What's all this then?

Many aid workers keep online journals called web logs, or "blogs" for short. Blogs tend to be very personal, to present unabashedly biased opinions and to be much less formal than an organization's web site. Blogs are sometimes provocative, and some may make you feel uncomfortable -- you certainly won't agree with everything you read in blogs, including those produced by aid workers.

The AWN blog portal presents a range of aid worker-produced blogs from around the world. However, AWN is not responsible for the content of any of these blogs, and inclusion here on the AWN blog portal in no way endorses their content by AWN. If you disagree with what a blog has presented, by all means, write the blog author ("blogger") directly and let him or her know what you think.

If you would like to submit a blog by an aid, relief or development worker, please complete this form.

Equatorial Guinea president’s son under formal investigation in France

My Liberia blog - March 22, 2014 - 4:18pm

The president of Equatorial Guinea’s son, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, has been placed under formal investigation by the French government for money laundering.

The Equatoguinean government released a statement on their blog, possibly the only post on that blog that has ever been written by an Equatoguinean and not an American PR firm.

The government’s position has nothing to do with the money laundering claim. Rather they argue Obiang has diplomatic immunity and that there is a protection of property agreement between France and Equatorial Guinea.

More in a Human Rights Watch press statement here. A press release from SHERPA, the French NGO that originally filed the legal complaint is here. If you read French, I think this article has more details on holes in Obiang’s defense; Google translate has trouble with legal phrases.

His French lawyer is Emmanuel Marsigny, who has been representing him since at least 2012.  Marsigny founded a firm that specializes in part in “foreign corruption and money laundering.”

The Equatorial Guinea government press release ends, without irony: “We have always trusted the justice system and the presumption of innocence.”

Categories: AidBlogs

“The Idealist” – Nina Munk on Jeff Sachs [podcast]

Owen's musings - March 21, 2014 - 5:03pm

In the latest episode of Development Drums, I talk to the journalist and author Nina Munk about Jeff Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project, and the lessons for development cooperation more broadly.

The Millennium Villages Project is based on the idea that impoverished villages can transform themselves and meet the Millennium Development Goals by investing in health, food production, education, access to clean water, and essential infrastructure.  The project was developed by Jeffrey Sachs, who is (among other things) Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals.

Nina Munk has tracked the progress of the Millennium Villages Project over the last six year. She accompanied Sachs on his official trips to Africa, and sat in on his meetings with Heads of State and others.  She also spent time in two Millennium villages: Ruhiira, in southwest Uganda, and Dertu, in Kenya on the border with Somalia.

Nina Munk’s recent book, “The Idealist”, is primarily about Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project, but it also provides important insights into development cooperation more broadly.  She approaches the topic not as a cynic or a sceptic, but as someone who wants to believe in the good that aid can do.  Yet she is ultimately pessimistic about what the project can achieve, despite the good intentions behind it.

You can listen to Development Drums on the website, or download it to your computer or MP3 player, or subscribe free on iTunes.

Categories: AidBlogs

Why voluntourism might even just do some good

Roving bandit - March 19, 2014 - 12:46pm
When Pippa Biddle wrote last week about "the problem with little white girls," she was adding to a rich vein of development self-flagellation. I just ventured to google "why voluntourism is good," and the top 3 hits were:"Beware the voluntourists intent on doing good""Is voluntourism doing any good? No!""Does 'voluntourism' do more harm than good?"Pippa writes of her own experience as a voluntourist, including the wonderful story of the Tanzanians staying up all night to rebuild the wall that the white American girls messed up, so they wouldn't know what a terrible job they did."It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level."But here's the thing - if Pippa had never gone to Tanzania, she would never have sent her money there. We know this. Despite the dizzying scale of global inequality, the vast majority of charitable spending by individuals in rich countries is spent in rich countries, not poor ones. In the UK just 10% goes overseas. 
And for good reasons. Why do we give? Our giving is driven by empathy. And we can't empathise with 6 billion people at the same time. There's just too much suffering to worry about it all - "we would be in a permanent emotional turmoil". And so we use filters, including critically that our familiarity with a person matters, and our similarity and identification matter.
That is why the Kristof uses "bridge characters":"The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty."Or think about the story of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave - I feel almost ashamed to admit, but it is clear that it was so harrowing because he is a middle class guy from New York - someone familiar who we can identify with.
Spending time living in or even briefly visiting a developing country can let you skip the bridge characters. You are now familiar with, and can identify with, a handful of the millions of people living in societies with such a profoundly worse set of opportunities to those of us born in rich countries. That matters. There's a sad irony that having made the empathetic leap, so many who work in development then seem to lose their empathy with the uninitiated. Having made a connection with someone living in extreme poverty, we forget how easy it was to not care before we had made that connection. I'd bet that the vast majority of development workers, even the most hardened economists, really got their passion from some form of real human interaction, not abstract analysis, and yet we pour scorn on young kids who venture out trying to have their own interactions and make their own connections, building their own cross-cultural empathy, because voluntourism is tacky. Does it really matter if it is tacky?
In terms of immediate development impact, village voluntourism is probably mostly irrelevant. We could spend time doing careful cost-benefit analysis of the value for money of having American teenagers build brick walls in Tanzania, or we could reflect on the 90% of our collective charitable impulse which goes on other rich people, the 99% of our government spending which goes on other rich people, or our narcissistic trade and immigration policies which help other rich people, and consider instead what it might take to get rich people to actually really give a fuck about global poverty, and that maybe just maybe that might come through actually living and working with people, even if just for a short time. Travel really does broaden the mind (there is even evidence, some of it randomised). If tacky white saviour marketing for a fundamentally useless project is what it takes to grab some attention away from a video of a cat on youtube, maybe that's worth it?

There is a German translation of this article on
Categories: AidBlogs

The new childcare subsidy in the UK

Roving bandit - March 18, 2014 - 3:29pm
The IFS:
"Today’s announcements indicate that the Government’s main motive is to help parents move into work. As we pointed out in the IFS 2014 Green Budget, we know remarkably little about the impact of the policies to support childcare that have been introduced in England in recent years. And there is no consistent evidence from other countries that childcare support has large effects on parental labour supply. While today’s announcements bring welcome simplifications to the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme, and an increase in generosity that will certainly be welcomed by families on Universal Credit using childcare, and better-off families who spend more than £6,000 a year on childcare, the extent to which it will deliver its intended goals is essentially unknown."and Chris Dillow:
"It's fitting that Nick Clegg should have announced an increase in the state subsidy for childcare, because the policy is a sanctimonious front for something that is inegalitarian and economically illiterate."
Categories: AidBlogs

How American PR firms work for African dictatorships

My Liberia blog - March 18, 2014 - 12:21am

Equatorial Guinea makes extensive use of American PR firms. (Follow links here for examples.) Up until recently (and maybe still?), they worked with Qorvis. Qorvis’ reported activities on behalf of Equatorial Guinea to the Department of Justice from a few years ago are here (starting on pdf page 31; h/t ThinkProgress). Qorvis appears to have had hundreds of meetings and other interactions with US-based reporters to discuss Equatorial Guinea in 2011 alone.

Excerpt from Qorvis’ report on activities they conducted on behalf of the Government of Equatorial Guinea. Here they note all of the news outlets they sent a press release to.

Qorvis also reports that they “corrected errors and provided factual content for blogs and internet databases.” Someone from Qorvis has responded in some way to virtually every blog post or Tweet I have ever written on Equatorial Guinea. They have also responded to comments I have made on other sites. Someone from Qorvis who follows me on Twitter used to re-tweet tweets I would write that were unrelated to Equatorial Guinea, seemingly trying to ingratiate himself with me so that I would engage with him more on Equatorial Guinea. 

