Things we wish we’d known before starting work in the aid sector

1. That being a professional or specialist first and then transferring would have been more useful.
2. That as an international member of staff, you will always be at least one step away from the beneficiaries and probably more like 4+ steps away.
3. That those high school excel lessons were actually really relevant.
4. You will spend most of your time doing boring things.
5. Nobody is as idealistic as you are. But they are as idealistic as you will be in a few years time.
6. Aid workers spend more time at parties than in rural villages.
7. No-one will ever let you actually drive the landrovers and they’re usually broken anyway.
8. Most of your time will be spent gazing into the soulless depths of your laptop.
9. There are a lot of seriously weird people kicking about in emergency responses. The ability to maintain polite conversation in the face of wild absurdity is therefore a very important work/life skill.

What is a Global Platform?

Having arrived in Geneva last week, despite the hares who delayed our flight so that they could ‘have a punch up’ on the runaway , I went straight to the Center of International Conferences Geneva (CICG) for the 2013 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. This bi-annual meeting aims to support the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA). Despite my deep interest in disaster risk reduction and its less technical but currently more popular stepbrother ‘resilience’, my main concern was to figure out what a ‘global platform’ consisted of. In this post I’m going to share a couple of highlights from the conference, before turning to the question which these conferences always leave me with – what next?

The conference consisted of numerous panel sessions, side events where discussions took place, a smaller stage where organisations could present their work and numerous stalls with thousands of reports and pamphlets for participants to collect. The conference was genuinely diverse with attendees from all over the world and interpretation available from numerous different languages (including Japanese). But the question I was left with – as is often the case – was: what next?

Venezuela was extremely well represented: with military figures in uniform and young volunteers giving out examples of their ‘bolsas de emergencia’

bolsa de emergencia

This ‘emergency bag’ (or ‘grab bag’ as many of us in the sector call it) is provided to every family in the region. The list displayed in the photo above outlines all the items that must be placed in the bag and kept stocked up in case of emergency. When a disaster strikes, the family can pick up the bag, place it on one of their backs and flee to the pre-designated meeting point safe in the knowledge that they have all the vital equipment necessary to survive. For me, the other key message is that the government cares and that someone is thinking of them during this time of need.

During one side event, a corporal from the First German/Netherlands Corps talked about the potential role that the military can play during emergencies. This included both expertise in training and ready trained personnel. There was much discussion about how well the military and civilian rescue teams currently worked together with several members of the audience ‘heckling’ that in their countries the partnership worked extremely well. The lively debated ran over schedule but they did seem to conclude in agreement that the central components for success were trust, good communication and a shared understanding of each entities objectives and priorities.

One of the most crowded side events was the one on food security in Africa. A distinguished panel from across Africa (Zimbabwe, Niger, Senegal) and almost all the UN nutrition related agencies (WFP, FAO, UNICEF) outlined the relevance of nutrition and food security to the wider resilience agenda. In fact, almost all agreed that without a more explicit acknowledgement of these issues in the next HFA, disaster affected communities would never be truly resilient to future shocks.

In answer to my own question: a global platform is a physical space where actors from around the world can share their experiences, seek future support, sympathise with one another and propose improvements going forwards. I wonder whether it would be possible to calculate the economic value of these conferences. The cost is enormous. Those who attend learn from other nations and have the opportunity to network. But throughout the conferences many participants can be seen responding to their daily emails. I can’t help but question what real value will have been produced aside from the recognition and exposure through the media and conference events of those working hard on the ground and the reward through a fun foreign trip. But maybe I’m too sceptical . . . I look forward to seeing the round of negotiations for the next HFA when the impact of this Global Platform may very well become apparent.

Finally, a quick link back to previous posts on this blog. The main image for the conference was a beautiful photo of a smiling boy leaning against a water level measurement post. The photo comes from Nicaragua and highlights the use of early warning systems in rural communities. Taken by a member of Oxfam GB we can safely assume that photography rules were followed and the small boy gave his permission before his face was captured on film. However, I wonder how he would feel to see his small body blown up on the side of this building in Geneva?

photo (3)

