Three Cups of Me

Greg Mortenson is starting to look like one of those empty school buildings his NGO dropped into the middle of the Af-Pak quagmire.  Lots has been written (see this list at Good Intentions Are Not Enough)  since Jon Krakauer and since 60 Minutes torched this American hero and his Central Asia Institute (CAI). There’s plenty to feed on here.  Publishers converting delusionally inflated heroism into a major bestseller?  American military brass transforming a crock of crap into a blueprint for the use of aid to convert the hearts and minds of hostile Central Asian populations?  The persistence and popularity of aid with neither transparency nor independent audit?  Another nail of cynicism in the coffin of the public’s faith in aid NGO claims of success?  Or maybe just a textbook illustration of how hard it is to do aid well?

Prior to its implosion, Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea was a powerful, inspirational tale of how one determined, charismatic man could change the lives of children in a place that is arguably the world’s most visible crucible of poverty and unrest.  This is not just a story, though, about make-a-differencism gone sour or the popped balloon of Mortenson’s valor and pluck.  It’s also not about the CAI’s suddenly naked ineffectiveness (am I the only one whose suspicions are aroused by the CAI – CIA anagrammatic similarity).  In so many ways this is a story about us, about what we deeply want to believe.  

Mortenson’s story is American (and, to a lesser extent, Western) goodness incarnate.  The plot is simple: a politically well-connected blend of individual effort, pioneer spirit and can-do attitude helps to transform the lives of the downtrodden by constructing school buildings.  School children across the States collect their pennies for peace.  After all, these impoverished children (read: target beneficiaries) are the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who’ve grown up in a society wrecked by foreign interventions and interference, in communities on the wrong end of bullets and drones and protracted  violence.  So CAI’s work is about the need for us to see ourselves, as nations not just (ineffectively) battling bad guys but battling the uncivilized garden of ignorance, backwardness, abuse and Islamic bloodthirst. 

In the end, Mortenson and CAI have sold us what we wanted to believe.  What we wanted to believe about aid.  What we wanted to believe about simple solutions to immensely complex problems.  More importantly, what we wanted to believe about the people in that part of the world and what we wanted to believe about ourselves; namely their desperate need to benefit from our virtue.  In that sense, then, Mortenson and CAI are not alone in the NGO world.

What Sudan and Who-ville Have in Common

Forget about Linda Polman.  We humanitarians need to listen more to Lt. General Omar el-Bashir.  Of course, we do care about Ms. Polman’s crucifixion of the aid business.  After all, she’s hitting us in the gut and in the wallet.  She’s on the same airwaves as many of our donors, telling everybody that aid doesn’t work.  Ouch.  But Bashir doesn’t mince his words either, and he’s on the same airwaves as the people who control our access.

A little over two years ago I was sitting in Khartoum, helping our teams deal with their non-expulsion after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the general.  Motivated, I am sure, by nothing other than a desire to shed light on the role of INGOs in Sudan, he let loose with a series of accusations.  He called us thieves, adding that we take “99 percent of the budget for humanitarian work themselves, giving the people of Darfur 1 percent”.  He called us spies in the employ of foreign regimes, interfering well beyond the remit of aid work.  And then there’s the charge that humanitarian NGOs essentially worked for the ICC.  Apparently fed up with the likes of us, Bashir spoke of “Sudanizing” voluntary work in Sudan (both humanitarian and development).  He politely suggested a new and improved model for international cooperation:   “If they want to continue providing aid, they can just leave it at the airport and Sudanese NGOs can distribute the relief.”

Neither NGO nor international community blinked.  Instead, we countered with legions of arm flapping, demanding to be unexpelled.  Then we shielded ourselves from even 10 seconds cogitation on his accusations with the unquestioned logic that he was a mad dictator and war criminal and simply poking back at the West for the ICC having ruined his vacation plans in Las Vegas.

It is rare, and somewhat disconcerting, to find myself possessing an ear not entirely unfavorable to the ideas expressed by President Bashir.   Even if we discount a former girlfriend’s accusation that I’m a self-hating critical bastard, it’s not difficult to suppose that if I can find some good sense in Bashir’s rants, he will have the ear of whole nations of people.

 Thieving?  Strong claim.  We’ve pushed the message that humanitarians saved Darfur.  If you consider fundraising initiatives based on a “help save Darfur” motif, communication/exposure, and just plain old reinforcement of the image of humanitarians as rescuer-champions, it’s easy to see how Darfur saved the humanitarians.  And from all that money that came in on the back of Darfur, how much of it made it past our headquarters, past our expat-driven approaches, past our expensive lifestyle in capitals, past our project teams and directly into the hands of Darfurians? 

