Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. — Albert Einstein

I’ll take Bill Eastery and Laura Freschi’s word for it that buy-one/give-one (BOGO) schemes like TOMS Shoes are numerically bankrupt ways to help the poor. The metrics matter, but I’m not an economist or a bean-counter, and so once more will take the word of those who want to collate the data.



TOMS is one easy target. They’re one in tens or hundreds of thousands of similarly envisioned “socially responsible” enterprises. In North America, and perhaps the rest of the West, and probably plenty of other places, there is a growing culture of social responsibility. Social responsibility—“giving back”—is all the rage. Everyone is going to make the world better by doing business in ways that make the world better. One problem in this kind of social climate is that we come to much too easily conflate “not as evil as Philip Morris or BP” with “social good.” I think it’s actually a sign of our collective cynicism that our social good bar is so very low, but I digress.

Right now my personal Facebook feed is lighting up with people debating the details of TOMS (again, low-hanging-fruit, as rant-worthy targets go, but hardly the only offender), following the release of this article in Fast Company.

Do the shoes last? No. Are TOMS shoes appropriate for most of the places in the world where shoes are truly really, really needed? No. TOMS shoes are basically junk in North America, and a glaringly illogical choice in most places that would be considered poor enough to be eligible beneficiaries of TOMS. Lack of shoes is not a cause of mortality or a significant cause of morbidity… anywhere on the planet. The same goes for T-shirts, dresses made from pillow cases, women’s underwear, or any one of a gazillion other items that somehow make their way to poor countries under the banner of social responsibility.

In conversations with those who just want to help and who can’t understand what possible harm could come, there’s little to be gained from arguing the metrics. Yes, there most probably is a case to be articulated that TOMS shoes (just one highly convenient example) creates dependency and puts local commercents out of business. But the links are tenuous. There will not be a meltdown in the community; there will be no war, famine, or pestilence that can be somehow pinned on TOMS or Ben & Jerry’s or Texaco.

But then, maybe that’s the wrong place to start. In humanitarian aid, and even more so in development, proving that something causes outright harm can be almost as difficult as proving that an intervention or technology helps.

Forget the fact that most people who receive TOMS shoes would be just as well if not actually better off with a pair of rubber flip-flops from China. Forget trying to rate whether you do more good by buying this brand rather than that brand.

Instead, start by simply understanding this: You don’t help the poorest of the poor by indulging in more materialism. You can’t fix world poverty by consuming more. You can’t “make a difference” by doing more of the same. That would be insane.

Honor Among Thieves: Launch!

After months of angst-ridden tension, it’s finally here: The launch of my fourth book, third humanitarian aid novel, and part two of what I’m calling “The Humanitarian Fiction Trilogy” (Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit was part one). Honor Among Thieves is now available for purchase in both paperback and Kindle format.

I have read all your books and I have to tell you I enjoyed this one the most. — Reader on Facebook


The online book tour begins now: Watch your favorite aid blogs for reviews over the next few weeks. I will cross-post reviews on my Facebook (also here, and here). Whatever you do, buy it and read it.

“Gripping from the first page–there’s no one better than J. at peeling back the curtain on what this world is actually like.”  Michael Kleinman, co-author of Expat Etiquette

Thanks largely to a highly engaged group of beta readers, the consistent response to Honor Among Thieves is that it is the best aid novel (by me) so far. Of course I went out and asked a bunch of important people for blurbs (and one or two of them came through), but the real story comes from my core audience: Actual aid workers. On Facebook:

Best one yet! Mary-Anne is all grown up and professional! Tough issues for aid workers, well addressed in a non-preachy manner. 

Or, on Amazon:

“Honor Among Thieves is more true life than I care to admit. J once again gets what it means to be a “aid worker”. The story is well told and gives the reader a peek behind the curtain of world of aid and development”

Yes, in Honor Among Thieves Mary-Anne is all grown up. Back at World Aid Corps (WAC) HQ, she’s tasked with planning a corporation-funded development project in rural Cambodia. Which is, predictably, where things begin to slip inevitably sideways. Issues of local versus expat, interracial relationships, amateur start-up NGOs, the value of qualitative analysis (it ain’t all RCTs), the question of whether development really helps at all, and the notion that things are almost never what they seem all make their presence felt in Honor Among Thieves.