What is a Global Platform? – Rough Notes

E: It’s easy and cheap to provide a grab bag. (It’s just a bag, right?) The real challenge is to make sure that families are aware of what they need to put into it, keep it updated, and use it. In that sense, distributing the bag is an advocacy campaign more than anything else – I’m sure the families have access to their own bags if they want! But that awareness raising is the challenging part of DRR work…. 
G: From my work in Latin America, many poor people struggle to buy a school bag for their children, let alone have a spare bag that can be left un-utilised all the time, waiting for an emergency. So I guess the more apt question, would be whether the family would actually leave the ‘bolsa de emergencia’ untouched rather than using it for some other purpose and hence not being continually prepared. As the picture shows there is a clear checklist on one side of the bag which outlines what needs to be inside it. The bags were given out during a campaign with music and theatre – something I have witnessed Latin Americans being extremely good at. 
E: You say that the key message is that ‘the government cares’ – I don’t really see why that would be the priority of the average Venezuelan, or how a small bag shows it. Could you not say that the key message of almost any type of government intervention is that the government cares? Is the key message of the NHS (or street lights) that the government cares and is thinking about you? 
G: When you are in the middle of a crisis with no clear idea of what to do next or how to get back to normality, I believe, and perhaps naively, that it would be really important to think that someone out there cares, is aware of your situation and is going to send help. Obviously the bag itself doesn’t do that, but it does say ‘your government knows these disasters can happen in your area and has thought about it in advance, so is therefore more likely to be prepared’. The Chavez phenomenon particularly showed that knowing someone is thinking of you (regardless of actions) can be a very important force of strength and hope.
E: “Trust, good communication and a shared understanding of each entities objectives and priorities” is all very well – you could say that about absolutely any partnership – but how do you attain these, given the natural distrust between humanitarians and the military (a distrust perpetuated by many humanitarian actors, who see any collaboration with the military as a betrayal of humanitarian ethics?) How do you achieve a shared understanding, given this distrust and skepticism about each others objectives?
G: Sometimes its important to remind ourselves of the obvious. Your question is circular and explains why I have used all three terms – trust, good communication and shared understanding – because they are all interconnected and all are necessary. In order to have the others. It won’t be easy, especially with such different entities. But numerous officials from governments in the developing world (Lebanon, Zambia, Dominican Republic) stood up during the session and gave passionate speeches about how they had made it work. That alone, suggests that we shouldn’t give up before trying.
E: There’s a simple answer to the question of ‘can you calculate the economic value of these conferences’ – no. There’s no way to quantify and count the value that these conferences do (or don’t) have, as a rule. Awareness raising, networking, media is just too intangible. I think it’s possible to assess the value, somewhat vaguely, by looking at what they aim to achieve and whether we can find any evidence of it. The trouble with far too many conferences is that they actually don’t know what they wanted to get out of it.
G: I regularly work with economists and although I would never pretend to be a qualified economist, I would suggest that this is a narrow view of the possible. We are constantly calculating the value of non-tangible things. Its not easy, but there are experts out there who I believe good make a rough estimate. After all, how would a donor like DFID who is so focused on value for money ever fund advocacy projects if it was intangible to quantify their outcomes and impact. Far from easy. But possible. However, you are right, the real question is do we know what we want them to achieve? And if we do, are we ambitious enough to justify this level of expenditure? 
J: Any economists or social scientists or statisticians out there want to confirm if this is or is not a possibility and/or relevant . . . .

Why is ‘Capacity Building’ Meaningless?

‘Capacity building’ is a buzzword which excuses almost any failing. Are your reports late or shoddily written? Is the project months behind schedule? Did your logistics manager send three thousand tonnes of plumpy nut to the wrong Congo? It’s not your fault or theirs – just shows a need for some capacity building.

There are two main problems with this. Firstly, the phrase ‘capacity building’ covers too many possibilities. Someone with ‘limited capacity’ may have never worked in the nutrition sector before, may be unaware of the ideal sample size in a difference-of-differences impact assessment, or not know how to read or write. Arguably I just built my bike’s capacity by replacing the handlebars. By holding so many possible meanings, the word becomes meaningless. As a consequence, people use the word as a substitute for thinking about what the training needs really are.

Second, it’s often not true that people need capacity-building. Obviously ‘limited capacity’ is a problem in much of the world. Everyone who has worked in humanitarian relief knows how hard it is to find qualified staff. However, equally often the problem is an inappropriately complex system. If your partner NGO is struggling with the reporting template, it may be because of their limited capacity – or because you didn’t put any effort into making the report accessible and comprehensible.

This really came home when I started to work in M&E systems for large, wealthy NGOs. Local staff were well-paid and mostly Western educated, with letters after their name and certificates on the wall. But when they struggled to cope with the demands of a complex M&E system, all too often the suggested reason was that they had limited capacity.

Looking more critically at the word, I feel a bit sympathetic. The term ‘capacity building’ aims to focus attention on the fact that people already have capacity, perhaps more so than the term ‘training’. (And why use two syllables when you could use six?) However, overuse has crushed the life out of it. We should specify exactly what type of capacity building is needed, and be quicker to examine other possible reasons for failure. 

Capacity Building – Rough Notes

P: Your issue with ‘capacity building’ appears to be more semantic than substantive – that it is used as a catch-all phrase which ultimately has lost real meaning. Agreed, however, this is a general problem with language / corporate speak: ‘training’ or ‘learning and development’ are just as meaningless if endlessly used as jargon. There’s not much that can be done about that, and I really don’t see the point in discarding it as a term, it just needs to be used more carefully and picked up when used carelessly.

Q: I agree that this is a more general problem – but think it is a very serious one. It’s not just that it’s meaningless, but actively prevents thought by acting as an easy acceptable substitute. This certainly isn’t a new observation (I’ve just been reading Orwell) but perhaps particularly active in the development sector. I guess these buzzwords will never be completely discarded – but in general it should be replaced by more specific terms. (I changed the text to reflect this)

P: Your second point is more interesting, and deserves more elaboration. It seems that we have designed and then imposed a system that demands a fluency in its processes, which are alien in many contexts – a bit like declaring Latin as the language of the governing classes, and then identifying everyone who doesn’t speak it as lacking ‘capacity’. Which is interesting. And I think the detail of how ‘capacity building’ is handled at field level is particularly worthwhile considering – why are there not more rigorous training programmes, funded by Country Offices, to teach basic skills that are blocking people from furthering their careers e.g. professional written English (especially in places such as South Sudan) if English is the working language – or basic computer literacy? Or established mentoring processes / making internal training opportunities clearer and more accessible etc.. At least in South Sudan, I found my staff were excellent, often with a far more nuanced understanding of the context than any foreigners, but held back by inability to use the ‘tools’ of the system. Often trainings or capacity buildings are one-off/ad hoc courses by externals like Red R or internal two-day courses on, say, financial management or M&E. Of course this varies by agency, by country, but mostly it just seems confusing, always ‘someone else’s problem’ and a problem rather than an opportunity. Wouldn’t it make more sense to identify the basic building blocks and have longer, several month long courses that invest in staff in the long term, rather than seeing ‘capacity’ as something that can be fixed with a one-off training (or then, can’t!) ?

Q: I love your latin metaphor. Part of the problem is that the ‘tools’ of the system are often communication; an ability to convey these nuanced understandings and convey this deep knowledge. This isn’t something that is easy to teach but maybe does need to be more clearly addressed. I completely agree about the inadequacy of current capacity building courses – better use of online learning, mentoring rather than training, more on-the-job learning are all essential.

However, in a sector characterised by very rapid turnover, it actually makes little sense to invest heavily in staff. There are several possible answers to this – for example, improving HR practices, more opportunities for career progression within each organisation, more opportunities for national staff to join as international workers. But it is also a sector-wide problem that needs a sector-wide response; joint training courses which all major NGOs contribute to, on the understanding that everyone will reap the benefits. It’s a tragedy of the commons problem- staff are shared resources which nobody wants to invest in.

P:  I would argue that issues with capacity building sit within a wider frame of the professionalisation drive. There is a lot of exciting initiatives focussed on professionalising core knowledges and skills in the humanitarian and development sectors – but the trouble is, as is endemic in the industry – it is ad hoc, agency dependent and not yet properly coherent. Perhaps the focus on capacity displays the attempt to professionalise i.e. invest in skills and training of staff – but not yet established enough to be considered as actual ‘education’?

P: A final comment – actually more of a question – to what extent do you think that ‘capacity’ is solely used for national staff i.e. non-Western? Do white, middle class, Western staff ever suffer from lack of capacity, or are they just overworked and perhaps inexperienced for the particular role? Is there a sniff of racism, or is this just pointless paranoia?

Q: Well, the blog post was sparked by the observation that white, middle-class Western staff were also being described as ‘having a lack of capacity’ – which really made me question whether there was any meaning to the term.

You are partially right about the different way in which the word is applied. However, there are no shortage of training/capacity building courses for middle class staff – if anything, there is more of a focus on that then for national staff. I suppose the problem is the assumption that a poorly written report (for example) reflects the fact that the author doesn’t know anything, rather than that they don’t have a good grasp of English. I suppose you could call that racism if you’ve had a bad day. But I’m generally cautious about using such an emotive word without good reason – maybe another blog post there?

Aid as a Morality Play

As I wrote about previously, there is a sense of déjà vu in the way the humanitarian sector uses the media, largely in terms of fundraising. But is there actually a creeping resurgence of ‘disaster porn’, or are aid agencies simply more numerous, and their media presence more strident? Hard to say without clear statistics, but it is fair to argue that the relationship between the Western news media and (Western) humanitarian aid has undergone significant change over the past couple of decades.

There is a natural symbiosis between the two institutions: both grapple with the grim realities of modern conflict, and both try to communicate this to a wider audience. At worst, both treat suffering as a casual commodity, and at best, both try to effect serious and meaningful change: by bearing witness, by providing life-saving assistance. And over the past few years, this symbiotic relationship appears to have deepened.  Aid organisations and media outlets are becoming increasingly dependent on one another, in ways that has serious implications on the ability of each to carry out their work properly and with integrity.

As media budgets contract, news organisations and freelance journalists are using, and at times relying on, humanitarians for field logistical support, story leads and information packages – delivered by professional agency communications/PR staff (with an institutional agenda). In ‘Getting into Bed with Charity’, Suzanne Franks delivers a searing critique of this dependence, claiming that ‘This symbiosis of media and aid agencies, while it might benefit both parties, may not always best serve the audience.’ Independence is as closely prized by journalists as by aid workers, and media is a powerful means of holding aid to account – a strong argument for keeping the two at least somewhat disentangled.

On the other hand, though humanitarian agencies have increased in number and influence, rather than carving out a distinct domain, I would argue that they have become further embroiled in the media’s terrain. Agency appeals, campaigns and branding are the public face of NGOs, and agencies are much more media savvy, with sophisticated comms teams, media teams, PR departments et al. Yet the relationship is defined largely according to market logic. With such a glut of agencies competing for public money and attention, branding is king. And to maximise coverage (and therefore funding / branding), agency comms teams have to pitch appeals or story ‘packages’ that are relevant to the varying styles/whims of a news outlet, fit in with audience consumption and squeeze between competing news stories.

It clearly makes practical sense to be responsive to market realities (who wants to read about another East African famine when there is a Royal Wedding on the cards?) – yet this also plays to the common weaknesses of both. The media in disaster zones roams quickly, searches for unique angles and prefers ‘events’ over situations. Urgency is also a better salesperson in soliciting donations: everyone wins. But this panders to the horrible tendency of representing complex situations through broad, simplistic brushstrokes, buzzwords and an ethnocentric lens. Humanitarian narratives about war and conflict are more often than not framed as a ‘morality play’, with agencies gladly taking on the mantle of ‘saviour’ (give us money please). Yet as pretty much every aid worker or journalist knows, famine isn’t just a result of drought, and conflicts aren’t simply bad vs. good guys (or even, Africans vs. Africans).

Understandably, as agencies have grown in size they have also become profoundly risk averse. The risk of compromising operations, compromising agency reputation or tarnishing donor money is unacceptable. And yet, oddly enough, through depoliticising and sterilising the humanitarian narratives in this way, NGOs may also find themselves moving away from the core principles. The humanitarian ‘morality play’ describes a world of innocents (starving babies), saviours (white aid workers) and villains (governments, military etc). Yet, as evidenced by every conflict, disaster and crisis – a person can be a fighter, mother, refugee and HIV patient all at the same time – the idea of ‘innocence’ is only really applicable to children (and which is why, as former MSF President Rony Brauman wryly remarked ‘the one thing that tyrants and aid workers have in common is their liking for being posed next to children’).

Humanitarianism is predicated on the ideal of neutrality – impossible, but crucial. This recognises that people in crisis, regardless of their political, religious or ethnic affiliation, have a right to assistance when in need. By labelling those receiving aid as ‘innocents’, we introduce the idea of ‘deserving’ into relief, which is completely antithetical to humanitarianism.

So – as David Rieff puts it: ‘The first and greatest humanitarian trap is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable- in short, to sugarcoat the horror of the world, which includes the horror of the cost of a good deed.’

rough notes: Aid as a Morality Play

H: You hinted that something had changed in the way humanitarianism deals with the media, as there is a ‘creeping resurgence’ of disaster porn. Are there any sources that support this, or anything other than a vague feeling (which isn’t particularly reliable, since none of us have been following the situation for that long.)

D: This is an interesting question. There is a dearth of solid empirical data around use of media by aid agencies, including comparative data around images used / or advertising over the past 50 or so years (at least, that I can find- if there is and someone can point me in the direction of it, I would be most grateful!). On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of broad assumptions which aren’t necessarily verified. The query over whether there is a resurgence is therefore my own – based on the fact that there are a lot of questionable images that do currently crop up in fundraising, campaigning etc, but I lack the comparative data to state it either way. It would be fascinating to look at this in more detail.

H: One problem is that, although the categories of ‘innocent/fighter/etc’ are blurred, there is still some truth to them. Nobody is innocent – but I still think it can be valid to make moral judgements about those who receive aid. I think the natural intuitions of humanitarians actually differ from the general public – who do care about the people who receive aid, whether they’re fighters, people who have committed atrocities, etc. In that sense, most people probably do want money to go to ‘the innocent’ as much as possible. Although I agree that humanitarians are guilty of over-simplifying, I’m not sure I’d support a humanitarianism that was completely neutral, as you advocate. An obvious example is funding going through rebel soldiers. So I agree that humanitarianism shouldn’t glibly trot out the innocent baby – but I think the answer is perhaps for them to be more like the advertising, rather than to try and make the advertising more like themselves. In other words, I think humanitarians do need to take more account of who they’re funding, what the wider consequences are, and try to better match the public perception.

D: You are conflating the difficulty of adequately providing aid without it being compromised on the ground (an eternal dilemma) with the representation of aid in the media. I don’t advocate that humanitarians are completely neutral – far from it, that is impossible and as the ICRC demonstrated during WWII / Holocaust- perhaps not entirely preferential. I think here we return to the impossible domain of ethics/principles vs. operational realities. I suppose my guiding light in all of this is honesty in practice, and honesty in representation. If aid is complicated and messy and often compromised- then don’t pretend it isn’t! The trouble with a ‘morality play’ representation of aid is that it introduces a fairy-tale idea of humanitarian assistance, installs the notion of the ‘deserving victim’ (a la the current ‘deserving poor’) and is ultimately, false.

If humanitarianism is truly serious about professionalising, then its arguments for support and involvement should not depend on a join-the-dots type moral argument. Humanitarian agencies should not intervene in a crisis simply because ‘we are humanitarians’ and therefore hold the moral weight of a burdened West on buckling shoulders. Humanitarian agencies should intervene in conflict and crisis situations because their organisations and staff are specialists in disaster response; trained and capable of delivering effective relief and assistance to the populations in need. That’s why I hate the reduction of the humanitarian enterprise to simple moral language – it does such an injustice to an amazingly complex initiative. And I absolutely don’t agree that aid should be more like the simplistic portrayal of ‘dying innocent child saved by hard working aid agency’ – that will never have any bearing on reality. The beauty of success is in the complex negotiations that ARE the effective provision of assistance despite all the hurdles- negotiating access, making difficult ethical compromises, establishing an effective cold chain etc. The simple act of giving a packet of plumpy nut is the smallest part of all that.

(ps. The recent book ‘Humanitarian Negotiations’ is a great analysis of those compromises and the associated issues – have you read it?

K: I fully agree with your analysis of an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the media and some humanitarian agencies and organisations. However,  I think it would be unfair to assume that this conclusion is relevant to all humanitarian agencies. I don’t want to provide a list of examples, but there are organisations, both large and small, who are actively working against this tidal wave. Some of the innovative use of twitter to give voice to beneficiaries and use that as a communication and fundraising tool is worth looking at, though only relevant to particularly contexts e.g. Somalia.

D: Absolutely yes, I agree. That is one of the most interesting aspects of this close relationship. But I see a difference between the Western news media as an institution/system (or set of organisations/individuals) which has a particular audience and agenda – and the innovative use of media techniques and tools for the purpose of humanitarian and other goals. My previous arguments are more geared towards the former. The difference, I suppose, between ‘The Media’ and media.

K: Moving forward it would be interesting to look at the share of funding per humanitarian NGO broken down by donor e.g. private giving, government donors, domestic resources, diaspora etc and see if there is any relationship between an increase in giving from a particular donor and media coverage. Again remittances to Somalia comes to mind as an interesting example – I suspect these are determined less by the international or western media and more by personal contacts/information routes.

D: Agreed! There was a great Guardian Dev graphic on remittances recently: