Performance

One of the most difficult and troubling aspects of actually doing international humanitarian aid and development is the issue of different pay and benefits for international staff, compared with local or national staff. I suspect that in 2016 this issue needs no real introduction. Everyone in or watching the humanitarian industry, regardless of where she or he might be from or works now, has an opinion on how local staff and expats should be compensated vis-à-vis each other.

I think it’s safe to say that there is virtually zero industry-wide consensus on this matter. There are probably as many permutations of internal policy on expat / local salary and benefits differentials as there are NGOs and UN agencies, each rigorously defended as fair and just by its author(s). I cannot think of any single issue with as much power to divide teams, to permanently sour relationships between local and international staff, or turn individual colleagues irretrievably against each other. And few issues provide such consistently reliable fodder for whistle-blowing or irate carrying on in comments threads around the Internet.

Up to now, nearly all of the debate and commentary has focused on the aspects of fair compensation and actual cost. The fact that expats often receive a different array of benefits than local staff do, and the comparatively high cost of fielding an expat versus the cost of hiring a local person are the go-to touch points of the debate.

Those who wave the flag on this issue of expat versus local compensation and cost have mostly done so by calling for transparency of expat salary and benefits. The underlying assumption seems to be that details of expat housing allowances, R&R, or per diem are smoking guns of evidence that, if made public, will outrage donors into defunding those NGOs and UN agencies not automatically shamed into equalizing their salary structures.

Those few highly competent national staff that we do have consistently outperform half of the international staff in the office, while collecting a fraction of the salary.”

This comment below a recent “Secret Aid Worker” article in The Guardian reflects a common, very familiar sentiment. And the snap-to reactions are to call for the expats to be paid less (or perhaps sent home altogether), and the locals to be paid more. Or to vehemently defend why expats are necessary and worth the high cost. “…while collecting a fraction of the salary,” is the part that we all want to latch on to.

This is the wrong approach.

At its core, this all comes down to an assumption-turned-accusation that two people do the same work at the same level, yet are compensated differently. But unfortunately for pretty much everyone, regardless of where on the spectrum of opinion they sit, there is currently very little basis for either supporting or refuting such accusation. We have very little basis for saying that either local staff or expatriate staff under-perform, out-perform each other, or perform the same. Our inability to say what excellence looks like, whether for the industry as a whole, for an organization, or for an individual aid worker renders us inescapably incapable of having a rational conversation about who should be compensated how.

I’m not blind to the existence of racism or ethnocentrism (along with plenty of other “isms”) in the aid industry. But I do not see this as fundamentally a racism issue. I see this as a bad people management issue. I see this as an issue of consistency and clarity around what it takes to do the job well, what good performance looks like, and then holding staff accountable for good performance regardless of where they come from. As an industry, we basically suck at managing our people.

If you want to move the needle on the issue of unequal compensation between local and expat staff, you have to begin by having an honest conversation about what the/an actual job entails, what the actual requirements are, and what the person in the job now actually does. Let’s sort out what skills and abilities are actually required, and then talk about how to pay for it. The salary debate is meaningless apart from a clear understanding of actual performance. Knowing what expats make tells us nothing useful unless we also know what they’re supposed to be doing to earn it, and also what they’re actually doing.

There are many good reasons not to publish the details of salary structures or individual contracts. But there is no good reason not to publish job descriptions, terms of reference, expected outcomes, or performance measures.

Peace, out…

By now most anyone with serious interest in the humanitarian sector or the UN has come across this article, a “peace, out” (farewell) excoriation of the United Nations system by a Mr. Anthony Banbury. I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing.

I’d be willing to bet beer that the majority of those now busy Facebooking and retweeting the link had almost certainly never heard of Anthony Banbury prior to his #dropthemic op-ed (I hadn’t). I’ll even go out on a limb and guess that most people Facebooking and retweeting the link cannot say with any real certainty what a UN “Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support” actually does (I couldn’t).

But all the same, “I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing” strikes a resonating chord. It seems to confirm what we already think we know: The UN is an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy; a dystopian relic, the spawn of twisted minds. We need look no further. “I Love the U.N.” is a scathing indictment by a long-term insider who resigned from a senior post in protest of the graft, incompetence, and inefficiency we all knew was there but until now had no proof. Every righteously indignant voluntourist, every low level aid worker who thinks she’s too important to go to the cluster meeting, and every P2 who’s grumpy because he got passed over for promotion to P3 now feels vindicated.

"Peace, out..."

Peace, out…

*

These articles and blog posts come out occasionally. “I’m breaking up with aid, because, you know, I just can’t…” Some long-time (or not) insider has had enough, wants out, and wants us all know that he/she has had enough.” For those who remain, though, these breaks up and the know-it-all flurries that invariably ensue can be incredible disenchanting. I can’t claim 30 years in the UN system, but I have been around long enough know from personal experience what it’s like for those in the trenches when someone supposedly important and high-profile makes a big splash about leaving.

To those who remain, who still believe, or who simply are not able to resign in protest, this is for you:

 

The behavior displayed by Mr. Banbury has a name: Displaced dissent. Displaced dissent is an actual thing that has been studied. Plenty of information out there on displaced dissent, but you can start here. In short, displaced dissent is whinging about the boss at the pub after work. Displaced dissent is blogging about your workplace frustration, or if you’re senior enough in a high profile enough organization, getting an op-ed in the NYT.

It’s important to understand that displaced dissent, by definition, is not an effective means for affecting organizational change. Displaced dissent is what workers resort to when they feel it is unsafe to dissent internally through established channels, or when they have simply given up hope that their dissent will make a difference.

So, basically, the UN will not change because of “I Love the U.N., but…” You can retweet the link all you like, you can post it on Facebook with your comments, and to cut straight to the spoiler, nothing will happen.

If you want to change the system, you have to do something other than resign and then make a big deal of telling everyone why. Join the flurry of know-it-all and whataboutery if you must, but manage your own expectations about any likely outcomes.

 

This is just a job. None of us thinks that everyone stuck in the cubicles of Philip Morris’ corporate headquarters is a smoker. No one believes that every employee of British Petroleum is an eco-terrorist, or that every employee of Chrysler a climate-change denier. Most people—including those of us in the aid system—go to work, get salary, pay bills. We agree or disagree with our employer’s corporate identity or policies. We complain about our bosses at happy hour, gossip about incompetent colleagues or ridiculous policies in the coffee room. But some level we all make a conscious or unconscious calculation about the extent to which our disagreement with our employers outweighs our tangible need to actually make a living.

Mr. Banbury chose to leave the UN system in protest. But to go to what? What’s he going to do? Consult? (probably) Start his own NGO? Work for the corporate sector?

Many aid workers express rather extreme moral and ethical elitism around the water cooler. But let’s be clear: It is not cynical to disagree philosophically with the organization or system we work inside of, and also to continue to work inside that organization or system. It is, rather, a recognition of how the real world is and how it works. And also a recognition that our mortgages, car payments, insurance premiums, and educational loans don’t simply pay themselves.

[How loyal are you (to your NGO employer)?]

 

It is possible to be a good person, to do good work, and to make a difference in the world for good, within a broken or dysfunctional system. For those of you still in the system, whether UN or other, now questioning whether or not you’ve thrown in with the crew of a doomed ship, this is important:

One disillusioned individual who can no longer take it is not proof that you’ve wasted your life.

I’m not sticking up for the UN or the aid system, and if you’ve read my writing here and in other places, you know that I certainly have my issues with both. But it’s important to understand that when it comes to the aid system you will find what you look for. You can find evidence of systemic failure. And you can also find evidence that good things happen. There are people around the world today who have an objectively better life because aid workers not unlike yourselves, whether somewhere on the front lines or buried in a warren of cubicles in New York, showed up for work.

Be introspective, be self-critical, do commit to excellence, do be clear-minded about the real contribution of your role toward the big picture, and do remove yourself from toxic or dysfunctional situations when you’ve had enough. But do not let the fact that some high-level bureaucrat went all “peace, out” be the thing that shakes your faith in what you’re doing.

 

Identify your own triggers. Think now about what it would take to make you walk. Simple as that. What lines would have to be crossed for you to up and leave your employer? The aid industry as a whole? At what point would you rather be unemployed than work another day in the system? Is it about salary or benefits? Would it be over some matter of technical approach or programmatic delivery? Would it be over some in-principle issue?

It doesn’t have to be all fraught and dramatic. And you can always change your mind later. But think about it now. Otherwise, you probably will find yourself 10 or 20 or 30 years later, disillusioned and bitter, but unable to articulate why, and with no real alternatives. Anthony Banbury will not hurt for livelihood options. He had the luxury—and make no mistake, it was and is a luxury—of being able to resign in protest. Most of the rest of us are in no such situation.

Basic Premise

I’ll be vulnerable and just admit that I’m supremely bored with the usual critiques of the aid system.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the aid system is in great shape, or even good shape. I don’t think that things are acceptable the way they are right now. And I do think that some things need to change.

But when I look at the substance and tenor of the vast majority of what passes for online discussion about the aid world and what’s wrong with it, I begin to get the feeling that most of those doing the discussing are bringing drama rather than substance. They’re not very skilled at guiding their existential angst around to some kind of grounded conclusion. More than anything else, I get the sense that there is a disconnect, not between what people think it’s going to be like and then what it’s actually like, but rather a deeper, more fundamental one: Disconnected thinking and expectations around what the aid system is for and how it actually works.

*

I’m going to guess that most people who sign up to be police officers accept, perhaps implicitly, the basic premises of police work. That police forces are local extensions of state power, for example. Being a police officer is about imposing the will of the state on a local population. There’s nuance and variation within the system, of course. But at the end of the day, that is the basic premise of police work. Many people have issues with the basic premise of police work, and predictably these people do not aspire being police officers.

Similarly, I’ll guess that most people study to be paramedics have accepted the basic premises of pre-hospital care. They don’t cure cancer. They don’t provide end-to-end service. Emergency Medical Systems (EMS) are set up to respond quickly to situations where people have suffered physical trauma or acute medical stress, stabilize them, and then get them under the care of someone who can provide more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment. If you reject the tenets of pre-hospital care, then paramedic is not the right job for you.

The basic premise of being in the military is that it is your job to enforce the will of your country nationally or internationally. There might be different ways to go about this, but that’s the basic premise. If you want to be a soldier, you need to get to the place where you’re okay with this basic premise.

The basic premise of being a teacher is that you impart knowledge and skill at the standard of whatever educational system that you’re in. The basic premise of being a bus driver is that you have to drive a set route, rather than wherever, whenever you please.

Accepting the basic premises of whatever line of work you happen to be in is key to being able to go to work and do your job, day after day. Thinking through and understanding in as many words what those basic premises are, in my opinion, simply part of being a grown-up.

I think it may be time to have a quiet chat about some of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. There are three:

This is a global system. There are two parts to this one:

The aid system is a system, and yes, you are part of it whether you’re the head of OCHA, leader of the OFDA DART, a programme officer for CARE Malawi, or the founder of some self-started charity that collects bras for women in India. You are part of the system, even if you don’t participate in any kind of coordination or share your programmatic data with the UN. You are not off the grid. You/your organization/your project exist within a framework of control and accountability.

Second, it is a fact that the aid system exists globally. As I wrote in the prior post on this blog, there are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere. Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.

Go ahead, figure out what role you want to have in the system. Take some time to discover where your knowledge, skills, and experience can be brought to bear to do the most good. But if you cannot come to grips with the premise that no matter what you do and where you do it you are part of an integrated global system, then you may want think carefully about whether international aid and development are really the right place for you.

 

This is about affecting change. I am honestly baffled by the number of times that I have to have this particular conversation, but here we go again: The world can be a pretty crappy place. We look at a situation somewhere (could be local, could be in another country) and arrive at the conclusion that things need to change. We further believe that we can be personally part of that change process. Then we implement what we believe our role to be. Whether we’re a donor or an implementer or something in between, we are part of making change in the world. At a very basic level, you literally cannot embrace the status quo and also make the world better.

That is one of the basic premises of aid and development. We—you, me—are part of making change happen. Aid and development are about causing change.

Yes, we must be honest, reflexive, and introspective. Yes, we should follow good process (which can mean many things). Yes, we must take it seriously. We should not be cavalier or arrogant. Yes, being part of a change process implies necessarily that we pass judgment on conditions somewhere. It implies that we think we know or can do better. Yes, it is audacious.

But at the end of the day, if you cannot accept this basic premise of international helping, then perhaps this is simply not the place for you.

 

This is about power. Maybe you don’t feel powerful as you sit and debate the format for this year’s annual report. Maybe it feels ludicrous to talk about power when your life is an endless series of capitulations, when you’re endlessly hounded over petty bureaucratic details, or when your typical day is a lot of fighting for the obvious. It may feel silly to talk about power when global humanitarian and development assistance is a small fraction of, say, global consumer spending on technology.

But make no mistake: Aid and development are about power. Aid and development are very specifically about reducing the power of the powerful and increasing the power of the less powerful. The aid system, like it or not, is about exerting the will of donors on beneficiaries, even when donors insist that beneficiaries get to choose (being forced to choose, to participate as a requisite for assistance is another kind of submission to power). The aid system is about exerting the will of donors, many of whom represent political power, on communities and countries. Even the stridently self-described “neutral” NGOs still impose their agenda for change on the world, and by so doing use power.

As a participant in the system, you, too, use power: you influence resource use and allocation decisions (not saying that you always get your way); you influence outcomes at the level of end-users. If you are in the aid system, you are part of that power-wielding and influencing structure. You are part of often complex negotiation of moving resources (and by extension power) from one party to another. And the same caveats as the above point also apply: None of this is license to be arrogant or cavalier.

This is one of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. The system at all levels is about power, and you also posses and use power if you are in the system. Now is not the time to get all obsequious and self-loathing. The aid system is about power. If you cannot live with this premise, then perhaps you should not be here.

Sub-101

Can we please raise the level of blogosphere and secret aid worker commentary to something higher than the current vapid, “OMG, this isn’t as awesome as those Invisible Children videos made it seem”, sub-101 journeys of self-discovery

Probably asking too much, I know.

Some of you seriously need to wrap your heads around the reality that there is no correlation between how crappy or not crappy the ambient living conditions are in the country where you live, and the extent to which you are actually “doing it” or “making a difference.” There is no cause/effect relationship between the extent to which you sacrifice material or social comforts in the name of The Cause, and the extent to which you are good at your job. There is no connection between how far you are from the capital and how effective you are as an aid or development worker.

Similarly, some of you seriously need to wrap your heads around the reality that the aid system exists globally. There are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere. Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.

There I said it. International do-gooder heresy. There is legitimate, important aid industry work that can only be done in Geneva. There is legitimate aid industry work that has to be done and that makes a difference, that cannot be done in a village in Nepal at the point of delivery. Call Nick Kristof. Tweet @ Sean Penn. Start your own NGO, if you must.

Here’s some more heresy: It is a reality that aid and development involve people traveling to other countries to do (some of) the work. In other words, expats. Yeah, yeah, lots of complexity around expats. Some are jerks. Some are bouncy and hyper. Some are dour and cynical. Some are worse: Some are objectively horrible people. Some are incompetent and should be fired. Some are dealing with personal issues, and some of those make the mistake of bringing their issues into the work place. Newsflash: That is every job in every industry, ever. None of these things mean either that the system is broken or that it is illegitimate to bring send people internationally to do the work.

 *  *  *

After a few years of life on the edge in some far-flung, exotic field location, it will undoubtedly feel decidedly less edgy when you take that job in one of the world’s humanitarian capitals. It’s normal to look at the menu and mentally do the calculation: the cost of a café latte in the place you live now is twice the legal minimum hourly wage in the place you just left.

And by the same token, it may feel absurd to work in a nice office in a nice city where the budget for the coffee room for one year is more than your entire operating budget in your last job. It can feel colossally unfair to spend your day focused on discussions about, say, internal HR policy, when you have strong opinions about, say, refugee resettlement policy. And… and… and…

But it’s important to be clear. As jarring as these things might be, they are not in and of themselves an indication that The System is somehow broken. Liking your life and liking your job are not reasons to think that something is wrong.

 

**Sigh**

Rant over. Just tired of the chronically sub-101 plaguing the online aid industry discourse of late.

Know your status

Of all the treasured team house and expat pub rituals, none are as well-loved as simply complaining about how bad the response is. You trot out whatever it might be about your organization or the context which serves as today’s catch-all for all that’s going wrong in your little corner of the aid world. Maybe it’s an annoyingly long approval process. Maybe it’s a particularly incompetent individual, or maybe a questionable decision made by your predecessor. You use superlative language to describe everything. This is the worst, ever.

Unfortunately, many of these binge-and-whinge sessions lack the perspective of context.  And so, what often passes for full on “incompetence” as you stare into your local Amstel, could in fact be only garden variety “Good Facebook Material.”

For posterity, and as a public service for the aid world, here’s a simple scale against which to evaluate how bad or good your response, country office, relief op, or project is. There’s just no substitute for knowing your status.

This is not an exhaustive categorization of every dumb thing said, outrageous thing done, or crazy event witnessed by aid workers, ever. Nor is it an attempt to one-up anybody. Rather, it is a set of indicators which point to a hierarchy of conditions of being. Start at the top of the list an work your way down. It doesn’t have to be that your organization, response, etc. had exactly the same thing happen. But is the thing you’re complaining about right now at that level? For each point ask yourself:

“Sure, things on my response on messed up, but are they THIS messed up?”

 

  • Good Facebook material: Local Jihadists force your organization to modify its logo in order to keep working in their territory. The result of the redesign is that your logo now looks like a cartoon bomb.
  • Frustrating: Police close the field office because your organization is properly registered in that country.
  • Difficult: A barge full of T-shelter frames runs aground on the shores of another country, en route to your relief op.
  • Uh-oh!: FBI visits your head office as part of its investigation against one of the donors you’ve accepted funding/GIK for on the response.
  • Incompetent: Emergency latrines collapse while in use by beneficiaries.
  • Really Incompetent: Large borehole wells are left unprotected during the lag between the time they’re dug and the time the pump is installed. Local children fall into the wells.
  • Messed up: Beneficiaries killed by food packages during air drops.
  • Really messed up: Beneficiaries sexually assaulted by aid workers.

 

If the answer is “no,” settle down, finish your beer, and bang out that sitrep for HQ. Things aren’t that bad.

If the answer is “yes,” then move on down the list until you come to a “no,” to find your true level.

Call to action: Tweet the link to this post, along with your status.

 

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Just to confirm: None of this is aid world legend. I can confirm that everything in this list has actually happened, at least once. I’m not saying that I was personally party to all or any of it–just that everything here has happened for real.

Waiting For Payment

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are alight right now with people carrying on about the widely touted Living Level-3, a graphic novel about what it’s like to be an aid worker, produced by World Food Programme. The Huffington Post is releasing a chapter each day. Here’s Chapter 1.

Some are loving it, some hating it, some making pithy comments about it, and in a few cases asking me to comment. So, here you are. My comments:

Graphic novels as a medium leave me nonplussed. I know this medium appeals to many, and that’s fine. But the reality is that I will probably not read all of Living Level-3. I’ve skimmed the chapters released so far, looked at the pictures. I’m too busy writing my own next actual novel, like, with paragraphs of words…

What’s the point? It’s not clear to me what the point of this project is. Fundraising? Recruiting? Set the record straight on some issue? Entertainment? Maybe, but for whom?

Is it “realistic?” As I’d expect, a fair amount of commentary coming through my social media right now is focused on the question of whether or not it’s literally realistic. Some point out that the frustrating cluster meetings are missing. Good point, but then we’re only on Chapter 4 (as of this writing). Also, the main character, Leila, is a junior VAM, so unlikely to be repping for WFP at a cluster meeting. Others say that the Iraq presented is quite unlike the Iraq that they experienced. The truth is, I’ve never been to Iraq at all, so on that point I can’t weigh in.

Some of Leila’s inner monologue seems gratuitous. Of the Istanbul airport—“Just a mall on the edge of calamity.” (And, “Everything felt sterile”? The author has obviously never been to the Istanbul airport.) C’mon, WFP. This all sounds like stuff Angelina Jolie or Sean Penn would say. We’ve got a representation issue in the aid industry already. This isn’t helping.

Useful

Similarly, the final panel of Chapter 3: “I chase them. I look for the truth. Fueled by a desire to hear every single one.” This sounds like something a junior comms officer would say on her first deployment ever. Or maybe Leila will become a bitter, jaded, chain-smoking aid worker by the end, and her thoughts will shift to something far more realistic: “I take their story as quickly as possible. I’ve heard it all before. I’ve got a deadline to meet, and a desk-jockey in Rome to keep off my ass.”

truth

And finally, in over 20 years of humanitarian work, I don’t I’ve ever heard anyone say anything even remotely like, “… chase intelligence, trying to get a lock on Sinjar’s ground truth.”

ground truth

 

*

The jaded side of me wants to say that, like every other depiction of aid work and aid workers that I’ve seen, Living Level-3 misses the reality mark. I’m sure many of us could nit-pick it to death. The snarky side of me wants to say that a G.I. Joe comic from the early 1980s is a much more realistic depiction of my life in the aid world…

GI Joe

Just another day at HQ…

*

But then, nit-picking about Iraq and picking on WFP aside, I think it says something that there are now graphic novels about aid workers. With every new movie, and television show, and graphic novel, aid work and aid workers become more tangibly a thing. Remember, there was a time when J. Edgar Hoover used comics as a way to mainstream the idea of the United States FBI.

G Men

50+ years later, it’s easy to look at those old G-Men comics and chuckle at the art and the writing. Yeah, not realistic. Over-the-top. Even now I imagine that real FBI agents cringe and laugh at how they’re depicted in shows like “Criminal Minds” or “Quantico.” Just like real doctors (I guess) shake their heads and look away when re-runs of “Grey’s Anatomy” come on, or real spies can’t bear to read Robert Ludlum novels except when they’re drunk.

No telling what WFP’s intentions are with Living Level-3, but I don’t suppose that the point was ever to depict aid work in all of its variation, nuance, angst, exhilaration, and contradiction. Some aid workers will shake their heads in dismay. Maybe, after reading Living Level-3 some bright-eyed noobs will apply to WFP with dreams of international adventure and romance (of which they will be summarily disabused once in the door as a P1).

 

So, yeah, I wanna snark and jibe at Living Level-3. I wanna belly up to the bar and make all kinds of deflating comments about how it’s not true to life. But I won’t. The idea of aid work as a real thing that you prepare for and do for real is now one step closer to being mainstreamed in the popular psyche. And that’s a good thing. Just this once, I’ll say it:

Go WFP!

But seriously, this is a more accurate depiction of what I actually do:

On the Run

 

 

(You know that WFP stands for “Waiting for Payment,” right?)

Talking to Muslims…

To start 2016, I’d like to post a continuation of the theme of the previous post. Maybe this will be a series or a regular feature here. I’m not sure yet. But at any rate, here’s another interview:

As I watch the news lately in North America, I see a lot of yelling about Islam and Muslims. But what I’m not really seeing is much actual talking. There’s not a lot of American non-Muslims, you know, just talking to American Muslims, and vice versa. As we all know from experience, it’s easy enough to vilify someone you’ve never met; but it’s much harder to vilify an entire group of people when you actually know a few of them and they’re pretty nice.

The point of this is not to try to set the record straight or put anyone in his or her place. I’m not out to persuade you that Islam or any other religion is a “religion of peace” (and in general I do not and will not promote religion on this blog). To be dead honest, I don’t think I can take another article explaining the difference between Sunni and Shia, and why the difference matters, in third grade English.

I don’t suppose that this guy will be won over and suddenly not be a bigot because of an article or argument, here or anywhere else.

 
https://grabien.com/file.php?id=68107

But at the same time I can’t help but wonder how his perspective might change if he actually had a rational conversation with another normal American who just happened to be Muslim.

I’m not a global security expert: I don’t know what to do about ISIS or al Qaeda. I can’t say what causes some guy in California to “radicalize”, or how to spot it, or how to prevent it. But at the same time, I am 100% positive that being asshats to a couple of fellow citizens having lunch in a public place is not the way we want this to go in our country.

I seriously doubt there’s a formula that will make us all suddenly agree and see eye-to-eye. Heck, I don’t even see eye-to-eye with members of my own immediate family on some of this stuff. But at the same time I can’t escape the feeling that things would be better if we actually talked to one another.

So here I am, continuing the theme of the previous post, actually talking to Muslim people who live in North America and/or happen to be American. This time, Zehra, a friend of mine for several years.

If you promise not to cyber-stalk, you can find Zehra on Twitter as @zehrarizvi.

*

J: In a few sentences please tell me about yourself? Your background? What you do for a living? Where you live now? Who are you?

Zehra: Born American. Raised in NJ but grew up in Brooklyn. It’s the first place I like to call home since no one asked me where I was from. I just had to say, “Hi, I’m Zehra.” It’s the only place in the world where I’ve been just allowed to be me and not answer the stupid question, “But where are you actually from?” (“NJ… I’m from NJ.” “No, but really where are you from?”). I’ve been an aid worker for about 10 years now, and I’ve lived all over in these last 10 years. These days I’m about 1/3 in Brooklyn, 1/3 in Edinburgh, and 1/3 wherever a plane takes me for work. My high school yearbook pictures have me in hijab but I stopped wearing it nearly 15 years ago. Pre-9/11 I had stopped identifying as Muslim, but post 9/11, I felt the need to identify, at least culturally, as Muslim. I’m not a practicing Muslim, but it’s part of my identity and who I am. My mother and one sister wear hijab so anytime a hijabi is attacked on the streets anywhere, I fly into a panic. Also, I am Shia—you know, the ones ISIS/Daesh hate a lot.

 

J: So, Zehra, I don’t want to make this awkward, but I have to ask. I mean, you’ve got the funky name, you’re outspoken on social media… Would the average American family have to worry if you were to move in next door?

Zehra: Haha. Yes, J. Be afraid. Be. VERY. Afraid. Especially if you don’t like garlic. I love cooking and everything, literally, everything I put into my mouth has garlic in it. I think as Americans and the influences of the Food TV Network (my idea of heaven) has Americans much more open to garlic and different foods. I’m kind of hoping this happens with not just Muslims, but the salad bowl of people that make up the beautiful country that is ours—that we are as open to all kinds of people the same way we seem to now be open to garlic, kale, and kimchee.

I think I’m what the media terms as a moderate Muslim. I hate the term but there we go. If I moved in next door, I’d be doing it with my white partner, who happens to be ex-army, Scottish, glowers and scowls 90% of the time, and is built like a brick shit house so don’t mess with me. Come over, say hi, I’ll make you some garlic soup and talk about the latest book I read, art show I went to, how overworked I’ve been this last year, what I got my partner’s kids for Christmas and how they learnt about Eid this year, and the efforts they made to celebrate it with me in Lisbon.

 

J: Well, it’s a good think I like garlic, then. After fear of those over-the-top, but thankfully very rare, instances of violence, my personal read is that when it comes to almost any religious or ethnic minority, the sort of average white middle-class American establishment is most afraid of erosion of their culture (“way of life”), and take-over by another. Talk me through, from your perspective as a Pakistani, Muslim, Shia, garlic-loving woman, who’s grown up here, what do integration and assimilation looks like? Are you guys really trying to take us over?

Zehra: This very well turn into one big conversation about food.

Salad bowl, people, SALAD BOWL. What is the American way? I am. You are. We all are. I’ve lived in the UK quite a bit over the past ten years and even though the accent is hella sexy, not a day goes by that I am not thankful to be an American. To me the point is that being American specifically means that it’s NOT about assimilation. We are a country of immigrants. Thanksgiving is SUCH a perfect example of this (ok, let’s ignore the roots of Thanksgiving for a second—or years). It’s an American holiday and celebrated in a gorgeous American way—turkey (or tofurkey), all sort of infused with the cultural traditions of that household. In our home we have turkey but also biryani. Happy Thanksgiving.

I don’t like the term “assimilation.” It’s used A LOT in the UK and they actually mean it…there is such a thing as British and it’s been there for centuries. It’s boiled meat, the Queen, colonialism, having a class system while rigorously denying one exists, the non-existent concept of customer service, and a love for tea, which verges on the manic. 200 years ago, some Brits came over to the ‘new world’, wiped out the native population and tried to set up a new form of being. And the rest of the world came too. So there is no single correct way of being. There is no ‘assimilation’ that takes place in America. Assimilation to what exactly? That’s not how we work.

America is not the borg. At least, my America is not. We are all different and we can live, love and thrive with all our differences. Saying things like, are you trying to take us over, what does assimilation look like, integration etc…it’s missing the point. There is no taking over. There are things that are and will always be American—our roots of being an immigrant country for example!.

There is a much larger conversation that we aren’t having here; race in America. I just started reading Ta-Nehesi’s book, Between the World and Me and right at the start of the book read the quote below and my heart ached because of how much I felt it.

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.

This is what assimilation and integration are meant to look like. This is what we are supposed to aspire to. The white picket fence. But isn’t being American about finding your own path and rugged individualism? And yet anyone who doesn’t fit this mold is somehow not assimilating or integrating or being a good citizen. It’s bullshit and this whole conversation about Muslims in America needs to be seen in the wider context of how we haven’t figured out race in America.

This isn’t perhaps the best answer to your question and a bit all over the place. I don’t have a clean-cut answer anyhow since it’s still something I’m grappling with and thinking through. I’d love to know if there is a pat answer out there for this question. I also suspect it’s different for different people.

 

J: On a related note, and variation of a question I put to Adeel and Mona, it can often feel—or maybe it’s just another un-grounded fear—as if it’s buy into the whole Islam thing, or we won’t have much of a relationship. Can I be ambivalent toward or perhaps outright skeptical of Islam, and still hang with Muslim people? Can we just be friends without having to go into the Five Pillars and the Hadiths? How would that work?

Zehra: It would work as it does for me. I don’t buy into most of it anymore, although I grew up in it and know it inside out. I was just in Iraq on a faith-based volunteer mission where I was literally the ONLY person who wasn’t a believer—staunch or otherwise. And to be honest, before I left I was afraid I might be judged by them for being a lesser Muslim, just as I am sometimes judged in other places for being Muslim. But it turned out, I wasn’t judged. Everyone accepted me as I was. And not only that, since I was respectful of the beliefs people had around me, everyone was super respectful of me and my perspectives and relationship to religion. It’s such a simple concept… R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It really works if you try it out.

 

J: Give me your top 3 things you wish the average American understood better about Muslim people, in the context of simply getting along and not hating each other?

Zehra:

  1. Muslims in America ARE the average American.
  2. No extra effort is required to get along with Muslim people—they are literally normal people who want to just live their lives in their mixed communities where they are nurses, teachers, shop assistants, financial analysts, lawyers, etc.
  3. Muslims come in all shapes sizes ethnicities and nationalities. Like Catholics. Don’t take a broad brush and just think anyone brown looking is Muslim. And stop beating up Sikhs, calling them Muslim, because that’s just straight up ignorant. Actually, you know what? Don’t beat up anyone. Get to know about Sikhs (not Muslims and not Hindu—they are in fact…Sikhs!). It’s a super cool cultural background. Don’t beat up anyone but if you must, at least know who you are beating up and why.

 

J: What are the top 3 stereotypes that you have personally encountered as an American who happens to be Muslim, and tell me a little bit about how you’ve dealt with those?

Zehra: When I used to wear hijab in middle school (yeah, that was fun and it was the time of the first Gulf War), and boys (somehow always boys) would ask what would happen if my scarf came off… would I melt? Would my dad come after them with a gun? And so on.

The way women across the world laugh off sexual harassment, is the same way I dealt with this. I laughed it off. It worked. It always does. I wish there was another way, and perhaps this is because I’m a woman and was young (and with hijab back in the day, easily identifiable as Muslim), I chose the path of least resistance. I do wonder if those teasing boys, who by the way, if ANYONE outside of our school said anything to me would jump to my defense, wanted more, an actual explanation and I cheated them out of it? I was a teenager and a long heart to heart wasn’t going to happen when I myself was figuring out my own identity and being different was trying to fit in.

I haven’t actually lived back home properly almost10 years so it’s hard for me to really answer this. Also, I tend to stick to NYC when I’m home, and so the way this issue plays out there is different than in, say, Texas. And finally, I’m not really very Muslim so if I’m just walking around, no one actually knows I’m Muslim—at least not until Donald Trump tattoos it onto my forehead. Now, if we want to talk about how I deal with the world as a South Asian woman… Well, let me know when you’re ready to have that interview!

 

J: Finally, and again in line with the theme of “How do we get along with Muslim people in America?” what is the question I should have asked, and how would you answer?

Zehra: The question to ask: I know it’s crappy for Muslims in America just now…like it’s been for black people, Mexicans, women in general and [add fave non-white-male identity here]. But here we are now and before they come for me, what can I do for you?

And my answer would be: What a great question! I think it begins with the understanding that is actually not just about American Muslims but anyone who doesn’t fit whatever messed up version of America that FOX News wants us to believe. What you can do: I know it’s cheesy but those Facebook posts going around about notes and support left in mosques… do that. Go find Muslims and talk to them and let them know, this is not happening in your name, that this is not your America. If you see something, say something; meaning if you see a hijabi walking by herself at night, let her now you’ll walk with her or #RideWithHer. If you see someone who looks different being harassed (Muslim or not), step in and speak up. Tell stories of your conversations. Educate yourself and those around you, one person at a time.

 

Thanks so much, Zehra!

You could always just try talking to a Muslim person

Right now there seems to be a lot—a LOT—of shouting about Islam in the United States. I think all sides, including the one that I think is right, have mostly lost the ability to speak in non-extreme terms. One aspect of all of this that seems particularly confusing to the heartland—the middle class American voter—is that most commenters conflate “terrorist” and “Muslim person.” From the absurdly ill-informed GOP would-be presidential candidates, right on down to the lunatic fringe on Twitter, it’s fair to say that the dominant narrative in North America has been hijacked—no pun intended—to the point that, unless you’re very self-aware and very careful, it’s easy to end up feeling as if there are two, and only two options when it comes to national security: Kick out all the Muslims and don’t let any more in. Or resign ourselves to the knowledge that tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon, we will be the direct victims of extremist Islam-sponsored terrorism at the neighborhood Starbucks.

And sad as it is to say, most of my countrymen are neither particularly self-aware, nor careful. How do I, your average suburban 9-5-er resolve what I see on the news with the perfectly lovely Bangladeshi grandmother whose granddaughter is in my son’s class at school?

I’m not interested in debating whether ISIS are “real” Muslims or not, nor in painstakingly reviewing stats which show just how wildly unlikely it is that an extremist might somehow slip through the filter and make it to the United States as a refugee. What I am interested in is discussing how to make it work with Muslim people. Mostly I see those “Seven Things You Need To Know About Refugees” posts as failing to respond to the central concerns that, say, my extended relatives in places like, say, Idaho or South Dakota have. Those concerns largely come down to two things. First, “Is the Somali guy who works at the 7-Eleven going to kill me in my sleep?” Second, “What do we—you know—say to these people?” For as gregarious as we can be internationally, we can be surprisingly introverted at the neighborhood level.

Despite over-the-top exhibits of racism making the news lately, I continue to believe that the majority of American “ordinary citizens” don’t have anything in particular against Muslim people. But they simply don’t know how they can relate to the guy across the street who dresses funny. We’ve all watched “Homeland,” and so we think we know… men don’t touch women, no joking about The Prophet, no bacon. Check. But then what?

I know this will seem novel, and perhaps controversial to some, but in the name of contributing to positive dialogue, I’ve actually gone and talked to Muslim people myself.

Many thanks to two of my aid industry friends, Mona and Adeel for indulging this conversation.

J: In a few sentences please tell me about yourself? Your background? What you do for a living? Where you live now? Who are you?

Mona: My parents came from Egypt and I was born and raised in the US – born in Chapel Hill, NC but grew up in Buffalo, NY, which is what I consider my hometown. I’ve lived in Boston, DC, and in a number of countries including Egypt, Iraq, France, Kenya and Thailand, where I’ve done international relief and development work. I moved back to the US three years ago, to work with the UN in New York City.

Though I am 100% Egyptian and Muslim, I can also “pass” easily due to my light skin. Most people don’t assume I’m Arab or Muslim when they first meet me. So I’m in an interesting position in which in many ways I benefit from white privilege, while at the same time being part of some of the most feared and demonized groups in this country.

Adeel: Yes, I am a Muslim in my thirties from Pakistan who is living in U.S. In fact, I am now living in Washington D.C. not far from White house, and iconic symbols of American freedom at National Mall.

I grew up in a family with strong spiritual values that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am grateful for my parents and grandparents, who gave me the courage to be honest, kind, and respectful in my dealings with others, regardless of who they are and their religious and cultural beliefs. I worked for several years with a variety of well-known INGOs. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do humanitarian and development work in places such as Haiti, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. I moved to U.S. when I received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue my MBA degree. After my MBA, I joined a large international development organization and have responsibility for implementing various development projects in different countries including Pakistan. I am not sure if my next assignment will be in Africa or Asia. All I want to do is use, whatever limited knowledge and skills I have to help out disadvantaged communities around the world.

 

J: First off, I know a lot of people are wondering, and so I have to ask: Is that old lady around the corner—the one I see wearing a hijab in the supermarket—is she going to suicide-bomb Walmart?

Adeel: Almost certainly not! Now, that’s like expecting hens to lay baseballs instead of eggs. To be honest that’s how absurd it sounds to me. I actually feel if we get to know Muslims in our communities better, we might start feeling more secure. In fact, one of the best strategies against any possible extremist actions is to build better and stronger social structures. So no—don’t be afraid of the little old Muslim lady in Walmart!

Mona: Personally I am far less afraid of a woman in a hijab at Walmart than I am of one of those “open carry” nuts walking though the aisles wearing large weapons. (And let’s also not forget that the biggest terrorist threat here is from extreme right wing white American groups).

So, no. Of course she’s not going to suicide bomb Walmart. She’s just looking for a good discount. If there’s one thing our people love, it’s a bargain…

 

J: Okay, cool. I know that’s going to make a lot of people sleep easier tonight. Thanks for clearing that up.

Let’s start for real with might be an obvious question: What are a couple of things you wish the ordinary citizens of, say, Missouri or Indiana understood? What is the middle class, white Protestant family in Smalltown USA, supposed to do when a Muslim family moves in across the street. Like, take over brownies, or what? Do we nod and wave as we drive past? Do we invite them to a backyard BBQ? What are the basics?

Mona: The main thing to know is that we have more in common than we have differences. There was a famous Pew research study a few years ago and its findings confirmed what we know on an anecdotal level, and that is that American Muslims are very well assimilated. We also have average or above average income and education levels. We are invested in our communities just like anyone else is, and we want good lives for ourselves and our families.

The honest truth is, as much as I love Europe, I am grateful that my parents emigrated to the US and not to Europe. I know that many Muslims in France for example, say that they don’t feel French or are treated as “French” even if born and raised there. A lot of that has to do with issues too complex to raise here, but that include policies of marginalization and exclusion. However, here in the US, I can say definitively that I and every Muslim American I know consider ourselves American. The US is not perfect, but the fact that we are mostly a country of immigrants, that we have birthright citizenship, and that we value where you are going more than where you came from, all contribute to us feeling like part of this country, and embracing its values.

So yes, bring brownies! Invite us to barbecues (just make sure there are some non-pork options). Many Muslims comes from cultures where food and community are extremely important, so those are great ways to make that new family feel welcome.

Adeel: Exactly. You know, as I traveled around the world and had several opportunities to observe people of various religious beliefs and cultures, the most meaningful insight that struck me is that the spiritual and human values are strikingly similar across religions. If you are not honest, fair and respectful of others beliefs, you are a bad Christian, bad Muslim, bad Hindu and a bad Jew. We often fail to make this observation because we are unable to see through apparently very different cultural practices – the poor English, the funny dress, and so on. So I’d really encourage people not let the fact that maybe we look or talk differently be a reason to close us out.

Mona: But if I could add what I see as a key point – maybe the most important point – it’s that we are not a monolith. We come from places as diverse as Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia. We come from right here in the US. The Western world/Muslim world binary that the media loves to talk about is not actually a binary, since there is a huge amount of overlap. And don’t forget about the large African-American Muslim community too. We have different cultures, languages, opinions, and worldviews. Some of us pray five times a day and some never pray. Some of us abstain from alcohol and some don’t. Some of us like American Idol and some like The Voice. Some are Brooklyn hipsters (mipsters?), some are nerdy engineers, some are marathon runners and some are community leaders. Some long for their home countries and others are thrilled to have gotten far away from those countries. The point is, we are as different from each other as any large group is. But one thing many of us have in common is anxiety over the current political climate in which we are suddenly viewed as people to be afraid of.

 

J: It was interesting, and perhaps a tiny bit heartwarming, to see #IllRideWithYou trending at one point last year in Australia. There’s something appealing about being the magnanimous, enlightened helper who harnesses the power of social media to help, or at least express goodwill. And we all know how Americans love being helpful. But maybe before it gets to the point that we’re resorting to Twitter to offer protection to strangers, what can ordinary, non-Muslim citizens—those middle class white people in Iowa—do for their Muslim neighbors and loose acquaintances? Do we go over and verbalize support when the Mosque in the next city gets vandalized? Do we start a #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag? What advice do you have for those well-intended but mostly uninformed neighbors who don’t exactly agree with what they’re hearing on FOX News, but don’t know what to say?

Mona: Any show of support is appreciated. From hashtags to showing up at protests, to simply being kind to your Muslim neighbors. There was a story recently about a little boy who heard about a mosque being vandalized, and decided to donate the $20 in his piggy bank to the mosque. In a week where doors are being closed to Syrian refugees and candidates are talking about a Muslim database, this story was a ray of light – a reminder of simple humanity. Any show of support, no matter how trivial, can make a difference. And what can really help is standing up for us when it comes to others who hold anti-Muslim views. Call them out. We need to work together to create a culture where people should feel ashamed to express those views.

Adeel: I would really like to say, Please, please! Stay away from the stereotypes. There are good and bad people in every country, every religion and every culture. Let’s not view all Muslims with the same lens, if some people regardless of their level of awareness about the religion, go and do destructive things; let’s not generalize this to their country or religion. Much like, we don’t blame Christianity just because some priests are abusive towards children.

Those who adopt violence to prove a point, step outside the bounds of any religion in my opinion. Let’s not call them extremist Muslims. To me, they are not even Muslims.

 

J: So, about the hijab. Or maybe it’s a niqab, or burqa. To some Americans, Muslim female head wear worn in America feels like a sign of disrespect. I’m not saying it’s logical, and of course you and I understand that communicating disrespect is not the intention of Muslim women who cover their heads. Further, I’m assuming that most people generally try to be respectful when they visit or move to a foreign country, or encounter another culture. So with that in mind, what might be some signs of respect or good faith coming from our Muslim neighbors that, you know, the soccer mom in Oklahoma City, or the waiter in Tallahassee wouldn’t necessarily recognize? Is it possible that the taxi driver or the bank teller are just trying to be nice and we simply don’t see it?

Mona: Ok, so first of all, since I see confusion around this all the time…the hijab covers the hair only, the niqab covers the face, and the burqa is a specific garment worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has a mesh opening for the eyes. The way Muslim women dress varies according to culture, geography, politics and personal beliefs. In the US, most Muslim women either wear hijab or don’t cover at all, like me. There are a lot of us who feel like there is far too much focus on how we dress (both here and in Muslim-majority countries) and wish there could be more attention on issues that are far more pressing for women in our communities. That said, and maybe it’s a product of living in a big city or having mostly liberal friends, but I’ve never actually heard the idea that some view wearing a hijab as disrespectful!

In terms of signs of respect or good faith – I think those things shouldn’t be too hard to see. My question, to throw it back, is why would you not assume good faith? Where is your starting point, when it comes to interacting with Muslims in your community? If we can all come from the default position that Muslim neighbors are, like any other neighbors, generally coming from a place of respect for others, then signs shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize. If people are coming from a place of fear, then it’s time to turn off Fox and start building actual bridges and reaching out to people who are a bit different from you. Personal connections are always the easiest way to mitigate against stereotypes. Maybe one of those supermarket checkout line magazines can start a “Muslims – they’re just like us!” feature?

Bear Meme

J: In the current cultural and political climate of the United States, it very often feels (or perhaps the media, including social media leads us to feel) as if, when it comes to Islam, there are two options: a) Totally embrace Islam and all aspects of it, perhaps even to the point of personal conversion (or at least agree to never say anything bad about it); b) Totally hate it and want all Muslim people to leave immediately. Obviously this is not reasonable, but let me ask you: As a Muslim person yourself can you help me make sense of this? Can I have a reasonable perspective on Islam, one that is neither racist or ethnocentric or Islamophobic, but that also doesn’t require me to fully agree with everything in it?

Adeel: You will find difference of opinion on this. To me, if you uphold the moral and ethical standards in your everyday life, that is the important thing. As a Muslim, I have no issue with someone who lives this way. I’m friends with many people from many different faiths and walks of life, as are most Muslims that I know. We understand and accept that people have different walks.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of the teachings of Islam, even among Muslims, which leads to the opinions you shared in your question. My perspective is that Islam itself teaches people to listen to reason (rational and logical conclusions) and not believe in anything blindly. So to answer your question, it is not very different from any mainstream religion.

I’d add, further, that most of us are okay talking about this stuff! If you don’t know something, just ask your Muslim friend politely. I just hope, we all start following the spirit of our religion and not just the out of context quotations from scriptures.

 

J: What would you say are the top two or three misconceptions about you as a Muslim person that you face in the USA? And how do your respond to those misconceptions? Are you able to turn misconceptions around and gain friends?

Adeel: Perhaps I’m especially fortunate, but to be honest I can’t say that I’ve faced any real issues. I feel that’s mainly because I have lived and travelled only in larger cities where people are generally much more open minded and aware of international cultures and traditions. Also, I had worked with various people from different countries before moving to U.S. hence, it wasn’t such a cultural shock for me or others around me.

 

J: Last question, and I don’t mean to be provocative, but it relates to a very common stereotype. What does conflict resolution look like between the middle class white guy in Boise, and the Muslim family down the street? The stereotype is that when it comes to disputes it’s total agreement, or car-bomb. As illogical as it is, I think there is actually a great deal of fear—real fear—that our neighbors, you know, just might try to blow us up if we piss them off. Is there a way, without lengthy expose of why the Afghan guy living across the street is almost certainly not a terrorist, of breaking this stereotype down for us? Can we argue with you guys?

Mona: Sure, you can argue. It’s not uncommon that we would have different political views. But don’t assume that all Muslims have the same political views either. So when you have those disagreements, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Afghan guy across the street represents all 6 million American Muslims, much less 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. If you like discussing politics with your friends, don’t let the fact that your friend is Muslim stop you.

However, if you are an acquaintance only, think about how you are approaching that person. Asking a woman in the checkout line who is wearing a hijab “so, do you support al-Qaeda?” is not going to get anyone anywhere – in fact, it’s an incredibly offensive assumption. Provocative questions that alienate people won’t help. But questions that try to get more information, and result in actual listening, can go far to either learn, find common ground, or agree to disagree. One friend on Facebook recently admitted that she is scared about the Paris attacks and how refugees are vetted in the US. But she asked in such a way that I was happy to describe the resettlement process to her, and now I see her doing the same with others.

So sure, we might have some different political views. Many American Muslims are against drone strikes in Pakistan for example, or support Palestinian rights. But if you’re worried about support for terrorism? Well, a small sample may not be comforting, but I know hundreds, maybe thousands, of American Muslims and each and every one of us condemns terrorism committed in the name of our religion. We may be annoyed at having to make a show of constantly publicly condemning it (since that is assuming collective responsibility), but it’s true. And the best way to fight any kind of Islamic extremist terrorist threat in this country is to engage our communities, rather than alienate us.

 

Thanks, once again, Mona and Adeel.

Game-Changer

For those too busy tweeting about #innovation or the #WHS to notice, this week a court in Norway ruled in favor of plaintiff Steve Dennis against the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). NRC was found guilty of “gross negligence” for how it handled the 2012 kidnapping of four of its staff in Dadaab, Kenya.

At this point the industry-wide implications of this landmark turn of events remain to be fully seen. But even at these early days, I feel comfortable saying that after 25 years of humanitarian work, this comes as close as anything I’ve seen yet to being “game changing.” Nope—it wasn’t the PUR sachets or the IKEA T-shelters; it wasn’t “big data” or “open data” or “crowdsourcing” or ICT4D; it wasn’t the fuel-efficient stoves or the solar powered cell phone chargers or direct giving.

The most game-changing thing to hit the humanitarian industry since its inception is simply an outside legal opinion that aid and development employers—from the UN system, all the way on own to the college sophomores who started their shoe-collecting charity—have duty of care obligation toward their employees. And further, that humanitarian staff have a right to expect proper training and preparation for work in high-risk places, as well as employer-provided care, and perhaps even compensation after the fact.

Of course, much of it comes back to money.

Every humanitarian provider now has to consider a dramatic increase in the cost of sending someone into a potentially dangerous context. If, say, I, as an employer am required to pay for expensive training for staff, and may possibly be sued if my staff encounter danger, I am going to think very hard who I send where. I think we’ve seen the beginning of the end of the clueless noobs showing up in war zones. I think we’ve seen the beginning of the end of large numbers of expats on relief ops.

Without knowing intimately the details of Mr. Dennis’ case against the NRC, it feels as if some measure of justice was served by this recent ruling. #AccountabilityWin. However let’s not forget the NRC doesn’t actually have its own money: it receives grants and donations which it then spends on behalf of its donors, presumably for relief and development work. This precedent, then, will have a dramatic effect on how all of us relate to our donors. We will have to build in security training and after-care into budgets, both of which are expensive, and both of which will have to be paid for by donors.

And, it’s important to be clear: This stuff will all fit under what everyone would call “overhead” (although I’m confident I know a few finance officers who could find a way to bury “counseling after being abducted” under programme costs…). Which means the cost of delivering aid just went up, a lot. Which means we now have another non-optional category that goes into the HQ, “overhead”, or global budgets. Which means yet another uncomfortable aspect of what we do that has to be explained to donors who (thanks to us mis-educating them for the past four decades) still think that the basic measure of aid efficiency is low absolute cost.

We have some challenging conversations ahead, as well, around whether this aid thing is or is not a profession. Because if it isn’t, why would we bother going to the trouble and expense of sending someone who’s not a professional and actually good at this. And if it is, then our overhead is very high—much higher than even we were willing to admit before—and we can kiss goodbye to all those “buy a goat for $100 and lift a family out of poverty” marketing schemes, because in reality it’ll be more like $500 or maybe $1,000 to gift that goat (which probably won’t lift the family out of poverty anyway).

Right now some of you are thinking, “Ah, yes, but Steve Dennis was an expat, and expats are expensive. We can save all that money by doing more with local.” Good point. #notreally. Consider that the majority of kidnapping and violent attacks against humanitarians are against locals. How long do you suppose it will stay a secret if INGO A provides one level of security training and follow up care for expats and another for locals? Exactly—not long at all. Suddenly you’ll find The Guardian reaching out to your workforce to tell their stories anonymously. Suddenly local staff just got as expensive as international staff (which, ironically, erodes arguments on both sides of the expat/local and INGO/Southern NGO debates).

There is some potentially very interesting fallout for this in the whole North/South, Big INGOs = “evil” and small NGOs = “efficient” conversation, too. Once again, it comes back to cost. If security training and staff care after traumatic exposure are assumed requirements, then we’ve just put many of the smaller NGOs and certainly a fair share of the startup charities out of business. Those NGOs, of all sizes and origins, who choose or feel they have no choice but to treat security and staff care as optional luxuries are one incident and subsequent settlement away from a financial and possibly a public relations meltdown. NRC will survive, for sure. But it’s possible to envision a single incident like this putting a smaller, less established player completely out of business.

Those organizations who can actually afford to swallow the cost and provide fair and reasonable duty of care toward their staff are going to be established household charities and the UN system. It’s one more blow struck against “small” and “local.” The cost of doing business suddenly went up, and it’s possible to envision a sector-wide playing field where those who can afford to pay that cost fit into a certain and very predictable profile (hint: it’s not small, local, recently started up NGOs).

Many NGOs, including some established ones, shamelessly play on the sacrifice-for-the-greater-good angle as part of their employment strategy. And sure, fair enough–there’s a sub-demographic within the aid industry that sort of loves the moral high ground of only being able to afford crappy apartments and having no choice but to ride local transportation. Here again, though, I think we can quickly see how things have changed. It’s one thing to expect your staff to live lives of personal deprivation via low salary and poor benefits, but expecting them to roll into dangerous places with no prep and no assurance of follow-up care, should things go pear-shaped, takes “self sacrifice” to a whole other level.

And finally, it’s easy to say, “well, that was Dadaab… a place famous for being dangerous. We only work in Cambodia, a famous tourist destination.” Let’s be clear: the duty of care extends far beyond extreme events like kidnapping. If you require your staff to, say, travel by road, air, or public transportation for work, Steve Dennis’ win against NRC concerns you. The majority of aid worker deaths and injuries are cause by road traffic accidents. Look, we live in a world where Starbucks puts a warning on coffee cups.

Caution_hot

Starting to get the picture?

Give

It’s that time of year again.

That most unfortunate period between more or less Diwali and more or less Lunar New Year when the Western World is inundated with nonstop gag-reflex-triggeringly bad aid marketing. For the next four months it won’t be possible to ride a subway, turn on the television, or go into a coffee chain without being accosted by kitchy, guilt-laden, seasonally themed opportunities for partnership with the poor. Buy this special-edition thingy, and someone else will do something for another someone else. “Like” this, tweet with that hashtag, sign the petition, use a particular credit card… then sit back and watch contentedly while peace, justice, and equality wash over the world as if in a tsunami of good will.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to carry on for too long, here. But there is one particular kind of aid marketing social culture that gets particularly annoying this time of year. And so, as a public service, I’m going to write what many of you are thinking and perhaps have wished you could say:

If you don’t want to give me a gift, that’s fine. Whatever the reason is, I’m sure I’ll live. Or don’t share any reason at all. If you don’t want to give me a gift, then don’t. Easy.

If you want to donate to charity, that’s fine, too. For the sake of this post, I don’t really care very much why you want to give, nor do I care too much which charity you choose. If you want to give, then give. Easy.

But, please. Do not try to pretend that the two are related.

Do not buy a goat for someone in Sarawak, and then tell me that’s my Christmas present. Do not pay for a well in Zimbabwe, and then give me some certificate. Do not make a big show of inviting me to something, and then be all, “oh, actually there’s nothing because I gave it all to charity, so let’s sit here and celebrate.”

Yes, do buy someone a camel. Just don't make it about me.

Yes, do buy someone a camel. Just don’t make it about me.

You can chip in for a women’s shelter; you can sponsor a child or a family; you can build a house for refugees, or plant a tree, or set a bird free. You can skip your holiday dinner party and donate the value to a local soup kitchen.Those are all wonderful things, and you should definitely do them if you want to and can afford it.

Just don’t make it about me.

When you contribute to a charity of your choice and then try to dress it up as a gift for me, it is manipulation. When you do that it is like you are trying to implicate me in your self-righteous humblebragging. When you do this it’s like you’re directly asking me to affirm you publicly, and maybe I don’t feel like it. It’s like you’re trying to use me to get more Facebook likes or more of those stupid little hearts on Twitter. Or maybe you’re trying to judge me for not giving as much as you or shame me into giving more (maybe you think you’re the judge of how much other people should give).

You don’t have to invite me over or give me anything. And you can contribute toward making the world better as you see fit.

But I’ll manage my own charitable contributions, thank you very much. And I may or may not tell you about it.

*

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