What does changing complex systems look like in practice?

Comprehensive Logic Model Cartoon by Chris LysyI have different motivations for writing blogs. Often, it’s anger at the way the development business functions (or doesn’t.) Sometimes it’s to share something funny or interesting. Today, it’s because I need help.

I’m evaluating a nutrition project which aims to build the ability of the health system to better provide nutritional services to the community. The project team are smart and dedicated, but schooled in traditional ways of delivering aid. They aim for sustainability; but think of this in terms of a continuing benefit from an intervention, rather than a change in the way the system works.

For example, the project provides equipment to nutrition centres and training on how to use and maintain this equipment. They hope that this will be sustainable; the equipment will continue to be used, at least until it falls apart completely. The team don’t, however, think about who in the current system of nutritional services should be providing this equipment and training, nor why it isn’t happening, nor how they can work with the current system to try and get it to happen.

I’m hoping to bring some insights from systems thinking into this evaluation, although I’m no specialist in the area. Keen to avoid a report smelling of horseshit, I thought I would bring some of the challenges that I’ve faced to the infinite wisdom of the blogosphere.

The basic problem is how to work within a dysfunctional system which is broken far beyond the ability of your project to fix it. To pick a simple example, the NGO supports “nutrition coordinators”, government staff who monitor local health facilities to check that they are fully stocked and the nurses are doing their jobs. Nutrition coordinators are a vital part of the healthcare system, but their ability to do their roles is compromised by the fact that they don’t have any fuel, and so can’t visit the health facilities.

In response, the NGO gives fuel to the coordinators. My initial reaction was that this is a superficial solution, but doesn’t fix the cause of the problem. It’s unsustainable and arguably perpetuates the problem by discouraging the state from properly funding their nutrition coordinators. The NGO responded – a bit irritably – that if they don’t do it, then there would be no supervision of the health facilities.

The actions of other donors and NGOs compound these challenges. For example, it would make sense for the local nutrition authority to take on the funding of the training programme after the NGO left. This would make it a real solution – the NGO would have succeeded in changing nutrition services so that training is now provided on a permanent basis. All the trainers come from the local authority, so you would have thought that it would be reasonably cheap for the government to provide training; it would just require their own staff to do their work correctly.

The trouble is, the trainers require a large supplement to their normal salary in return for conducting training, euphemistically termed a per diem. The local nutrition authority can’t afford to pay this. The payment of per diems by the NGO significantly reduces the chances that the training is taken up by local actors, since nobody has the money to pay. But if the NGO hadn’t paid the per diems in the first place, then the training would never have taken place.

Perhaps this reflects the fact that poverty and incompetence are at the root of a large number of problems here. The nutrition centres are falling apart and money to fix them trickles in slowly, if at all. This is partly due to corruption and mismanagement, no doubt, but also to a lack of money. The NGO has very little influence on higher level corruption and mismanagement. Consequently, my critique of their focus on the symptoms of problems (rather than underlying causes) has a bit of a hollow ring to it; the real problems are just too big for them to address.

The ultimate question, perhaps, is to what extent is it acceptable for this NGO to provide unsustainable solutions which enable the project to continue (and benefit people), but which address the superficial problem rather than the underlying causes? And what can an evaluation report do to help them – beyond clever-sounding but impractical truisms?

Answers on a postcard– or even better, in the comments section of this blog.

There have been some really useful comments on the blog. If you’re reading this on the homepage, then click here to see them; otherwise scroll down.

On Horseshit

In a classic essay entitled ‘On Bullshit’, philosopher Harry Frankfurt proposed a theoretical understanding of the term bullshit. He argues that the defining characteristic of bullshit is that the speaker does not care whether what they say is true or false. This distinguishes them from a liar, who is well aware that what they are saying is false. “[A true bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”

This definition has served me well. Recently, however, I’ve realised that there is a significant sub-class of bullshit common in international development circles, to which the above definition does not apply. For the sake of conceptual clarity I will refer to it as horseshit.

Someone who speaks horseshit, unlike bullshit, honestly cares whether they are wrong or right, and agonises about the truth or falsity of their statements. The speaker’s statements may superficially be meaningful, or even profound. The distinguishing characteristic of horseshit is that the speaker does not have enough experience to really understand what they are saying, nor what the practical implications are.

