A Taxonomy of Arguments in Favor of Bad Aid

As promised, what began as a compendium of arguments in favor of bad aid, but is now more of a taxonomy with non-exhaustive illustrative examples and discussion under each category.

Just so there’s no confusion, and because by now I typically know how these arguments go before they’re even fully uttered, by “bad aid” I specifically mean the unqualified volunteers (you may know this as #voluntourism), the #SWEDOW, the pet orphanages, the church/school/other building missions, and all the other (because there are simply too many to list individually) sloppily envisaged and shoddily executed self-serving amateur do-gooding boondoggle somehow packaged as “help” and foisted off onto a comparatively poor recipient community, most probably in another country. This are the main categories of arguments used to justify bad aid, each with potentially endless variations.

Without further ado, a taxonomy of arguments in favor of bad aid:

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Wide-eyed wonder: Wide-eyed wonder is a general cluelessness about the world and how it works . It is unacknowledged, much less reflectively examined assumptions, which then translate in practice as what often look like very fluffy, random, usually non-technical scratch-the-surface kinds of charities and projects. Most people who invoke wide-eyed wonder simply had no idea that it might be possible to cause harm by helping wrong, because they never stopped to think about anything for even one second.

You can recognize wide-eyed wonder by phrases like, “it’s not like I’m hurting anyone…”, or, of course, “OMG, I never thought of that…” Totes.

Wide-eyed wonder is possibly one of the toughest arguments in favor of bad aid to counter inter-personally because those who use it are typically really nice people. You want to like them, you hate to hurt their feelings. In real life Wide-eyed wonder is the bright, friendly college sophomore on the plane next to you who has just spent a year doing unsupervised work with street children in Peru. It is the sweet lady at the supermarket who collected gently used socks for survivors of the Japan tsunami. Be nice, but don’t back down.

When confronted with reality, wide-eyed wonder typically turns in one of three directions:

  • Conversion, a hardcore good aid believer. Obviously, this is the one we want. Also the hardest/least likely.
  • A wounded, It’s all about me! (see below)
  • An angry You suck (see further below).


Destiny’s Child. This one is somewhat rare these days, but it’s worth mentioning. It’s kind of a vaguely defined “manifest destiny” (thus the name), and a step away from wide-eyed wonder in its unquestioned assumptions, but with a distinctly ethnocentric undertone. “It’s for the better of the general greater good that we bequeath our wisdom and technology to these unfortunate natives.” “It’s the natural order of things that we do so.” Whereas wide-eyed wonder has simply failed to contemplate the issues, Destiny’s Child has most definitely thought about them, and come to the conclusion that not only is the rest of the world categorically in dire need of whatever they have to offer (technology, worldview…), but that they have an obligation, frequently articulated as a moral imperative, to do whatever it is that they’re doing.

A common variant of Destiny’s Child is a kind of know-it-all, “but we just know better” (“we’ve got to show them a better way…”, etc., etc.).

At the end of the day, Destiny’s Child is an “ends justifies the means” argument. It can be hard to recognize in real life because it is very often mixed with the others (It’s all about me! Is the most common), but look for phrases like, “called by God”, “bigger picture”, or “we have to help them…”

On the rare occasions when you encounter Destiny’s Child in real life, it will probably make you angry. This is your crazy, conservative brother-in-law who has one too many and then bangs on about “them muzzlims” at Thanksgiving, but who has sent thousands of dollars to some orphanage in Namibia. This is the mid-ranking military officer who is passionately convicted that his nation’s foreign policy agenda and the well-being of teenaged mothers in [COMMUNITY X in IMPOVERISHED COUNTRY Y] are one in the same. This is the missionary who makes self-assured pronouncements about the immorality of local culture, while at the same time stridently proclaiming to love and live a sacrificial life on behalf of local people.

I have not found a good counter to Destiny’s Child. In my experience most people who use this argument to justify bad aid have either not matured to the point that they are physiologically capable of processing cause-effect and so there’s no point in arguing just now; or else are so deeply entrenched that there’s no point in arguing ever. Your best option is to simply change the conversation, go for a run, do another shot, etc.

Destiny’s Child typically reverts to some kind of condescending You suck when confronted.


It’s all about me! This one is overwhelmingly the most common, although you sometimes have to get past the initial emotional reaction of clueless Wide-eyed wonder. It’s all about me! is pretty much what it sounds like: the person or organization continues to engage in bad aid because it is somehow good for those doing the bad aid. This is far and away the most common justification for #voluntourism programmes, short-term “missions”, sending high school or university students to build schools or hug orphans, and innumerable variations on those themes.

It’s all about me! is typically invoked with either an air of condescension or with an undertone of accusation. If you detect condescension, it’s probably because the person making the argument is essentially Destiny’s Child (“… what you fail to grasp, you unenlightened professional aid worker, is that this experience is actually very good for me…”). If you detect accusation, it’s probably because the person making the argument is about to transition to You suck (see below).

Of course the fundamental flaw in It’s all about me! is that the “good experience”, “life lesson”, “adventure”, or whatever of the bad aid practitioner comes at the expense of real, living people somewhere. Taken to its logical conclusion, It’s all about me! makes aid workers the real beneficiaries, while local people, “the poor”, “beneficiaries”, etc., all become props in their experience.

A very common variation of It’s all about me! is an argument to the effect that the character of the voluntourist (or PCV, or whomever) is somehow the issue. “But she’s a really, really nice person…” This is a classic “good intentions” argument.

It’s all about me! is typically very easy to spot in real life. Look for phrases like “I just feel called”, “I have a heart for the poor” or “a heart for [ANOTHER COUNTRY, PROBABLY IN AFRICA]. Angry responses which fall back on the sterling character, pure intentions, or awesome resume of the person you’ve suggested shouldn’t be there is another dead giveaway that you’re up against It’s all about me!

The counter to It’s all about me! is just keep driving at some variation of, “yes, but what about the beneficiaries?” (“Dude, we, like, totally volunteered at this women’s shelter in Mumbai.” “Oh? Yes, and how did those women actually benefit from you being there?” “Dude, what?”)

