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.

Take Care

It’s interesting to note the emergence of two strands of discussion in the public space around humanitarian aid and development. One is the issue of chronic and/or traumatic stress and accompanying PTSD among humanitarian workers. In an earlier post I pointed out this article in The Guardian, and then a more recent offering in the New York Times. Of course recovery from traumatic and chronic stress is a very real concern in the aid world—one only now getting the kind of publicity that it deserves, in my opinion, despite the fact that it’s been an issue for decades, now.

The other is the issue of fair/ethical payment for NGO staff, most specifically entry-level staff, interns, etc. This discussion is less well-developed in the blogosphere, but you can see bits of it at The Development Intern, and a few other places. This piece on WhyDev is a good specific example. While the author mainly juxtaposes this phenomenon against the recent dramatic rise of corporation funding for INGOs, it’s fair to say that entry-level and some rank-and-file aid workers were essentially being exploited long before Walmart or Coca-Cola started throwing CSR dollars at the global south.

While we’re a long way from anything like industry-wide consensus, it seems that there is a slowly growing, if thus far poorly focused, movement within and around the industry to recognize the legitimate needs of aid and development workers. This, whether those needs be things like specialized staff care for those who have been exposed to traumatic stress, or simply adequate salary so that staff can realistically afford to live.

In my experience so far it’s fairly easy to get agreement on the above from industry colleagues. Sure, we can get all melancholy, introspective, and even downright self-flagellating at the thought that we typically live better than the poor we say we’re all about helping, and I neither want nor expect these debates to go away. Nevertheless, at an in-principle level, we typically agree: Yes, we should be paid enough to feed and clothe our own children; yes, we should have insurance and retirement plans; yes, we should receive treatment and care for injuries sustained on or as a result of the job, whether those injuries are obvious to others or not. Everyone nods in agreement. We re-draft the operating budget. Done. Right?
Become an aid worker

Not so fast. Even as I write the words, my mind goes to the problems of public opinion. I mean, we attend a coordination meeting in a white Land Cruiser and books get written about how bad our industry is, and by extension, we are. We take basic security precautions in a volatile context, and the blogosphere lights up with angst and vitriol about how we’re minions of an evil empire. How’s it going to be when they find out we’ve gone an upped the salaries of entry-level staff, or that our employer covered the cost of a few hours of professional counseling after that bad incident in Malakal or Raqqa or wherever? I can already see the headlines in my head: Charities Divert Donor Funding To Pay For Expensive Therapy.

It feels like there’s some unresolvable tension, here.


It helps to remember that as of this writing, the most trusted charity rating services continue to base their assessments of, you know, us on a late-1980’s notion of “overhead” (for example, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch). There are other measures, of course. Transparency and accountability are by now traditional favorites, but overhead feels deceptively objective. You can look at the accounting and measure it, or so it seems.

Of course anyone who’s ever worked on the budget for a relief or development project knows that overhead is neither straightforward nor objective. You can go back-and-forth, in some cases for days, with your finance officer or programme officer over what percentage of the field office driver can realistically be charged to the project and thus be legitimately considered direct or project costs, and therefore not overhead. Even the most junior aid industry finance staffer gets to be something of an expert on drawing linkages between a janitor in the D.C. office, and WASH outcomes in, say, Tanzania.

The practical problems of overhead are closely linked to its in-principle problems. Namely, that the value of “low overhead” in the relief and development world is a relic leftover from the days when missionaries would spend their furloughs fundraising at churches. They’d sing songs, show slides of “Africa”, and take up an offering, all the while assuring parishioners that their money wouldn’t be wasted on frivolities and needless luxuries. Donations would be used to win souls for The Kingdom, not taking their own children on vacation in Mombassa. Their qualification to do the work of the Lord came down, more than anything else, to their willingness to live lives of sacrifice and deprivation. The value of proclaiming low overhead to the world is essentially an assertion of moral superiority, grounded in the assumption that volume of need is the overarching concern. And, by extension, relegating things like quality and professionalism to secondary or tertiary status (if they were even considered).

To justify the existence of a project or organization on the basis of low overhead, you have to literally believe that what you actually do and how you actually do it is of little consequence, compared with volume of output. You have to be able to believe that every dollar spent paying the salary of those doing the implementing literally erodes the overall end result. You have to be willing to believe that the level of personal sacrifice of the practitioner has a tangible effect on the end result. And further, that it’s possible to evaluate the outcomes a priori, based on that apparent personal sacrifice. If we could only find someone who would do the work for free, we could save more lives…

I can think of few things more damaging and detrimental to the relationship between ourselves and the publics who support what we do, then these embedded, mutually reinforcing concepts of low overhead and the importance of apparent personal sacrifice. I don’t think I can think of anything that sets us up for dysfunctional relationships with everyone—donors, beneficiaries, the public, The Media—than these notions that our organizations should do more with less, and that we, as individual people inside the system, also should experience an acceptable level of personal deprivation, because our level of personal deprivation is somehow linked to humanitarian outcomes. Our collective continued fixation on low overhead and aid worker personal life sacrifice forces us and our donors feel as if we must choose between white interns or brown babies. And only a really horrible person would ever choose the white interns.


So, where does this leave us? And what is the way forward? I don’t think there is a single universal solution. But I think it starts with a few obvious things:

We need to assertively remove every shred of overhead from how we discuss our work, whether internally or externally. Efficiency matters, for sure. But low overhead and efficient delivery of humanitarian outcomes are not only not the same things, but they’re not even related. We have to take references to “how much of your dollar goes to beneficiaries” out of our marketing, off of our websites, and out of our conversations. We have to get charity rating services to stop using percentage of revenue to the field as a metric. If we cannot articulate how HQ activity X contributes to outcome Y in the field, then we need to stop doing activity X. Everything is, or should be, related to impact. There’s no such thing as overhead.

We need to assertively remove any doubt about the legitimacy of our own needs as humanitarian aid and development workers. As Alessandra Pigni puts it, this is not a contest to see who can suffer the most. Lots of embedded issues, here: This is a job, like any other, that we do to make a living. We are professional people with specific, identifiable skills which we employ in the course of doing our humanitarian work. Aid work is work, for which we absolutely deserve to be compensated fairly. To suggest otherwise erodes the argument that we deserve anything more than treasure in Heaven in exchange for our service. We need to be able look our donors in the eye and tell them in as many words that yes, we do expect them to pay for salary and benefits for ourselves and our staff as a perfectly legitimate part of the cost of implementing aid and development. We have to disabuse ourselves and everyone in our spheres of influence of this falsely dichotomous choice between taking care of aid workers (us) and delivering more life-sustaining aid to those who need it most.


Will doing as I suggest fix everything wrong with aid? Of course not. We still have a lot to work out with regard to our own efficiency and impact. There are miles to go before our industry is accountable to the communities we serve as it should be. We still have a lot to discuss, perhaps without ever achieving complete resolution, around how we make things work between foreigners and non-foreigners.

But the context for what we do is changing. We have to take care of us. Moving the larger conversation away from outmoded ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it—away from things like overhead and personal sacrifice—is a critical and necessary step toward making that happen.

Part II: One Standard To Rule Them All

I suppose now is as good a time as any to let you in on a little humanitarian aid industry nugget that, so far as I can tell, has received zero attention from any of the major news outlets that allegedly cover the humanitarian sector: The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and People in Aid (PIA) are merging into a single organization. Don’t take my work for it—it’s all right there on People In Aid’s website: HAP International and People In Aid to join forces to strengthen quality and accountability in the humanitarian and development sector.

And then a further announcement about the merger itself on the HAP website: HAP And People In Aid To Form The CHS Alliance.

There. The new organization will be launched in June of 2015 in Nairobi and London, with HQ sites initially in both London and Geneva. And although the deadlineapplications has passed, there was an open recruitment process for the Executive Director of the new CHS Alliance.

So, why does the CHS Alliance matter? It matters on a couple of levels. First, it’s the merger and consolidation of several major industry standard-setting organizations. It’d be like Tata taking over Range Rover (that really happened, actually), or a merger between the FAA and the TSA. Yes, of course I realize that this is not nearly as interesting as Nick Kristof’s latest book or Bill Gates drinking toilet water. Nothing about this is as headline worthy as “The Aid Industry Failed Haiti” , or “What if your humanitarian donations are making things worse?”  But in terms of the implications for how we carry out humanitarian aid and make it better, the CHS and the formation of a CHS Alliance is far more important. Whether you’re a die-hard aid apologetic or committed, life-long critic, you cannot afford to no know about the CHS Alliance.

Second, it represents the harmonisation of several existing sets of standards (those standards so many thought we didn’t have), specifically People in Aid, HAP, and Sphere. From the CHS website:


The new Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) was launched in December 2014 and replaces the HAP Standard, People In Aid Code of Good Practice, and the Sphere Core Standards. The CHS aims to become the key reference framework for humanitarian standards, supporting quality and accountability in all programmes.

In a some what unwieldy system of standards and industry self-regulatory bodies, the CHS and the CHS Alliance represents an important step in the direction of a single, unified standard.

One Standard To Rule Them All

One Standard To Rule Them All

The new Core Humanitarian Standard is comprised of a set of nine commitments—broad aspirational statements about what we all believe should be the case in a humanitarian operation or relief response. For example, Commitment 1: “Communities and people affected by crisis receive assistance appropriate and relevant to their needs.”

Details about how these commitments should look like in actual practice are spelled out in an accompanying set of guidance notes and indicators. So, for example, the three performance indicators for Commitment 1, currently read:

1. Degree to which people affected by the crisis consider that the response takes account of their specific needs and culture. 

2. Degree to which the assistance and protection provided correspond with assessed risks, vulnerabilities and needs. 

3. Degree to which response takes account of the capacities (skills, structures and knowledge) of people requiring assistance and/or protection.


There are, then, technical guidance notes in which the performance indicators are elaborated even further. Under Commitment 1 they’re things like, you have to do evidence-based programming, collect data repeatedly, and disaggregate it.

All three original projects, as well as the new, consolidated CHS Alliance are governed by intensively inclusive processes, by which I specifically mean that there is proportional representation from the so-called “Global South” at all levels of governance on through to technical input and review. Here are links to composition of various groups within the project, meeting notes, etc.

Moreover, for the CHS—the new set of core standards—the entire world (that’d be you) are still encouraged to review and comment on the guidance notes. The primary commitments have been written. That part is done. But the guidance notes, which is the part where it goes into detail about how member organizations should be required to concretely demonstrate compliance, is still open for comment.

Here’s the open invitation to provide input. Heck, I’ll even click the links for you:

There’s a somewhat lengthy but very worthwhile FAQs document about the CHS. I’d recommend reading it.


*  *  *

Perhaps in another post I’ll go into what I think aid industry standards in general, and the CHS in particular mean for those who watch, write about, and critique the humanitarian industry. For now, I’ll leave you with three main thoughts:

Dispell historical notions of aid and aid workers. Obviously I have some personal bias, here, but I don’t see how it’s possible to read the CHS itself, along with the guidance notes and indicators, and still cling to the view of this industry as out of touch or unsophisticated. You may take issue with the wording of some commitments or disagree with some of the guidance, but I challenge any pundit or critic to read the documents and then still try to make the case that we’re a bunch of clueless amateurs who are making it all up as we go. In the absence of some kind of external regulatory body, this is our attempt to improve humanitarian practice and hold ourselves accountable to an identifiable standard.

No one’s saying it’s perfect. It’s a work in prgress. It’s one step in a longer journey. But it does represent a wide swath of industry participants of all stripes. It is a very concrete move toward great accountability, transparency, and quality over all, with increasingly specific, identifiable points of compliance.

But… you’re a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I get it. You read all the guidance notes and you’re thinking to yourself something like, “man, some of those indicators are so broad you could run your supply chain through them.” I’ll say two things. First, sure, yep—anything can be fudged. At least in the US, our legal system thrives as it does because people fudge things that others thought were cut-and-dried. Second, the guidance notes and indicators are still open for comment. Please, do share your wisdom and insight.

The Core Humanitarian Standard establishes a starting point for inquiry. The CHS won’t immediately revolutionize aid. The CHS Alliance won’t immediately enforce compliance and boot incompetent or dodgy practitioners out the interagency response. But it does provide you, dear critic, with a starting point for your inquiry. Maybe you’re convinced that we’re just not transparent enough. As it turns out, there’s a CHS commitment that deals specifically with this. It’s number  4. “Communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them.”

You may disagree with the way that commitment is captured, but at least you have a starting point for your inquiry within a recipient community, or in your conversation with an INGO that you think is not in compliance. When you get the media relations person on the line, you can say something like, “Well, the second performance indicator under CHS commitment 4 reads, ‘Degree to which people affected by crisis are satisfied that they have access to the information they need.’, but none of the survivors in [YOUR AREA OF OPERATION] expressed satisfaction…”

See? I’m practically doing your job for you! And if the un-transparent NGO you’re talking to responds negatively, well, then, your headline has practically written itself. How convenient is that?


See the previous post: Part I: Standards

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

Part I: Standards

If you’re one of those people who’s convinced that the aid industry is not accountable and doesn’t have standards, you’ll be thrilled to learn that, well, actually we are, and we do.

Actually, we have for quite some time. (You probably could have just used that new thing called “Google” to discover this on your own, but no matter. You’re here now, and so I’ll save you the trouble.)

Let’s talk about a few of the important sets of standards, and transparency and accountability mechanisms within the aid industry:

Sphere (http://www.sphereproject.org/)  was one of the first and is probably the most well-known. It is a collection of mostly technical standards. Things like, if you’re going to provide shelter as part of your relief response, your shelter design has to provide 3.5m2 of covered living space per person. So, let’s just say you get sent to Vanuatu/Kathmandu/Tacloban/wherever, and let’s just say that the issue of water keeps coming up. The NGOs didn’t provide enough water, or whatever. Here’s the standard for water supply: access and quantity. Everything from how much per person, per day, to how long a survivor should be expected to wait in queue… Click around the Sphere website. Everything there is free to download, in most cases in multiple languages.

International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) (http://www.aidtransparency.net/). Quite convinced, are you, that there’s no standard for transparency in the aid industry? Well, you’d be wrong. Here’s the standard. It’s a little less straightforward than Sphere, but meat is there. Members are asked to provide data—primarily financial data—in formats that roll up into the IATI database. But to those who are interested (and, of course, skilled enough at Google to discover IATI in the first place), the data is right there, out in the open for all to see. Here’s the list of NGOs and INGOs who are part of the IATI registry. So far there are 330-something registrees, and counting.

People in Aid (http://www.peopleinaid.org/). An entire member organization devoted to taking care of our people. You don’t think that NGOs have adequate staff care policies and practices? Or maybe you’re incensed over the disparity between local and expatriate compensation and the fact that “no one’s talking about this?” As it turns out, there is actually guidance around these (and many other) issues. Here’s the code. Like most other standards and quasi-regulatory projects in the aid industry, People in Aid is a member organization. Here’s the list of members.

The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP). (http://www.hapinternational.org/). Here, once again, an entire member organization devoted specifically to accountability by aid NGOs and other humanitarian actors. To those who continue to beat the “there’s no accountability standard for aid NGOs” drum, I just have to say: sorry, but you’re wrong. Here’s the standard. Take a look, and you’ll see that it’s quite specific.

Like the others, HAP is a member organization. Here is the member registry. And HAP has even put up a special online set of tools and resources specifically for those responding to the Nepal earthquake.

Also, because this issue of accountability comes up all the time, I just have to point out that HAP is not new. HAP was formed in 2003. Don’t take my word for it: read about it on Wikepedia.

Other industry standard-setting and internal governance projects that might be worth understanding: CaLP, ELHRA, IASC, ICVA, SCHR. Never heard of them? Don’t know why they’re important? Well, if your job involves commenting on the extent to which the humanitarian industry is or is not well-organized, accountable, effective, learning, etc., then it might be a good idea to have some basic understanding of how this industry is structured and how it works. Just throwing that out there.

Lastly, I’ll mention that there is a brand new standard-setting member organization call the Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance (CHS Alliance). I’ll write an entire post about the CHS Alliance next, but for now, here’s a link you can look at.

*  *  *

Are the standards perfect? Of course not. Are they the end-all, be-all? Most important, do they mean that the aid sector is above scrutiny? Of course not.

These are standards that we set for ourselves, and against which we try to hold ourselves accountable.

Now you know.

Next time: One Standard To Rule Them All.

Open Letter to The Media, re: Nepal Earthquake

Aid workers, you know how this goes. In approximately one year, the media is going too be all up in our grill.

Why? Because after a gazillion dollars in aid, Kathmandu will still not look like Singapore; some people will still be living in tents (as opposed to two-storey modular homes with Direct TV and WiFi); foreigners will have been seen going to meetings in white Land Cruisers; and, well, frankly no one was “accountable” or “transparent.” At least a few journalists will jump-start stagnating careers by writing books stridently critical of the aid industry (The Big Drone That Flew By, etc.) and at least two will claim to have been “the only foreign correspondent in Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake.” (They’ll refer to themselves as “earthquake survivors” in their bios and interviews.)

At the one year anniversary, major networks will run specials on “where the money went” or “did aid really help Nepal?” Of course, a bunch of new INGOs (some started up by failed climbers) specifically focused on the earthquake will be interviewed and featured at length. They’ll make outrageous (and impossible to verify) claims about how they cut through red tape and outwitted the aid system to deliver life-saving assistance to those who most desperately needed it.  (I’ll never understand why the go-to response by everyone who feels that the aid industry is an inefficient bureaucracy seems to be to start their own NGO, thus adding to the net amount of bureaucracy in the world. But obviously I digress.) They’ll use words like “bloated” to describe NGO salary structures, and point to the fact that aid workers took R&R as proof that everyone in the aid system is hopelessly self-interested.

At some point during year one there will be a celebrity visit that goes wildly/hilariously amuck: Someone (my money’s on Ian Birrel) will latch onto that as proof that “aid doesn’t work”, and do a lot of strident tweeting about it. Wonks from think tanks or universities that end in “ord,” who’ve never implemented anything even remotely close to a relief response, will give soundbites about the importance of innovation, humanitarian UAVs, and big data. Maybe Richard Engel or Ann Curry will fly in and have scripted heart-to-heart interviews with survivors, after which they’ll gaze into the camera and offer pithy one-line analyses in their best weary/soulful voices.

Engel Nepal

Yes, those of us in the aid industry know this is coming. It happens every time, it’s annoying as hell, and it sucks up precious overhead to deal with it on top of everything else. So maybe let’s just nip some of that in the bud right now.

Media, you’re on notice:

If you want to say that the aid industry was not accountable in Nepal, then articulate the baseline and the standard now. What is our target?

If you want to say that we are not delivering aid fast enough, then do share—what’s the metric that we’re aiming for? At what objectively verifiable rate of delivery will this simply cease to be an issue for you?

If you want to complain that we’re not transparent, then tell us right now what level of transparency, in your expert opinions, is sufficient?

Please do explain right now what state of recovery Kathmandu should be in in one year’s time if we’re doing our jobs properly.

Too many INGOs swarming to Nepal? Okay, how many should there be? Do be specific. Too many foreigners going to too many meetings? Please, what is an optimal, or at least an acceptable foreigner-to-local ratio? And what is the preferred number of meetings per day/week/etc?

This will make all of our jobs (including yours) easier.



Please like, share, tweet, etc.

[Maybe related: How to write about humanitarian work]


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honor Among Thieves: Launch!

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

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


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

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

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

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

Or, on Amazon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Honor Among Thieves

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

ISBN: 0989365972
2606 KB

ISBN: 0989365972
6” X 9”
274 pages




Weekend Update!

Weekend Update:

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

Check out the three-part interview series:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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