This is problem because meaning in language derives from some mental link between our thoughts achnd the real world. When I say the word ‘chair’, it has meaning because the bundle of attributes which I associate with chair match some objects in the real world. For example, you sit on it, you find them next to tables, it looks like the picture on the left, etc. If I utter the phrase “Was man nicht weiß, das eben brauchte man”, it has no meaning for me because I copy and pasted it from a German website, and don’t actually have a clue what it means*.

Someone who speaks horseshit, consequently, is like me copying and pasting German phrases. What they say may make sense, and may even be correct. But because they don’t really understand what their advice would look like in practice, it is meaningless. There may be a state of the world which links to the words they use, but they have no idea what it is.

Monitoring and evaluation is particularly full of horseshit. Take theories of change. A recent flurry of consultancy reports, annual reviews, and other literary treasures have suggested that organisations develop one. Many of the people offering this advice, however, have not tried to develop theories of change themselves, nor wrestled with the practicalities needed to make it a useful tool. They may sincerely believe that a theory of change is a good thing – but their mental picture of ‘theory of change’ is so unspecific that their advice is meaningless. They are simply talking horseshit.

Take another example – evaluators who believe that anything can be measured through randomised control trials. All too often, they simply do not understand what it would mean to do so, nor the practical constraints that prevent randomised interventions. A recommendation to introduce random assignment of variables into a programme may simply not correspond to any real-world situation which could actually make this recommendation come true. The speaker understands the meaning of the words he speaks – but not how his ideas could interact with the context to produce a possible state of affairs. They are, again, talking horseshit.

Horseshit is everywhere. So here are a couple of handy tips to avoid the worst of it:

Ask for examples, not theory. Always ask how new theories and ideas can be put into practice, and how they can be applied in your particular circumstance. If the answers coming back are evasive – or just refer to more theory – the speaker may be talking horseshit.

Be cautious of anyone without field experience. Not everyone in the aid sector has to have field experience. But the levels of horseshit indisputably ramp up the closer people get to donor offices – and the less time they’ve spent out of the field.

Never assumes that everyone else understands. The horseshitter’s greatest asset is the assumption on the part of their audience that everyone else understands what’s going on, and so it would be embarrassing to admit that you don’t. Never be afraid to admit ignorance and ask for clarification.

I sincerely hope it’s nothing offensive.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its the unsung heroes of DFID

21magseven1Cringe-worthy from the get go, Rosamund Urwin’s Evening Standard piece starts by drawing an uncomfortable parallel between DFID’s go-getting CHASE team of “humanitarian heroes” and the Magnificent Seven – quick recap of the plot of the Magnificent Seven for those of us under 70:

A Mexican village is at the mercy of a band of outlaws. The townspeople, too afraid to fight for themselves, hire seven American gunslingers to free them from the bandits’ raids.

Thank god for brave foreign heroes who swoop in and save poor local folk from bad hombres right? Unfortunately, what this comparison unhelpfully ignores, is the important ideological shift over the last decade which has seen the sector attempt to move (albeit slowly) from an internationally led top-down model towards more contextually appropriate, locally led and delivered responses to humanitarian crises. 

The image that this articles projects of young British superheroes parachuting in to fix the world’s problems is a lazy trope which ignores the complexity of providing responsible international support during humanitarian crises AND simultaneously dismisses the very real fact that it is the people affected by disasters and crises who are the real humanitarian heroes.

‘If there’s a crisis in the world — and everyone’s trying to flee a country — these guys are the ones flying in’

Well sure, I mean except for the millions upon millions of affected individuals who don’t try to flee. You know the ones who actually live in crisis affected communities.  You know the ones who were there before the crisis, the ones who responded first (and often best) despite feeling the impact themselves. You know the ones who will continue to live there long after the glare of the spotlight fades, the money dries up, and the CHASE team have conducted their impact evaluations and moved on? Yeah, those heroes.

Which brings me neatly to the Secret Seven’s Magnificent Seven’s dazzling array of super powers: Mega multitasking? Please. Catching a helicopter? Uh-huh. Being a woman? Could we have tried a little harder with that one? Being Sherlock (the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation)? Specific, but he really was super wasn’t he, god damn you Moriarty *shakes fist*.

All jokes aside, I truly respect and admire those who work in the humanitarian sector.  Those who spend their lives supporting people and communities to better prepare for, respond to and recover from the multitude of disasters and humanitarian crises affecting our globe today.  I applaud those who seek to change the system and build a better one in its place, very much including those who work in the DFID CHASE team.

However, this article contributes little to that cause – it reads like a thinly veiled attempt to reassure the British public that the much celebrated (but let’s be honest still pitiful) 0.7% foreign aid budget is being spent on PR wisely. Its patronisingly simplistic approach implies the reader can’t handle the truth about the complex political, economic and cultural issues surrounding humanitarian response activities.

Reductionist portrayals of the sector which frame humanitarian aid as the international provision of life saving goods and services, fail to contribute to the shifting debates and discourse that actually drive the sector forward. More than that, they actively undermine the work of many and the lives of many more.

…But wait a second, now that I think about it, isn’t the Magnificent Seven a western remake of a Japanese original? Maybe I’ve missed the point entirely and the article is actually a scathing comment on the sector’s “white-washing” of humanitarian responses? Touché Rosamund. Touché. 

Oskar Schindler was the greatest aid worker of all times

Author: Duke Miller, hardened aid worker and author

Aid Leap outlines problems and then offers solutions and that is the professional way. Yet, year after year, we are confronted with the same old difficulties requiring wheel reinventions. Refugees die, money is chased, programs collapse, agencies and governments position themselves, wars continue, stars fly in, and R. Kipling smiles. We are caught in a continuous loop of assessments, proposals, M&E reports, coordination meetings, and training workshops created by donors, headquarters, and paid consultants.

When was the last time you met a really happy and satisfied aid worker?
I have an observation. Try not to judge me too harshly. Most aid workers should be subversives. I make this statement only with the finest intentions that a good bottle of tequila can engender. My sentiments are absolutely glowing.

I see a “Books” tab on the Aid Leap home page. I suggest the administrators add “Schindler’s Ark” to the list. Draw your own conclusions from the book, but in my opinion Oskar Schindler is the greatest aid worker to have ever lived. (Apologies to Fred Cuny, but if he was still around, I think he’d agree.)

Talk about bad agencies to work for; Schindler’s couldn’t have been any worse.
Program activities: fooling Nazis.OS
Security: nonexistent.
Goals and Objectives: fuzzy, but intense.
Budget: none, except misappropriated assets and expendables.
Mandate: nope.
Project replication: difficult.
Implementing partners: yes, but they didn’t know it.
Implementation strategy: on the fly, every day.
Salary: unpaid volunteer.
Accomplishments: hero of humanity and 1,200 lives.

Maybe none of us will ever be in Schindler’s class, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. You need to notice how your country/donor/agency policies play out around you. Sometimes those guidelines will be wrong or inefficient or stupid and they will make you angry and frustrated. At some point you might consider yourself as part of the problem. If that happens, then congratulations—don’t quit, go to work. Yeah, I mean really go to work.

I once knew an old guy who helped get refugees out of East Berlin. He was famous in certain circles. Here is a summation of what he sent me off with right before a particularly messed up assignment: ‘Despite the odds, work with what you’ve got. Sometimes enemies can be allies. Have a reputation for honesty, but lie artfully. Be political. Use your luck and daring. Concentrate on individuals. Don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of what you face. Start small, but think big, and always keep moving.’

The last thing he said to me was, “You need to read about Oskar Schindler.”

A few weeks later, the man with all that advice, died. I went out and bought the book. It became my bible. If you haven’t looked hard at the life of Oskar Schindler, then maybe you should. It will help next time your brain begins to freeze at a donor conference or when you wake up in the middle of the night and your cot is soaking with sweat and you think, this is totally impossible.

Why is programme monitoring so bad?

A manager in a field programme that I evaluated recently showed me the glowing findings from his latest monitoring trip – based on a total sample size of two farmers. When I queried the small sample size, he looked shocked that I was asking. “It’s OK”, he explained, “We’re not aiming for scientific rigour in our monitoring.”

