Category Archives: humanitarian action

UNDP and Religious Leaders Promote Women in Sport and Education in Afghanistan

Changing minds about girls playing sports in Afghanistan takes the support of religious leaders – and they are starting to get on board.

Mullahs trained by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Afghanistan are preaching about women’s rights and have conducted workshops on girls’ education, child marriage and violence against women that have reached thousands of people and are slowly changing attitudes.

“At first, the villagers were really annoying, telling me that a girl in sports clothes is against Islam and our culture,” says 18-year-old Masooma, who just wanted to go skiing. “They said, ‘Girls don’t have the right to ski – only boys can do sport. Girls are born to learn household chores, like cooking and cleaning.’”

UNDP Afghanistan trained more than 400 mullahs across the country to preach about women’s rights in Friday prayers. Abdul Rahman Redwani is one of the mullahs who started incorporating these issues into his sermons after the training. “Previously, local people didn’t let their girls learn how to read or write,” he recalls. “When girls went skiing the for first time, people gossiped that they were too westernized. But our Friday sermons helped change their minds.”

“Now a lot of girls and women come to watch us ski,” smiles Masooma, “which was not possible a few years back. This motivates me and encourages other girls to start skiing.”

Read the entire story here.

No, I’m not involved in this project. But I would love to read all I can about it, and support it however I can, because leveraging the cultural and religious beliefs can be a great strategy for encouraging women’s equality – something I learned in Afghanistan as well. Back in 2007, when I put together a workshop on to help my Afghan co-workers in Kabul feel more comfortable speaking in public, I did a lot of research, and learned that women speakers, teachers and leaders have always been important in Muslim society, including in Afghanistan. So I put this into my training, talking about the public speaking and leadership roles of Khadija, first wife of the Prophet, Aisha, the favored wife of Muhammad, and Muhammad’s daughters, as well as Rabia Balkhi, a poet of Afghanistan and Razia, a Muslim woman ruler of 13th-century India.

Read more about what I did in Afghanistan as a part of UNDP (and what I’ve done for the country since)

Folklore, Rumors & Misinformation Campaigns Interfering with Humanitarian Efforts & Government Initiatives


Preventing Folklore, Rumors, Urban Myths & Organized Misinformation Campaigns From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives

Folklore, rumors and contemporary myths / legends often interfere with development aid activities and government initiatives, including public health programs – even bringing such to a grinding halt. They create ongoing misunderstandings and mistrust, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others because of something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as simple text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Added to the mix: fake news sites set up specifically to mislead people, as well as crowdsourced efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping out thousands of comments, countering misinformation efforts has to be a priority for aid and development organizations, as well as government agencies.

Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing both examples of this phenomena, and recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives. I’ve recently updated this information with new information regarding countering organized misinformation campaigns.

Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help those workers:

  • cultivate trust in the community through communications, thereby creating an environment less susceptible to rumor-baiting
  • quickly identify rumors and misinformation campaigns that have the potential to derail humanitarian aid and development efforts
  • quickly respond to rumors and misinformation campaigns that could derail or are interfering with humanitarian aid and development efforts

And, FYI: I do this entirely on my own, as a volunteer, with no funding from anyone. I update the information as my free time allows.

Also see:

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

Note: since this blog’s publication in November, I’ve been adding how Trump’s presidency actually is affecting humanitarian aid & development:

How will the Trump Presidency affect humanitarian aid and development policy and practice?

And how will it affect humanitarian aid and development workers from the USA?

Effects on the work

2015-07-21-SDGsAid and development efforts in the last 10 years have made amazing strides in terms of addressing issues that make many people, even a majority of people, very uncomfortable, even angry. It’s oh-so-popular to put in a well for drinking water or to build a school for young children or to provide maternal health care, but it’s rarely as popular in those same communities to encourage women to demand their sexual partners to use a condom to prevent HIV/AIDS, or to suggest a plan for providing housing and other help for refugees from other countries. Women’s equal rights to education, life choices, roles in society and employment are now unquestioned in the policies of most international development agencies, including the United Nations, something I wasn’t expecting when I started working internationally. Honestly, I fully expected some kind of “out” in UN policy documents to allow local people to refuse rights for women, if the refusal was based on religious or cultural grounds. But the UN has stood firm, at least officially. Yes, the UN and other aid agencies absolutely look for accommodation within local cultural and religious practices, they absolutely encourage recognition of local values, and that may mean your meeting with a local village is segregated, with all the men in one place, and all the women in another. It requires very delicate maneuvering at times, but the core policy and priority regarding women’s rights, and other rights, does not change.

Reaching women in socially-conservative areas, like Afghanistan, can be an incredible challenge, as you navigate a culture that does not want women in public and is easily angered if they perceive an attack on their religion. And just because local senior staff are singing the praises of gender mainstreaming doesn’t mean the staff they supervise has bought in. But, as an aid worker, you have to find a way. It is your mandate. You find a workaround. Because you know that full civil rights for all people is the only way a country can prosper and become resilient to corruption, crime, and armed civil unrest, and when civil rights for any residents are curbed, officially or by widespread cultural practice, the entire country suffers, and your aid and humanitarian efforts will ultimately fail.

Something that shocks a lot of people is that the UN has a human rights mandate that includes rights for people that are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ). The United Nations Free & Equal initiative is on Twitter (@free_equal) and on Facebook. It is an initiative of the Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights. There is this video from the UN Secretary General in support of the Free & Equal initiative. I was stunned, and thrilled, to find this out a while back. It’s a daring position, given the majority attitudes about LGBTQ people throughout the world, including right here in the USA. In promoting equality and human rights, it’s a great comfort to know that a major international development agency has your back, policy wise.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a government agency, also has the  LGBT Global Development Partnership. It was put into the planning and formation stages by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then launched in April 2013 under the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry. The initiative works to strengthen the capacity of local LGBTQ leaders and civil society organizations in developing countries and to enable the economic empowerment of LGBTQ people in those countries through enhanced entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprise development.

The UN and USAID initiatives in support of LGBTQ people are in response to the violence, economic hardship, stigma and political marginalization that are a daily fact of life for millions of LGBTQ people throughout the world. These people experience a lack of employment opportunities, discrimination in access to health care, housing and education and violations of their civil rights regularly because of their sexual preference. 83 countries and territories currently criminalize LGBTQ behavior or identification, and at least eight have laws allowing the imposition of the death penalty for same-sex relations. These USAID and UN initiatives are desperately needed, as are women’s empowerment initiatives. As are initiatives to help refugees. As are initiatives to help religious minorities. As are initiatives to help people with disabilities. And on and on.

But now, the USA elections of 2016 show that the majority of people in the USA support politicians dedicated to eliminating the civil rights gained by LDBTQ people in the USA over the last five years. Donald Trump is on the record as planning to create a militarized deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants from the USA, to ban the entry of Muslims into the USA and aggressively surveil any Muslim already here, to punish women for accessing abortion once he makes it illegal with the help of his Supreme Court appointees and Congress, and to change our nation’s libel laws and to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press. He talks about fully militarizing and otherwise empowering police to enforce “law and order” regarding Black and Latino Americans and other racial minorities in their own communities. He has said climate change is a “hoax” and that he will eliminate all government programs that address such. He promotes myths about vaccine safety. International programs that run contrary to these soon-to-be official policy positions in the USA, that run contrary to the values of many millions of Americans who support this administration, are now in severe danger of being eliminated as well.

