Community Based Tourism

Community based solutions are one of the most popular answers for most aid issues (CMAM, CBPR, CBPD&M) so whilst on holiday I thought I should try community based tourism. The basic idea is that communities invite tourists to come and stay with them and experience what their day to day lives are like.

We’ve talked before about slum tourism and voluntourism so I was interested to see if this type of tourism would have the same voyeuristic feel.

The interesting piece comes from the need for there to be a community. This isn’t about individual families opening their doors up, which would be a form of B&B. But rather a community coming together to jointly agree to a programme offer for tourists. Yes, often the act of coming together is influenced or triggered by an external factor, most often a foreigner. However, the ownership should lie with the community.

Where I stayed, the community had been organised in cooperatives for over a decade. This was how they managed and sold their crops. This was how they accessed funds and capacity development. More recently they had set up a women-only cooperative which originally focused on the rights of women, but now leads the community tourism initiatives. The set up because an INGO came looking for women only groups to deliver their programmes through. No surprise there. But they still exist and are expanding several years later.

My experience started by taking the local ‘bus’ up the mountain where I was met by a young man who was to be my guide for the day. Together we walked two hours through the forest to reach the rural community who were hosting me. He talked non stop throughout: sharing insights about the flora and fauna around us, the structure of his community, the serious impact of a recent agricultural crisis, and the future of the country. When we arrived in the community there were signs explaining the rules, a map and a friendly wave from a number of passing farmers. I was served a hearty breakfast in the homestead of the family where I would stay that night. The lady who cooked talked me through how each part had been made and explained where the ingredients came from.

We headed off for more walking, passing the local primary school where the mother of my host family was a teacher. The children waved but didn’t seem too distracted from their play time activities. The school timetable has been adjusted to allow children to undertake their responsibilities on the farms, though it’s illegal for them to work a full day. An additional secondary school has been set up on Saturday afternoons for those who had to leave school early during the war. The teacher came to welcome me, but it quickly became apparent she wanted to check the extent of my language skills. You can’t blame her.

The rest of the day was spent learning about the history, customs and infrastructure of the community. I saw the offices of the cooperatives, their jointly owned agricultural equipment and buildings. Every single person that we passed greeted us without fuss or amusement. We explored the various farms, and I was shown how the community had diversified their crops to become more resilient to potential future crises. Animals wandered around: some enclosed, others not. On other shorter tours there has always been a little shop waiting at the end, but this time I had to ask if there was some coffee I could buy to take back with me.

Over dinner the father of the family told me in depth about their experiences during the war of several decades ago; how the community had reunited after the peace arrived; and how they planned together for the future. There was no discussion of sending children away to work apart from to study at the university in the nearest town (2 hours drive). Those who had finished degrees had focused on agriculture, engineering or tourism. To date they all returned to the community. He told me about the process of crop diversification in more detail – the community lost everything due to a disease that wiped out their mono-crop. Through the cooperatives they jointly bought new seeds and learnt together what would grow in their soil. They were following some of the rules of perma culture and were selling the crops as fair trade and organic. We talked late in to the night and he invited my questions, continually checking that I felt comfortable.

We rose at 4am to start the day: milking the cow, feeding the animals and preparing breakfast. A hearty breakfast and strong coffee was had by all before the family all headed off to the farms. By family I include the various nephews, cousins and adopted children who lived there. Before leaving the father thanked me. I was surprised and said that I should be thanking them. They lived in an area of true beauty, had suffered through war and natural disaster and yet seemed so resolute and calm. I left full of inspiration and a desire to simplify my life to better value the important things.

One of the things we discussed during my stay was how they could better promote the tourism offer they were making to groups. The women’s cooperative had a programme for 10-30 individuals who would be spread across households in the community. It would include a number of activities and involve almost everyone in their community at one point or another. We talked about the potential negatives of an influx of visitors, but they felt sure that at this point the economic advantages and the educational opportunity it provided for them and their visitors outweighed that. I look forward to returning in 5 years time to see how the community copes with an inevitable increase in backpackers.


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?