Your likelihood of success in arguing with It’s all about me! is going to vary, depending on the maturity of the person you’re talking to. Be patient. It can help to drive home the point that actual, real, effective aid and development work are usually not super exciting office jobs. My personal favorite response to It’s all about me! is simply, “If you want adventure, sign up for an adventure tour. If you want to save lives, make the spreadsheet cells calculate properly.”

Update, 29 August: An common descendant of It’s all about me! (usually the result of a union with Destiny’s Child) is the win-win. “Everybody gains,” or so the argument goes. Win-win is typically deployed in defense of questionable CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programmes, as well as questionable or useless widgets being promoted by innovators/inventors. In real life win-win looks like thinly veiled drug testing, projects or interventions focused on a very specific product that can only be procured from one source, etc. Win-win is the expensive plastic bags that purify water, the T-shelters that turn into boats, and anything at all where stated objectives somehow include something about market penetration…


You suck: This one is basically an attempt to deflect the conversation from bad aid back to you. The basic move is for the person who feels offended that you’ve called out bad aid to make a return accusation of some kind. There are three main types of return accusations:

  • Something about how sometimes professionals make mistakes, too. “Even professional aid workers get it wrong…” Or, “Yeah? Well, [CITE HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLE ABOUT FAMOUS NGO DOING A POOR JOB]…”
  • Something about the sad state of the aid industry. “The aid industry is a joke…” Or, “The UN is a totally bloated and ineffective bureaucracy…”
  • Something about the character of aid workers (this is classic ad hominem, by the way). “Aid workers with big-name charities are just so arrogant.” Or, “Yeah, but professional aid workers are more concerned about big team houses and weekend parties…”

And here I think we all know the flaws in this argument. All of the accusations may in fact be true, but this in no way means that wanton bad aid being carried out by amateurs is somehow a good idea. Eroding my credibility does not necessarily improve yours. No one would argue that random well-intended university students should be allowed to fly commercial airliners because some professional pilots have crashed. No one’s trying to promote short-term, volunteer-driven amateur banking, despite how obviously messed up, inefficient, and self-serving the banking sector is. The fact that many lawyers might be arrogant, self-absorbed jerks in real life doesn’t somehow mean that we should instead rely on our well-intended neighbor to represent us in civil court.

I’m not sure I know of a good response to You suck, other than to point out that a You suck arguments is being made and just how irrelevant it really is. Most people who fall back on a You suck argument in favor of bad aid are already angry that you’ve had the audacity to call out bad aid, and so will probably not be won over.  Good luck.


Nothing really matters: This one is basically an attempt to argue that aid and development is basically pretty easy, pretty simple, and that even if you really screw up, it’s not like bad things are going to happen. “So we volunteered at an orphanage… what’s the big deal? It’s not like we hurt anybody…” Or, “So yeah, we sent our church group to Haiti… what’s the harm?” This aid thing is not rocket science, so settle down you uptight aid workers.

Nothing really matters can look different, depending on the setting, but pretty much any time the argument in favor of bad aid is essentially that “no harm is being done”, you know this is what you’re dealing with.

A common variation of Nothing really matters is the, “yes, but this is new… this is innovation!” line of defense. In my experience, in the majority of cases where someone makes this particularly argument, the thing or approach being justified is actually not new or innovative. The person just didn’t bother to know the history of aid/dev practice, and is in fact championing something that the rest of us discarded as unhelpful years ago.

It can be hard to know how to respond to Nothing really matters in real life, mostly because those making this kind of argument are typically so profoundly uninformed about the real world (in many cases despite years of travel or living abroad), that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation with them. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that (at least in my experience) very often those making a Nothing really matters point are exceptionally well-educated. Their mistake is in believing that anything not at the level of their own expertise in, say, neurosurgery or nuclear physics or economics, is child’s play by comparison.

Nothing really matters is fundamentally about arrogance (“what do you is not hard—heck, even I can do it”) and ethnocentrism (“Send our youth to volunteer with the orphans… it’s not that big a deal”).

What to say? They’re attempting to demean our profession, which ain’t cool in my book. But at this point in my life and career have mostly lost interest in the debate. Aid is a profession. It just is. It’s possible to hurt people by getting it wrong.

These days my counter to Nothing really matters is just smile and relax. “Wow, mister. You sure are smart. And I have a plane to catch…”


Doing anything is better than doing nothing: Last but not least is the Doing anything is better than doing nothing argument. There are two main variations on this one:

  • But they have nothing… The assumption being made here is that since poor people or disaster survivors or refugees have nothing, or at least have very little, anything at all we might do for or give to them is “good” because it’s better than nothing. “But they have nothing” gets used to justify all kinds of bad aid, but you’ll encounter it most commonly in defense of inappropriate GIK. That brain surgery fluid sent to Indonesia after the tsunami? Those silicone breast implants sent to Haiti after the earthquake? Pretty much every BOGO scheme, ever? But those people have nothing—surely something is better than nothing
  • Every little bit helps. Closely related to “but they have nothing…”, this one relies on the assumption that the needs of the poor in whichever country/community is under discussion are so vast and insurmountable that, literally, every little bit helps. Whatever gets done or given, regardless of the quality, is cool because it all somehow chips away at that towering wall of need, and only a really horrible person would ever be against that. “Every little bit helps” can also be used to justify all manner of bad aid, but you’ll see it most commonly in defense of volunteers, volunteer-focused organizations, and startup NGOs with poorly envisioned mandates or niches. The clowns, the surfers, the skateboarders… “Don’t be so arrogant, yo—every little bit helps.”

Ultimately, Doing anything is better than doing nothing is an argument that volume of need is the biggest concern in all of this. For it to work, though, it must go hand-in-hand with Nothing really matters (although it typically devolves first into It’s all about me! when first confronted). Volume and energy of response are what make aid effective, not quality, understanding context, or good technical management, or so the logic goes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the sweet little old lady who stockpiles shoes to send to Kenya, the soccer dad down the block who sets up a “charity” so his kids can learn about poverty, or the dentist who volunteers every summer. Make no mistake: when you get the indulgent smile or defensive head-shake and some line about, “at least we’re doing something…” you’re being told this is all so easy and uncomplicated that anyone can do it.