Even if all of these initiatives are, miraculously, not cut by the Trump administration, they will be much, much harder to deliver in years to come by aid and development workers. Why? Because any local person can look an American aid worker right in the eye and say, “Why are you promoting something – freedom of the press, rights for immigrants, rights for gay people, reducing car emissions, reducing green house gases, increasing wind and solar energy, vaccines for children – that most people in your own country do not support?” Any person can say, “Your own President mocks powerful public women, and brags of sexually assaulting them. Why is it wrong that men in my country are doing the same as him?” People in developing countries intensely watch what happens in the USA, and they are always on the lookout for hypocrisy, for the USA demanding something of another country that it does not do itself. That a majority of American voters support a political party and government lead by a man who promotes nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny and racism will fuel these movements in other countries, resulting in pushback against humanitarian aid and development workers’ efforts for the rights of women, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, the rights of LGBTQ people, the rights of immigrants and refugees, and on and on.

US development policy can—and has—lifted millions out of poverty and social exclusion, and played a role in transforming countries for the better and creating peace and prosperity where it would not be otherwise. Travel the world, talk to people, you hear the stories over and over, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and even in Afghanistan, by people that have experienced this transformation first hand. Yes, there is still vast amounts of work to do, and many gains are fragile, but that lives have improved and business has flourished because of USAID and similar efforts simply cannot be denied. These programs not only benefit local people in their everyday lives; they also create social and economic stability that, in turn, creates a market for USA-made products and reduces the need for American military action. A lot of support for USAID and other development agencies comes from a motivation for growing the USA’s markets overseas rather than any feeling of compassion – and I’m okay with that, because such investment still helps local people, which is MY motivation. Weak or failed states are havens for armed criminal groups, some motivated by religion but most motivated by greed, and these groups not only keep their home country in chaos, they also destabilize neighboring countries. Human freedoms in such countries are at risk – and so are their economies, and all the economies attached to such. And that includes the USA. Natural disasters, including pandemics, also destabilize countries – which, in turn, threatens surrounding countries – and ultimately threatens the USA.

Nancy Birdsall and Ben Leo wrote in White House and the World:

Gender discrimination, corruption, lack of opportunity, and repressive governments in many parts of the developing world are an affront to universal values. America is often the only actor capable of marshaling the resources, political capital, and technical know-how required to address these tough issues.

In addition to security threats, the US economy and the American workforce are more reliant than ever on developing-country markets. US exports to developing countries have grown by more than 400 percent over the last 20 years. Today, they total more than $600 billion annually and are greater than US exports to China, Europe, and Japan combined. Brazil, Colombia, India, Korea, Malaysia, Turkey, and other countries are leading markets for US exports. Three decades ago, these were relatively poor countries that offered limited US export potential. Populous countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Nigeria have the potential to be the next wave of emerging markets. It makes strategic sense to further advance America’s global prosperity agenda, thereby helping to grow middle-class societies that drive democratic change, promote peace with their neighbors, and reliably purchase US products and services.

Even if what happened far away didn’t affect the USA, I would still want to help – that’s who I am – but the reality is that even neo-liberals have acknowledged this reality, hence why even Republican Presidents in the USA in the last three decades, until now, have supported the idea of a global economy and foreign aid.

(for USA-based readers, particularly Trump supporters – the term neo-liberal doesn’t mean left wing. In the rest of the word, the word liberal means someone who believes unfettered free market capitalism is the best economic and social policy for the world – in the USA, we call those people libertarians or Republicans).

Effects on aid workers

Trump has said he will reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture. This, coupled with his stated attitudes about Muslims, immigrants and refugees from Syria, has the potential to put workers in aid and development from the USA, working abroad, in further danger than they already face. It is yet another thing people from the USA working in humanitarian aid and development must consider, must be mindful of as they are offered posts abroad, and must think about as they navigate another country’s landscape.

Distancing yourself from these policies and statements on social media, including Facebook, might adversely affect your employability with USAID and international agencies that receive funding from the US government during the Trump President and Republic control of the federal government, however, such posts could also help you in your work with people from other countries, people angered and further disempowered by Trump’s foreign policy. That doesn’t mean you post anti-Trump memes on Instagram or are ever have to say publicly who you voted for. It could mean posting sometimes on social media of your support of and concern for Muslim Americans, Syrian refugees, people in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Occupied Palestinian territories, human rights for immigrants, etc., and your condemnation of waterboarding, torture and any violations of human rights.

It was already difficult for female aid workers to complain about sexual harassment on the job; when I complained about such 10 years ago, while doing field work, I was told by a UN HR manager, “Well, you just have to ignore it and not let it bother you. If you can’t, you can always quit.” That’s the usual response, I quickly learned when talking to colleagues. But now, women aid workers from the USA are going to be at even greater risk of sexual harassment and assault because of the Trump presidency. The incoming President has, by his statements and behavior, made it acceptable for anyone, including politicians and other government representatives, to rate women by their looks and to insult women reporters, politicians, artists and celebrities with most vile statements about their character, appearance – even their sexuality. His bragging about sexual assault also normalizes such behavior in the minds of many men, in the USA and abroad. Megyn Kelly, a reporter for the politically right-wing Fox News channel, noted to Trump during a Presidential debate she moderated: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.” Imagine a female aid worker having such comments directed at her by men she is working with, and when she says these comments are inappropriate, is told, “But it’s what your own President says!” It will be hard to demand such comments stop when the head of the most power country on Earth is saying the same.

For male aid workers in particular, repeated statements on social media and as a part of your aid and development work in support of women’s equal rights and respect for women, as well as condemnations of sexual harassment and assault, can help counter the dangerous narrative being established about acceptable treatment of women. More than ever, your female colleagues need you to speak up when you hear people you are working with joking about sexual assault or women’s behavior.

Final thoughts for now

It’s all quite dire, I know. But it’s based on what Trump and GOP members of the House and Senate have said and promised, and therefore, it must be considered as really happening. Organizations and governments abroad that have counted on support from UN and USAID need to think about what they will do if that support vanishes, both the financial support and the rhetorical support. Aid workers from the USA, more than ever before, need to be conscious of how they are perceived abroad, and remember that the safety climate in a place can change dramatically per a rumor or a sound byte on the news. And aid agencies need to revise all of their safety measures for their staff, particularly women, and to think about how they will reinforce their anti-sexual-harassment policies in the face of this new climate.

Also see:

US aid for women’s sexual health worldwide under threat, from The Guardian

Taking a stand when you are supposed to be neutral/not controversial

Update Dec 1

The UN in the Era of Trump from Centre for Policy Research, United Nations University

The $64,000 Question: Can the UN Survive the Trump Era?, from PassBlue.

Battles to end poverty, inequality will falter in Trump era, experts predict, from Reuters

Also, I’ve gotten two comments from people taking issue with my comment “the USA elections of 2016 show that the majority of people in the USA support politicians dedicated to eliminating the civil rights gained by LDBTQ people in the USA over the last five years.” It is true that Secretary Clinton garnered more votes on election day – and that her lead in the results continues to grow: As of Dec. 1, Clinton has garnered 65,152,112 votes, compared to Trump’s 62,625,928. That’s a margin of 2.53 million votes. The Democratic Party nominee’s margin in the popular vote is also rapidly approaching 2 percentage points. But I’m not sure the vote really does represent what a majority of Americans think. Perhaps I’ve got more access outside the bubble than a lot of folks, but being from a rural part of the USA, I see and hear a jaw-dropping amount of glee over the soon-to-come rollback regarding civil rights gains in the USA. There’s no question in my mind that this is, indeed, what a majority of people in the USA want – and that’s something we need to accept in order to address and change it.

Donald Trump might be more popular than you think, from Politico, Feb. 2, 2017

Update January 13, 2017

From an article today in The New York Times: “a series of questions from the Trump transition team to the State Department indicate an overall skepticism about the value of foreign aid, and even about American security interests, on the world’s second-largest continent… the tone of the questions suggest an American retreat from development and humanitarian goals, while at the same time trying to push forward business opportunities across the continent.” The article says, “The questions seem to reflect the inaccurate view shared by many Americans about how much the United States spends on foreign aid and global health programs.” In the article, Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, noted that “the framing of some of their questions suggests a narrower definition of U.S. interests in Africa, and a more transactional and short-term approach to policy and engagement with African countries.” Ms. Muyangwa said the queries could signal “a dramatic turn in how the United States will engage with the continent.” The article notes that Former President George W. Bush quadrupled foreign assistance levels to African countries during his term, and President Obama largely maintained that, even as his administration was making cuts elsewhere.