I regularly hear variants of this phrase, ranging from the whiny (“We’re not trying to prove anything”), to the pseudo-scientific (“We don’t need to achieve 95% confidence level!”) It’s typically used as an excuse for poor monitoring practices; justifying anything from miniscule samples, to biased questions, to only interviewing male community leaders.

I think managers use this excuse because they believe there is a difference between what we do (monitoring, finding things out, investigating), and what other people do (science, evidence, proof, academia). This is, however, a false dichotomy. There is no magic bar which you jump over, and suddenly find yourself conducting scientific or academic research.

Of course, there are some techniques which require high levels of time or expertise, and so are more appropriate for specialists in that area. This might include randomised control trials, or ethnographic analysis. These techniques are not, however, somehow more ‘scientific’ or ‘rigorous’ than others, but more suitable for certain questions.

For example, if you want to know the effect of a new medicine, then a controlled trial is the best approach. If you want to understand society from the point of view of the subjects of the study (and have plenty of time on your hands) then ethnography is more suitable. If you want to understand how a community-based intervention affected a community, then a focus group discussions mixed with a wider survey might be appropriate. Academics typically asks different research questions, and so use different techniques to those used in monitoring and evaluation.

This doesn’t mean that monitoring and evaluation departments are somehow justified in conducting terrible research. If your focus group discussions are dominated by men, a sampling method poorly constructed, or your analysis relies on cherry-picking data, it’s not suddenly OK just because you’re monitoring rather than an academic. Bad research is bad research, no matter who does it.

Monitoring and evaluation would get a lot better if donors, programme staff, and even some M&E professionals stopped comparing monitoring practices to some kind of imagined scientific ideal. Instead, it would be more profitable if they thought more clearly about the impact of the monitoring, and what it is designed for. Do you need to estimate the attributable impact of an intervention? Do you want to understand how this change has happened? Or do you plan to understand the context in which you work?

All are reasonable purposes, and all have different implications for the type of research that you might want to do. Pretending that basic principles of rigour and good research practice don’t apply, however, perpetuates the idea that monitoring and evaluation is a kind of glorified feedback form, a box-ticking exercise that gathers ‘results’ but doesn’t worry about what they mean.

Why don’t international NGOs follow the Hippocratic Oath?

hippocratic oathIt is one of these moments you remember for the rest of your life. Standing in my brand new suit with the index and middle finger of my right hand raised, saying “so help me God’’, I completed the Hippocratic Oath, and became a doctor. I’ve forgotten the colour of my suit and the marvellous dinner afterwards, but the content of the oath frequently crosses my mind.

The Hippocratic Oath is one of the most widely known Greek medical texts. It requires a new physician to swear to uphold medical ethical standards practiced by doctors in many countries worldwide. The following sentence is the central aspect of the promise: “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism’’.

The Hippocratic Oath is the invisible backbone of the daily activities of a doctor. The supportive friend which you can rely on when making life and death decisions. The ethics which bounds all doctors worldwide. One oath universally utilised and respected.

Almost five years after taking the Hippocratic Oath, I started working in a remote hospital in Africa. And the hard work commenced; with limited resources, few educated staff and an infinite stream of patients mostly in advanced stage of their diseases. Frustrating from time to time, but the most frustrating aspect was not the patients, but the international NGO (INGO) that deployed me. My direct supervisor and senior manager had no recent clinical experience, and therefore weren’t comfortable making medical related decisions. Protocols and guidelines were mostly written by non-medics. Decisions were made from behind laptops in air-conditioned offices miles away from the clinics. The people making these decisions conducted field trips at the beginning of their employment – with the main purpose of taking pictures to send home – but did not visit regularly.

Frequent staff meetings were prioritised over patients care, even though it could impair patient’s outcomes as patients had to wait for their medication, food and examination. Diseases with quick onset, such as acute infectious diseases (cerebral malaria in children, Ebola viral disease), acute surgical (appendicitis, bowel strangulation) and obstetric (obstructive labour, fetal distress) emergencies need urgent medical intervention – delay in medical handling does negatively affect a patient’s outcome. So delaying treatment should be seen as in conflict with the Hippocratic Oath.

