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.

Stunt

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:

MSF-UK

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?

No.

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.

Sideshow

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.

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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 Vox.com. 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.

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

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02c7bxn

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”?

Honor Among Thieves (forthcoming humanitarian novel)

It’s that time of year again: The time when I begin the mad sprint toward an imaginary publishing deadline.

On tap this time, Honor Among Thieves, sequel to Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, and Part II in the Mary-Anne humanitarian fiction (#humfiction) trilogy.*

Mary-Anne has left East Africa and traded in her dusty cargo pants for business suits at the World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Her first major assignment, planning a new corporate-funded project in a rural village in Cambodia, seems simple enough—at first. Before long, she is caught in a web of high-stakes (for the aid world) board room deals, conflicting priorities, and hidden agendas that threatens not only to rob her of her career, but devour her soul.

From the iridescent rice fields of the Mekong Delta, to the curiously named bars and teeming backstreets of Phnom Penh, Mary-Anne finds her journey inextricably tied to others: a bereaved Cambodian mother, an arrogant colleague with something to prove, and a demanding donor with something to gain. As she searches for the sweet spot between humanitarian idealism and donors’ expectations, will she be able to do what she knows in her heart is  right? Whose version of “helping” really helps? And in end, will she embrace the code of honor among humanitarians and thieves? 

The manuscript is written and ready for review, revision. Which is where you come in.

Beta review: Calling all beta reviewers! Since this is, after all, a novel about the world of humanitarian aid and development, it’s only appropriate that I use a participatory, inclusive, empowering, multi-stakeholder process.

If you’re interested in reviewing an unpublished draft and giving your feedback on how to make it better, in advance of publication, drop me a line: talesfromethehood(at)gmail(dot)com (be sure to spell talesfromethehood correctly). Include the words “BETA REVIEWER” somewhere in the message header.

Once I hear from you, I’ll explain what’s involved in greater detail.

Blog tour. Maybe you don’t want to give feedback/critique (and if that’s the case, I sincerely doubt your aid worker credentials…), but prefer, instead, to read the final, ready-for-publication version ahead of publication.

Got a blog? All you to have to do is promise to a) read it; b) publish a review on your blog, including an image of the cover and a link to the Amazon.com purchase page. Drop me a line: talesfromethehood(at)gmail(dot)com (be sure to spell “talesfromethehood” correctly). Include the words “BLOG TOUR” somewhere in the message header. I’ll send you a .PDF of the publication-ready book before it goes live, along with more details about how it all works.

Give to the cause. Maybe you’re one of those people who prefers to make the world better by simply reaching into your wallet? Don’t worry, there’s a role here for you, too.

Support the IndieGogo campaign for Honor Among Thieves. 100% of funds raised go to my editorial team (my editoresses—they slap my manuscript around for money and I like it).

Click here (and have your PayPal or credit card info ready).

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/honor-among-thieves–6/

Spread the word. I get it, you’re super busy. That’s cool. If you can possibly spare the time, stop by the Evil Genius Publishing Facebook page, tweet the link to the IndieGogo campaign (bonus points if you use #HAT), “like” a bunch of stuff, and all of that.

And of course, buy Honor Among Thieves when it goes live, mostly probably around February, 2015.

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* Yeah, you read that right. Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit was Part I of the trilogy. Disastrous Passion was the prequel.

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).

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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.

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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.

Hero

  • 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

 

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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?

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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…

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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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