Update Jan. 26,  2017

More from Trump dramatically expanded the scope of the Global Gag Rule to include all global health assistance provided by the US government. Rather than applying the Global Gag Rule exclusively to US assistance for family planning in the developing world, which amounts to about $575 million per year, the Trump memo applies it to “global health assistance furnished by all department or agencies.” In other words, NGOs that distribute bed nets for malaria, provide childhood vaccines, support early childhood nutrition and brain development, run HIV programs, fight ebola or Zika, and much more, must now certify their compliance with the Global Gag Rule or risk losing US funds.

Update February 8, 2017: Charities Say That Trump’s Refugee Ban Will Be “Incredibly Problematic” For Their Work Abroad. Charities operating in countries on the US president’s banned list, or employing staff with dual nationality from these nations, also warned the ban would jeopardise their work. A nonprofit has said plans to have Syrians speak to the US Congress have had to be shelved.

Update February 27, 2017: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Spontaneous “online volunteers” after disasters

When a big news story or disaster strikes, the result can be hundreds, even thousands, of people contacting organizations to offer help, including potential online volunteers. It could be a natural disaster, an act of violence, or a particular issue suddenly becoming the hot item on the news. A nonprofit organization, NGO, school, or other organization could suddenly be swamped with emails and phone calls from people who want to help in some way online.

Of course it’s appropriate for your organization to encourage these spontaneous online volunteering candidates to make an emergency financial donation to the organization — and be explicit about exactly what this money will be used for. But in addition, you should think about ways these spontaneous online volunteering candidates could engage in other activities to benefit your organization in a crisis situation:

  • Put up a page on your web site specifically for these people thanking them for wanting to help in this time of crisis or intense attention. Outline on that page all of the ways they can help your organization both as donors and online volunteers. Direct them to other organizations if there are ways to volunteer at these organizations in some way.
  • Encourage these spontaneous online volunteering candidates to subscribe to your email newsletter, your blog, your FaceBook account and/or your Twitter feed, wherever you are posting photos online, etc., to stay up-to-date on what your organization is doing to address whatever issue or circumstance is occurring.
  • Encourage them to repost your messages to their own blogs, their own status updates on online social networking sites, etc., to educate their friends and colleagues about what is happening. Direct them to where to find information about the online volunteering activities you have available.
  • Encourage them to write you if they see misinformation online about your organization and its work in this crisis situation.
  • Set up a YahooGroup or GoogleGroup only for these potential online volunteers, and tell them online volunteering opportunities will be announced on this group as soon as they become available. You could use the group to brainstorm with these potential online volunteers what activities they could undertake for your organization.

Some things these spontaneous online volunteers could do regarding this crisis or immediate high-profit situation:

  • Translate some of your existing web site material, flyers, blogs, Facebook status updates or new information into another language
  • Translate texts or blog comments coming into your organization from another language into English, so you can read and respond to such.
  • Monitor media reports and bring certain articles or information to your immediate attention.
  • Monitor online communities and blogs and bring certain information, and even misinformation, to your immediate attention (more on how to deal with misinformation).
  • Research what other organizations are doing that your organization might need to urgently know about, such as projects that are mapping eyewitness/on-the-ground reports of critical needs. For instance, following the Haiti Earthquake, OpenStreetMap created a crisis mapping project, mobilizing highly skilled online volunteers to layer up-to-the-minute data, such as the location of new field hospitals and downed bridges, onto post-quake satellite imagery. This data was made freely available by for-profit companies including GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. The digital cartography — informed by everything from Tweets to eyewitness reports — helped aid workers speed food, water and medicine to where it was needed most.
  • Create a smart phone application that is urgently needed. CrisisCamp mobilized hundreds of online and onsite volunteers in Washington, DC; London, England; Mountain View, California; and elsewhere to build and refine a variety of tech tools needed after the Earthquake in Haiti, including a basic Creole-English dictionary for the iPhone to help aid.

These are not just nice things for online volunteers to do in a crisis; they are critical services. Depending on the mission of your organization, you might want to consider including how to deal with spontaneous online volunteering candidates in your crisis communications plans.

The above information is from the revised Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, which will be published later in 2013.

People not following-through on volunteering in disasters

The state of Queensland, Australia suffered from horrific floods in December 2010 and January 2011. Thousands of Australians expressed interest in volunteering, inundating volunteer centers and online message boards.

Recently, Volunteering Queensland offered this Submission to Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry, which said, in part:

QUEENSLAND’S peak volunteer organisation says the vast majority of people who registered to help clean up following the floods and cyclone Yasi backed off at the last minute.

Some people backed out because they realized this was a real commitment of time, and they couldn’t make that real commitment. Some dropped out because they could not donate a significant amount of time – an hour or two when you might have some time eventually is usually not enough for such a situation. Some backed out because they really were not prepared to volunteer (they hadn’t set up child care, time off from work, transportation, etc.).

Seasoned volunteer managers, of course, aren’t surprised. Even in a non-disaster situation, we have come to expect at least 50 percent of people who express interest in volunteering to drop out. That’s why many volunteer managers, including myself, insist on at least a bit of screening before a volunteer is placed into an assignment, so that drop outs happen in the screening process, not after the assignment is given and we’re counting on those volunteers.

Martin Cowling has done a great blog about this Queensland report, and I encourage you to head over to it, read it, read the comments (yes, I’ve commented there) and respond yourself.

Here is a resource I created following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters, which I’ve regularly updated at least monthly every since, per the over-whelming number of posts to places like YahooAnswers by people who want to volunteer following a disaster (earthquake, hurricane, tornado, tropical storm, flood, tsunami, oil spill, zombies, etc.). It’s become one of the most popular pages on my web site, despite being posted as almost an after-thought and being focused on people that the majority of my web site is not focused on (it’s not even linked from my home page!).

Tags: volunteering, volunteers, relief, disaster, response, spontaneous, episodic, microvolunteer, microvolunteering. communications, public relations, engagement, engage, community, nonprofit, NGO, not-for-profit, government, outreach, staff, employees, civil society, floods, tornadoes


Aid in Haiti is failing

A few weeks ago, the radio show This American Life did an great show focused on aid in Haiti. If you want to understand the roadblocks to improving things in Haiti, it’s worth your time to listen to this show. Notice how some of the blocks are because of policies donors have implemented to try to prevent corruption.

It can be hard to get your mind around, but aid actually sometimes harms people, rather than helping, even in Haiti. There are stories of rice farmers in rural parts of Haiti not being able to sell their crops because, with all the rice donations from other countries, there is no market for products. Would-be Haitian contractors are also missing out on jobs because foreign contractors are being chosen by aid agencies instead. Sometimes cheaper, or even most modern, doesn’t mean better, in the long-term, for local people needing the aid.

Time has a story Haiti’s Failed Recovery: Who’s to Blame? that presents the two camps regarding why recovery in Haiti is failing:

For the anti-NGO camp, Haiti is a case study in the hypocrisy of the global relief bandwagon that descends on poor countries victimized by wars, famine and natural disasters. A growing chorus of critics accuses humanitarian-aid groups of using misery to validate their existence, spending funds inefficiently and creating a culture of dependence among the people they are supposed to help… If you belong to the “blame Haiti” camp, you’re less likely to ascribe the post earthquake mess to outsiders than to the country’s defective political culture. In recent years, development economists have sought to explain why some countries lift themselves out of poverty while others chronically underachieve. Stable, transparent institutions – like police, courts and banks – are critical to the success of poor nations. But Haiti’s long history of disarray has left it with few institutions worthy of trust. For those who emphasize such internal factors, Haiti wouldn’t be saved even if every dollar of aid money were spent and every NGO disappeared tomorrow. Until the country’s political class proves it can govern, Haiti’s people will continue to suffer.

I certainly offer no solution — it’s a systemic problem across sectors that defies a simplistic solution. I will say that aid agencies need to be reading these stories and looking at their messages to the public and to donors. They need to be showing how many local staff they are hiring versus how many foreign staff they are bringing in, and highlighting what steps they are taking so that Haitians are not just contributing to their own relief, they are leading it, and will eventually take over from the aid agency completely. They also have to be open about corruption – don’t shy away from talking about problems with transparency, even if it’s just in internal reports or reports to donors.

It’s not time to give up. But it is time to pay greater attention.


John Mitchell, Director of ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) has posted a blog about how the media is portraying what is happening in Haiti. It’s very much worth your time to read.

aid worker arrested in Haiti

An American aid worker is being held in Haiti, accused of kidnapping a 15-month-old boy. Paul Waggoner is the co-founder of Materials Management Relief Corps, a humanitarian organization that seeks to provide logistical support to medical workers in Haiti.

According to news reports, Waggoner was working at the Haitian Community Hospital in Petionville in February when a Haitian man sought treatment for his 15-month-old son. The child died. Dr. Kenneth Adams, a volunteer physician on staff at the Haitian Community Hospital, said he was present when the child’s father returned to see his son and “witnessed as the father looked at the baby for several minutes, waiting for the baby to breathe.” He said the man took pictures with the deceased baby before he left. Jeff Quinlan, who was working as director of security at the hospital when the child arrived said he told the father that the boy had died and instructed him to return within 24 hours to take the body. But he said the father instead returned more than 24 hours later with a “witch doctor” claiming the child was still alive. Hosptial workers said the body was cremated because the father had not claimed the remains within 24 hours.

Waggoner had nothing to do with the child’s care, according to hospital staff. One colleague said this may be an effort to extort money from Materials Management Relief Corps or Waggoner’s family. The conditions in Haiti’s National Penitentiary, where Waggoner is being held, are horrific: as many as 70 inmates are crowded into 20-by-20 foot cells without plumbing, in lockdown conditions. Diseases, like tuberculosis and AIDS, are rife in the prison. Haiti is also currently battling a cholera epidemic.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe Mr. Waggoner is innocent, and, therefore, this case illustrates one of the risks faced by aid workers that doesn’t get talked about much: getting entangled in local justice systems. It’s why I do not encourage people to volunteer on their own, sans any host organization: Mr. Waggoner at least has the support of Materials Management Relief Corps. But an independent volunteer who waltzes into a local NGO and just starts helping – if he or she is falsely accused of stealing, of hurting a child, or worse, there is NO organization that will be helping you!

Indeed, there are some aid workers that do bad things:

All horrific cases, and all of these cases put all aid workers under a cloud of suspicion in many countries, making their work extremely difficult. But the reality is that most aid workers not only do not engage in such horrific behavior, aid workers are also frequently the target of sexual abuse, kidnapping and assault themselves: type aid worker sexually assaulted into and you will end up with a long, horrific list of incidents against aid workers including stories that talk about:

And on and on. I’m a frequent international traveler and sometime aid worker myself, and don’t want to be alarmist. I do believe you can do good while traveling abroad. But take security cautions seriously, and remember that the more solo you are, the harder it will be to get any support if you face a local justice system.

You can contact US government officials to urge them to do more to secure Waggoner’s freedom. Blog about this case yourself to raise the profile of this case on search engines and, potentially, in the media.

Also see Vetting Organizations in Other Countries.

UPDATE: He’s just out of prison, but still in Haiti.

Empower women, empower a nation

This week, the US State Department released the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which includes an unprecedented emphasis on the central role of women and girls in effective development and diplomacy. The QDDR is the first sweeping assessment and new blueprint for all of U.S. international assistance and diplomacy.

It’s fantastic to see the essential role of women so prominent in a US State Department report. Hurrah!

But it’s not enough.

When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children
(United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 1990). When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man (Phil Borges, with foreword by Madeleine Albright, Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007], 13.). Empowering women in places in Afghanistan — giving them safe, easy access to primary and secondary education, to vocational training and to basic health services — improves the lives of everyone in the country. And, in addition, giving women a voice in defining and evaluating development goals is the ONLY way to ensure development activities meet the needs of women and children.

If you are an aid worker, you have to be committed to women’s involvement, no matter what the focus of your work is. I’m not a gender expert nor a women’s mainstreaming expert, but I have a commitment to mainstreaming the issues of women in my aid and development work. That means that, when I’m working as a reporting consultant, for instance, I’m going to kick back reports to the author’s if there’s no mention of how women were involved in whatever they are reporting about, or no explanation of why women were not involved. I’ve made many a male aid worker angry for doing that… Whether its a water and sanitation project, an infrastucture project, a weapons return program, an agricultural project, a governance project, whatever, you have to look for ways women to be involved in at least the decision-making and goal-defining.

As most of you know, I worked in Afghanistan for six months in 2007, and I’ve remained in contact with a few Afghan women in Afghanistan. They tell me that they cherish every inch of freedom they’ve enjoyed over the last eight years, and though it isn’t nearly as much as they hoped for — they still don’t have, in practice, equal rights to men (property ownership, wages, leadership roles, choice in marriage, choice in career, choice in number of children, etc.). They see on TV the freedoms and prosperity Muslim women enjoy in India, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia, and other countries with large, even dominant, Muslim populations, and they see the prosperity of Muslims in those countries, and they ask, “Why not us?”

But I rarely see these women on TV news reports. I rarely hear women mentioned in news analysis on network TV, in newspapers, in political debates about Afghanistan, in US Government briefings… that’s like not mentioning black Africans or apartheid when discussing South Africa in the 1980s. If the 50% of the population being oppressed, tortured, killed, denied even basic human rights, were an ethnic group or a religious group, the outrage would be oh-so-loud and constant. But women? Suddenly oppression is a cultural thing we have to respect and not interfere with.

Some things regarding Afghanistan that have gotten my attention lately, and are worth your time to read:

I’ve blogged about this before. I guess I’m going to keep blogging about it until things change…

What triggers humanitarian action?

What constitutes humanitarian action, or triggers a humanitarian response? The obvious answers: a devastating natural event, like a flood or earthquake, or a devastating war, civil or otherwise, or a widespread illness outbreak, like HIV/AIDs.

But a staff member at ALNAP asks in a recent blog: what about urban violence? What about an ongoing cycle of violence that leaves local people and communities just as devastated and insecure as any of the aforementioned conditions that usually trigger a humanitarian response? What about, for instance, the unfolding violence in Rio de Janeiro, as government forces confront the drug gangs that have for years terrorized individuals and communities and wreaked havoc every bit as devastating as a series of tornados? (I realize a lot of people in the USA may not be aware of what’s happening in Rio right now, as its the violence in Mexico that dominates what little international news we get).

The author points out that, in such violent situations, large-scale involvement of international agencies would probably NOT be welcomed by local governments. But are there approaches from the humanitarian world that the local government and donors might undertake? He asks further:

How can humanitarian agencies engage with these issues, and maintain the flexibility to respond to needs in ways that are both principled and pragmatic, wherever they may arise? And how will programming need to change to ensure agencies provide timely and relevant assistance which delivers durable humanitarian outcomes in challenging urban contexts?

It’s a fascinating blog! If you are an aid or development worker, or a government person who might face such a situation, its worth your time to read.

(ALNAP is the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action).