I think Qorivs is required to report literally every expense associated with foreign government consulting. Below they report a charge, which I suspect is for this site which I think they started up a few years ago, along with iPhone charges for the specific person who would often reach out to me to discuss my blog posts or tweets. Go America and our Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 for requiring this degree of financial reporting!

Qorvis expenses associated with consulting for Government of Equatorial Guinea


2 years ago Global Voices picked up a blog post I did on Equatorial Guinea. I had noted that there was a fear among African immigrants in EG that the government would crack down on illegal immigration following the Africa Cup of Nations. Here a seemingly innocuous comment from a Qorvis employee.

Based on this Reuters article, Equatorial Guinea’s new PR firm is Richard Attias and Associates.

Categories: AidBlogs

The perils of working with Obiang’s son

My Liberia blog - March 17, 2014 - 10:56pm

Roberto Berardi, an Italian business partner of the Equatoguinean president’s son (Teodoro Obiang) has been sentenced to over 2 years in prison on Equatorial Guinea’s mainland. The partner was arrested after broaching with Teodoro the issue of US asset forfeiture against Teodoro’s US-based properties. Teodoro was perhaps afraid Berardi would testify against him in the future. Berardi is allegedly being held in solitary confinement and tortured. via the World Organisation Against Torture:

According to the information received, Mr Roberto Berardi, business partner of Mr Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mangue, Second Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and President Obiang’s eldest son, was arrested without a warrant late at night on 18 January 2013 at his home in Bata. He was held without charges for 21 days during which he was subjected to violence and denied access to a lawyer and family members. Mr Roberto Berardi was only later informed that his business partner had accused him of misappropriation, swindling and fraud of their company assets, Eloba Constuccuion S.A., which is operating in the construction sector. On 26 August 2013, the Bata Provincial Court sentenced him to 2 years and 4 months imprisonment for misappropriation. His trial was reportedly marred by irregularities.

According to the same information received, Mr Roberto Berardi had found out early 2013 about the asset forfeiture action by the United States Department of Justice against the US-based properties that his business partner had purchased by using accounts in Equatorial Guinea banks in the name of Eloba Construccion. Mr Roberto Berardi had subsequently raised the issue with his partner Mr Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mangue. There are reasons to believe that Mr Roberto Berardi could be a very damaging witness in the US investigation and was therefore arrested and imprisoned.

Categories: AidBlogs

What should DFID do internationally (i.e. not in client countries)?

Roving bandit - March 17, 2014 - 8:33pm
From the Development Studies Association:DFID is discussing what their priority international actions should be over the next 2-5 years and beyond. By international actions they mean actions that use their spending, effort and influence to cause something to happen outside the borders of the intended beneficiary countries, but which indirectly benefits them. This broad definition includes global public goods, such as international financial regulations or a global climate deal; but also spending to alleviate problems with high spillover effects across many poor countries such as via peacekeeping efforts or communicable disease; or actions which improve the actions functioning of global markets. In short, they aim to refresh their possible international policy agenda with new or better ideas. Stefan Dercon has been asked to lead an initial consultation both within and outside DFID to set up a focused set of priorities and to ensure that DFID concentrates on those international actions that are both the most important for poverty reduction and where DFID could have the most impact.Please download a short note that sets out the task and the context.
Categories: AidBlogs

Simply Begin

A new map of the world - March 2, 2014 - 12:22pm
A few weeks ago I heard Ali Edwards speak about the importance of finding joy and gratitude in daily life. Ali is a scrapbooking, daily life documenting guru! She documents her weeks in photos, featuring the daily things we take for granted but would be devastated if they were gone: taking the dog for a walk, helping the kids with homework, reading a devotional with our husband, driving with those we love, the coffee and creamer we can't live without in the morning. The moments that make our life rich, real and amazing, and yet, we can easily overlook or take for granted in our busy, hectic, over-stimulated world.

Here is her list about how to approach scrapbooking. I have modified it slightly for my approach to writing/journaling/being creative:
1. I believe that there are an infinite number of ways to tell any story ... There is no right or wrong way to document our memories. 2. I have no intention of “keeping up” with my scrapbooking. I tell stories as I feel moved to tell them and don’t feel bound to chronology. Some days I’m creating a layout that tells a story from 1980 and other days I’m focused on a story from today. 3. I believe that telling the stories of our lives can actually change our lives for the better. 4. My daily mantra in memory keeping & in life: don’t make things more complicated than they need to be. 5. The best way to begin scrapbooking (journaling/documenting/photographing) is to simply begin. Start writing. Start photographing. Start bringing them together on your computer or with paper and glue. There is no better time than right now. 
(You can read more about Ali and her scrapbooking on her website.)HappinessIsHomemade.netI started Project Life last May. Since I quit my job in October, it's been harder to find stuff to document (let's be honest - how many days can I take a picture of my laptop or puppy?). So it's not as consistent as it could be. And while there are multiple pages for the BIG things - vacations, graduations, trees falling on the house. I also remember the capture the special moments: my dog sleeping in the office, the pages of my book edited, snow, dinner. 
I am also trying to bring my creative visual side to my journal. 
linkI've journaled since I was in middle school, but it's always been writing and nothing else.  I can (occasionally) be fairly regimented in how I think. Journals are for words - nothing else! But for my 30th birthday a dear friend gave me the supplies to collage journal and I've come to see things in a whole new way! I'm taking a journaling class with Dr. Brene Brown and we are bringing together art and writing. It's amazing. 
I'm learning to add photos to my journal, to collage, to put in articles, fun photos and quotes. My journal can be where I am now, and that doesn't always have to be shown with words. 

So, how do you express your daily life? Do you journal, take photos, write on notecards, say a prayer of thanks at night? I'd love to hear how you take in the world around you. 
Categories: AidBlogs

42 new micro-finance loans to women working in agriculture

Have impact! - January 26, 2014 - 4:48pm

Shoghik from Armenia compliments her income as a teacher with agriculture

Shoghik is from Dalarik in the Armavir region (Armenia). She lives with her husband, their two children (3 and 7 years old), her parents-in-law and brother-in-law.

Shoghik works as a teacher at the village local school, where her mother-in-law also teaches. Her husband is a policeman. However, their salaries are too low to sustain their living expenses. So, Shoghik and her family are also involved in cattle breeding, in breeding pigs and piglets, and in the cultivation of alfalfa, peaches and apricots. The family sells the agricultural products in the local market, which is an important source of their income.

To continue running the agribusiness in a sustainable way, Shoghik needed a loan of 3,000 USD to purchase five steers, to buy forage for the livestock, and to purchase fertilizers.

Our loan to Shoghik was one of the 42 micro-finance loans we issued this week, to women and women’s groups in Vietnam, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador, Tajikistan, Kenya, Cambodia, Uganda, Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

As food security is the basis for all well-being and any development for all regions, all loans went to women working in agriculture:

The background of this project, you find in the kick-off post

Categories: AidBlogs

Toilets Critical to Ending (Extreme) Poverty

Ending extreme poverty in the Congo - November 19, 2013 - 7:45pm

Water and Sanitation is link to extreme poverty. You can't break the cycle without providing access to water and sanitation.

As we acknowledge the first official UN World Toilet Day on November 19, it is worth reaffirming the significance of this very simple instrument, which the Economist hails as the most important invention in the 20th century, and its potential impact on the world.

Shockingly, there are 2.5 billion people today who don’t have access to a safe means of disposing human feces, which contain pathogens that cause diarrheal disease. Access to sanitation is one of the most off-track of the Millennium Development Goals. Over 1 billion people defecate in the open, contaminating the area where children play, the agricultural fields where people gather food and the rivers used for drinking water.

Thousands of children die every day from related diarrheal disease. In infants it can cause malnutrition, which can lead to stunted growth and impaired cognitive development with negative consequences for school performance as well as poor health outcomes later in life. A recent World Bank report finds that open defecation can account for much or all of the excess stunting in India.
Categories: AidBlogs

Behind Those Fast Growth Rates, Rising Inequality -

Ending extreme poverty in the Congo - November 6, 2013 - 4:06pm

Rising inequality translates to rising extreme poverty. The numbers and percent of population living in extreme poverty is going up.
”It was his first post-election news conference, at a luxurious villa high above the Congo River, and the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo was in a combative mood. How dare the reporters question his country’s progress, he argued: just look at our sizzling growth rate —double, even triple, the rates of those pitiful laggards in the West.”

”On paper, it was certainly true. Many African nations, including Congo, have been expanding rapidly for years, producing some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.”
”But the reality down below the villa, in crumbling shacks where adults talked of forgoing meals so their children could eat, told a different story. It angered the president, Joseph Kabila, on that steamy December morning in 2011 to be reminded that his misnamed country (neither particularly democratic nor a republic) consistently ranked at or near the very bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, a comprehensive measure of economic, physical and social well-being across nearly 200 countries.”

Categories: AidBlogs

Maternity package rates at Bumrungrad (Bangkok) and St Luke’s hospital (Manila)

Nathalie Abejero - September 28, 2013 - 9:22am

As of this writing, the exchange rate is 30 Baht=US $1. So a normal delivery package at Bumgrungrad is US $1,196, while a C-section birth is US $3100. I was quite impressed with my experience at Samitivej hospital for Tristan’s birth in 2011. I imagine the facilities in Bumrungrad, which is considered a higher-class (5star) facility, must be better.

In comparison, when I had Saoirse in March this year in St Luke’s Hospital (Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Manila) the quote for a C-section delivery is PHP155,000-185,000 (US $3789-$4512) for 4-5 days’ hospitalization including delivery, recovery and nursery room charges, medicines and supplies used in the delivery room, hospitalization expenses (private room) and professional fees (OB-gyne, Pedia, Anesthesiologist). St Luke’s BGC is a similarly-billed 5star medical tourist hospital in Manila.

This ad was posted in the elevators.

the women’s health clinic

Pediatric department lounge area, complete with a small play space.


Categories: AidBlogs

Bumrungrad in pictures

Nathalie Abejero - September 28, 2013 - 8:43am

It feels like we’ve been touring hospitals this year. Six months ago we spent a lot of time in St Luke’s Hospital in Manila (also considered a 5star medical tourist hospital). I had the baby there while Keith had a series of cardiac checkups and screenings. We all had dental work done too. Now, Keith was evacuated to Bangkok’s Bumrungrad because of Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever. What a year. Well.. here is Bumrungrad in pictures.

Lobby area of the old building, where the patient rooms are.

Reception area in the new building, where outpatient services for package checkups start.

Reception area of outpatient services, for package consultations. This is the 10th floor of the new building. There is a Starbucks, a cafeteria and a Bookazine with an awesome selection of kids’ books.

The pediatric lounge, complete with a play gym. This waiting area is absolutely spacious.

The 10th floor of the old building where Keith’s private room is. They have these cars for kids stationed all around the hospital departments.

Keith’s hotel room -err, his hospital room. The movies, sitcoms and music are fairly recent. There’s also a built-in internet for people who didn’t bring their gadgets.

The couch was large, more than comfortable for an adult staying with the patient, given that it *is* a hospital room. You can also request a cot, which was 200baht/night. This was all convenient for me and the two kids.

There is a kitchen area with microwave, refrigerator, table and two chairs, a sink, dishes. The bathroom is equipped with a hair dryer.

Categories: AidBlogs

Popsicles from Malaysia

Nathalie Abejero - September 28, 2013 - 3:52am

I love these popsicles once in a while. They’re one of the few interesting ice cream brands I’ve seen in Cambodia. By interesting I mean the flavors are local, not the typical imported vanilla chocolate strawberry. They carry red bean, sweet yellow corn, durian, taro (this is the least tasty flavor unfortunately), and black glutinous rice. I’ve only ever seen them in the bigger TELA gas station mini-marts or at the Paragon grocery store (behind the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh).

Categories: AidBlogs

things I love about Bangkok – Thai Iced Tea and Iced Green Tea

Nathalie Abejero - September 28, 2013 - 3:41am

One iced tea costs 25 Baht (~US $0.83) from a street vendor just outside Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok.

Categories: AidBlogs

The industrial mistake - February 21, 2013 - 4:32pm

People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mind-set of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.

- Donella H. Meadows (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Related posts:

  1. I Dream of Security
  2. In which I feel insecure about biometrics
  3. Social media in disaster response: Dennis McDonald’s take

Categories: AidBlogs

Humanitarianism is a Disease - February 19, 2013 - 11:22am

The humanitarian system will collapse; if that sounds catastrophic, then perhaps you’re looking at it the wrong way. Humanitarian organisations aren’t inherently worthy, any more than any type of organisation is inherently worthy. Organisations are only delivery mechanisms for goods, and it’s the goods themselves that have value, and the success of the organisation in delivering those goods determines their own value. This is true whether the goods in question are health services, power tools – or humanitarian principles.

“Humanitarianism” isn’t a good in the way that health services or power tools, however. It might be more useful to think of humanitarianism as a disease, one that we want to spread so that it infects all of human society. A lot of progress has been made in this way regarding (for example) human rights – think of the near-universal state-level condemnation of slavery or torture (although there are frequently exceptions to prove the rule). This progress is always contingent, since diseases can go into remission, and the factors which make their progress possible change over time.

Humanitarian organisations are valuable only in so far as they act as vectors for the transmission of humanitarian principles. The physical goods and services that humanitarian organisations provide can be and frequently are provided by other types of organisations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and that trend will continue to grow; and that’s one of the things that we need to take into account when we think about the future of humanitarianism (and think about it a lot more deeply than we do at present).

You could argue that humanitarian principles are how humanitarian organisations distinguish themselves in the marketplace; but that would be to accept the logic of late-stage capitalism, which I suggest you don’t. In fact, we might argue that late-stage capitalism is a rival infection, one which has been more successful than humanitarianism; successful enough that nobody now blinks an eyelid when Bill Gates declares that development “now is more like a business”.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The reason that argument fails is because it puts the cart before the horse. Humanitarian principles aren’t a product of humanitarian organisations; humanitarian organisations are the product of humanitarian principles. If the “goods” that humanitarian organisations were set up to deliver are humanitarian principles, and it seems likely that those organisations will wither and die over time, then what we need to develop is not are alternative delivery mechanisms, new vectors for the transmission of humanitarian principles.

This focus on principles is an old, old song – but this is a brand new tune. This isn’t about an MSF-style back-to-basics approach to humanitarian principles; I appreciate their focus, but it’s essentially backward-looking, and therefore doomed to failure given the changes in our external circumstances. This is about a wholly new approach to humanitarianism, one which does not locate its principles in the attitudes and actions of institutional stakeholders, but in the wider culture.

This has to be the future of humanitarianism: not a tower guarded jealously by a self-selected set of organisations, but a “people’s humanitarianism” that guards the world. This requires a massive shift not just in the way in which the existing humanitarian system organises itself, but a change in the way in which we think about humanitarianism. It also needs a massive communications effort to ensure that those principles survive in what is often rocky ground.

I don’t think the humanitarian community is capable of implementing these changes (for reasons outlined in this post), and the alternatives on offer are frankly limited. As a starting point, my prescription is to move from organisations to networks as the most effective vectors for those principles. Even if not all the nodes in those networks will themselves be humanitarian organisations, we need to ensure that humanitarian principles infect as many nodes as possible, creating a humanitarian pandemic. I think I’ve exhausted that metaphor, and so I’ll end this post here.

Related posts:

  1. The Two Crises of Humanitarianism
  2. The single biggest threat to the humanitarian system
  3. Like Herding Groundhogs

Categories: AidBlogs

The Two Crises of Humanitarianism - February 12, 2013 - 10:56am

In the view of the humanitarian community, what distinguishes our work from other actors providing similar goods and services (such as the military) is the basis on which it is provided. One way of framing this is the difference between humanitarian assistance from the provision of relief: the latter can be done by anybody for any reason, while the former can only be carried out by specific types of organisation based on clearly articulated principles.

Unfortunately the recipients of aid do not share this view. The available evidence suggests “that while in some settings local people differentiate among international actors, they are generally more concerned with what is being provided than who are the chosen agents of assistance and protection” (Donini et al. 2005, Mapping the Security Environment). This suggests that, regardless of whether aid recipients are justified in their views, humanitarian principles exist largely to provide a philosophical framework that enable traditional humanitarian actors to justify their actions.

Aid provided by avowedly non-humanitarian actors – such as the extensive social security provision by Hezbollah in Lebanon – causes great discomfort because it establishes an overtly clientilist relationship. Even with the best intentions, however, it is inevitable that some degree of clientilism is generated by such relationships. The Listening Project’s recent report “describe[s] how assistance begins as a boost to people’s spirits and energies, but over time, becomes entrenched as an increasingly complicated system of reciprocated dependence.” (Anderson et al. 2013, Time to Listen, p2)(PDF)

While agencies are not unaware of this, the standard response is that “there is a tendency to criticise relief for failing to improve the situation and enable a movement towards recovery or development, when humanitarian aid was never claiming to have that as an objective, or is a wholly inappropriate instrument for that purpose. The problem lies not with relief and its failings, but with the lack of other forms of international engagement.” (Harvey and Lind 2005, Dependency and humanitarian relief, p17)(PDF) This may well be the case, but it is largely irrelevant to the recipients of aid.

It is increasingly clear to humanitarian actors that the needs of those recipients are frequently not the same as those met by the supply-driven aid system. Affected communities frequently point out that amongst their most pressing requirements are employment opportunities or general security, neither of which humanitarian aid can deliver. More imaginative responses are now being implemented, such as cash transfers, but these have been held back by the humanitarian community’s limited understanding of the wider social, political and economic forces acting on affected communities.

The Listening Project report goes on to say that a number of aid recipients “say that they believe aid providers depend on the recipients’ “needs” because responding to these needs justifies the providers’ existence and work.” The point is not that aid generates clients, or that humanitarian principles have been undermined by western military policy, or that humanitarian organisations are viewed with ambivalence by other stakeholders; these are trivially true, and have been discussed at length elsewhere.

What is critical is that these developments demonstrate that the narrative which the humanitarian community has created for itself does not match the narrative created by those outside the community, particularly aid recipients. Increasingly the humanitarian community is not in control of the narrative around humanitarian action, specifically because of the advent of the information age, which gives rise to two related crises:

  1. A crisis of legitimacy. We are trapped in responding to outside criticism which is not based on the reality of aid but on media perceptions of aid, and permanently stuck behind the curve in responding to that criticism, which is not helped by the persistence of poor management throughout the sector. The end result is that our self-justifications are no longer viable in the face of increasing evidence that those justifications are irrelevant to aid recipients.
  2. A crisis of confidence, brought on by the crisis of legitimacy. The external narrative is so strong, and there is such a great disparity between these two narratives, that those working in the humanitarian sector are unable to reconcile them. In such a situation, the dominant narrative will slowly overwhelm other narratives, which is what is happening to the narrative around humanitarian principles: they are seen by external actors as at best peripheral to the provision of relief.

In the last decade, the competing narrative has been driven by the public in early-industrialised countries (facilitated by failure-focused media coverage): aid is ineffective, and the solution is mechanisms which improve effectiveness, e.g. managerialist projects such as the UN’s humanitarian reform efforts. In the next decade, however, that narrative will be overtaken by the voices of aid recipients. Thanks to the research cited above, we are beginning to have a better understanding of what those voices are saying; but the only thing we can be certain of is that they will tell a completely different story: “effectiveness” is not their god, but participation is.

Related posts:

  1. Humanitarianism: its part in my downfall
  2. Seminar on Remote Sensing, Satellite Imagery and Humanitarian Crises
  3. Cutting the Cake with CDAC

Categories: AidBlogs

The single biggest threat to the humanitarian system - February 8, 2013 - 3:48pm

The leading industrial nations are also oil states. Without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves, and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. These ways of life are not sustainable, and they now face the twin crises that will end them…

- Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, in Economy and Society Volume 38, Issue 3, 2009

Mitchell’s article (later developed into an excellent and very readable book) makes a compelling argument about the role that fossil fuels  – and specifically oil – have played in creating and shaping our political, economic and social frameworks. You don’t have to buy into every aspect of that argument to recognise that broadly speaking it’s obviously true – all civilizations depend on their energy resources,  both in the more visible efforts to control those resources, but also in the more subtle ways in which those resources make all other achievements possible.

This recasts the huge progress that humanity has made in improving the quality and quantity of life as less impressive than it first appears. Without disparaging the efforts of the many millions of people who have improved their own lives and the lives of others, those improvements were possible only because of the massive energy windfall that fossil fuels represented. The Green Revolution was a tremendous achievement, but made possible partly because of fossil-fuel-based industrial services and goods such as synthetic fertilizers.

Carbon democracy suggests a deeper problem. If the political and economic wealth of industrialized nations – modern democracy and consumer culture – has been paid for by access to fossil fuels then, as fossil fuels dwindle, that political and economic wealth will dwindle also (although with a time lag similar to the initial lag between use of fossil fuels on a large scale and their impact on civilization). The frameworks that were built by and continue to rely on that wealth will change in response to this external pressure (amongst others) to take new forms that may or may not support the values that we currently believe to be important.

Humanitarian action is also reliant on those frameworks of wealth, both for the economic resources which are transferred from richer to poorer communities, and for the political and social mechanisms which facilitate that transferral. As that wealth starts to disappear – not just if industrialized nations become comparatively poorer, but also because the overall wealth of nations lessens – then inevitably the humanitarian system which it currently supports will also start to disappear.

If this is true, it is the single biggest long-term threat to the humanitarian system, since the institutions which we currently work through and the resources which they can deploy will no longer be available. In light of that, we should be exploring how to ensure the survival of core humanitarian principles past the death of those institutions. What might these new forms look like? I’d suggest that resilience might provide a useful approach, with a focus on building networks of mutual support that can deploy scarce resources more equitably while still maintaining humanitarian principles – but in truth we haven’t even begun to think about these issues yet, because we assume that our institutions are eternal.

They’re not.

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The same old dilemmas - February 6, 2013 - 2:02pm

This may sound familiar:

Few of the modern professionals seem to be immune from the popular attack – whether they be social workers, educators, housers, public health officials, policemen, city planners, highway engineers or physicians. Our restive clients have been telling us that they don’t like the educational programs that schoolmen have been offering, the redevelopment projects urban renewal agencies have been proposing, the law enforcement styles of the police, the administrative behavior of the welfare agencies, the locations of the highways, and so on. In the courts, the streets, and the political campaigns, we’ve been hearing ever-louder public protests against the professions’ diagnoses of the clients’ problems, against professionally designed governmental programs, against professionally certified standards for the public services. It does seem odd that this attack should be coming just when professionals in the social services are beginning to acquire professional competencies. It might seem that our publics are being perverse, having condoned professionalism when it was really only dressed-up amateurism and condemning professionalism when we finally seem to be getting good at our jobs. Perverse though the laity may be, surely the professionals themselves have been behind this attack as well. [Emphasis mine.]

- Rittel and Webber (1973), Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, p155-6

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