But beyond any deep introspection or laying bare the mysteries of the aid world, more than anything else, Honor Among Thieves is meant to be read and enjoyed by aid workers. You.

“An entertaining, authentic story of (mostly) well intentioned people trying to navigate the conflicts that so characterize the aid industry.”  Duncan Green, Oxfam From Poverty to Power

Confession: While it’s true that none of the characters in any of my novels are real people, I suppose now is as good a time as any to come clean and let you know that every one of my novels does include a cameo by someone real. In Disastrous Passion it was “Miss Sundress” in Chapter 30 (I’m not gonna tell you her name, but she is a real aid worker, and she really did crash Micky Martelli’s innaguration party). In Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit it was Billy-Bob the goat. And in Honor Among Thieves, it’s the mysterious, coffee-guzzling “Ed” in Chapter 22.

“At that moment, before Frank could explain the etymology of Con Chim, a tall, slim Western man wearing aviator sunglasses stepped through the front door.  He wore lightly faded jeans and an untucked slim-fitting button-down shirt. An easy smile was complemented by an unruly shock of dark hair that Mary-Anne immediately assumed had been intentionally grown for gelling into a faux hawk.”

Think you know who Ed is for real? Post your answer on the World Aid Corps Facebook page. And of course, tweet @ the real Ed!

Get a free copy of Honor Among Thieves! My usual blogosphere offer is open. Are you too poor to afford the Kindle version of Honor Among Thieves? You can get a free PDF in exchange for your promise to post a review on your blog (so, you’d need to have a blog…). It’s the honor system. Check here (“Editorial Reviews”) for details.

Honor Among Thieves is enabled for purchase across the entire Amazon universe. The print version is also available at CreateSpace (here).

But I only use an iPad. How can I read Honor Among Thieves? If you absolutely cannot bring yourself to use the free Kindle app on your device, email me at evilgenius.main(at)gmail(dot)com, include a copy of your e-receipt from purchasing on Amazon, and I’ll send you a PDF.


Honor Among Thieves

Published 15 March, 2015 by Evil Genius Publishing, LLC.

ISBN: 0989365972
2606 KB

ISBN: 0989365972
6” X 9”
274 pages




Weekend Update!

Weekend Update:

For those who may have missed it, I was featured over at this past week in a series of posts in which I answered reader questions. WhyDev is one of the best resources out there for those interested in, or who have newly begun a career in aid or development. I’m honored to be featured on

Check out the three-part interview series:

Part 1: “Getting Aid Right.” By way of this post, right now, consider notice served. I’m done writing about, or answering questions about volunteers, voluntourism, short-term missions, starting your own NGO, or a myriad other variations on the general theme of “amateur do-gooding.” It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve heard an original question on this topic. That’s all I got to say about that.

Part 2: “A Development Grab Bag.” Bits of advice for those hoping to find their way into the aid sector, thoughts on how to behave when you’re starting out, and random bits on safety.

Part 3: “Let’s Get Personal.” In which I talk about blogging, and why I do it much less these days; Writing in general, and why I writing humanitarian fiction these days; what I might do differently, if given the opportunity to travel back in time, and whether or not I think my writing matters.


On one hand, it’s heartening to see the attention being paid by the The Media to the issues around chronic stress, traumatic exposure, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among humanitarian workers. The Guardian got their article in almost a year ago, and cited a bunch of researchy-sounding studies on the subject. Then, as of today, there’s a new New York Times piece about the crisis of anxiety among aid workers making the rounds.

Not to wallow in the drama, but I’ve been blogging snippets of my own sojourns into that dark universe since at least 2007. Early 90s Cambodia, Afghanistan, Haiti, DR Congo, eastern Sri Lanka… among many more godforsaken hellholes than I care to recall, all take their toll and add up. And as the articles say, it’s the combination of both personally experiencing horrible things, and also bearing witness to horrible things endured by others that bring it on. The last approximately two years have been the first time since I’ve been in the aid industry that it’s felt more or less commonplace to openly discuss some of this stuff in a non-negative context.

