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M4 Version 5[4]I’ve been looking around for a good read for the past several months and finding myself dissatisfied with the airport bookstore. So I was glad to get a review copy of J’s latest: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit.

I read it in one sitting on the plane home from a meeting about disruption, civil society and the capacity of international development/aid organizations to adapt, so it was through that lens that I consumed the book. It pretty much answered the question “can INGOs adapt?” (Spoiler alert: prognosis is not good.)

And make no mistake: These structural issues are universal. It’s not Oxfam or WAC or Save or CARE. You don’t escape this problem by moving to another organization or taking a different job in your current organization, because this is the nature of the aid industry itself.

J’s description of personal agendas, bureaucracy, competition, jostling for position, stressed local government workers, exhausted staff, and unrealistic demands from donors and headquarters is an insider’s view of why INGOs have a hard time adapting and changing. The book describes the complexity of aid and humanitarian work in detail, bringing in the conflicting push and pull of the different stakeholders.

Rather than complexity encouraging adaptation and organizations that are more “fit for purpose,” however, J’s main characters are trapped in complexity that paralyzes, breeds mediocrity, loses sight of the mission and rewards the “wrong” motives and decisions.

Aid is not broken because aid workers are cynical, hedonistic alcoholics. Aid workers are cynical alcoholics because aid is broken, and further, because they have been repeatedly slapped down by their own leaders for trying to make it better.

J does recognize the conflicts, however, and (with only a little bit of blame and harsh judgment), he shows the demands made on people at all levels of the aid machine:

Management and leadership are the easiest things in the world until you actually have to do them.

J does a good job of humanizing the aid worker and his or her personal and professional struggles within this dysfunctional system. He writes about how the passion for aid work conflicts with the personal choices each aid worker makes, most significantly when the addiction to aid work obliterates the possibility of having “normal” and healthy relationships with one’s family and home country society. The book also highlights the internal doubts and fears of self-aggrandizement that any self-reflective aid worker experiences:

…Suddenly Mary-Anne felt overwhelmed with the feeling that her career in the humanitarian world had thus far been built on so much self-important dishonesty….

….“You come here, you and your foreign friends. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to instruct refugees about drinking enough water or where they should shit every day.” He snorted derisively. “These people were mapping the stars and perfecting mathematics while your ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing naked around fires in the forest…. You children come here to patiently explain to Ethiopians about accountability and honesty… You think we need you to help us know right from wrong. You come here to ‘supervise’ people old enough to be your parents. My youngest daughter is your age. ”

Reading the book was like having a long conversation with J over Skype or beers where he offers you career advice and makes you feel better by acknowledging you that you are not the first person to experience internal conflict and self-doubt. There is a fair bit of J bestowing his wisdom on the reader, but I find that J normally has good insights and offers solid advice, so this did not bother me.

I did feel that the book was half-finished. Several of the characters introduced early in the book were not developed out in the rest of it. Given the “to be continued” on the last page, I assume that their stories will be picked up in the next book in the series. I also would have liked more about the setting and history woven in, and more active roles for some of the “local” characters, as well as a chance to get inside their heads and see their perspectives in more depth. This would have rounded the book out and brought it fully from the tongue-in-cheek harlequin romance novel style of J’s first book (Disastrous Passion) to a more solid kind of “historical fiction”.

Some have criticized the book for being aimed solely at those in the aid and development world and making too many “insider” assumptions. I suspect, however, that J purposely wrote it for “Expat Aid Workers,” and I didn’t find that to be a problem. Simplifying things for a mainstream audience would water the book down, making it less “real” for those working in the sector. This choice means that this book will not become a best seller outside of the industry — but I don’t think it is meant to.

I will note that the fact that I didn’t have a problem with the level of detail-that-only-an-aid-or-development-worker-would-appreciate probably means that I am sitting firmly in the category of “Misfit.” Read the book and you’ll understand what I mean!

Disclosures: I was provided with a free copy for review. I have known J for quite some time and consider him a friend, which may color my opinions about the book.

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Image captured from page 19 of the Polis report.

Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector, a study conducted by Polis, (the journalism think-tank within the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics- LSE) with Plan UKlaunched yesterday in London.
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The study complements several pieces of research released over the past year or two on the UK public’s perception of foreign aid, development, giving, and the NGO sector; including Intermedia’s Building Support for International Development, the UK Public Opinion Monitor/Institute of Development Studies’ What Does the Public Think, Know and Do about Aid and Development? report, the Oxfam/Bond/DfID Finding Frames report and the Overseas Development Institute’s Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development.

Whereas the other reports focus on various aspects of how the public sees charity, development and foreign aid, the Polis report gives a window into the debates and challenges of those working in advocacy, marketing, campaigning, fundraising and communication departments at INGOs. As my Plan UK colleague, Leigh Daynes, writes in the introduction:

‘…Our work to inform, to educate, to campaign for change and to recruit long-term supporters to fund change is valid. Often it is life-saving. Yet the least understood area of our work often is the impact of our communications on public understanding of and support for aid and development. The public are telling us they are saturated with suffering, that we are charming or disarming them into acts of compassion, and that we are abusing their emotions….

…Understanding the impact of the “lingua franca” of our industry matters because it has fuelled a template approach to the media reporting of suffering. It matters because the exponential growth in access to mobile and social media technology and platforms means we are no longer the de facto guardians we once were. And it matters because it speaks to the power between us and them, and you and me.’

As more and more research is done, the ways that the sector is shifting become clearer and I hope we will start to see some positive changes in the aid and development industry and the way it communicates with the general public.

Some angles and voices that could help round out the discussion are still missing, however. I would like to see research on the opinions of local and international staff managing programs on the ground. Most organizations have fierce internal discussions on how marketing and fundraising is done, as program staff often feel that some marketing and fundraising approaches are demeaning, disrespectful and undignified in their portrayal of program participants.  (For more on this, ask Talesfromthhood to share some of his blog posts with you, join some of the discussions on AidSource, or follow the #smartaid hash tag on Twitter). Some program staff worry that the long-term impact of media and fundraising shock tactics and overly simplistic messaging ‘cancels out’ the short-term gains achieved through program or emergency aid funding – a point that is raised in some of the research above – and that this contributes to two-dimensional views on aid and development and to the negative stereotypes about certain countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that deter longer-term development and self-determination. It would be interesting to know more from this perspective.

What do donors want? Image captured from page 9 of the report.

At the same time, INGOs are hard-pressed to come up with different and viable ways of funding their work, so this type of campaigning and fundraising continues. Although I’m familiar with some of the challenges my marketing colleagues face, I was struck seeing the kinds of donor demands that INGOs are expected to meet listed in the report. I was reminded of something a marketing colleague once said: ‘Poverty porn. That’s a good term. It is a lot like real porn. People don’t like to publicly admit to watching and responding to it, but in private it’s another story. People say they don’t like poverty porn and sad, desperate stories, but when you look at the numbers, it’s what makes them reach into their pockets and give.’

I would also like to see some research with the subjects (unfortunately often presented as ‘objects’) of INGO aid and marketing materials.  How do program participants feel about how they are portrayed? What impact does it have on them and their own perspectives and self-determination, if any? Strong voices on this come from diaspora communities and from blogs such as Africa is a Country, Uganda 2012: Trending Our Own Stories, and great projects like My Africa Is; but I’d also like to see some in-depth research and objective focus groups that talk with those who are most often shown in INGO marketing. Are people aware of how they are being represented? Do they care? Many of us speculate about this when we bash ‘poverty porn’ but I’ve yet to see published research that involves actual ‘beneficiaries’ of INGO programs or people and communities appearing in INGO marketing and fundraising pieces in this discussion. (Maybe I’ve missed it – if you know of  any, please share!)

The ‘Who Cares’ report notes in the conclusion that:

  • transparency, accountability, ‘value for money,’ and impact are becoming more important to the donor public
  • public trust is a central concern for NGOs in their work and their communications
  • the sector needs to assume more collective responsibility for ethically appropriate portrayal of disaster victims (eg, in compliance with Article 10 of the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct)
  • new technologies and competition mean that fundraisers are seeking supporters outside of their traditional constituencies
  • traditional gatekeepers of aid are being challenged by new media’s ability to put donors and ‘beneficiaries’ in more direct contact

As INGO institutional leadership space opens up to more people from ‘the global South’, diaspora communities grow, social media allows for commercials and fundraising appeals to reach global audiences (including people in the countries where INGOs implement their programs), attention is paid to the ‘new bottom billion‘ and new fundraising mechanisms arise (for example, INGOs raising funds within countries where they are implementing programs), it will be interesting to see how the conversations and approaches shift and change — or if they remain the same with new actors taking on the same challenges.

Stay tuned for further research and reporting over the next couple of years from Polis and download the report here.

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There’s a great, ongoing discussion happening around aid and development and the ethics of using photographs and other media and stories about people INGOs and NGOs are working with (a.k.a beneficiaries, clients, participants). The discussions are organized by CORE Group in DC. I also participated in the first meeting of the group in April (see this post: On the ethics of photos in aid and development work).

Today’s meeting focused on consent and informed consent for photographs.
Jim Stipe was the key speaker. He shared Catholic Relief Services‘ experiences with developing a process that allows for informed consent in a variety of situations.
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Future discussions will cover related topics such as what happens with social media sites and consent and copyright? What about fair use of images and stories? I’m quite looking forward to continuing the discussions and learning!

Check out the compilation of tweets here on Storify – be sure to read from bottom to top!

Also see this old post: Child protection, the media and youth media programs.

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This week I came across the “Feedback Mechanisms in International Assistance Organizations” report by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, based on research undertaken by the Listening Project and funded by the Gates Foundation.

The findings and recommendations are very intuitive and it’s nice to have them gathered in one place. The report can serve as a starting point or a pause-and-reflect moment for organizations working specifically on humanitarian accountability as well as those who are looking to integrate better ‘downward’ or beneficiary feedback into development or humanitarian work overall. It also offers good food for thought for those interested in crowd sourcing and the use of new technology for citizen engagement and input.

The report is not too long, and it’s easily laid out for a quick read, so I’d recommend downloading the .pdf and digesting it fully.

To whet your appetite, here are some points I found interesting:

Why do agencies seek recipient feedback?

Four reasons were identified in the report: to improve accountability, to improve effectiveness, to respond to donor requirements or media pressure, and to increase security for staff. Feedback from recipients* was seen to give staff the fuel needed to pressure higher-ups for necessary changes in programming; beneficiary feedback often improved program quality and recipient satisfaction, and seeking dialogue and communication with communities tended to reduce threats of violence. When accountability was a donor requirement but wasn’t part of a larger organizational buy-in or value, unsurprisingly, initiatives were less successful.

To many reading this post or who may read the CDA report, the benefits of participation and feedback and accountability are already obvious, nonetheless it’s  good to see them captured and documented in a report as a support to those who are trying to establish accountability and transparency mechanisms in less-friendly or convinced atmospheres.

Other key points (any quotes come directly from the report):

  • All practitioners interviewed for the study “expressed their unequivocal commitment to participatory and inclusive approaches to humanitarian and development work, and placed significant emphasis on accountability mechanisms.” In addition, many organizations have signed different charters and standards including SPHERE  Guidelines, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Standard in Accountability and Quality Management and the INGO Accountability Charter. This rather contradicts the impression the media often likes to give about aid agencies as being totally unaccountable to anyone. Or maybe certain parts of aid agencies are more interested and prone to seek accountability and transparency than others.
  • The report says, however, that there are still issues with continuous feedback loops and information doesn’t always return from whence it came. “Typically information gathered from primary stakeholders flows through different parts of organizations, but decisions are rarely communicated back to communities.” One could also ask how often this feedback (or similarly, any information, or data) is returned to communities in accessible formats so that they can use it as well for their own purposes.
  • Good accountability mechanisms are not possible without management buy-in or staff competency. Managers play a critical role in “creating incentives and requirements for field staff to regularly solicit and utilize feedback.” Organizations need to invest in the skills necessary to ensure honest feedback can happen at community level, and/or among the various people and organizations involved (community members, CBOs, local partners, local staff, management staff, headquarters, government, etc).
  • Different agencies are working to develop frameworks to improve feedback and accountability mechanisms. “Some of these new approaches have built-in mechanisms for integrating recipient voices into program strategies and operations.” Some organizations have been collecting primary stakeholder feedback and sharing information with recipients for years as part of participatory development processes. However, the report says, often the exercises are very focused on individual projects or towards particular practical results and the richness of the feedback is not fully appreciated or systematically fed into broader decision-making processes.  “The practices of systematically listening to, gathering and analyzing people’s perspectives, recommendations and complaints have not become routine in many agencies.”
  • Feedback mechanisms need to be designed together with recipients. “Mechanisms must also be appropriate to the specific contexts where they are intended to operate, and agencies have to consider the most appropriate name for the [system], channels, and methods for raising complaints, and culturally appropriate ways of responding.” This is especially important in tense environments or with people who are not accustomed to voicing their opinions.
  • Trust is important, and according to the report is “the first step in getting meaningful feedback. Providing information about the goals and expectations of the organization is the first step in building trust…. Organizations need to establish systematic procedures for reviewing, investigating and responding to feedback or complaints. All this needs to occur in a consistent, timely manner for people to believe in the system and use it.” My own experience with children and youth participation initiatives, has taught me it’s also critical to discuss and agree on clear and honest expectations about what can and will be done with the feedback, and the degree to which feedback will actually be able to change a situation. This goes back to the report’s point on management buy-in and institutional systems. Unless your organization really wants to hear the feedback, is willing to change itself or its actions or viewpoints to respond to the feedback, and has the internal capacity to respond and modify how it’s doing things, asking people what they think can be really tricky and potentially demoralizing for all involved. It’s never nice to hear people say “why did you ask us if you didn’t want to know” or “what is the point of knowing what we think if you’re not going to change?”
  • New and emerging approaches are being tested, including those that use innovative tools and technologies such as SMS and social media. However, the same principles apply to these new technologies as to any other type of feedback loop, and it’s clear that there are still challenges with new technologies.  As mentioned earlier in the report “Most organizations that were successful in gathering feedback… and distributing information back… found it necessary to have more than one mechanism in place…in order to provide options for all of the different groups within the local community to provide feedback and to get information.” This is especially true with new technologies, given the large numbers of people left out of feedback loops due to cost, literacy, age, gender, and access if only SMS or social media are used. Specific challenges with new technologies are highlighted in the report, such as the case of Haiti where an SMS service was set up and people were very willing to use it, “but the agencies had not incorporated a way to monitor the replies and feedback. This resulted in some frustrations and a lost opportunity for a feedback loop between recipient and aid agencies.”

Page 17 of the report offers some good examples of what effective feedback loops look like, page 20 lists several areas that need investment and incentive to ensure effective feedback mechanisms and to guarantee that information is properly gathered and well-utilized, and page 23 offers a list of recommendations for effective and comprehensive feedback loops.

Read the full report here.

*I’m not a big fan of the terms ‘recipient’ and ‘beneficiary’ but have used them here because they are the terms used in the report.

Related Posts:

Ian Thorpe does a good job of commenting some of the portions of the report I didn’t expand on:  “Listening to the people we work for

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