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, Can-do.org, 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.

Speak Your Mind

Some of you may have noticed that over the weekend I began releasing short surveys into the ether. These (I prefer the term) “mini-polls” are part of a very open-ended inquiry to try to understand the aid industry workforce better. I am doing this mainly because I am curious, but also because I think that we—aid and development workers—are mostly mis-understood, due in large part to the fact that we’ve been very badly studied up to now. My favorite analogy is that we’re treated like adult film stars: pervasive, widespread assumptions about who we are and what we think drive everything from media coverage to public policy to donor trends to in-house staff care practices. The problem is that no one ever really bothers asking.

So I’m asking.

I’m asking because I think the most important questions generally have not been asked up to now. I’d like to test out a few of my own hypotheses about us, to confirm or maybe shatter some of my own assumptions, and generally have fun. I promise to share all results at some point.

If you have not taken the mini-polls I’ve released thus far, please do so. Here they are:

And of course, once you take them, please do tweet, Facebook, LinkedIn, and otherwise disseminate the links to your aid industry networks!


Some of you will remember that more than a year ago I was part of the launch of a much larger, more rigorous and formal Aid Worker Survey (#humsurvey), along with a research partner at Elon University. While that survey is now closed, the analysis remains ongoing, and results will absolutely be published. In the meantime, you can following initial releases of interesting bits on the Aid Worker Voices blog.

This new series of mini-polls comes out of that project, and in many ways what I’m doing now could be considered follow-up. I’m using these mini-polls to drill down or clarify some issues, based on your responses to the Aid Worker Survey. While I’m doing these on my own, with my own accounts, I remain in contact and will share these data with my research colleague from Elon U.

Now I know very well that many of you design, conduct, and analyze surveys for a living. And knowing the aid industry as I do, I also know that many of you will want to nit-pick these mini-polls to death (thanks to early responses in comment boxes, I can see that it’s already happening).

But I’d encourage you all to just play along. Don’t overthink this. Relax: I’m not looking to make grand universal statements about the aid industry or aid workers. I’m not trying to put you into boxes or to define the last word on anything. By contrast, I am looking to identify themes and trends that may be, you know, important and worth further inquiry.

[It might interest someone to know, for example, 83% of respondents to the You work for a charity, but would you give to one? mini-poll do give to charity, but only 50% would consider giving to their own employer…]

There’s an element of (my version of) fun, too. Maybe we’ll poke a little at some of the traditional aid industry hornet’s nests.

[Of those who have taken the Which is worse? mini-poll so far, an overwhelming majority—88.3%—felt that inadequate staff care by INGOs in the event of traumatic stress was worse than the fact that UN interns get paid next to nothing. But are so far unable to reach a clear consensus on whether widespread aid industry racism is more of a problem that widespread aid industry sexsim, or vice versa..]

So, just play along, and—who knows?—maybe have a tiny bit of fun in the process. This is your chance to be heard on issues that neither HR nor the media seem to ever ask about.

Stay current! I will share all results at some point. It may be via posts on this blog, it may be in books that haven’t been written or published yet, and it may be via snippets on Facebook. To make sure you’re current with all the latest mini-polls, along with any posted results, be sure to follow:

Other things: Yes, it’s Survey Monkey. We work with what we have, and in this case what’s free. And since I’m using the free version, it means we’re stuck with a 10 question max. Which means that every mini-poll will necessarily be short and sweet.

I will keep these mini-polls open indefinitely. So any results that I share on this blog will necessarily be “to-date.”

If you have questions or comments about this project, or would like to suggest a topic, please write to evilgenius.main(at)gmail(dot)com, or use the “Contact” form on the Evil Genius HQ website. I promise read and appreciate, but not necessarily respond to every message.

The Good Ones

The most crucial issue facing the aid world right now is essentially, “what does excellence look like?”

Not efficiency. Not innovation or accountability or humanitarian space. Sure, you can spin it different ways, or attach different qualifiers before or after. But at its core, our most pressing challenge right now is simply to define excellence (and the degrees leading up to it) for ourselves and for the world.


It was interesting to read commentary on Facebook the other day about this article (the one about the aid worker suing NRC for staff care negligence). I won’t ramble here about the issue of staff care. What I do want to pick up on were several comments in different places to the effect that, “OMG, I’m so surprised. I thought NRC was one of the good ones…”

Not to pick on NRC, but what makes them one of “the good ones?” Not that they’re not, but from where I sit, they seem… you know… kinda the same as all the rest. NRC interventions in the relief responses that I’ve been part of seem, well, pretty much the same thing in pretty much the same way as everyone else. I’m sure some die-hard lifer in a cubicle in Oslo could bang on about the uniqueness of their programmatic approach and why it’s allegedly better.

But my real point, as I wrote here, is that most of us could probably not tell one INGO from another based on actual programs in the field. Take away the logos and the branding and ask yourself: could you distinguish a food distribution run by NRC from one run by IRC or CRS? I’m betting on “no, you couldn’t.” I doubt that I could.

We form opinions about aid organizations based on their marketing, celebrity spokespeople who say/do dumb things, and how “cool” they are in the field. But other than that, how can we tell which are truly excellent?

Right now our systems, our tools, our paradigms and approaches are set up to make things less crappy. We “reduce human suffering.” Just reduce human suffering by one against whatever baseline on whatever indicator, and voila! Success!

Yeah, sure. We can set targets. “Increase the percentage of pregnant women who seek two or more pre-natal visits to 15%…” But I would argue that this is still more about achieving a non-state, than achieving a state of being. We define what we do in terms of an absolute problem, and articulate any progress at all in the opposite direction of that problem as improvement. Reduce human suffering. Check.

We can’t say what real excellence is, but by contrast, we seem very in touch with what terrible is. Spend just one evening with aid workers off the clock, and you get the run-down of everyone in the organization or response who’s incompetent, from the front desk receptionist at HQ all the way up to CEO of the global organization, along with an exhaustive litany of every bad decision made, every dumb thing done, and everything else wrong with those being ranted about.

We know what an idiot, incompetent, aid industry jerk looks like. We meet them all the time. But what about an excellent one? What about one who truly excels, who genuinely performs at above standard? Yes, of course many of us can name industry colleagues who we think are excellent at what they do. But as I mentally go through my short list of those whom I think fit the “excellent” bill, and try to define why they’re on it, I struggle to come up with much more than some combination of “easy to get along with” and “reliable/get reports in on time.” Seriously.

And if you look at NGO employee performance management, you see the pattern replicated. More than anything, aid workers / NGO staff are evaluated and rewarded based on how much or little drama they cause, and how diligent they are about bureaucratic process. It doesn’t matter how many lives you’re personally responsible for saving via your hardcore aid worker skills: Fail to submit your trip reports enough times in a row, and you will find yourself at a non-optional appointment with HR. By contrast, I’ve seen (many) people who by any rational analysis have added to the amount of aid dependency in the world, but who then got promoted to senior leadership in well-known household charities or the UN system. All to say that we can quickly tear apart a colleague who we think doesn’t cut it. But we’re incredibly scattered when it comes to pinning down what constitutes the opposite end of the spectrum.

The problems created by our collective inability (thus far) to articulate what aid world excellence is, juxtaposed against our preoccupation with what sucks reverberate in nearly every arena that we move in. Whether we’re talking about individual performance, whether an organization is “one of the good ones”, or the quality of an interagency relief response, we snap to two basic categories: abject crap, and everything else.

Of course the problem is that you could fit a galaxy inside the wide, vast majority that is “everything else.” And this is a real problem when it comes to knowing how we’ve done. Because knowing how we’ve done requires having a standard against which to measure. And I don’t mean standards like Sphere or CHS—as much as I love both of those, they essentially point us away from piss-poor, rather than towards excellence. They establish a threshold, not raise the bar. Nor do I mean things like the MDGs—they’re much too broad, too all-inclusive, too far into the future (yes, I know they’re supposed to be attained by next year), to be really useful, especially for relief response.

Yes, build back better. But how much better is enough? For the sake of argument, what conditions should have been achieved in (let’s just say) Haiti as a signal that the relief response was over? Everyone is keen to point out where we collectively screwed up (despite some clear successes). But what should have been? We hesitate to say. Maybe we feel ethnocentric doing so. Maybe we get stuck in epistemological inertia—the more we know, the more we know we don’t know—and hesitate to make the call for fear of doing the wrong thing. But then we do something. We make things less crappy. We stop short of aiming with conviction at a target, and focus instead on achieving some kind of nebulous non-state. It’s just another way of saying, “oh, well, it’s better than nothing.

Our unwillingness to tackle head-on the vexing questions of what should be mean that, while six T-shelters feels like a ridiculously too-low number of T-shelters to have built with half a billion USD, those of us inside the system still struggle to find words to either condemn or defend the Red Cross. I mean, other than to say something like, “dang—they should have handled the media better.” Yes, six is obviously too few in the extreme. But what should the number have been? No, I’m serious. How many T-shelters should the Red Cross have built with half a billion? Seven? Five hundred? One thousand, two hundred, and eighty-four? At exactly what number of T-shelters would Pro Publica have concluded its investigation with a “there’s nothing here” determination and shifted their attention elsewhere? (I will bet beer that no one at Pro Publica can answer this question.)

Which, of course, leads to one of my professional pet peeves—critique of aid in the media.

Just to be clear, I don’t mind critique of aid. And I don’t particularly mind the fact that critique comes from this thing called The Media. But what drives me right around the bend is when (usually) some journalist gets passionately in our faces about something that clearly sucked, but who when pressed can’t say what non-sucky state of being should have been brought into existence instead.

  • “Too many expats going to meetings in White Land Cruisers.” Okay, what’s the right number of expats, and what color should the Land Cruisers be?
  • “It took too long to get life-saving assistance into Aceh.” Fair enough. How long should it have taken?
  • “INGOs wasted millions on expensive staff salary & benefits packages.” Alright, what should the salary structure look like?
  • “The aid system is a complete joke.” So… what’s the remedy?
  • “Azraq looks like a bloody concentration camp in the middle of the desert.” Agreed. I’d love to hear of other options…

For all of these, and a thousand more, we (and apparently journalists, academics, and amateur pundits, too) get that there’s something wrong. But if not the current state, what should it be? We can call out a piss-poor relief response. That’s a treasured pastime. But what does an excellent one look like? I genuinely want to know.

Having great conviction about what shouldn’t be, while at the same time unable to say with any certainty what should be is no way to live. Nor is it basis for humanitarian action, nor for rational critique of humanitarian action either. If we cannot say what should be, the end result, the desired state, then the aid system is nothing more than a better funded, more technologically sophisticated (and probably more self-righteous) version of the cruise line tourists who take a break from shopping to “help the poor” in Tegucigalpa or wherever. Without a clear picture of what should eventually be in the places that we work in under the broad mantel of helping, our response to criticism whether internal or external amounts to dabbling around the edges of issues: we nickle-and-dime travel budgets, hire more media relations staff, and take taxis to coordination meetings even though we have vehicles.


I can’t say what the answers all are. I think we have to be willing to envision specific future conditions in the places where we respond. We need to get better at articulating when our work is actually done, based on things other than when the grants run out or when our registration expires. We have to make peace with the reality that at some point our work in (PICK A COUNTRY/DISASTER ZONE) will be done. And not as in, “we worked ourselves out of our jobs.” But as in, “We came here and did what we said we would do, and whatever comes next is simply not up to us.”

I think we have to get better, too, at not overstating (as we have done for as long as the aid industry has existed) the depth and breadth of our contribution toward the big picture. We have to stop talking about what we do and what we’re capable of as if we’re everything to everyone. We have to stop making it seem that if you don’t send us your $20 right now children will die. We have to stop fronting like we’re ending human trafficking, reversing climate change, systematically eradicating extreme poverty, all while buying sustainable clothing made by hand by people who used to work in sweatshops but now don’t. All before breakfast. By Facebook and Snapchat.

It’s time to own the reality that the aid system is one small part of a much larger picture, and individual organizations but pixels in that picture. It’s time to start acting like we’re part of a bigger picture, rather than the current norm which is to act like we are The Picture.

It’s time to be honest about limitations. We chip at the stone. It’s time to make the message about sharing insight and explaining possible solutions, and our respective contributions to those possible solutions. This, rather than constantly making the message about brand awareness and donor acceptance.

Maybe if we get these bits right, we’ll find the space for an equally honest conversation about what true excellence is in our world. Maybe we’ll actually do excellent work (that’s what I signed up for). Maybe then the places we go will really be better off for us having been there. And maybe then the journalists and the bloggers will stop riding our asses about what kind of vehicle we ride to work in, or what color our staff are. And maybe donors will support us because we know what we’re doing, where we’re headed, and we very clearly know and can explain to anyone who wants to hear it, when we get there (rather than the current norm which is to support us because we send them nice pictures or because we get the reports in on time and in the proper format)…

Maybe then we’ll be closer to actually earning the title of “one of the good ones.”

Too Late

Okay blogosphere peeps and media, here’s the thing:

By the time small children are washing up on beaches, it is already too late.


I will not post or link to that famous picture, because you’ve all seen it, like, 400 times already. But the discussion and debate and general angst about it just all seem very uninformed and, well, sub-101.

Should we post pictures of dead children on Facebook? Would you post a picture of someone you knew dead on Facebook? OMG. Outrage! Let’s just tweet and “like” the hell out of it! Let’s draw poignant cartoon versions of it. Let’s discuss it. Be the change.

Well, I am sorry (#notreally), but I just have to get this out.

By the time small children are washing up dead on beaches, the discussion about representation simply does not matter. If we weren’t shocked into action by ISIS fighters’ Instagram uploads of beheaded Yazidis and Kurds, then I’m not sure what we think will be accomplished this time.

By the time there’s a dead little boy at the water’s edge, we are past the point where your empathy matters. Yes, there’s an in-principle aspect to empathy. We should care. We’re human (or so we like to keep telling ourselves). But at a practical level, so far our collective empathy has not accomplished a damn thing.

The crisis that ultimately lead to a child by the name of Aylan having his picture taken, dead, on a beach in Turkey is nothing new. (And let’s not forget the hundreds, maybe thousands of others, unsung, unacknowledged, largely un-cared about by the rest of the world, many, maybe most of whom never even managed to get out of Syria.) This situation did not sneak up on us. Surely, all of us, and certainly those most vocal about how terrible this all is (it is terrible) had the opportunity long before this do something other than be all dramatic on social media.

You want to be outraged? Be outraged at your own politicians. Hold your government accountable for its foreign policy in the Middle East. March and demonstrate in the streets of your nations’ capital. Aylan is dead because George Bush; Assad; ISIS; European angst about refugees. Hold your government accountable for its action on refugee issues.

You want to be part of the solution? Put pressure in whatever way you can on the UN to step up, both in Syria, in the immediate peripheral countries, and in refugee receiving countries. Same for NGOs and relief organizations. Stop wasting your money on the orphanages and the youth groups to Uganda or Cambodia. For goodness sake, stop buying shoes and trinkets from organizations with wacky programme models, and do support organizations who actually work with Syrian IDPs and refugees.

If this was a heated conversation about a Taylor Swift video or some annoying businessman who thinks he can run a country, then yeah, fine. Lengthy articles and analysis, some nuanced, some extreme, would be all good and well. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it? Dead children washing up on beaches are the symptom, not the actual illness. By the time the world has gotten to the point that dead children are washing up on beaches (and how messed up is that?), we have much deeper problems than whether or not the picture should be in the paper. And we are far, far beyond the point where even the most evocative artistic renditions will make an appreciable difference. I’ll go even one step further and say that by the time children are washing up on beaches, we’ve passed the point where European dumbassery over whether or not to allow Syrians entry is really the most pressing issue (it’s an important issue; just not the most pressing one, IMO).

At this stage, most of the public angst and hand-wringing just come off as narcissistic and clueless. Those things will not lead to action, certainly not action that changes the world for people like Aylan and his family. By the time dead little boys are washing up on the beach, it’s already too late for token outrage.

Weekend Whinge

Well, what the heck. Here are some of the things that made me roll my eyes this weekend:

Give a Goat, Save a Girl. This one pushes all of my buttons, but I’ll just mention two:

  • Dollar handles: For only $117 per year, you—yes you—can save a girl in Zambia. Or you can go with the discount and save a girl for only $44 per year in Ethiopia. Fixing poverty has never been cheaper or easier!
  • A magik-bullet solution: Give a goat. No need to think through the complex economic environment that leaves rural farmers disadvantaged; Don’t bother getting into why, exactly, it is that local culture sees marrying off its early teenaged daughters as an option in the first place. The same organization, the Population Council, is quite pleased to advertise their success at promoting male circumcision. They’ve managed to convince local men to have their foreskins cut off. But unpacking the culture around underage marriage for girls is, apparently, beyond the pale. Just give a goat.


Haiti According to TOMS: Well, what to say? Put “TOMS” and “Haiti” in the same sentence and my lamedar automatically flashes bright red. Actually, you know what? “TOMS” by itself makes my lamedar go off. Anyway, TOMS’ latest marketing thingy (here’s the write-up on Humanosphere) has everything: Cheerful, trendily-dressed hipsters. Footage that looks like someone intentionally edited it to look as if it was shot with a Flip cam. And a version of Haiti that is curiously devoid of, you know, actual Haitians. Well, except the ones who welcome the (trendily-dressed hipster) foreigners who teach them how to read and jump rope.

At least the video is in HD.

TOMS/This Is Haiti from marceloagomes on Vimeo.


“I went ordinary. In India.” The pièce de résistance of the week for me is this one in The Guardian. It’s a confessional by someone you’ve probably never heard of, who was once the CEO of an NGO you’ve probably never heard of, who decided to take two years off to live “an ordinary life” in India—during which she has all the classic newb epiphanies:

“As I came to realise: the more you know, the more questions there are…”


“There were also some home truths I came face to face with: that even what I perceived as my enlightened approach to development was patronising and sometimes simply wrong.”


“People, rich and poor, traditional and modern, genuinely want to engage in the market.”

Uh, okay. Not that I disagree, but this is not exactly The Guardian-worthy. If this was some college sophomore blogging about her spring break in Mexico, I’d all, “great—there’s hope for humanity.” But no—this is breaking news for someone who’d previously been the chief executive of a $2,000,000/year+ UK-based charity.

Not only that, but someone who, after two years of living in India saw herself thus:

“Living normally in a developing country – not as a typical expat worker on a high salary – provided me with far better and more nuanced insight into the aspirations of local people.”

Said no self-aware expat, ever.



So, I just watched The Gunman (I was stuck on an airplane, okay?). Maybe it was the jet-lag. Or maybe it was the fact that I am still somewhat crabby from Haiti, but I have to say that I just found the portrayal of aid workers and aid NGOs, well, offensive. Not to be all dramatic and I’m-a-victim, but there it is.


It seems we can’t go for more than a few days without another breaking story about how bad the aid industry is. We can’t account for the money. We harm both those we say we’re trying to help, and also our very own colleagues. We didn’t build enough houses. We’re co-opted for bad purposes by bad people. And right alongside all of that, there’s this growing background hum of popular culture discussion about how to fix it all. We need to report better. We need to hire more local people to be in charge of stuff. We need to stop training.  We need to be more hands-on. No, wait–we need to focus on policy. De-worm/not de-worm. Micro-credit. No, cash, not micro-credit. We need to regulate more. We need to be nicer and less arrogant.

But out of all this noise, what comes more clearly to me by the day is that we have a huge problem of representation–representation of us and of what we do.

There is lots of very visible critique lately around representation of “the poor”, of “beneficiaries” or “aid recipients,” or whatever other terms might come into vogue (one good, recent example here). And rightly so, as this critique has been long in coming and slow to have effect. But let’s not stop there.

Once more, not to be all aid-workers-are-victims, but, well, we kind of are. We are regularly mis-represented and made to look like idiots, whether in films, failed television series, or simply by every actor/actress who starts her or his NGO. We’re misrepresented by our own industry, by our own employers, even, who market a version of what we do that makes it all look easy and fun, and makes fixing the world’s problems seem simple. We’re made to appear as if all it takes to do what we do is a willingness to endure tropical heat and (maybe) the ability to drive a car with manual transmission.

Aid workers, perhaps especially those of us who came of age before there was much of an aid industry to speak of, are notorious for understating their contribution. “Aw shucks, I’m not doing much of anything special… I just sent a lot of email…” And in so doing we are also complicit in our own mis-representation. I’m not at all saying that we should overstate, or be arrogant or boastful. But I absolutely think that the time for self-deprecating affected humility has now passed. If you’re in the industry and cannot articulate what, exactly, you do, and how, exactly, that thing you do feeds into the larger picture of making the world better, then you need to get out.

I think it’s time to adopt the language and rhetoric of “rights.” We’re an industry, a global workforce. It is (or should be) our right to be represented accurately, fairly, and inoffensively. Arguing about the technicalities of humanitarian practice is easily blown off. We have to say things like, “it’s our right…” or “I’m offended…” because that’s what gets heard. It is our right to be represented fairly, whether in movies about us, by the media, or by our own industry’s marketing. Maybe it’s time to start demanding that Sean, Angelina, George, Ben, et al either stop pretending to be us, or commit to getting it right on and off screen.

So, will representing aid workers accurately in films like The Gunman fix everything wrong with aid? No, of course not. But how we think and talk about aid matters. It matters because how we (all) think and talk about aid has a shaping effect on how we do it. And if we consistently get the talking about it part wrong, including representation of us and what we do, it follows that we’re going to keep getting the doing part wrong, too.

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