In my experience, people making the Doing anything is better than doing nothing argument are the most likely to be won over by logic and reason. I know it can feel as if we endless have the same arguments about bad aid over and over again, but when you’re confronted with Doing anything is better than doing nothing, it’s often worth taking a deep breath, putting your patient face, and leading off with something like, “One of the things we struggle with is measuring impact… I’m curious to know how you judge the impact of [YOUR ILL-CONSIDERED AID ACTIVITY]..?”


We Don’t Need Another Hero

Happy World Humanitarian Day.


Several weeks ago I set out to write a rant post about some uninformed person who collects “pre-loved” bras, sends them to other countries, and then tries to link it all to reduced human trafficking. The post didn’t really come together. It’s all been said before. The 1,000,000 t-shirts/bras-sans-frontieres/#SWEDOW-dumping slactivist train has left the station, and does not show any sign of slowing down any time soon.

Then this weekend there was the bit about the two amateurs who started their own charity for Syria and then managed to get themselves kidnapped and sorta lauded in the press for their heroism (my words), despite the fact that the actual help they provided is negligible, and the circumstances surrounding their abduction completely avoidable. In common parlance, they took stupid risks in order to accomplish nothing of lasting consequence. (Bless their hearts, I sincerely hope they get home safely. But seriously, Aleppo?)

There again, though, this is hardly news-worthy. The Levant is only the latest playground for globally-minded self-starters. We’ve seen this in every interagency response of note in recent memory. The main difference seems to be that in, say, Haiti or the Philippines the worst that would happen is that someone would get giardia or suffer from the heat. Whereas in Syria you can get kidnapped by ISIS, thus the allure and Facebook potential are all the greater.

And then the other day, as the world, by whom I mean mostly UNOCHA, began the social media final approach to World Humanitarian Day, I can’t help but notice that part of the theme this years is about how the world needs more #humanitarianheroes.

I like where OCHA is going with this theme overall. I like the presumable focus on local aid workers, rather than expats who in years past seemed to take all the limelight. Yes, the world is becoming more and more dangerous for aid workers, again, particularly those “from there.” I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many were aware that in August 2006, some seventeen local aid workers were executed in their offices during working hours near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka? Or that in 2010 six local aid workers suffered a similar fate in Pakistan? For every 20-something foreigner brash (or just dumb) enough to go to Aleppo, there are tens of Syrian NGO staff who brave airstrikes, snipers, hostile, checkpoints, detention, all over and above their own personal losses. They slog it out day after day, with little or no recognition, while the adventure-seekers and the bra collectors get their pictures in the paper. And so, yes, I agree that part of OCHA’s focus on humanitarian security and the recognition of the positively massive contributions by local aid workers is spot on.

But something about the term “humanitarian heroes” bothers me.


  • a :  a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability

  • b :  an illustrious warrior

  • c :  a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities

  • d :  one who shows great courage



In common, everyday culture, heroes are larger-than-life, enigmatic, super-human. They perform great deeds of over-the-top, obvious value. They single-handedly save Planet Earth from aliens, and then ride off into the sunset with the breathless maiden sidesaddle behind them on the horse or Harley. I get what the authors of headlines and social media campaigns are going for when they describe some aid workers as heros or some things that aid workers do as heroic, but when I actually look at the aid workers—that is, those actually in the thick of it, making aid happen—they are decidedly un-heroic in the classical as well as the everyday sense.

More often than not, real aid workers are antiheroes. And so I fear that by setting us up as heroes communicates an incorrect message about what we are capable of doing, whether individually or collectively. To describe us as heroic sets inappropriate expectations of what we and our organizations and industry can realistically accomplish. To call us heroes, or to suggest that we should be, sets unrealistic and in my opinion inappropriate expectations around who we are or should be in our real lives.

To call aid workers heroes and to call what we do heroic is to perpetuate a wide range of supremely unhelpful stereotypes and assumptions, from: “this is so simple and easy, even an undergrad can do it”; to “all you need to be able to do this is have a good attitude and have a heart for the poor”; to “if you’re not a good person, then you’re not a good aid worker.” To call aid work heroic belies the truth of what the vast majority of those in the aid industry, including those on the so-called “front lines” actually spend their days doing. To suggest that we should be heroes, and that the world needs more aid worker heroes is to call for more style, packaging, and messaging, and less substance.

And simply at a more mundane level of reality (reality in the hero metaphor context), heroes live exciting lives of adventure and mayhem. But it’s the sidekicks and faithful servants who hang in there day-to-day keeping Superman honest (Lois Lane), The Lone Ranger on his horse (Tonto), getting Batman out of jams (Robin), keeping Sherlock on task (Dr. Watson), and making sure that James Bond is forever flush with awesome gadgets (Q.).

The vast majority of us live more like sidekicks in the hero myths and legends. Why? Because sidekick jobs are the jobs which need doing. I frequently find myself saying to the interns and new hires who ask me for informational interviews (as well as my own full-time team from time to time): “If you want adventure, sign up for an adventure tour. If you want to save lives, get the Flash Appeal proposal done by tomorrow.” (or “make sure the report is in the proper format,” “make sure all the formulas in the spreadsheet are correct,” or “be on time for the NFI cluster meeting,” or… or…)

And maybe for me, this is the real point. Any random idealist with not much more than a working internet connection can create the vibe of being a hero. Collecting bras or shoes, setting up a new charity and nice website, even schlepping to a war-torn city and doing a bunch of Facebook updates is pretty easy, actually. But real aid work is hard and frequently not exciting. Real aid work requires focus and teamwork, not flamboyance and rugged individualism.

I’m betting that those aid workers featured in OCHA’s World Humanitarian Day promotions would agree. I’m thinking we don’t need yet another hero.

Somebody crank up Tina Turner.

Is any harm being done?

I’ve learned the hard way over the years that anyone who dares to speak up against amateur do-gooder, voluntourism in any significant way can expect a flood of response, usually emotional, often angry, sometimes even downright vitriolic and personal. It’s not too surprising, really. No one wants to be told that they shouldn’t have collected the shoes for orphans in Haiti, that they shouldn’t have gone to build the school in Zambia, or that their three weeks or three months in Cambodia probably didn’t help anyone very much. For every example of clear and obvious bad aid, there are tens of hypothetical examples in the comments thread of situations where the volunteers could make a contribution, where the shoes would really help, or where three months in Cambodia just might make poverty history.

The amount of cultural and probably psychological packaging around this issue—the notion that just anyone can and should go elsewhere to “help” or “make a difference”—is truly immense. Many, including me in the past, have written about some of this cultural packaging before in different ways, what drives it, what makes it so hard to get past. I won’t try to rehash those arguments here, because when you filter out the angry, reactive noise, the essential question which remains is, “is any harm really being done?”

“So I volunteered in Burma for a year, during which I was mostly ineffective, but I learned a lot and surely that’s worth something… so seriously, was there any actual harm there?” Or, “Yeah, we send our youth group to Mexico every year to build community centers… sure, maybe we’re not reducing the rate of malnutrition or incidence of TB… but it’s a great experience for our youth. What’s the harm?” Or, “Okay, people needed clothing, we sent used clothing… what’s the real harm?”

When doctors mess up, patients die. When pilots mess up, planes crash. When athletes mess up, they lose the competition. When soldiers mess up, they destroy the wrong targets. But when aid workers mess up, is any harm really being done?


Volunteers in Haiti, earthquake + 10 days. Any harm being done? (photo by J.)

One’s tolerance for bad aid, and by extension one’s level of pushback on the notion that aid is in fact a profession which should be practiced only by qualified professionals, ultimately comes down to how much harm one believes possible should things go wrong. It comes back to how we answer in our own minds this question, “is any harm really being done?” If you see the stakes in all of this as very low—that is, say you get it totally wrong, and still nothing bad really happens; no harm, no foul—then you’re more likely to bristle at the suggestion that all the volunteers should just stay home, that the #socent innovators should not start another charity, or that the men’s prayer group should not collect shoes for orphans in Bangladesh.

Obviously this question is made all the more difficult to answer by the fact that changes within communities happen more slowly. Planes crash in minutes. Patients die, perhaps instantaneously. But when aid programmes go wrong it could take years for the effects to be evident in the target population. Attribution is similarly tough to pin down. Autopsies and flight recorders very often help narrow down what went wrong on the operating table or flight deck, but even in the obvious, highly visible aid debacles of recent memory (Rwanda/Goma in the mid-1990s, for example) it is almost impossible to link what went wrong back to a specific action taken by a specific organization, let alone an individual aid worker. So, for example, some white girl goes to Tanzania and fails to build a library… Lame? For sure. Any real harm done? Feels inconclusive…


For me, the key to clarity on this issue—the question of, “is any harm really being done?”—is in understanding that if properly planned, well-implemented aid can help, then the opposite is also true: poorly planned, badly executed aid can cause actual, lasting harm. Despite some very marked contrasts between medicine and aid, the ethical imperatives involved are nearly identical between the two. And if it is possible to cause harm to those we say we’re all about helping, then the obvious follow-on is that we have a direct and specific ethical obligation to do aid in ways which do not cause harm.

Everyone wants to believe that what they do under the banner of “aid” or “helping” or “giving back” or a hundred other variations of these themes does actually make a difference, a real difference. But if we want to boast that what we do does affect people’s lives for real in the real world, for the better, then we have no option but to also accept the possibility of affecting their lives for real, in the real world, for the worse. And then we must further accept the responsibility—call it ethical, call it moral, if you like—of being as certain as we can possibly be that what we do does in fact affect lives for the better, not worse.

And finally, that being certain requires that one know what one is doing in the first place. Being as certain as possible requires that one understand the difference between good aid and bad aid. I don’t care who you are, what your title is, what your salary is, whether you’re in your role of helping for one day or twenty years; it doesn’t matter that aid is not formally regulated and that no matter how badly you might screw up almost certainly no beneficiary will ever sue you. It is absolutely not enough to simply want to help. You have to know how. You have to know how whether you aspire to the personal title of humanitarian; whether you’re an entire organization, supposedly established and respected, still tied to a 20-year old paradigm which doesn’t work; whether you’re a donor who sends $20. No one gets off the ethical hook, here.


One last point. Many have asked why I bang on about this. Aren’t I just overblowing it all to a ridiculous degree? (Again, these questions essentially ask, “Is any harm really being done?”).  Consider that the American Medical Association describes reporting impaired, incompetent, or unethical colleagues as part of the code of ethics for physicians. Assuming for the sake of argument a similar set of ethics for those whose actions affect entire communities and demographics (aid and development workers), my question: why aren’t more professional aid workers banging on about it?

Just saying.

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Possibly related:

Once more, from the top…

So, The Guardian (@GuardianGDP) put up a crowd-sourced article of pro-tips for volunteers to get noticed in the aid industry. I got into a Twitter conversation about the usefulness (or not) of volunteers in general. I’ve written and argued about this more than almost any other aid-related topic in the past two decades. I keep forgetting that there are still people around who see volunteers going to international locations where they can practice “helping” as anything other than an abysmal idea.


Okay. Let me break it down one more time.

Let’s not split semantic hairs. I don’t care what the title, designation, or salary package is. I’m against untrained, unqualified people dropping in for a few days/weeks/months to have an adventure or have a “good experience” while making some nebulous contribution to some alleged greater good.

Aid and development are professions, not hobbies. It takes specific knowledge, skill and experience to get this right. Aid is hard and complicated–getting it right is tough, even for professionals. If the point is helping for real, then leave that helping to those who know what they’re doing. The continued fixation on volunteers (or unqualified people with some other title traipsing around the field) speaks to a fundamental lack of respect for aid and development as actual professions.

  • Pro-tip: Take your own argument in favor of volunteers going to Ghana/Cambodia/Uganda/wherever,  search/replace “local gynecological clinic”, and see if the argument still works.

Yes, but the local people really liked our volunteers! This is a common one. Local people the world over are hospitable nice to outsiders. Just because volunteer aid workers won’t get sued for malpractice or driven from the field in the dead of night by angry villagers with torches and pitchforks doesn’t mean they are either effective or appreciated. You have to get past the smiles and look at the evidence of what gets accomplished for real. The continued fixation on volunteers as cultural ambassadors and that being somehow linked to efficacy reflects the reality that in most cases beneficiaries simply cannot say “no.”

  • Pro-tip: Mentally turn the tables–imagine the situation reversed, and volunteers from the country you’re talking about sending volunteers to, coming to your community to do the things you’re talking about sending volunteers to do. See how that sits. Would you be grateful? Indulgent? If you could say ‘no’, would you?

Don’t volunteers do some good? Sure–you can find examples of volunteers not causing massive system failure. But then, ‘not causing massive system failure’ is hardly the same thing as ‘effective.’ Just because people in other places are “poor” and appear to “have nothing” doesn’t mean that giving them just anything at all is good because it’s better than nothing. I think that this argument mostly comes down to one’s internal (and probably subconscious) calculations around how high the stakes are–that is, how bad does it get if things go wrong? Say a volunteer goes to a rural community in Nicaragua to help build a school. What’s the worst that could happen?

  • Pro-tip: This is the wrong question. This is solutions-in-search-of-problems thingking. We need to ask, what’s needed? And then base our response on the best answer.

But they mean well… Very similar to the above argument.

  • Pro-tip: Picture yourself in the dentist’s chair, having your teeth being drilled by someone who has not had any dental training, but who means very well. Surely, he/she must be accomplishing some good…

But surely there is something volunteers can do? Grunt labor, maybe? The dirty work? In more than two decades of humanitarian aid and development work, I cannot recall a single real-world instance where it really made more sense to bring international volunteers than to simply hire local people.

  •  Pro-tip: Imagine yourself as the survivor of a large disaster. Your house is gone, you have no assets, and no work–no option of working to make money to rebuild. Three neighborhoods away there’s an INGO paying the local residents to do clean-up, etc. But in your neighborhood there are a bunch of international volunteers doing the clean-up around you. They don’t speak your language, but you can see them laughing, having a great time. They eat three meals per day, but you eat only one. How do you feel?

But it’s such a good experience for them… It opens their world. So, basically, in your view it’s okay to use poor people in other places as props for your good experience.

  • Pro-tip: Don’t ever use this argument. Ever.

What about volunteering at local food banks? I see local volunteerism as the heart and soul of sustainable community development. My issue is with sending unqualified people to other countries to muck about “helping.”

What about teaching English? Teaching is probably the only other profession that is as open to random well-intended but otherwise unqualified interlopers as aid and development. If you have some actual qualification to teach, then teach.

  • Pro-tip: See response + pro-tip to “Don’t volunteers do some good?


Book Promotion: Letters Left Unsent

Once more with feeling.

After far too much ado, my book is live again. There were copyright issues with my original title (long and very 70’s rock nerdy story), and in the end I simply changed it. The new title: Letters Left Unsent.


“Letters  Left Unsent is one of few authentic accounts describing exactly what aid work ‘feels’ like – from the inside. Aid work aspirants will find it eye-opening. Those in aid work will appreciate that J has finally put words to so many aspects of our experience that we find elusive or difficult.”

- Kelsey Hoppe, Editor/Author, Chasing Misery


Letters Left Unsent is a work of non-fiction, mostly but not totally, comprised of edited and revised blog posts from my old blog, Tales From The Hood. It’s not quite memoir-I don’t just sort of recount the chronology of my life in the humanitarian industry. There are plenty of stories and anecdotes from over two decades of aid and development work, but the goal is not to impress you all with the wild experiences I’ve had in far-flung hellholes of the world.

The point, rather, is to share my own–I guess you could call it a journey–to find balance and maybe meaning in the life of a humanitarian. There’s a lot out there about how to do aid work, but there’s precious little out there about how to be an aid worker. Letters Left Unsent is my own contribution toward filling that void.

Letters Left Unsent adds significantly to post-modern writing about ‘development’ – it is an eclectic mix, blog-style, but with a narrative; biographical, but so much bigger; self-reflective, but without Western indulgences; insightful, but without the morality of ‘telling it all'; and passionate, but without romantic defense or cynical dismissal.
The narrative resembles some of the key challenges that humanitarian work poses to those who engage with good intentions and the right skills: Very often there is no ‘story’ about that girl in a camp and we will not know what happened to her and her family and all of the sudden we are at a fun leaving party for a colleague the next evening-aid work simply isn’t that much more special, larger than life or useful in understanding ourselves, our problems or the dynamics of the consumerist world and J.’s writing is a very honest reflection of that.”

-Tobias Denskus, Aidnography

The intended audience is primarily college/university students hoping for a career in the aid world, along with anyone else who for whatever reason dreams of being a humanitarian. My beta group included several university professors or instructors, and their feed-back has been very positive.

You can buy the ebook on Amazon. Here’s the US link (although I’ve enabled sales across the entire Amazon universe).

Watch my Twitter feed and Facebook page for further promotion around the blogosphere over the next few weeks.

From now through 30 August, 2014, I also offer the following promotions.

For bloggers: I will provide a free PDF version of Letters Left Unsent to the first 20 bloggers who ask, in exchange for the promise of a written review on your blog. You’re all on the honor system, here.

Interested? Drop an email to talesfromethehood@gmail… with some variation of “Letters – blog review” in the message header, and your blog URL somewhere in the message. Your review doesn’t have to be positive, just honest. If you let me know when, or just before your review goes lives, I’ll Facebook, tweet, etc., and hopefully drive a bit more traffic to your site.

For instructors and teachers: I will provide a free non-DRM PDF version of Letters Left Unsent to anyone who asks, in exchange for your promise to use it in your classroom. I’ll provide written permission to distribute the electronic version to your students at no additional cost. Again, we’re on the honor system, here.

