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GETTING DEVELOPMENT RIGHT A Collection of blog posts Collection 01

Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty

GETTING DEVELOPMENT RIGHT A Collection of blog posts Collection 01

Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty

A WhyDev Limited Publication First published in Australia in 2016 by WhyDev Limited, 6 Pearson Avenue, Gordon NSW 2072 Australia Cover photo by Jessica Meckler Cover designed by Johnny Fernandez Photos on pages 7, 22, 28, 40, 45, 49, 61 & 67 by Jessica Meckler Photos on pages 12, 17, 35 & 54 by Brendan Rigby Copyright Š WhyDev Limited 2016

For more information visit: http://www.whydev.org Ebook designed by Johnny Fernandez Organised by Brendan Rigby, Sonja Larsen, Jordan Brown



Foreword Foreword Jonathan C. Lewis


Contributors Contributors

The poor within our ranks Michael Keller


The myth of “the field” J. (An anonymous aid worker)


Making development work for humanitarian response – and vice versa Marc DuBois


How would you make aid and development better? Weh Yeoh


Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories Daniel Lombardi



Articles Cognitive dissonance: an unspoken qualification for aid work? John Favini


Accepting flaws and doing good: some thoughts Erol Yayboke



We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong Rachel Kurzyp


How to prevent burnout in aid work Alessandra Pigni


Five ways to build resilience: a practical guide Jodi McMurray


52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers The WhyDev team


WhyDev Book Foreword By Jonathan C. Lewis Founder, MCE Social Capital Founder, Opportunity Collaboration Co-Founder, Copia Global Host and Founder, Café Impact

Whether you self-label as an economic development expert, human rights activist, social entrepreneur or impact investor, the essays in Getting Development Right: Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty invite you to evaluate and reevaluate, to think and rethink, your social sector career. Getting Development Right is a guidebook on your path towards effective, lasting economic development work. “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back,” teaches the Chinese proverb. Just as we pick up a travel guide because of what we don’t know, there is power in acknowledging what you don’t know about social justice work. “In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists,” taunted 20th Century social philosopher Eric Hoffer. Each and every essay is like an appreciated dinner guest in deep and witty conversation about issues and topics central to my social change life. Akin to the best kind of mentorship, when the essays don’t have answers, they give me questions to ponder. When they don’t have questions, they give me opinions to sharpen my own. All in all, I’m embraced and enriched. In the writings, we are reminded that social entrepreneurs are made, not born. Starting and sustaining a social justice career is a do-it-yourself project. Before we can be status quo disruptors, we need to be disruptive, transformative forces in our own lives and careers. -04-

In the most respectful and important ways, the authors are practical, profound, snarky, insightful, vulnerable, tough, edgy, smart-thinking and experienced in the theory and practicum of economic development and social entrepreneurship. In putting their experience and views on the record, they honor the field of social and economic development. Often, these essays veer sharply, and bravely, away from the trite mythologies, received wisdom and standard homilies of the social sector. Nuance, complexity, sophistication and truth-telling prick our thinking and, valuably, force us to consider being better at the economic development work we do. The breezy writing style of Getting Development Right entertains and refreshes in the same way that a cooling gust of wind is welcome on a hot, airless day. These essays are, if nothing else, unflinching weather reports on the turbulent, stormy work of effective economic development. Making mistakes – often times called experiential learning, on-the-job training or field experience – is social entrepreneurship-in-action. Learning from the mistakes of others is smart social entrepreneurship-in-action. Almost certainly, it was a seasoned social entrepreneur who anonymously noted, “Experience teaches you to recognize a mistake when you’ve made it again.” At times, the incandescent candor of the writing made me squirm. Mostly, my margin notes were exclamation points of agreement and reminders-to-self about including a quotation or salient point in my own writing. Is there a higher praise than imitation? If you care about making a difference in the world, you will care about these essays. You will read and reread them – as I did – to challenge yourself to be as good and as effective as you hope to be. The cause of social, environmental and economic justice deserve no less.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty



Marc DuBois Marc DuBois, a humanitarian consultant, researcher and blogger, spent 15 years at MSF-UK, including six years as the Executive Director. During that time, he engaged broadly and critically on challenges to humanitarian action, with a particular focus on issues of protection/advocacy, humanitarian principles and identity. Marc previously served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, and he holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale, an M.A. in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies and a law degree from Columbia University. Marc blogs at Humanicontrarian and has published four short stories. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Jonathan Favini Jonathan Favini recently graduated from Lafayette College with a degree in international affairs, concentrating in development, and is currently interning with the Economic Policy Research Institute in Cape Town, South Africa. As an undergrad, he participated in CIEE’s language and culture program in Dakar, Senegal, and American University’s Washington semester program on Islam and world affairs. Jonathan is interested in anthropological approaches to development, agricultural programs and sustainability, and describes himself as a “self-loathing, Wolfgang Sachs-reading development intern”. You can also follow him on Twitter.


J. J. has been working in international aid for 25 years, with his time equally divided between HQ positions and posts around the world. His past employers include some of the biggest household-name charities, as well as very small NGOs. J. has been blogging about aid for the past nine years, first at Tales from the Hood and now at AidSpeak. He’s also the co-owner of Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. J. has written one non-fiction book about aid and three humanitarian novels, published under his own indie-label, Evil Genius Publishing. You can also follow him on Facebook.

Michael Keller Michael Keller is an international development practitioner and social entrepreneur, having worked in Africa and the Middle East for a number of aid organisations. He is currently working on a book about the internal problems of aid organisations, written from the perspective of front-line aid workers. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Rachel Kurzyp Rachel Kurzyp is a writer and communications consultant. Rachel combines her knowledge of storytelling and digital technology to help brands in the social good space build their digital story. Over the last seven years, she’s worked with international and local organisations across six continents. Her writing has been printed in numerous publications including The Big Issue, Dhaka Tribune, Newsmodo and Mamamia. Rachel is also the Communications Director for WhyDev, Regional Ambassador for NetSquared and Co-founder of Nia Children’s Foundation.


Daniel Lombardi Daniel Lombardi is a documentary photographer and filmmaker who frequently produces media content for humanitarian organisations, including the Red Cross. You can view his portfolio on his website and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Jodi McMurray Jodi McMurray is a former civil servant with high-level international development and diplomatic experience in Afghanistan, China, Central and Eastern Europe and Palestine. Today, she is the Founder of The Humanity Collective, where she works as an Alignment Strategist, providing support to change makers, visionaries and leaders so they can create greater meaning and impact in their lives, their work and the world.

Alessandra Pigni Alessandra Pigni is a clinical psychologist and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford with the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. Her work is about equipping aid workers and humanitarian organisations with the skills needed to deal with stress and prevent burnout in the field. In the past, she worked with MSF/Doctors Without Borders, the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation and several grassroots organisations in Palestine. She blogs at MindfulNext, and you can also follow her on Twitter.


Erol Yayboke Erol Yayboke is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. Previously, he served in a variety of development aid management roles in Iraq, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, with Global Communities, Save the Children and AECOM International Development. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Weh Yeoh Weh Yeoh has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past three years, and founded OIC: The Cambodia Project, which aims to establish speech therapy to Cambodia as a profession. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist at Sydney University who has completed an M.A. in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India and studied Mandarin in Beijing. Weh has previous experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in Cambodia and China, through Handicap International. He is a co-founder of WhyDev, and you can also follow him on Twitter.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


Cognitive dissonance: an unspoken qualification for aid work? By John Favini

Wearing the rather unkempt hairdo I’d grown while studying abroad in Senegal, I used a brief stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I know – not exactly the exotic locale you might be expecting from this blog) to get a dearly overdue haircut. After a few wisecracks about my receding hairline, the barber and I drifted into the familiar realm of aimless small talk that accompanies a haircut almost anywhere. Before long, I was describing my work as an intern at Roots of Development. Deeply interested, the barber prodded me for more information. As he tamed my wild hair, I gave him what details I could – since I had taken the position only a few weeks prior, it was really not all that much. Seeking to describe the organisation fairly, and hoping to avoid industry jargon, I oversimplified and murmured something along the lines of, “We help poor people in a small town in Haiti escape poverty.” I cringed as I repeated silently the organisation’s chosen discourse. “We work WITH communities who choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects. We support development without dependency.” Nonetheless, the clumsy summary I had supplied was ample justification for a firm handshake from the barber when I rose from his worn-in leather chair. As he squeezed my hand, he hardened his gaze and said, “Thank you for the work you are doing. You are making the world a better place.” I smiled, returned his firm grip and walked out. -12-

The next time I peered into the mirror, I found myself admiring the haircut, yet wondering if I’d earned his praise. Certainly the intent of development is noble. At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good. That said, the disturbing truth is that academic and professional evaluations of the development industry have been largely negative. Pondering these critiques, I stopped short of patting myself on the back.

“At face value, the notion of alleviating human suffering, of improving living conditions or elongating lives, is unarguably good.” In that moment of self-reflection (cue dramatic soap opera music and flashback effect), I recalled a particular conversation I’d had during the previous spring in Senegal, with a group of five Peace Corps Volunteers serving there. They had diverse areas of work, two focusing on sustainable agriculture in rural areas and the other three partnering with small businesses in some of the country’s cities. A curious undergrad with similar interests, I used the opportunity to inquire about the Peace Corps experience, eyeing it as a potential post-grad plan.


“Do you feel as though you are getting a good cultural experience? Are you learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society?” I asked.

“I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received.” They replied with a resounding yes. “The most powerful cultural experience of my life,” answered one. “It’s an opportunity like no other to spend some time in a country I might otherwise never visit,” said another. I coughed awkwardly, knowing my next question was a tad stereotypical and would be less enthusiastically received. “Do you think you are making a difference here?” A long silence followed, broken at last by a muffled, “Well…” Each articulated to me a well-processed answer, indicating it was a question they had received prior or, even more likely, frequently asked themselves. No answer was absolute. Soft, uneasy yes’s and very tentative no’s. Obviously, like me, they had gazed uneasily into the mirror a few times. Like most development practitioners, the Peace Corps Volunteers had chosen this line of work with a healthy dose of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance, or at least developed it during their time in the field.


A great wealth of criticism has come from professional, academic and institutional circles in the development community, forming a chorus of impassioned, and persuasive, condemnation. The age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone. Most practitioners know aid can be problematic and that development rhetoric tends to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. They know the minimal funds that emerge from the “developed” world have a tinge of political interest or a bitter ideological after taste. Most are well-versed in development theory and criticism, having read books like The White Man’s Burden, Dead Aid and The Anti-Politics Machine. Yet, despite their knowledge and concerns, most practitioners will, from time to time, be lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity. Many – like me, following that overdue haircut, and my Peace Corps buddies in Senegal – will take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if they deserve such accolades. How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts? I hope dearly it’s more than the dual tides of time and apathy that have allowed the leaders of the field to remain there for a decade, or a few.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


Accepting flaws and doing good: some thoughts By Erol Yayboke

Jonathan’s post on the “cognitive dissonance” required to work in development aid concludes with a series of broad questions that can loosely be translated into: how do you (i.e. “older, wiser” development practitioners) sleep at night? Though not an entirely fair translation, his broader aim to question the “development industry” is well taken. Most of us have had similarly awkward encounters with our barbers, taxi drivers and cousins that left us wondering whether we deserved such praise. Before offering my “sage” responses to the valid questions every development aid worker should ask of him/herself and others, there are a couple of points I’d like to make about the arguments that led up to Jonathan’s questions. First, the “development industry” is a totally theoretical construct that includes countless non-profit, public, private and multi-lateral players, all with competing resources and agendas. We (including yours truly) overuse and abuse it regularly. Also, “development” as presented in the article is heavily skewed towards how “we in the West” have an impact on “those in the rest.” It’s important to note that part of the complexity of development is the fact that this West-centric view point is simultaneously paternalistic and not entirely accurate.


Employees at India’s Ministry of Environment don’t see themselves as working in “development” per se; much like my friend at the U.S. Department of Energy, they’re working within the bureaucracy to improve their country. In other words, there is simply no utopian singular entity called “development” – it is a complex web that doesn’t even begin to understand itself (just ask any UN OCHA employee). In spite of this, some groups have shown remarkable successes in health, food security and generally getting people to care about things outside their own communities (which I posit is better than the isolationist alternative). I recommend focusing on criticising and offering improvements to specific sectors and programs based on concrete evidence, as opposed to chastising “development” as a whole. Second, some of Jonathan’s article relies on one unfortunate tacit assumption: that the Peace Corps is a “development” organisation. Despite claiming that it “[sends] Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world” and work towards “sustainable change,” at best, the Peace Corps is a diplomatic ideal; it was arguably set up as such by Kennedy during the Cold War. An admirable service organisation that has undoubtedly “helped people build better lives,” Peace Corps is nonetheless one whereby, in practice, (mostly) young, energetic, bright Americans who often lack relevant technical skills (how many of us have met a health volunteer who didn’t know First Aid?) ingratiate themselves to communities that would otherwise probably never meet such aliens (double entendre intended). More realistically (and acknowledged by the organisation itself), Peace Corps service is a time for self-discovery – as was the case for the volunteers Jonathan knew in Senegal – a time for Americans themselves to grow in compassion, worldliness and resilience. All noble outcomes, none of which have anything to do with “development.”


Now to the “sage wisdom.”

“Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us.” On reconciling the “industry’s flaws” with my own professional identity, I’d say that we live in a flawed world where nothing is ever perfect. Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us. As professionals, we should constantly be in pursuit of more efficiency, effectiveness and impact. It’s important to establish meaningful metrics for your project (NGO, sector, industry, etc.) and for yourself, referring to – and learning from – them often. I’m a believer in having opinions based on evidence and in the value of real, long-term, first-hand experience topped with healthy doses of skepticism (of which Jonathan lacks not). Ultimately though, we all must strive to first, do no harm – even the best of intentions have the potential for unintended consequences. On recognising problems while continuing to work in this field, I’d challenge Jonathan to find a profession that does not toil with this (somewhat existential) question. To most (in our “industry” at least) who look hard enough, the systemic flaws are readily apparent and littered with political, financial and sometimes even nefarious roadblocks. The challenge (and great reward if you succeed) is to find solutions that are politically supportable, administratively feasible and technically correct. If you can manage to do that, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and scale up!


As for motivation on those ever-present tough days where doubt creeps in? This is a very personal struggle that we all face at points, even while working on the most impactful of projects. Am I truly doing no harm? Am I actually “making a difference?” Alas, there is usually no black and white answer; there rarely is in life. However, the pursuit of impact should drive us to better understand and continually refine our efforts. This desire for more evidence has even spawned a researchbased “industry within an industry” (J-PAL, IPA, EPoD, Evidence Action, etc.) whereby some of the smartest people on the planet (full disclosure: though I work for one of these organisations, I am not one of said geniuses) study the most intransigent development issues. We’re learning more about our impact than ever before. So, for an inquisitive mind like Jonathan’s, never was there a better time to lace on the boots and head to Busia. Along the way, try not to get overwhelmed with the scope and magnitude of the problems, but to break them into smaller, much more manageable (and ideally measurable) pieces. My last bit of advice for Jonathan is to accept his barber’s praise. He chose to work in development in order to make a difference, something at which he will undoubtedly get better over the course of his career, as the “dual tides” of experience and healthy skepticism drive him towards greater impact. Jonathan – feel good about what you’ve done, and use the praise as motivation to improve the aid world, or whatever small corner of it you decide to call home.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


The poor within our ranks By Michael Keller

“Men don’t know what it’s like to be women…. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” Despite a few of its luminaries, such as Paul Farmer, hailing from humbler backgrounds, the unique perspective of international aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds is not often heard in the sector. But, we have recently seen widespread, welcome discussion of the overrepresentation of “Posh White Blokes” in aid. This year’s excellent World Development Report even explores how most development professionals “have never personally experienced the psychological and social contexts of poverty or scarcity; as a result, their decision-making processes may differ from those of people living in poverty.” Perhaps 2015 will be the year we hear more from expat aid workers for whom a steady salary and free housing are viewed as privileges, rather than a sign of sacrifice compared to what could be earned back home. Increasing the number of international aid workers who grew up poor would bring several significant advantages to the sector, which remain beyond reach if we continue simply hiring elites from developing countries and calling it “diversity”.


First, heightened awareness of the impression one gives as an aid worker in poor communities can ensure a minimal level of alienation. It is much easier to be attuned to beneficiaries’ disdain for privileged classes when you have stood on the outside of your own society looking in. For this minority of aid workers, running loud generators all night to keep the AC on is not normal. Having the driver wait with the always-pristine Land Cruiser while you enjoy a restaurant he could never afford is not normal. Popping over to the other side of the continent for a vague workshop is not normal. Because these things are not normal for the majority of our planet. And doing them makes us even more incomprehensible to impoverished locals… and, more importantly, vice-versa. Knowing what it feels like to come into contact with people from an economic class far above your own can serve as a powerful tool in understanding how communities perceive the behaviour of aid workers and how foreigners can better gain local trust and respect.

“an aid worker who herself has been the subject of charity might expect beneficiary humiliation rather than gratefulness” Second, the minority of aid workers who did not grow up in relative wealth are, I suspect, healthily sceptical of the presumed expertise of external actors, including their own organisations. Having witnessed the limitations of domestic NGOs, as well as the habitual failure of their own political leaders to adequately address the needs of the poor, these aid workers are less likely to put unrealistic amounts of faith in the ability of outsiders to solve an issue as intractable as poverty. True change, they realize, tends to start with the will to change. -23-

Third, an aid worker who herself has been the subject of charity might expect beneficiary humiliation rather than gratefulness when the goodies are loaded off the truck, and think of tactics to mitigate it. Personally, I can’t claim to have been raised in a refugee camp, but the day I found a holiday basket of food donated by a local charity on my family’s doorstep after school was not exactly a highlight of my youth. Fourth, money is valued more by those who have had less of it, with important consequences for aid programming. I’ve often been struck by most aid workers’ incomprehension of the strongly incentivising (or disincentivising) effects of small sums of money on local populations. People who value USAID cardboard boxes for their roofing qualities can change their behaviour considerably for a few extra cents. A common lament today centres on the absurd inability to hold workshops in some countries without distributing hefty per diems. Yet at some initial point, someone thought it would be appropriate to pay people the equivalent of several days’ wages performing back-breaking labour to sit in a room for several hours while getting free meals and having tea or Fanta breaks throughout the day. And enough aid workers thereafter felt that the amounts of money involved were small enough not to bother eliminating; as long as they fit in the budget, why bother worrying about the effects of a few dollars at the household level? Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much money to cause significant damage to aid programming. This value attached to a single dollar, along with a more personal sense of solidarity, may also be an important clue as to why lower-income people tend to give more money to charity than the well off. The poorest quintile in the U.S. gives more than twice as much to charity as a percentage of income as the top quintile. Perhaps this also means workers from less well-off backgrounds feel more personal injury and are less tolerant when $20 that they, or their grandmother, donated is wasted or stolen.


Fifth, personal experience with unusual coping mechanisms can add insight into seemingly odd beneficiary behaviour. The fear of not knowing whether basic necessities will be available to you can lead to all sorts of seemingly irrational decisions that cannot be captured in any logframe but must nevertheless be considered and mitigated. A farmer keeping his children out of school to work in the fields perhaps makes more sense to someone who has skipped doctor’s visits for lack of health insurance. Sixth, many of the most committed aid workers I know are not only the poorest, they actively avoid climbing the career ladder to more “desirable” posts. “Making it” to a cushy UN job can be viewed as joining the elitist club they see as out of touch with the realities of aid work, which are best witnessed close to the ground, far from cluster conference rooms.

“The good news is that aid organisations don’t need to sacrifice quality of staff to hire more aid workers with personal connections to poverty.” Career advancement in aid means becoming a manager of other aid workers, leaving direct, front-line work to newcomers, the less qualified, and eccentrics. On a bureaucratic level, therefore, aid organisations would benefit from fostering a culture in which frugality and a deep affinity for “down-and-dirty field work” are virtues, rather than signs of madness or failed careers.


Where can we go from here? While aid workers from poorer backgrounds could bring numerous benefits to the sector, the priority must of course remain on having a professional and quality workforce. The good news is that aid organisations don’t need to sacrifice quality of staff to hire more aid workers with personal connections to poverty. Plenty of them are getting the same quality education as wealthier aid workers, but they are held back by several factors the aid sector needs to more consciously mitigate. Getting a foot in the door of the aid industry is a daunting task for all newcomers. For those with no connections and not enough money to self-fund internships (or even flights to interviews), the door can seem firmly shut (see: the unpaid internship question). Employers should ensure that at least some funded internships are set aside on a needs basis, and make it clear to university career centres that they are interested in addressing the underrepresentation of poorer aid workers. In hiring, meanwhile, the industry fails to assign any usefulness to employee (expat or local) experience of poverty. However, placing more value on this factor, and looking for applicants with the qualities described above, could dramatically influence the direction of the sector’s most fundamental debates and give voice to the poor to a degree that no empowerment initiative or listening exercise has managed to do. Beneficiaries have often seen me as a Posh White Bloke simply because I am a white bloke. Let’s hope for a day when the ironic association between foreign aid worker and wealth is no longer as instinctive. Aid organisations and academics can play a big role in getting us closer to that point; they can start by exploring this issue in greater depth and seeking out the perspectives of aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


The myth of “the field” By J. (An anonymous aid worker)

There are few fixtures of the aid industry that hold as much mystique and show as much staying power as the concept and romance of “the field”. No other grail is so fervently sought among the bright-eyed, hopeful students and newbies as the field. The field, they believe, is where the action is, where they’re actually doing it, whatever “it” is. The harder or more exotic the field location, the better. Cubicles and conference rooms in, say DC, are a necessary evil to be put up with until such time as one can escape to the field. There is no aspect of a young aid professional’s experience so frequently inflated or over-stated on resumes or at happy hour as time in the field. “Nearly one year” is always better than ten and a half months, and so on. By the same token, there is no other trump card played with more authority and self-assurance, whether to put upstart newbs in their places or to establish one’s own silverback status, as years in the field. Years in Kabul or Huambo or San Salvador (and, for reasons I fail to grasp in 2014, Cambodia) make you a hardcore, front-line badass who makes things happen. Years in Brussels or Singapore or DC (the latter at least as dangerous as Phnom Penh) make you a pansy cubicle-farmer who goes to a lot of meetings and writes papers that no one in the field will ever read. Some of you will call me an aid world heretic for this, but it’s got to be said:


Like VHS tapes and personal CD players, “the field” is an artifact left over from a time when white guys in khakis and untucked shirts (or maybe white women in sexy, black tanktops) left someplace comfortable and civilised to go someplace difficult and dangerous, where they would do aid to beneficiaries. I can think of few aspects of the culture of the aid industry that are more counterproductive to what we say we’re trying to accomplish, than to keep alive this notion of this mythical place called “the field.” The reality of the aid industry today is that it no longer (if it ever did) conforms to a field-vs.-everywhere-else way of thinking. It is far too common, even now in 2014, to think and say that there’s this place called the field where aid actually happens, and then there’s everywhere else—HQ, maybe—where other things get discussed or done, but that what does not happen in the field is not really aid. It’s time to recognise that this is just plain incorrect. Make fun, if you will, of what goes on in well-lit UN conference rooms in Geneva, or at the global HQs in DC, Oxford, New York or Singapore (I certainly have and sometimes still do). But it’s important to understand that those things are not just “support” or “fundraising.” They may not be particularly Facebook- or edgy memoir-worthy, but the workshops, meetings and strategy sessions in the humanitarian capitals are every bit as much aid work as are running cholera clinics in Port-au-Prince, getting a truckload of non-food items across the Acekele border crossing or being the accountability officer in Goma. More specifically, to see the field as the place where aid really happens, as compared to everywhere else, is to also miss a basic reality that the decisions that truly make the most difference are not made in this alleged place called the field. Implementation and technical teams at or very near the point of delivery need to be staffed by competent practitioners, and they need to be well-led, of course. It’s important to have solid people there. But look at what gets decided where:


At the project site or at the country office, you get to decide things like the training schedule for the nurse/midwives. Or maybe you get to decide on the wording of the questions in the household survey instrument. You get to decide which trucking company to go with for next month’s shelter kit delivery. Those are all important, of course, and they must be decided well.

“But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over, and I implemented the grants I could win —which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference.” But in the everywhere else, you decide or participate in decisions about where the funding goes. This region gets 2/3, that region gets 1/3. You decide which countries get funding. You decide what sectors get prioritised. These places, more than those. These people, not those. Maternal and child health, but not harm reduction. At the project site, you basically implement the decisions made by those who are elsewhere. When I was a country director (during my own years in this alleged place called the field), I tried repeatedly to articulate and implement a strategy that focused on particular sectors in particular parts of the country where I worked (Vietnam). But at the end of the day, aid industry Darwinism took over, and I implemented the grants I could win—which were not necessarily in my sectors or geographic areas of preference.


I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere. To use another example, in the early weeks of the Haiti earthquake response, World Food Program (WFP) provided nearly 50 metric tons of food for earthquake survivors. The decision to make this amount of food available was made in Rome. The decision about how the food was to be divided up was made—well—globally, via e-mail and the Internet, by the heads of relief and food programming of the various INGO partners (several INGOs did the distribution for WFP). The decisions about targeting (they targeted women on behalf of households) and ration size (50-kg bags) were made by WFP with some input from NGOs, again more or less globally.

“I might have been on the so-called front lines, but the real decisions about where and who and what had been made elsewhere.” In the end, the relief operations teams in “the field” got to decide things like how to divide the tonnage and territory among themselves, where the distribution sites would be, exactly, and to some extent their own individual modes of beneficiary registration. I was in Port-au-Prince at this time, working for one of the INGOs tasked with distributing that WFP food, and I remember that period very well as a time of crazy ‘round-the-clock work. But in the end, we were implementing decisions made by others who, in some cases, were thousands of miles away.


Beyond the basic, structural realities of the aid industry, there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field-vs.everywhere-else thinking. Our continued fixation with the field crystalises residual, essentially ethnocentric notions about those who need help, and about those who do the helping. No matter how much lip service and maybe even real effort we devote to valuing all things “local”–to local capacity building, or local empowerment, to trying to break down the divide(s) between expats and non-expats–we re-cement the divide between “us” and “them” every time we refer to the place where aid supposedly happens as the field.

“there is also a deeper, darker problem perpetuated by the field-vs.-everywhere-else thinking.” Speaking to the empowered, globally-minded Westerners now, we might say that we want Ugandans or Indonesians or Bolivians or whomever else to be empowered owners of their own development. But every time we refer to where they are as “the field”, we underscore our perhaps unconscious views that they are undeveloped, while we are, well, developed. By continually invoking this notion of the field, we reinforce the very divides we say we want to bridge; we further solidify the very inequities we insist we want to eradicate. Inevitably “the field” becomes an even more deeply entrenched separation between “us” and “them”, whether the “them” is those we claim our projects and programs help, our local colleagues with whom we like to say we’re so close or our colleagues hunched over desks in nice offices, writing the grants that keep our salaries flowing and the position papers that (hopefully) keep our employing agencies credible.


Yes, the field sounds exciting. The field sounds romantic. Set in UN cubicles of New York or Geneva, Emergency Sex would hardly be worth reading (although I think it’s safe to say that more or less the same shenanigans go on there, too). But set in the field, it feels like a furtive peek through the lockerroom door into a world that seems both exotic and foreboding. But the romance and the exotic factor of the field are chimera. The number of places in the world where you truly cannot get good Internet or a cappuccino become fewer and farther between by the day. And in this context, the field becomes a huge distraction. I can’t say I have the answer to the question of, “if not the field, then what?” I do know that how we think and speak (or write) about aid matters. I prefer to think about what I do and how that fits into the overall picture more than where I do it. How does what I do today fit into the grand scheme of aid somehow making it into the hands of those who need it most? How does what I do today contribute to improved efficiency and effectiveness of the machine intended to make the world better? It’s not about the where: I know people living in places that, if I was to name them, would make anyone’s list of places in “the field”, but who cannot articulate a straight line of logic between what they spend their days doing and the amount of poverty in the world becoming somehow less. And so, if I could be indulged to deliver one bit of unsolicited advice, it would be simply this: understand and be honest about your motivations—the “why” matters. Find your spot in the overall scheme of what needs to be done. But stop fixating on the where. There is no field.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


Making development work for humanitarian response – and vice versa By Marc DuBois

How many times have we seen this: a complex emergency with a decade or two of heavy humanitarian intervention (maybe some development organisations and peacekeeping forces as well), scores or even hundreds of millions of dollars spent by aid agencies, legions of expats trafficked through– and yet close to zero planned impact on local economic development or resilience? Sound like Eastern DRC? Haiti? South Sudan? Foreign aid policy and practice have failed to view humanitarian crisis as an opportunity for development. This gap highlights a missed potential to capitalise on the presence of such a wellresourced foreign enterprise as humanitarian intervention.

A house divided The aid community has improved its performance these past years by learning that, particularly in complex emergencies, contexts cannot be shoehorned into one end or the other of a false continuum, designated as either “humanitarian” or “development”, with one-size-fits-all implications for the aid response. Nonetheless, this divide is deeply ingrained, reinforced by the two-pronged architecture of the aid system, from funding streams to academic departments to organigrams of agencies and governmental ministries.


This divide has given rise to a fair amount of acrimony, and to a blind spot when it comes to opportunity. It is good–but not good enough–to comprehend that humanitarian crisis and developmental needs lie side by side. We must take the next step and see long-term development opportunities as residing “within” crisis. It’s time for development agencies to seize the presence of the humanitarian machine, by exploiting its potential as a source for financially sustainable (small) businesses. It’s time to make friends with the enemy.

Mind the gap We understand almost intuitively how humanitarian crisis, whether conflict, flows of refugees or natural disaster, generates destruction, including damage to the local economy. Yet crisis often means that business is booming for the humanitarian endeavour. Viewed through an entrepreneurial lens, humanitarian response, particularly those stereotypical Western-led interventions in long-standing emergencies, resembles a pretty fat cash cow. In crisis contexts, INGOs possess relatively massive resources, and they often represent the biggest fish in the pond. In line with these resources, humanitarian NGOs also have needs– many of which could be met locally. Why is it, then, that an organisation like MSF/Doctors without Borders works in Goma for decades, and still expends resources on importing and servicing its own vehicles? Or why in Nyala were there so few restaurants where an expat could go out to eat, even at the height of the Darfur response? With a large, wealthy and needy humanitarian community present for decades, why do we still find development NGOs teaching women to make soap? Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There is nothing wrong with soap. The point is that many income-generating efforts are not successful, in part because of the lack of people willing or able to buy. But the humanitarian industry and the expats it employs are willing and able – so why aren’t development NGOs helping local people meet this demand?


In places like Port-au-Prince and Goma and Nyala, there are, of course, some local businesses and people who take advantage of the presence of foreign NGOs and expats alike, such as landlords, nightclubs and security services. Typically, though, the untapped demand is much larger, particularly for in-house service at NGOs; and, these businesses are either ad-hoc or pre-existing (especially in the early stages of a humanitarian response). Importantly, they are not the result of development agencies capitalising on opportunity, and so do not by design benefit the community, contribute to selfreliance or help establish an entrepreneurial culture. The major humanitarian NGOs (and the UN) continue to be the managers and providers of an internal set of non-humanitarian services, which is inefficient. Here, one could talk of NGOs that hire and manage staff to clean their offices or residences, rather than having a development NGO work with a local group to create a cleaning service business. Ditto for vehicle maintenance, transport, catering, many aspects of supply and other functions that typically remain in-house to the INGO. And what of demand for highly-skilled counselling or consulting services (why do Westerners get so many of those contracts?), outsourced not necessarily due to a lack of local expertise, but because the local expertise lacks the know-how to package and market itself effectively?

Closing the gap There needs to be a convergence of policy and practice aimed at the progressive outsourcing of services from within the foreign humanitarian community to local NGOs and businesses. The first step requires a teaming of development NGOs with their humanitarian cousins to delineate the concept. What services already exist? What services and businesses might comprise “easy wins�? What are the no-go areas (where humanitarian NGOs should retain direct control)? In what contexts would outsourcing be most likely to work? How can the development actors reduce the risks of negative impact when the humanitarians go home?


Next, the development agency must negotiate with national and local authorities, humanitarian NGOs and institutional donors to establish coordinated action and goals. NGOs will need to progressively cede control over important components of their activities. Donors may need to nudge them towards compliance, and national governments may be able to encourage change through regulation. Most importantly, NGOs will have to work in the local community to build the actual businesses and services. This requires working in tandem with humanitarian organisations to ensure that needs are met and the quality of services is sufficient. The point is to create sustainable local capacity–businesses, services, NGOs, etc.–that can fill gaps or replace existing services that are owned or managed by humanitarians themselves. Even to the extent that the activities proposed here already exist, they remain exceptions, haphazard in their genesis and limited in their impact. They do not reflect policy choices aimed at exploiting large-scale, protracted humanitarian interventions for the benefit of local development. Can we not imagine increasing local businesses’ support and service to the humanitarian community, to the point where it becomes a successful core component of development aid? This opportunity may prove infeasible in some contexts, or it may be counter-productive to become dependent on cash cows whose presence is temporary. But, there is significant potentially successful development work in transforming existing functions into sound, income-generating local businesses.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


How would you make aid and development better? By Weh Yeoh

Let’s make aid and development truly about “beneficiaries�, once and for all. Aid and development, as it stands, involves a triangular relationship between the donor, the NGO and, for lack of a better word, beneficiaries. Although the word beneficiary sounds a little too passive for my liking, getting to the core of aid and development is about improving the lives of people in communities that are impoverished or vulnerable. However, too often, aid and development does not revolve around them. The donor often determines what programs get funded and therefore what kind of development work gets done. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) announced in 2000, contain no specific mention of disability. Since then, there has been anecdotal evidence that some programs developed by disability NGOs, in consultation with communities, have been refused funding. Some agencies and funding bodies refuse to fund programs that target people with disabilities simply because disability is not explicitly mentioned in the MDGs. For the 15% of the world who live with disabilities at least, rather than foster collective action, the MDGs have promoted inaction.


We need to create an environment where communities determine for themselves what issues need improvement. This in itself is complex, because simply asking communities often ignores those who are not already in positions of power. It is up to NGOs to reach those who are typically the least heard. Women, children, ethnic minorities, LGBT, migrants, and people with disabilities would help. Let’s get NGOs to do the listening, and then spend time and energy talking to donors about what communities really need.

Put more trust in poor people. In Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South, the authors take a step back from looking at what reduces poverty, and investigate our own attitudes towards poor people. They ask the question: “Who is to blame for poor people being poor: society as a whole, or poor people themselves?” The variation across countries is fascinating. The data shows that the majority of people in the United States tend to blame poor people for their level of poverty, rather than society. At the opposite end of the spectrum, only 13% of people in Germany blame poor people, with 87% blaming an unfair society. Our own attitudes about who is to blame for poverty are crucial in how we attack the problem. If we continue to see poor people as the architects of their own predicament, then “poverty eradication” will continue to be done for them, not by them. Programs will continue to be paternalistic, and poor people themselves will have little to no agency in creating a better future for themselves. Microcredit, or the giving of small loans to people in poverty has, at best, tenuous evidence in lifting people out of poverty across the board. As economist David Roodman says, “microfinance is rarely transformational”. Yet currently, microcredit is incredibly popular. This is despite strong evidence that suggests that unconditional cash transfers (just “giving money to the poor”) may be more effective in reducing poverty, particularly amongst vulnerable groups. -41-

Why do we favour microcredit? One reason may be that behind all of this is the unspoken belief that poor people cannot be trusted. In fact, advocates of microfinance often point to loan repayment rates as a sign that microcredit is working. One of Grameen Bank’s greatest brags is that 97% of their loans are repaid. However, this figure is only a distraction. Surely, the success of microcredit should be measured by the effect on reducing poverty, rather than the ability of people to pay loans back. People often baulk at the idea of giving money away with no strings attached, because they feel that poor people cannot be trusted. Yet the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that cash transfers work better than microcredit. In asking why we still prefer microcredit, we have to ask ourselves the simple question: “Do we trust poor people?�

Do more to reach the most vulnerable. In his book, Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance, David Roodman notes that while microcredit can change the lives of some people who are poor, there is one group that microcredit almost universally does not reach: the poorest of the poor. To boil a very complex situation down to its simplest form, microcredit is run like a business, and the ability to reach the poorest in any community has a high opportunity cost associated with it. You may be able to reach the one ultra-poor family in the remote hills away from the village, but this will come at the expense of reaching four less poor families within the village. Similarly, aid and development as it stands today does not do enough for people with disabilities, often the most poor and vulnerable within any community.


Poverty and disability are inextricably linked. The lack of access to decent employment, the higher costs of living, the opportunity costs of caring for those with disabilities - all of these factors combine to make families of people with disabilities multiply disadvantaged. Children with disabilities are far less likely to attend school than their non-disabled peers. Although this trend is starting to be reversed, too few mainstream development organisations and agencies include people with disabilities into their programs. I have personally met with many development NGOs who do great work across a wide range of areas. However, when asked specifically how they address the needs of people with disabilities (often 15% or more of their target group), I’m faced with blank stares. How can we truly claim that we are working towards improving the lives of poor and vulnerable people, if we continue to ignore those at the most vulnerable end of the spectrum?


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories By Daniel Lombardi

NGOs are often faced with incentives to tell stories on the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. Some organisations try to make their stories extremely happy and uplifting, to excite their audiences into action. Other times, the pressure is to tell stories that are incredibly bleak and dark, in the hopes of scaring the audience into action. All of this is despite the fact that the best stories have both dark and light shades in them. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an amazing radio journalist for NPR, covering stories across Africa – and one of my heroes. In a quick interview, taken from an episode of the TED Radio Hour Podcast, she argues that the debate about “positive stories versus negatives stories” in Africa is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters. For her, the quality of a story is far more important than its “mood.” Whether the story is a comedy, a tragedy, or mindlessly happy is second to its quality. Like Quist-Arcton says, the most important thing is “telling a good tale,” and then – if the story is a good one, whether it’s dark or light – listeners will perk up and get invested in it. Susan Moeller makes a similar point in her book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. She argues that media coverage of inherently dark subjects need not cause compassion fatigue. Instead, she argues, formulaic and bland journalism is what causes the audience to fatigue.


There are lots of problems with stories focusing solely on the positive or the negative, the first being that needlessly dark or mindlessly happy stories are boring! Stories that lack emotional variation feel flat and bland. Obviously a boring story will not be very effective at moving an audience to action, regardless of which narrative it conforms to. Another major problem with stories that focus only on the positive or negative is that they’re likely to oversimplify and leave out important facts. If a development story only tells the happy and hopeful parts, the audience will probably miss significant elements of the issues that are important.

“Another major problem with stories that focus only on the positive or negative is that they’re likely to oversimplify” I am certainly not the first person to discuss this subject; for more info, look no further than WhyDev’s Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp, who wrote about this subject here, saying, “I am concerned with the way NGOs are telling stories on behalf of the poor… I worry that NGOs aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining the complexities of development and poverty.” There are lots of examples of bad story telling; look no further than Invisible Children’s early videos. But for the sake of being constructive, I would like to point out a few examples of good development storytelling that include a range of positive and negative emotions. These stories are not unnecessarily joyful or depressingly dark. Instead, they have a range of emotions that, combined with other good storytelling techniques, create compelling development communication that is likely to move the audience to action. If you’re a development communicator, I encourage you to follow the lead of these three examples:


Dr. Hawa Abdi: Vital Voices – This quick video is an animated story of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s life in Somalia, narrated by her. There are some dark moments in this story for sure, but the mood changes throughout, and at the end, we are left feeling inspired. Invisible Children: They Came at Night – I think this is Invisible Children’s best video. (And they have produced a lot.) This twenty-minute film tells the story of a young man trying to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and how escape is not as simple as it sounds. It’s a powerful drama with emotions ranging from hope to fear to anger, to more fear and back to hope again. Girl Rising: The Nepal Chapter – Produced in partnership with Room to Read, this short film uses a young girl’s real-life experiences to tell a powerful story about the importance of girls’ education. It’s part of the full Girl Rising film, which tells similar stories about girls around the world, all of them excellent examples of good story telling. As you might expect, the mood varies between depressing to inspiring. But, this film also has a powerful streak of stubborn determination that is sure to leave you ready to fight. Let me conclude by encouraging you to worry less about creating a particular mood in a story and focus more on telling it well. Whether they’re sad, funny or happy (and the best stories are usually all of the above), quality stories that inspire the audience to action, can really change the world. As storytellers, our role is to honestly do the story justice: tell it well, and with whatever range of emotion exists in reality.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong By Rachel Kurzyp

How many times have you read a blog post or attended an event, and thought, “They’re doing it wrong”? Or seen yet another “volunteer overseas” ad and wanted to scream, “I’m so over voluntourism”? Has a friend told you they want to start an NGO, and you thought to yourself, “People should leave the world’s problems to the professionals”?

“we need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong and start helping them” We’re all guilty of this. But I think we need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong and start helping them do it right.

Please don’t judge You know that person who found their purpose in Cambodia? That’s me. And I helped start an NGO in Kenya, too. I’ve also taught English, and collected clothes to donate to communities overseas. Why am I confessing my development sins? Because I know I’m not the only one. Upon reflection, I acknowledge that my actions weren’t good development practices. But I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done.


How many of us got to where we are through what’s now known as voluntourism, by starting an organisation or by telling people about our life-changing moments overseas? Yet, so many in the development sector are quick to jump on the “You’re doing it wrong” bandwagon. We think that because we’ve had these experiences, we know how to do it right. And maybe we do. But we should also be the first to admit that we learnt a lot through our earlier experiences – mistakes and successes. Without them, we may never have gotten a job in development, gained valuable life skills and started to understand the world we live in. What motivated us – personal fulfillment, career aspirations and a desire to help – is also what’s driving others. Sometimes we forget that there is no straightforward answer to solving the world’s issues. Our understanding of them changes every day. So, what was once acceptable (volunteering in an orphanage) now is not. Soon, social business will become the bad development practice (some have raised concerns already), and we’ll be the ones being judged.

People are going to do it with or without our help – so let’s help! The increase in travel, connectedness through digital technology and popularity of helping others isn’t a trend. People are involved in the development sector whether we want them or not. So, we have two choices: not help them and then complain they’re doing it wrong, or help them do it right. Voluntourism is a $2.6 billion industry. Social entrepreneurship is taught in schools. And you can read about poor children on, well, every travel blog. Information on these topics is endless, easy to find and accessible to the general public. What’s not so easy to find are resources on how to do development right in these contexts.


We’ve talked about why voluntourism is bad and why you should be careful about taking pictures of locals. But most pieces like these focus on what people are doing wrong and only discourage people, instead of educating them. It’s fine to not support the vessel through which people channel their “doing good” energy. It’s not fine to say that their good intentions aren’t welcome or needed. Because they are! We need people to be involved if we’re ever going to reach the goals the development sector loves to throw around, like “ending poverty.”

“It’s not fine to say that their good intentions aren’t welcome or needed. Because they are!” I’d like to believe that most people don’t want to cause harm and are open to information, if it’s tailored to them. We need to start encouraging people who want to help to channel their energy in the right way. Yes, some good resources exist, but how many of them reach further than the development sector or aren’t tied to one specific NGO or campaign? Sharing pieces on sites like WhyDev and The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network is preaching to the choir. We also need to provide proof that people can still get what they want out of these experiences if they do it the right way. We need to acknowledge their individual drivers. The sector shares more stories of people doing it wrong than of people doing it right. Compare this to voluntourism or the social business sector. In these spaces, people speak of their positive life-changing experiences. The development sector is in the best position to guide individuals. We can share resources and offer a safe space to explore global issues. So let’s starting helping.


Let’s be open to different ways of doing things What do we hope to achieve by pointing out how people are doing development wrong? That they realise they’re uninformed? That they stop participating? This approach isn’t working. All we’re doing is hurting ourselves and our sector. Our critiques create an “us vs. them” culture, which is preventing a two-way dialogue. Development isn’t any different from the other sectors, businesses and societal structures we challenge. It’s just as controlling and exclusive in this context. A perfect example of this is when we say young people shouldn’t do unskilled volunteering, and then tell them they didn’t get the job because they don’t have relevant experience. We should be leaders of inclusion, respect new ideas and support different ways of doing things. I’m not saying the development critics are wrong for raising concerns. But I do think we need to find alternatives outside the traditional development sector that have the engaging and accessible qualities of volunteering and travelling overseas, without the harmful effects. The development sector could encourage individuals to give their time to local social businesses like Scarf that have (unskilled) community participation at the core of their business model. Or to participate in global technology initiatives like NetSquared that encourage knowledge and skills exchanges between communities in the form of face-to-face discussions and Internet-based resources. Most people don’t want to work within the typical development sector, either. So saying they can run a cake stall and raise money for a local NGO isn’t an appealing alternative to volunteering overseas. And it isn’t a solution. The development sector has grown. NGOs and UN governing bodies are no longer the sole way individuals can “do good”, nor should they be. There are many new, ethical and sustainable ways individuals can involve themselves in global issues. Perhaps it’s time we, as a sector, acknowledge this and support these alternatives.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


How to prevent burnout in aid work By Alessandra Pigni

The majority of aid organisations fail to prepare and support their employees and volunteers psychologically. What more could they do to prevent staff burnout? In 2011, I initiated a discussion on LinkedIn among humanitarian professionals on the psychological health of aid workers. I simply put out this reflection/question: “Aid workers are psychologically unprepared for aid work. Any views from field and HQ staff?” The response was overwhelming, with over 200 comments pouring in non-stop. I knew from my work in Palestine that aid workers were at high risk of burnout, and I was hoping to gain a more global understanding. I wanted aid workers to speak up, open a space where they could express their needs, which turned out to be remarkably similar no matter where they worked.

“I wanted aid workers to speak up, open a space where they could express their needs”


It seemed like the discussion I initiated nailed it. Aid workers offered examples of how their organisations failed to provide adequate psychological preparation and support in the field. From being thrown into the field with no pre-departure briefing, to being at the mercy of managers who lacked emotional intelligence and people skills, from self-medicating with alcohol and pills, to suffering in silence because of the stigma attached to asking for help. One contributor summarised it for us: “It would be great to have proactive measures in place, such as adequate pre-deployment preparation, ongoing mentoring and coaching, instead of just relying on reactive counselling.”

“Humanitarian professionals also gave examples of how small, everyday acts of support and kindness in the workplace made a huge difference.” Humanitarian professionals also gave examples of how small, everyday acts of support and kindness in the workplace made a huge difference. A story that stayed with me is that of an aid worker who had been working in the Balkans for months during the war. One day, his manager told him she had booked a hotel for him and sent him off on a well-deserved break. In his words, he was “eternally grateful for this.” “Such a simple act” he added, “made me much more aware of my own stress and stress being felt by teammates.” Such acts of attention are what help to prevent burnout. They involve mindfulness, empathy and emotional intelligence, and show how managers with people skills make a significant difference.


Research shows that we can learn to care and that we adapt to the environment that surrounds us. This brings to mind the famous “broken windows theory”, which shows that people are less likely to care for a run-down environment than they are for a well attended one. Burnout in organisations is kind of the same: if the dominant tone is disrespectful and toxic, newcomers will follow that trend. Conversely, if it is healthy and caring, people will adapt to such culture. Realistically, there is no recipe to create burnout-proof organisations, but there are some simple ideas that managers can start to implement with the support of headquarters. I find it helpful to remember what Anton Chekhov said: “Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.”

“Burnout in organisations is kind of the same: if the dominant tone is disrespectful and toxic, newcomers will follow that trend. Conversely, if it is healthy and caring, people will adapt to such culture.” So that’s where we can start: caring for ourselves and each other on a day-to-day basis. Easier said than done. Where to begin? Here are some practices to keep you sane in the field and build healthy organisations. -56-

In terms of personal self-care consider this: Are you overworking in non-emergency situations? Are you thinking about work when you are not working? Do you have a life outside work? Are you able to say no to unreasonable work requests and put some healthy boundaries in place? • Hard at first, saying no is a sanity factor in aid work. Can you unplug? • Try to go offline one day a week. As hard as it may seem, this is possible even in the field. Are you making time for physical exercise in the field? • Consider what Mandela said: “Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.”

“Are you able to say no to unreasonable work requests and put some healthy boundaries in place? Hard at first, saying no is a sanity factor in aid work.” Can you spend time alone? In a highly active job, can you practice doing nothing and just being? • Exploring guided meditation or yoga can help.


Are you keeping up with friends and family outside the aid circle? • Connecting with people beyond work is essential. Sometimes it’s hard in the field, but it’s good to remind yourselves that the world does not revolve around your aid project. In terms of organisational health, it can help to reflect on the following: How are the “headquarters-field dynamics” in your agency? • For aid workers navigating the human interaction between HQ demands, capital requests and field needs represents one of the biggest sources of stress. Issues of responsibility, trust, power and control come into play. These are the very issues that need to be addressed in order to prevent staff burnout and create healthy work environments. Is your agency open to learning? • Most learning does not happen in a formal training, but rather it is part of a way of working together where employees are encouraged to share ideas, best practices and skills in a formal and informal way. At times, an informal conversation over a coffee means more than a workshop. How do you give each other feedback? Are employees encouraged to learn from their mistakes? • Try to introduce appreciative feedback in the workplace. When used skillfully, this practice opens up a whole new way of communicating, allowing people to discuss what works and what doesn’t. How does your organisation show appreciation and reward staff? • Treating people with fairness when it comes, for example, to salaries, career progression and job stability/flexibility is a way to improve staff retention. Aid workers’ intrinsic motivation to do good is simply not enough; people need to be rewarded and appreciated.


As a manager, how do you model self-care and leadership? • Spending time with your colleagues informally, over lunch for example, helps to create a supportive work environment. Many aid agencies are based in countries where the society values sharing a meal together. We can learn from that instead of exporting the bad habit of eating alone in front of our computer! How does your organisation take stock? • Making time for periodical retreats or reflection to pause and explore how to move forward makes individuals and organisations more effective and resilient. No one can drive on an empty tank, no matter how powerful the engine is. I guess you could say that, more than a recipe for success, this is an anti-recipe, because its course cannot be charted with a one-size-fits-all intervention. Creating “learning and caring organisations” is certainly not an easy task, but some social purpose organisations are exploring it with promising results, and I think that aid agencies can learn by looking beyond their sector. There’s a certain hubris that needs to be overcome: we can learn from others even if they do not work in war-zones. A manager with over 20 years of experience working in Palestine shared this powerful thought during a staff meeting: “institutional change and community empowerment can only happen when staff needs and priorities are properly attended to.” In other words, personal and organisational wellbeing are linked to global wellbeing. By taking care of ourselves and creating healthier organisations, we can better affect change – the reason most of us got into this field in the first place.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


Five ways to build resilience: a practical guide By Jodi McMurray

“Re-sil-ience� noun 1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity. When you have been working hard to make the world a better place, and you are often faced with the brutal realities of this world, there comes a point when you start holding back, running on empty, feeling depleted, and you get so frustrated you devise a set of beliefs and strategies to cope, and to survive. Often the organisations we work for will provide training to support you in your endeavours. In my experience, that training can miss the mark. Much of the training that I received in my career as a development worker focused on the delivery of services, stewardship and accountability. Very little training focused on developing resiliency, and the little I did receive was guided by the above definition of resilience. On the job, advice and guidance was to develop a thicker skin, not let things affect me or get over it, the implication being that my struggles didn’t even come close to the struggles of those we work on behalf of. Deny, dismiss, diminish and distance. Build walls, armour up and shut down. Endure. Return to original form as soon as possible.


I have watched too many passionate development and humanitarian workers, diplomats and social change agents burn out, shut down emotionally or simply walk away because they didn’t know what else to do. They were exhausted and exasperated. In their minds, they were failing to live up to the expectation of “resiliency” and were not equipped to move forward or in any other direction. I can relate. I have been there. My own experiences led me to training, coaching, reading, studying and lots of personal reflection. Through this, I have come to redefine resilience. Resilience is not about bouncing back. It is not about returning to original shape. Resilience is a set of competencies that help you to constructively move through your experiences in ways that allow you to maintain your authenticity and grow from your experiences. Resiliency enables you to do your great work in the world for the long run.

“Resilience is not about bouncing back. It is not about returning to original shape.” As a development and humanitarian worker, you have the privilege to shape and influence lives. With that privilege comes the responsibility and daring to let the world shape and influence yours. Resiliency helps you expand, integrate and take a new form. Developing resilience requires caring for and knowing yourself first and foremost to be of service in the world. It also requires tools and practice. This is one process that has helped me develop my resiliency as I strive to make the world a better place.


1. Know your pain. Don’t deny your suffering, whatever form it comes in. Cultivate your ability to be present to your own pain while trying to alleviate the burdens of others. That starts with naming it. Are you frustrated? Hurt? Angry? Disappointed? Aching? Shattered? Overwhelmed? Devastated? Don’t deny, dismiss, diminish or distance yourself from it. It wants to be known. Commit to two minutes of head-on acknowledgement. Set a timer. Two minutes to be whatever is rolling through your world. Be angry. Be disappointed. Be shattered. Whatever it is, be all in. It’s only two minutes.

2. Get curious. Once you have named your pain point, befriend it. Commit to two more minutes of attention and focus. Close your eyes and get curious. Suspend disbelief. Explore. Ask yourself what wants your attention. What is this pain pointing to? What does it want to show you? What’s your truth in it all? Listen.

3. Self-compassion. If you have allowed yourself to know and befriend your pain, 99% of the time, your brain will kick in with deep resistance and start to demand that you put walls back up. Your mind will remind you the only way to survive is to deny, dismiss, diminish and distance. Your mind might tell you things like, “It’s your fault,” or, “Stop complaining. You have it so much better than most,” and, “Man up,” or, “Cut this out. Everyone will think you can’t handle the job.” This is when self-compassion is crucial. And it also requires a cease-and-desist strategy. The magic formula looks like this. “You are so weak.” Response to yourself. “I am. And I am strong.”


“You should be ashamed of yourself.” Response to yourself. “I am. And I am courageous.” Disengage your brain by saying, “I am.” It’s ready to rumble. Don’t go there. Cease. Disarm. Then add your “I am”. It’s easiest to do this when you have an “I am” list at hand. So set your timer for two more minutes and write as many compassionate statements about yourself as you can. Say or write, “I am,” and let the sentences finish themselves. If you are stuck, ask a friend, colleague or family member to tell you the #1 thing they love or admire about you. Write it down. Refer to this list frequently and give yourself daily doses of self-compassion. It strengthens the self-compassion muscle and makes it easier to flex during trying times.

4. Gratitude. This is a tricky practice. It is an incredibly powerful tool, but it can also be a tool used to diminish, dismiss or deny your painful experiences and challenges. Finding the silver lining without naming and knowing your pain doesn’t build resiliency. It leads to suppression. Be mindful to practice the first three steps before moving into gratitude. Resist fast-forwarding. Transition with intention. Use gratitude to frame your experience, to bring the scales back to balance and to cultivate a wider perspective. To practice gratitude, pause and reflect. Look around. Look for the obvious. Look for the hidden. Sometimes it will all be apparent. Sometimes you will have to dig deep. You may only be able to muster gratitude for the breath you take. Be grateful. Write it down. Speak it out loud. Keep it as a silent prayer. However you get to gratitude is your way. Like self-compassion, if you practice gratitude daily, it becomes a powerful reflex during times that demand resilience.


5. Soothing. This step is often skipped over and not even recognised as critical. But it is. We all need comfort, balm for our wounds, reassurance for ourselves. Just when you think you are finished with your pain, turn towards it. Take comfort. Leaving yourself vulnerable, your wounds gaping, your pain bare, or worse, suppressing your needs, leaves the process incomplete. If you do that, the need will express itself and seek comfort, likely in all the wrong places–addictions, pushing people away, isolating yourself and mood swings, to name a few. So practice giving yourself what you need. Comfort can come in many forms. Ask your pain what it needs. What wound needs salve? What part of you requires some tenderness? What form would it like it to come in? Maybe it’s a hug, or enjoying your favourite TV show, or reading words that inspire. Maybe it’s listening to music, or laughing with a friend, or sex with your partner. It could be a long bubble bath, a good night’s rest or simply allowing yourself a few quiet minutes to breathe deeply. Give yourself what you need. Over to you.


Getting Development Right Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty


52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers By the WhyDev team

1. Ladies, pack tampons, because unless you have a cushy posting in Geneva or Phnom Penh, they don’t have them. 2. Learn to play office politics; every office has them, especially NGO offices. 3. Went through your university studies looking at history, IR, politics and cultural studies? Go back, do not collect $200 and do a technical degree. Education, engineering or economics. Get technical. 4. Went through your university studies with technical knowledge of education, engineering or economics? Go back, and study history, IR, politics or cultural studies. Get deep. 5. You will spend 90% of your time behind a desk. 6. You’ll spend the other 10% of your time trying to use LinkedIn to get another job. 7. Getting a job has more to do with luck than hard work, intelligence or capability. 8. You know less about poverty than a small farmer in northern Ghana, who has zero years of formal schooling. 9. You know nothing, humanitarian worker.


10. Get field experience to gain valuable grassroots knowledge and insights, and witness how programs and projects are actually implemented. 11. Get HQ experience to gain valuable upstream and advocacy knowledge and insights, and witness how policy and politics actually determine funding and priorities. 12. National aid budgets around the OECD are being butchered, shrinking the job market. What’s your plan B? 13. There are more and more social and online tools to help you manage your long-distance relationship. 14. Your parents will always, always say to their family and friends that you work for “charity”. 15. You can check your privilege, but you can never, ever outrun it. 16. Foreign aid doesn’t stimulate economic growth. Best read up on your macro- and micro-economics. 17. Economic growth doesn’t address inequity. Best read up on your Marx and Piketty. 18. UN staff can claim business class on an airline for any trip of nine hours+, including a stopover. Wait until you see the per diem. That’s the ticket. 19. What few studies there are have found that aid workers have higher than normal levels of stress, anxiety and compassion fatigue. At worst, they can present symptoms of PTSD, and are rarely supported by their organisations. 20. Drinking alcohol is not self-care. 21. The moment you think you are becoming fluent in the language of your host country is the moment you won’t understand your landlord telling you something simple like: it’s hot today. -68-

22. Be cautious of personality-driven NGOs. Exhibit A; Exhibit B. 23. Pack some diphenhydramine or Benadryl before you get on that bus. I don’t care if you’ve never been carsick before in your life. 24. Indeed, feel free to self-medicate after you’ve self-diagnosed, and ignore your doctor’s warning to take those anti-malarial drugs, because let’s face it, you’ll ignore anything we say about seeking medical advice anyway. 25. Can’t get a position overseas? Work in community development at home. The lessons you’ll learn will be invaluable in future. 26. Do not underestimate the value of good data and good GIS. 27. Be kind to your interns – they were you not too long ago. 28. Joseph Kony is still on the run despite almost 100 million YouTube views. 29. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. 30. The humanitarian sector is increasingly dominated by women, resulting in a lack of eligible bachelors. 31. The average humanitarian worker is a 30-something, single, white female. Except in senior management positions, where it’s mostly old white men. 32. You are not trying to work yourself out of a job. That’s ridiculous. 33. Don’t go and volunteer at an orphanage if you are not a social worker. 34. Don’t go and volunteer to teach English if you are not a teacher.


35. Advertising your humanitarian status on Tinder is a bad idea. 36. If there’s a lull in conversation, bring up the topic of whether aid workers should lead comfortable lives, or muse about your NGO opening a pool. This will keep the conversation going for hours. 37. It does not matter if you are posted in Ethiopia or India; bring a cardigan, because your definition of hot and cold are going to change. 38. Though it will be difficult, try not to become the cynical kind of expat whose main objective is to avoid being mistaken as a tourist. 39. You don’t get jobs by going in the front door. Everyone tries to go in the front door, but it’s not wide enough. Always go backdoor. 40. Related to above, even if the word itself turns you off, learn how to network. 41. Just because people work in the “caring sector”, it doesn’t make them nice people. You will meet as many assholes* in the humanitarian sector as in finance. (*non-scientific, anecdotal evidence) 42. You will see alarming disparities in resources between the haves (UN) and the have-nots (local NGOs). You’ll probably never get over it. 43. If you spend years in one country and never learn the language, you’re missing out. Learning languages opens doors. 44. You may have lofty dreams of improving lives, but if you can’t be good to those in your immediate vicinity, you ain’t going to improve nothing. 45. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou -70-

46. By all means, play the poor humanitarian worker card with your friends back home, but never forget that compared to colleagues in country and those you’re helping, you’re the equivalent of John D. Rockefeller. 47. If you talk about helping people in an overly simplistic way, you’re doing a disservice to everybody. Helping people is never simple. 48. Always remember the principle of non-maleficence (The Anti-Angelina Jolie way): “Sometimes, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.” 49. If the founder of an NGO says something like, “I was sitting at the market when a local boy, who couldn’t have been older than 8 came up to me…” followed by “…I was shocked and realised I had to do something about it,” get sceptical. 50. It doesn’t matter if you want to or not, once you work in the humanitarian sector, you represent it. Don’t be a dick. 51. Be good to yourself. Keep an eye out for signs of burnout and its triggers, before it happens. You’re no good to anyone if you’re already burnt out. 52. You can learn as much on blogs like WhyDev as you can from years at university. Listen to what your peers are saying and join the conversation!



Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty A Collection of blog posts Collection 01

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Getting development right: Fresh and frank voices in ending poverty  

In celebration of WhyDev's 6th birthday, we have launched "Getting development right: Fresh and frank voices in ending poverty," a collectio...

Getting development right: Fresh and frank voices in ending poverty  

In celebration of WhyDev's 6th birthday, we have launched "Getting development right: Fresh and frank voices in ending poverty," a collectio...

Profile for whydev