Equally shocking to me was the lack of mid-term evaluation and monitoring, and the lack of interest in improving the provided health services. Monitoring focused on quantitative ‘outcomes’, such as the number of patients triaged, discharged and numbers of particular diagnoses. There were no pre- or post-admission interviews to monitor patient’s satisfaction. There was little consideration of whether patients had the right understanding of the purpose of the services, what treatment patients received, or whether diagnoses were made correctly.

In addition, there was little discussion of how to build improved national health systems. A national health worker could receive on the job training by working alongside more experienced international colleagues, but we never discussed how that might influence the national health system in the long run. The INGO focused on obeying the policies and demands of overseas donors.

We medics ask for the respect and space to use the values of the oath in our work. To have an efficient health facility in place, that enables a doctor to have sufficient time with the patient in order to answer questions and give an explanation on the proposed therapy. To have a patient-minded policy that doesn’t prioritise the costs of additional diagnostics above patients’ wellbeing. To respect the anonymity of patient’s information and outcomes, without manipulating diagnoses which might influence the value of the upcoming donor grants. We ask for medics to be fully supported by the management of the project, valuing the ethics of the medical profession in accordance with the historical oath.

Decisions should be made by staff at the field level, who understood local customs and needs. As it was, decisions were made by donors who rarely visited the field and so lacked the technical understanding that should inform the creation of regulations and policies: placing the right of the patients as the key priority.

INGOs running medical projects should hire more medical experts who have recent clinical experience and the up-to-date knowledge needed for that particular project, even if they work in managerial positions. INGOs should support them by working at the field level as much as possible, or at least undertaking regular useful field trips. An essential part of the work of medical expats should include supporting and empowering local medical staff.

With this in the back of our minds, let us set aside the top down mindset that has gradually crept in to the medical practice. Let us please reconsider the importance of the Oath of Hippocrates, and use it as the start and end point of our medical aid projects, both in the western world and in low- and middle income countries. The patients will be grateful, and so will the donors eventually.

Elections in East Africa in 2015: Burundi’s Watershed Moment

Are we about to witness the breakdown of one of Africa’s smallest nations?  With so many other things going on in the world, Burundi hasn’t yet made the front pages of newspapers outside of East Africa, and we can only pray it doesn’t. But the current situation suggests there is worse yet to come – whether physical violence, floods of refugees, political demise or all of the above.

Updawomente on 10 May 2015: On Friday, President Nkurunziza officially launched his campaign for a third term by filing his candidacy. Horrible pictures of murdered and injured citizens have been filling social media this week – including that of a pregnant woman apparently dragged from her home. As the situation seems to be worsening, numbers fleeing the country have risen to over 50,000. Leaders across Africa are getting involved and calling for dialogue – Uhuru (Kenya). Tanzania’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Mwembe, announced that EAC Heads of State will meet to discuss the Burundi crisis in Dar on May 13 and President Zuma of South Africa is sending an envoy to help diffuse the situation. On Saturday a one day truce was held but overnight protestors have set up barricades again in defiance of the President’s order to end activity within 48 hours. Opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, has also filed his candidacy – though he clarified he did not see this as an endorsement of Nkurunziza’s third term but rather in respect to the country’s law. Mothers Day (Sunday) started with an all female protest – police appeared confused – in the centre of Bujumbura.

The African Union has said elections cannot take place under these conditions resulting in harsher crackdown on protestors. Diaspora demonstrations continue, particularly in Canada, Kenya. Ambassador Samantha Power has voiced what many have been thinking – the fear that events in Burundi could destabilise the region and lead to other crises. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which Burundi has been a State Party since 2004, made a statement on 8 May, sharing her concerns about the growing tensions and said her office would not be scared to investigate if crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction were committed.

bOriginal Blog: On 25 April 2015, a series of protests were organized in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, contesting President Nkurinziza’s bid for another term in the upcoming elections. Under the Arusha Accords, the peace agreement that ended the civil war, the president is not eligible for re-election. The President’s supporters claim that the President has only served one term, for in 2005 he was appointed by Parliament and not elected by general suffrage.

Since the start of the protests, social media and radio have been shut down, curtailing freedom of speech and media. The closure of these venues of communication has intensified rumours and fear in the country. The majority of the population only have access to two radio stations, the government-owned RTNB and the party-affiliated RemaFM. Locals report that the messages being broadcasted on RemaFM are ethnically-charged (though open to interpretation), in an attempt to shift the conversation regarding the president’s bid in the upcoming elections as well as to regain support.

Together, these developments have led almost 40,000 Burundians to flee to neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda (21,000), DRC and Tanzania (over 2,000). Tanzanian officials have warned that we could see a humanitarian crisis. Inside the country hundreds have fled to foreign embassies seeking refuge. 

On Saturday 2 May, the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Public Security both made public statements. While the former asked the military to act in accordance with the spirit of the constitution and the Arusha Agreements that ended the decade-long civil war, the latter stated that they do not want any more protestors propping up a “terrorist enterprise”.

The public statements come after a military officer was shot and killed by an intelligence officer and two police officers were killed in the grenade attacks of Friday, May 1, 2015. Although the discourses of the two security institutions diverge, it is highly unlikely that the police and military would confront each other. The question of whether or not the military will stay united is less easy to answer.

Starting on Monday 4 May 2015, the protests recommenced in full force, with reports that three protestors or four protestors had been killed and many more injured. The deaths included a 12 year old boy. Following the fatalities, the former leader Domitien Ndayizeye called for the President to withdraw, whilst from Nairobi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Nkurunziza seeking a third term “flies directly in the face” of Burundi’s Constitution. 

Yet things got worse on Monday afternoon. Burundi’s Constitutional Court was due to decide on the legitimacy of Nkurinziza running for another term, when it was reported that Sylvere Nimpagaritse, Vice President of the Court had fled to Rwanda. Nimpagaritse has apparently said that four out of the seven judges were against another term and it now appears that three of the judges have fled the country. The Minister of Defense has said that he would deploy the Army if necessary.

brThe Constitutional Court has now backed the Presidency’s bid for another term. The response was clear: “It is a clear message to the people that they count for nothing”. It has since been reported that police fired rounds on the protestors leading protesters to use leaves as camouflage and branches as fake weapons. On Wednesday 6 May in the evening the President addressed the nation and stated that if re-elected this, his third, would be his last term (read the full statement here).

Africa responds to African problems: Ministers from the East African Community (EAC) are travelling to Burundi to help with finding a solution for the political unrest. This comes in the wake of a UN led mediation between civil society and political groups started yesterday.

In support, the diaspora and others have organised rallies e.g. in London and Canada. The hashtag #Sindumuja which means ‘I am not a slave’ in Kirundi is being used by many to share their concerns, grief and anger on twitter. Concern is spreading on social media to the Rwandan community and it cannot be denied that there is a fear for the peace of this delicate but beautiful part of East Africa. An EU election observation team is due to deploy shortly (@MoeUeBurundi).

At the moment, it is unclear how this conflict will be resolved. For many, succeeding in the protests may become a matter of life and death. The election is due to take place on 26 June 2015. Neighbouring Tanzania has a similar situation coming up in October, when the incumbent Kikwete is also ineligible for a third term and there will be a general election in Ethiopia on 24 May.

For latest information, see this crowd map.

The ‘Asia-Pacific’ Concept Is Ridiculous

Asia Pacific Banner

Author: Denika Blacklock Karim, Theory in Practice

‘Asia’ as a singular region is massive – it has a population of 3.73 billion people. The Pacific, in contrast, consists of 22 island nations with a population of just over 10 million people. Yet, time and again, development analysis looks at the ‘Asia-Pacific’ as a singular entity, with the Pacific constituting 0.2% of the population of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region. Indeed, the entire population of the Pacific barely equals the population of a single Asian country. However, culturally, economically and historically, Asia and the Pacific are vastly different.

The remoteness of Pacific island countries means that challenges which have mostly been overcome in Asia – such as the accessibility of technology, transportation and access to markets – are daily challenges; not only between countries, but within them, too. And while all countries are vulnerable to climate change and its associated risks and challenges, in the Pacific the impacts of a changing climate are the reality, whereas in Asia the risks aren’t so imminent. We can talk about food security, access to health care – access to anything really, and the story will be the same. The challenges facing the Pacific are far greater and far more acute than in ‘Asia’ as a whole.

Nonetheless, the development community continues to debate in a regional perspective, presenting trends and issues as though there is some commonality between Afghanistan in the West and Cook Islands in the East. Asia itself is so big that analysts break it down into sub-regions: East Asia, South East Asia and South Asia. But doing so marginalizes the needs of some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet.

For example, the 2014 World Development Report analysed all MDG-related sectors using a regional breakdown, one of which was ‘East Asia and the Pacific.’ This included countries such as Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and the entire Pacific region. The data presented was overall positive, showing remarkable progress against development challenges such as gender equality, access to health care and education, literacy rates, and employment. However, hidden deep within the ‘Notes’ section, the methodological process admits to evaluating statistical data only from countries with a population of ‘more than 500,000.’ meaning that of the 22 countries in the Pacific, only two qualified: Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Not only are we getting skewed data which suggests that challenges are being overcome, we are perhaps not getting any data at all. The entire development ‘picture’ of the Pacific is absent from analysis of ‘Asia-Pacific’. The World Development Report is not the only publication guilty of this – reports with titles that include ‘in Asia-Pacific’ often do not even mention the Pacific, or if they do, reference one or two countries.

This flawed development analysis has negative repercussions. Policy makers in donor countries allocate funding based on needs presented in publications such as the World Development Report. The Pacific is receiving a minute fraction of what it needs in order to address the challenges it is facing because the challenges they are facing are presented through skewed data.

Some efforts are being made to focus on the unique challenges facing countries in the Pacific – and those like them. For example, the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) conference and representation in the UN covers all island states – including in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean. The platform largely aims to raise awareness about the acute risks presented by climate change to these countries.

Nonetheless, does it make sense for us to discuss, plan and review with an ‘Asia-Pacific’ mindset? Continuing to do so only causes harm to some of the most vulnerable communities in the world. We must redress how we think about demonstrating progress, and re-prioritize the most vulnerable in global development discourse.

Development Consultants: Over-paid, Over-rated, and Over-used

When I started working in development, I idolised development consultants. They seemed such awe-inspiring figures; wise, glamorous, and with experience seeping from every pore. Now I work as a development consultant myself. The awe has faded, and been replaced with an increasing concerned that the growth of consultancy is a serious threat to the effectiveness of the aid sector.

Consultancy is a good solution when a task requires specialist expertise, or benefits from an external perspective. It is damaging and ineffective, however, when consultants replace internal staff rather than support them. For example, rather than investing in expertise in monitoring and evaluation, organisations might choose to bring in a consultant for a few months. They use consultancy as a way to avoid spending the money needed to do their job properly.

This allows organisations to reduce their overheads. While a consultant can easily get double the pay of an equivalent full time staff member, they also don’t get holiday, sick pay, management, training, and a whole host of other perks. This allows the organisation to directly reduce overheads, for example by firing their HR department. Funders also often allow organisations to count consultants as a programme cost, while full time staff count as administrative costs. If you hire a staff member with expertise in child protection, you look inefficient and bureaucratic. If you hire a consultant at twice the cost you look dynamic and action orientated.

Moreover, a reliance on consultants fits very well into a funding environment based on short term and unpredictable funding for projects. Full-time staff are a real headache; when the project finishes, how would you pay their salaries? Far better to hire consultants on short-term contracts, who can be dispensed with once the project is over.

This is a problem because most consultants are rubbish. I’m sorry to generalise – of course, there are many fantastic, dedicated and intelligent consultants. But in my experience, the majority simply don’t add much value. This is for two reasons. Firstly, consultants are much less able than full time staff to actually help an organisation make changes. While full time staff can learn how an organisation works and roll out changes over time, consultants are expected to implement changes overnight. It’s easy for a consultant to produce ‘deliverables’ – whether in the form of reports, frameworks or workshops – but much harder to ensure that this actually leads to improvements in the way the organisation works.

Secondly, consultants typically don’t receive feedback on their work, nor opportunities for training and personal development. Over time, consultants tend to become sloppy and produce second-best work because they’ve learnt that it seldom gets challenged. There is an interesting analogy with locums, doctors who work short-term contracts in different hospitals. Locum work in the NHS is lucrative, but severely frowned upon. Without the training and support of the normal medical system, locums do not develop, and so will never be able to move onto more advanced jobs.

