ROUGH NOTES – Transient Foreign Migrants

B: You mention economic migrants being maligned across Europe, but don’t draw the obvious comparison that flocks of expat staff take jobs away from locals in developing countries. It’s common in Ethiopia and Kenya for expat-heavy organisations to be hauled in front of relevant government authorities and asked to justify themselves. Especially in Ethiopia, permits for expat staff are often denied – partly due to the repressive anti-NGO leanings of the government, but also because of the (very valid) worry that these expats take highly paid management jobs away from local staff

P: I agree entirely. Problem is that there are so many issues in this area of argument, and each are deserving of greater attention… With this particular issue, I think it depends on the local context and the strength of the local workforce – some places there is (arguably) a greater need for expats, and in other places it barely makes sense to have any. It is particularly difficult when organisations working in countries with very strong local capacity still chose to pump in international staff and bulldoze the local setup – a particular problem in emergencies. 

B: This leads into a very interesting debate about how international organisations should weigh up the fact that expat staff typically have better writing, communication, analytical skills – though certainly not always – while local staff are more likely to have better contextual knowledge, language skills, understand what’s going on (again not always.) My guess is that international organisations tend to favour the person who speaks without a funny accent and who can write a coherent report. But this almost certainly isn’t always the right choice.

P: I think this ties back to the post about capacity building, and imposing a system that demands fluency in its processes rather than its substance (learn to speak Latin!). The trouble is when you have staff who are skilled in all the above, have solid experience and impressive track record and yet get stuck by the national/international glass ceiling. Whilst young Westerners are able to hop around the globe with ‘international’ salaries and an immediate advantage… 

B: Finally, I completely agree with your point about people needing to move away to get a decent salary. I was struck in East Africa by the merry-go-round effect; Sudanese came to work in Uganda, Ugandans go to Kenya, Kenyans go to Ethiopia, and so on. But yet there’s no obvious alternative – a fascinating blog post if anyone wants to write it?

P: Yes! Great idea. 

And.. in response to an editorial change made to the original blog:

P: I’ve taken out the term ‘national’ that you edited into the final ‘national’ colleagues paragraph- because that is exactly the problem that I’m trying to highlight. Who are they ‘national’ to?? My colleague from Goma is only national if he’s in DRC, but is international if he’s in Nepal, or Kenya, or Haiti .. and then gets the position and salary that  his experience deserves. When used as rigid, normative categories, terms like this can have really difficult side effects – like having to work outside your own country just to earn the title ‘international’ and the associated professional dividends.

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 . . . .

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:

rough notes: Give £10 RIGHT NOW

These rough notes show email discussions on the topic between the mysterious A, D, and L – have a read through and add your thoughts in the comments on the blog above!


A: A couple of points that I would make. I think the distinction between the 1981 and current advertising actually shows that we have improved. The skeletal hand, the much larger, white hand protecting the starving kid from all harm in 1981 – these are fairly obvious paternalistic/borderline racist images. The modern image is just a picture of a cute child – not really in the same league.

D: Ha yeh! The trouble is there have been some really awful adverts out recently, with 1980s style imagery but I just can’t find them on Google (stupidly haven’t copied them when they appear on my browser!). Plus the 1981 one is about the worst of the worst. I guess my point here is that we are slipping back into old ways, which are not helpful. I basically picked out the second advert because I found it extremely annoying.

A: I think I am more skeptical about how ‘sophisticated’ aid advertising can be. The three basic messages – which you object to – are: (1) give money, and (2) then we will use it to improve the life of someone (3) who is currently in trouble’. Call me unimaginative, but I don’t see how any of those three could possibly be absent from aid advertising. Obviously a ‘call to action’ (1) is necessary (or I wouldn’t give money.) If aid agencies aren’t claiming to improve things (2) (which I think they do, albeit with challenges) then why would you give money? And if the person isn’t currently in trouble (3), then why aid? I just can’t imagine how you can have any kind of advertising campaign without some of these implications – and so there is a limit to how far aid advertising can change.

D: My argument (which is not in this blog post but is in the next one) is that humanitarian advertising and use of the media presents a narrative of aid as a morality play: ‘innocent’ victim / villain / saviour – which is deeply inaccurate and has both ethical and operational implications by playing into unhelpful stereotypes and reducing dignity of the person – and operationally, setting up impossible goals e.g. person x won’t necessarily be ‘saved’ as promised / global poverty won’t end / 9 times out of 10 xxx agency won’t save your life when in crisis, most simply because aid is a small drop in a very large ocean. There is an interesting picture from Syria of a group of people holding up a banner across burnt out buildings saying ‘This is your humanitarian aid?’ or something similar. Hubris, basically. Which operationally can be a real problem as causes resentment and frustration and can also lead to an emphasis of ‘media friendly’ programming.

When I say sophisticated, I mean not treating your audience like idiots. Oxfam did actually run a more interesting campaign around world food prices, which was different to the typical ‘give money now for this dying child’. Not falling into the trap of simplification, exaggeration etc – not buying into media market logic (suffering as a commodity). I disagree with you and think it could be dramatically different but would also entail an entirely reformed way of relating to, and dealing with the public and their money i.e. not shoving donations into ‘unrestricted funds’ pots and doling out arbitrarily. Media is used well when for a specific, targeted campaign that offers clear, honest, and pragmatic solutions. And that yes, does offer change and a call for action, absolutely. The point is not what is done- but how.

A: For example, look at the MSF website – a picture of a Western (I think) women taking aid boxes off a helicopter, cute child, unhappy looking community, ‘Syrian Crisis Appeal – Help us with a donation today’. While there are some really objectionable aid adverts, I didn’t find the one you used particularly bad.

D: Agreed, as above. Blame Google. They do exist. I keep getting annoyed by them.

A: So I really do agree that aid agencies need to get better at educating the public about what aid is ‘really’ like – but a poster campaign isn’t the place to do this. I would focus the criticism on their surrounding narratives, discussions, etc, and failure to be transparent about where the money goes and how it’s used. But this isn’t a problem of advertising – perhaps it’s a problem of a reluctance to engage in deeper discussions, for fear of damaging the advertising. I guess I think the focus on which picture is on which advert is a bit of a distraction? Though I agree perhaps with the deeper point…

D: Yeh but problem with this is that these conversations tend to happen at a very technical level, are naval gazing and still totally alien to the public. This relates not only to advertising or use of the media- but also more broadly to agencies’ relationship with the public and their beneficiaries. Advertising, fundraising and campaigning are the first – and for many, the only point of contact, about what humanitarianism is and does. I’m not saying scrap fundraising, or even that in some cases the simple, urgent, shocking approach isn’t necessary – and I also don’t think it necessarily about ‘educating’ the public (who mostly don’t give a rat’s arse). But rather, that the whole presentation of aid as a kind of weird fairy-tale needs to change, as I don’t believe that serves anybody in the long run.

L: Interesting argument and one I could wade in to but kind of tend to learn more to agreeing with D. My gut problem is that you can’t use adverts both to inform and to fundraise as the two purposes end up contradicting one another. Perhaps the sector and international community more generally should look to alternative methods for informing and as you say think about whether we want to educate (do they care) or are we just against them telling white lies/misrepresenting the situation.