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.



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.


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.”


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:


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.

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?


  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.


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.


Starting to get the picture?

Racism as Addiction

Taking a momentary break from writing strictly about international relief and development things…

I think that racism is a kind of addition. It acts like addiction. The more I follow the news, whether it’s about police brutality in North America or the backlash against refugees in Europe, or any number of other breaking news stories in late 2015, the more I think that we’re addicted to racism. We’re addicted, and despite how bad we know it is for us, we can’t get clean. I think America, and probably the rest of the world needs to go on a 12-step program.

(Based on the “Humanist Steps” by B. F. Skinner—a secular adaptation of the famous original 12-steps that form the basis of many popular addiction recovery programs.)




  1. We accept the fact that all our efforts to stop racist behavior have failed.

You can’t fix the problem until you acknowledge that you have a problem. So, maybe let’s start here.

Until every one of us is horrified every time another person of color dies at the hands of law enforcement; until every one of us recoils at systemic injustices (even when we may personally benefit from those same systemic injustices); until every one of us winces at even the most benign and supposedly harmless stereotypes and personal prejudices in ourselves and others, we will not be able to get clean. We are in collective denial, globally, and it’s killing us.


  1. We believe that we must turn elsewhere for help.

Maybe we need God. Maybe Allah. Maybe we need a three-fold path, or nature, or love. Maybe it’s all and none of the above. What we’ve done up to now has obviously not worked. Sure, we’ve had our successes. We’ve had our moments of clarity and our days of sobriety. We’ve succeeded enough to know that we can succeed completely. We can do it, but not alone.


  1. We turn to our fellow men and women, particularly those who have struggled with the same problem.

For goodness sake, we have to talk about it. No judgment, just good faith. Rigorous honesty, remorse when necessary. We’re not alone in our struggles with racism, and we don’t help ourselves by keeping quiet. We need the support and strength of fellow travelers.


  1. We have made a list of the situations in which we are most likely to behave in racist ways.

Step away from the jokes, the innuendo, the everyday ethnocentrisms, and the easy stereotypes. Not that telling fewer racist or ethnocentric jokes will change the world, but it is a start.

Here is where we acknowledge and check privilege. This is where we “give back” as a matter of principle, because many of us have taken, even when we didn’t know we were taking.


  1. We ask our friends to help us avoid those situations.

This is what day-to-day, personal accountability looks like. We open ourselves up to others. We admit weakness, and ask for help. Maybe I need a brown sponsor whom I can call and who will talk me off the ledge of racism in the middle of the night.


  1. We are ready to accept the help they give us.

Accepting help requires acknowledging the need for help. Which is, at its core, raw vulnerability.

We’re used to be the strong ones. At the top of the hierarchy, even when the hierarchy is unconscious. To accept help is to concede our dependence on others. And in the case of racism, it means to accept the help of those we once thought of as inferior to ourselves. It is the ultimate hierarchical inversion.


  1. We honestly hope they will help.

Yes, we do.


  1. We have made a list of the persons we have harmed and to whom we hope to make amends.

We all know what we’ve done and who we’ve hurt, whether we did so face to face, person to person, or whether we did so by decisions we may have made which affected the lives of many. Neither is better.

Go on. Start your list.


  1. We shall do all we can to make amends, in any way that will not cause further harm.

I can’t say what this looks like at the level of one people group toward another. Somehow reparations and reservations feel paltry. But at any rate, this one comes in two parts. First, if we can somehow set right a prior wrong, we must. And second, we must seek forgiveness, even if ultimately we don’t receive it. The follow-through act of seeking forgiveness is the important part.


  1. We will continue to make such lists and revise them as needed.

Any questions?


  1. We appreciate what our friends have done and are doing to help us.

At the end of the day, we’re in this together.


  1. We, in turn, are ready to help others who may come to us in the same way.

Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of a 12-step program knows that this is a combination of personal responsibility and group effort.


So go on. Get in a circle. Hold hands, or stand awkwardly with your arms folded—it doesn’t really matter, and repeat the steps. It works if you work it.


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.


Post to your Facebook, tweet the link, strategically share directly to certain friends or family members.


Those of you have follow this blog, and/or my other social media know that I’ve recently begun dropping aid industry focused mini opinion polls onto the Internet. Here’s a previous post that describes what I’m doing and why (spoiler: it’s mainly because I’m curious). All of the mini-polls remain open, and I do not plan to close them. Here’s a link to the entire collection.

As promised, here’s the first of an occasional series of posts in which I share the results of mini opinion polls to-date, along with my analysis. As I’m quite keenly aware that many of you design and conduct surveys, and/or analyze data for a living, and as I know aid worker culture very well (which is to say that we nay-say and nit-pick pretty much everything, pretty much to death), let me just make a few blanket caveats first:

  • I cannot control who takes these polls. This is not, nor does it in any way claim to be a RCT. Which leads to…
  • I’m not trying to state any universal truths, here. I am asking about opinions, perhaps to identify patterns that haven’t been seen, perhaps to pick up on issues that don’t get much aid industry air time, but mostly just for the fun of it.
  • You think my methodology is poor and my results are way off? Great! Do your version of a proper study and prove me wrong.

So, without further ado, let’s get right into it.


On 5 October I released the mini-poll called “Does Faith-based Status Make a Difference? I was essentially trying to get at your collective thoughts on whether or not the faith-orientation (or lack thereof) of an organization makes any difference the impact and quality of work that that organizations carries out in the field. If you haven’t taken this particular mini-poll yet, you should. Here’s the link.

Again with the caveat: This mini-poll was not attempting to get at, nor am I attempting to make a factual statement about whether faith-based NGOs are more effective than non-faith-based NGOs, or vice versa. This mini-poll, and what I present here is a summary of opinion from within the aid industry on that question. So far I’ve never seen this issue seriously studied (debated? Yes; actually studied? No.), but regardless of what the actual facts of the matter might be, this is what your colleagues inside the aid industry think:

Q2: Irrespective anything else, does the fact that an organization is faith-based or not faith-based have an effect on the quality, and ultimately the impact of its programmes and interventions in the field?


You can see the graphic. 61% of those who took the survey answered “yes,” while 39% answered “no.” So, it would appear that there is majority of you who think that faith status at the organizational level has implications for the quality and impact of its relief and development work. That is to say, that in the opinion of those within the rank-and-file of the humanitarian world, the actual impact on beneficiaries is somehow different if they are served by a faith-based NGO (for example, Samaritan’s Purse, Islamic Relief, Caritas, American Hindu World Service, World Vision, Sarvodaya…) than if they are served by a non-faith-based NGO (say, Oxfam, CARE,, JP/HRO, MSF, Clowns Without Borders…).

Some of you tried to equivocate around the reality there is tremendous variability within the two camps of “faith-based” and “non-faith-based.”

“There’s nothing inherently better or worse about being faith-based; the degree to which data informs practice, for example, might or might not be part of the organization’s implementation regardless of faith orientation.”


“Truly, my answer is “depends.” I have seen both stellar examples of how FBNGOs leverage faith to the advantage of the population they serve and terrible examples how faith is used to excuse bad projects. Ultimately, the failures are due to bad management, which exists regardless of faith.”

And some of you tried to equivocate in general. For example:

“Depends on the context that the organisation is working in. If a faith based organisation is working in communities of the same faith then they can be more effective than others as they can engage deeper with people’s worldview and behaviour. However if working outside this context or in communities that are not religious then their impact would not be different to non faith based organisations.”

(Note: 25 years of aid work later, I’m still waiting for the experience of walking into a completely non-religious community…)

Then there’s question 4:

Q4: Which of the following statements best reflect your view on the issue of whether faith-based orientation has an effect on an organization’s effectiveness:

  1. Faith-based organizations are more likely to run well-designed, effective, efficient programmes than non-faith-based organizations.
  2. Non-faith-based organizations are more likely to run well-designed, effective, efficient programmes than faith-based organizations.
  3. Faith-based and non-faith-based organizations are equally likely to run well-designed, effective, efficient programmes. The determinants of well-designed, effective, and efficient have nothing to do with whether or not the organization is faith-based.

See the image (below). Basically 61% of your felt that non-faith-based organizations are more likely to run good programmes than faith-based, while 39% of you felt there was no difference.


So, we see a pretty clear picture being painted. The majority of respondents felt that faith-orientation does have an effect on impact and quality (Q2), and furthermore, that that effect is essentially a negative one (Q4): Non-faith-based organizations are more likely to run well-designed, effective, efficient programmes than faith-based organizations.

It was interesting to note that so far zero per cent (not a single respondent) felt that Faith-based organizations are more likely to run well-designed, effective, efficient programmes than non-faith-based organizations.

When I filtered the results based on those who self-identified as a “person of faith” (Q8), only 33% felt that the faith-orientation of an NGO made any difference at all, and 17% of self-identified people of faith actually felt that non-faith-based organizations were more effective than faith-based.

As one respondent put it,

“there is a wide spectrum of faith based organisations and it tends to be that that there are more faith based organisations that are on the less efficient side of non profits than secular – tend to be supported by individual people of faith who have less accountability structures (mostly unrestricted funding) set in place than non faith donors. However, There are faith based organisations that are on the cutting edge of development and have efficient, well designed programs.”

Finally, when I filtered results by those to answered “yes” to Q6 (“Have you ever worked for a faith-based NGO, charity, or donor?”, the majority (55%) felt that the faith-orientation of an organization made no difference in terms of impact, efficiency, quality. Further, on Q4, 36%—more than one third—of those who have experience with faith-based organizations felt that non-faith-based organizations were more likely to run well-designed, effective, efficient programmes.


So, what does it mean?

First, someone should study this for real. I know from having been personally part of the conversations that (many) faith-based and non-faith-based organizations alike spend donor dollars clarifying their own dogma and talking-points internally, but completely (so far as I am aware) on the basis of supposition, rather than any—you know—real evidence.

But given the variability within both sides, won’t it be hopelessly complicated? Complicated, but not hopelessly so. Hey, we study complicated stuff all the time. It’s possible to study this question and find an answer.

Second, uh, faith-based organizations: you might be interested to learn that potentially as much as one-third of your own workforce feels that you are less effective than your non-faith-based colleague agencies. This trend would seem, well, out of sync with (most of) your in-house propaganda.

Third, in the open-ended Q5, where I encouraged respondents to support their position, including actual evidence if they had it… no one provided evidence. Maybe it’s time for everyone to stop with the propaganda entirely, and start making claims about effectiveness based on, like, actual evidence. Just a thought. Wait, that was kinda the first point, wasn’t it? Oh well.


Don’t care for these results?

Take the polls yourself.

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See also:

Out of a job

The other evening, in one of those mostly social but a little bit work settings, I had someone ask me, in about as many words, “but isn’t the point with development to basically work yourself out of a job?”

That old development doctrine, as far as I can tell a leftover relic from the mid-1980s, is still making the rounds. I can remember much earlier in my career, out in the jungle or the desert listening to the old hands pontificate earnestly on about how they were really there to work themselves out of their jobs.

And I remember thinking, even then, at my then tender age, that it was all a load of crap.

Most of us—certainly everyone that I’m at all close to—in here are not in any meaningful way trying to work ourselves out of our jobs. If anything it’s the opposite. If anything we’re working toward job security, toward career advancement, toward more personal stability rather than less. I, for one, do not relish the possibility of being unemployed. I have bills to pay. I think it’s past time for all of us to just say this, straight up, and own it.

None of us are trying to work ourselves out of our jobs. And I do not mean that cynically.

Well, certainly no more cynically than physicians who continue to accept payment for treating patients; no more cynically than bankers who can make a living because most people cannot afford to buy a house outright without a mortgage; or bus drivers who depend for their livelihoods on people not being transportation self sufficient, or garbage collectors who can support their families because we throw tons of stuff away every day. Aid and development—international helping, if you will—represent a vast array of jobs that legitimately need doing. There’s nothing specifically cynical about doing them.

The problem with “working yourself out of a job” in the context of international relief and development is that the actual day never comes. I think sometimes we approach international helping with two basic points of reference:

  • “This sucks.”
  • “Not as nice as Sweden.”

If it sucks, we tell ourselves, we can make it better. And keep on making it better. And better. And better. Until, presumably, it’s as nice as Sweden. The problem is that we never reach the as nice as Sweden stage (and I’d be willing to bet that even in Sweden we could find justification to continue a relief response or development intervention).

Nowhere is there written a standard or set of standards which clearly identify the conditions which, once they exist in community X, signal “development.” We can always find more to do. There is always another aspect of another problem, or perhaps another “pocket of need” that urgently demands our expertise and continued presence. There’s always one more sick person to treat, one more community that needs latrines or water points, one more local extension worker who needs her or his capacity built.

And so, “I’m just trying to work myself out of a job,” is a sideways (and, if you ask me, illegitimate) assertion of moral imperative. It’s the same as saying, “I’m here because I’m needed. These people need me. If there was a local person here who could do what I do, I’d quietly leave… but there isn’t. At least not yet, and so I’ll soldier on, here, working myself out of a job.” It’s an arrogant statement, actually, when you think about it. “I’m just working myself out of a job,” is the ultimate expression of cynicism in the relief and development world.


So where does that leave us?

I think that instead of trying to work ourselves out of a job, we should come to the conversation prepared to say what we have to offer. I think we should approach relief and development—international helping—this way, whether we’re individuals (local and international, alike), organizations (local and international, alike), networks, or even donors. Maybe what we have to offer is stuff, material, supplies, GIK. Maybe what we have to offer is raw human workforce: expertise, knowledge, experience, human capability. Maybe what we have to offer is logistical support capability, or maybe it’s technology, or just plain money.

We start by saying what we have to offer, and then defining the scale, scope, and length of our involvement based on what we can deliver well. We start by saying what job we are prepared to do, and then—assuming it’s relevant and needed—go do that.

And then we leave.

No more lingering on, endlessly re-strategizing and retooling our mandates, based on the availability of donor funding. No more assessing ad infinitum, always finding one more reason to stay on. No more reinventing ourselves to the point that we (sometimes literally) think we can do everything for everyone everywhere. We say what we can do, and if they want it, we go do that. We report against that. We fundraise for that. We hold, and allow ourselves to be held, accountable for that.

But won’t that leave gaps? Of course. But the current system leaves gaps. At least this way would be honest. At least this way we’d have greater integrity.

No more working ourselves out of a job. We go and do the job we say we’re going to do until it’s done.


Full disclosure. I spent the second half of last week at the World Humanitarian Summit Global Consultation (WHS, GloCon). From what I gathered on social media, it seems that WHS GloCon was one of those things that esteemed friends and colleagues around the aid industry either followed with rapt attention, or were mostly oblivious to/checked out of.

In many ways it was the quintessential HRI-style life-saving meeting. Hordes of aid industry peeps, dressed business casual, relentlessly networking in a sprawling UN conference center in downtown Geneva. There were all the usual panel discussions, one-on-one’s over coffee between plenaries, an even innovation marketplace (I saw the IKEA T-shelter up close). There were, of course, the usual break-out group discussions on the HPTs (highly predictable things) like “partnership,” “evidence,” “cash,” and “private sector involvement.”

#WHS GloCon: The aid industry doing what it does best. Or second best. Or maybe best. #ReShapeAid

#WHS GloCon: The aid industry doing what it does best. Or second best. Or maybe best. #ReShapeAid

It helps to remember that the general purpose of the WHS GloCon was simply to wrap up several months of regional consultations, all together meant to inform the agenda of the yet-to-come actual World Humanitarian Summit. As one friend and colleague put it, the purpose was to make sure that everyone could say that everyone had had their say.

If you want a full recap, you’ll need to look else where. But here are a few of my own personal reflections:

The balance is tough to get right. Sometimes we have to stop and think about what we’re doing in the aid industry. Sometimes we have to stop, get together, and discuss things. And when we do get together to discuss, it’s important that the right people are in the discussion. I take that much as granted.

But 1,000 participants (give or take) seems like, you know, a lot. It was a lot. What’s the magic number? I have no idea. Of the 1,000 +/-, who would I have nixed from the list? I’m not going to name names. Were the “right people” truly in the conversation? Well, let’s put it this way: I heard a lot of speaking either directly or indirectly on behalf of others who weren’t there…

All to say, simply, that the balance is tough to get right. I’m glad it’s not my job to articulate the right number of individuals needed in order to be manageable in an actual conversation, but still have some kind of influence toward the broader industry, and also represent an acceptable cross-section of stakeholders. It’s an almost impossible number to pin down. Getting right the mix of those who need to be there because they have something to say which should be heard, and those who need to be there because they need to hear what is being said is similarly an almost impossible calculation. The gravitation pull of the aid industry seems to be toward either a secret cabal of senior decision-makers behind closed doors, or else a massive talkfest.

And this was just the Global Consultation. The actual World Humanitarian Summit is gonna be off the chain.

Local is urgent. If there was one thing that came through last week, it was that the aid industry has an urgent need to put some solid thinking behind the global reality that we are an increasingly local (some say “southern”) industry and workforce. The disparities between international and local aid providers particularly when it comes to access to funding and participation in industry decision-making fora simply cannot be ignored or given token lip service any longer.

One of the closing remarks was to the effect that we need to make humanitarian response as local as possible, and as international as necessary.


But let’s not applaud and congratulate ourselves for having solved the all-things-local conundrum just yet. As reasonable a statement as that is, implementing it in a way that brings local and international people and organizations into the mix, in ways which respect the experience, perspective, and capabilities of each, yet simultaneously accommodates the capacity challenges of each without compromising the end result–you know, the help that goes to actual people–will be a truly immense undertaking. (Other thoughts on international versus local.)

The shouting matters, but let’s not make it the basis for decision-making. There was a fair amount of shouting—actual shouting—at the GloCon. Fair enough. Some of these issues, specifically ones around the inclusion or exclusion of southern NGOs, have been building for some time. It was important, in my opinion, for those views to be heard in the manner in which they were heard. Whether in global conferences, or simply in the humanitarian coordination meeting in inter-agency response X, I think there’s value in being brought forcibly face-to-face with the reality of the emotional intensity caused by “business as usual” up to now.

That all said, it is important to remember that the most strident, outspoken, or provocative points of view are not necessarily the ones with the most merit. Grinding the panel discussion to an awkward halt is not at all the same thing as winning the debate, let alone being “right,” let alone having a reasonable alternate suggestion.

I heard both wisdom and absurdity from the mouths of people on both sides of the North/South divide. And it occurred to me that at some stage we all have to get better at divorcing our engagement with the message from our opinion of the messenger. Nobody is either right or wrong, in or out of the conversation, listened to or disregarded out of hand, based on how they look or where they’re from.

Who is most qualified to fix the aid system? I know, I know. Variations on the theme of, “We have to work together…”. But really, I ponder this question in the context of the global humanitarian aid system. Who is best placed to fix a flagging aid system? Those who built it in the first place? Those who are outside the system and for a range of reasons want to be inside? Someone else?


Istanbul should be interesting.

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