This is a growing problem for the sector. I’ve spoken to a number of people who have left their current full time work to become consultants, where they can get a lot more money and more flexible and exciting work. In some cases, staff leave their organisation and are contracted almost immediately back again, providing short-term inputs instead of long-term support. Organisations lose their effective full time staff, replacing them with ineffective consultants.

So what is the solution? I’m going to propose two; a short term fix and a long term improvement. In the short term, I would love to see a TripAdvisor equivalent for consultants. Something where clients could rate consultants and provide feedback in an open forum. Think of it as ratemyconsultant.com.

In the long run, however, there’s only one thing which will really make a difference. Development organisations need to stop relying on consultants and invest in their own staff. Donors need to stop considering trained, motivated staff as an overhead cost, and think of them as a foundation for effective development work. Both donors and organisations need to provide training and support in order to increase the quality of their staff, and build a rewarding work environment which enables organisations to keep their staff in the long-term.

Volunteering Overseas: the best method for creating new aid workers?

pic2_volunteersI started my career in development, working in a small orphanage in a third world country.  The orphanage was run by a national religious charity.  Most of the children living there had parents, but had been removed from their parent’s care by the judicial system.  These children had been abandoned several times by their parents, wider family, and the authorities.  After a significant period of time attempting to provide them with some love, I did the same: I left.

Not long after I went, another young person filled my shoes.  While she was there, one child was kidnapped by his parents, who wanted him to pickpocket in the market for them.  This put him in danger of abuse and a potential prison sentence, if not worse. Soon after the incident, she left as well.  And eventually, the charity collapsed and the children found themselves spread across a new set of institutions, or simply back on the streets.

Several years later, I returned and met up with some of the same children.  They were bitter and angry at me. I couldn’t blame them.  I too had abandoned them: betrayed their trust.  Had they grown up in Western Europe or North America, they would be offered a hell a lot of psychological therapy for that kind of childhood.


It wasn’t till several years later that I discovered Mary Anderson’s Do No Harm principles.  Anderson’s principles focus on the impact of aid on conflict, but the idea that we should all be responsible for the consequences of our actions rings true for all those working in another country.  However, this requires awareness, which young or inexperienced volunteers don’t always have.  Very few of my fellow young volunteers would see any harm from what they did during their 3 months in Uganda or 2 weeks in Nepal. And most probably didn’t cause any harm.  But did they help?  Or was this purely a learning experience for them?

I learnt a lot from my first experience.  I quickly left the sector and undertook a completely different career which, made me much better suited to the aid sector when I did return.  In this new career, I learnt genuine skills and re-entered with my own separate profession.  Nonetheless, that initial job in a developing country showed me all the problems with the sector, so that when I returned, I did so with open eyes.  Volunteering on a small project overseas quickly builds essential experience for aid work, such as an understanding of working in a third country, an ability to work with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, and a willingness to live in basic conditions.


However, voluntary service can also instil the wrong attitudes and ideas, which can be extremely damaging to the humanitarian sector.  Voluntary service is included in some lists of humanitarian principles, namely those of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, but the original Dunantist principles focus on humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.  Few, if any volunteers are provided with the longer list of principles.  Back in the orphanage, I had no idea about impartiality or neutrality.  I was encouraged to get money or resources from any possible source.  I was taught to believe that if I didn’t then the children wouldn’t have any bread for their breakfast.  I cozied up to local politicians, and I put on a frock to attend high society events with the cutest looking child.  Much worse, I never considered that my short-term presence could do more harm than good, or that the children I worked with could ever be angry with me for my “help”.

By effectively requiring new humanitarian workers to have worked as volunteers, we are instilling the idea that aid is just volunteerism plus money and better technology.  These new aid workers often come from an environment where they were never asked to think about whether they could do harm, and where it was inherently assumed that they were doing good just from being there.  The attitudes which are instilled at these early stages of a career are apparent throughout the aid sector.  If we want to professionalise the sector, we could start off by professionalising our volunteers.