Interested? Drop an email to talesfromethehood@gmail… Include some verifiable description of who you are, where you teach, what class(es) you’ll use the book in, etc. For instructors/teachers, I will also make myself available for interview or guest-speaking to your class. Once more, email if this is of interest.


What’s next? Look for a print version of Letters Left Unsent at some point over the summer, a study guide to accompany it in the classroom, and of course the next installment in my humanitarian fiction series, entitled Honor Among Thieves sometime before the end of this year!

It’s a Crappy World

This started out as one post. Then it became three. Then four. Now it’s one, again. Late-night riffing that may inadvertently be the outline of a book someday. Or at least a sweet PowerPoint presentation.

Five aid worker-centric things that keep a crappy world crappy.

*  *  *

I. The inequality dilemma

It’s an inequitable world. Crappiness is not evenly distributed. Some places in the world are crappier than others; some people have more than others.

Helping others is good. It is good, appropriate for those in less crappy places to help those in more crappy places. It is good, appropriate for those who have more to help those who have less.

  • Helping others reduces the amount of inequity in the world.
  • Helping others erodes the distinction between those who help and those who receive.
  • There is a point beyond which eroding the distinction between those who help and those who receive is no longer in the best interests of those who help.

 Helping others may feel good, but it is ultimately against the self-interest of those who do the helping because they directly benefit from inequality in the world. This is a major part of why we have such a difficult time articulating what the end result of aid should be.

At its core, the inequality dilemma comes back to why you think the poor are poor, the oppressed oppressed, victims victims. Which, in turn, colors your views on why aid is necessary, why you think that helping others is good, and what you think aid can or should accomplish. And this, then, colors every single other thought you will ever have about the “why” or the “how” of aid.


II. The ‘donor’ / ‘doer’ mystery

Helping others takes effort. Some has to do it. It doesn’t just happen by itself. Someone has to physically go somewhere (even if it’s just across the room) to do the helping.

Helping others costs. Helping requires resources. Helping others always involves a resource transaction.

Some prefer to help others directly through physical activity; some prefer to help others by providing resources necessary for the transaction.

  • At some point the Aid Industry solidified distinction between providers (donors) and doers (NGOs, aid workers…).
  • One party pays for aid; another party implements it.
  • Donor sacrifices are laudable and bring real world benefits (a picture of a goat, a tax write-off); aid worker sacrifices are inconsequential.

The donor / doer mystery is the basis for The Menage e Trois and lies at the root of humanitarian accountability and aid effectiveness concerns. Donors, from The Gates Foundation, to USAID and DFID, and all the way down to church members in Missouri who send $20 are are never accountable to anyone but themselves.

The notion that one entity pays for aid while another implements it is at the heart of the widespread belief (although not necessarily said in as many words) of aid NGO/ aid worker culpability for all that’s wrong with aid…

The donor / doer mystery underlies aid worker angst with CSR, and CSR and GIK, and it also underlies amateur do-gooder frustration with aid worker snark.


III. The understanding/persuasion disconnect

Those who receive help have the right to say what they need. Allegedly.

Those who do the paying are entitled to say what they’ll pay for. It’s their money – they can spend it as they please.

Those who do the helping directly are obligated to make sure that help given matches what’s truly needed. There is a crucial implicit dual responsibility: understand actual needs, which in turn requires judgment, data and analysis; and persuade those paying to be willing to pay for the right things.

  • The understanding / persuasion disconnect = the programs/ marketing divide.
  • A huge amount of the success of aid depends on the doers correctly understanding the needs.
  • A huge amount of the success of aid depend on providers being willing to pay for actual needs.

The understanding /persuasion disconnect is the actualization of humanitarian accountability and aid effectiveness. It pits aid NGOs and aid workers irretrievably against both donors and beneficiaries, and it puts the responsibility for good aid happening solely on the shoulders of aid workers.


IV. The transparency / impact non-sequitur

Those who receive help have to right to know what’s been paid in order to help them, and for what.

Those who do the paying are entitled to know what has been done with what they paid. They’re essentially the customers, and as such they’re ‘always right.’

Those who do the helping are obligated to be transparent about how resources have been used, and to explain to either side why use might have fallen short of expectations.

  • We commonly assume a direct linkage between transparency and impact or effectiveness. In fact, there is no such linkage.
Photo by J., at a famous and widely celebrated refugee camp, somewhere in the Middle East...

Photo by J., at a famous and widely celebrated refugee camp, somewhere in the Middle East…

V. The paradox of portrayal

 Those who receive help have the right to be part of the process and also the right to dignity – the right to not be perceived or portrayed as “helpless victims” or “passive recipients.”

Those who do the paying are entitled to be recognized for having done so, including being identified to those who receive help made possible by their paying. Everything from sponsors corresponding with “their” sponsored children, up to USAID stickers on vehicles.

Those who do the helping are obligated to ensure the rights of both sides.

  •  We increasingly struggle to find concise, precise language to describe beneficiaries, and at the same time increasingly devote more time and attention to donor branding.
  • Aid providers (NGOs, aid workers) increasingly either assume the negative aspects of the identity of a ‘donor’, or else intentionally self-identify as “local” and become more or less invisible.

Those who receive help have the right for that help to actually be effective: It has to make their world less crappy.

Those who do the paying are entitled to receive confirmation that what they paid for was effective.


Not every post gets a neat, tidy, wrap-up ending.


It recently occurred to me that:

- Soldiers and police officers get medals for valor and heroism.
– Athletes get medals for winning competitions.
– Writers and journalists get Pulitzers.
– Academics, thinkers of deep thoughts, scientists, and sometimes politicians get Nobel Peace prizes.
– Actors/Actresses, and film industry peeps get Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globe awards.
– Singers/musicians and music industry peeps get Grammys.

But what do aid workers get?

Pins for organizational loyalty.

I’m sure many of us could go on to list many other professions where the rank and file go in and get it done, day after day, largely unacknowledged, let alone lauded or awarded. Teachers and parents, especially single parents, for example. Or bus drivers. Or construction workers. And many, many others.

