Category Archives: Our Western Identity

Be Careful What You Ask For

The discussion of localization is beginning to deepen. Here (summarized) is an opening salvo from Charles Lwanga-Ntale, director of the Kenya Academy Centre:  localization often seems to resemble ‘deconcentration’, a process whereby the systems and structures of the existing humanitarian sector are exported downwards.  Certainly an interesting reflection to lead off a conference entitled “Localization and Contextualization of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) in East Africa”. Hosted by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and the (Kenyan) National Drought Management Authority, the conference mixed government, NGO and academic communities, and placed a particular focus on regional examples of DRRM at the sub-national level, where counties and districts struggle directly with fires, landslides, refugees and drought.

True enough – localization can be many things to many people. Yet the warning on replication was eclipsed as quickly as it was issued. Localization has momentum and it has an engine – from diverse voices a rather uniform set of calls for more capacity building. A palpable hunger for knowledge and learning peppered our two days of discussions. A desire not only for the processes, tools and know-how of the humanitarian sector but also a deep conviction in the power of capacity building to change the behaviour of communities and people.  Have the past five decades of capacity building not curbed our appetite?

I’m not advocating that the global south build a wall (although that argument holds surprising merit), but something needs to keep all these consultants, UN careerists and INGOs busy.  The call seems to aim at training from the very INGOs and agencies that shaped local NGOs into mere implementing partners, and undermined their capacity as autonomous civil society actors. Beyond that, the headlong rush into capacity building raises Trojan Horse concerns. What comes with the sector rebuilding its systems, as Lwanga-Ntale phrased it, “further down the road”?

This much is true. The core of the humanitarian sector – the UN agencies and INGOs elsewhere referred to by many (e.g., me) as an “oligopoly” or “cartel” – has developed an immense amount of experience, know-how and (sadly less publicised) comprehension of what doesn’t work. At the same time, my less optimistic appraisal is that very little about humanitarian action warrants the dash towards replication. It’s not like we are passing on a bandolier full of silver bullets. And that is the good stuff.  What about the bad stuff, which often comes along with the good stuff? Or the bad stuff that we mistakenly think is good stuff?

Take for example the seemingly innocuous technology of the logical framework.  Or the constitution of a humanitarian action upon the foundation of projects. These are exactly the sort of capacity building initiatives the system loves to export. Yet aside from their bureaucratic appeal, they come riddled with proven deficiencies: reducing humanitarian work to tick-box processes and quantifiable targets, output without outcome, short-termism, top-downism, risk aversion, fear of failure, etc.  In the end, a sector full of successful’ projects that leave behind such staggering unmet needs that we needed a Grand Bargain full of transformative ambitions.  Local actors using contextualized logframes? Is that really as far as our ambition travels?

I note that those at the forefront of development thinking (and even a few donors) have embraced the need for Doing Development Differently, exactly by unlogframing it. As agencies scramble to maintain relevance and contracts by delivering capacity building, are we replicating an obsolete and ineffective technology simply because it is so ingrained in our thinking; in how we practice aid?  Isn’t that one of the problems we hope localization and contextualization will solve?

Even beyond the issue of effectiveness, here’s question getting too much focus: What value do does the system want or expect the north to transfer to the south?  Opportunity cost asks a second question: Does that value outweigh a flood of workshops and ‘best practices’ that will bury the south’s opportunity and right to author value for itself? To author a new rather than receiving an old value?

Capacity building strikes me as expedient, but not particularly ambitious. I would think development requires more of localization and contextualization. First and foremost, the space for local actors to respond to problems in their way, and to struggle in the creative process at the same time.  This involves going through frustrations and failures in proximity to communities, to arrive at successes through effort, invention and ownership, not effort, mimicry and dependence. This also involves less of an employment scheme for the existing aristocracy.

Crucially, it is through this struggle that NGOs in the north have built not only their practices, but their institutions as well.  It may be a crap slogan for fast food, but Burger King gets it right, as does Zen Buddhism.  Be your way. Endpoints are less important than pathways. For example, what is the cost of local institutions not developing organically but instead having their financial plumbing supercharged by the global north just so that they can be declared eligible to receive direct grants? Why not change those eligibility standards? This is exactly the sort of mimicry that we should block; a mimicry whereby we reproduce a humanitarian system in which subservience to its business objectives evolved as the dominant structure of the agency, while the operational response to the needs of people became at best secondary, at worst a simple input to a financial transaction.

This call is not for reinventing the wheel. This call is for reinventing the imperfect devices of humanitarian action, because local organizations with a relationship to the community and deep knowledge of the context might just invent something entirely glorious.

