Tag Archives: aid

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.

Update:
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 undispatch.com 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.

Problems in countries far from home can seem easy to solve

globeProblems in countries far from home can somehow seem far easier to solve than problems in your own country. They aren’t. Western do-gooders need to resist the allure of ‘exotic problems.’ It’s yet another excellent piece from the Guardian Development Professionals Network. It’s a must-read for all those that want to volunteer abroad, are seeking a career in international humanitarian aid and development, or want to donate to such causes.

The aforementioned piece is a good companion to my earlier blog on vanity volunteering.

So I guess I’m vanity blogging… but then, aren’t we all?

Also see:

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

and

transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good”

EU Aid Volunteers on track to include virtual volunteering

eu aid volunteersTwo years ago, I had the pleasure of being hired to put together the online volunteering strategy for the European Union Aid Volunteers initiative. I provided:

  • Background on virtual volunteering – what it means in the EU context, what basic best practices have long been established, etc.
  • Details on the infrastructure and capacity that will be needed by host organizations and online volunteers in the EU Aid Volunteers initiative in order to participate, including policies and procedures and how to address issues around confidentiality and safety
  • Possibilities for how online volunteering in support of the EU Aid Volunteers initiative might look, in terms of applications, screening, assignment creation, volunteer matching and supporting
  • How to integrate returned volunteer alumni networks and peer-to-peer online mentoring into the scheme
  • How to evaluate the online volunteering component of the EU Aid Volunteers initiative
  • How the contributions of online volunteers might be recognized
  • Recruitment of online volunteers to support EU Aid Volunteers and volunteer sending organizations
  • How to address potential risks and challenges, like protection of personal data, protection of confidential data of organizations, fear of negative behavior online, lack of understanding of and support for volunteer management among some agencies, labour concerns that can arise with volunteer engagement, and what to call online volunteers that support the EU Aid Volunteer initiative.

What I loved most about this assignment is that it combined both my background in international aid and development and my background regarding volunteer engagement, particularly virtual volunteering. I don’t often get to combine them!

For the last two years, I’ve checked in regularly on the EU Aid Volunteers web page, managed by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), to see how things are coming along with this initiative, particularly with regard to virtual volunteering.
eu aid volunteersAt long last, I saw this (at left) as part of the FAQ about the initiative on the EU Aid Volunteers web page .

Hurrah! I’m thrilled to see this. Virtual volunteering is coming! I don’t know when, and I don’t know exactly what it will look like – I made recommendations, but ECHO is under no obligation to undertake them, of course. But, it’s coming!

I have EU Aid Volunteers in a Google Alert, and I also follow @eu_echo on Twitter, to keep up-to-date on this initiative, in case you are interested in doing so as well.

What a work day is like – so far

A few of you have asked what my work day here at the UN is like. So, for those interested:

I have a driver that takes me to the office every day, something my host, an American that’s lived here for many years, so generously arranged. I don’t think he’s an official taxi, but he gets the job done. It’s a 5-10 minute drive, or a 40 minute walk. I’m keeping the car for my entire time here to drive me to work, but once it cools off, I’ll start walking home every day.

I try to get to the UN offices a few minutes before 9 a.m. To me, that’s a really late start to the work day – at home, I often start before 8! Because of the time difference with the West, you get much more out of your day here in Kyiv at the UN HQ, in terms of being able to connect with people outside the country, if you work later rather than earlier. Because of that late start to the day, I can do a lot from home before I come into the office:  check my personal email and other personal communications, then my own professional email for my consulting, etc. I also check my UN email before I come in, to see if there is anything urgent, but I don’t reply to anything, unless it’s urgent, until I’m in the office. I prohibit myself from personal social media activities at work. I’ll post work-related items to my Facebook page and a bit to Twitter – and reading those is a good way to be most up-to-date on what I’m working on – but anything fun has to happen outside of work hours (some things do sneak in over lunch here).

I share my office with the UN communications manager, who is from Ukraine. I go through several tasks as soon as I plug in and start up my computer to catch me up-to-speed for the day:

First, I read ReliefWeb’s updates from various resources about Ukraine. Sources are from all over the spectrum: from the International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Russia Today, Amnesty International, UNICEF, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Guardian (in the UK) and more. This let’s me know what my colleagues are going to be dealing with most urgently, what the press or donors might be calling about, etc. I don’t have to deal with the press or donors, but I’ve got to be ready to help my colleagues do so. My colleagues can’t wait for me to get up-to-speed in a meeting – I’ve got to come into the meeting with a basic understanding of current happenings. This is how I do it.

Then I glance through the tweets of everyone on my Twitter list for Ukraine. This further educates me about what’s “hot” in the country right now, particularly regarding political opinion, something that’s vital to know, as public opinion influences government and donors. Again, my colleagues can’t wait for me to catch up in meetings – I’ve got to come in already understanding ever-changing contexts.

I also look at some Twitter feeds specifically, in the morning and afternoon:
@UN_Ukraine (my office mate manages this account)
@UNDPUkraine (manager of this is just down the hall)
UNICEF_UA
and I do a search on OCHA Ukraine (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to see what comes up. This keeps me up-to-date on what all the various UN offices are doing, in terms of communication and public programs. I’m here for just two months, and there’s no time for weekly meetings – this is how I stay up-to-speed on what’s going on so I can make appropriate recommendations regarding communication, especially in reports to donors.

And amid all this, or after it, I work on various projects: writing something, editing something, researching something, meeting with someone – as directed/needed by colleagues. I never know when a project or meeting will demand my attention until just a few minutes before it arrives, usually. I always makes sure that I have a project to work on in-between the sudden spurts of urgent things to do – I’ll create one if I have to. That’s essential in this work, to always be able to look for something to do – not just busy work, but something needed, that will actual help colleagues in some way.

In my first two weeks I’ve:

  • Drafted a very important strategy briefing document (took a LOT of research and rewrites and meetings)
  • Drafted a Twitter guide to help ramp up and evolve Twitter activities by UN offices here (also took a LOT of research), and bugged my communications colleagues with “try this” emails regarding immediate adjustments to make re: social media.
  • Advised on an app to help citizens report infrastructure issues to the government
  • Researched whether or not our offices might need a policy re: editing Wikipedia (such editing is easily monitored by citizen activists and even some hostile “bodies”, and conflict of interest editing can turn into a PR nightmare; I doubt anyone is editing Wikipedia from the office, but this is a VERY tech savvy country – I’m trying to think preventatively).
  • Had various ideas bounced off of me by the communications staff here for various events, announcements, activities, etc.
  • Participated in various meetings, mostly about coordination of humanitarian and aid programs.
  • Asked a lot of questions, listened, taken a lot of notes, listened to drafts of speeches, read lots and lots of information so I can write about various topics when called upon, read and responded to a lot of emails…

Unlike Afghanistan, I have complete freedom of movement here, there’s consistent electricity, everyone has a smart phone (not just a cell phone), no one has asked me for a bribe, and the country’s most urgent aid and development needs – and they are urgent, and sad, and often horrific – seem so far away… and that makes this experience surreal at times.

The first week, I left every day at 6, but this week, I’m leaving at 6:30, and next week, who knows, perhaps I’ll stay even later. The car is waiting for me and takes me home, and my work day is done – though I admit to checking work mail one more time before bed, and responding as needed.

That’s how my days have gone my first two weeks here. The glamourous life if aid and development work…

Reaching women in socially-conservative areas

This was originally posted on my blog in October 2009

While I was in Afghanistan, I was notorious for kicking-back field reports that stated “the community was consulted” about this or that project, but that never said if the decision-making included any women. Sadly, the report writers often came back to me with a scowl and lots of excuses about why women weren’t included when “the community was consulted.”

When you work in humanitarian and development efforts, you must always be aware that talking to the official leadership of a community, a region, whatever, does not mean you are hearing about the needs of all citizens, such as minority populations or even majority populations — women. There are ways to seek out and include women in even socially-conservative areas so that they can be a part of decision-making.

A good example of this is an intervention in Egypt which used Egyptian women to reach other women regarding eye care, highlighted in a brief article by the Community Eye Health Journal. The successful strategy they employed was this:

  • The team undertaking the intervention held various meetings and presentations to establish a trusting relationship with local policy makers, local health authorities, local community leaders, local non-government organizations (NGOs), etc.
  • The team used this network to explain that women weren’t receiving eye care at the same rate as men, and that saving or restoring women’s sight benefits the whole family.
  • The team used this network to identify local women with previous experience in community development projects who could be trained to reach female community members in the intervention villages, as they would be able to enter homes and meet with women without coming into conflict with local cultural practices.
  • 42 women were trained over three days, and 30 were selected as “health visitors,”
  • The health visitors then visited 90 per cent of the population in the two intervention villages from March to December 2007.
  • During each visit, health visitors explained to women that saving or restoring their own sight would benefit the whole family. Each family received a variety of educational materials, including a calendar with illustrations relating to eye care and information on the importance of seeking eye care for the women in the household.

The result of training local women to do the outreach to other local women was a huge surge in the number of women receiving eye care as part of this intervention. And maybe something more: a change in the way the community viewed the value of its women? That wasn’t measured, unfortunately.

Of course, Egypt isn’t Afghanistan. Every country presents special challenges when it comes to reaching women regarding development interventions. But there’s always a way! Regardless of your role in humanitarian or development efforts, always make reaching women a priority.

What’s your advice?

See also:
Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) and Urban Myths Interfering with Development and Aid/Relief Efforts, and Government Initiatives (and how these are overcome)
and
Building Staff Capacities to Communicate and Present (materials developed for Afghanistan).

Extreme poverty is not beautiful

(a version of this blog first appeared in March 2009)

I was in a convoy heading to the Pansjir Valley in Afghanistan once upon a time, when a non-Afghan man in the back seat, a fellow aid/development worker, started talking to a colleague about how beautiful and simply the people lived in Afghanistan, how idillic it was, how it was a shame to bring them aid and development if it meant they would have to give up their beautiful, simple life.

I wanted to stop the SUV, throw him out of it, and let him see how he liked living “simply” for a few weeks.

Being poor is NOT the same as living in extreme poverty.

Dolly Parton and my grandmother grew up poor in Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively: there was no money to buy new clothes when they were children and, often, their mothers made clothes from whatever they could find (such as used potato sacks), their families had to grow most of their food, their families didn’t have a car, etc. But they were resource rich: they could grow and raise their own food, they had access to free, clean drinking water, they had access to doctors for emergency medical care (though a long walk to such), the fathers lived at home most of the time rather than having to live far away for most of the year to send money home, the families never went hungry or suffered from extreme cold, and they had access to wood for the stoves in winter. They never had to sell any of their children in order to feed the rest of the family. There was no danger of a rival tribe or religious zealots or a mafia looking for money or revenge breaking down the door and killing everyone or taking all their animals. Yes, there were hardships: many babies died in infancy, many women died in childbirth, diseases and injuries that are curable/treatable now were deadly back then, many children had to work rather than go to school, people died young compared to today, etc. But often, there was freedom and time for children to play safely around their homes. The whole family could read by the time they were teens. Talk to people who grew up like this, and they will tell you stories of hardship, but also of laughter and family and dreams.

By contrast, there’s nothing at all beautiful about extreme poverty, especially in Afghanistan. Extreme poverty means a family that has no means to grow its own food and, therefore, starves without the means to purchase food or attain food aid. It means women who die in childbirth, and babies that die in infancy, at rates that far exceed most other places on Earth. It means children sold as child brides or slaves in order to raise money to feed the rest of the family for a few weeks. It means a life expectancy of around 40. It means having no resources to build a fire or cook food — if there was food to cook. It means few people, if anyone, in the family being able to read, which means less of a chance of accessing health care and food assistance that MAY be available. It means people dying by the thousands regularly from preventable diseases. It means being a repeated victim of criminals and having no protection or justice because there’s no money for the bribes the police or the militias require. It means absolutely no way, on one’s own, to ever improve life for the family. It means no freedom, no time and no safety to play or dream or plan. It means no control over your life at all.

I’ve never forgotten that guy’s comments. And what’s sad is that I heard it again just recently in a video by someone I consider a dear friend . That there can be any confusion between living off-the-grid and living in extreme poverty is astounding to me.

Want to help combat poverty? There no better organizations than these, IMO, to donate to, and to spend your time reading their field updates:

Also see:
*Another* Afghanistan Handicraft program? Really?

Free online courses for relief & development workers

Last Mile Learning provides free, contextualized learning resources to professionals working in the development and relief sectors. Last Mile Learning is an initiative of LINGOs, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable global development by building the capacity of the people delivering programs around the world. The Last Mile Learning facilitator resources are free and open source.

Each course in the Last Mile Learning includes a set of curricular materials that can be used by facilitators to lead face-to-face workshops or facilitated on-line training events (in both blended asynchronous or blended synchronous formats).

Courses relate to:

People Management
Project Management
Coaching Projects in the Development Sector
Harassment Prevention Project Identification and Design
Selection Interviewing Project Set Up
Delegation Project Planning
Performance Management Project Implentation
Managing through Meaningful Conversations Project Monitoring, Evaluation and Control
End of Project Transition

I’m quite excited about this initiative and these materials. I haven’t checked the materials out fully, but I’ve worked with LINGOS and know it’s a credible organization.

If you complete a course:

  • blog about it
  • share that you did so on your CV and LinkedIn profile
  • share it on your social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
  • make sure your employer knows, if you think they would want to know that you are engaged in professional development activities

theater as a community development/education tool – it takes more than artists

It’s been a few years now since, for my Master’s degree, I embarked on a year-long investigation of the non-artistic elements necessary for success in “Theater as a Tool for Development” initiatives. It’s a subject that remains a very big interest for me. I wish I had the time and resources to research it further!

There are numerous organizations using theater techniques as part of their community development / education activities all over the world – for instance, to educate children about a health issue – and there are also numerous initiatives, publications, web sites and individuals that promote and chronicle successes regarding live, in-person performance as an effective tool for development. Even in our current age saturated with multi-media, live, in-person performance/TfD is a popular and effective tool for education, outreach and capacity-building regarding a variety of development issues, such as HIV/AIDS prevention, domestic violence, evolving gender roles, or good sanitation practices

However, there is little information on what has to be in place before these techniques are used, excluding performer training, to better ensure that these techniques will be well-received by an audience/participants, and to better ensure that the desired outcomes will be generated. My research was meant to fill in a bit of that gap. And my conclusion? Without deliberate, thoughtful cultivation of support for and trust in such an initiative among staff at the lead agency, among partner organizations, and among those for whom the theater-for-development techniques will be used, and without clear definitions of what everyone expects from TfD activities, such efforts will fail, no matter how experienced or enthusiastic your artistic staff is. In fact, in one case I studied, not doing this groundwork before hand turned out to be deadly.

My project included a review of key literature on TfD, and semi-structured interviews with 12 TfD practitioners. You can read online:

If you have undertaken similar research – not about theater as a tool for development, but specifically what needs to happen before such activities take place in order for them to be successful, give me a shout.

*Another* Afghanistan Handicraft program? Really?

Recently, I got an email from yet another organization that is teaching Afghan women how to make handicrafts and textiles to sell in the West.

And I sighed. Heavily.

I’m not saying that these are bad programs. In fact, I have supported many of them, as a consumer: My husband and I each have a lovely Shalwar Kameez from a shop run by Afghans for Civil Society in Kandahar (here’s him in his; I’m in the burqa), I have a custom-made jacket from AWWSOM Boutique in Kabul that I wore at my wedding reception, I have a custom-made purse from Gundara, and I have lots of items from Ganjini Showroom and various other stores in Kabul. These items are beautiful, they are well-made, and I love showing them off (for more info, see my guide to shopping in Kabul).

HOWEVER, teaching more and more Afghan women how to make purses, shawls, table cloths and other lovely items is not going to lift women out of poverty, nor move them into their proper place in society, because there is not enough of a market for all those products.

Capacity-building programs have to be focused on what is actually needed in a particular community, that are more guaranteed to provide income regularly, long-term. That means programs that teach Afghan women how to:

These are things that local people need, and/or that they want – they are not just that are nice to have.

If you know of a program – local or international, government-run or foreign run or civil society run, whatever – that is teaching Afghan women to engage in income-generation activities that are practical and sustainable, feel free to post names and links in the comments section of this blog.

No, You Should Not Go to Japan to Volunteer

Whenever a disaster strikes, thousands of people in countries all over the world start contacting various organizations and posting to online groups in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site.

But what most of these people don’t realize is that spontaneous volunteers without the specific, high-level training and expertise that’s actually needed in the area, no affiliation with a credible agency and no local language skills can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation. The priority in these situations is helping the people affected by the disaster, NOT diverting resources to house, transport and otherwise take care of outsiders. In many of these situations, there is NO food, shelter or services to spare for outside volunteers. Volunteers coming into post-disaster areas have to be absolutely self-sustaining for days, even weeks, bringing in all of their own food and shelter. No shelter or safety measures can be provided to volunteers by the government or local people in many of these situations.

Japan and Haiti are incredibly complicated situations that require people with a very high degree of qualifications and long-term commitment, not just good will, a sense of urgency and short-term availability. These volunteers need to be extensively vetted, to ensure not only that they have the proper training and emotional stability to handle a post-crisis, low infrastructure situation, but also, to ensure they aren’t there to take advantage of unattended houses and shops, or even to exploit disaster victims.

Also, more and more agencies are hiring local people themselves, even immediately after a disaster, to clean rubble, remove dead bodies, build temporary housing, rebuild homes and essential buildings, and prepare and distribute food. Hiring and coordinating local people to do these activities themselves, rather than bringing people in from the outside, helps stabilize local people’s lives much more quickly!

People outside of disaster zones also start gathering supplies from family, neighbors and co-workers, envisioning themselves packing up the boxes of supplies and some organization somewhere paying to ship those boxes to post-disaster zones. But it is so much cheaper and more efficient for response agencies to buy and ship these items from areas that are MUCH closer to an affected area that most (all?) refuse these items. Plus, it’s better for relief agencies to buy clothing, shoes, medicine, toiletries, etc. new, or to accept donations in bulk directly from manufacturers and retailers, rather than going through donations made by countless numbers of individuals, which are filled with inappropriate items.

What to do with all these people calling your agency or posting to online groups saying, “I took a First Aid class a few years ago – how can I go to Japan and help?!?” Explain to them why they won’t be going, and strongly encourage them to get training now for possible disasters in their own geographic area instead. I direct people to the Red Cross, telling them that it will take at least a year to go through all of the training provided, and if they aren’t ready to make that training commitment, they aren’t ready to be a volunteer in disaster zones. Volunteering with an organization that helps people locally in other kinds of crisis situations — a domestic violence shelter, a suicide hotline, a crisis center, etc. is also excellent training that is valued by those mobilizing post-disaster volunteers.

Here is what aid agencies are doing in Japan. I also direct people to these agencies to donate financially.

Also see this article on DIY volunteers in Haiti.

The numbers for my page Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters are through the roof. Because this is one of the pages I have monatized, I’ll be donating all of the ad revenue generated for March by this page to the American Red Cross.

Also see this essay: Why Waiting to Give to Japan is a Good Idea.