by marc on November 22, 2013
Riddle me this: What’s not funny about the following infographics? Anyone feeling queasy? I’m not talking about the fact that OCHA so hilariously set out to use images of aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers that look completely harmless. Can anyone imagine the MOD using a war deployment graphic with images of fishing charter vessels? Those little boats aren’t going to scare bad guys. Where is the fierce show of killing hardware; the projection of might? They look like the Minnow! Designed to cause no more harm than strand seven castaways on an uncharted desert isle.
So what is this response to the Philippines typhoon? Branding exercise of a new world order in humanitarian action. That’s what.
If you don’t see an OCHA infographic immediately below, click here to go it.
FYI, that third graphic isn’t the Philippines, it’s Libya.
[Thanks S for the help]
by marc on November 14, 2013
Can the blogosphere survive another set of random thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan?
1. Check out any decent post-Armageddon flick. Try The Road. Or for a classic, and one of the first great zombie flicks, try The Omega Man. How do the heroes survive and feed their families? It’s an old routine. They help themselves. No way Charlton Heston would do it if it were looting. The guy was Moses and then President of the National Rifle Association. That gives him more law and order cred than Wyatt Earp, Serpico and Judge Dredd combined.
I’m glad to see some journalists questioning the use of the term “looting”, as if bread for a child on Day Five without food were somehow akin to a burglar’s cartoon sack marked $$$. We can’t condone guys walking out of shops with plasma TVs. But without aid, without food, shelter, water or information on when/how it is coming, can we really equate this scavenging with acts of lawless criminality? More importantly, can we base policy choices on it? (hint hint, see below).
2. Ever watch news coverage of rioting or protests in your home town and have others call to see if you’re OK, when you were out having fun with friends? Images of localized, small-scale disorder, demonstration, crime create a perception of the situation that is distorted well beyond reality. More than that, we seem to imagine ourselves in those places and (a) feel the fear all those millions of people must be feeling then (b) cry out for somebody to put an end to it.
Note here the entry into the perception game of Western society’s own hyperbolized sense of security and risk (see e.g., my post on helmets for babies) and a view of the Global South as primitive bedlam-filled Bongo Bongo lands. So my mother wants me to stay inside and lock the door when 200 protesters at Parliament toss stones, and she wants a soldier on every corner in Tacloban.
This distorted image matters. Law and order are indisputably important. But threats to law and order have a long history of provoking overreaction on the part of authorities, whether for political gain against enemies or simply to preserve face. As is often the case, in these early stages of catastrophe response prioritization has to be spot on, and it has to place saving lives at the top. With heavy loss of airport capacity coupled with the necessity of an airborne aid armada, every flight counts. Every cubic meter of cargo, every ton of supplies, every single landing slot has lives attached to it. So what does it mean to fly in armoured personnel carriers and security forces?
Cue here a story of prisoners breaking out so we imagine the islands of the Philippines resemble the anarchy of life in a Mad Max movie, and are grateful for soldiers “retaking control” of the place. I am not at all against priority given to military relief capacity, I’m talking about the idea that life-saving assistance must be displaced to establish law and order (a particularly ironic conclusion where a primary driver of “crime” and “disorder” is the absence of aid). Perhaps it is necessary for aid to flow. Perhaps it’s not, and aside from a few hot spots the impact quite minimal. Hence the weight on figuring out to what extent is this real and to what extent is it misperception and a knee-jerk reaction to fears.
In Haiti, arguably, the world got that balance wrong. Fears of looting or the descent into anarchy were exaggerated, decisions consequential (e.g., see here on WFP reports of looting being “overblown”, or this MSF denunciation of its surgical capacity circling overhead and then diverted to Santo Domingo while the US military landed planes full of troops). My experience is that disasters force communities to come together, that people are remarkably supportive of one another and fair. The people in Cebu and Samar are neighbours and families. Social networks distribute relief with stunning efficiency and effectiveness and zero fanfare.
Of course there are criminal gangs. Of course water distribution to thirsty people can resemble a scrum. Experienced aid agencies deal with this all the time, delivering aid in war zones and in the midst of sectarian violence or everyday desperation. We do it all the time because waiting for somebody to put an end to the war and violence is, well, absurd. Aid delivery in crisis will always be imperfect. Nobody wants aid convoys getting attacked, but the risks are often manageable under far worse conditions than in the Philippines. So unless the threat is substantial risk, establishing “law and order” to ensure the arrival of assistance may come with a heavier cost than benefit to those who are waiting for said assistance in frightened, rain-soaked desperation.
3. On the surface, the aid industry is treating the typhoon emergency as the second coming of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, with all the expectations of another once-in-a-decade event. In other words, expectations of all-hands-on-deck to get aid to the millions of desperate Filipinos, of a large dose of the aid circus and calls for better coordination, and of a fundraising/branding extravaganza. Certainly some of the destruction we have seen on our screens warrants such an investment in the emergency response. But other factors instil us with an uneasy feeling: the creeping signs that the worst of the destruction affects a large but not massive number of people coupled with a world that is no longer helplessly waiting for the NGO saviours to arrive – first, because the Philippines is not Haiti and second, because other actors, most notably the military, are now in the saviour business. Will we succeed in being the stars of the show? Tune in these coming weeks.
by marc on November 1, 2013
Having swapped his political fez for the humanitarian beret of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband is calling world attention to the spectre of polio outbreak in Syria. He has seized on a tragic development. Rising polio numbers play out like a dead canary in a coal mine. At once powerfully symbolic of the calamity of Syria today and a frightening omen of Syria tomorrow.
Coincidentally, polio confirmation comes just as chemical weapons inspectors have declared that equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has been destroyed. Cut to fist-pumping Western nations? I mean, progress on CWs is relatively good news, no?
In an astute exchange on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (yesterday, around the 2:10 mark), Miliband and John Humphries aired the rather stunning conclusion that the world has breathed a sigh of relief since the chemical weapons deal has been made. Guard down. Attention elsewhere. Result: in the hoo-hah around chemical weapons – well-deserved though it may have been – Assad found a “licence to carry on what he was doing – slaughtering an awfully lot of people” (Humphries). This analysis, shared by many others, makes for a cautionary tale.
The only law left standing in Syria today may be the law of perverse consequences. MSF played an instrumental role in sparking attention/reaction to the chemical attacks (see my previous blog). As if Western governments justifying potential retaliatory strikes were not enough of an unintended consequence, there is also the sidelining of a truly unprecedented humanitarian crisis. As Christopher Stokes eloquently explains: Syrian people are now presented with the absurd situation of chemical weapons inspectors freely driving through areas in desperate need, while the ambulances, food and drug supplies organised by humanitarian organisations are blocked.
Absurd? Yes. Predictable? Why not? What chunk of this hindsight should not have been foresight? We all knew that U.S. or French militaries would twist the outcry against chemical weapons to suit their own ends. We should also consider it no surprise that Western governments, desperate for a chance to demonstrate action/resolve/victory will jump on any issue that masks their protracted, utter inability to do something about the horrors of Syria. Action is generic in that regard. Action acts as a pressure release. Action is solution. No need for further attention. Chemical weapons? Sleep easy. Mission accomplished. You could airlift 2 million ab-tronic exercise devices to Syria and the US public would coo in the comfort at good being done.
And it is not just governments. It is no surprise that the media needed a new angle to this Syria tale, that NGOs needed to show success, that we were all emotionally drained by trying to think of the ever-worsening big fat disaster. In other words, did we not know enough to understand that one major risk of speaking out against chemical weapon attacks was that the international effort would be diverted away from the millions of starving, abused, sick, wounded and frightened people? Absurd = perverse, does it not?
Now: what of polio? In one breath, Miliband laments the negative impact of chemical weapons as distraction and then raises the issue of polio. Obviously, it may turn out differently. And obviously, dealing with polio is a good thing. But this is Syria 2013. We ignore the law at our peril.
In the end, it is quite sad that ten cases of polio are able to generate more attention, and perhaps more momentum for change, than massacre after massacre, month after month, million after million. A new outcry: Stop the killing! Humanitarian ceasefire! We need to stop the polio!
Miliband is shrewd. He comprehends the symbolic value in a polio outbreak. He trumpets the potential for a polio campaign to give rise to a new “humanitarian bridgehead” inside Syria. Polio vaccinations as a silver bullet? That makes for a nice soundbite, but it ignores the governing law of the land. The risk is that depoliomacy produces a great campaign and an even greater distraction.
by marc on October 28, 2013
They won’t start talking until we put all our phones in the refrigerator. Dennis McNamara, of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, talking about sensitive negotiations.
A year or so ago I posted a blog about the risks of being infiltrated by spies. I seem to have missed the point. True enough, we humanitarians should do more about stopping NGO penetration by the Felix Leiters and Carrie Mathisons of the world. If we want to safeguard trust in our intentions, trust in our essential harmlessness, then we need to keep the spies out.
But that misses the point driven home, driven right into my breast pocket, by Edward Snowden. The revelations about NSA spying make it clear, the spy is I. It is no longer a question of keeping spooks-people out, it is a question of the degree to which they have transformed us into spooks-people in. The unwittingness of our role is of no relevance. Ditto for our pure hearts. It is no longer about deliberately passing information back to spy agencies, it is about their routine extraction of sensitive information from our everyday work.
What to do given the lack of convenient refrigerators? Negotiating access requires daily contact with armed groups, many of whom have so-called terrorist or similar status. We must talk to them. We must phone them to ask if it is safe to travel, safe to deliver care, safe to transport a wounded child. Who needs a mole when our Nokias and Thurayas provide such an effective set of eyes and ears?
Decades ago I thought (briefly, very briefly) about working for the CIA. I never thought I would be doing it for free.
by marc on September 13, 2013
[After that heavy post, how about a light one, for Friday the 13th?]
Two weeks ago I was sitting in our lovely expat residence in Goma, Lake Kivu lapping at the back garden. It would be hard to be any closer and further at the same time from the grinding violence, fear and misery that affects much of the Eastern DRC. And, at least for me, it would be hard not to think that what DRC really needed was not more humanitarians but more Yul Brynners. And Steve McQueens. And Charles Bronsons, James Coburns, Robert Vaughns and Horst Buchholzs. Yes, we need the Magnificent Seven (sorry, can’t remember the seventh). If you prefer low culture – because the Magnificent Seven is decidedly high culture even if Bronson grunts most of his lines – then think of it this way: what Congo needs is the A Team.
We need some tough guys. Sort of. Actually, there is a major surfeit of tough guys, but they tend to be criminals, rapists and butchers, which has its drawbacks in terms of being a force for good, though certainly hasn’t stopped the international community from funding programmes to incorporate them into the army.
So we need some tough guys who are also good guys. Instead, the Kivus have armed criminal gangs, various sorts of mai mai forces, ethnic “defense” gangs, armed criminals, security companies and the official armed criminal gang, the national army, more renowned for their profiteering, military ineptitude and sexual violence than for defending the population. And then there is MONUSCO: 20,000 UN Peacekeepers from places like Uruguay, India and Tanzania.
There is already plenty of critique and analysis of UN peacekeeping. Has it helped keep warring parties apart in some places? Undoubtedly. Has it provided breathing space for peace negotiations? Undoubtedly? (Are peace negotiations in Congo a well-funded yet industrial-sized scam? That’s another story). But as I watched an extremely expensive refrigerated truck lumber up the non-road between Mweso and Pinga – Patagonian beef for the Uruguayan troops? – one couldn’t help marvelling at the fantastic cost of it all. Think of what it takes to build a complete military infrastructure of bases, communications, supply, etc., fly in 20,000 of soldiers from around the world, pay their salaries, and another few thousand advisors and sundry specialists…
Well, for the coming year it will cost almost $1.5 billion. Do the math. That’s enough money to pay $5,000 each to 100,000 of the worst criminals, rapists and thugs, provided they sit and play foosball all day, or eat steak that doesn’t have to be airlifted from Argentina. Oh, and still have a billion left over to build schools and hospitals.
A more startling example of math: instead of spending $2 trillion for messy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US could have just givenv20 million pissed off militants each $10,000 to hang out at home watching reruns of The Rat Patrol. And still had $1.8 trillion left over to end poverty in South Asia.
I do not think we as humanitarians comprehend the scale of military expenditure. The numbers are interstellar. Ditto for the bailout of banks. And ditto even for Presidents like Clinton or Obama, who certainly understand the lives of the poor, and yet who would chip away at the funding for a $10 million schools programme while signing into action a $250 billion military foray into futility.
There is a lesson in there for the international community. Something about scale. Something about what and how Save, MSF or Oxfam spend on operations versus the meaning of that money in a place like DRC.
BTW, the Magnificent Seven? They cost $140.00. Total. For six weeks. And they killed all the bad guys.
by marc on August 28, 2013
Ever heard of Piltdown man? He would have stood four feet tall and was the talk of the scientific town 100 years ago. If you are an evolutionary biologist, you probably know exactly who I am talking about; otherwise, you’ve no idea. That is, unless you are a creationist Christian who believes the Bible is a literal interpretation of the word of God; hence unless you are somebody who believes that mankind dates back only several thousands of years that that the stunning paleo-biological history of humans is false. If you believe that, if you deny Darwin, Australopithecus and the concept of evolution itself, then the Piltdown man is, well, he is your man.
The story is fairly simple: a seminal scientific discovery turned out to be a hoax. If you read creationist literature, that example is trafficked over and over and over again to dismiss the entire body of evidence called the fossil record and the credibility of scientific thinking. To the believer in Adam and his rib, that one hoax is enough to negate every bone in the ground, every trilobite’s age, every Lucy.
It may be an indication of my mental state, but I choked up with pride when MSF launched its bombshell press release that there had been a devastating chemical weapon attack in Syria, with 3600 treated and 355 killed. I could well imagine the risks of going public with such témoignage, and could well imagine the difficult discussions and calculations that went into the message. I could not imagine, of course, that that I’d misconstrued the press release so badly.
MSF’s témoignage is why I joined MSF. It stems from the idea that an humanitarian response to crisis cannot limit itself the delivery of assistance, but must also take into account the protection and dignity of people; and is rooted in that special relationship between medical carer and patient, where seeing the wounds of violence prompts a responsibility to act. The doctor does not treat a child for rape and keep his/her mouth zipped.
Témoignage is further refined in MSF, an organization that must make sage use of what it knows. Illness, wounds, and voices will tell you a great deal about the bad things some people are doing to others. So there are times where we engage in advocacy about what we see, what our medical data reveals, in the hopes that exposure and pressure can play a role in stopping the crimes, or pushing others to stop them. The foundation of all this activity is the word témoignage itself, its implication that we have – directly – seen something through our medical work and our presence amidst people in danger. Bearing witness is the closest English.
I have had to defend the use of our voice to angry authorities many times. Very often they believe we are being naïve, being used, being fed messages that we then transmit. Me to Sudanese security guy: “We know that village was burned down because our mobile clinic team, including two expats, went there while it was still smouldering.” His response: surprise (“You went there?” – “Yes”) then quiet. Acting as a spokesperson for what others have said happened is not the same thing as bearing witness to it ourselves.
Yesterday evening, along the shores of Lake Kivu, I was catching up on my inbox and realized that MSF had not treated anyone for chemical weapon attack, nor had MSF seen the results of the attack. I was confused, furious; calling up the press release to read it again. In fact, I had missed its clear declaration: the report of the chemical weapon attack came from doctors whom we support with supplies, not from MSF.
I guess a first lesson is how the brain simplifies: I had missed sentences worth of disclaimer. Rather predictably (intentionally?), this distinction also seems to have been lost on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who swiftly stoked the USG’s neocon reaction to events in Syria with the credibility of MSF (no chance of another WMD moment embarrassment, we have MSF’s word!). Such distinctions and disclaimers are hard to maintain, and don’t live on very long in the media, where speculation that, e.g., there “could be as many as 200,000 refugees” quickly hardens into fact.
There is nothing easy or formulaic about the development of, in particular, public messaging around témoignage (which can, of course, remain at the diplomatic level). I hate to find myself as the defender of orthodoxy, that we do not talk about it if we haven’t seen it, even (or especially!) when the news is so shocking, so aching to be released from our lungs. Such orthodoxy clashes with a world, and even an MSF, that are evolving. For example, we are increasingly working through partners, and will have built relationships of trust – of faith – with doctors such as these brave Syrians, struggling heroically to care for the wounded in such a brutal war.
They are not MSF, and yet they are not strangers. On the other hand, we know that this is a highly polarized war, that operating via partners involves compromise (see e.g., this post), and we certainly understand the massive investment on both sides of this conflict in the war for global hearts and minds, with propaganda at the fore. As an organization, can we afford to believe them? Me, I do not think we can afford staking so much of value on such imperfect calculations. But as humans, can we afford not to believe? I don’t know. I am uncomfortable with the path of conservatism, and fear it harbors dogmatism. In the end, though, I prefer “you have to see it to believe it”, because credibility is like being pregnant, you either have it or you don’t, and in the hands of our enemies, one misplaced bone wipes out a veritable record of truth.
by marc on August 12, 2013
Go back three decades (or so). Question to WWF champ Bob Backlund: What could possibly persuade a man to earn a living by getting his brains beaten out while wearing a Speedo? Answer: I make more money than the President of the United States.
Bob has me beat. The salary of charity execs has been tearing up the media this week. Here’s Ian Birrell, in an excoriating piece, sending some special love to Save the Children’s CEO: “The fat cat charity chiefs include [Justin] Forsyth, whose £163,000 salary means he earns £20,500-a-year more than David Cameron.” For the record, this year I will earn less than half that.
The Telegraph broke the story. Numerous takes popped up. For a balanced argument, try Oxfam’s Duncan Green here. Here’s another spin. And another. Far more revelatory than the stories themselves, take a look at the reams of commentary (the Telegraph piece alone has over 600). This topic touches a live wire. The public vents shock and anger at us charity bosses. I want the public to like me. And I don’t want to work for peanuts. So what’s up?
Maybe we should blame ourselves. As far as I can tell, perhaps too many people have been listening to what we charities say. Unfortunately, what we say doesn’t chime with fat salaries. Perhaps we’ve told you that every £££/$$$ you send will be used to [fill in blank] and save fly-covered orphan Maria, end the persecution of polar bears, or fix a world of broken smiles. Never mind that it’s often a whopping fudge, it sets high expectations. Or perhaps you’ve internalized the subtext of our messages: that we merchants of charity are not like bankers or businessmen; that we are – look at all our sacrifices and good deeds – agents of pure virtue.
Apparently, neither virtue nor efficient use of donations mix well with being paid six digits. Reading the commentary, lots of you devote time to charity work, and you do it for £184,000 less than the British Red Cross’s CEO’s annual pay. So you know all about charities, don’t you? That is one obvious rub. Public anger betrays a major misunderstanding about the nature, especially, of overseas aid work. A remarkably idiotic comment from “Normalwoman” sums it up: “it doesn’t take a genius to give money to the poor”.
Actually, Ma’am, we aid NGOs could use a boatload or two more of geniuses. I mean, if I can make it to the job of CEO/director then it is clear the talent pool is thin. Four decades of development aid to “bongo-bongo land” can hardly be deemed a success. And in many cases humanitarians haven’t managed better, in spite of our lower ambitions. Aid is complex, even if our fundraising narratives scrupulously avoid any mention of struggle, ineffectiveness or failure. Now, under attack, the aid agency litany has about-faced: this is a tough job, a really tough job. So we need talented people, and they don’t work for free. It’s not just complexity, it’s responsibility: you can’t ask Saturday volunteers to take life or death decisions (e.g., sending staff into Somalia and Afghanistan), or close programs that are vital to entire communities.
No matter how many ways it is said, though, these defenses sound, well, defensive. In that vein, Forsythe inked the high-water mark, managing to suggest his salary was somehow related to “the biggest ever fall in child deaths from preventable illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhoea”. Oh my. Defending high salaries by reference to our good work is one step closer to claiming an entitlement. And yet so much of the public backlash aims to trash aid altogether, not high exec salaries.
Besides, who am I to judge? At this stage in my life, I’m not sure if I would not have taken this job for a salary of, say, £40,000 per year. And let’s be clear, that is still a lot of money and there are many people who would be thrilled with such an offer. You can deliver a lot of vaccines with that kind of money.
Here is the key. The defensiveness – and I feel it myself – in our voice originates in the same place as the public’s anger. We both believe that NGO employees, especially leaders, should be agents of virtue. We should be thankful for the fact that the public still sees a strong moral quality to aid work. They do not want it to be a business. They do not want their NGO bosses to covet generous salaries. They do not want a banker’s mentality at the helm of an aid organization.
[Diversion alert! It is perfectly logical to answer that we need capable leaders to perform a tough job, isn’t it? Worryingly, this response falters under close scrutiny [thanks J for this kernel]. What is the evidence that these high CEO salaries actually enabled organizations to hire talent otherwise unavailable? In particular, any evidence that it enabled them to hire talent better able to lead an organization to the promised land of effective aid? Or is it more true that boards look for leaders who are an asset to the balance sheet of the organization, meaning people with the skills, experience and personal qualities to woo major donors and ensure substantial government funding?]
So where will all this end? Being called a fat cat doesn’t feel good. The story and keen public reaction seem like another shovel of dirt on the grave of our fundraising ambitions. I see two lessons. We aid agencies must counter not with a defense of salaries but by showing what we do. Public sentiment must more closely align with the reality of aid work, including the warts.
I fear, however, that the real lesson in this story has little to do with our Western publics. More broadly, this is a story about what people expect from aid workers, and what they find unfair/dishonest. And like it or not, the societies in which we work also have expectations and a sharp sense of fairness. If Western publics do not expect their donations to go towards the salary of a CEO, then the people in the countries where we work do not expect those same donations to end up in our large offices, top-flight hardware, homes, restaurant tabs, Landcruisers, televisions, yoghurt, R&R trips etc.
We’ve shut our ears to the critique that we asked people to donate to save, say, the Sudanese, and then we spend it on ourselves right in front of those very Sudanese. What happens when that gets vented? In other words, what is the cost of so visibly sabotaging our own position in the battle for moral respect?
by marc on June 18, 2013
1. Check out TLQ, the digital magazine for thought leaders. They asked my alter ego to produce a reflection piece on some of my earlier blog posts (Model Business, Battle of the Models, The Narrative Divide, etc). I took my views to their logical conclusion — a look at our Achilles Heel.
Here is a link to the pdf, but their version has all the links… TLQ June 2013 Hope you enjoy it. Pls no comments about the photo.
2. I used to think that humanitarian NGOs were like the proverbial emporor with no clothes. You know: big talk and no action; glossy reports that do not reflect the reality of our work. Then I realized that the problem was slightly more complicated. In the end, the emporor is in fact an emporor. He may not have any clothes on, but that doesn’t alter his identity. What we have in humanitarianism is not a delusion in the nature of our clothes, but the false belief in being an emporor in the first place. Yikes.
3. Has anybody watched the TED talk by Dan Pallotta that claims our thinking about charity is “dead wrong”? Acknowledging that he says some interesting things, I still can’t help feeling squeamish about every facet of his talk. Really, every single thing he says seems slickly evangelical, even by the typical standards of the temple of philanthropic elitism. Or, if not evangelical, at least infomercialesque. Aid as a business that produces goodness the way Toyota produces cars. More stuff in one end equals more cars out the other. And what is his solution; his stuff to put in at the NGO end? Money, money and more money because with more money we can do more good. Anyone else out there frightened by the guy? I also don’t like his shirt.
by marc on May 31, 2013
Today, a treat for the reader. Instead of my meandering approach, I’ll spare you the long-winded digressions and the spectacle of my beating a dead horse. Here, a few short(er) posts.
1. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In a land with only one horse, even a lame nag looks like Secretariat. And so the political leadership of the world piles human hope and diplomatic muscle into a Geneva conference on Syria. I certainly wish Kerry and Lavrov well. In the realm of impossibility, even a half-baked solution seems like E=MC2.
The reality is that the Syrian conflict poses an existential threat. Seems to me that the rush to self-destruction challenges the value of liberty, or freedom or democracy. Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” makes for a great battle cry. It sounds profoundly noble. But at what point should either Assad or the Syrian opposition surrender? Not militarily defeated but a recognition that the price of victory is too high. That is not, obviously, a question for me to answer.
Yet I am reminded of King Solomon (in the Koran, Sulayman), a wise man for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. When faced with two women each claiming to be the mother of an infant, he threatened to cut the child in two. The true mother, who loves her child, cries out that she would rather see it pass to the other than perish at the sword.
2. A lot of magazines dealing with the NGO/charity sector cross my desk. The recent cover of Charity Times holds the title “Measuring Impact”. That is the not-for-profit sector’s equivalent of “Twenty Days to Sixpack Abs”. I mean, is there even one issue of any health journal that does not include an article about how to get better abs? Is it really possible that there are literally thousands of ways to say exercise regularly and eat less? Apparently, there are. I vote for a new research agenda: Measuring the impact of articles on measuring impact.
3. NGO. It is as much a title as an acronym; as much a declaration as a status. What does it mean in a world where those bearing the NGO label are massively funded by governments? And where governments dictate so many of the terms of engagement? I mean, if 75% of your field expenditure is financed by the likes of DFID, ECHO and USAID, the label of NGO seems deceptive. Ditto where half of your management team used to work for the government.
NGO is an anachronism, a mark of distinction from days gone by, created by the UN to distinguish state actors/bodies from citizen groups. Those distinctions are now hopelessly blurred.
Defining oneself through negation is a tricky business. (If I had paid better attention at university, I might even remember what Sartre had to say about it). Lots of organizations are non-governmental. Technically, the Mara gangs and the International Fan Club of Rihanna would qualify as NGOs (probably more NG than CARE or even MSF). But for many organizations that are not governmental there is no necessity or identity to be found in distinction from government. No confusion between the Mara Salvatrucha and a delegation of foreign ministers (I know, I know, between the Mara and typical governments there is an identical imposition of a monopoly of violence to further economic interests, but that’s another blog, one which includes digressions). So it raises the question of whether times have changed. Do we now need additional acronymed credentials?
In honor of the tectonic shift towards social entrepreneurship – the transformation of the development NGO into a patron of the free market system – and marking the recently well-promoted “collaboration” between Glaxo SmithKline and Save the Children, I hereby initiate NCO. Non-corporate organization. To create distinction from organizations promoting corporate interests. And for places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and (soon enough) Syria, how about NMO? Non-military organizations. To create distinction from organizations that are directed via belligerent funding to achieve “soft” military targets (talk about a gap re measuring impact!). A bit clunky on the tongue — “As an NGO/NCO/NMO, we believe…” — but the distinctions are vital.
by marc on May 15, 2013
Apologies for the long gap since the last post. Apparently, there is a general opinion that blogging about ideas should not displace my real work, which involves processing 3-sentence emails.
Aside from not keeping up this blog, busy people like me become addicted to the flatteringly-named ‘executive summary’. In fact, I’d venture to say that you can define the rise towards leadership by the ability to take decisions based on a greater and greater abstraction (i.e., ignorance of the actual situation). Anyway, someone recently sent me a report from Insecurity Insight. They crunch data on the kidnapping and death of humanitarian workers. Kudos: most of their analysis seems like actual science. Meaning: it reads like a foreign language to me. I’m more at home in a world of authoritatively-delivered opinion dressed as fact.
Knowing I don’t read, the friend who sent me the article copied out the key conclusions. A surprise: their analysis questioned “risk transfer”. This term refers to a vitally important discussion, one we humanitarian organizations need to get right, and one which will require far greater data and analysis than currently available. In short, there is concern that the rising numbers of national staff victims in security incidents may indicate a risk transfer; that we agencies are disproportionately pulling expat staff out of harm’s way, leaving national staff to run programs in situations.
Risk transfer is far from my area of expertise, so allow me to rush forward with a few unsubstantiated opinions. First, this is sensitive stuff. The pressure to keep projects running and the pressure of insecurity upon those projects have never been greater. Second, it is uncomfortable for Western agencies to think of themselves as engaging in a strategy which passes risk from one party who does not wish to shoulder the risk to another party who takes it on. If you don’t recognize that arrangement in another guise, it’s called insurance. In the insurance biz, of course, the insured party pays a premium to the insurer to take on the burden. Insurers do so willingly and knowingly and to great profit. So we good Samaritans squirm at the prospect that the salaries we dispense, so vital to our staff and local partners, may equate to an involuntary premium to absorb risk; a deal they don’t feel empowered to challenge or refuse.
(Clever folk that we are, rationalization allows us to justify risk transfer: we do it for the beneficiaries (of course). Compared to national staff, the impact on programs of the death or kidnapping of an expat is more serious. Western agencies are forced to make greater changes. Perhaps programs will close or scale down across an entire region, and not just with the affected NGO. Or, an even more fishy driver of NGO decisions – funders may pull the plug. And that doesn’t even broach the increasingly likely threat of litigation back home. So it is clear, isn’t it, we need to protect expats in order to save the beneficiaries?).
As I said, murky waters. So you can well imagine the collective sigh of relief at Insecurity Insight’s bold-printed announcement that our guilty fretting over risk transfer may not be necessary at all. Their research announces that the phenomenon is questionable. Busy, I almost stopped reading there. Very glad I didn’t.
However, it is questionable whether this reflects a conscious decision to transfer risk from one category to another. Rather, this pattern more likely reflects an increasing reluctance to place international staff (who may be more exposed than local staff) in danger, as well as considerations regarding the cost and effectiveness of national staff who receive lower salaries and are assumed to have greater local acceptance.
Read it a few times. In the annals of reporting across the sector, that may be the top piece of sophistry I’ve ever spotted. Let me get this straight. Their analysis is that there is no conscious decision to transfer risk to national staff because that is a mere by-product of being reluctant to place expats in danger. Isn’t Insecurity Insight confusing the absence of intention with a get-out-of-jail-free card? Their report suggests a complete abdication of responsibility for the direct and predictable consequences of decisions. Let’s paraphrase: “It is questionable whether Biff’s driving reflects a conscious decision to run over baby prams. Rather, his accidents more likely reflect Biff’s increasing reluctance to drive at slow speed.”