

I think these online engagements distract from trying to define my professional identity. I lose concentration from constantly checking Facebook, Twitter, updating statuses, sending tweets, trying to achieve enlightenment in 140 characters or less. Rather, I am beginning to understand that my professional identity will be defined in the work I do each day. In my application of concentration and discipline. In the conversations I have face-to-face with colleagues, friends, family, neighbours and those we work with – call them partners, beneficiaries, locals, nationals, participants. Society in humanity has, and will, always be defined by social connections and interactions, the most important being face-to-face, person-to-person. This is not a ground-breaking insight, but it is significant for me to remember. Without it, I have no professional identity.

I know that if I can define the limits of my professional identity, about what I can achieve, then I will be satisfied, productive. It is not a case of balancing idealism with realism and vice versa. It is about understanding who I am, what I am capable of, and how I can be. Idealism and realism are just concepts that others attach to my professional identity. They too are distracting. In writing this reflection, this is the list of things I uncovered about my professional identity, a real-time archaeology of my professional identity:

I want to create.

I want to share knowledge and enable others to uncover it.

I don’t want to save the world, but I do want to support the people within it.

I want to contribute, not necessarily in a way that is quantifiable, but in a way that is satisfactory to my own standards and which is at least tangible.

It is ok to look towards my own professional and personal self-interests. I want a family, I want a home, and can look towards securing such.

But, perhaps the most significant realisation I am coming to is this: that professionally, I am no more special, unique or necessary than any one person. My contribution, my role, is just as important as that of an electrician, plumber, taxi driver, janitor, lawyer, nurse, radio host, small business owner. We are all providing a service in some way, under the pretense of different reasons. Although I may believe my service to be more selfless, noble and even of a higher calling, this is just not true. We all provide these services for the same reasons: livelihood, security, and need.

And I’ve also realised that if I truly want to make a difference, then I should be a teacher again, for there is no other profession in which you can have a more direct effect on the lives of children and families than in teaching.

Reflection and action

“Learning to live the paradox of action as reflection, and reflection as action”

– Westley et al., Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed.

"We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves." — Dalai Lama XIV

Supposedly carved into the temple of Apollo in Delphi was the phrase ’Know Thyself”. I often wondered if in itself self-knowledge holds the risk of turning into self-obsession. And whereas the risk is there, knowing oneself – understood as cultivating self-awareness – holds immense possibilities of change: within, and outside in the world. No effective change is brought about without a degree of self-reflection and self-awareness. Great leaders and social innovators from Nelson Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Han, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, all have held together the paradox of action and reflection, they all seem to have started their engagement in/with the world as an inside out process. This because we cannot just expect others to change: ‘wanting to change others means accepting a profound change in oneself. Self-reflection and self-revelation are necessary’. To me there seems to be a link between psychological/personal awareness and social/political awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, the founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme, emphasises how a reflective practice such as mindfulness has wide effects in the body-politic (see ‘Healing the body politic’ from the his book Coming to Our Senses). So it comes as no surprise that for social innovators ‘there is gold in a reflective practice’, and ‘it is essential to understand that there is a connection between self-knowledge and worldly knowledge’. Self-knowledge as self-awareness requires us to get out of the constant ‘doing mode’, to cultivate who we are. Which, in my opinion, is what makes all the difference when it comes to serving as an aid worker, a volunteer or an NGO manager. Nevertheless what prompts many into aid work is activism, the desire to make a difference, ‘to do’ things that matter. It is somehow a quest for a meaningful life. Here reflection should not be understood as a state of passivity, but as moment of ‘being’, where we nurture those qualities that will inform our ‘doing’. Reflection becomes important because the way we think about the world, and how we understand it frames our actions. So it is of no secondary importance to learn the art of standing still, seeing that the world is not simply acted upon, but rather it interacts with us, with who we are. To paraphrase the work of my friend and colleague Jennifer Lentfer‘it is not what we do, but HOW we do it’ that matters. Engaging in personal enquiry and reflection is therefore part of the action, it becomes an essential component of how we do things and who we are. Learning to standstill helps us to take stock and move forward effectively.

'Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself'. — Leo Tolstoy

The story of the woodcutter from The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (a wonderful, inspiring guide) conveys the message of why learning to pause is crucial:

‘Once upon a time an old woman was walking through the forest near her home when she came across a man chopping down a tree. They exchanged brief greetings but he continued chopping. He was working very hard, determined to complete the job and see results before sundown. She watched him a while and then disappeared. A little later she returned, bearing a stone and a small bucket of water. When he paused in his work to wipe his brow she handed these to him and said, “Sir, I see that you are very busy. But, to put it bluntly, it looks to me like you need to pause a while, take a breath and sharpen your axe.” “Go away, woman, I am too busy I don’t have time for this!”’

When do we sharpen our own axes? Do we take the time to standstill, take a breath, reflect? How many of us are just too busy for that?     For further reading, check out: The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (free download); Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness

This is a reposting of an original post on Mindfulness for NGOs. 

Why do you work in aid & development?

Recently, two heavyweights in the aid & development online community, and respected professionals in their own right, posted reflections on why they work in the sector. This was followed by very reluctant, but wise advice from Dave Algoso (who wrote ‘Career advice (from people smarter than me’ on whydev for us). I highly recommend that you read what they have to say (the symmetry of their titles is beautiful):

Rather than write a post of my own reflection (which would be called ‘Electrify‘), I want to open this thread of introspection to you. Why do you work in aid and development? Or, if you are not yet working, why are you studying for your MA in Development Studies or similar? Why are you currently volunteering at [large or small NGO]? To quip, why dev?

We often hear from, and read, the same bloggers. But, rarely do we hear from other voices. From you. Occasionally, you make a comment, post a link on Facebook or hire an airplane to write a message of smoke in the sky.

So, read the above posts. Think about Dave Algoso’s two sub-rules about knowing yourself: 1) Know what you value; 2) Know what you are good at. And, let ourselves and others know why you do what you do. If anything, such introspective writing will help you at your next job interview.


I also highly recommend reading: