Tag Archives: disaster

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.


Spitting into the Wind

What is the problem with aid and development?

Well, if you ask me, one of the main problems is that even if for years, as the good program manager (or whatever title you have in the area of programs) that you are, you have naturally, in your own small way, been doing something like this… eg., you’ve been listening to people in communities and to local staff…

The Listening Project - listening to aid recipients since 2005

Note: Image respectfully pulled from The Listening Project’s report.

And you’ve been hearing from community members and local partners that:

  • staff don’t spend enough time in the community
  • staff show up late for community meetings
  • staff don’t take the time to sit with us
  • staff are late with materials or funding for projects we are implementing
  • we’d like staff to accompany us more, to train us more
  • we’d like some cash benefits for participation in training
  • we’d like some material benefits for ourselves like some t-shirts and maybe some school supplies

And you’ve been hearing from local community outreach staff that:

  • the nicest vehicles are kept at the head office for higher management, when it’s we who need them for our field work
  • they keep cutting our administration budget and giving us more paperwork to do
  • the central office is slow in approving things for us to do our work on the ground
  • the time we should be spending in communities is taken up by paperwork to fulfill audit requirements
  • processes are too bureaucratic, they just keep adding more layers and rules
  • we don’t have the equipment we need to do our jobs
  • they keep cutting community outreach staff in order to reduce overhead
  • people are used to hand outs because other organizations come around and give free things
  • it’s hard to get people to participate in some programs because other organizations in the past always paid them to participate
  • our biggest challenge is to change mindsets, to help communities see that we will not be here forever, that we do not do handouts

And yes, granted, you are doing this listening informally… but still you are doing it… And you are reporting the difficulties upwards to higher management… and you are having meetings where field staff can share their issues with higher management… and you are sticking your neck out at global management meetings to relay what communities and community outreach staff are telling you… and you are adapting your own proposals and modes of working and doing your best to support your overworked field staff so that you are not the bottleneck… and those higher management folks you are relaying these things to profess to be in this for all the right reasons, eg., they say they want to make an impact… (though you often doubt that they are really listening to you….)

And you can see the impact that’s being made when you and your team have the time and the space do things right, when you work hand in hand with local people for them to manage their own development….

…Even if you’ve been doing that, there is still an issue:  there are still a billion things that are outside of your control.

For example:

You still have to deal with the pyramid of micromanagement:

Dr Alden Kurtz Pyramid of Micromanagement

And the pyramid of blame:

Dr Alden Kurtz' Pyramid of Blame

Note: Images above shamelessly skimmed from Dr. Alden Kurtz’s excellent explanation of the virtues of micromanagement.

Not to mention the hubris of the captains of industry that your organization hires at the top and philanthrocapitalists that influence your organization’s direction, and who think you and everyone working in your organization is an imbecile (because these folks have never actually had to implement any aid or development projects before) (well, and until they realize after a year or 2 that they are hitting up against the same walls you have been….):

Hedge Funds for Development and Philanthrocapitalists

Note: Image nicked from Duncan Greene’s blog

And 1 million stupid ideas by wannabe do gooders sent for your consideration via the head office, taking your time away from the real work (no, we don’t need 10,000 used pencils collected by that grade school):

The doomed 1 Million Shirts Campaign

Note: Image stolen with pleasure from Project Diaspora’s site.

And the Badvocacy and Poverty Porn that certain teams in your office are promoting, and that messes around with the image and dignity of the people you are supporting, and stirs up misguided ideas, and you have to either waste your time fighting them or just give up and participate against your gut feelings of aversion:

Poverty porn and Badvocacy

Note: Image heartlessly torn from AidThoughts.

And the fundraising, marketing and communications department at the head office trying to get the most shocking stories out of you in order to score airtime in the media and get in the game early with donors and the public, because if they don’t you won’t actually have any funds to support those good programs that your team and the communities implement when you have the time and resources:

INGO Fundraising, Marketing and Communication Teams Jostling for Position

Note: Image from a hotly disputed article in the Lancet.

And cowboys like Sean Penn giving the impression that you’re all a bunch of idiots and that they can do it way better than you can (because they have a huge budget, ready-made media attention, and less of the aforementioned constraints because they are just getting started, and are not held particularly accountable):

Sean, Wyclef, Angelina, Madonna, and the like

And your Whites in Shining Armor telling the public that there are no capable people locally, and giving the impression that everyone is waiting for an American or a European with some business savvy, good intentions and no real applicable skills or experience to fly in to save the day, and this tends to resonate with your head office, because they are still jostling for media attention and corporate funding, and because you were slow to respond to Stupid Idea from Wannabe Do Gooder #999,997, which confirmed to the head office that you and your team are incapable of getting the work done (plus some Whites will get them local media coverage):

Whites in Shining Armour

Image: Taken from Good Intentions blog.

And all the other INGO marketers and fundraisers in the world telling the public that the capable, intelligent, solid people you are working with in the local office and in communities are pathetic helpless victims, because no one will donate if they don’t, and your head office has to keep doing that too, or they will lose out on fundraising and media and branding opportunities:

NGO marketing: donors don't respond to smiling people....

Note: Image from the fabulous Perspectives of Poverty project over at Water Wellness blog.

And the academics and aid critics looking at all the above, and reading books by elite Africans who don’t live in Africa, and thinking that aid and development don’t ever work, and should be abolished in favor of capitalism and making everyone and their mother an entrepreneur… and yeah, considering some of the giant aid and development programs you’ve seen, and some of the terrible initiatives started by outsiders with no experience, and some of the crafty government bureaucrats you’ve worked with, and the way that aid is politicized for gain by those political parties, you agree that some kinds of aid and development (the kinds that you also have no control over) have negative effects and should be abolished….

"Africans don't want aid"

Image from Aid Watch’s “just asking that aid benefit the poor” blog.

And the…. well yeah, you get the point.

You feel like you are spitting into the wind, but you plug along with the conviction that what you are doing really does matter, because when you listen to staff and community members, they are telling you what the obstacles are, but they are also saying that they don’t want you to leave.

So, the thing is, I love the Listening Project. Their findings resonate fully. I’ve been listening and hearing those things for years myself. But how do we fix it when the shit storm is coming at us from all sides and no one single person or organization or sector has the power to make it all better?

…and when we figure that out, maybe we can fix government and business and healthcare too and end all the wars.

Oh, wow, update: just read this ODI report called the Humanitarian’s Dilemma which gives a lot of insight, in a more eloquent and academic way than what I wrote above….