The Localization Surge

MSF used to run an ad: “The world is our emergency room.”  Snappy, no?  Raises an eyebrow or two if wiped over a photograph, say, of dusty civilians shouldering a wounded neighbour, or starving children swallowed by their swaddling.   It also raises an important challenge to the implementation of the “localization” agenda.  By definition, responding to crisis – to extraordinary levels of need – requires some form of surge, a capacity to scale up aid operations in response to crisis.  The UN- and Western NGO-led humanitarian system already struggles in this regard (see, e.g., MSF’s “Where is Everyone”). Local organizations might struggle further. In how many nations could even the combined NGO community open and maintain 19 surgical theatres, as MSF did within weeks of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or mount 53 million Euros of operations in about 4.5 months?

The general view seems to be that local organizations can surge, but to a lesser degree.  As Schenkenberg’s study explains, local NGOs often have a very limited ability to scale up. He goes on to describe the causes, such as difficulties in attracting/receiving funds or the unhelpful reality that in an emergency, newly arriving international agencies will often Hoover up staff from the local NGOs. Management capacity for rapid growth poses another stumbling block. While the World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain and the general strengthening of local NGOs may address some of these issues, they do little to address constraints in the model itself.

Within most Western societies the response to crisis rests upon our fortune, upon the wealth necessary to pay armies of soldiers or battalions of firefighters to sit on their ass – dead capacity that comes to life when the siren sounds. The aid sector can ill afford this model (although they increasingly pay armies of people to do little more than sit on their asses, that is a different blog).  Essentially, surge capacity in the major international NGOs exists because the world is their emergency room, meaning they are able to maintain surge capacity by distributing it globally, and then redistributing it when an emergency arises.

I suppose this marks an economy of scale. That same model works poorly on a national or provincial scale. There may be exceptions – Eastern DRC? South Sudan? – that could support such excess resources, but it is difficult to imagine many.  Note that this economy of the global scale plays a similar role when it comes to expertise.  Major international agencies can maintain in-house expertise along a wide variety of themes – nutrition, shelter, water, sanitation, etc. – because at the global level, there will always be enough business somewhere to keep such expertise busy (to justify the expenditure). Again, national NGOs do not have this economy of scale (or simultaneous diversity of crisis types/themes).

The point is that local NGOs cannot be expected to become local versions of the large international NGOs. No duh, right? And yet the bigger point is that they will nonetheless be judged for it. Rather mercilessly, I fear. They will be judged as deficient because they cannot surge. Deficient because they lack sufficient in-house expertise.  Let’s be clear. These are exactly the sort of weaknesses that the existing system will capitalize upon to claw back its pre-Grand Bargain dominion. Beyond the issue of power and control, these perceived deficiencies generate a truth in which local responders remain dependent on the existing international system for surge, one more nail in the coffin of second-class citizenship.

If we start now, can we work our way out of this?  Can we can imagine some form of standing capacity at the national level? Perhaps we should be investing now in developing/testing a number of approaches to national-level rapid response mobilization. Let’s embrace strategies based on dispersed teams/networks rather than centralized agencies. Perhaps we can imagine local chapters of an organization such as Human Surge? Or maybe we can just begin a conversation, and see where it leads.

Friday Traffic Jam

1. The lesson of the traffic jam

The traffic situation in New Orleans tells us a great deal about the current state of the world, with humanitarians at the center.  I lived there in the late 90s. The peak hour jams were miserable. The wide cement lanes of I-10 reconstituted themselves as a parking lot full of people full of a demoralized rage. The solution was obvious — build another lane. So the traffic jams were then tripled for a few years as construction of another lane took place.  Traffic was eased. Hooray for the new lane.  And then it wasn’t: more people started driving, the developers built more homes so more people could move out to those homes . . .  A few years after the opening of the new lane? The same miserable jams, now 33 percent wider.  This is not my observation.  This is science. This is the problem of ‘induced demand’.

The humanitarian system functions as many things, and one is as a new lane. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism. Is it that human society will always tolerate a certain level of excess misery, of people in crisis due to poverty, pestilence and war that escapes our efforts at alleviation?  Greater and greater budgets, greater and greater resources, greater and greater effectiveness and yet needs still outstrip supply.  Getting on top of it (ending human need), in other words, will always remain at the horizon.  Or does the mechanism have more to do with the behavior of governments and armed actors? Those making a mess and those who are supposed to solve the messes (or prevent them in the first place) will not respond, will not take difficult action, and will not end their wars because humanitarianism relieves enough pain to reduce the pressure to act.

We do not like the old idea that humanitarianism prolongs war. But if we admit that powerful/western governments will rarely act until there is a crisis, then the lack of a crisis often means they will not act.  But this traffic effect is not a question of prolonging war. This is a question of allowing more war: this is the degree to which the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes not just a palliative or fig-leaf, not just an illusion of or substitute for difficult political action, but the degree to which it produces an effect of putting out fire with gasoline.

Can we learn from the traffic jam? Here is what the research proved. The answer to the paradox of why building more lanes actually makes traffic worse has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around.  More roads = more moving around. That raises a question: what does humanitarian action allow people (politicians, soldiers, refugees, donors, aid workers) to do?  Even more intriguing, here is another finding of the researcher: if you take away lanes, it doesn’t create a big snarling mess. People adjust and the amount of jam stays about the same. In humanitarian terms, that would be a very good thing.

2. You can’t make this stuff up.

There are some quotes that seem better placed in a Peter Sellers movie. Here is Philip Hammond, UK Foreign Secretary, speaking in the aftermath of the Chilcot Inquiry on whether or not the UK made too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq.  “Maybe it was too great an ambition to dismantle quite a sophisticated country with a long-established civilisation, traditions and culture of its own, and to recreate a mid-Atlantic construct of what government should look like, often going against the grain of local culture and tradition.”

The word ‘great’ seems mildly out of place.  One could easily sub ‘monumentally misguided’. Does that ambition not seem familiar, though, to anyone in the international aid community?

3. Risk aversion or neurosis?

Has anybody ever measured the cumulative effect on our culture of entire nations singing their children to sleep with Rock-a-Bye Baby?  Hundreds of millions of admonitions pouring into the infant brain “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”  Seems like a recipe for creating a nation of  neurotics. Evidence of this mass insecurity? The mass hysteria that Ebola provoked in the USA? Our collective overestimation and overreaction to the threat of terrorism? Well, here’s more evidence, in an advert I just saw.

Living Fearless

Apparently, we now reside live in a world where living fearless is thought to include that old daredevil pursuit of tasting lettuce at what appears to be a posh street market.  Be afraid. Be very afraid. Said the spider to the fly?

 

Addendum: The Three NGOs We Need

Addendum to the May 27 posting.

This blog adds detail to my post-WHS argument for three new INGOs, which should not be confused for either a general call for more INGOs or a lack of recognition that such NGOs may exist, though on a much smaller scale than necessary.

  1. Fundraising without Borders.

The mission of this FWB is to build the fundraising capacity of NGOs in the global south in order to safeguard their independence.  One target, the home markets. Many ‘poor’ crisis-affected nations hold wealth and cadres of wealthy citizens and a burgeoning middle class that could easily sustain local organizations and finance national humanitarian crisis response. (Combined, Africa’s very wealthy elite have a combined net worth over $660 billion).  Note that FWB does not provide a short-term fix. It must develop a long-range vision of nurturing a culture of local support to NGO activity, building national and global fundraising support services, ensuring robust finance mechanisms, etc. FWB will mechanize the implicit call of One Humanity, Shared responsibility to replace the ‘white man’s burden’ with an everyman’s compassion.

Second target, and perhaps initially of greater financial import, my neighbors. FWB would enable NGOs in the global south to fundraise directly in the markets of the global north. Following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines Red Cross advertised for donations in the UK media. The shock to fundraising departments might have been visible on British seismographs. Buying some advertising space, though, marks a crude beginning. Fundraising in Western markets constitutes a science, full stop.  On behalf of southern NGOs and based in each of the ‘fat’ markets, FWB would host highly developed skills and resources in terms of multimedia donation architecture (from an SMS to processing a check), media buying, messaging, financial management, database management and so forth.  The idea would be to take distinct advantage of being a non-Western NGO in the Western market – allowing donors to ‘bypass the middleman’, avoid expensive INGO costs like hotels and expat salaries, and to donate directly to those best situated to know the context and ‘solve’ local problems.

  1. Image Rescue Committee (IRC-II).

To raise money, Western NGOs deploy a range of techniques to ensure their prominence in media coverage of disaster response, displacing and disempowering local actors/efforts in the process.  The humanitarian sector’s distortion of the narrative impoverishes the global south, unsurprisingly reinforcing a picture of dysfunctional and/or primitive local societies being rescued by the international do-gooders.  And while the humanitarian sector has paid lip service to the enormous efforts of local actors, it has strenuously averted actually changing their dominant narrative. We should not wait for the Western humanitarian media machine to significantly improve the integrity of its messaging. Rather, this media bias needs to be challenged by the mainstreaming of alternative discourses. Enter, stage left, IRC-II.

The task is simple and rather straightforward. IRC-II should deploy teams on Crisis Day 1, delivering interviews, film footage and clever soundbites that profile (exclusively!) local actors and efforts.  One can imagine special reports that highlight the expertise and effort of local actors, complete with economic calculations of the value of the local effort – stats to rival those of the international community. Or maybe a TV montage of local authorities complaining that the Western intervention seems overly preoccupied with finding comfortable hotel space? Famous photographers documenting the goings on of the aid community at the local swim club or beachside restaurant?

Naturally, IRC-II would employ all of the same media tricks as the major INGOs, such as transporting journalists and film crews to their projects, lobbying news outlets for choice positioning, commissioning advocacy reports, or rolling in the celebrities, Hollywood megastars able to show their deep concern while strolling through an IDP camp in the logo-festooned shirt of a local NGO.  Put differently, the goal of IRC is to use international media to broadcast the truth in such a way as to crack the narrative divide.

  1. No-Mercy Corps.

Five decades of development work have yielded organizations specializing in empowerment against a wide array of oppressive and anti-democratic structures.  From the empowerment of labor against industry to the empowerment of women against the patriarchy and from empowerment of farm laborers against farm owners to the empowerment of people against despotic leaders, there is no shortage of NGO-led effort against the powerful.  Critically, nobody in this spectrum of work looks in the institutional mirror.  So there remains one glaring gap – empowerment of local communities against the Western NGOs and UN agencies.

Too often, the grand, noble aid agency remains largely untouchable to the marginalized, desperately grateful communities. No wonder the WHS consultations found that only 27% of aid recipients felt their needs were being met. Time to end the sector’s free pass and create No-Mercy Corps, to work locally on how people affected by crisis can better control the crisis response. Looked at functionally, the purpose of NMC would be to counter the powerless of people affected by crisis against one of the most powerful determinants of their lives by creating multiple points of accountability.

The problem is not a new one. Yet the good-intentioned though relatively ineffective ‘solutions’ have always sought to change the sector from within, to (grudgingly) bequeath some illusion of participation, as exemplified by its decades-slow and miserly (voluntary) bequeathing of downward accountability.  Control and power, of course, need to be taken. (The Core Humanitarian Standard? A first sectoral step in the right direction, but we should be wary when the foxes approve new controls on the henhouse.). Specific to each context, NMC’s aim is to build multi-pronged, independent/external control upon the humanitarian response.

  • Setting up and funding aid ombudsman or watchdog functions, either as organizations within the community or as part of local government capacity.
  • Enacting local legislation or standard technical agreements that incorporate Sphere standards and the guiding principles, or require greater foreign NGO transparency in terms of decision-making, performance and reporting (and ensuring translation/dissemination).
  • Creating and funding local organizations that are able to work with aid recipients to assess aid performance and rectify problems.
  • Ensuring local consultation, both individually and across communities, such as has been done through surveying by Ground Truth.
  • Training local media, community leaders and existing CBOs in the assessment of aid efforts, with attention for example to the humanitarian principles.
  • Monitoring and advocacy (in the West) on the work actually being done, aiming to change the behavior of the INGOs, such as reports delivered to donors and media in INGO home societies or lobbying INGO trustees/boards to improve performance.

WHS — Views from the outside.

[The World Humanitarian Hootenanny is over! Scorecards are popping up, from glowing to relatively unfavorable to stinging and everything in between.  I will be giving my take on some key issues in this and forthcoming blogs.  Like a friend not invited to a wedding, I can only offer my envious observations from afar.]

  1. The Three NGOs We Need

The prominence of the localization agenda has been touted as a key WHS success, with the golden statue being awarded to the Grand Bargain. That recalibration of humanitarian financing includes the highly praised central commitment “to channel 25 per cent of financing to national and local responders as directly as possible by 2020.”

Will moving money from major donors to national governments and local NGOs contribute to empowerment? It might. But the politics of aid may not be so kind. Rule #1: there is no such thing as a free lunch. That point aside, localization seems to have been reduced to this ‘groundbreaking’ shift of funds, which may actually divert attention from a much broader local empowerment.  To begin with, the management of this new financial windfall – the bureaucratization and proceduralization which it will require – seems poised to become the core business of the humanitarian sector over the next several years. Empowerment? Be careful of what you wish for (the subject of a future blog).

Looked at from within the sector, for meaningful localization to occur, the system essentially needs to empower people against itself. That, of course, runs contrary to the working of most systems, which is why the humanitarian sector has been characterized by such a grotesquely lopsided north-to-south grip on power. Beyond funding, how might the system contribute to local empowerment? With hundreds of NGOs essentially duplicating one another in terms of service delivery, here’s my list of the three agencies that have long been missing from the sector.

  1. Fundraising without Borders. Rather than tie local NGOs and civil society actors into the institutional funding mechanisms that have so effectively gutted the independence of Western NGOs, the aim of FWB would be to support (1) the development of fundraising within the local context and (2) entry into the well-established fundraising markets of the West.
  2. Image Rescue Committee. The IRC would function as a communications and promotions department for local response to crisis, be it civilian, NGO or governmental. The aim is to counter the skewed narrative delivered by the humanitarian sector – one that disempowers everything local by promoting a dated, warped tale of how they have been (heroically!) saved by the Western intervention.
  3. No-Mercy Corps. According to their own reports, international actors have worked for decades towards empowerment of the marginalized, poverty-stricken and oppressed populations of the global south. And yet not one has focused on empowerment against one of the most powerful and undemocratic forces impacting on their lives, the aid sector itself. Ending this Uncle Tomist free ride, NMC would work to create a set of local mechanisms or bodies (external to the sector) that build control and accountability over the aid sector’s interventions.

Three magic bullets to deliver on the promise of localization? Not at all. Perhaps more important than the potential of FWB, IRC and NMC to empower local responders and communities in the future is what their absence says about the past. Why is it that these organizations, designed and resourced to stand up to the humanitarian oligopoly, do not exist?  Why did the humanitarian ecosystem** not give rise to these rather obvious aid functionalities? Because Grand Bargain or not, the architecture, incentives, power dynamics and culture of the aid system all push in a different direction.  And that is one problem the WHS should have been busy addressing.

** Actually, FWB and NMC would better suit the development community, that has long missed out on opportunities to exploit the humanitarian field for its development gains – see here, here or here.

[Over the weekend, I hope to put some flesh on FWB, IRC and NMC, so that post is coming.]

The Problem with Effectiveness (1)

My first blog sent from the city of Manchester, arguably the birthplace of modern Capitalism: “there are good reasons why those in the Southern Hemisphere view [the big NGOs] as the ‘mendicant orders of Empire’” (Michael Barnett in The International Humanitarian Order). So an appropriate location for an HCRI-Save conference on humanitarian effectiveness.

What is effectiveness? As with many concepts, the further one dissects it, the more wooly it becomes. So a nice generator of the sort of navel-gazing exercises that I find so stimulating and that consume a lot of humanitarian energy.  That said, the discourse of effectiveness warrants being unpacked from a number of angles, especially within a political economy of aid. On that, two initial reflections.

First, the ‘oligarchy’ of global western humanitarian NGOs uses the language of effectiveness to defend its turf, funding and power.  Argument to donors: give us the money, because we are more effective than them.  Here, ‘them’ refers to emerging NGOs from the global south, who are almost by definition going to come up short in terms of effectiveness. After all, it is the oligarchy’s definition of effectiveness in the first place, and the oligarchy has enormous advantages in terms of resources, experience, infrastructure, etc.

Second, the discourse of effectiveness sidesteps ethical issues.  As somebody pointed out in one of the sessions, what is effective and what is right are two different questions.  Those arguing for the supremacy of effectiveness miss the problematic reality of an aid industry that is often ineffective and unaccountable.  Let’s be clear, aid is a tough business, and we should expect that it often falls short of being effective, no different than welfare programs in our home countries, which have regularly failed in efforts to lift the poor out of ghettos, improve public health or reduce drug abuse (for example).  That is the nature of the work.

But there is a fundamental difference. There is something regrettable about our ineffective efforts to do good in our backyard and for ourselves.  But there is something regrettable and unethical with our ineffective efforts to do good in their backyard, with their lives at stake, and yet where they have neither say over how it unfolds nor recourse when it does not go well.

The Hammers and Nails of Ebola

“MSF made a big mistake.” Not a small admission from Claudia Evers, MSF’s Emergency Coordinator in Guinea. Think how much more effective international aid might be if more aid organizations publicized rather than buried such opinion. But that is another blog.

The issue is basic. In its early stages and as the Ebola outbreak mounted, MSF placed almost all its apples in the treatment basket. Fueled by the twinning of high transmission levels and the sloth-paced scaling up of treatment (MSF aside), the virus far outpaced the intervention. Evers concludes: “Instead of asking for more beds we should have been asking for more sensitization activities.”

But did MSF make a mistake? Or is this more of a design flaw in the system? Treatment is what MSF does. Treatment is what MSF is designed to do. When it comes to outbreaks like cholera, or diseases like malaria, or even ‘epidemics’ in some places like maternal mortality, MSF is a hammer of treatment. Nobody, and not even MSF, should be surprised that it sees a world of nails – people who first and foremost need treatment.

To simplify: A good buddy of mine is a cardiologist. His brother is a cardiac surgeon. They disagree bitterly on how best to deal with their aging mother’s heart problems. The former wants to manage it through drugs, diet and exercise. The latter wants to cut. The lesson is that identity determines perception.

So the problem was not MSF calling for a massive, rapid increase in beds and treatment capacity. The problem was that MSF the hammer’s voice stood virtually alone. The problem, in other words, was the absence of other tools in the kit. Where were the wrenches, NGOs that specialize in grassroots mobilization, and who would have seen its potential and pressed for it? Where were the screwdrivers who would have championed decentralized models of care? Where was the diversity of discourse?

Even as sensitization activities scaled up, local communities seem to have been viewed more as targets than as actors. One concern is that the authorities (foreign and international) installed centralized structures for the dissemination of information, rather than capitalizing on local capacities. Another claim is that messages were too simplistic: being told what not to do with a sick child does not provide an actionable solution for a mother with no access to a treatment center. What should she do?

It seems there is an emerging consensus that local communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were sidelined in the rush to contain Ebola, treated more as an obstacle due to their distrust and ‘primitive’ behavior (see, e.g., here). Treated then as a vector for the disease, to be contained rather than sought out as a potential partner in defeating it; not understood to be necessary to generating solutions and disseminating the word. In the end, it seems providential that they did not remain contained, and many communities took the fight against transmission into their own hands (see, e.g., here).

To recap: the Ebola outbreak response reduced communities to a combination of victim, vector, and potential security threat. Otherwise, the aid response and media coverage of it rendered these communities invisible. That invisibility comes because the entire international community – the Western governmental and NGO aid response – is deeply, messianically self-referential. That is the hammer of being a savior, and it blinds us to anything but the nail of victimhood; to the reality that many people, given the shortcomings of international aid, need to know how to save themselves. That is the hammer of being largely Western/foreign, and seeing the nail of disarray, primitivity and ignorance.

One step further: consider this piece from Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring on his recent encounters in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In a few simple paragraphs he conveys the “suffering, bravery and stoicism” of the people. Yet such narratives always fall short. Be it Syrian refugees or civilians in Central African republic or the survivors of Ebola, the sheer scale of grief, social/livelihood devastation and grinding anxiety over life itself evade our comprehension.

For all our efforts, this tremendous suffering remains beyond our ability to fathom with clarity. And it lies beyond our ability to mend. As humanitarian organizations, we find it much easier to be the hammer of crisis response, seeing the nail as the problem called hunger or shelterlessness or, in this case, outbreak. As important as it is to contain and defeat this outbreak, I wonder if we are preconditioned to see the virus, sick people to be mended, and not the millions of people who need something altogether different than the hammers of Western pity, charity, or aid.

Lessons From Charlie Hebdo

What do David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have in common? Well, probably lots of things. Here’s one you weren’t thinking of: All of them attended Sunday’s massive Charlie Hebdo rallies in Paris, and did not make any such powerful protest when the Taliban murdered 132 children in Peshawar. A number of articles (see here or here), comments and tweets have contrasted the West’s reaction to the murder of twelve satirists with the case of those Pakistani children, or Boko Haram’s abduction and enslavement of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls.

There is a sad futility in making such comparisons. First, it is not a comparison of like to like. Would the Charlie Hebdo attack have created such a global outpouring without the video footage of the gunmen making their escape? Are the Taliban not the old story, half as sexy as the Islamic State? Bottom line: lots of factors explain Sunday’s extraordinary political and emotional outpouring as 3.6 million people pinned Je Suis Charlie to their hearts.

Beyond that, though, is the misplaced anger of these accusations. It is OK to feel a greater kinship to those closer to us than to those far away. This form of tribalism may even be hardwired into us as human beings. We can still exercise the core humanitarian principle that we share an equal kinship with all humanity. So I can admit to feeling closer to editor Stephane Charbonnier or cartoonist Jean Cabut than to teacher Sofia Amjad or pupil Asad Aziz (even while imagining the school children to be ‘more innocent’ – apologies for that, but you get what I mean). The mistake is not in experiencing the bias of our own very human emotions. The mistake is to allow that bias to go unrecognized, so that it fails to be overruled.

The even larger mistake is in failing to see that the source of those biased feelings is not solely kinship. These biases – our different reactions to Charlie Hebdo versus Peshawar’s massacre – are produced by the same relations of power and privilege that nourish the Western NGO and produce biased approaches, strategies and activities. These prejudicial factors range widely, from the North-South bias in media coverage to the effective valuation of some human lives over others to the difference between the West’s position towards the right to free speech versus the right to an education. Sadly, recognition of these biases will remain spotty without genuinely more global decision makers at the top of our nominally-global aid agencies.

Lesson 2: The sense of senseless

Do not succumb to the reactive view that these killings are senseless, outbursts of psychotic madness, the work of a purely bloodthirsty fanaticism. On display are undoubtedly a purpose and a logic and the capacity of this attack to advance the personal and strategic interests of the murderers. There is a cruel win-win at play – do nothing and the Kouachi brothers’ actions will look heroic, having cowed the West into a fearful submission. Have a mass rally and, well, their actions will look heroic. After all, we were not the message audience. We are more likely its vector in the quest to “sharpen contradictions.”

I wish I were in France myself. I would have marched. But I would have known that the rally plays into the hands of the militants – adding glory to the deeds in the same way an arsonist purrs as his blaze nets a five-alarm response. And my concerns would have been with my colleagues around the world, because international NGOs continue to be seen by many as symbols of Western blasphemy. Targets.

Lesson 3: Who are we kidding?

Been asked to throw away a pot of yogurt by airport security lately? Plenty of brave talk. Lots of people tweeting Voltaire. But who are we trying to fool? Much of the West is particularly and increasingly risk-averse (see e.g. this blog or this one), and we have seen the degree to which even remote threats of harm have elicited ineffective or expensive overreactions. The Ebola panic comes to mind. So let us not be surprised if standing up for free speech quickly gives way to risk management, threat aversion, and a substantial chilling of the exercise of the right to say whatever the fuck one wants.

Lesson 4: The humanitarian culture of offense

The right to offend. The right to talk back to a parent, denounce a President, or criticize a government. The right to “speak truth to power” as so many have suggested. Freedom of speech is one of the core universal human rights. And it is one of the rights that runs most contrary to the common sense, laws, limits of accepted behavior or culture of many societies.

We know that many challenge this absolutist approach to freedom of speech. We need to look no further than our universities, where academics have found themselves policed for advancing unpopular ideas, or the growth of political correctness as muzzle. And that is in the West, the supposed champion of free speech. How does it play in the corners of the world that do not believe in such public airing of opinions or insults? Where maintaining ‘face’ holds enormous cultural currency? Where the values and needs of society trump those of the individual?

Nothing justifies murder. But what of the many places in the world where nothing justifies offensive speech? We fall easily into the rationale that it is a universal right. That is elsewhere a legal technicality, not a shared ideal. More specifically to humanitarian work, what of the many places where we regularly assert this right to offend through our public reports, our exposure of the violence and abuse of civilians in a place like Darfur or Congo?

I remember a Japanese MSF doctor, thoroughly opposed to our advocacy campaign. He had no disagreement with the facts of it, yet he felt ashamed by the public airing. Neither our insistence on universality, nor our conviction that public advocacy forms a necessary component of humanitarian action, obviate the offense of our speech. And causing offense will strike many as un-humanitarian, an act of aggression and an exercise of power no different from inking a blasphemous cartoon.

5 Shots on Ebola

1. Return of the Jedi

Oh no. Just when there was some good news – falling rates of new Ebola cases in Liberia – the Ghost of Aid Mistakes Past has returned to haunt us. Bob Geldof will launch another Band Aid rendition of “Do They Know its Christmas” (One Direction I can understand, but Elbow? – say it ain’t so).

Thankfully, the response is far from a collective sigh of relief. It is refreshing to see still more cracks in the wall of the West’s narrative on aid and Africa. As I discussed in a previous post, we can now hear the voices of “outsiders” (i.e., people who actually come from places like Liberia or Nigeria instead of people like me): challenging the bias in Ebola media coverage (reinforcing the industrial savior complex); lambasting a 60 Minutes piece that treated Liberians strictly as background props; or questioning the methods/intentions of Geldof and company.

Really, African stars should gather and launch a campaign “Do They Know its a Continent?”

That said, even this critique presumes that the 1984 version of Band Aid constituted some sort of historic success. Trashing Sir Bob for promoting an antiquated vision of Africans as helpless victims misses the tragedy of Ethiopia 1984. People were dying less from drought than from the government’s human rights violations (as concluded by Human Rights Watch). In that perverse environment, aid distributions propelled the forced relocation policies that were destroying whole communities, not to mention the more recent and controversial revelation that famine relief funds helped buy arms for rebel secessionists. (See here for David Rieff’s cogent view).

2. Useful Enemies

The outbreak of fear and hysteria in America is neither funny nor accidental. Amplified by the sheer power and influence of the US, the rest of the world should take note. Nobody is safe on the same planet as a drunken giant.

The USA’s partisan cockfighting means a disease such as Ebola cannot be tackled according to sane public policy. That is because for too many leaders, the usefulness of the virus outweighs its risk. In this case, Republicans have seized the opportunity to produce a state of froth, portraying Obama and the Democrats as soft on defense, with Ebola taking the place occupied only a few months ago by ISIS. Watch here as Roosevelt perfectly hit this nail on the head 80 years ago.

If there are ever significant numbers of Ebola cases in the US, this sort of panic, media hype and political dysfunction will have a good chance of driving the disease underground, shutting school systems, fomenting violence, etc. In other words, of causing the shit to hit the fan. That’s what I would call a frightening dry run for airborne avian flu. And in certain cases, that’s what makes American hysteria a risk factor for global outbreak and collateral economic damage.

