Tag Archives: sharehumanity

humanitarian stories & photos – use with caution

whitesaviorbarbieIf you are going abroad, particularly to developing countries, even just for vacation rather than a humanitarian mission, be really careful and respectful in what you write for the public about your travels, including your use of social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. -, and what photos you take and post. Think about a post or photo carefully before you publish: is it accurate? Is it enlightening? Could it be seen as patronizing? What would the people I’m talking about say if they read what I said/saw my photos? Would it be acceptable for a stranger to talk about your community, and share photos of your children, on their blog in the way you are about to?

Earlier this month, National Public Radio did a story about how Zambians, other Africans and aid workers are using social media to show factual errors and condescending remarks in a memoir by British actress Louise Linton about her gap year. The hashtag being used is #LintonLies.

An excerpt from Linton’s book:

I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Really? THAT moment was that child’s GREATEST JOY?! And that is the kind of circumstance that makes you feel not out of place? She also talks in her memoir about child soldiers in Zambia – something that is not actually an issue in Zambia. Throughout her book, she confuses Zambia with Congo and Rwanda. The Zambian embassy in London has even called her out.

And then there’s actress Debra Messing, who seems similarly confused about Africa being a country, and posted photos online recently that gave people the impression that her message was more about “look where I am!” than the people she was supposed to be there FOR on behalf of two NGOs, as dissected by a commentator at Jezebel.

It all looks like ‘White Savior Barbie’ come to life – White Savior Barbie is an Instagram account that hilariously parodies volunteer selfies in developing countries, as highlighted in this article on the Huffington Post. There’s also an article in the satirical magazine The Onion that mocks voluntourism , joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Messing. I know that they had good intentions. And we’ve all done things out of ignorance that we later, often quickly, regret. We all make cultural missteps. We all make communications missteps. And aid workers can get quite carried away in an ongoing and very smug game of more-in-tune-with-people-and-not-acting-privileged-than-thou when they mock volunteer humanitarians and others, and that can be just as bad as the missteps they mock. I’ve been called out a few times for things I’ve written my blogs from developing countries – sometimes I haven’t agreed with those criticisms, sometimes I have. But I hope I’ve never come from a place of “look at me going to save all these poor people!”

I also hope these missteps don’t stop people from sharing their adventures online, including photos:

UNICEF recognizes the enormous power of visual imagery such as this to engage, inform and inspire audiences – and to advocate for children’s rights. Photographs or film footage that depict real life situations of children, and UNICEF programmes supporting supporting them, are one of the most effective ways to communicate these issues. — UNICEF Guidelines: Protecting children’s rights in corporate partner image use, viewed online in July 2016. More UNICEF photo guidelines here

I learn so much reading various posts on social media from people working in developing countries. It’s brave to put yourself and your thoughts and opinions out there, for public consumption. But be ready to revisit what you’ve said and thought online when it comes under public criticism.

And aid agencies, PLEASE train your workers, including volunteers and celebrity representatives, on how to use social media – and what not to do – before they start their work abroad or go on a field visit.

Check out this code of conduct resource from Child Rights International Network regarding taking photos of children in developing countries (really, anywhere).

Update October 21, 2016:  “a hot mess” of “neo-colonialism, racism, hypocrisy and privilege.” A Christian ministry feels the backlash of a very ill-thought video of their impressions of Uganda. Another story about the video from NPR’s Goats & Soda.

Also see:

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.

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Based on comments I’m reading on Facebook and emails I get, there are some misunderstandings among a lot of people about three major volunteer-sending organizations: VSO, UN Volunteers and even Peace Corps. These misunderstandings lead to frustrations about what these organizations are looking for in candidates, and also leads to some perfect candidates not even considering applying to any of these organizations. I’m going to try to tackle some of these common misconceptions into today’s blog:

I’m going to try to tackle some of these common misconceptions into today’s blog. But please know that none of the following statements are official statements by any of these programs. These are my views, based on my experience working with these organizations and observing their work for more than a decade:

  • Each of these organizations require at least a six-month commitment, and most of their assignments require a two-year commitment. These aren’t programs for “I want a feel good work abroad experience for a few weeks” – these are real humanitarian assignments that require a longer-term commitment than an extended vacation.
  • These organizations are not for unskilled people who want to “try out” humanitarian work. You need to have a great deal of real work experience and/or a Master’s degree to be in any of these programs. The average age of a UN Volunteer was 38 when I worked at HQ a decade ago, and I don’t think it’s gotten any younger. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer, at the time of this blog’s publishing, is 28, but 7 percent of volunteers are over 50. You need an area of expertise and/or a project you have lead successfully that proves you could do a field assignment – and that project doesn’t have to be something you did outside of your homoe country – in order to be accepted in any of these three programs.
  • UNV, VSO and PeaceCorps are excellent options for seasoned professionals from the for-profit sector that want to apply their skills in the developing world – but you will need much more than just that experience to make the cut and get to be a part of these programs. You need to represent on your application work that you’ve done, paid or as a volunteer, with high-poverty communities, people with low-literacy skills, people that are at-risk for poverty, crime or exploitation, populations different from the one you represent, religiously-conservative communities, etc. These organizations want to know that you have experience that will help you get through the challenges in a developing country, that every circumstance abroad won’t be utterly foreign to you.
  • The application process for each of these organizations is highly competitive and the organizations reject MOST of the people that apply. These organizations want people who have résumés that show experience that proves applicants can do the job that is asked for. While I got a job at UNV HQ in 2001, I actually would NOT have qualified to be an actual UN Volunteer in the field at that time, because I lacked the experience to do so; I could support UN Volunteers, but I’m really not sure I could have been one myself at that time (now, I do feel I’m qualified, and have been accepted into the roster).
  • Demand for volunteers through these programs changes frequently. There may suddenly be a need for people that have a great deal of experience working in government, that can help a country transition after conflict or independence. There may suddenly be a need for civil engineers. And just because someone with HIV/AIDS education for teens, or someone that’s run a vocational program, or someone with experience creating farming CO-OPs isn’t needed today doesn’t mean such won’t be needed in the next two years, so it’s a good idea to apply for these programs now even if they aren’t asking for someone urgently with your particular area of expertise.
  • You might get accepted into the UNV program roster but never get a placement. Placement consideration starts with what skills are needed, and then recruitment or placement staff look at qualifying candidates in terms of a variety of factors, including nationality; if a particular country is funding a particular UNV assignment, they may want the chosen candidate to be from their particular country. It also can take many months between the time you are accepted as a candidate to the time you get a placement (if ever).
  • You will be paid if you are accepted and get a placement in any of these programs. All of these agencies like to stress that these aren’t jobs and you don’t receive a salary, but the reality is: you are paid. Your travel and accommodation expenses will be paid, you get medical insurance, and you will receive a living allowance to meet reasonable living expenses in-country during your assignment. In fact, as a UNV, you get a stipend that is often the same of what a local government worker in the country where you would serve would get. However, most would agree that the stipend is not enough to have money left over to send home, pay debts you have back home, etc.
  • You aren’t limited to the title “Peace Corps Volunteer” or “UN Volunteer.” You will, in fact, have a role that doesn’t have the word “volunteer” in it. You will be a maternal health care nurse, a clinic manager, an ESL teacher for women and children, a fisheries advisor, a communications manager, a public health educator, an IT manager, etc., with a local NGO or government agency in the country where you serve. You will have a specific role, and that’s what should be on your résumé or CV when you complete the assignment – that you did it under a UNV contract or whatever should be in your job description, because that is the contract under which you worked, but that title or role that describes what you did is what’s most important to a potential employer.

If the participants in these programs do receive compensation, what makes them volunteers? As someone who believes volunteer is merely a pay rate, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with level of skills, level of responsibility, motivation or commitment of a person doing that volunteer assignment, it’s a question I’ve struggled with. This is the conclusion I’ve reached: the United Nations, the US State Department, and various other entities that work overseas have different types of worker contracts. And in those agencies, when you call something a “job”, even just a “consultancy”, it comes with certain expectations on the part of the worker in terms of monetary compensation, because the people in these roles are doing this work full time as their careers, for many, many years. It’s how employees and consultants are paying for homes, putting their kids through school, paying family expenses, saving for retirement, etc. The vision of Peace Corps, VSO and UNV, at least on paper, is that the people that are volunteers through their programs aren’t necessarily people who are career humanitarians; they are professionals or highly-skilled people willing to give up six months to two years of their careers and fully compensated work in such to, instead, work as a part of a humanitarian endeavor overseas. Why do these agencies want these people? On paper, they say it’s because these programs can involve people in humanitarian work who aren’t career humanitarians, bringing in much-needed talent and experience that career humanitarians might not have – a bakery owner who goes to Africa for six months to help train local people in food safety and modern baking techniques, for instance. Or a police officer who goes to Afghanistan for six months and trains local police on recognizing and appropriately responding to domestic violence. The reality? I’m sorry to say that, for many agencies, it’s a way to save money; contracts through UNV, VSO and PeaceCorp are far, far cheaper than hiring someone as an employee or consultant outright.

