We are all Mogadishu

Continually scrolling through twitter, reading every news article available in languages I can read. I feel physically distant and yet my heart is aching. It’s an intense ache I’ve felt for days.

or better still we should all be standing there with those suffering in Somalia. But money doesn’t take the pain away and I’m too far to send blood.

What’s really needed is peace. Or better still, peace plus the space for the Somali people to create their own future. Away from external interference.

Debt hampers the development. War hampers the peace. Hunger hampers the population.

The photos and stories from Mogadishu show true camaraderie, citizenship, love. People cleaning up the streets, fishing out body parts and burying them. Lines to donate blood. Donations from the diaspora and communities overseas particularly Eastleigh or the Scandinavian countries. Though even following a Coldplay tweet for the latter, the world has not responded with the kind of generosity we’ve seen elsewhere.

Red scarves, t-shirts but the photo that captures it the most, for me, is a volunteer kissing the forehead of a man in an army uniform as they clear through the rubble together.


The reason for this attack is still unknown but the stories of a revenge attack for a previous foreign led attack are already coming through. There is no justification for this kind of action. But there is a need to understand the impact that war or armed action has on human beings.

Somalia was turning a corner: earlier this year MPs voted in a new President and a federal structure is under creation. The reaction and response to this recent terrible attack could leave Somalia vulnerable to a backwards pathway, or it could be utilised to further progress.

We all pray for the latter.


Aid Contractors: What should DFID do?

Image result for what should dfid do cartoon

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and goodwill to everyone! Unless, of course, you’re a fat cat poverty baron, in which case you’ve got a lot to answer for. DFID has launched two inquiries into malpractice at Adam Smith International following Daily Mail revelations; more attacks swiftly followed on cash transfers and the World Bank (paywalled). It’s caused no small amount of navel-gazing and handwringing among my friends working in the aid sector – many of whom work for the aforementioned poverty barons. Consequently, this blog examines how DFID should respond – if at all – to these attacks on aid contractors.

It would be true – if complacent – to point out that right wing media attacks on foreign aid are never going to stop. Whether because DFID is expanding in a time of austerity, exporting the British welfare state across the world, or simply helping foreigners, aid has always been a target. But the attacks are still cause for concern. Firstly because if foreign aid doesn’t maintain some level of popular support, it will disappear before long. And secondly because, as many aid insiders will admit, Daily Mail accusations often have more than a grain of truth. Aid contractors are often overpaid and incompetent. Millions of pounds are wasted. The aid system is simply not working as efficiently or well as it should. So what should DFID do about this? How can they control contractor costs, and minimize wasted budget? Here are some thoughts – please add yours in the comments below.

  • Cut DFID’s budget. Sorry Make Poverty History, sorry Oxfam, really sorry Bob Geldorf. I was actually a devotee of the 0.7% aid target until recently. But I’m increasingly thinking that DFID can’t manage the huge sums which have been allocated. Whether you believe that the 0.7% target is right or not, it makes no sense to give a target with no regard to the capacity of the agency to spend it. Perhaps the situation would be changed with a significant expansion of DFID’s staffing and capacity to manage funds, but that doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
  • Stop using private contractors to deliver aid. A tempting idea, but currently impossible; DFID is locked into the model of using private contractors. There is simply no other politically acceptable way to deliver sufficient volumes of aid. Direct budget support is (I think) the best way to deliver aid; but that’s been out of fashion for a good few years now, and there’s no prospect of a Conservative government bringing it back. NGOs are a possibility, but they don’t have the spending capacity of the big contractors; and the more they take multi-million pound grants, the more they begin to resemble contractors themselves. UN and World Bank are another possibility, but if anything they are less transparent and more expensive than contractors. In this environment, there’s not much that aid workers can do beyond making the case for government to government transfer – an argument that seemed to be won not that long ago – and continuing to defend cash transfers as the best way to get aid directly to the people who need it.
  • Demand full transparency. I find it shocking that DFID doesn’t automatically review the full budgets of all projects that it funds, including profit margins. I just don’t really understand how DFID could expect to keep costs down without this transparency. A more extreme version would be to publish all contracts online, as the Publish What You Buy group advocates. Transparency doesn’t necessarily push down costs, but it will certainly dramatically increase the incentives for DFID to try to do so.
  • Invest in local staff. We’ve written about this before, at length; see here and here. In the long run, this is the only way to push down the cost of staffing, which is the major input for a lot of development projects.
  • And the rest? This blog has posed fairly trivial changes so far; tinkering rather than rethinking. Given that the problem of outsourcing affects the whole public sector, not just aid (a fact often lost in the aid debate) it would be interesting to hear from other parts of the government on how they control contractor costs. One idea which I’d be interested in hearing more about is to set up a state owned contractor, independently run, which passes all profits back into DFID. This could bid against private aid contractors, ensuring competition and allowing government more scrutiny over what the actual costs are for this type of programme.

So that’s a quick run-through of my initial thoughts. Anything to add?

How I Give to Beggars

Image result for aid beggars cartoon

A defining image of modern international development is that of young aid workers, wearing fashionable jeans with bulging wallets, ignoring destitute beggars as they walk down the street. If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’ve seen this yourself – or, even more likely, felt a twinge of guilt as you ignored starving people, on your way to work at an organisation that purports to help them.

Given that aid workers are notionally driven by a desire to help others, I’ve seen surprisingly few expat aid workers actually give money to beggars. I think this is mostly caused by a mixture of guilt and confusion about whether this actually helps. Does it just trap people in a cycle of poverty? Will they just use it for drugs and alcohol? Will it encourage them to pester more foreigners in future? With all these uncertainties, it’s easier simply to ignore the problem.

Understandable, but I hope I’m not alone in finding this morally questionable. In countries without a social safety nets, people begging on the street often genuinely have no other way to avoid starvation, and giving a few pennies can do more real good than your fancy new M&E framework. (Hard to believe, I know). For aid workers to simply ignore people who have nothing is an unpleasant dereliction of the instincts which got many of us into this business in the first place. So for those also wrestling with this challenge, here’s how I give.

  • See what local people do. When you walk around with local staff, how do they treat beggars? Do they donate a coin, a note, or nothing? Do they give in some places, but not in others? Almost everywhere I’ve worked, people have given money regularly to beggars – often much more so than I would myself. Watch the local customs and understand what’s appropriate.
  • Give small amounts of money, regularly. I get change every morning from the bus ride to work, and keep a few coins in my back pocket to give to beggars on the street. This works out as about three pence a day – pretty affordable for me. Giving large amounts of money can encourage people to stay on the streets (or to aggressively target foreigners) but I figure nobody would remain a beggar on the off-chance that someone will tip them a penny. Keeping money in my back pocket means that I don’t need to get out a wallet, which reduces the chance of theft.
  • Don’t give if you feel uncomfortable or targeted. I don’t give to people who run up to me because I’m a foreigner, who knock on my window in the car at traffic lights, or who ask in an aggressive or unpleasant way. Selfish perhaps, but I think I have the right to walk down the street without being harassed.
  • Don’t give to children, or people using children to beg. Arguments about the role of children in income generation will run and run – witness the latest debate on child labour. Based on conversations with people working with streetchildren, I think that giving money to children is more likely to encourage them to stay on the streets, even if they have homes to go to. Giving money to people who are using children to beg – for example getting their kids to run after you – also encourages this behavior. It’s tough sometimes, but I suggest ignoring children.
  • Give larger amounts to serious charities. Of course, your three pence a day is hardly solving the root causes of urban poverty. Neither – in the vast majority of cases – is the project you’re working on. I think every aid worker should give 10% of their income to a well-chosen charity; whether one working abroad or back in your own country. The excuse that ‘you’re doing good through your work’ doesn’t really cut it, no matter how great you think your latest two-hundred page report was.

This is a pretty idiosyncratic list, based on limited experience and conversations with people working with the homeless. It’s clearly not a solution to poverty – but it does help me sleep at night. What would you add?

Without the Gloss: Reflections on Overseas Volunteering

GUEST AUTHOR: Katie Bergman, Author of When Justice Just Is and Director of Communications and Operations at the Set Free Movement

These days, there seems to be no better way to couple altruism with adventure than volunteering abroad. Often heralded for its propensity to build character, cultivate unique cultural learning experiences, and hone or develop new skills, overseas volunteering has grown in its appeal for an infinite range of personal and professional reasons beyond traditional benevolence alone. 

In my own international service, I’ve watched fellow volunteers grow and thrive in the desert of Mexico to the remote villages of Cambodia to urban centres in Athens and Amsterdam. But I’ve also seen plenty of volunteers implode from disillusionment and depression, stress and saviour complexes. 

As uncomfortable as it might be, creating space for honest dialogue about the true costs of international aid work might help mitigate the burn-outs and drop-outs on the field—that and a greater degree of personal preparedness, realistic expectations, and adequate member care provided by the sending organization.

First of all, candid conversations about overseas volunteering need to be less about nobility and more about putting the “human” back into “humanitarianism”.  It needs to start with acknowledging that volunteering can be exhausting and thankless work.  As much as it’s glorified for its triumphs and fulfillment, these moments can be few and far between.  It’s not rare for volunteers to feel more depleted than rewarded upon understanding the magnitude of the social, economic, or environmental problems on the field.  Accepting the realities of overseas volunteers requires a level of openness and humility, not to mention a shift from sensationalized “success stories” to stories of journeys, appreciating small victories, and swallowing over-qualified smugness for performing mundane and unglamorous tasks.

Secondly, there are real and even dangerous consequences to overseas volunteering.  From adverse living conditions and culture shock to frustrating internal organizational politics, the litany of potential struggles a volunteer may face are not to be dismissed—regardless of education, pre-deployment training, or experience. Part of this problem rests in the one-sided stories told by the media that focus more on the rewards of international service without adequately exploring the equally real experiences of burnout, compassion fatigue, and serious mental health issues. In fact, studies show that as many as 30% of aid workers suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

But sometimes a volunteer’s posture is a greater threat than natural disasters or militia forces. Attitudes and expectations—especially in a context of service—are powerful forces. They determine whether a volunteer sees victims or human souls; expects perfection or the truth; demands immediate outcomes or bears with the process.  Especially when service is pursued with a hero’s complex and an attitude of invincibility, it can be crippling to encounter unintended harm, unmet expectations, and deep-seated disillusionment.  Fortunately, none of these experiences are necessarily fatal, since failure can be an unexpectedly remarkable teacher—and no volunteer should expect to avoid it completely.

In particular, a healthy expectation that any volunteer should have is to temporarily put their Western ideals and on the backburner.  While communities may benefit from Western concepts and technologies, no volunteer should plan to implement these without consulting locals.  Effectiveness is often found in seeking local counsel, collaboration, and compromise—and often, the greatest source of wisdom lies within the group of people a volunteer was sent overseas to serve.

Lastly, the effects of service take time. While a one- or two-month volunteer commitment may be appealing, it can be difficult to produce high-impact, long-term, sustainable outcomes in a short time span. Even longer-term volunteers are occasionally faced with the harsh conclusion that the amount of time and effort given to a cause is not always proportionate to the benefits reaped.  Whether the term is for three weeks or three years, there is no guarantee of a plentiful harvest. As desirable as a productive term might be, traditional measurements of success may need to be redirected to focus instead on the seeds that were planted.

Seldom do international volunteers return home the same person as when they left; however, this may come in ways a volunteer might both welcome and resent. Regardless, volunteers who practice openness, healthy boundaries, and good coping mechanisms are more likely to make the most of their overseas service.  Attitude, intent, and awareness of personal motivations set the stage for a volunteer experience.  No matter the country or capacity of service, the “why” behind the “what” should be addressed with a critical eye and a decent dose of introspection.

This post originally appeared in the Public Service Review (Journal of the Public Service Executive Union in Ireland).

What is the Sidekick Manifesto?


GUEST AUTHOR: Shawn Humphrey

“Here’s your check and there’s the parking lot.” That’s how one civically-engaged college campus community responded to my talk on global poverty.

Ouch. It stung. And, on my lonely walk back to the parking lot, I tried to figure out why:

But, while I was giving a poorly received talk on poverty, TOMS was (mis)educating tens of thousands of ten year olds on their role in ending poverty with its most recent and predictably distorted marketing campaign.

I was dispirited.

Driving up and down highway 95 talking to college students was not getting me any closer to fundamentally and sustainably changing how our culture interacts, communicates, and articulates its relationships with those it deems to be materially poor.

I needed a concise statement of the things I had learned from my dissertation advisor Douglass C. North and bloggers like Jennifer, J, Tobias, Owen, Duncan, AidLeap, Linda, Daniela, Tom, and Dave.

I needed a distillation of the lessons I had learned with and from my students while running the Global Two Dollar Challenge and our micro finance institution in Honduras (La Ceiba). Namely, local leaders with local solutions to local problems will end poverty. We will not.  In the story of poverty’s end, we can only be sidekicks.

So, I wrote the Sidekick Manifesto.

I wrote it to remind myself of my very limited role in ending global poverty. I also wrote it to share with others like billionaire philanthropists, British Prime Ministers, and Ivy League economists randomizing communities into treatment and control groups.

Poverty is about power, politics, and a system of rules that allows so few to capture so many of the benefits of economic prosperity. Poverty is human-made. And, it can be unmade by humans. That includes you and me. That is, if we choose to take up the task as Sidekicks.

I invite you to read the Sidekick Manifesto. If you agree, consider taking the Sidekick Pledge. And, if you are so inclined, help spread the word about the Sidekick Manifesto:

1. Share the Manifesto with colleagues, classmates, family and friends.

2. Post a copy of the Sidekick Manifesto on your office door or dorm room wall.

3. Give a copy of the Sidekick Manifesto to your Student Activities and Study Abroad Directors.

4. Host a Sidekick Manifesto discussion with your students or Non-profit Board of Directors.

5. Post the Sidekick Manifesto on your blog and ask your community to comment.

6. Ask your political representatives to take the Sidekick Pledge.



5 questions aid workers should be asking ahead of Trump 

November 24, 2015Trump’s triumph has left the world shocked. His win leaves us with more questions than answers thanks to his campaign being almost entirely devoid of solid policy. So what are the key questions for aid workers?

1. What does the future hold for USAID?

US overseas development aid (ODA) is the largest in the world and while it has its faults this shouldn’t be forgotten. Trump’s campaign was light on policy, but the rhetoric of the campaign has been inward looking with an emphasis that leadership starts with supporting those at home. There is no clear strategy yet but we shouldn’t be surprised if at the very least ODA becomes tied to increasingly tough conditions designed to economically benefit the US. This in itself isn’t anything new – it’s been an issue for decades but the nature of the ties under Trump will be key.

2. How will he manage Syria?

This is perhaps the most pressing area where Trump’s complete lack of foreign policy experience is at its most terrifying. His unpredictability feels deeply dangerous in such a complex conflict.

Whilst Syria isn’t the only conflict that the US is involved in it is the most dangerous. Increasing brinksmanship by Russia, slaughter in Aleppo and the war against IS makes managing it challenging for an experienced foreign policy, never mind an amateur to that environment.

As James Denselow shared in the summer in his piece on What if Trump decides US Syria Policy: Another unverified report suggests that in discussions with security officials Trump spoke about nuclear weapons quipping that “if we have them, why can’t we use them?”.

There has been no indication of wanting to protect civilians, and he wants even less to do with refugees…

3. What does this mean for refugees?

Trump’s rhetoric around migration, refugees and Muslims is some of the most disturbing elements of the campaign. The damp squib of a summit on refugees in September now looks like a critically missed opportunity with a new President who, on the face of it, will not want to do anything for them – especially having been elected by an electorate strongly concerned by immigration (64% of Trump voters saw this as the most important issue).

There is hope that he’ll move to the centre ground now he has won..… but this feels like clutching at straws.

4. What will the long term impact be?

While there are critical needs that Trump will need to address around the world, it could be his longer term decisions that have the greatest impact on aid. He has a four year term before re-election, which includes the implementation of Paris agreements. There is also the potential that he is re-elected after 4 years, meaning a Trump Presidency for 8 years – either way the consequences of his decisions will last longer than his term.

His views on climate change are perhaps most worrying. While climate related disasters are increasing around the world Trump’s views are pretty clear. His infamous 2012 tweet is just the start of it. He has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t accept the science behind climate change and that he wants to dismantle the Paris accord – crucial in the fight against climate change and the disasters it will bring.

5. Does there need to be a new world order?

For better or worse the US has been central in the last century to many of the humanitarian responses around the world – particularly when it comes to funding. New donors and influencers will need to be found. Will this be the time that the Gulf states can rise to prominence?

Why are expats paid so much?

A popular pastime in some expat circles is justifying their huge tax-free salaries and expensive benefits.

Different people take different approaches. Many expats will explain (at length) that they need to get paid that much in order to persuade them to leave their comfortable, happy lives in the UK. They will discuss the cost of sending three children to private schools, explain that they still need to pay rent back in the UK, and conclude, wistfully, by pointing out that they could have earned so much more in the private sector. Other expats take a different approach, speculating smugly about how bad the project would be if it wasn’t for their wisdom and strategic insight, and pointing out that their high pay just reflects the value that they add to the project.


I’m not trying to say that expats aren’t an important part of development programmes. They bring essential skills, build the capacity of local staff, manufacture confidence that the programme is going well, and generally help the sector we know and love operate better.

But the stated reasons why expat salaries are so high are rubbish. Certainly a few expats would leave the sector if salaries were lower. But most of the weird people who have floated round the world for decades aren’t motivated by money – but by the job and the lifestyle. There’s a common misconception that the private sector is desperate for balding ex-hippies who can put together a logframe and speak an obscure West African language, but there’s no reason to think that’s true. With mediocre middle-managers able to pull down a six figure, tax free salary, expats earn way more than they would in other sectors, and more than they need to keep them in the business.

Instead, salaries are driven by structural factors in the aid industry that ensure a high demand for expats, but a very limited supply. Expats are typically required for senior management positions. This might be because they are more able than local staff, or simply because donors are biased towards nationals from their own country. Both factors probably play a role. It doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument; the result is that there is a high demand for experienced, capable expats.

But it’s increasingly difficult to find positions for junior, inexperienced expats. Why would any self-respecting development organisation hire a 22 year old Harvard graduate when they could get a much more experienced local staff member for the same role, at the same price?

So expats are in high demand – but only when they’re able to take on positions in senior management. The supply of expats, however, is hugely constrained. The consequence is that very few people actually get the experience which would allow them to take up a senior management position, leaving the lucky few facing relatively little competition, able to charge more or less what they want. Competition between aid agencies drives up salaries, and the big, unaccountable giants of the aid world (UN, World Bank, etc) have relatively little scrutiny over pay, further increasing salaries.

It annoys me immensely when aid agencies spend 100,000 pounds a year on an incompetent advisor, and all the more so when that same manager spends their time after work drinking expensive cocktails and complaining about how they’re not paid enough. But I’m not naïve enough to think that this is going to change by itself. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and World Bank staff don’t vote for salary reduction.

The only way in which this might be solved is through an increase in the pool of workers. As education levels improve, as aid agencies gain more experience in building management capacity, and as the expanding aid sector trains up more strong local staff, perhaps there will be a bigger pool of potential senior managers to draw upon, leading to a reduction in average salaries.

Neither NGOs nor consulting firms have much incentive to ensure that this happens. Capacity building of staff sounds great, but typically leads to good staff leaving for better pay elsewhere. As a public good, this is something which donors should be investing in. In particular, they need to help local staff get that all-important first international experience. This is often a real catch-22; you can’t get international jobs without international experience, and can’t get international experience without international jobs.

So there is a need for better training, mentoring, and a better structured career path leading talented local managers to progressively more senior roles. Trainee schemes, secondments, and overseas placements would make a big difference here. I have seen isolated examples of good initiatives, often driven by a single manager passionate about the issue. But little evidence of what is most successful or systematic attempts to increase the pool of qualified senior management staff. If you have any good examples to share, please put them in the comments!