ICC mole?  We know that NGOs passed mounds of info to the ICC.  The only question is whether humanitarian NGOs cooperated so directly.  Or maybe this is not even an issue at ground level, because how many armed groups in a place like Darfur could distinguish between the human rights crowd and the humanitarian crowd?  Add to that the impact of our well-publicized “protection” activities, our so-called advocacy reports.  Seems to me “violence”, “attacks”, and “rape”, are words more closely associated to the humanitarian voice emanating from Darfur than “nutrition,” “shelter,” and “healthcare.”   Against this accusation we may be teflon in our own minds, but we’re more like flypaper out there where it counts.

Sudanization?  There is a strong element of Sudanese pride in all of this mess.   We radiated our superiority in Darfur – the virtuous provider of aid to the helpless victims of an evil regime.  You can’t spend years treating Sudanese officialdom as perpetrators of violence and obstruction and still expect them to love us.  There’s equally a major dose of sovereignty.  You can’t humiliate a people without sparking a drive to shake off the yolk of the West, to build Sudanese spirit and independence into the sort of state that does not require the largest exercise of humanitarian charity in the world. 

 In that non-Western mind, to whom Bashir spoke, we humanitarians were not simply the enemies of the state, we were a blight upon its pride.  Do we hear this message? Any of these messages?  My advice to NGOs:  Make like Horton and listen to the citizens of Who-ville, even if they aren’t all fluffy and cute.

Charity as a new black cocktail dress

Case 1. Sitting on Aer Lingus flight 247 to Dublin.  Tape plays the usual appeal for money for the airline’s partner Unicef.  As the flight attendant shambles down the aisle, a not negligible number of people fisted money into the collection envelope, including Passenger 18A, seated next to me.  I couldn’t resist.  After introducing myself as a charity exec, I turned to this middle-aged Irish businessman and asked why he donated.    “To tell you the truth, the main reason is I know I have a lot of change in Sterling in my pocket and we’re headed for Ireland.”  (Please note my magnanimity:  I graciously swallowed my tongue when he asked for my opinion of the agency.  So I did not suggest that his sterling coins would contribute to the salary of somebody in Geneva drafting a new clearance procedure for changes to the child-friendly space protocol or maybe another measles vaccination campaign that somehow doesn’t prevent measles from ravaging the community two years later.)

Case 2.   Menswear retailer The Officers Club went into administration earlier this week.  Did anyone notice?  Would any of you even admit it if you did?  The All Saints line of clothes stores are also in trouble.   (My quality guarantee to you the reader: I have never stepped foot in one of these stores).  Blame, of course, is placed squarely on the financial crisis, economic turndown, recession and the no-doubt fatal condition hidden by the jargon of “low footfall”.

Case 2 is the one that got me going.  Is it really fair to blame the economy because people no longer purchase piles of overpriced made-to-fall-apart-but-even-more-quickly-goes-of-style clothing on a weekly basis?  Financial meltdown might explain why people can’t wallow in sartorial narcissism, but the real problem seems to be the expectation that people would continue to buy crapola ad infinitum.  The stuff in those shops had no purpose.  No necessity. As for Passenger 18A, his behaviour wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Unicef or the idea of giving to a charity. 

Coming more to the point (or, if that’s a bit of an exaggeration, at least orienting this piece in the general vicinity of a point), is it really the economic woes of middle England that we can blame for the fact that people are giving less money to charity?  Case 3, then, is the charity fundraising sector for international aid organizations.  Talk to any fundraiser and you’ll hear all about how the downturn is of course due to things beyond his/her control.

So the question drops:   Are we a meaningless luxury?  Is a donation to a charity somehow no more of a moral endeavour than paying £129.00 for a pair of stiletto heeled cocktail shoes?  Or (less expensively) a strachiatella gelato in the caff next to the shoe store?  Of course the downturn in the economy has made it difficult for some people to support us, and it has made prospective donors more reluctant to sign up, but aid agencies need to do more than blame this on the financial mess.

It comes down this:  What is the nature of commitment we build with donors?  Why do they give?  Do we attach them to the necessity of our work?   Arguably, that is not the case.  Arguably, we use those starving baby images or glowing annual reports to push a different set of buttons.   Namely, the instant gratification of the donor.   We don’t sell the sometimes ugly help being delivered on the far end of the deal.  Instead, we sell feel-good moments.  That’s why people were so angry at being told not to give to Japan (see, e.g., the comments under this Felix Salmon post).  We don’t sell our sweat and blood, we sell the charity business equivalent of retail therapy.  And if I’m really honest, I’m not sure if I haven’t bought into it myself.

The Old Bait & Switch

From the GiveWell Blog, check out this interesting post on the way in which aid agencies are feeding off of the Japan emergency to stock their coffers.  There’s more elsewhere.

The bigger  issue, though, isn’t whether Japan needs the money or not. The bigger issue is integrity.  Mercenary fundraising by NGOs marks our descent into the sort of fine print tactics one expects from a used car company. NGOs have abandoned ethical standards and constructed a legally defensible escape clause, usually well hidden compared to the appeal itself, basically saying that any unused funds for Japan will be used elsewhere.  In the world of supermarkets and department stores, this is the bait & switch tactic.  Advertize a huge sale on an item, get people into the store, then switch.  “We’re sorry, that item has sold out, but you might be interested in…”

We should ask NGOs:  Right now, what percentage of the collected funds do you reasonably expect ever to go to Japan? Is it even 50%?  In the end, the genuine outpouring of empathy for Japan will pay for office furniture in quite some other locations.  One might have expected more from the self-proclaimed moral leaders of the world.

There but for the grace of god…

Lots of headlines now on day seven about the “unfolding” situation in Japan.  Even casual (read: armchair) observation leaves me with the impression that this thing has pretty well unfolded already.  Just look at how this three-pronged crisis — humanitarian, nuclear, economic – has overrun its initial headlines.  It is only a handful of days ago that the main story was the lack of destruction and devastation; a disaster averted by Japanese know-how and organization.  Sharp contrasts were drawn or implied in comparison to the helpless likes of Haiti and Bangladesh.  Praise was heaped on everything from architectural codes and standards to the emergency response capacity.  

To be very clear, such praise was and is well-deserved.  The response capacity of the Japanese authorities, combined with their preparedness for earthquakes, undoubtedly averted an incalculably worse catastrophe.  And yet the Japanese people find themselves just as undoubtedly right smack in the middle of … a catastrophe.  Was that early optimism a case of simple error?  Of not getting the story right?  A case of the situation becoming worse as the days progress (e.g., the nuclear issue)?  

Or is there something else at play here?  Were we too quick to look at Japan and see – Thank Goodness! – our developed world’s mastery of Mother Nature?  Have we become mesmerized by that shield of technology?  Is it really a comfort blankie, protecting our psyche from the likes of Moby Dick pounding the vessel of our orderly world?  Chaos expunged from our lives.  And even where we saw the developed world’s failure in New Orleans a few years ago, we also knew that New Orleans was practically Third World anyway, closer to its Creole cousin Port-au-Prince than to Tokyo, Berlin or the truly civilized worlds in which we live.

Did those rose-tinted glasses project onto Japan our own illusion of security, of being protected by our sophistication, our gadgetry and our smug modernity?  Because if this sort of destruction and suffering can happen to the people of Japan, it can happen to all of us. Last Friday, we saw what we wanted to see.

The Great, Good and Invisible

History is being written in the streets of the Middle East and where are the globalt is good and great? Where are these global political actors who hang out at DAVOS and in the corridors of the UN? I see Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in the headlines. Where are the humanitarians? Checking websites:
• Oxfam issued a press release yesterday, three bland paragraphs re Libya
• Save wants to end child poverty.
• CARE calls our attention to its activities re International Women’s Day
• World Vision shows concern about the draught in the Horn of Africa.
• MSF was running a Malawi HIV story, replaced yesterday afternoon by a press release on the Middle East situation.
• IRC. Crisis Watch list includes Haiti, Ivory Coast, South Sudan and Pakistan.

Talk about irrelevance! And we seem to be going out of our way to advertise the fact. Our operational irrelevance is an interesting discussion, but I’d like to look at potential consequences of our silence. The reason for this silence is, of course, the fact that we aren’t on the ground running programmes. There are very understandable reasons for that as well, ranging from the quality of healthcare available in places like Bahrain, to visa issues, to the relative wealth of urban Tunisia, etc. The reasons for our invisibility, though, aren’t necessarily that obvious to anybody outside of our humanitarian bubble. At best, I think we’ve missed an opportunity to explain humanitarian action to communities who don’t get it (or see it as part of a broader Western agenda) and who need to get it because our access is met with hostility. At worst, it leaves our invisibility open to the unfriendly misinterpretation of others, with repercussions on the Arab Street or in the mountainous caves.

Do people understand why Amnesty and HRW are so loudly denouncing the violence but not other humanitarian organization? Do they read our lack of denunciation against the backdrop of our well-advertized policies of protecting people through advocacy and speaking out? Don’t we have a consistent track record of vocal denunciations of violence in places like Darfur, DRC, etc etc? Don’t most people out there believe that humanitarianism includes the defense of democracy, free speech, family values and fluffy pets? Why wouldn’t some quadrants in the anti-Western world conclude or exploit the misperception that we don’t care about Arab lives? Why wouldn’t they conclude that we, mirroring the western governments of our homelands, are torn between principles and interests, hence noticeably turning a blind eye towards the violence of friendly despots, and then rather predictably finding voice when Gaddafi starts his tumble? Why wouldn’t they suspect the Jewish lobby has us by the balls?

Security theory is pretty clear. The concept and practice of passive acceptance is dead. It doesn’t work. Just doing our work isn’t good enough. There are hostile discourses circulating, and we must actively build acceptance through negotiated access, meaningful programming, and communication to explain who we are and what we do. This implies also talking about who we are not and what we don’t do. We must create distinction. The point is the perception of others in a world where we are required to position ourselves proactively and strategically, lest we find that others do not accept our presence.

If you don’t believe me, check out the ICRC’s website. Two early news releases on Egypt, Libya (yesterday), and one on Tunisia. They say very little. It isn’t about news, it’s about strategy.

Say goodbye to the gravy train: Part I, An Inconvenient Truth

Continuing my flirtation with futurology, what about the way aid as a business seems to be acting like aid as an idealistic pursuit?  I mean, why the quasi obsession with perceived threats to our principles and access — Has the “erosion of our space” gone platinum yet? — while largely ignoring the much more potentially ruinous erosion of our market share? Why worry about the inevitable securitization of aid when global warming, the private sector, and non-Western NGOs are going to steal our hallowed seats at the head table? 

Pope Urges Young to Care for Planet – Headline in the IHT, 3 Sept 07, p. 3

Did this rather dull report on the meanderings of Pope Benedict XVI catch your eye?  It should have. The golden age of humanitarianism died that day. When the Pope himself jumps on the environmental bandwagon – when the Holy See decides that spiritual salvation matters less than the carbon footprint of the Popemobile – then it’s not only a bandwagon, it’s the beginning of the end of humanitarianism as we know it.

The Seventies and Eighties marked the golden years of the development industry. A patchwork coalition of Western nations, academics and eager volunteers set out to eliminate starvation, disease and poverty, and generally to make the Earth a better place to live.

It wasn’t working so well (still isn’t), which left the turf (and donor pockets) wide open for the onset of the humanitarian juggernaut.  In a relatively short span of time humanitarians became the new heroes. Forget about trying to establish a private sector agrarian economy in a desert like Burkina Faso. Our message held the sexy promise of immediate gratification:  let’s save lives and alleviate suffering right now!

That was the end of development organizations. Their money dried up. Some NGOs dried up.  Others, simply swapped hats. They began calling themselves humanitarian organizations while running income generation or literacy projects.  The word “humanitarian” itself became synonymous with doing good.

Why blog about this new bandwagon? Because we sit at the precipice, blissfully unaware that over the next ten years the exploding global environmental movement is going to bury humanitarianism. In our focus on the competition among us, nobody seems be thinking about the competition between brands of goodness.  Nobody is talking about an upcoming 25% crash in donations. Or maybe it will only be 15%.  I don’t know. I’m just making this up.  But the bottom line is clear:  People who want to do something good with their money will progressively opt for a different generation of NGOs. Once the money starts, the graduate degree programmes and NGOs will follow. Then the celebrities, politicians and the media. Then the rest of the donors and maybe even Angelina Jolie.  And all that time, the effort and enthusiasm of youth will be siphoned away.

Many “humanitarian” organizations will again change their hats. They will prioritise the war on global warming over the war in Darfur.  They will write reports about the needs of populations in 2050.  Other organizations will resist, retaining focus on saving human lives in the present. Their days are numbered.  Trees may not sound so important, but how do a few thousand lives way over in Congo or Afghanistan compare to our planet? That’s what the people with the money will say as well. As Pope Benedict XVI so aptly put it: We need a decisive ‘yes’ to care for creation. 

So it won’t be the West’s politicisation of aid or the erosion of “humanitarian space” or even the way bureaucracy has pummelled the idea of compassion right out of our work that killed off we humanitarians. In the end, it will be the loss of our market share to the planet.  In the end, it will be Al Gore.

Looking in the 2020 Mirror

Lots of aid pundits out there looking into the future.  Back in May Kate Gilmore (formerly Amnesty Int’l) asked me to write a 2020 scenario for the =mc website. The basic question: What will the international NGO look like in 10 years? I figure I can keep running this piece for another eight years or so (read: I was too lazy this weekend to come up with something new). Here it is. 

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Golden Era of the Western-based global NGO is
grinding to a halt. By 2020 we will either have re-birthed ourselves or
joined the cassette tape, Vanilla Ice and the stegosaurus. While it is
undoubtedly a mistake to treat the Western, global NGO as a
homogenous, static set of entities, extrapolating from the trends of
today yields a few broad-brushed predictions of life in 2020…

Click here for a link to Scenarios for Change, where you can find the full text of my prediction.

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