3. Two-Thirds

Tuesday I took a break from my break and sat in on a roundtable discussion of the crisis. Twenty-five or so aid workers, government officials, academics from around London. Heaps of good analysis. Lots of experience and first hand knowledge of the situation in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And I’m not sure the entire group could have put together one solid paragraph on French-speaking Guinea. Whatever the bias – language, colonial heritage, aid policy – it marks a structural weakness in the international community.

4. Fear as Policy

Obama has sounded relatively reasonable on the Ebola front. Here’s the Prez hugging medical staff who caught Ebola, and he dispatched Samantha Power to West Africa, both important symbolic gestures which may help curb fears long enough for a little science to sink in.  Or may not. Obama may not like the paranoid response to Ebola, he may even worry that measures like quarantines really will prove to be as counter-productive as the experts say, leading to a greater likelihood of Ebola cases in America, but he can’t be too upset. America’s power, not to mention minor details like its economy and foreign policy, is constructed upon a swirling foundation of irrational fear, not of a virus but of a bewildering series of bogeymen, from Communists to Muslims to terrorism to China.  (For further analysis, see Chapter 8 of David Keen’s excellent Useful Enemies).

Having a budgetary spend greater than the next ten nations combined is not easy to justify through rational political discourse, all the more so in a country (for example) whose infant mortality rate looks more like it belongs to Guinea.  The much-discussed military-industrial complex, firmly rooted in a hysterical reaction to foreign threats, remains impervious to the reality that the security measures of today manufacture ever greater threats in the future. Ditto for the potential of quarantines to increase the likelihood of Ebola cases on American soil.

5. The Secret of Economic Success

Question: What do Las Vegas, personal injury lawsuits, Lady Gaga and Ebola-induced panic all have in common? Answer: Nobody can beat the US when it comes to a penchant for excess.

No wonder West Africa is so poor. Not enough capacity for going OTT. The citizens of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia watched neighbors and family drop dead around them, and yet still didn’t believe Ebola was real. A veritable ostrich head in the sand – never a good model for economic development. With one death to date and 45% of Americans worried a family member will catch Ebola, the greatest nation on Earth more resembles a frantic chicken. That’s the sort of mania needed for a juggernaut economy.

Ebola: Three Ideas You (hopefully) Haven’t Read

[Originally posted September 26 and lost due to website issues. Apologies to those whose comments have been lost as well.]

Part 1. The Ebola crisis is in part the self-fulfilling prophesy of the way we think about Africa.

The Ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea consumes no shortage of attention in mainstream Western media. Other African crises like CAR, Libya or Sudan, let alone success stories, should be so lucky. Then again, maybe attention isn’t such a good thing after all. Some of it quite responsible, much of it still trades in outworn stereotypes of a continent awash in warlords, loin cloths and killer microbes.

Hooray for resistance to sloppy Ebola storytelling, for example Dionne and Seay’s nailing Newsweek‘s sensationalist cover story. Or earlier this week Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah skewering the way lopsided Ebola reporting reinforces the role of Africa as a foil, as a continent whose dismal failure reaffirms our superior Western civilization.

But why dump all the blame on the media? NGOs and the UN – the foreign aid establishment – surely merit some credit for perpetuating the popular notion that Africa is a cauldron of tribal brutality, a crucible of scary diseases and a reservoir of primitivism, all rolled into one waiting-for-a-savior basket. (Not to mention the rather stock idea that Africa is a country. On that geographical malapropism, see this great blog.). The point is firstly one of principle: NGOs should be truthful in their communications. Easier said than done. They appear locked into an audience (the home society public) that demands such a stereotype in order to feel compelled to donate (see e.g., my previous blog on this).

We’ve heard criticism of this stereotyping before, often from within the aid and Western media communities. Is there hope? Importantly, Beah published in the Washington Post, bringing his views to Western eyes. If only for a moment, his piece shakes our monopoly over the narrative. As I’ve written before, these stereotypes will come under increasing pressure as internet media expand access to Western debate and discussion. The question: Is the aid industry simply (!) a promoter of the distortion, or an addict as well? But that is for another blog.

The main point here is that the degree to which the monotonous, stereotyped portrayal of Africa gives rise to the conditions in which Ebola outbreaks occur. Persistent underdevelopment, bureaucratic inertia, low foreign investment, unresponsive government, the cycle of waiting for crisis rather than building systems, dependence on the foreign aid community, etc. These ills are all either caused and/or reinforced by the inaccurate portrait of a continent, in this latest episode with a virus as the star in a long line of unabated indigenous catastrophes. NGO action may be vital in combating Ebola, but aid agencies themselves helped weave the very “basketcase” to which they would nowadays respond.