So, kudos, and I suppose, also “thank you” to Mr. McEachran, and then to today, Ms. Hughes, for putting it out there. Mental health issues are a real issue in the aid industry. We have to deal with it.

That all said, just have to rant for a moment, here:

Aid organizations exist to alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity. They should do better at applying these principles to their own staff.

Not that I disagree necessarily, but… really?  *sigh* Without even dredging up that abysmal IBT report, this just feels like one more in an already long queue of journalists chiming in with their apparently expert opinions on what the aid world should do differently.

And I kinda wanna say to The Media in general: Where the hell were you on this issue after the Tsunami? Or after Haiti? Or… or… or? You were micro-managing the shelter cluster, that’s where. You were accusing us of mis-spending donor money. You were taking us to task, first for coordinating (“too much time in meetings, not helping those who need it most…”), then for not coordinating. You were questioning our commitment and effectiveness because we lived in team houses and (like, OMG) went on R&R. You were fawning over celebrities and sending your industry celebrities do show us how to do stuff.

And now you want to get all lovey-dovey and worry about our mental health? Really? Really?!

You do realize that anything staff care-related counts as overhead. PTSD counseling for us would be money spent taking care of those who–to hear you tell it in disaster responses past–are already over-indulged aid workers, rather than saving lives. You get that, right?



The Aid Industry. The Media

It was only a matter of time before a bunch of journalists decided to get together and let us, aid workers, know how they collectively feel about us. Not that we had no inkling previously, but anyway, here it is in black and white:

The Aid Industry: What Journalists Really Think.

It’s a 14-page +/- report, published by the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT). Download your very own copy here. It’s not heavy reading, but for those who are super busy, The Guardian put up a pretty good executive summary, here.

Corporate, patronising and obstructive: what journalists think about NGOs.

It’s easy to read a paper like this, as an aid worker, and come away feeling picked on and misunderstood. I found myself wanting to challenge Ian Birrell and Sean Ryan to try—just try—to do my job in the context of the complaints and recommendations. I’ll confess that as I read, I felt myself kind of automatically snapping to my, by now, well-rehearsed responses.

First, the methodology: The “researchers”* interviewed fourteen people who agreed to be named, and “several” who preferred anonymity. I have no issue with anonymity, but fourteen plus “several”… for real? Whether this report purports to reflect the views of an entire industry (the media industry) or to make a coherent statement about another entire industry (the aid industry), fourteen plus “several” is a ridiculously small sample size. Especially considering that the sample audience was a group of people who make their livings forming and expressing opinions. If we, in the aid industry, based a relief intervention on data gathered from a sample of fourteen plus “several”, we would be unfunded very quickly.

Second, I had a distinct sense of pot/kettle while reading The Aid Industry… Yes, I do understand that it’s a journalists’ job to “ask the hard questions”, “say the hard things,” and all of that. But if one was to only search/replace “aid worker” with “journalist”, “NGO” with “PICK YOUR NEWS-ISH PUBLICATION”, and “Aid Industry” with “The Media”, the paper would remain almost entirely coherent.

Media outlets set unrealistic journalistic objectives and make exaggerated claims about what they can achieve.” Or “The media sector should be restructured to achieve more specialization amongst the different outlets and less competition between them.”

See how easy that was?

What I really want to focus on, though, are the recommendations:
There should be greater honesty and transparency—a willingness to tell it how it is.

I actually quite agree with this, overall.

I think we need to be careful when accusing NGOs of being dishonest, as well as when making blanket demands for transparency. Neither of those are as cut-and-dried as they may seem in a soundbite or tweet. I think there are ways of telling the truth which inflame negative sentiments, and ways of telling the truth which do not. Both are honest, but one exhibits more wisdom than the other. Similarly, when it comes to transparency, I think there is wisdom required. There are very good reasons for NGOs to not openly share some of the information that that they possess, say, about beneficiary identification in places like, say, Menbij. I know, for example, that some journalists consider it their solemn duty to splash on social media the faces of victims of [NAME AN ATROCITY] whom they’ve interviewed, in the name of honesty and transparency. But that’s not how we roll in the aid industry. Some facts we don’t share, even with you, dear journalists. You’re going to just have to live with it.

