Earning The Right To Be In The Wrong

Image from: NYU Development Research Institute blog

The ridiculousness of ‘aid’ in Hollywood shouldn’t be replicated in the real world (or, as in this example, vice versa).

The Development Blogosphere was abuzz a few weeks back when this very well written blog post started getting a bunch of attention. This was a post about ‘the aid bitchslap’ or, as SEAWL put it, “the strange, ugly and enlightening time of moving from idealism to realism.”

It spurred a fair amount of hand wringing and debate over the whys and wherefores of the aid sector in general, with particular reference to US policy decisions – check out the Reddit discussion on the post. I have to admit, I found myself underwhelmed. It reminded me of a post on Aidsource a few months before in which a student who ‘figures out aid is messed up’ was met with a firm rebuttal. Here’s a telling extract:

There are two widely known, but rarely spoken (and never written down until now, so far as I know) rules in the full-time practicing professional humanitarian world that I inhabit:

1) Aid is messed up. Everyone knows it. It’s not a surprise. Seriously – everyone knows it. That aid is messed up may be just the latest soda-machine-crisis for Karen [the writer of this blog post], but it is old, old news in the aid real world. You don’t impress us by telling us what we already know.

2) You have to earn the right to get all angsty about how messed up aid is. Yep, the truth is out there for anyone to see. But as unfair as it perhaps is, we don’t really respect dissenting voices from those who have not actually “been there”, whether “been there” means having spent the last 10 years running distributions that went nuts, being tasked with making impossible decisions, or simply clocking some hard time as a cubicle-farmer in an NGO HQ.

Now, the first point is why I was underwhelmed by this story of heartbreak from Haiti. You’re entering a flawed field which plenty of people think is pretty much morally bankrupt anyway – you should have done your research before you went and the failure of your project might not have been so demoralizing. Not that I want to seem too cynical or dismissive about this post: he seems like a genuine and thoughtful guy and I hope he continues to want to help people.

Point 2 highlights why the reaction to this post in the blogosphere got on my nerves – it’s the double standards of it all. Because Quinn figured out Part 1 while ‘in the field’, it’s more legitimate because he’s earned it by getting his hands dirty. This is ridiculous. In fact, his having spent two years on a project he feels like is a failure is MUCH worse than figuring out that aid has problems while still at University or while doing some low-impact internship like Karen. His learning was linked to a bunch of money being spent on ‘helping’ people that didn’t work. Even worse, at least in his estimation, the project went some way to worsening relations between humanitarian groups and Haitians.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not think this is Quinn’s fault. Everyone ends up in a crappy project or organisation in this field, it happens and people do learn from those experiences. I also think that the more people who haven’t ‘been there’ who realise this kind of work is messed up are just as worthy of praise than people like Quinn. First of all, it could save potentially damaging community good will towards other, more successful projects. Second, if less people are willing to work their arses off trying to do these projects and, therefore, less of those projects.

A lot of aid is bad and broken – knowing this as an industry is pointless if it allows new people access to that knowledge only by repeating mistakes. That just means everyone has to go through the time/money-wasting, demoralising experience that Quinn did – and for what? So you’ve earned your stripes? So you can talk in dark, measured tones about your rock solid field cred?

Give me a break. Aid is macho and ridiculous enough in Hollywood, nobody needs that infiltrating the real world.

A Message To Jaded Or Newly Jaded Development Types

Made using easel.ly

I have genuinely overheard this quote being used on a newly arrived EAW in a bar in Kampala. Brutal.

The other night, my flat mate and I were out aggressively making new friends in our new city. This process is, as you can imagine, vaguely embarrassing and unpleasant particularly because you spend quite a lot of time accepting/soliciting invites to events that you would normally have absolutely zero interest in but, because of your lack of socialising options, you think well alright I will go to this Hard House club night, I might enjoy it I suppose… It’s only when you actually arrive at said club night that you remember – oh yeah – I hate clubs. The less said about Hard House the better.

Anyway, after encountering the usual stock NGO type conversation (“How long have you been here?” + “What do you do?” + “How long are you staying?” + “Is this your first time in [insert geographic region]?” = a thorough assessment of any expat aid worker) and imbibing a little too much and exchanging all manner of field cred proving anecdotes we ended up having a conversation with a guy who mostly worked in Somalia for a mine clearance NGO.

As you can imagine, most people working in Somalia do so in pretty difficult circumstances. The work is dangerous, the country is dangerous, there’s very little infrastructure, little governance, even less effective governance and, as such, fairly scant short to medium term prospects for most of the population.Trying to affect positive and lasting change in such an environment is bound to be a difficult, frustrating and occasionally depressing process. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t drive you crazy at least 50% of the time.

Drinking heavily is the favoured coping mechanism amongst the NGO crowd, of course, but there are a whole plethora of other options. Some people go on these mysterious disappearances where they secret themselves away at some campsite or the nearest resort with wifi for a week or so without telling anyone before rolling back into your regular bar or restaurant as though they never went away. A good one I haven’t experienced but definitely want to is ‘Boda Polo’ or Polo played on motorcycles (recently featured in the pages of the New York Times but having been around since at least 2008 when I first heard about it). Cathartic affairs, bombastic public arguments, cookery, home brewing, obsessive running – you name it; an EAW somewhere is using it as a way of combating work-based stress.

I should give a big plug for the Whydev peer coaching scheme which is aimed at giving EAWs and all the rest of the development world a way of dealing with stress and fatigue without resorting to alcohol – read about it here, donate here.

But back to our night out. The way this Somalia-Mine-Clearing (SMC) guy handled it was by comparing his nights out to the ones his brother had. His brother worked in ‘the City’ (the financial district in London) and earned piles of money. In fact, most of his family were engaged in business or finance in some lucrative way that meant the amount SMC was pulling in could be found down the back of the sofa in most of his relatives’ houses. Obviously, this makes sibling rivalry a little difficult. The way he retaliated it was this: on a night out with a bunch of EAWs you’re more than likely to have at least one interesting, intelligent conversation that isn’t about your own area of work. Because a) the people attracted to the field tend to be well travelled and have a wider range of interests than people in other fields like banking (i.e. are not focused on dough) and b) the industry, such as it is, is a huge and diverse one so you’re quite likely to meet someone who does something you’ve no idea about but which interests you. Which is actually pretty great. Essentially it comes down to this somewhat paraphrased sentiment:

If I was working in the City, making 250 grand a year, I’d also have to do long hours and would be just as stressed as I am at the moment. I’d go down to a bar after work and, what, spend a couple of hours talking to another asshole who makes a lot of money. What would we talk about? Making lots of money? No thanks.

So, to eventually come to some kind of a point, for all you jaded or newly jaded development types: it’s a frustrating and poorly paid world for us but at least you’re pretty much guaranteed some good conversation every once and a while. You just have to get out there and talk to people.

Who’s for another drink?

Telling Positive Stories – The backlash

Also published by Generation C Magazine and Development in Action

Telling positive stories about Africa - The memo

Does anyone really understand the logic behind this PR campaign? [Created using easel.ly]

A fair amount of hand-wringing has been going on lately regarding a narrative in aid/development that has been pretty prevalent for at least as long as I’ve been interested in it (around 5 years) – ‘telling positive stories about [Africa/Sub-saharan Africa/the developing world etc]’.

J. (previously of Tales From The Hood) recently posted this link on Aidsource before making the following points:

1) The aid industry has been getting advertising makeovers for, oh…. FORTY YEARS. It’s time to take off the makeup. Can we stop “advertising” and just “tell the truth” already?

2) Telling the public great stories about ‘what works’ is fine, I suppose. But the real messages that they seem to be missing are the ones about what DOESN’T work. (just sayin‘)

The article he was replying to – read it – highlights this position:

“Communication about development aid has long focused on making the case for its need,” says Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “There is a huge opportunity to talk about how it works and what it does – to tell the real success stories that exist.”

This was referenced in the discussion about this article on Aidsource as absolutely not being a new idea. I’d definitely have to agree with that one – since starting my first NGO comms job about 10 months ago I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard speakers at events or read articles by influential comms types telling us that ‘success stories’ are the main way forward. While I think there is a lot of use for this approach – the advocacy done by ONE on supporting better aid budgets for example – it is, first and foremost, an advocacy tool and one that might go some way to explaining how NGOs distort the issues and, in the long run, disappoint their public.

Elliot Ross over on Africa Is A Country also recently posted an article responding to a new campaign by Mama Africa aimed at combating ‘Hollywood stereotypes’ of African men (video below). While giving some praise to the work of this organisation he condemns the video for both being a little forced/not funny as well as tying into the idea of PR being the answer to the problems of Africa:

Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.

Here’s the video:

While these critiques are interesting and certainly worth thinking about, it strikes me that they are very much from a ‘development’ point of view. A rather brilliant article on Ugandan media site Journalism.co.ug about police and government pressure on the way in which journalists report the news showcased a slightly different angle on why the ‘positive stories’ narrative could have negative consequences – it is worth quoting it at length (HT @Natabaalo):

[An anonymous police officer] says journalists should do what the police order them to do during demonstrations, after all “when journalists are injured by demonstrators, it is still the police to blame”.

But recent trends show journalists are more likely to be harmed by the police and other security agencies than by protesters. Especially since Walk to Work protests started in April last year, sections of the media have been singled out as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” by President Yoweri Museveni.

For publishing pictures of opposition leaders and supporters being roughed up by security agencies, Museveni has argued that sectors like tourism and investments from abroad would be negatively affected. He has called for a different approach to reporting so that the media depicts a different side of Uganda – as a great investment destination and tourism hub.

This type of journalism, a lot of times misinterpreted as development journalism, is what is preached by most leaders in poor and transitional countries. Some have argued that in poor countries, the government of the day needs support. They add that the government in such a country will probably have to take decisions which are based on the common good but which harm individual liberties.

The idea that fair, free journalistic reporting could inhibit both Government and development aspirations is one that showcases a worrying marriage of convenience. Aid skeptics and jaded development workers have long supported oppressive regimes as a justified means-to-an-end – Kagame in Rwanda, Park Chung-hee in South Korea or China, in general, are oft-cited examples of ‘bad guys doing good things’ in terms of economic development. But this betrays a double standard – as outsiders looking to help, we cannot condemn one thing (i.e. civil liberties) for ourselves while condoning it for others without weakening our position.

While the idea of ‘telling positive stories’ might end up patronising Africans, it also might end up supporting those regimes that systematically undermine human rights, particularly those regarding the freedom of expression and the activities of the media. Without mechanisms of domestic accountability these governments are much more likely to revert back to being ‘bad guys who do bad things’. As an industry and as an international community, we cannot be complicit in that process. Particularly because you know that, once these governments do revert, our governments will condemn them publicly, only to be further undermined when it is pointed out that they had aided such leaders in attaining such a position.

And then the cycle continues. Or should I say ‘downwards spiral’?

Shameless Plugs

This is a two part update drawing your attention to some of the sources that I steal from often use as inspiration while writing my own posts.

Part 1

As well as keeping up to date on current affairs from all the usual places, there’s an extensive development blogosphere that I read and repost almost every day. A lot of these things can be extremely academic and excessively jargon-ised – it’s the curse of the industry – and, as such, are things I can’t get excited about. For the entry level development wannabe, what you really want is a way of engaging in the interesting debates of the industry through the narratives of the people involved.

Cast your eyes to the right of your screens (unless you’re reading this on a crackberry/other inferior web-ready mobile device, in which case I feel your pain) and you will see, nestled under the schedule, some newly minted lists.

  • Proper Development Blogs – Development blogs run by people who a) know what they’re talking about and b) try their best not to bore us ‘norms’. Several of these are well known and you’ll see them linked to on lots of development sites. As a natural contrarian, I really wanted not to like them so the inclusion of them here indicates how good they are.
  • Friends & Allies – Blogs and websites run by people I know, either over the interwebs or in actual real life. I occasionally contribute pieces to some of these.
  • Jobs – Places to look for development jobs and advice on how to get them
  • Miscellany – There is a world outside of development and politics. (Sometimes, it will feel like there isn’t.) I have increasingly become more and more interested in things like design and fonts – playing around with WordPress default settings will do that. These links are my distractions.

I will update this lists as and when I find more interesting links or if one of them goes under or becomes less than excellent.

Special mention goes to AidSource, which brings me to Part 2 of this post…

AidSource launches today!

The more awake of you will have noticed a shiny new badge has been added to my sidebar – yes, I know it isn’t the right width but I haven’t had a chance to make a new one yet. AidSource is here, it is open and it is free. I’ve been mentioning it my last few posts because it’s been a thoroughly useful source for interesting questions and answers surround the world or development. Seriously, if you want to know about development and those long lists on my sidebar seem like far too much reading/work, choose AidSource to be the way you dip your toe.

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