Yes, the world is certainly unfair in the way that it bestows wealth and acclaim on those who are really good, say, at tossing a ball through a net, or who manage to get their lines (written by others) right in one out of 20 takes and who stay fit with the help of personal trainers and nutritionists. While ignoring or perhaps demeaning outright those who form the foundation of our collective civilization and culture. Aid workers are hardly the most marginalized or forgotten in the great, global organogram of who matters in the minds of those who apparently matter in the world.

Moreover, the vast majority of the aid workers I know would be terribly uncomfortable receiving a medal or trophy. In an imaginary aid world equivalent of The Oscars, I can picture my colleagues and friends, in their cargo pants and Beer Lao T-shirts, shuffling up to receive a little statue of Henri Dunant for “Best Logistician” or “outstanding performance as WASH cluster lead”, and babbling awkwardly about how they don’t deserve it. Most aid workers I know, whether in the field or hunkered down in the cubicles of HQ, would far rather celebrate the occasional, incremental wins by sharing a few rounds with close colleagues at the expat bar or watering hole of choice. I don’t think that many of us are in it for the acclaim or the money.

But nevertheless, it bothers me.

It bothers me that when you Google “humanitarian awards” you get pictures of Ben Affleck or Angelina Jolie. It bothers me that we cannot articulate, even to ourselves, what excellence—what award-worthy humanitarian practice looks like. It bothers me that the closest we seem to be able to come is a recognition of loyalty to a particular organization: a pin or certificate, more or less every five years, which doesn’t say much except that the recipient was neither fired nor had the wherewithal to leave.

Chasing Misery (a book review)

If you’ve been following my other projects over the past year/months, you know that I’m very much about gaining better understanding of and then explaining to those who apparently matter, this group of people we call “aid workers.” We’re understudied, usually mis-represented, too-frequently both lauded and also blamed for the wrong things. Beyond a few, frequently cringe-inducing memoirs, the voices of aid workers themselves are largely absent from the majority of current writing, analysis, critique, and other representation of the aid industry.

Depending on which numbers you choose to read and how you choose to read them, females–women–account for anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the aid industry workforce. This means that if we are to understand the global community of people we call aid workers, we inevitably need to look specifically at the experiences of the women who go out to the front lines (including the front lines of Geneva, Brussels, DC, and NYC) to carry out relief and development work.

Chasing Misery: an anthology of essays by women in humanitarian responses is the first book that I’m aware of which shares the experience of aid work from a uniquely female perspective. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of essays and photographs, of and about aid work, by women who are aid workers.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00020]


This is not some dry 35,000 ft. theory debate, or boring digression into the weeds of statistical regressions. No, Chasing Misery is an engaging read that keeps you turning pages.  The chapters are short and readable, the writing is visceral and emotive. The images are strong, sometimes gritty.

I knew many of the official answers as to why it was broken—
lack of budget allocation at the national and provincial levels,
poor incentives for female doctors to stay in this remote area,
abysmal management, supervision and recognition of health staff,
low education and nutritional status of pregnant women—but
I couldn’t get my heart to understand why, with a multi-million
dollar healthcare project, there wasn’t more care for those babies,
more options for those mothers.

p. 107

Chasing Misery is not a book to read if you need a happy ending where all the grateful beneficiaries bow slightly and say ‘thank you’ before returning home, content with their bag of CSB and bottle of vegetable oil. Chasing Misery summarily dispatches the myth that aid is some romantic, soft-focus international adventure. It’s not the end-all-be-all, of course, but then it’s obvious that it’s not intended to be. Chasing Misery is an invaluable early addition to the much too small, but thankfully growing, body of writing and perspective out there by actual aid workers.

It has been years now since I last set foot in the sands of Darfur,
but the condition remains with me still. In books, in friends, in the
far corners of life, I have continued my search for the ‘why’. And I
have yet to find it.
The condition is hard to shake. Surely, there must be some
explanation. So I continue to go around and around in the
maddening cycle of my humanitarian hamster wheel of questioning,
and of all the countless sources.

p. 239


*  *  *  *  *

You can find Chasing Misery online at the following places:

 Chasing Misery is available for purchase as a paperback (https://www.createspace.com/4667579, http://amzn.to/1ncaNBZ), or as an ebook (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ISKS4YI)

Surviving the life

This is a re-post, with some revisions, of a post that originally appeared here.

*  *  *  *  *

One thing that’s too-rarely mentioned in the heated debate about how to fix aid is how to fix or at least take care of us, the humanitarian workers. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe we feel guilty worrying about ourselves while surrounded by those who we perceive to have things far worse than us. Maybe we don’t feel that we deserve help ourselves when that help is paid for by donor resources. Maybe we revel in our own personal fables of strength and stamina. Maybe we think we have to figure it all out on our own. Or maybe we’re just too busy to stop for a minute and just think about what we’re doing (with our lives). 

For what it’s worth, here are three survival tips. I don’t claim that these are the end-all, be-all. There is plenty of good advice out there. But here are three things that you can do or begin immediately to increase your chances of survival in the crazy aid world:

Be yourself: It sounds really basic, but as you probably know already, aid workers can be some of the biggest poseurs on the planet. You know how it is: whether you’re preparing your CV for another job interview or sitting in the teamhouse quaffing beers with a bunch of aid workers who don’t know you at all, there’s always the temptation to Botox your own narrative. We all succumb at different times to the temptation to make it seem like we’ve had experience that we haven’t really had. An eleven-week deployment becomes 3 months, becomes “half a year” (including prep before and detox after…). Admin assistant to the VP who led the life-saving workshop becomes “executive assistant”, becomes “I co-facilitated the workshop…” And before you know it you’ve become someone you’re not, trying to live up to a manufactured past, and hoping no one blows your cover.

Take the easy way out of this situation by never getting into it. Be yourself. Don’t front. Don’t B.S. your colleagues. Don’t try to make yourself out to be more than you are. You don’t have to self-deprecate or affect a lack of confidence.

But just be yourself. You’ll live longer.

Stay healthy: You know what to do. Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Don’t drink too much. Don’t smoke. We know how it is: things get crazy in the field (and at HQ, too). When you’re on lock-down you can’t exactly go running out around the neighborhood for fitness. And using the one treadmill in the teamhouse isn’t really an attractive option when it’s in the room where everyone else sits and watches TV while smoking. Maybe you’re in a country where it’s all but impossible to find something to eat other than simple carbohydrates cooked in deep fat. Or maybe it’s just that between the grants that have to be written and the evaluation reports that have to be submitted and the field visits that have to be conducted, combined with spouse/partner/child/parent drama sucking you in from a thousand miles away, you’re too emotionally exhausted for much more than a bottle of something and a few cigarettes before crashing for the night.

Find ways to stay healthy. If you have to spend extra per diem on healthy food, do it. If you have to learn yoga and practice it in your room in order to stay fit, do it. If you need join a 12-step program in order to quit drinking or smoking, do it. If you need to declare yourself “sick” for the weekend to just sleep, do it. This is your life you’re talking about here. Save it.

Have an exit strategy: There’s a growing body of information out there (including some in this blog) about how to get in to the aid industry. But almost no one talks to aid workers about leaving. So here you go: decide now how you want your career in aid or development to end. If you plan to do this through retirement, that’s fine. Just decide now, because otherwise you will wake up one day wondering where the hell the last 12 years went…

I don’t mean to sound harsh or negative, but it has to be said: the aid world will take as much of you as you’re willing to part with, and give you precious little in return beyond a career-worth of awesome Facebook status updates. The aid world will cheerfully give you another contract and send you on another hardship deployment, all the while watching you crash and burn financially, professionally, personally. If you let it, that is.

Think now about what kinds of things would cause you to up and walk away so that you don’t spend half of your career disillusioned but unable to articulate why you’re still here/there. Think now about when, in the seasons of life cycle, you plan to hand in your aid worker credentials and switch over to running your own coffee shop (or whatever). After a life of sacrifice on behalf of the poor it may feel crass to do so, but plan now for your financial post-aid-work future and take steps to ensure it.

Aid work can be extremely rewarding and even (dare I say it?) fun. But you need to know how you plan to leave. Have an exit strategy.


I’ll be the heretic and just say straight out that I didn’t love the Al Jazeera The Stream show on something about expat aid workers and INGOs. Okay, I’ll back up and say that I normally like The Stream. I like the format, I think Malika Bilal (@mmbilal) hosts well. I like Al Jazeera’s frequent focus on international aid and development things. And to their credit, they did reach out to @ShotgunShack and me, initially to participate (but to their not credit, the producers wouldn’t roll with us because we’re pseudonymous). My reasons for not loving it did not have anything to do with Al Jazeera, necessarily.

I didn’t love it, because it was a somewhat predictable array of commenters, saying what felt to me like the Highly Predictable Things (the HPTs): Theme and variations on Locals know everything, foreigners know nothing, aid is another kind of colonialism. Yadda yadda. Yadda. It’s a song and dance that we’re all quite familiar with by now. I most enjoyed the quiet irony of the fact that the springboard for an entire discussion about foreign aid organizations and foreign aid workers apparently failing to “get it”, was a television show (“The Samaritans”), that lampoons INGOs and expat aid workers, written and produced by people who by their own rather cheerful admission have never worked for an NGO…

At least Christopher Guest actually learned to play guitar when he lampooned heavy metal music in This Is Spinal Tap.

I know this will be hugely unpopular in some corners of the aid and development world, but it is time to speak plainly: We need to move past the supposed opposing tensions of “local” and “expat.” It is an outmoded way of thinking about what we do, and it leads to totally unhelpful arguments about how we do it.

Yes, I know. We can all recite examples, both ancient and recent, where local knowledge, wisdom, know-how, whatever was what was needed to address the issue or solve the problem. And we can also all (or at least those of us who have been around a bit) think of examples of exactly the opposite. To espouse either one solely is to be naïve about the realities of the real world, now.

By the same token, I think we can all recall examples of times where highly qualified local people took menial positions, compared to–or perhaps even supervised by–expats who were in every way their junior. That is something for which those of us in the aid industry should (and among those with whom I am close, do) feel acutely ashamed, and make daily effort to redress. Yet at the same time, I can also think of examples of the exact opposite. Examples of times where conscious decisions were made to advertise and recruit good, prestigious, well-compensated positions as “local”, only to have those same positions lie vacant, month after month, the much-touted local capacity not pitching up for whatever reason. Platitudes about what should be done are easy to voice. Doing what should be done, and making happen what should be made to happen, are tough in the real world.

Speaking to aid industry insiders of all stripes, now: If want to turn it up to “11”—that is, if we want to take our game to the next level—we have got to stop fixating on who is from or not from someplace. We have got to expel this emotional blockage about expats versus locals. We have got to begin from the assumption that both have contributions to make, every bit as much as both have limitations and blind spots. We—all of us, expat and local alike—have got to let go of antiquated notions of what an expat is, how he or she looks. An expat aid worker in today’s world can be from anywhere. And she or he might have been a local aid worker, only last week. It’s about gaps and capacities, not what logo is one someone’s passport. We have got to get past the opposing tensions of “one size fits all”, and “no size fits us.”

No, it will not be easy. Different salary and benefits packages is an explosive issue, and one which I do not see an easy way around. We just have to muscle through, in good faith, equally honest about benefits as about costs. Whose voice matters, and the extent to which we privilege local or outside, or vice versa, will also be potentially explosive, and never resolved globally. It’s highly contextual. Working through these intensely cerebral and also intensely emotional issues, finding resolve, then the context changes, and we have to work through them all, laboriously, again—this is fundamental to the commitment that being an aid worker requires, more so, even, than willingness to eat strange food, endure harsh climates or illnesses, or work in the face of the threat of violence. This is what makes aid work difficult. If you think of aid work as a calling, then this is the call. Anyone can learn to behave properly in checkpoints, remember to take their Malarone every day, or use radio call signs. But comparatively few have the ability to navigate the wilds of culture and ethnicity and emotion. But this is the requirement for aid workers, regardless of where they sit, their origin, or color.

This is “11.”

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