Nevertheless, I basically agree. We have a long way, still, that we can go on the honesty and transparency fronts, before coming close to those no-go areas. Not that I’m the end-all, be-all, but a desire to tell the honest truth (and be heard) is why I write in the first place.

The larger aid agencies in particular should be better at explaining the way they now operate.

Okay, I’m 100% in favor of explaining what we do and how we do it to anyone who wants to know. But as you dig into The Aid Industry—What Journalists Really Think, you understand that the consistent sticking point is our salaries.

For real? Not that I have an issue with aid industry salary structures being widely known, but I just fail to see what value that information will add. Presumably this remains a hot-button issue with the media because there’s a perception that that we’re overpaid, and that our being overpaid is the cause of less life-saving support going to the poorest of the poor who need it most. To which I can only say, “uh, no…”

I also do not understand why this is aimed particularly at large agencies. The onus of being able to justify why you do what you do the way you do it should be equally on everyone. Small NGOs are not exempt.

Agencies should adopt a less patronizing tone when dealing with the media.

Pot/Kettle. Quit pro quo. Pick your cliché…

The aid sector should be restructured to achieve more specialization amongst the different agencies and less competition between them.

I actually find this one funny.

No, seriously, okay guys. Thanks for chiming in with your little opinion about how to fix the aid industry. I’m not personally convinced that aid sector competition is wholly a bad thing. But fine, for the sake of discussion, if the goal is to reduce the amount of competition in the aid sector, the place to being is with how funding decisions are made—the donors.

[Speaking of donors: as you read The Aid Industry—What Journalists Really Think, look at the web site of the home publication of those quoted. Ask yourself: How many times are you seeing the logo of a famous aid sector donor?]

NGOs should rethink their role in society—a choice between taking government money and remaining closer to their roots.

I think this is something of a false dichotomy. I don’t think that having a portion of your overall portfolio be government grant funded necessarily means a loss of one’s roots. It’s important to understand that there is a very wide range of possible experience when one speaks of “government money”—Implementing USAID grants is different from DFID, which is different yet from DFAT. Further, and all of the “it erodes neutrality” arguments having been heard, government grant programs have been instrumental in increasing technical quality and accountability of the aid sector.

They should stop development aid altogether and focus on emergency aid.

Not many people in my immediate professional circle would disagree with this statement. It’s easier to say, though, than it is to do.

Aid Industry Career Advice

There’s been a spike, lately, in the amount of email in my inbox wanting advice for landing that sweet, aid industry career. For posterity, and to save myself copy/pasting the same email over and over, here’s the summary. I assume you agree that voluntourism is bad, and that (you think) you’re looking at humanitarian aid or development as a life career. These are my four go-to points. Take them or leave them:

For goodness sake, don’t start your own NGO: This is not the music industry, and the world does not need the humanitarian equivalent of yet another wannabe garage band. If you are turning to the Internet for advice on how to get into the aid industry, then you need to trust me—any “innovation” you think your NGO will bring to the table has already been thought of and tried.

(The rules are incrementally different for local NGOs. If you’re in NYC and you want to be an aid worker in NYC, helping beneficiaries who live in NYC, more power to you.)

Adjust expectations, buckle in for the long term: Stop looking for a shortcut, because there isn’t one. Nor is there an easy path in. I get the sense from many of you that you see aid and development work as an easy career option, and you’re quite perturbed when it turns out not to be.

The aid industry is like any other. There is no mystery around getting in: You accrue the right education and maybe some basic experience via internships. Then you start at the bottom, and work your way up the ladder. Some days are awesome, and some days plain suck, but the vast majority is the same unexciting deal-with-bureaucracy 9-5 work-a-day existence that is the Rest Of The World. No matter what you do or accomplish, you’ll encounter those who seem to have gotten farther with less qualification. For every piece of advice I or any other long-timer might give, you’ll meet or stumble across the website of someone who did exactly the opposite and is now living the aid worker dream… I suppose it’ll come down to whether you want the title and Facebook updates, or you want to really be a professional humanitarian.

Pursue an advanced degree: A master’s degree in something not totally irrelevant is a threshold requirement to be seriously considered for more than glorified admin at most INGOs these days. Yes, sure, you can find people in the industry with far less, but you should not assume that this is either good or the norm. This field is becoming more technical, more professional, and certainly more competitive, and there is daily less space and fewer career options those below the MA threshold. My very strong advice would be to abandon any notion of sort of working your way in the door with a small, not professional org. Like I said above, there are no shortcuts. If this is really, really what you want to do with your life, then commit to making the proper investments now.

Understand the Aid Industry: Over and above that master’s degree requirement, I’d recommend courses, reading, or self-education that familiarizes you with the Aid Industry, how it works, and what the issues are. The vast majority of the frustrated newbies I encounter in the workplace can hold forth for hours over obscure technical dilemmas (“OMG. Should we use a process indicator or a proxy indicator?!”) or the Easterly-Sachs debate, but they can’t explain what the inter-agency cluster system is, or how to engage with it.

Understanding local context is important, of course, but it is more and more disproportionately emphasized at the expense of understanding how the larger aid system works.

The value that foreigners (us) bring to the table is less and less about our knowledge and understanding of the details of local culture (local staff usually know organically in a few seconds those things that take us months or years of study to get right), or our ability to endure harsh conditions (the fact that we might be able to live like refugees for a few days almost never impresses real refugees), and more and more about our ability to engage with the global humanitarian system. You need prioritize learning about the aid system, about management, get good at writing, and developing people skills.


And if you haven’t done so already, read my book.


I mean, you have to wonder what UNICEF was thinking.

For those so far out in the field that they have poor internet, and/or are otherwise simply too busy to click the link, here’s summary, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

In an attempt to raise awareness of the conflict in South Sudan, UNICEF traveled to a gaming convention in the US and pitched a fake video game based on the life of a South Sudanese refugee.

UNICEF sent actors, a film crew and two South Sudanese youth to the Video Gamers United convention in Washington, DC, to present a new idea to the gaming community, and filmed their reactions.

The fictional game ‘Elika’s Escape’ generated gasps from the audience when they were told the protagonist would be a seven-year-old South Sudanese girl escaping the horrors of war. The audience was not told, however, the story highlighted in the pitch was based on the actual experiences of one of the South Sudanese attendees.


Any second, now, the aid blogosphere will explode with the usual rants from all the usual places. We know the lines by heart. This video crosses all the cringe-inducing “T”s and pushes all the righteous indignation-inducing buttons.

I’m going to simultaneously stay above the fray and get myself on the board early by not ranting, but simply sharing my personal takeaways:

  • The world that those who implement aid and development inhabit, and the world portrayed in marketing, fundraising, awareness-raising, and all the other “ings” are quite simply different worlds. Let’s not make any snap judgments about what UNICEF actually does in the real world based on this video.
  • Not all awareness-raising is good.
  • Just because you can find a local person who goes along with it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
  • You’ve got to love the irony of UNICEF choosing to take a wildly inappropriate publicity stunt live in the same week that the brains organization behind KONY2012 (according to some the archetypical aid marketing/awareness-raising campaign that goes viral) announces its own imminent demise.
  • In general, it’s been a tough few months in the aid, development, publicity stunt department… [Exhibit A; Exhibit B; I’ll add others later].


Core Humanitarian Standard: Establish a Threshold or Raise the Bar?

Maybe not everyone knows that this week a group of humanitarians, representing a fairly wide swath of key and not key industry players meet in Copenhagen to finally launch something called the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS). For those unfamiliar with CHS, the basic idea, as you’d expect from the name, is to articulate a set of common standards to guide aid sector participants, and secondarily, to provide an umbrella over some of the existing sets of standards and standard-setting projects (e.g. Sphere, HAP, People in Aid).

By all accounts getting to the point of launch was a painfully slow and difficult process. No one can debate semantics without reaching resolution quite like a room full of professional humanitarians (and I write this with all due respect to my many lawyer friends). Despite months of back and forth, and despite everyone involved wanting desperately for it all to just be over, there are still those in the mix (perhaps myself included) who still brow-furrow over the nuances of some passages.

There’s certainly plenty about the CHS process to serve as fodder for those voices critical of the humanitarian sector. It has the look and feel of classic aid industry, HRI-style life-saving meetings. The lengthy process, and, well, just the fact that the meetings take place in places like London and Copenhagen are enough already to draw the ire of humanitarianisms’ collective, if largely amorphous, conscience.

For example, this somewhat predictable piece by Sandrine Tiller on the MSF UK blog some weeks ago:


It’s mostly the usual MSF self-appointed contrarianism that we’ve all come to expect and cherish. (Aid worker secret: we mimic MSF in the team house after hours. Oui!) But the meat of the complaint, in this case, is that the Core Humanitarian Standard does not raise the bar for the industry.

To which my response is: Uh… That’s not the point of the CHS. Is it enough? In my opinion, of course not. Should the bar be raised, as Ms. Tiller suggests? Of course. But we must begin somewhere.

Here’s why the CHS is important:

In my mind, in the context of an industry that has more or less fully fledged without yet answering basic questions around where the boundaries of that industry lie, the Core Humanitarian Standard represents a critical step. At this stage, in late 2014, with large global organizations and something called the Humanitarian System, the CHS feels to some like a step backward, but it’s not. CHS lays a decades-overdue foundation. It answers the questions that we hardly thought to ask, let alone thought to answer back in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s. Questions of definition. Questions of who, exactly, or what organizations, exactly, counted at “humanitarian.”

And so Core Humanitarian Standard establishes just that. A core humanitarian standard. It is a minimum standard. It is, to be blunt the lowest common denominator. If you want to be considered a humanitarian or a humanitarian organization, you must, at a minimum, achieve this standard. It is a needed step in the direction of drawing the line. Every industry does this. It’s all right and proper that the humanitarian industry do the same.

But isn’t the CHS just a painfully slow process to simply establish the painfully obvious?


During one of the sessions I participated in some months ago, I was struck by the intensity of some of the participants around the importance of articulating some points in ways which ensured the protection of aid recipients or beneficiaries from aid workers and aid organizations. On one hand it was distressing to be part of. We’re here to help, or so we assure ourselves. But on the other hand, obviously there are those claim the title and stamp of “humanitarian” who see the world differently. There are clearly those organizations, and perhaps even those individuals within our own organizations from whom beneficiaries need to be protected. And the mandate for that protection needs to be clearly spelled out.

Another issue would be the treatment of staff—aid workers, if you will—by aid organizations. Sure, there will probably always be those who choose to articulate what they do in the aid world in sacrificial terms. But to those industry employers who hold the moral imperative of “sacrifice” over the heads of their workforce as a reason for not providing basic benefits (for example), consider notice to have been served. There once again, while it may feel in 2014 like a facepalm moment to have to explain in as many words, “you must treat your employees fairly and without a lot of dramatic foot-dragging” (okay, that’s a paraphrase), the reality of the aid world is that this is not a given. But now we have the CHS to spell it out

There are the expected statements around program quality, process quality, and injunctions about resources like GIK. Nothing earth-shattering, but then in every disaster response we all encounter those organizations, some young, some established, who would struggle to meet the threshold established by the CHS. Don’t make me name names. And here again, the purpose of the CHS is to establish a much-needed threshold, not define excellence.

So, what comes next? From this point we’ll see a number of agencies voluntarily audit and self-certify against the CHS. At some stage we’ll probably see a number of different initiatives meant to steer the industry in the direction of further detail around some of the broad statements articulated by the CHS. The CHS will probably become part of the growing canon behind the movement to professionalize the humanitarian sector.

Raising the bar or whatever metaphor you want to use for increasing excellence in the delivery of aid is a laudable goal, to be sure. But the CHS accomplishes something different, and equally important. Ms. Tiller (and surely many others) sees the Core Humanitarian Standard as a step back and accuses the aid sector of being out of touch. To my mind, the launch of a Core Humanitarian Standard is evidence of the opposite. For those of us in the aid work it is a moment to feel pleased about. Enforcement is a long road ahead, but at least now we’ve articulated a threshold for participation in our industry.

Aid. Industry.

It’s become increasingly common over the past few years to describe the Aid Industry as the Aid Industry. An industry. And rightly so, because it is an industry.

What’s this mean? In my mind it means several things:

It is absolutely possible to regulate the aid industry, to standardize both the product that aid providers provide, as well as the ways in which they provide it, down to the capability of the individuals who are part of that provision. The healthcare industry does it. There’s no good reason why we cannot do the same.

It is absolutely feasible to certify the humanitarian industry workforce. It is possible to articulate a professional standard for every job, every role and function currently represented in the humanitarian industry. Microsoft and Apple can internally certify tens, maybe hundreds, of kinds of “engineer,” and Wall Street can identify tens of kinds of “accountant” (non-profit accounting is its own thing). Heck, even the Government of Australia has classified the levels of “bartender and barista.” It’s absurd to try to argue that aid industry cannot also specify and establish standards for its workforce. [Interesting discussion around certification.]

It is time to dispense with the traditional, romantic notion of the “aid worker.” We are professional people with specific, identifiable skills who work in the humanitarian industry. Moreover, understanding and acknowledging the diversity of possible occupations within the aid industry has huge implications for everything from how we market, to how we analyze and describe “quality” and “efficiency”, to how we recruit and manage career trajectories. The stereotypical image of the haggard foreigner jack-of-all-trades hipster MacGyver out on the border just kind of “figuring it out” is an offensive relic that demeans both aid workers and aid recipients. We need to react against it at every possible opportunity.

It is time to dispense with traditional notions of where the heavy lifting happens. Anyone who’s ever had the experience of taking a flight that actually arrived safely, was fed during the flight (if it was international), landed on time, with luggage, knows that taking making it all happen is whole lot more complicated than just getting the plane up, and then down again, without crashing. There’s even an argument to be made that the pilots are simply technicians—highly trained and regulated bus drivers—and the real front-line service providers are flight attendants.

And in the same way, bags of food off the truck and into the hands of refugees, or live vaccines out of the cold box and injected into people, are simply the last motion in a long sequence of highly-choreographed moves by an entire global cast of characters. Understanding that this is, in fact, a global industry, means also understanding that every single person in the industry is part of a larger whole. I think we’ve failed to articulate to those who want to enter this industry the possibilities and limitations, based on the actual jobs that need doing. Not everyone who works for Lufthansa or Virgin Atlantic gets to sit in the cockpit.

To understand the aid industry is it’s own kind of subject-matter expertise. There is inherent qualitative value and quantitative efficiency in understanding how the aid industry works. Historically, and in my opinion much too often, the assumption is simply that the aid industry is an endearingly incompetent version of a for-profit sector. Not only is this insulting and offensive to those of us who have intentionally planned for and implemented professional careers in the aid industry, but it’s just plain incorrect. Like any other, the aid industry has its own unique dynamics, its internal political economy, its underlying values and core assumptions. Being successful in the aid industry requires understanding the aid industry.

It’s not unheard of for airline execs to take over as the CEO of NGOs. I want to see the day when a relief manager gets head-hunted for top leadership at a Fortune 500 company.


I was so not going to enter the BandAid30 fray. In my opion, BandAid30 is little more than a tacky sideshow, noteworthy only for the fact that it may well overshadow the main circus. The Circus in this case is the international, interagency Ebola response.


Do they know it's 2014?

Do they know it’s 2014?

The digital space is lit up right now with strident opinion about the extent to which, the lyrics of The Song are factually accurate and/or somehow offensive (too many links to include all). But I don’t see these as the real story.

No, the lyrics are not factually accurate. But then it is, after all, a pop song, not a doctoral dissertation. On the basis of factual accuracy alone, one could level a similar critique at the lyrics of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” or every Justin Bieber song, ever. “She’s got a booty like a Cadillac,” is almost certainly an untrue statement, but I don’t see anyone carrying on about it over at We need to go deeper on this one than simply expounding at great length that most people in Ebola-affected West Africa do, in fact, know about Christmas.

Similarly, sure,  you can find offensive stereotypes in the lyrics. Although in my opinion there’s nothing in there that’s any further over-the-top than, say, “China Girl” or “Ahab the Arab.” On the scale of “Innocuous enough for Seasame Street” to “So wildly inappropriate, we’re gonna go ballistic on Twitter”,  the BandAid30 version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” seems, well, on the benign edge of middle-of-the-road compared with, say, “Brown Sugar.”

There again, it’s a pop song, not a scholarly treatise on politically correct expression. And once more, we need to look deeper than the fact that some lyricist relied on easy stereotypes in order to make the lines rhyme.

There’s the lack of transparency angle, too. If you go to the BandAid30 website, it’s unclear what they plan to do with the money. But then, one can make the same complaint about USAID, DFID, DEC, JICA, GIZ, the Gates Foundation, the UN flash appeal, the ONE Campaign… It pains me to admit it, but BandAid30 is hardly the worst offender out there when it comes to donor transparency.

In my opinion these kinds of critiques, despite their general context validity, fail to strike at the real core of what is wrong with BandAid30.


I was so not going to enter the BandAid30 fray. Until I saw/listened to this:

This stuff just pushes me right around the bend. It pushes all of my buttons. It’s a conversation on air between Robtel Neajai Pailey who is “from Liberia”, and Harvey Goldsmith, who is “one of the world’s great producers and concert promoters,” and the actual producer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Pailey (in very articulate fashion) brings the by-now mostly old hat arguments, but Goldsmith’s angry retorts tell the real story.

A few excerpts with my comments:

0:42. [Goldsmith] “But in a way, couldn’t you argue the song has been written not for people in West Africa, but for people here..?”

Not only can you argue it, but it is the entire point, and not in a good way. This song is not about Africa or West Africa or Guinea or Liberia or Sierra Leone, or even Ebola, really. It is just a song. It’s a kind of CSR—which is to say that its overall purpose is promote the brand, if not increase the profit margin, of those involved in the project. Ask yourself why they’re singing for Ebola and not Syria?

Show of hands: who, in the humanitarian industry workforce, had heard of Geldof prior to the re-flare-up of the BandAid meme? I’m guessing not many. Geldof has spent the last 20 years as a washed up has-been in need of path back to the spotlight. Bono needs to atone for clogging all of our iPods with U2’s latest album. One Direction, tired of being mobbed by 12-year old girls, desperately want to be taken seriously by adults…

Let’s be clear. To exhaustively belabor the science of whether there really is “death in every tear” (there isn’t) is to dabble around the edges of the issue. BandAid30 exists precisely because it is good for the artists involved. Pure and simple. Ebola is a lucky break for them, and West Africa is a prop.

1:27: [Goldsmith] “Does that mean we have to sit back and do nothing?”

And then…

1:38: [Goldsmith] “And… you’re expecting us to sit back and do nothing…”

Uh, well, yes. If they’re not committed to doing it properly, to doing it in a way that respects, empowers, and builds up, then absolutely doing nothing is better. I’ve written about this before: do it right, or don’t do it.

3:26 [Goldsmith] “Maybe do nothing, or do what you want to do, which may not raise as much money…”

First, contrary to pop-culture mis-perception, not all awareness raising is good. You don’t need to look any further than every political campaign ever to know this. Or look at the immigration debates currently underway in both Australia and the United States: Lots of awareness being raised, but I bet we can all agree that it’s not all good. Raise awareness wrong, and the actions that follow are also wrong. Bad aid marketing begets bad aid.

Second, and it’s related: Can we just dispense once and for all with this notion that “good marketing” and “good aid marketing” are the same? Because they’re not. Yes, absolutely money is needed. Yes, absolutely, more money helps. But simply justifying any humanitarian fundraising strategy on the basis of volume is to completely miss the prior point. If photographs of children with flies in their eyes is poverty porn, then “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (both versions, actually) is softcore poverty erotica.

And no, the fact that they all intend well is not relevant.

4:14: [Goldsmith, angrily] “Okay, so we shouldn’t do anything, I mean it’s rid—it’s absolutely ridiculous” [Pailey] “That song is ridiculous…”

What she said.

1:33: [Goldsmith] I mean, if you saw the Panaroma programme last night, which was really heart rendering…”

What is “heart rendering”?

  • Buy my latest book!

  • Where to find me these days

  • Your email address goes here....

  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Archives


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,235 other followers

%d bloggers like this: