Tag Archives: humanitarian

Short-term deployments with Peace Corps & UNV

From February 2001 to February 2005, I worked at the headquarters of United Nations Volunteers, in Bonn, Germany. Sometimes, people outside the UN would say, upon learning where I worked, “Oh, you’re just a volunteer?”

My UNV colleagues would get this comment too, and would visibly bristle at the idea that anyone would think they were a volunteer!  They would quickly assure the person that they were not merely a volunteer – they were, in fact, a fully-paid staff person with a UNDP contract!

By contrast, here’s how I would answer such a comment:

Oh, no, I’m not a UN Volunteer. I don’t think I’m qualified to be a UN Volunteer. I would probably be turned away if I applied. International UN Volunteers are experts in their professional field, highly skilled and experienced. I’m just an employee at headquarters, and my role is to support UN volunteers out in the field, doing amazing things.

A UNV HQ colleague was with me once when I said that, and her eyes became huge when she heard my response. Later, she told me she’d never thought of UN Volunteers the way I had talked about them, and that it had never dawned her that, in fact, maybe she wasn’t qualified to be a UN Volunteer either.

I know of two UNV HQ staff, both my colleagues and dear friends, who decided to apply to become international UN Volunteers themselves, were accepted into the UNV roster, and were deployed for two years to a developing country. Both of these colleagues worked in ICT. After those in-the-field experiences, they went on to be employees at other UN agencies, and I thought it was a shame UNV hadn’t worked hard to entice them back to HQ, as they would have brought a much-needed perspective to headquarters.

As I was leaving UNV HQ, where I managed the UN Online Volunteering service and helped manage the United Nations Information Technology Services (UNITeS), I decided to apply as an international UNV myself. I decided that maybe I had acquired the qualifications at last to be a UNV. I was delighted when I was accepted into the UNV roster – the UNV staff that decided which applications to accept were in Cyprus, I had no personal relationship with them at all, and there was no policy (and still isn’t) on automatically accepting UNDP staff as UN Volunteers. I was available only for six-month assignments, however, and those were, and are, few and far between. I interviewed for two such assignments – and didn’t get either. Which should just go to show you how competitive the process to be a UNV is. I eventually got a six-month UNDP gig in Afghanistan, but it was as a consultant, not a UN Volunteer.

Now, at this time in my life, I can no longer do a full six-month assignment, so I doubt I’ll ever deploy as a UNV. When you read about me going to abroad for a UN gig now, it’s for less than four months – like in Ukraine – and, again, it’s as a UNDP contractor (which I love – great colleagues, fascinating work and the pay is good).

But there is this part of me that still really wants to go abroad as a volunteer.

So, for more than two years, I’ve been watching listings at the Peace Corps Response web site. This is a program by the Peace Corps that places highly-skilled volunteers in short-term assignments abroad, from four to 12 months. It’s open to US citizens. I’ve been looking for an appropriate four-month gig and, at long last, I’ve applied for a position. I think it fits my expertise perfectly. But I also know that this is a highly-competitive program, and I may not even make the interview round. Still, it was fascinating to go through part of the Peace Corps application process. I’ve also been a reference for a friend that applied for the regular Peace Corps, so I’ve seen that part of the online process as well.

Fingers crossed!

One last note: the Peace Corps Response program, the entire Peace Corps program, and all United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are under threat of severe cuts by the current Presidential administration in the USA, as well as by current Congressional leadership. I encourage you to write your US Congressional Representative, your US Senators, national media and your local media, and let them know what you think of these proposed cuts.

Also see:

 

Frank description of what it’s like to work in communications in the UN

UNLogoI love working for the United Nations – except when I don’t.

The United Nations can do amazing work, and I’ve been honored to be a part of it on occasion, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, and in various locations with UNDP/UNV. It can also stumble badly, and it can be painful to be a part of.

The reason for missteps by the UN, or perceptions of missteps, can be attributed to various things:

  • pressure from donor countries and host countries regarding messaging and action that’s out-of-step with reality,
  • profound misunderstandings by donor countries, host countries and the press regarding the challenges and needs related to humanitarian aid and development, such that they see what the UN is doing and find it lacking,
  • a fear by UN staff that reporting honestly about what’s not working will be seen as institutional failure or will cause donors to withdraw funds, host countries to withdraw support and the media and grass roots groups to attack,
  • a UN culture that recoils from any controversy and confrontation,
  • some people who end up in positions of power and are either unqualified for the position or deeply flawed in their motivations and intent for the position.

The excerpt below from a long article in PassBlue by Barbara Crossette from December 4, 2016 offers an excellent account of what happens when many of these challenges align – and they align all too often. The links are the article’s:

In 1999, Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general at the time, and his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, published media guidelines for UN officials that for the first time in the organization’s history introduced a formal policy of being “open and transparent in its dealings with the press.” The guidelines, initially devised for the peacekeeping department, gave all Secretariat staff members the right to speak to the media on subjects “within your area of competence and responsibility,” but to “provide facts, but not opinions or comment.” The guidelines are still in effect, according to the UN spokesman’s office, though they have languished and are disregarded repeatedly.

In no area has this unwillingness to listen to UN staff or allow them to do honest reporting been more harmful to the organization than in peacekeeping. Internal information on scandals of various sorts have been suppressed, ignored or shelved for unconscionable periods of time by higher-ranking people in a hierarchical system. Outsiders — in the media, nongovernmental organizations and sometimes courageous staff within the UN — make these scandals public, putting the organization immediately in a defensive position, as allegations fire up critics…

Every peacekeeping mission has a large public information unit dedicated to ensuring that the local population understands the mandate of the peacekeepers and to garnering international support for their operations. But lately, with shrinking newsroom budgets and the closing of international bureaus, news organizations don’t send as many reporters to cover far-flung conflicts that are only simmering, or cooling, when more dramatic stories compete…

In peacekeeping missions, communications officers are expected to sell trite “positive” stories to the media, while withholding comment on more complex or sensitive issues, from political negotiations to outbreaks of violence. Recent headlines — from attacks on civilians in South Sudan to sex abuse by peacekeepers in Central Africa and the cholera epidemic in Haiti — dominate in media, which give minimal coverage to other aspects of a mission, each one a complex operation taking more than tweets to explain fully.

Roberto Capocelli, a Fulbright scholar from Italy, worked as a human-rights public information officer with Monusco — the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the largest peacekeeping operation. The mission had been mired in bad news when a landmark human-rights trial took place in 2014, conducted by Congolese courts with assistance from Monusco and UN human-rights officials. A notorious war criminal, Bedi Mobuli Engangela, or “Colonel 106,” who had long terrorized communities in eastern Congo, was finally meeting justice.

Capocelli got to the trial ahead of the international media and with his deep knowledge of the issues, wrote up the story, stressing the UN’s contributions in logistics and protecting witnesses. He sent it for release to his superiors at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. It was published two months later, virtually unchanged but buried in an obscure part of the UN Human Rights website. A video he made on the event was never used.

“In the end, we are not journalists,” Capocelli said recently. “But everyone had been complaining about impunity and after a huge investment of time and resources, [the UN] managed to do something good, especially at the moment the UN was under criticism for child abuse, corruption and inaction. Everyone is aware of this dynamic, how much the bureaucratic process can stop you from acting. I had the impression my work was not really needed.”

Susan Manuel, a writer for PassBlue and an American journalist before joining the UN, worked in some of the most important and dangerous peacekeeping missions in the world, in addition to spending eight years in UN headquarters. During that time, she saw the relationship between UN missions and the media shrink from her first decade in Cambodia, South Africa, the Balkans and Afghanistan to her final posting in Darfur before retiring in 2012.

“In Cambodia, the UN peacekeeping mission, Untac [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] was narrating the electoral process to a large international press corps,” she said in a written interview. “In the former Yugoslavia, I literally saw coverage of the UN improve after making an effort to get to know the local and regional journalists and provide them with concrete information. We told the story, even when the UN failed, even when the so-called UN-protected enclaves in Croatia and Bosnia were overrun. We public information officers were reporting these events in real time to media because these people were our responsibility.”

“In Kosovo we were narrating the growth of a new administration — with regular press briefings, interviews, guided visits for journalists,” she said. “We fed them constantly, and not with fluff, as these were discerning professionals, some of them veteran war correspondents.

“There were incidents of exploitation and abuse of the local population by peacekeepers in those earlier missions –particularly Cambodia and Somalia,” Manuel said. “But they didn’t threaten to bring down UN peacekeeping. Journalists knew these were complex and largely vital enterprises, which they covered on a daily basis. Scandals weren’t the only headlines.

“In Afghanistan, the UN mission was the most credible voice during a long saga of conflict, peace processes and human rights struggles, and the media depended a great deal on it.

“But when I arrived in Darfur [in 2011], the international media were gone, local media were ignored and the conflict was invisible, even — to a large extent — to the peacekeepers. We weren’t saying much about it.

“Senior UN mission officials disdained the sole opposition radio station, Dabanga,” she recalled. “Sometimes it was only when a blogger, Matthew [Russell] Lee, who is based in New York, read out reports from Dabanga on incidents in Darfur at the daily briefing by the secretary-general’s spokesman in New York that we could convince the mission leaders to respond. Or, I would figure out ways to release information surreptitiously by embedding it in otherwise anodyne messages or op-eds from the head of mission.”

When she retired from the UN, Manuel wrote in her end-of-assignment report on Darfur — where hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed as Sudan’s repressive government battled a regional rebellion from 2003 to 2009 — that UN policy makers needed to decide whether the peacekeeping information offices are there to promote only the “good news” of the mission or to “get and disseminate clear factual information about the situation on the ground related to our mandate,” which, Manuel added, “could enhance our credibility and lead to realistic responses.”

“Is it our role to report publicly on the conflict, as part of the mission’s security and protection of civilians’ mandate, or is it ‘none of your business,’ as one senior official told me after repeated requests to be included in information on fighting and human rights abuses?”

The entire article is very much worth your time to read. It’s focused primarily on how the Trump Presidency will affect the United Nations.

Also see:

United Nations personnel system needs radical overhaul

Legacy of Early Tech4Good Initiatives (including UN initiatives)

My experience in humanitarian aid and development initiatives

My consulting services regarding communications and community engagement

Want to work internationally? Get involved locally.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI get asked a lot about how to work in international humanitarian aid and development. I explain, over and over again, the importance of getting practical experience that would be relevant to work in other countries, and emphasize that ways to get this experience are all around you. I also say repeatedly, “You can’t expect to get hired to do something overseas that you haven’t done right in your own community.” I’m often met with skepticism and comments like “I live in a small town” and “we don’t have any refugees where I live” and on and on.

I’m often met with skepticism and comments like “I live in a small town” and “we don’t have any refugees where I live” and “what I want to do is completely different than anything happening here” and on and on.

I live in a small town 30 miles from Portland, Oregon. The population of my town was 21,083 at the 2010 census. The town right next door had a population of 11,869 at the 2010 census. We are surrounded by farm fields, wetlands and woods. The three wealthiest communities in Oregon are all in unincorporated areas of the county where I live.

And with all that said: opportunities to test and to continue to grow my skills as a consultant regarding international aid and development abound. The opportunities are all around me. Most are within walking distance. A few require me to take a 15-minute bus ride, and one has required me to drive:

  • I attend community meetings organized by the area’s state legislative representatives and US congressional representatives, where citizens communicate their concerns regarding public education, immigration, sustainability, respect for the environment, safety for minorities, foreign interference in our country’s affairs, transportation, and on and on – most of the same things you will hear at any community meeting anywhere in the world.
  • I attend public meetings by the police and sheriff’s deputies serving the areas where I live and frequent, to see how they communicate and collaborate with those they are supposed to serve.
  • I attend city council meetings whenever possible. Topics that have been discussed have ranged from a new plan for city parks to declaring the city a sanctuary city, affirming that the city will not act as agents of the federal government regarding immigration law.
  • I volunteer with a local group that helps the Latino residents, particularly the Latina residents, of the county where I live. I help them regarding volunteer engagement policies, volunteer recruitment strategies and social media strategies.
  • I joined the citizens advisory committee for my community regarding public safety. Once a month, we meet, review citizen concerns regarding safety, hear presentations by the police chief and fire chief, and make recommendations to the city council. As a result, I met with the local police officer in charge of community outreach to discuss some concerns I have regarding the unease of many in our city regarding the current Presidential administration.

Community engagement activities and community development meetings are what I have often been involved with and advised on in other countries, in Afghanistan or Ukraine or wherever. It’s been easy to find similar activities to get involved with here in my own community. If I lived in downtown Portland – and urban area with far more nonprofits and government programs – the opportunities would be even greater.

If nothing else, no matter how you feel about the current political situation in the USA, what’s happening now is providing a plethora of opportunities for anyone that works in international development to hone or to build his or her skills.

Is there an organization in your area that assists refugees? Or a program that educates people regarding HIV/AIDS? Or an initiative that educates young people about sexual health and how to prevent pregnancies? Or a nonprofit farm cooperative? Or a domestic violence shelter? Or a program that helps people develop marketable job skills? Or a program that brings people with and without mental disabilities together for friendship-building activities? Or a non-partisan organization that promotes voter registration? What is your local police department, your local library, or any government agency doing to reach out to people that aren’t a part of the ethnic or religious majority in your community? Identify these organizations, programs and initiatives, and then start looking on their web sites and calling to find out if they involve volunteers, or have paid work that you could apply to do. Volunteer, or work, and get experience.

And go to public meetings by city, county and state officials, the police, the school board, or any other major public entity or significant public official. Watch how people interact with the speakers. Do people seem to trust the speakers? Is it a lecture or is there discussion? Do people understand the process they are witnessing? Is there hostility in the room and, if so, is it being addressed? Are answers clear and to the point or are they evasive? Are people attempting to dominate the conversation? Do you know if one-on-one meetings happened before the event regarding the topic at hand? How are representatives from the press covering the events you are attending? Learn from what you are seeing and hearing – it will all serve you well as you work in other countries.

Also see:

Is it really *impossible* to break into humanitarian work?

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

Citizens academy – intensive community engagement – my own largely positive experience with the Washington County Sheriff Department’s citizens academy.

When “participatory” & “consultation” are just words

In defense of skills over passion

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Ideas for Leadership Volunteering Activities /

Ideas for Creating Your Own Large-Scale Volunteering Activity

Promises & Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer – one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written

My CV and résumé consulting services for those wanting to work in international development

Volunteers Along Immigrant & Refugee Journey

refugeesLast year, e-Volunteerism, a publication by Energize, Inc. and Susan Ellis, featured an article about volunteers at the front lines of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and how their impassioned scramble to help—though often inefficient and always insufficient—nonetheless addressed grave needs and sent a message to governments to respond. But the images of these orange-vested volunteers, often entirely self-funded and pulling refugees from boats and greeting them with blankets on Mediterranean shores, represent just a fraction of the diverse volunteer sector that serves the needs of immigrants and refugees worldwide. And these borders and shorelines are not the end of the journey; for the immigrants and refugees, they are where new journeys begin. While some immigrants’ first steps inside a country are more perilous than others, even immigrants who arrive safely at an airport are still plunged into uncertainty and vulnerability. Settling into a new life, a new job, new customs, a new language, and the new experience of being a racial, ethnic, or religious minority can often be a more daunting journey than getting to the country in the first place.

A new e-Volunteerism Voices article by Kerry Martin explores how volunteers engage with immigrants and refugees at every stage of their journey. It focuses on the current situation in the USA (which has relevant implications for other countries) by assessing the nature of volunteer services for three distinct groups: 1) refugees formally resettled through government and other authorized organizations; 2) recent immigrants (non-refugees) who are undocumented, at risk of losing their immigration status, or in need of support due to poverty, exploitation, abuse, etc.; and 3) refugees unrecognized by the U.S. and not formally resettled, primarily those fleeing from gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The full article is available to subscribers of e-Volunteerism and it’s worth subscribing to read this article!

Also see:

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip (& where to find credible volunteering abroad/work abroad programs)

How to Pursue a Career with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organizations, Including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

Is it really *impossible* to break into humanitarian work?

guardian logoI saw a headline recently from the Secret aid worker series from the Global development professionals network in The Guardian:

I’m sick of job rejections – is humanitarian work only for the elite?

The headline struck me, as I constantly read questions on Quora and YahooAnswers from people that want to work in humanitarian aid and development. The questions are so frequent, and so similar, that I created a page of answers to that specific question, and I point people to it often.

Unfortunately, comments on this particular Guardian blog are closed. But I really wanted to respond to it, specifically, not just refer the author to my web page for people like her.

The blogger says she longed for a development job abroad “where I would get to do something real – responding to crises, spearheading interventions and doing hands-on development.” But then she never says anything about her own experience responding to crises, spearheading interventions and “doing hands-on development” anywhere. She never once says, “Here’s my area of expertise, here’s what I’ve proven myself capable of doing that is transferable and needed in the developing world.” She just goes on and on about a desire to work in development.

She’s now “hoping a year in INGO corporate fundraising and some experience in publicity and campaigns can help give me an edge in getting a job that’s a little more hands-on, because that was all the experience I could get. Development is a subject I’ve been passionate about for over five years.”

Again, she never says what it is she has that development agencies really, really need. A year of experience doing one thing, some experience in something else? Passion? Sorry, but it isn’t enough to give you an edge. Not at all.

“I can’t help but feel that humanitarian and development work is for the elites.”

No. But it is for people that have the skills and experience actually needed by local people in post-conflict zones and transitional nations.

Look, I don’t mean to sound mean, but in addition to be a person that seeks work in development – more on that later – I’ve been on the hiring side of things at development agencies. I’ve been on the job development side of things as well. I’ve written the description of the job that we need someone to do, and never once have I thought, “Hey, let’s give this to someone who doesn’t have experience but, by golly, they really want to work in aid and development! As long as they have a Master’s Degree!” The people I serve – the local people of a developing country – want more. They deserve more.

I think for anyone that wants to work in aid work, this blog by Marianne Elliott, Why Your Passion Is Not Enough, is worth reading, particularly this part:

My point is that passion, perseverance and innovation are sometimes highlighted at the expense of professionalism… much more than passion is needed in order to make a positive difference in the world… Just as passionate persistence without professional skills won’t get you a part in The Hobbit, good intentions without professional skill won’t result in doing the good you intend.

I am sometimes invited to talk to university students that want to work in aid and development. One thing I say to every class: to get paid to do something abroad you have to have done it locally in your own community, or somewhere in your own country. You want to help people start micro enterprises? You want to educate young people about HIV/AIDS? You want to open a school? You want to help people become motorcycle mechanics? You want to help respond to a post-disaster situation? You want to help refugrees? Whatever it is, you have to have done it in your own country – why would anyone want to hire you to do something you’ve never done before?

You can pursue such as entry-level paid work at local NGOs and nonprofits and maybe even in government programs, to get that experience. But I warn you, it’s really low-paid when you do it locally in your own country. Or you can do it as a volunteer, outside of your better-paid non-humanitarian work. I was stunned when I interviewed for my first job with UNDP, and one of the interviewers focused in on my volunteer work in communications for an abortion-rights group. He was interested because he wanted to hear about when I’ve had to communicate about a contentious, controversial issue that can bring out people’s hostilities, how I’ve navigated deeply religious communities, and how I’ve communicated about legislation and science. He didn’t care that I did it “just as a volunteer” – the work was real, and he wanted to hear about it. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

I am sympathetic to the person that says they cannot afford to take a low-paying job with a local NGO or nonprofit to get the experience in a field in which they want to build experience. I’m sympathetic to the person that says they cannot afford a Master’s degree. I’m not only sympathetic to people that cannot take unpaid internships at development agencies, but also outraged that they are expected to work full time for no pay. But I’m not sympathetic to someone who says, “I don’t have time to volunteer to gain experience so I can get a job in humanitarian work” or “I don’t want to spend a year or more gaining this experience just through volunteering.” Unless you don’t have time to volunteer because you are a primary caregiver to a family member – in which case you cannot be a humanitarian aid worker anyway – you can make the time. Here’s how: unplug your TV and cancel your Netflix subscription. Ta da: all the time you need. You have to set times and days when you would be able to go onsite to an organization to volunteer, and orient your social life and out-of-work responsibilities around that schedule. If you want to engage in virtual volunteering as well, that’s fine, but you are also going to set times to do the tasks you want to undertake. And this time for volunteering (and experience-gaining) can happen outside of work hours, in case you are having to do paid work outside of your career field in make ends meet. You have to make gaining the experience you need a priority – no whining.

But just as you can’t get an aid job solely based on your desire for such, you can’t get a volunteering gig that will give you the skills you need for an aid job solely because you call a nonprofit and ask for such. Just like a paid job, you are going to have to map the various nonprofits in your area – those that work with immigrants, or formerly incarcerated people, or victims of domestic violence, or young people that need tutoring, or those helping people train for new jobs, or people educating re: HIV/AIDS, etc. –  and research them in terms of what they do and how they currently engage volunteers, and get to know them, approach them, go through their application process, and try, try again. You may have to work with an organization for many months before you get to move into the kind of work you really want to do. And you will have to work for many months, maybe longer, to design and undertake your own project that will have a big impact locally and showcase your talents for your CV.

Job hunting is frustrating for most people, even me. Since 2009, I’ve found it far easier to get international placements than to get a job, short-term or permanent, with a local nonprofit or local government agency in my own county; I can’t decide if local agencies think I sound too good to be true or if they think I’m overqualified for the jobs I’m applying for. But if you think aid work is only for the elites, consider this: I’ve had three jobs with the United Nations, and I didn’t get any of them because someone already at the agency put in a good word for me, or because I went to some elite university (I went to a public university in Kentucky you have probably never heard of). None of the jobs were in the same country, and none had offices where anyone knew me, had worked with me, etc. I got all three because of my skills and experience. I was just an applicant for those three jobs, like everyone else. I actually did some digging to find out how I got the attention of the three hiring managers for each of these jobs. The first was because the job was created for me – I happened to be the most well-qualified expert in the world regarding a very particular subject – virtual volunteering – and this was precisely what was needed. The second job was because I had been a part of UNDP and had a robust communications management background, and not just at the UN – they didn’t really care anything about virtual volunteering, but they did care that the UN’s Online Volunteering service branding and other marketing success was directed by me. The third was again because I had been a part of the United Nations and had a robust communications background, with the addition of having lived in a post-conflict zone – and in that job, I was the third choice for the position (first two folks turned it down), and what got them to really read my CV was my comment at the very end that I ride a motorcycle! And for the record, I’ve applied for far, far, far more international development jobs that didn’t even get an interview for than jobs I did get an offer for. And I still volunteer as my way of keeping my skills sharp, to expand my skills, and to keep learning.

Do unqualified people get hired for humanitarian jobs? Do friends-of-friends, and family members of some connected someone, get hired over qualified people? Do applicants get rejected because of really dumb reasons, like because someone reviewing CVs thinks someone is too old or too young, despite their experience? Sure – just like in the corporate world. It happens because humanitarian agencies are run by humans, and humans are profoundly fallible.

Is a career in international development out-of-reach of people from certain economic classes, because they cannot afford the education? Absolutely – just like being a banker or a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or so many other professions. I wish it wasn’t true. And I’ll go even farther: there is a strain of racism in the choice of who gets to be an aid worker that no one is talking about. A black Peace Corps member has challenges never faced by a white Peace Corps member, and black American applicants and black African applicants face obstacles as well, yet I don’t hear many people talking about that. And then there are the challenges for women, as applicants and actual workers…

But even with all those admissions, I stand by the belief that working in international development is not just for the elite. Get the skills and experience needed and learn another language well enough to work in it – it won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Also see:

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad? – a response to a mother writing on behalf of her daughter that wants to volunteer abroad (but is too shy to write herself – yeah, I know)

In defense of skills over passion

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Being emotionally ready to volunteer – or to continue volunteering. There are training tools for new volunteers that can not only help to build volunteers’ awareness of how to handle a variety of challenges, it also might help to screen out people who are not emotionally nor mentally prepared, or not emotionally resilient enough, to serve. In addition, volunteers can face feelings of isolation, stress, even fear during or because of their volunteering service, especially if they are in high responsibility or high-stress roles. Volunteers in these and other situations may need mental and emotional health support -otherwise, you risk volunteer burnout, or volunteers providing sub-par service.

Tech & communications jargon versus reality

The Guardian, a media organization based in the UK, has a wonderful online program called the Global Professionals Network, “a space for NGOs, aid workers and development professionals to share knowledge and expertise”. They also have an occasional feature called “The Secret Aidworker,” a column written by anonymous aid workers, talking about the not-so-great parts of humanitarian work.

The most recent blog is an aid worker talking about the “dark side” of humanitarian / development communications. Like me, she trained as a journalist, and it affects both her approach and her ethics regarding public relations and marketing. I was so struck by these two paragraphs from her blog:

The international community is too focused on using gimmicks in outreach campaigns rather than considering who their audience is and what they want. I was recently asked to design an outreach campaign to educate the local community we work in about the work we do. So keeping in mind the low literacy rate of our audience and the limited access they have to online and print media, I designed a communications campaign accordingly. However, that was considered old and outdated.

For my organisation, the use of new technology such as apps and social media held priority over the local regional media, even though I explained much of these were inaccessible to the people we were trying to reach. Too often people think that if a country has access to the internet and mobile phones, every one has access. They don’t consider the cost of mobile data, the literacy rate, or if the locals would even use their devices the same way as in the US and Europe.

Oh, I SO hear this! Not just in humanitarian work, but in all communications work for nonprofits, governments and other mission-based organizations, anywhere. I hear from nonprofits wanting to explore using SnapChat that haven’t updated their web site in months.They want to host a hackathon to develop an app while their manager of volunteers is refused money for posters for a volunteer recruitment campaign. They want to know the best engagement analytics software to purchase while their online community is quiet for weeks, with no staff posting questions, no volunteers sharing information, etc. They want a crowdsourced fundraising campaign but haven’t sent thank you’s to donors this year. They want a viral online marketing campaign to promote something but balk at the idea of a staff person visiting area communities of faith and civic clubs to build personal relationships with local people, especially groups that represent minorities that are under-represented within the organization’s volunteer, client and donor base.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have long been a promoter and advocate of ICT4D. I wrote one of the first papers – back in 2001 – about handheld devices, what were then called PDAs (personal digital assistants), in health and human services, citizens’ reporting, advocacy, etc. I am a pioneer regarding virtual volunteering. I use, and advise on the use of, social media to promote a variety of information and network with others. I regularly post to TechSoup’s Public Computing, ICT4D, and Tech4Good community forum branch about apps4good – smart phone applications meant to educate people about maternal health, help women leave abusive relationships, connect people with emergency housing and more. So I certainly cannot be accused of being a Luddite. But with all that said, I also still see the value of, and know how to leverage, printed flyers, printed posters, paper newsletters, lawn signs, newspaper ads, radio ads, radio interviews, TV interviews, TV ads, onsite speaking engagements, display tables, display booths and other “old fashioned” ways of communicating.

This aid workers blog reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web, when I would hear an executive director of a nonprofit or the director of a government program talk about how great the agency’s new web site was, but as they talked, I realized they’d never looked at it themselves, and weren’t really fully aware of what the Internet was.

wizardToo many senior staff are bedazzled by buzzwords and jargon they’ve heard from consultants, giving their employees orders to do something based only on what they think is “hip” now. I am just as frustrated by organizations that overly-focus on the latest social media fads for communications as I am by organizations that ignore all things Internet and smart phone-related.

What should you do if you face this in the work place? Use small words and lots of data with your senior staff, and stay tenacious. Remember that a list of potential expenses and budgets for time can make a case for you to do a comprehensive, realistic communications plan. And be explicit and detailed on how your communications efforts will be evaluated for effectiveness.

My other blogs that relate to this:

Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation

ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) has a fantastic blog posting, Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation, by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. An excerpt:

“Over the last two decades, innovations have fueled the creation of a humanitarian cyberspace. It is now time for the task of addressing the challenges posed by the humanitarian cyberspace to be prioritised on the humanitarian innovation agenda… The traditional notion that the ´virtual` world is a different social space than the ´real world` is by now obsolete, also in the humanitarian context… While the traditional threats to the humanitarian space persist, the humanitarian cyberspace broadens the scope of humanitarian action – which means that, instead of shrinking, the humanitarian space is actually poised to enter an expanding frontier. As illustrated by the increasing reliance on mobile cash transfers in food aid, the humanitarian cyberspace also offers new options for the constitution and distribution of relief. The notion that access to information and humanitarian data constitutes a form of relief in its own right illustrates how technology is reshaping the very definition of aid. The emergence of ‘digital humanitarians’ exemplifies a shift in the understanding of who is an aid provider and the possibilities for providing aid from a distance. At the same time, the humanitarian cyberspace has engendered a new set of threats, which impinge on the humanitarian space and which needs to be taken more seriously in the context of humanitarian innovation.”

Another excerpt:

“The use of social media by fieldworkers may undermine principles of neutrality and impartiality and endanger recipients of humanitarian aid as well as aid workers. The dilemma is well-known: In the humanitarian field, the free speech of aid workers must be balanced against the vulnerability of aid recipients and the particular dynamics of the emergency context. However, social media exacerbates the risk, also for humanitarians themselves…While the medical and social work professions (among others) are developing more robust, binding and enforceable industry standards with respect to social media, the humanitarian sector is lagging behind. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are largely perceived as ‘private’ platforms, even when used actively during and for work. Additionally, the tension between security concerns and fundraising priorities seems to exacerbate the difficulty of developing strong and innovative approaches to responsible social media use.”

This entire blog is a MUST read for anyone working in international development, as well as any nonprofit, government or other mission-based organization. It is based on a roundtable at the 4th bi-annual IHSA World Conference on Humanitarian Studies and Sandvik’s recent article in the Third World Quarterly ‘The humanitarian cyberspace: shrinking space or an expanding frontier?’

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) was established in 1997, as a mechanism to provide a forum on learning, accountability and performance issues for the humanitarian sector.

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”

In the EU? Want to become an EU Aid Volunteers sending organization?

eu aid volunteersIf your organization or initiative is based in Europe, in a country that is a part of the European Union, and is also working in humanitarian action or civil protection or volunteer engagement, you can take a free online course to explore becoming an EU Aid Volunteers sending organization. The course will run from 2-29 May 2016, with participants logging on for approximately 3 hours per week for lessons, webinars and discussions. There is a limit of one participant per organization. Space is limited and will be allocated on a first come, first served basis!

This E-Learning course was created by the consortium formed by Volonteurope,
Alianzapor la Solidaridad, GVC Onlus and Hungarian Baptist Aid in partnership with Instituto de Estudios Sobre Conflictos y Acción Humanitaria (IECAH). At the end of the course participants will acquire:

  1. The ability to describe how the EU Aid Volunteers programme provides a central framework for strengthening local capacity and resilience in disaster-affected communities; and
  2. The ability to explain the principles and values of Humanitarian Action along with other key aspects of humanitarian work.

The course ultimately “seeks to provide flexible, practical and up-to-date training on the value of volunteers in humanitarian action.”

Every participant will have the chance to communicate with facilitators and other participants to discuss questions, problems, and opinions. The main forum will be used for introductions, general discussion, and debates, and to “really take advantage” of the course, regular participation in the forums is considered fundamental.

If you participate in this online course, I would LOVE to hear from you – about what you learned, how you liked it, what you hope to do with your knowledge, etc.

The EU Aid Volunteers initiative is managed by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). I was involved in creating the virtual volunteering strategy for the EU Aid Volunteers initiative as a consultant. Here is more information about my consulting experience.

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.