A reminder that none of the aforementioned statements are official statements by any of these programs. These are my views, based on my experience working with these organizations and observing their work for more than a decade.

Also see:

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

Using Your Business Skills for Good – Volunteering Your Business Management Skills, to help people starting or running small businesses / micro enterprises, to help people building businesses in high-poverty areas, and to help people entering or re-entering the work force.

How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip – for those who want short-term volunteering opportunities abroad and who don’t have the high-demand skills needed for VSO, Peace Corps, UN Volunteers, etc.)

#HumanitarianStarWars

In February 2015, #HumanitarianStarWars took off on Twitter – memes that sum up the universe in which humanitarian aid and development professionals work. The Guardian curated their favorite tweets from the somewhat trending topic – and I loved it because it brought together two things I love oh-so-much (I have been known to recite Princess Leia’s hologram speech upon demand).

What a shame I don’t know how to imbed a tweet – because I would love to show you my faves….

 

My job: reading the consequences of war

A lot of my current job is reading large volumes of text and then trying to synthesize them down to something smaller, easier to understand and quicker to read, for various reports, web pages, etc.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about what’s happening to people that have fled the violence in Eastern Ukraine, and people who have remained behind, as well as what life is like for Crimean Tatars and others that have had to flee Crimea. I haven’t cited all of my sources below – there are just too many. There’s no one comprehensive report on this crisis – yet. But all of the following is easily verifiable using news and humanitarian reports, all publicly available online:

In the areas of armed conflict, homes, buildings, roads and bridges, electricity, and water systems and other basic infrastructure are often severely wrecked. Heating systems are needed and sanitation is poor, access to medical and social services is inadequate, and access to food remains a concern. Many of those that have stayed behind are the elderly or people with disabilities. And winter is coming… many of those who have stayed behind, regardless of their politics, are experiencing not only the threat of violence, but also abduction, extortion and harassment. Many people, especially men, have disappeared without a word to family, and it’s not known if they’ve are being held somewhere or if they have been killed.

And that’s for the people that dare to try to stay in areas affected by war. Around 15,000 Crimeans of mainly Crimean Tatar ethnicity (80%) are now internally-displaced people (IDPs) and have sought refuge in the Ukraine mainland, mainly in the west. As of 8 August 2014, UNHCR reported a total of 125,032 from Eastern Ukraine, but this is probably way too low – there’s no widespread systemic way right now to register IDPs. A needs assessment conducted by OCHA in June 2014 indicates that a total of 1.52 million people may leave the Eastern regions of Ukraine, should armed conflict and violence continue, let alone escalate. Some IDPs are living in collective shelters, which were built for youth summer camps, and their numbers in those shelters are far beyond what buildings were constructed for. These shelters often do not have heating systems. And winter is coming…

IDPs usually do not have the appropriate paperwork they need to register for government services or to get a job in their new location. They can’t access their bank accounts because such have been frozen by the government here or in Russia, depending on where they have their money. IDPs have great difficulties to get legal services for protection from civil and criminal issues. Gender-based violence is on the increase, and largely unreported. There is a HUGE need to provide services to those IDPs who are suffering from psychological disorientation, alienation and stress. Communities where IDPs are living are starting to become wary of them, as any community does of people they perceive as outsiders: misunderstandings and misinformation about IDPs abound, and there is a growing need to promote respect and tolerance among everyone, through deliberate, facilitated community dialogue and communication – the stuff some people call touchy feel-y, but that I think prevents violence, even civil war.

And all of these problems are growing, every day, as conflict continues.

There are a lot of reasons the United Nations has been in Ukraine for so long – but this new, more urgent reason, is why I’m here, albeit oh-so-briefly. Such a huge challenge… so huge…

If you are saying, “I want to help Ukraine! How do I do that?” I think donating financially to any UN agency that accepts financial donations, such as the World Food Programme or UNICEF or UNFPA, and saying you are doing so for Ukraine, would be awesome. These agencies provide both direct service through their own staff and through local Ukrainian nonprofit/civil society organizations. Just please don’t send stuff – don’t collect t-shirts or baby supplies or what not if you are outside of Ukraine – it’s cheaper, more efficient, and better for local economies to buy things right here in country.

World Humanitarian Day is TODAY

Here we are again: it’s World Humanitarian Day, August 19, an annual day, designated by the UN General Assembly, to recognize those who help others regarding humanitarian issues – addressing human welfare, help people facing a natural or man-made disaster, helping in post-conflict situations, helping improve the lives of marginalized groups, etc. It’s a day to honor of aid workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, as well as to celebrate the lifesaving work that humanitarians carry out around the world every day, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances, where others cannot or do not want to go.

