Category Archives: smartaid

The Clanging Chimes of Doom – Bandaid Remade and Remixed

Reposting to get you in the holiday spirit…. The original post appeared on Nov 20, 2010…. Enjoy! 🙂

This is perhaps one of the most impactful and damaging songs in history. I heard it on the radio today and got pissed off like I do every time I hear it.

Apparently the image of Africa and Africans hasn’t changed much since 1984. Twenty years later comes Band Aid 2 — because every multi-celebrity charity pity song needs a remake…. Love the intro sound of a crying starving child and the astonished yet highly concerned British commentator.

I don’t even know where to start on the stereotypes and disservice that this song (and similar charity marketing and sensationalist journalism) has done to the image of Africa (the Continent) and Africans themselves. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in African countries and I could post photo after photo of rivers and rain there. And things growing.  I never heard any clanging chimes of doom while there. There are lots of people who are not looking out their windows onto “a world of dread and fear”. Many of my African friends won’t celebrate Christmas because they are Muslim, not because they are starving to death. And many others will celebrate Christmas, but not American or Euro style. Not everyone is sitting underneath the burning sun. Africa is not a giant desert. Can we please not show famine in Ethiopia and pretend it’s representative of the entire continent? There won’t be snow in Africa? So what? Gahhhhh!

Luckily there is the glory of social media to take the edge off the fury…. If you don’t like the original version, there are plenty of re-makes to be found on YouTube. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Here is a selection of the, uh, finest. You be the judge on whether these are worse than the original…. Taking votes in the comments section.

Feed the World with Friends (I wish this were a joke) Version. Wow. Just wow. E for effort. C for caring. D for Do Gooders. But the singing makes me doubt the potential for quality in anything crowdsourced.

Bad 1980s Sponsorship Organization Commercial Photo Montage Version. The original didn’t have enough pictures of crying children and flies in the eyes so this kind person overlaid some of the best of the worst charity photos on to the video to encourage us to care.  (Commenter: So, there won’t be snow in Africa this year? And you say the only gift they’ll get is the gift of life? So, no shoveling, and no commercial holidays? Sign me up.)

Singing Cartoon Turkeys Version (aka PETA Version?)

Dance Aid – Do they know it’s Christmas (Rave Mix) Instrumental so you can dance at your Christmas Rave without feeling guilty because of the lyrics.

Winnipeg Tea Party Version? “Dedicated to the poor children of Winnipeg School Division 1. Children whose childhood is less happy because schools run by tyrants will not say the word Christmas….  Christmas… A holiday so terrible according to commies that it can’t be named….” Special appearance poster by the Folsom Street Fair (the grand daddy of all gay male leather events) whose attendees “mock your religion while demanding that you get rid of the word Christmas…” ends with “glad this baby (Jesus) wasn’t aborted… stop the ACLU”.

2006 College Version complete with a lot of bare midriffs and self absorbed cleavage and blowing hair and dramatic effects which turn into…. a drink infested Christmas party… which ends up in a teenage mums against war protest slash terror attack… and ends with… um. Well if you make it through to the end maybe you can tell me what the point was?

Chris Brown feat. T-Pain laid over Karaoke Instrumental Version (?!?!)  I’m still not sure which lyrics are more awful — these or the original…. this is as bad, maybe worse, than the homemade versions– hard to make it through til the end.

High School Christmas Concert Version with uh high quality filming. (comments section: 3 letters is all this will take. OMG. And 2 words: bloody awful)

1985 High School Talent Show Version. Has that Risky Business feel to it. As a child of the 1980s I’m digging the outfits:

Canadian Version with lots of Tim Horton promos in the background…. “In 1984 the top recording artists across Canada gathered to raise money from the famine in Africa… when the public viewed Canada’s version, the world decided it was best for Canada to just make a fincial (sic) donation instead.”

Hipsters in a Mansion Version (TV Allstars) (“Bless ’em, they seem to think the clanging chimes of doom are something to be cheery about.”)

People in a Toystore with Tambourine and Ukelele Version? Commenter: “Sick! Sick and WRONG! I LOVE IT! My favorite lines: “There won’t be snow in Africa this christmas” (nor in LA, nor Hawaii…???) and “Thank God it’s THEM instead of You” ??? and “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun” – the stupidest lyrics ever !! YOU GUYS ROCK”

Status Quo Video Vault Version (anyone else love and remember The Young Ones? “All the homos in the place goin’ mental now….” “HomeOwners you mean, don’t you….”)

The Clanging Chimes of Doom are Back and Better than Ever Version. Voice and video don’t sync. There’s a dude singing in a shower. There’s a fake adopted black baby. Make it stop.

I’m happy that at least some musicians in the 80s were on the ball.  High 5 to Chumbawamba.

Feed the WorldPictures of Starving People“In 1986, the anarchist band Chumbawamba released the album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, as well as an EP entitled “We Are the World”, jointly recorded with US band A State of Mind, both of which were intended as anti-capitalist critiques of the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon. They argued that the record was primarily a cosmetic spectacle, designed to draw attention away from the real political causes of world hunger.”


Update Nov 29, 2010: And hey, it seems like Bob Geldof would totally agree with me on this post! I’m starting to gain a little respect for him. According to this Nov 29, 2010, article in the Daily Mail. Geldof, who penned the song 26 years ago together with Midge Ure, says: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the other one is We Are The World. Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every ****ing Christmas….” The former Boomtown Rats frontman, 59, added: “Sometimes I think that’s wild because I wrote it. Or else I am thinking how much I want them to stop because they are doing it really badly.”


Aid: love it or leave it?

Aid - love it or leave it? (Photo taken from - use of photo is not an endorsement of the band/message/song)

Last week, Tom Paulson guest posted for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL). He didn’t realize he was guest posting, because he wrote the post for Humanosphere, but his post could easily be re-written as SEAWL “#75: Self-Loathing”.

In his post, Paulson identifies ‘A serious problem of self-loathing within the aid and development community’ along with ‘pathological self-deprecation’ and a tendency towards ‘nose-cutting and face-spiting’ (not necessarily in that order).

He uses 2 posts to illustrate his point.

1) Aid Cannot and Will Not Fix Anything by Tales from the Hood, and

2) It’s a Better Life Without Oxfam: the video, which Duncan Green (Oxfam GB’s head of research) blogged about and View from the Cave re-blogged.

Paulson writes that ‘Given the level of ignorance and even hostility that exists in this country toward spending much on foreign aid and development, I think the main challenge for this [the aid] community is make the case for the value of aid and international development. Saying “aid cannot and will not fix anything” is a dangerous soundbite in this political and cultural environment, I think.’

I kind of see his point, and I like Paulson’s writing in general, but this question reminds me a bit of the old “USA Love It or Leave It” mantra.

Most anyone who works in the aid sector knows that aid has serious problems. Some say it’s irreparably broken and move on to a different career or start their own initiative that they think will get beyond the problems of ‘aid’. The general public knows that there are problems in the aid sector as well. It’s a bit hard to hide. And anyway, part of the problem with aid is that for years, its marketers and promoters have been promising something that aid can’t deliver and creating a skewed vision of the world.

I suspect that those who stick around in the aid sector 1) believe aid does some good and that it can be fixed (see many of Owen Barder’s posts), 2) labor on seeing the small bits of good that they or their team or their project or program can accomplish within a system they know is broken (see Spitting into the Wind), 3) are motivated by their paycheck (see Hardship Living) or other perks (like feeling hardcore) or 4) some combination of the above.

Aid is no different from any other large system or industry. It shouldn’t be held as sacred and beyond critique, including by those who know it well and can identify the fine points and details of what is wrong, and perhaps especially by them.

Would Paulson say that we shouldn’t criticize our political or religious systems because it might put people off? Or that we are self-loathing if we talk about what ails those systems and needs to be fixed?

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!

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.

Driving Development

I went to the supermarket one time with a local colleague in [a country in Africa]. He pointed to a shopping cart like the one in this picture. “That’s how we often do development work,” he said.

“We talk a lot about locally-driven development. We say the community is in the driver’s seat, that there is local ownership.

But if you look a bit more closely, the set-up is more like that shopping cart. You see, the communities may believe that they are driving and we may say the same, but it is often the NGO and the donors who are actually pushing the cart towards their own agendas.”

Mainstreaming complexity and failure

I don’t mean to come off as curmudgeonly. I don’t have enough facial hair to qualify as a curmudgeon anyway. But the potential for “failure” and “complexity” to become meaningless buzzwords in the aid and development field worries me. We do this to all the good concepts… participation… community engagement… ownership… capacity strengthening… learning… sustainability… innovation… gender equity. Sometimes there’s a price to pay for hitting the mainstream and you lose core meanings.

Admitting failure (the act itself as well as the new Engineers without Borders website) is good and necessary. So is more discussion about why aid and development are complex (and why many things in life are complex… Ethnografix talks about complexity and the recent killings in Arizona). It is a very good thing that these 2 concepts are discussed outside small circles and brought more broadly into aid and development (and other) discourses as they have been more and more over the past few years.

For one thing* complexity needs to be discussed because aid and development are complex, and it’s about time that aid and development practitioners stopped feeling crazy for noticing that. Ben Ramalingam talks about aid and complexity much better than I ever could on his blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos. It’s pretty engrossing. (There’s also a quote there by Stephen Hawking: “I think the next century will be the century of complexity” that proves I’m already way, way behind in declaring 2011 the year of complexity and failure-speak.)

For another thing*, failure needs to be allowed so that aid and development organizations can better learn from fails and share them openly. Ian Thorpe explains this well in his post Failure without Borders and links to some other recent “fail” celebrations such as Mobile Active’s FailFairePeace Dividend Trust’s failure report, and Engineers without Borders who followed suit. The Admitting Failure initiative and website, as explained by Good Intents, is a step forward for smarter  and better aid.


J. over at Tales from the Hood agrees with this admitting failure and talking about complexity stuff. He probably wasn’t aiming at jumping on the bandwagon, but ended up there anyway:

“It is time to start meaningfully coming clean. We’d better get busy and educate the public about the realities of aid work now, while they still sort of think well of us (and by the way, I use the term “aid” very generically in this case – development, long-term poverty-reduction, community development, international development, disaster response… all included). We need to come to terms with the honesty/transparency issue. We’d better provide alternatives to the glossy, over-produced, happy propaganda that has characterized our communications for the past decades.”

Terence at Waylaid Dialectic both agrees and disagrees with J. and also talks (inadvertently?) about failure and complexity:

[Yes J…. but it will be difficult… but] “here’s how I imagine it might play out:

“Amongst NGOs you need one NGO to take the leap. To publicly state that: ‘we’re going to keep working as usual on the ground, but we’re going to be honest with you about what succeeds and what doesn’t. To market its openness. I think for some NGOs this might work. Particularly those that already have a niche amongst the somewhat well-informed. And if it worked for one, it might take off amongst others. Might, might, might. Might fail miserably but, on the other hand, might become an established norm in the world of aid.

“It would be harder still for government aid agencies. Politicians are supremely sensitive to negative headlines. And opposition parties ever keen to generate them. And there are the Moyos and Easterlies of the world: people with ideological axes to grind. And who are likely to spin stories of failure to meet their own political narratives. None of this is likely to improve aid giving.

“Which is a long way of saying I agree with J. on the need for a new type of transparency in the world of aid. And for the end of the good news machines. This is change we should strive for. But, just like everything else in development work, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to be easy.”

So basically admitting failure might fail miserably… man, this stuff is complex.


But the stream has been kind of naturally flowing in the same direction over the past few years, seemingly without any centralized effort (correct me if I’m wrong). The discourse is moving towards admitting that aid and development are complex and that failure happens.

So, that’s all good. There’s this very cool talk that came out a couple days ago by Dave Snowden (HT @meowtree). In the talk, Snowden goes much further into detail about the link between complexity and failure. So I’m listening, and I realize wait, this is all kind of about the difference between systems engineering and complex adaptive systems and woahhhh.  I knew it was linked to natural systems and biology, but OK, no wonder this stuff is being discussed at an Engineers without Borders conference. It’s starting to come together in my head that failure is actually an integral part of this whole complexity and systems thinking thing. Doh. The century of complexity is here, and I’m actually pretty late to the party, and goddamn do I still have a lot to learn about it in order to understand it better and think things through.

But I still have this nagging thought about the buzzwordliness of “failure” and “complexity”. I’m still wondering if now that the failure and complexity voices are sounding louder and louder, the concepts and terms will become just empty buzzwords. Will “complexity” be simplified for the masses and will the depth in complexity theories be totally lost? Will “complexity” be over simplified and disjointed by being broken down into its minimal parts? (I mean seriously, complexity theory is complex, and has probably already been significantly dumbed down for people like me to understand it.)

@dymaxion sees me tweeting about this and steps in:


Fair play. And even more interesting (by now I want to quit my job and go study complexity full time….)

So there is a growing and focused effort on translating complexity and failure into a language that facilitates their discussion, and smart people like Ella (@dymaxion) are doing it. That is quite helpful.


But I still have some concerns….

  • Will we start to hear people blaming their aid failures on complexity? “Well it’s a complex field so inevitably we fail left and right and that’s a good thing….” Will that be acceptable or not? And will the push to move beyond failure be strong enough? (Snowden makes the point that the job of an engineer is to make a complex system into a complicated system so that it can then be engineered/figured out/resolved…at least I think that’s what he said.)
  • And what about all the failures that INGOs do admit? What about all the things written up in internal reports. All the “good practices” and “best practices” and “lessons learned” documents that fill the shelves and hard drives of the world’s INGOs and have often even been funded by forward-thinking foundations who understand that failure happens? Ansel (@mediahacker) a young journalist in Haiti, writes this after reading a recent report on Haiti “For me, something that stands out is the number of times the UN indicates an understanding of humanitarian failures but seemingly ignores suggestions from others on how to do better….” I’d edit that phrase to include “ignores suggestions from its own staff involved in implementing programs on how to do better.”  Failure means nothing if it’s not learned from and if political will is not there to change the conditions that cause known failures.
  • If failure becomes big enough of a concept and donors start demanding to know about failures, how many senior management discussions will there be about “which is the best failure to highlight for the donor?” “Which community can we visit to see a good failure?” “Which failure examples make us look the best? “Let’s pick a failure that it’s easy to fix so we will look good.” “Be sure to add the ‘failure’ sub-heading to the annual report structure and the logfail chart.”
  • How long till the “failure experts,” (as Ben Ramalingam (@aidontheedge) said today) descend upon us…. the consultants and contractors who soon, instead of only “delivering development” and “capacity building” will become specialists in “reframing failure”. Maybe AED can be their first client?

There’s where I feel curmudgeonly and cynical. I hope I’m wrong. I’ll let you know how I feel after participating in my first obligatory capacity building workshop on mainstreaming complexity and failure.

(And if you’ve made it this far in my wandering diatribe, please understand that this topic is complex, so I don’t pretend to completely understand it, and it was thus impossible to make this post any shorter or less rambling.)

*I realize that there is not only one reason that these points should be discussed — the reasons why they should be discussed are complex….

Stuff expat aid and development workers like….

So the Wait… What blog is asking Where are the local aid and development worker blogs? and having a hard time coming up with an answer. Maybe “blogging” comes under that special category of “stuff expat aid and development workers like“.

Everyone’s heard of the “Stuff White People Like” list by now. But I couldn’t find a specific list of “stuff expat aid (and development) workers like.”

Batgung writes about “Stuff white expats like in Hong Kong” and reminds us that “being a White person is not entirely limited to skin color; it’s a state of mind.” There are plenty of great comments underneath too. The writers of Batgung however, are not specifically “aid workers” so they didn’t completely fit the bill for “stuff ex-pat aid and development workers like”.

Then there is Stuff White People Do blog with a post titled “Falsely Distinguish between (White) Expats and (Non-White) Immigrants”…. Interesting and it goes on the list of “stuff aid and development workers like”. But not quite exactly what I was hoping for.

Franceypants puts it simply:  Expats are the Whitest People around. “Here I am going on and on about being an expat when all along all I am is a white person who lives in a foreign country. And so are you.” She backs this theory with a solid argument.

I’d still love to see a nuanced list of stuff that expat aid and development workers like. If you know of one, please share!

In the meantime, let me start it off (in no particular order):

1) Blogging

2) Drinking alcohol

3) Drinking coffee

4) Having maids or criticizing other expats who have maids if they don’t have maids

5) Making fun of young volunteers

6) Complaining about marketers, fundraisers, journalists, donors, and corporations

7) Dating and/or marrying “local” people

8 ) Talking to drivers (their own personal drivers or taxi drivers or hired drivers… but yes, drivers)

9) Showing off how well they speak a local language

10) Making recommendations about eating or not eating local food/street food

11) Bragging about how sick they’ve been (giardia, malaria, dengue, amoebas, crazy insect bites, etc.)

12) Riding around in SUVs, land cruisers and 4×4’s or complaining about aid workers who do and bragging about how they take public transportation


and…. (update) it seems expat aid workers like

13) bonding on Twitter over being expat aid and development workers… a little taste below from the Twitter hashtag #stuffexpataidworkerslike (check it!)

So @talesfromthhood and I decided to make it a regular occurrence. Check out

The Great Divide

Over the weekend, Good Intents did a piece titled “Non Profit Advertisements: What Message Are We Sending” with examples of NGO advertising that reinforce the very stereotypes that many of the aid bloggers are railing against in their blogs and ridiculing on Twitter.

How can one organization house such opposing views? Tales from the Hood explains in the first couple paragraphs of his post “Viral“:

In every aid NGO that I’ve worked for to-date there has come a moment when it dawned on me that our teams that raised resources (marketers, fundraisers, etc.) and our teams that ran programs in the field were very simply two separate organizations who happened to use the same letterhead…. They may make a lot of noise about “working together”, about being “field driven”, and so on. But the reality is that they represent two vastly different world views about what needs to be done and how, and what success or failure look like.

I couldn’t agree more with him. I wrote about this in one of my very first posts called Spitting in the Wind and also in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Organizations have been discussing this issue since as long as I can remember yet the gap between marketing/ fundraising and program hasn’t been reduced. Many program staff, as one person commented on Twitter, still hang their heads in shame at the stuff their marketing departments put out.


I was working at an organization in Mexico more than a decade ago. Our marketers were marketing one thing and our programs were implementing something else. The programs were actually quite good – they followed many of the “SmartAid” principles that Good Intents and Company expound on.  The marketing was also quite successful in terms of financial growth, but it was simplistic, focused on hand-out programs that we had phased out for lack of impact, and bordered on poverty porn. You could say the organization was successful in marketing (based on money raised), as well as in program implementation (based on results), but it was telling two completely different stories.

This eventually caught up with the organization. Donors started complaining when they realized that they were not funding hand-outs for individuals. So the marketing heads from the different offices addressed this issue at their yearly meeting. A memo was sent out to all the program implementation teams. It said something like: it has come to our attention that there is significant risk in continuing to implement programs that do not deliver on “the promise” being marketed to individual donors. The memo went on to say that each program implementation office must ensure that its programs are aligned with what is being marketed. This created an uproar among the program office staff and a huge back and forth inside the organization. Who is driving things here? Are you actually asking us to implement programs that we know don’t work? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the marketers be ensuring that their messaging is aligned with the actual quality programs that we are implementing on the ground?


For a brief period of time I worked in fund raising at an organization in the US. They hired me because I would “bring passion from the field to fundraising efforts“.  Unfortunately whenever I expressed reservations that what they were marketing was very far from reality, or what they were saying was not actually the whole story, they would say “Well, you’re not a marketer, so you don’t understand how we do things.” And they would carry on with what they were doing. I kind of wondered what their point was in hiring me to bring the reality from the field to them if they didn’t really want to hear it.


One time I worked in the head office of an organization whose marketing strategy was “get people with an emotional hook and educate them about what we really do once we have them in the door.” This sounds a little like Nick Kristof’s strategy of focusing on an individual sad story and bringing people along later to understand the bigger picture (except he never quite gets to the bigger picture point). It seems to “work”, because most every non-profit markets like that, but given the public’s enduring lack of understanding of development, it’s clear that the “then educate them about what we really do” part isn’t really happening.

At this particular organization, they really did try other types of marketing but they didn’t “work”. I’d hear the marketing team reporting on the numbers coming in from their “test packets” (randomized control trial mailing tests). The appeals that talked about people in dignified terms, that didn’t use sensationalist red type, that showed smiling people helping themselves and needing a hand-up not a hand-out bombed. And the appeals that I found most offensive, the ones with the most ridiculously pathetic images and mindless calls to action, the ones that placed the people we worked with in the most victimized positions, were the ones that “worked”. We’d argue with the marketing team all the time about it, but they had numbers to bring in. “You need money for programs, right?”


I was at a meeting many moons ago with several smart colleagues from different program teams. We were talking about how the biggest challenge with program implementation in communities was changing mindsets of the people we were working with to a “hand-up not hand-out” mentality. People had become so accustomed to hand-outs that any NGO that wanted to work on something long-term and sustainable had difficulties, because the next day, another NGO would come in offering some free stuff. The main reason that people and communities stopped cooperating with us was that they wanted free stuff and we were not giving it out. We knew this because as part of our work we had to track individuals who participated in our programs and we documented the reasons they gave for dropping out. The suggested solution was to work harder to help communities see the benefits of self-determination and community ownership. Many communities did still participate but it was a constant challenge. When given the choice of working hard to change something or sitting back and getting something for free, not everyone chooses the more difficult path.

My colleagues and I started wondering what was really the point. Why did we struggle so hard to change the mindset of both donors and communities if basically they both wanted the same thing — to give and to get cash and hand-outs.  We joked that we should just switch over and became a hand-out organization and we’d make both ends of the equation happy. Donors would give more, beneficiaries would get more. We wouldn’t have any kind of sustainable long term impact, of course, but we’d have a lot fewer headaches, we’d work a lot fewer hours, and we’d have a much lower overhead….


I still have the deep conviction that hand-outs are not the way to go, and that marketing and fundraising should not lead programs. But some days I’m ready to just give up and say, Fine. You want people to feel pity? Do your marketing that way then. Raise a ton of money with simplistic or false or demeaning images and messaging. Everybody wants hand-outs? Fine, do hand-outs. See where that gets you!

Or maybe I need to simply get out of this line of work entirely.

This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

This is Lesson 7 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?.

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.

OK, so you’ve lunched with the head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from Giant Corporation X (GCX) a few times now. You’ve attended their annual meeting of women employees and presented to their human resources director and discussed what an employee engagement program might look like. You have a pretty good idea how much you can get from GCX in cash and in kind, and pulling this deal off will bump you up to your personal yearly revenue goal and make your CEO quite happy. GCX normally does Toys for Tots and Support the Troops kind of stuff and you are the one who’s finally gotten them interested in doing something for the kids “over there”.

The head of GCX’s CSR department comes up with a bright idea. Why don’t we send over some holiday gifts! They’ve read The Kristof. They know that girls need sanitary products to keep them in school and in addition, this is a perfect opportunity for GCX to break into the local BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) market in 3 of their target countries. Maybe some branded tote bags filled with their sanitary products! Or perhaps some branded backpacks filled with a range of their low-end toiletries? Surely a win-win there. Not only will poor people get products to improve their hygiene (toothbrushes, soap, tooth paste) but they will also be exposed to GCX’s brand! Or perhaps a 1 for 1 campaign – for every blond plastic doll you buy, CGX will donate one to a poor girl and the gifter will get a jointly branded thank you letter back from the poor girl showing some gratitude. (GCX employees really don’t trust charities and this is a great way to both prove that the dolls are actually arriving into the hands of the impoverished girls and to make the gifters feel that warm glow of charity do-gooding.)

GCX will also send over their 3-member PR team and one lucky employee do-gooder (chosen through an employee sales contest or some other motivating internal initiative) to do some video and photo shoots for their monthly magazine, featuring your joint program to give gifts to the needy. It will be great PR. You’ll go to a “Development Lite” country (the Dominican Republic is always a good choice) for the trip —  small country with low crime rates, easy-to-reach extremely poor communities near the capital, beautiful hotels and nice beaches, and a quick flight from the US….

Sweet deal, and you are golden.

That is, until the program team gets wind of your success. Damn haters. They give you crap about the idea and you’re at a total loss as to why. Who could be so cold-hearted that they would refuse families hygiene products, or girls sanitary pads or children their Christmas gifts? And this arrangement is so clearly an entry level deal that can lead to so much more.

Well, let me tell you a secret – A handout is a handout is a handout.

And your program staff are pissed because they know that you will probably win out in the end. After all, your organization is struggling in this economy, and the branding and potential additional funds that this handout program can offer will be quite hard to ignore.

But we’ve known for a very long time that handouts are bad for development. They destroy community development work because they confirm the illusion that people from the outside will come in to give things away and resolve community problems. Read about halfway down in this article for one example of how Tom’s Shoes’ Buy-One-Give-One project has created a mythological idea that families don’t need to prioritize shoes for their children because outsiders will eventually come in and hand them out.

Handouts mean that people stop working to improve things for themselves, and they wait for someone to come in and do it for them. Handouts mean that communities don’t own their own development, and they are not finding sustainable solutions to their predicaments. Handouts don’t help, they hurt. Your colleagues in program are thinking long-term, not short-term, and they are trying to get communities to do the same.

Handouts not only spoil the hard work that your organization has been doing since the 1970s or 80s to move away from a method that set back communities around the world, but they ruin the chances of any other NGO, community based organization, government program or motivated local community member or group to get the community to move forward on its own.

Handouts don’t help people’s dignity and self-esteem, they reinforce the idea that people can’t help themselves.

Corporate handout programs might be a short-term gain for you and for recipients of the handouts, but they represent a long-term loss for community self-sufficiency, which is the ultimate goal of most development programs. Think about it. Is that what you really want to support?

In addition, handouts of products and openly pushing particular brands and products is ethically questionable. Especially if by accepting an agreement to work with GCX you are locked out of working with Giant Corporation Y (GCY) or with a local provider of the same products, or if your employees effectively become brand ambassadors for GCX or GCY, regardless of their products’ fit with the local context or the unfair competition that GCX or GCY might be giving to the local producers of such products.

Corporations are looking for short- medium- and long-term gain when they engage with non-profits. So why are non-profits often looking only at the short-term financial gain when they negotiate with corporations instead of thinking about the long-term impact that a corporate handout program can have on community development? Are corporations really that much smarter than non-profits? Come on, people.

Good development programs stopped doing handouts years ago and it’s been a long, slow struggle for communities to recover from them. Supporting handouts via a corporate partnership is no different than doing them via the normal budget.

So do successful and sustainable programs a favor. When you see the handout initiatives coming, redirect GCX and GCY to something else. Use your creativity to reorient their handout idea towards a different idea that will not set the work in the community back by 30 years.


More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.

C’mon play the game

Here’s a funny story.

The director of an organization where I worked had an outside research group come in and take us through some really interesting training and discussions around how we framed our communications and our work, and how the public and the media see aid and development, and why it is so difficult to engage the US public in international development issues and giving.

The facilitator brought up many of the themes highlighted on the blog “Good Intents”, such as the perceptions that it’s up to the US to go and save the world; and showed us research on the public’s erroneous perception that the US spends a larger percentage of its budget on foreign aid than any other country.

We discussed how important it is to change that thinking and to engage the US public in a less isolationist and more interdependent view of the world. We took on a commitment to ensure that our own publications would tell a different story and to try to work with our sister organizations to move the US public towards a different understanding of the kind of work that aid and development organizations do.

I was really excited about this new direction, given that I’m not a big fan of traditional marketing. (See my “This is for My Corporates” series and The Great Divide, for example).

A high profile disaster happened soon after our workshops, and I was called up to go. It would be an office job, intense work but nothing majorly dangerous and not much suffering involved. It would be an extended time period though, and I’d have to leave my kids home for much longer than I was used to.

I negotiated around with work and figured out my family stuff like I always do. I was excited to go.

The director came over a few days before I was to leave telling me he’d asked the communications team to get some media coverage of the fact that I would be going because it would be a really good story.

“So, are you nervous about going?” he asked me.

“No, not really. I’m actually excited.”

“Oh, but you must be worried about leaving your family behind to go and help, I mean, you are a single mother and your kids are still small. You’re really making a huge sacrifice.”

“Oh…. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I guess so, but actually I don’t mind going at all, it’s part of my job, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but not everyone does that and this must really difficult for you. You must be at least a little scared to go. You don’t really know what you’re walking into.”

“Well, it’s pretty much going to be an office job in [insert name of big city that hasn’t been affected by the disaster]. I mean, I’m not going to be in the trenches, and the disaster happened over a month ago, so I really don’t think there’s much danger for me.”

“Well, yes, ….”

I guess our comms team didn’t pursue the hot media opportunity.

Funny how organizations can be schizophrenic like that. Giving you training one day about how you should all be working in a concerted effort to change the public’s perceptions, and then asking you to play the game and reinforce the same old story the next day. Always between a rock and a hard place.