Category Archives: same as it ever was

Katniss and Agency

I haven’t followed all the hype and I haven’t read the book, but I did go to see the Hunger Games movie. And I thought it was pretty good. A lot of people were celebrating the fact that the main character was female and the book was written by a woman.

Then I read an article called “What’s Wrong with the Hunger Games is What No One Noticed” saying that all of us feminist women had been duped. That Katniss, the main character, was not strong at all, and she was just a new version of an old female fairy tale character that appeared strong, but that in reality, it was still all about her clothes and what boy she would pick, and that all the choices around her were made for her by men, and that she had no agency.

The article got me thinking, and quite a bit. And though I do see the author’s points, I related to Katniss’ character differently. The phrase “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.

I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency. I saw her as doing what a lot of us women (and men) do: playing the game just enough to get by; recognizing that we are playing the game; retaining our dignity and values whilst appearing to play along; and carefully picking our battles in terms of those times when we refuse to play at allbecause seriously, sometimes you just don’t have the energy to fight everything all the time. It can be exhausting.

The Hunger Games is reflective of the world we actually live in, not a film about the world we’d ideally like to live in.

In this world, the powers that be force us to play the game. We can stupidly play it, without thinking; we can buy into the commercialism, the sexism, the racism, the violence and the consumerism, with no regard to what is going on around us and no reflection on what we are doing… Or we can consciously recognize our own frustration that our values and principles are not reflected in the game, yet see that we are not strong enough individually to massively change it, and we have to navigate and negotiate within the system while keeping ourselves and our values intact if we want to survive. We have to find ways to work around the system, to confront it when we can’t take it anymore and to exploit those times that we see chinks in its armor. We also need to find allies to join hands with to help us survive and change things. We need to be smart sometimes and approach those who already hold power but have not totally been consumed by the system and its [evil] ways. Or find people who have infiltrated the system but haven’t sold out to it — and maybe we ourselves are those who have infiltrated but not sold out or sold out fully. Sometimes, though  rare, we can convince power holders that the system needs to change. Or through stealth, smarts or just plain ethics, we can force systemic change. This is how revolutions and social change happen.

Once the Games started, Katniss disappeared from the fray. I didn’t see this as weak or lacking agency. Instead, she decided to leave the scene and wait things out as long as possible. This was a strategic decision and a smart individual survival tactic (yes, suggested to her by a man, but so what?), but it was also an avoidance tactic. I saw her as rejecting the game itself and the violence and competition that most of the rest of the group embraced. She distanced herself from it and refused to play. As often happens in real life, she’s punished by ‘the system’ (with fireballs and other manufactured obstacles) to force her back into the game. (Notably it’s another smart and creative woman who creates the situations that force Katniss back into the game. And yes, most of these situations are in the hands of men and being directed by men, but that’s kind of how the real world works these days and has for centuries, isn’t it?)

Katniss opened herself up to alliances with other players in the game. She did this not to aggressively kill as some of the other youth who formed alliances did, but rather for mutual support and patient survival. The last thing ‘the system’ wants is people organizing and supporting each other to reject it, it prefers to pit people against each other, to foster mistrust. Katniss didn’t engage with others in that way. She opened up to Rue on the basis of trust. We see her flipping back and forth with regard to Peeta and it’s fairly obvious that she is feigning a storybook lovestory to the mass media and outside world in order to survive and game the system by momentarily giving it what it wants, yet also forming an underlying friendship with Peeta based on trust. (NB: I was reminded of People Magazine covers and survival tactics of stars whose fame is ebbing – give the public what they want. I’m also aware that mainstream media has hyped up and sexified the actress who played Katniss. I haven’t been following the Hunger Games collateral but I’ll assume we have happy meals and clothing and other such crap… and there is the ridiculousness of this… which kind of proves my point about the world we actually live in and the evil systems we can’t get away from…)

Early in the movie it was clear that Katniss hadn’t bought into the Hunger Games. She wasn’t friendly or likeable. She’s living in a man’s world and the women in that world are relegated to roles of fashion, emotional overreactions, false statements and bad make up. The men are evil manipulating power seekers in most cases. People are pitted against each other. It’s dog-eat-dog.

But it seemed to me that Katniss, as a smart young woman, recognized all of this. She didn’t want to play the game but understood that to survive and keep the values and goals that she had in life — her love for her sister and her own survival — she needed to appear to be playing by the rules of the Game. My sense throughout the film is that she does so with a clear understanding of what she is doing, and she has not sold out, she’s kept true to herself. That is real agency and internal strength. She refuses to kill, perhaps a harder thing than joining into the violent game young people are forced to engage in. She shows us that we can reject that world and that system we don’t wish to belong to. We can find like-minded people and together move, struggle and survive within the mainstream systems that are destroying us as a whole and, one hopes, eventually change or topple them. Sometimes we can even game those systems using guerrilla tactics because the systems do not expect us to maintain our values, ethics and solidarity, because those running them think we are not smart or strong enough to overcome, or because the systems don’t understand us or our way of thinking.

At a personal level, I related to Katniss. I often feel trapped in systems whose values I don’t share and whose games I don’t want to play. I prefer to reject these systems and play by my own rules when possible. When I get tired enough of fighting, or I know I simply can’t win because the system is too big, I’ll bypass it, ignore it, avoid it as much as possible, and do my own thing, or just curl up mentally into a fetal position and let it kick me, knowing inside that it may think it has won, but it hasn’t because I’ve held to my values and been true to myself, and once I’ve regrouped, and when it’s least expected, I’ll be back, hopefully with some other like-minded people.

We all take something different from books and films. We bring their messages into our own experiences. I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency, I saw her as living out the struggle that many of us do and making choices I could relate to within the limited space that was available to her.


Love the way you lie

I’m pleased to feature the fabulous “J,” (retired formerly of Tales from the Hood blogger blog) guest posting here on Shotgun Shack….

I used to think it was up to INGOs to voluntarily be more truthful and accurate in their marketing, more forthcoming with information about program challenges and even failures, and less prone to simplistic, dumbed-down public messaging. It used to really annoy me every time a marketer would go on about how if we don’t “hook” the donor in the first 15 seconds we lose them, or how donors don’t want to hear that aid is complex and difficult, that aid successes are nowhere near as cut-and-dried as our glossy direct mail and interactive websites make it all seem.

But now, I dunno.

Maybe I’m just jaded. Or cynical. But I seriously doubt that the aid industry is going to voluntarily make fundamental changes to the way it talks about what it does. I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think that maybe this kind of change will have to be driven by donors themselves.

* * * * *

Eminem’s controversial 2010 duet with Rihanna, and even more controversial music video captures a theme with which many of us are familiar: the smart, beautiful woman who, against all apparent logic, just cannot bring herself to walk away from an abusive, violent, perhaps deadbeat partner.

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

Well that’s alright because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

Well that’s alright because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

* * * * *

Throughout my own career in the aid industry, it has on many occasions been my job to take private donors to the field, either to see projects that they’d already supported or projects that my employer of the day hoped they would support. In every instance, without exception, I found myself in the field with people who had been mis-educated about relief and development work by marketers. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed removing the wool from their eyes, in some cases forcibly. I held back nothing about the context, likely impact, sustainability prospects, complexity, difficulty, and so on. I did my best to make sure that they had as clear and complete a picture of what was going on — the good, the bad and the ugly — as possible. In every case their time at the project site with me showed them a picture that contrasted starkly with what they’d been led to believe about how their money made or would make a difference. In some cases they were shocked to learn what we actually did with their money.

But in no instance, ever, did any one of them say, “I think you guys are a bunch of crooks. I’ll be donating elsewhere after this…”, or “This development thing is a lot of bullsh!t. I’m done as a donor.”

* * * * *

I’m not calling anyone person a liar. Not NGO marketing or comms or PR people. I think that the instances in which NGOs tell outright untruths are extremely rare. But I absolutely believe that the gravitational pull of the aid industry is towards painting a picture for its donors of what it does that is un-nuanced and incomplete enough to be untrue. And we continue to paint this picture because our private donors continue to insist on it.

Donors: you have the power to make this better. You have the power to insist that we tell you what we’re really doing. Based on my own experience, I believe that if we get the chance to tell you, you’ll still support us because good aid makes good sense and you’re smart people. But you seem to be addicted to a fake version. I don’t know why, but you love the way we lie.

Teen Angst

I don’t live in London, so I’m not in a position to understand the context of the London Riots like those in the thick of things can. Like many though, I’m watching and thinking about why they happened now, what caused them, how they are similar or different from other recent (and future) ‘uprisings’ of youth, and what they mean in the larger scheme of things.

Sometimes you can’t capture a reason with words alone, and maybe there is no reasonable or tangible explanation for what is happening. But a few songs come to mind that do a good job of conveying that feeling of (sometimes pointless) teen angst…. I imagine many other songs could be added. (Send links and lyrics and I’ll grow the playlist….)

Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols, 1976

“I am an anti-christ
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by cos I

I wanna BE anarchy!

Anarchy for the U.K it’s coming sometime and maybe

I give a wrong time stop a traffic line
your future dream is a shopping scheme

cos I, I wanna BE anarchy!
In the city

How many ways to get what you want
I use the best I use the rest
I use the enemy
I use anarchy cos I wanna be anarchy.”

London Calling by the Clash, 1977

“London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling, now don’t look to us
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing”

Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth, 1988

“It better work out

I hope it works out my way
‘Cause it’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head
Takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now”

Smells like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, 1991

“With the lights out

It’s less dangerous

Here we are now

Entertain us”

Geezers Need Excitement by the Streets, 2002

“Geezerz need excitement
If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense
Geezerz need excitement
if their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense”

World Town by M.I.A. 2007

“Yo dont be calling me desperate
When i’m knocking on the door
Every wall you build i’ll knock it down to the floor
See me see me bubbling quietly
See me see me acting like you ain’t met me
See me see me bubbling quietly
See me see me acting like you ain’t met me

Hands up
Guns out
Represent the world town”

Killing in the Name by Rage against the Machine, 1993

“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”


We’re not gonna Take It by Twisted Sister, 1984 (suggested by @talesfromthhood)

“We’re not gonna take it

No, we’re not gonna take it

We’re not gonna take it anymore”

Fight for your Right to Party by the Beastie Boys, 1986 (suggested by @talesfromthhood)

“You gotta fight for your right to party”

Party for your Right to Fight by Public Enemy, 1988

“Power, equality
And we’re out to get it
I know some of you ain’t wid it
This party started right in ’66
With a pro-Black radical mix
Then at the hour of twelve
Some force cut the power
And emerged from hell
It was your so called government
That made this occur
Like the grafted devils they were”

I Predict a Riot by Kaiser Chiefs, 2004 (suggested by @catg89)

“I predict a riot, I predict a riot

I predict a riot, I predict a riot

I tried to get to my taxi

A man in a tracksuit attacked me

He said that he saw it before me

Wants to get things a bit gory

Girls scrabble around with no clothes on

To borrow a pound for a condom

If it wasn’t for chip fat, they’d be frozen

They’re not very sensible”

Panic by the Smiths, 1986 (suggested by @ithorpe)

“Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again ?
The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
I wonder to myself
Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here
So you run down
To the safety of the town
But there’s Panic on the streets of Carlisle
Dublin, Dundee, Humberside
I wonder to myself

Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play

White Man in Hammersmith Palais by the Clash, 1977 (suggested by @paulclammer)

“White youth, black youth

Better find another solution

Why not phone up Robin Hood

and ask him for some wealth distribution.”

April 26, 1992 by Sublime, 1996 (suggested by @michaelkbusch)

“April 26th, 1992,
there was a riot on the streets,
tell me where were you?
You were sittin’ home watchin’ your TV,
while I was paticipatin’ in some anarchy.

First spot we hit it was my liqour store.
I finally got all that alcohol I can’t afford.
With red lights flashin’ time to retire,
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire.

Next stop we hit it was the music shop,
It only took one brick to make that window drop.
Finally we got our own p.a.
Where do you think I got this guitar that you’re hearing today?

Never doin no time

When we returned to the pad to unload everything,
It dawned on me that I need new home furnishings.
So once again we filled the van until it was full,
since that day my livin’ room’s been more comfortable.

Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here,
It’s getting harder and harder and harder each and every year.

Some kids went in a store with their mother,
I saw her when she came out she was gettin some pampers.

They said it was for the black man,
they said it was for the mexican,
and not for the white man.

But if you look at the streets it wasn’t about Rodney King,
It’s bout this fucked up situation and these fucked up police.
It’s about coming up and staying on top
and screamin’ 187 on a mother fuckin’ cop.”

Burning down the House by the Talking Heads, 1983 (suggested by @viewfromthecave)

“Watch out, you might get what you’re after

Cool babies, strange but not a stranger

I’m an ordinary guy

Burning down the house”

Baba O Riley by the Who, 1971 (suggested by @viewfromthecave)

“Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland…

(they’re all wasted!)”

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Bauhuas, 1982 (suggested by @meowtree)

“All we ever wanted was everything

All we ever got was cold.

Get up, eat jelly, sandwich bars and barbed wire

Squash every week into a day.

The sound of the drum is calling

The sound of the drum has called

Flash of youth shoot out of darkness

Factory town”

Fire in the Booth by Akala, 2005 (suggested by @telamigo)

“One too many man you know get cut up
One too many man that could’ve been doctors
End up spending their whole life boxed up
You learn, if you study
Its all set out just to make them money
No cover, it’s all about getting poor people to fight with one another
So its logical that us killing our brothers,
Dissin’ our mothers
Is right in line with the dominant philosophy of our time
But time is a cycle, not a line
Comes back around you regain your mind
You be ready for the energy I channel in my rhymes
Remedy the pedigree, the jeopardy of mine
When the world’s this f***ed up, lethargy’s a crime
We can all fight with our brothers over crumbs,
Far harder to fight the one who makes guns
We can all talk sh** and get two dollars
Far harder to be the one who seeks knowledge
If we understood economics
We’d know money’s nothin’
Think nothing of it…”
Jungle by Professor Green ft Maverick Sabre, 2010 (suggested by @telamigo)
“I see no point in living life that right, so I just take what I can find
I see no point in living life that right, when you’re out here in this jungle
It’s wild round ‘ere, you don’t wanna spend a night round ‘ere
When you’re out here in this jungle, ain’t nothing nice round ‘ere
trouble’s what you find round ‘ere….
It’s blitz amidst the strife here
got kids with sticks and knives here
It’s hype here, we know no different prick
It’s just life here
Life from young the way we know from what we’re shown
Stacked trapped in flats where our front doors don’t face the road
God CID spinning round in cars
Shifting criminals at large
it’s hard not to think the bits are just a bing without the bars….”
21st Century Breakdown by Green Day, 2009 (suggested by @mforstater)
“… My generation is zero
I never made it
As a working class hero
21st Century Breakdown
I once was lost but never was found
I think I am losing
What’s left of my mind
To the 20th century deadline”
Enter Shikari by Juggernauts, 2009 (suggested by @mforstater)

“…Now don’t get me wrong I love what you done with the place
I just wish we had a chance to help build it
Instead of just moving into this home of disrepair
And expect it to work, prosper and then share
Constantly relying on consuming to feel content
But only because we lost touch with this home that we’ve spent
Trillions of dollars tainting for our wants and not our needs
And now we’re growing tired of planting bleary-eyed seeds

….. And I know that we’ve still got time
But I do not think we’re invincible
And I’m thinking that its a sign
Deep breaths, clentched fists,
Here comes another jug-ger-naut!

The idea of community
Will be something displayed in a museum”


Teenage Angst by Placebo, 1996  (suggested by @manucartoons)
“Since I was born I started to decay.
Now nothing ever ever goes my wayOne fluid gesture, like stepping back in time.
Trapped in amber, petrified.
And still not satisfiedAirs and social graces, elocution so divine.
I’ll stick to my needle, and my favourite waste of time,
both spineless and sublime.”Since I was born I started to decay.
Now nothing ever – ever goes my way.
Invincible by Pat Benetar, 1985 (suggested by Leila)
“This shattered dream you cannot justify.
We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied.
What are we running for ? We’ve got the right to be angry.
What are we running for when there’s nowhere we can run to anymore ?
We can’t afford to be innocent
stand up and face the enemy.
It’s a do or die situation – we will be invincible.
And with the power of conviction there is no sacrifice.
It’s a do or die situation – we will be invincible.Won’t anybody help us ?
What are we running for when there’s nowhere”.

Violent Crimein by Mayhem N.O.D.B., 2008 (suggested by Harle)

(couldn’t find any lyrics for it….)


Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.

There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes  what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.

The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.

The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?

As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.

Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.

“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”

We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.

The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.

They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land.  I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.

They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’ and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.

But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.

“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”

Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took  didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.

The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.

Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.

“We hope that you will be different.”

We were not.

Gender and INGOs: pretty on paper….

Ben Ramalingam’s recent post ‘Gender bias as an emergent property in international agencies‘ discusses how the aid industry has fallen short in walking the talk on gender. Ben basically says that agencies love building other people’s capacity around gender. Yet as with so many things agencies and aid organizations like advising on, our own capacity is in a fairly sorry state.

Ben notes that micro-level and informal attitudes and dynamics add up to an overall institutional bias against women at international development agencies. I’d hazard to say that most women face a gender bias, whether working in their home countries or afar, whether at an agency headquarters or in a ‘developing country’ where gender awareness programs are implemented, whether ex-pat or local contract. Above and beyond the gender dynamic specifically in development agencies is an overall gender bias working against women in many (most?) societies. This goes beyond what an INGO can address, but one could argue that if development agencies were really committed to addressing gender bias, they would start ‘at home.’ How many agencies have actually looked closely at their own set-up and made serious improvements before embarking on a ‘gender’ program or campaign externally?

Next time you are out with female colleagues who trust you enough to say what they really think, just drop one of these topics on the table, and I guarantee that you’ll get an earful. If your agency has none of this going on, you deserve a medal.

Where there aren’t many women. 

The ratio of men to women changes by country and region, depending on how customary it is for women to work outside the home. In places where women don’t normally work outside the home, obviously you don’t find many women in management or otherwise. Those women that have been able to attain the education levels to qualify them for management positions are sometimes few and far between. When you do find women in management, you might notice a bit of “Margaret Thatcherism” going on, as they have to be tougher and harsher than any of their male counterparts or risk being seen as weak. When a woman is “imported” from the outside to manage mostly men, it can be difficult for her to earn their respect. She will often be undermined not only by men, but also by other women.

In some cases, as a female manager your sex is the first thing people see.  I’ve been introduced by one agency director as ‘the pretty face of the management team’ and by another one as ‘so and so with x number of children, married to xx,’ while my male colleagues were introduced using their titles and their university degrees. (Note: Both directors were European).

Getting into management.

It can be tough to get from non-management to middle management, and even tougher to get into upper management for women. When women do get management positions, you’ll often see them in ‘softer’ areas that have less perceived power in the organization and less decision-making power over budget or organizational priorities. So you’ll see women stuck in middle management or managing human resources or communications rather than women managing emergencies, programs or operations. These ‘lesser’ management positions do not look nearly as good on a CV and it’s very difficult to ever advance a career into the highest positions of power within organizations from one of these ‘softer’ management positions.

Men decide, women implement.

In those agencies where there are a lot of women (eg., in countries where it’s common for women to work outside the home), the agency dynamic often closely mimics the community dynamic that the agency is all up in arms about. The men are in charge, making the decisions, and women’s participation tends towards doing all the hands-on work to implement what the men have agreed on. Men manage and decide over use of resources. A small mostly male management team (hmm, kind of like the all-male community leaders) will make all the decisions while the army of female staff carries them out (hmmm, kind of like what goes on in communities we want to change).

I’ve heard men tell their female colleagues that they should not be given management positions because they are going to be pregnant and taking time off every couple of years, and how will the agency and the work move forward then?

Family friendly policies.

Some agency policies are family friendly or gender friendly in ‘the north’ but in ‘the south’ policies are often adapted to local law or there are different policies for ex-pats vs local staff. So while ex-pats might get special benefits based on their contracts, local employees do not get enough time off for breastfeeding (which of course, INGOs preach to community women, exclusively up to 6 months) or for paternity leave (and yes, INGOs also preach about how men should share the load of child care). Local staff don’t get financial support to cover their child care needs the way many ex-pats do.

Many women find ways to make this work, but not all women have sisters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers who can care for their children while they work. A high percentage of men (ex-pat and otherwise) have stay-at-home wives who enable them to work long hours and travel without worrying about the laundry when they get home or the well-being of the kids while away. Very few women, ex-pat or otherwise, have the luxury of stay-at-home husbands who take on the household and child care duties (or working husbands who share the load equally).

I’ve actually overheard people arguing that a male employee whose wife lost a child late-term should not be allowed to have bereavement time, because this was a health issue for the woman and the man would just be lazing around anyway. I’ve heard an HR manager argue that men should only get 1-2 days paternity leave, the time required to register a child. (I’m all for local cultural adaptation, but seriously?) I worked at an agency several years ago where the (female) HR manager instilled a policy requiring women to submit a pregnancy test as part of the hiring process. This is so obviously not legal.

Pulling your weight.

Even when an organization does offer paternity leave or maternity leave, there’s an unspoken pressure not to take the full-time allotted. For mothers it’s very difficult to stay long hours at work, and INGO’s with large workloads and limited staff who are always working to capacity tacitly encourage both men and women to work long hours and on weekends. Those who leave after an 8 hour day are often frowned upon as not really carrying their load or not being committed to the organization, thus they do not advance.

Equal pay for equal work. 

It’s common for an ‘assistant’ to be female and do most of the work for a male manager who takes most of the credit, or for a female colleague of the same management rank to take on a larger share of the work where the male takes on a larger share of the glory. Part of this is that men tend to talk more about what they are doing than women do. And pardon me for saying it, but men tend to be better at creating an illusion of productivity and success, while women tend to shy away from taking credit for success.

It would be fun to see an analysis in terms of equal pay for equal work, and a workload study with regard to what each person does, accomplishes, and their actual pay scale and the ranking of their position on that salary scale done in every single NGO that is promoting women’s campaigns. Gender equity should start at home.


In some countries, it is not safe for women to move around alone, especially at night, but instead of agencies finding a way to work around this, women are simply restricted or put themselves at risk because there is never enough transportation to go around for mid-level managers and below. In some places women are encouraged to learn to ride motorbikes, but the bikes are not always the right size for a woman to manage. In addition, male colleagues make fun of them and say they are acting like men, trying to be men, will fall off the bike, etc.

Bathrooms and kitchens!!

There is obviously a biological difference here, but bathrooms are not private nor clean in many INGO and agency offices unless women take charge of making them so. Most of the time women are left to keep communal kitchens tidy, wash coffee cups, etc. When complaints are made, rather than men offering to take on their share, suddenly budget for a maid will be found.

Drinking with the boys.

One of the best ways to get ahead in the INGO world is to get invited to a regional meeting and go out drinking late night with the ex-pat boys club who already hold the key management positions and the power. Women don’t tend to do this as often as men or may not be welcomed. And if you don’t get in with this group, you tend to get passed over, regardless of the quality of your work.

Double standards.  

Speaking of ‘drinking with the boys’, I’ve gone out to group dinners in some countries where only female colleagues showed up because our (married) male colleagues were all ‘staying back to work.’ We’d seen them sneaking out of the hotel, one by one. We knew that they were going out to visit ‘special friends.’ Sometimes the men just all leave a group dinner around 8 or 9 p.m. because they have other ‘commitments’ you might hear about marginally the next day, as people make sly comments to each other about the night before. Meanwhile these same men will preach a different story to communities about responsibility and faithfulness and gender equity and blah blah blah. If a woman were seen doing something similar, it would impact on her reputation enough to make her life miserable. (Obviously this double standard is not restricted to the workplace or INGOs).

High percentage of divorced or single women working in development agencies.

Women often comment on the high number of divorced or single women in INGO work. Now, this could be because we are all so totally modern and enlightened that we have chosen a career over a husband. But you know what? I can’t remember ever hearing a man saying he was choosing one or the other. I rather think that for many women, the workload, long hours and travel expected of them to keep a career in INGO work doesn’t fit in well with the traditional role of ‘keeping a husband feeling secure, happy and well-cared for’ and causes conflict in the relationship. Sometimes demands of a husband require women to cut short the time they can dedicate to their work, affecting their upward movement. Sure, wives also complain about their husbands working too much but if women don’t hold equal power in their relationships at home and their husbands don’t share the load, and they don’t make enough money to hire someone to take on their domestic chores, an explanation that dinner wasn’t ready because they were working is not going to cut it.  Eventually, they will probably have to choose either career advancement or keeping a happy home.

The ‘ghettoization’of gender.

As I said earlier, an agency that has overcome the issues above deserves a gold star! If agencies would look internally, discuss and address these things openly rather than writing up internal policies and program strategies on gender that are simply words on paper, it would be a huge step forward. Sympathetic male colleagues can have a huge impact on supporting women in the workforce. Most agencies have failed to involve men in gender work (both at agency level and at community level). It’s seen as a ‘woman’s issue’ and men don’t see what it has to do with them, so they ignore it or undermine it.

So INGOs normally have a (95% of the time female) gender advisor or coordinator or focal point who is tasked with single-handedly promoting gender equality throughout an entire region or organization. The isolation of the issue means it has little influence in the larger picture. As long as INGO’s pitch, both externally and internally, that gender equality is only about women, and as long as gender equality and gender equity are seen to only favorably impact on women, INGOs will continue to undermine their own efforts in promoting an inclusive and equitable working environment.

Pretty on paper.

When organizations promote gender equality in their policies and programs, but don’t tie this to mechanisms of accountability like budget, and don’t bring the issues out for open discussion by both men and women, they end up with pretty words on paper while the organization continues to sideline equity issues and promote a hypocritical, holier-than-thou agenda.

Thanks to Ben Ramalingam for bringing up this issue, and thanks to those who provided anonymous input on this post!

Finding meaning in Africa

I was on the way to Rwanda. My seat mate turned out to be an attractive, obviously wealthy woman, in her mid 50s. Before she even took her seat I knew she was going to be a talker. “Your first time to Africa?” she asked. No no, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there actually. “Oh, I’m going through a really ugly divorce,” she said, getting settled in and buckling her seatbelt, emphasizing “ugly” by widening her eyes. “I’m on a spiritual journey with a group of women. We’re going to see the gorillas and visit projects in Rwanda and Kenya for women victims of rape and violence. I know my life seems hard, but I’m really so lucky to be where I am. I am going to help women in Africa as part of my own healing process. I really need to find meaning and purpose in my life.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking this woman was in no mental or emotional place to help anyone, let alone women who had been battered, raped or otherwise gotten a bad rap in life. I wondered why it was “Africa” that she needed in order to find “meaning and purpose.”

We talked the entire flight, and she kind of grew on me, despite the concerns I had about her reasons for going to “Africa.”

I saw a beautiful woman who had been in an abusive and destructive marriage, had a self-admitted and externally-obvious low self-esteem, a series of plastic surgeries and that kind of wealth- and power-based bad relationship with her children and ex-husband that I’d only seen in movies about rich people. I felt bad for the women that she was going to “help.” I imagined them feeling obliged to be kind to her as she got teary-eyed, bringing her own drama into it, feeling sorry for them, hugging them, “bonding with them,” taking pictures with them and telling them that despite their differences, they had something in common simply because they were women. She wasn’t a bad person, just perhaps misguided. I actually did hope that somehow her trip to “Africa” would help her heal the damage that had been done to her as a beautiful, rich woman from the West Coast of the US. I didn’t agree with her motives, but if she was going to be there anyway, I hoped at least she would come out of it stronger and healthier somehow.

As we parted ways upon arriving to Kigali, we realized that strangely enough, we were on the same flight back to the US, so we arranged to meet in the airport pre-flight for a bite or a beer. I found her at the airport with a group of wealthy, new-agey, middle-aged US women who were, like herself, seeking spiritual healing from Africa. They’d been to see the gorillas. They’d visited Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi. They’d gone through some kind of 5 or 7 or 12-step program to strengthen their womanhood and heal the spiritual and emotional vacuum inside them, to address the emptiness that often comes along with the life of plenty, privilege and pressure that only the wealthy understand.

She gushed about her trip to see the gorillas, and a long discussion ensued with the rest of the women about whether the guide was Hutu or Tutsi, and what that meant, and how they couldn’t help but think he must be Hutu, and they secretly didn’t trust him, though he was actually very intelligent. They talked about how the whole country of Rwanda needed healing. One of the tour operators explained a program that she was running to help women who had been raped “shake.” This “shaking,” she said, cures them of the emotional scars associated with the horrible experiences of having been raped, watching family members killed or otherwise experiencing the terror of living through a genocide. She said a similar program had been very successful in the DRC. I politely smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, feeling uncomfortable.

My airplane friend pulled out her iPhone and started flipping through pictures of gorillas and their adorable babies. Then her eyes welled up. “We went to Kibera” she said. “It’s a terrible place. Oh, these women. You have no idea what they go through. Look at this….” she said. “This girl was raped 7 times.” “This girl, she has HIV and her older sister is all she has left to take care of her.” “This woman started a home for raped girls, she was raped too, 12 times.” She quickly flipped through a series of pictures of girls and women that she had met and who had sad, sad stories that she repeated as if reciting facts from a text-book. I wondered if she saw them as human, or if they were just more photos to document her own experience of seeing the horrors found in “Africa.”

She talked about all her goals of helping these women. She was going to start a charity in Kibera for them and she wanted me to help, since I knew a lot about this kind of thing. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know where to start so I smiled and said we’d talk once we got home. We didn’t.

Maybe @kiwanja‘s right, and there should be a “finding Africa gave my life meaning tax.”

Things you don’t see

I arrived to a new time zone a little under a week ago and am staying in a nice enough rural place with a pretty sparse set-up. There are some flowers in the garden outside, and a clean, narrow bed with a thin mattress and faded blanket. The walls hold the requisite framed pictures of nature scenes and inspirational sayings in English. There’s a throw rug that smells like it’s seen better days. Although there’s no mirror on the wall, there’s a little hand-held one with a plastic orange handle on the small table in my room. There’s no television in the individual rooms, but you can hear one blaring most of the time from the common dining area. The power supply is steady during the day. I can smell high powered disinfectant and insect repellent when I come back from the community in the afternoons, after the room has been closed up all day. The slapping sound of the woman caretaker washing clothes starts early in the morning. We’re able to communicate fairly well, sometimes with a little help from my colleagues.

Naturally, in addition to alcohol, Internet (both of which I’ve been able to get easily enough since the guest house has local beer and my colleague hooked me up with a ‘mobile Internet key’) and chocolate (brought some with me), I’ve been dying for a hot shower. It’s not really cold here, but gets down to 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and early mornings are chilly, as is the water that’s been sitting in the pipes overnight. What’s a girl to do but tough it out and reduce the personal hygiene standards for a couple weeks?

I slept in a bit this morning. Maybe that’s what’s made me a little more alert to my surroundings…. I noticed this in my room.

And realized all I have to do to get a hot shower is make it do this.

Doh. Funny how your pre-conceived notions make you blind to what is right in front of you.


Photo from Guebara Graphics photo stream

Here are a few paragraphs on neoliberalism taken from a great Egypt-focused article called “The Revolution against Neoliberalism” by Walter Ambrust:

“Although neoliberalism is now a commonly used term, it is still worth pausing a moment and think[ing] about what it means. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism[1] social geographer David Harvey outlined “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”

Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the “proper functioning” of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them. Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions.

The market becomes an end in an of itself, and since the only legitimate function of states is to defend markets and expand them into new spheres, democracy is a potential problem insofar as people might vote for political and economic choices that impede the unfettered operation of markets, or that reserve spheres of human endeavor (education, for example, or health care) from the logic of markets. Hence a pure neoliberal state would philosophically be empowered to defend markets even from its own citizens. As an ideology neoliberalism is as utopian as communism. The application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.”

So take a moment and ponder what neoliberalism means, what it implies, and what its effects have been. Apparently it’s not exactly working in a lot of places. I mean, look at Haiti, Central America. Egypt and its neighbors. Look at the United States.

When it comes to the world of aid and development, I get really nervous when I hear people talking about eliminating aid and allowing markets to take over, as if that will just solve everything.  This complete bowing down to the market in every way, shape and form is obviously not working. Aid in its present form is also not exactly working. And the two things are pretty intertwined, feeding off each other….

I don’t have any solutions, just a lot of questions. But what if instead of eliminating “aid”, we eliminated “neoliberalism”? Or we eliminated both and came up with something totally new; something that actually works for the majority.

Oh, You People and Your Damn T-Shirt Donations

happy recipients! it must be good aid!

A couple days ago @aidhack alerted the “twittersphere” of the fact that World Vision USA was sending it’s habitual 100,000 misprinted NFL Superbowl Loser T-shirts to 4 countries where the organization works. This year it’s not Haiti that gets the loser t-shirts, it’s Armenia, Zambia, Nicaragua and Romania. (And seriously, with all that Superbowl cash, you’d think they could come up with a decent freaking design on those shirts, wouldn’t you? The ugliness of the shirts just makes this all that much worse).

Righteous indignation was felt. Eyes rolled. #facepalms and #headdesks and #heavysighs exploded.

Not another 1 million shirts!

Much drama and many tweets ensued, leading to several people commenting on World Vision’s website to criticize them for this vivid example of bad aid.

Amy from World Vision commented back,

I’m hopeful that I can answer some of the possible misunderstandings about our shirt distributions, especially as they compare (or more accurately, don’t compare) to the efforts of groups like 1 Million Shirts (particularly as it was first starting out). As many of you know, World Vision’s work has a comprehensive scope. We do long-term development in communities where we build relationships, often for up to 15 years. Our distributions of supplies, including, sometimes, new clothing and new shoes, are not standalone projects in isolation… [and so on and so on]

Everyone (possibly scarred from Jason Sadler’s “Hat-o-rade” video and thrilled at this more mature type of engagement) applauded Amy for engaging in the discussion and addressing the questions. But her response did not satisfy. The drama continued. @bill_westerly suggested that they burn 90,000 of the shirts and sell the remaining ones to hipsters in New York City who would get a kick out of having an ironic limited edition ‘loser’ t-shirt and purchase them at extreme prices and the money could be donated.

@saundra_s wrote a kick-ass post going into great detail on why World Vision will continue doing gift in kind programs till the cows come home…. GIK is like, a quarter of their total revenue, meaning it keeps their overhead waaayyyyy down. And the government provides incentives for corporations to make exactly this type of donation – win win for the INGO and the corporation.

Saundra collected several posts on her website, noting that although the #1millionshirts episode sparked some 60 blogposts, This example of a giant, old, influential organization that knows better doing classic bad aid only got about 6 posts. What’s up? She speculates, with much wisdom, that the reason there are so few backlashy posts aimed at World Vision is because people are scared to criticize them heavily due to their influence in the INGO sector. (Actually maybe bloggers were reducing their attention proportionally? 60 posts for 1,000,000 shirts, 6 posts for 100,000 shirts….jk). Here’s Saundra’s Radio Silence post and her list of posts related to the 100,000 shirts debacle.

One of those posts is by Ida Horner. It’s called World Vision USA and those 100,000 Tshirts. Ida mentions another World Vision project that sounds like a real winner:

“If you live here in the UK you may recall a programme in which 8 Millionaires were sent to SW Uganda to share their business skills with a village under the supervision of World Vision. The WV country representative took these millionaires to task over simply giving things to the community as opposed to working with them to come up with long term solutions!”

And that raises for me a clear thing here. I would bet you that the country director who took those 8 millionaires to task for their handouts was doing some #heavysighing, #facepalming and #headdesking when the fund-raising team informed him that those 8 millionaires would be arriving to his office on a big PR trip. And I would bet you that the program staff who have to manage the distribution of those 100,000 loser t-shirts are equally as annoyed with their marketing and fundraising teams for continuing to get that 100,000 loser t-shirts donation. (I certainly would be).

People forget that the gap between program and fundraising teams is huge and very contentious. I bet some people are secretly cracking up (over secretly consumed alcohol) at all the blogger heat World Vision USA’s marketing and PR teams are probably under for those 100,000 loser shirts. And secretly dreading the shaming they will face at the next INGO meeting with their program peers.

Check these posts if you don’t know what I’m talking about:

The Great Divide – (and continual tension between marketing/fundraising and program implementers)

This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A hand out is a hand out is a hand out (about, yes, you guessed it, it’s about hand outs)

This is for my Corporates. Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage (about those giant gifts that those corporate fundraisers get that the program people want nothing to do with)

The thing is, people will take most anything if it’s free, and they will always take free t-shirts. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the best way that money and effort should be spent. Or that it does much towards ending poverty.

The Week in Badvertising (aka ‘scuse me while I vomit in my mouth)

I’ll start by saying I have an extreme aversion to commercials. I pretty much do whatever I can to avoid them, along with malls, Disneyland et al. and Hallmark holidays. So maybe this is just hitting me a little hard since I haven’t built up enough immunity to tasteless PR gimmicks.

But seriously. Seriously? Seriously?!?!?!?

Exhibit 1. Kenneth Cole. The ever suave and edgy designer thinks it’s OK to promote a new spring line off the backs of Egyptian protesters. Oh come on, he implies, it was just a joke. Lighten up. Wake up, asshat. Not funny.

Exhibit 2. Groupon. Well I have never heard of them before, so I don’t know if they are supposed to be funny or edgy or what. They bring together two totally unrelated things, and try to make some kind of joke out of it. Sorry. Didn’t get it. Didn’t find it funny at all. I’m probably not worldly enough to appreciate this high art.

Exhibit 3. The Girl Store. Yet another example of how to dehumanize people and use them as props to further your (and, in this case, supposedly their) cause. That sleazy intro is just a gimmick, you know, an attention grabber. It’s OK to use a child trafficking theme if it’s for a good cause, right? What? “Buy a girl before someone else does?” Um. Resounding “no.” No. No. No.

Apparently bad taste is better than no taste. Stay classy, folks. All of you. Glad I never bought any of your stuff.

(Going to go re-read “This is for my Corporates: #4 People are not Props” out loud while I sulk in my little corner). Gaaaaah.