I encourage you to blog about the work of aid and development workers today, and to use a Facebook status update and a Tweet today to celebrate humanitarian workers as well. #humanitarianheroes is the official tag of the day, though I think a lot of folks are reluctant to use it when talking about themselves as humanitarians. Also, be sure to like the official Facebook page: World Humanitarian Day.

Recently, while hiking in a state park in Utah, I got into a conversation with another visitor. When she found out I had worked in Afghanistan in 2007 (because of my t-shirt), she said, “Thank you for your service.” Since I have heard this comment by people from the USA only for people in the military, I said, “Oh, ma’am, I wasn’t in the military. I was an aid worker.” And she said, “You should still be thanked for your service.”

While there’s nothing at all extraordinary about my work in Afghanistan, Egypt, Germany, or Ukraine, there are some amazing humanitarian workers out there. They spend years away from their families and risk their lives to do their work. Some are injured. Many are harmed long-term, emotionally and mentally, by the stress of their work. Some are kidnapped. Some are killed. I knew one of the people killed in Iraq on this day in 2003, in the bombing that targeted the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq created just 5 days earlier; we’d sat in a meeting together in Bonn when he was in a different role in a different country, and when he heard me tell about the UN’s Online Volunteering service, he stopped me from speaking, called his assistant back in the country where he was serving, and said, “Look into this web site; we’re going to be doing a lot with it soon.”

These people not only help with immediate help during and after disasters, providing food, heath care, housing, etc. – that’s often the easy part. Humanitarians also help local people rebuild their governments. They help local people engage in activities to bring about peace and reconciliation – something that is never, ever easy. They do the stuff that isn’t easy to take a photo of or put on a poster – but that’s every bit as important as any other aspect of humanitarian aid.

Thank you, colleagues. Thank you, humanitarians. Thank you for your service.

How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization.

How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad.

EU Aid Volunteers will include virtual volunteering

It’s official! In February 2014, members of the European Parliament, by a margin of 600 to 30, endorsed the European Union Aid Volunteers (EUAV) initiative that will facilitate more than 18,000 EU citizens, NGO employees and third country nationals over 18 to take part in humanitarian work worldwide in the next seven years.

This article, New EU aid volunteers program to make a ‘concrete, positive difference, notes that, “from 2014-2020, the European Commission expects to facilitate the deployment of more than 3,950 EU citizens to disaster-affected countries. An additional 1,990 humanitarian apprenticeships will be offered within the European Union, and some 10,000 home-based ‘online volunteers’ will be responsible for tasks ranging from graphic design and translation to providing advice and support. It is also expected that more than 4,400 people from local organizations in non-EU, disaster-affected countries will also benefit from the chance to undertake training and job shadowing within European humanitarian organizations.”

This official press release from Brussels, EU Aid Volunteers: the initiative takes shape, provides more details about this initiative, envisaged by the Treaty of Lisbon that created the EU. “Trained volunteers will have a variety of options: from performing online tasks from home, through work at the offices of humanitarian organisation inside the European Union, to deployment to EU-funded humanitarian operations around the world.”

In fact, onsite, in-the-field placements for EU Aid Volunteers are already being recruited.

More info:

It’s been my pleasure to be a part of putting together the online volunteering strategy for the EU Aid Volunteers initiative. That means providing:

  • Background on virtual volunteering – what it means in the EU context, what best practices have long been established, etc.
  • Details on the infrastructure and capacity that will be needed by host organizations and online volunteers 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’ve loved most about this assignment is that it combines 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!

This is my second European-related project in the last 12 months. The other involved researching “Internet-mediated volunteering” in the EU, to map how prevalent it is and how it might be further cultivated, as well as its potential relation to employability & social inclusion. There’s more information bout that project at this wiki. The final research is not yet published, but I did write this blog about “What I learned from researching virtual volunteering in Europe.”

More about me and my work, and my consulting services, including subjects on which I train.

World Humanitarian Day, August 19

World Humanitarian Day, August 19, is an annual day, designated by the UN General Assembly, to recognize those who help others regarding humanitarian issues – addressing human welfare, help people facing a natural or man-made disaster, etc. It’s a day to honor of aid workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, as well as to celebrate the lifesaving work that humanitarians carry out around the world every day, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances, where others cannot or do not want to go.

I encourage you to blog about the work of aid and development workers today, and to use a Facebook status update and a Tweet today to celebrate humanitarian workers as well. And if you do this, or plan to, then also please RSVP to my Facebook event, World Humanitarian Day, so I can keep track of who is doing what.

Official Facebook page: World Humanitarian Day.

My experience working in Afghanistan in 2007.

How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization.

How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad.