Once, back in the day, when I was young and crazy, in my first HQ-based job, I got stuck supporting a couple of fairly important (for my employer at the time) projects in a place called Naxcivan. In the late 1990’s, Naxcivan was a dull, barren, mostly gray, Azeri, post-Soviet/soon-to-be-Sharia town in the bend of a muddy river that separated Azerbaijan from Iran. On a clear day, Mt. Ararat, in eastern Turkey was visible down the valley. Electricity was erratic, internet was available only via a special PC/MCIA cable that connected a Nokia mobile phone to a computer running Windows 98. Local cuisine seemed to be mainly greasy meat on skewers and very smelly goat cheese. Local people were suspicious of outsiders to an almost absurd degree (we might be Armenian). The process for making a simple cash withdrawal from a local bank took the better part of an entire morning, and involved a passport, forms filled out in triplicate, and a sit-down with the bank manager.

There is no question: Naxcivan was a tough gig. It was slow, hard going. Development gains were fragile and incremental, high desert summers were harsh, and winters harsher still. Naxcivan was not a particularly fun place to live, nor was it an easy place to work. If ever a place could be called “The Field”, it would have been Naxcivan, ca. 1998.

But one of my enduring memories of Naxcivan is sitting around at night, shivering in the dull glow of an Arcelik (yes, the name made us laugh, too) gas heater, listening to the expats based there, whinging about their expat colleagues in Baku. The expats in Baku demanded reports and sit-reps. The office in Baku would send teams out to Naxcivan to “monitor” and “audit” things. Apparently those based in Baku were all haughty and uppity and referred to Naxcivan as “The Field” as if Baku was some sort of center of the universe.

But see, back then, Baku was “The Field”, too. Back then, Baku rolled up the sidewalks at 9:30 p.m., the electricity went out all the time, the phones hardly worked, the Ladas broke down, and the elevators stuck between the 10th and 11th floors. For me, based at the time in Washington, D.C., just walking off the crisp, clean Lufthansa jet into the dingy, cracked, cobweb-covered, flickering fluorescent-lit Baku airport was already in “The Field.”

 *  *  *

I’ve been based in “The Field”, and I’ve been based in HQs. And I’ll tell you, without hesitation, that HQ is the toughest deployment I’ve ever done. Give me giardia, bad internet, the musical Stockholm syndrome, being misunderstood by family, staff, and neighbors alike. Give me corrupt policemen, roads that were supposed to be cleared but aren’t, iodine-deficient checkpoint sentries, cockroaches crawling across me in the middle of the night, rats scurrying beneath my baby daughter’s bed; Give me mid-war Killinochi, the Jalabad Road, the Iron Triangle, the Taliban and the Khmer Rouge. Yeah. Been there, done that. All of it.

Straight up, HQ is harder.

Don’t believe me? Give up the convenient moral high ground of your affected genteel poverty in Cambodia or Uganda or Panama City, and come sit in a cubicle in D.C. for a few years.


Pray For Peace

[NOTE: This post was written 2 years ago. I have my reasons for waiting until now to publish.]

I won’t bore you with lengthy backstory, nor will I give away the location just now. But I’m currently in the midst of a thinky-strategery kind of process for my employer in a very recently post-conflict place. Even to say that it is, in fact, post-conflict is a matter of debate by some. There is a very tentative and uneasy calm in place, but everywhere I see the signs of churn just beneath the surface. This place is textbook “fragile context”—a term I dislike, but am, for the moment, stuck with.

A few days ago I visited a settlement for internally displaced persons (IDP). This is a community of people who fled, together, as I understand it, on foot, from their original home more than one hundred kilometers away. After a lengthy series of mishaps that involved essentially being held prisoner by an insurgent armed group (basically local terrorists), and a couple of failed attempts by the aid system to “help”, they ended up there. It was a decent enough (considering the overall state of affairs in that place) settlement, close to a market and a road, with houses, a meeting space/Mosque, and a few other miscellaneous buildings constructed at better than Sphere standards, but following local styles.

At each corner of the settlement were elevated guard posts where, I was told, UN peacekeeping soldiers would stand watch at night to protect the IDPs from the local community. Then apparently, a week prior to my visit UN mission in that place determined that the situation had stabilized enough to no longer post guards in those posts. The first night that there were no UN soldiers standing guard, people from the local community came and stole all the metal doors from the latrines.

When the local Imam showed me, it was actually pathetic to see: blocks of constructed latrines, standing wide open with no doors. No chance to go relieve oneself in private. It seemed very demeaning and dehumanizing.

Yes, of course I get that the surrounding community was also abjectly poor. And yes, I do get that it often creates tension between local and displaced communities, when the displaced receive especially international help and the local do not.

But still. What kind of asshole steals the bathroom doors from IDPs?

Hardly one hundred meters from the edge of the IDP settlement, we came across the local chief of police and the senior religious leader from the local community, having a couple of mid-day beers. They pumped my hand enthusiastically. “Thank you, [MY ORGANIZATION] for everything. Yes, the situation in [THIS COUNTRY] is still very bad. Let us all pray for peace.”

Pray for peace? How about stop stealing stuff from the IDPs?


Then, yesterday I learned that during the height of the recent internal conflict it was rather common for people to murder their neighbors—people against whom they held a grudge, or to whom they owed money, as examples—with machetes (or whatever), and then toss the bodies down wells. Apparently this practice was prevalent enough that it negatively affected the statistic on access to potable water nationally.

Not to dramatize or overstate the problem, but just so you’re clear on the implication: There are so many wells contaminated by the rotting corpses of murdered villagers that it is statistically significant in a nation-wide data set.

And once again, it was the energetic handshakes, and the effusive thanks, and the solemn invocation: “We must all pray for peace.”


I have most definitely had my moments of extreme internal ethnocentrism while on this assignment. I mean, they’re talking and in my head I’m thinking: “Friends, you’ve thrown so many dead bodies into wells that you now need emergency water interventions in areas that previously did not. And the best solution you can articulate is ‘pray for peace.’ For real?”

I’ve [EXPLETIVE DELETED] had it with, [EXPLETIVE DELETED] “pray for peace.”

But those thoughts quickly give way to extreme jadedness with the aid system. (Not cynicism, jadedness. The difference is important.) I’m jaded because I already know how this is going to go. Over the next couple of years, the aid system is going to pour untold resources—cash, human hours, travel, workshops…—into “innovative peace-building solutions,” or variations on that theme. Books will be written. Experts will sit on panels. Working groups will be formed. Jargon will be created. Niche/boutique NGOs and INGOs will come into existence. None of which/whom will do much more than add complexity and perhaps some more specialized jargon around a central basic question:

How do we persuade people to not hack their neighbors to death with garden tools?


Okay, of course it’s never really that simple. And in this particular setting, you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to realize that things here are actually very, very complex. There are multiple layers of perception and multiple layers of reality that do not align; there are national and regional, and even global entities with vested interests in what happens here, and in some cases vested interests in keeping this place unstable. That’s right. There are global entities who benefit when the villagers kill each other, and who use their power and influence to keep that happening.

And in this setting, with this knowledge, thinking through what needs to happen, and then, what an organization’s role is in making it so, all becomes very daunting. I do not think it really possible to honestly identify what it might take to move the needle on any issue of consequence at any kind of scale, and not come away feeling terribly insignificant. The question of where to begin is tough enough. Worse still, the question of where to focus capacity. You can’t fix everything. Hell, you can’t really fix anything. So what do you do?

Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. But for today, all I can come up with is:

1) Help where you can.

2) If you can’t help, at least don’t hurt.

3) Pray for peace.

National Staff

Lots of talk in different places lately about a range of interrelated issues around “local.” How to bring local voices more to the center of the dialogue in the international humanitarian system; how to get more “local” individuals into roles of power and influence within our sector; how to inject local priorities into decision-making at higher levels.

This is one of those suites of issues for which it can feel difficult to establish a concrete link between the big pronouncements and what one actually does, day-to-day, somewhere in the aid industry as the manager of a diverse team. “I really want to empower my local staff, but I’m slammed with this stupid ECHO reporting cycle and hardly have time to think.” Or perhaps more difficult, “I gave 2/3 of my local staff raises or promotions last fiscal year. What more do you want from me?!”

For posterity, here is my approach:


Caveat 1: For this discussion, I assume that local voices becoming more prominent, local people becoming more influential within the global humanitarian system is the point. I’m not talking here about “localization” which I see, basically, as changing the ways local organizations are included (or not) in the system.

Caveat 2: Nothing here supersedes basic good management.


Treat national and international staff the same. Super basic. Start with this.

When you walk into a room with nationals and internationals, speak to them all, acknowledge them all. Have all-staff gatherings or open invitation gatherings; make the expats-only happy hours the extreme exception. If you’re going to hang out socially with your team (and it’s not a bad idea to do that up to a point), make it crystal clear via your words and your actions that you are hanging out equally with everyone. In the workplace, everyone on your team gets performance managed the same. Everyone is given access to the same opportunities for those coveted trainings in Dubai or workshops in Bali. When there is an opportunity for promotion, make sure that it is open to all (obviously based on qualification). Look at the composition of working groups and teams within your team and make sure that they are appropriately diverse.

You have to assiduously tabulate opportunities and perks provided—I literally keep a spreadsheet. Your staff do notice; they do keep track. Just because you don’t have a mutiny on your hand right now doesn’t mean the international relations dynamic of your office or team are healthy.

Getting this right is the basis for everything else that comes after. Yet I am continually surprised at how many experienced, senior people I meet across the industry who get this wrong; who don’t give this the attention it deserves.


With this as the basis, it is important to recognize the biggest obstacle faced by national staff within the humanitarian sector is mobility: Access to opportunity for lateral and vertical within humanitarian ecosystem. By contrast most “traditional” internationals come to the sector with a range of built-in mobility advantages. So, as expat managers it is our job to level that playing field a bit. In particular, there are three areas where you should focus with your national staff:

Understanding of the global humanitarian system and how it works: If the goal is to have local voices more front and center, more influential in that global system, then part of our role as internationals is to make sure that those national staff who work with and for us understand how to work and move within that system. I frequently (which is to say, every mission, ever) meet Western-educated interns who know more about the global humanitarian system than many national staff in the same office who have been churning along at the project level for years. And I have seen it happen more than once that the intern rose quickly through the ranks and perhaps some years later came back to supervise those same national staff who may or may not have moved on.

Some managers just sort of blindly promote national staff. Okay, promote national staff. But without those national staff understanding where that promotion puts them in the wider context and, importantly, along a (hopefully) known career path promotion is a nice gesture, but not necessarily more.

Every humanitarian should understand the global humanitarian system. It is something we all have to learn (PHAP now has a course on this). This is an area where I consistently see national staff arriving to the discussion below the level of many internationals, and as a result those national staff have to struggle that much harder to get the same kind of forward/upward momentum in the sector that comes to the international staff with comparative ease. As managers, it is our job to equalize that imbalance.

Equal treatment in the workplace and making sure national staff understand the global humanitarian system are foundational. Once that foundation is set, there are two specific targets to aim for.


The management/leadership threshold: This is a crucial barrier inside the humanitarian system that many national staff struggle to breach. There is a dimension of this that relates to level in the organization and to title, but it is also more than that. I think we’ve all seen situations where someone kept getting promoted into incrementally higher positions with ever more specialized titles, even though their actual level of influence did not change (or maybe even became less). By “management” in this case I mean that by title and position, and in actual practice they supervise people, they have financial authority, they can commit to a course of action on behalf of the organization.

To be clear: Supporting national staff to cross the management threshold is a lot of work. We have to actively look for talent, which means time spent with people, knowing their capability and performance, and genuinely helping them develop in areas where they’re weak. Which, in turn, requires planning and methodology. “Local staff capacity building” cannot be just a random sequence of one-off training workshops and promotions. It is not creating unique positions in a structure just for them. Rather, it means looking carefully at resources available and making tough choices about how to deploy those, and then being able to explain rationally why you chose what you chose (because in my experience, investment in local staff mobility is almost always questioned by someone, at some point).

Enabling national staff to cross the management threshold also involves risk to you, and maybe your willingness to stand up to your organization. There may come a time when you are pressured to fill a particular position with an international, and you have to burn some political capital or lay your own reputation on the line over a national colleague whose capacity to step-up and perform in that role/at that level is still unproven.


The international threshold. Once national staff get their first international assignment, the world fundamentally changes for them. There is professional growth that happens almost organically as the nature of their engagement with the global humanitarian system changes. They have access exponentially more opportunity for mobility within the sector. Their career universe expands. It confers a set of huge advantages that even the intern from D.C. on a 6-month rotation in Amman already enjoys, but that many national staff must wait years into their careers to realize.

Achieving this does not mean that challenges are over, that the opportunities are completely equal, that they are now on track to be CEO of the organization or global cluster lead or head of WFP. It won’t mean that the world is suddenly a fair place. But crossing the international threshold is the thing that actually puts national staff into the game for real. When we talk about centering voices from the “global south” or bringing local perspectives more meaningfully into the global dialogue, this is the point at which those become actual possibilities.

This requires a particular mindset for international leaders and managers. Specifically, it means that we try to intentionally lose our very best national staff. It means that we have to get out of our concentric bubbles of country programme, team, organization, or whatever and—not to be cliché—look at this as one of those areas where we can contribute to a greater good. I take personal and professional pride in recounting those people I have managed who performed well, left my team, and went on to important positions in other organizations, elsewhere in the humanitarian system.

Yes, this means national staff become international staff; locals themselves become expats. Some people brow-furrow when I say this. “Won’t they just recreate the same problems in other places that traditional expats created in their home countries?” Honestly, I doubt it. My experience with national staff who became international is that there’s no kind of system failure or meltdown that occurs. Some locals become expats and struggle with homesickness and culture shock, just as many of us did and do. Some of them seem to transition effortlessly.

In any case, on this point and speaking as an international to other internationals, our role here is to give them the space to learn the things that we also learned; to not judge them for making some of the same mistakes that we ourselves once made; and to change the nature of our relationship from supervisor or boss to mentor or coach (if they’ll have us).

Bits & Pieces

I don’t know about you, but 2017 has been pretty full-on for me. Lots of deployment, lots going on during non-deployment times. Certainly lots of crazy in the world. During it all I had tons of thoughts, wrote pages of notes. But, sadly, very little to show for it in the way of blog posts, articles, or new books.

Sorry — I promise 2018 will be more productive on the writing front.

In the meantime, here are this year’s main bits and pieces. Ideas for articles or books that never quite materialized (but still may):


Two weeks: If you resign or get fired from your aid job it will take two weeks for you to have been moved on from. No matter how good you think you are, how important, how crucial, innovative, or whatever, in two weeks—maximum—your workload will have been absorbed by others or simply abandoned. No matter how senior or junior you are, within two weeks or less everyone you worked with or for will have stopped looking at your handover notes.

Two weeks. Think about that next time you’re tempted to work all night on emails that seriously could wait until tomorrow or the next day. Or before you shred a colleague, whether to their face or behind their back, as if you’re the gatekeeper of humanitarian ideological purity on your team.


Change costs. I wonder if it’s time to nuance some of the conversation around changing the aid sector, particularly vis-à-vis the sort of big issues of recent months: Localization and the incorporation of voices from the global south, the way humanitarian funding works, testing and mainstreaming innovations, etc. Much of the frustration voiced online about the pace of positive change in these areas tends to zero in on the famous isms – racism, sexism, neo-colonialism, cronyism… —as reasons for why things don’t change for the better, faster. And to some extent, fair enough, as these isms all do clearly exist in the humanitarian industry.

But I wonder if some of this critique doesn’t miss the point that change to an organization or industry is very costly, and not just costly in money but also in time, staff morale, loss of productivity (depending on the change), etc. And further, while cost is not necessarily a reason not to make certain kinds of changes, the cost of change does have to be understood before change can be undertaken. Very easy to make the pronouncement that such and such a change must happen. Much tougher, in the real world of organizations, coalitions, and systems to make those changes happen. But understanding and clearly articulating the cost of change is a key to helping change.


Expat vs. Local. I have 30,000 words written toward a manuscript of a (short) book just on this topic. Maybe I’ll finish and publish at some point. But I’ll give you the spoilers now: in the end it boils down to three things.

First, can we just stop saying “Expat” and “Local”? These are outdated terms with decades or even centuries of baggage and connotation that just don’t help us now. “National” and “international” staff should be just fine. Great, thanks.

Second, meaningful performance management is central to this issue. Yep, I know – no one wants to think about, let alone have more reason to be in more meetings with HR. But I see lack of meaningful performance management as THE reason why incompetent international staff continue to get recycled, while amazing national staff can’t seem to breach mid-management. Can one good national staff really do more than 10 internationals and at a fraction of the cost, as those angry tell-all “secret aid worker” articles opine? I don’t know. And until we do meaningful performance management, neither will you.

Third, invest in understanding the global humanitarian ecosystem. The vast majority of humanitarians that I know and interact with personally are entrenched in their respective bubbles of departmental or local office politics and project-level technical issues. Most of us are unable or unwilling to lift our heads above our own spreadsheets to see how our pet issue(s) fit(s) into the overall ecosystem. And without that view of the whole, along with an understanding of the interactions of its component elements, it is just not possible to have a rational conversation about “expats versus locals” in the context of a system that needs the contributions of, and therefore must at some level accommodate the special needs of both.


Get good at management: The humanitarian world does not need another personal water purification solution. The humanitarian world does not need another water purification solution for mass provision. The humanitarian world does not need another kind of emergency or transitional shelter. The humanitarian world does not need another kind or brand of ready-to-eat emergency ration. The humanitarian world does not need another NGO (nope – not even yours), another book on humanitarian principles, or another special working group on evidence or data, or another high level forum on localization, or more drones. So don’t waste your time and energy on these things. There is very limited need for more theory or debate. We know how to set up latrines, run NFI distributions in high-security contexts, and do cash-based programming.

But mostly we suck at people management. If you want to make a difference, if you want to change the humanitarian sector for the better, get good at managing people.



  • I never buy or consume the “light” version of anything.
  • When I’m in the Middle East, I put saffron on my food everyday, just because I can.
  • The Core Humanitarian Standard is your friend.


Updates 30 Dec: Fixed a few editorial errors.

humanitarian #metoo

You’d have to have been asleep for the past month to have missed the wild media roller coaster of #metoo. In many ways this feels like a watershed moment in public culture and discourse about sexual harassment in the workplace. We have not seen the end of it, nor—if I am to guess—will we for quite some time more. Pandora’s box is open, and although I won’t try to predict the future in any kind of detail, it feels safe to say that the status quo ante is changing, and for the better.

It may have all started in the entertainment industry, but it’s obviously far beyond that now. The humanitarian industry, too, has it’s own share of sexual harassment issues, perhaps even scandals waiting to emerge. If the number of (mainly, but not only female) colleagues who have ranted to me about this over coffee or after hours at the relief zone pub is any indication, it’s one of the most-discussed things that is never discussed.

So, maybe let’s discuss it a little bit. By no means some kind of final word on anything, but my observations, for now, for what they’re worth:

There is a problem. I don’t know how the humanitarian sector compares with other sectors or industries. But speaking here as a 26-year industry insider, in my experience and observation, sexual harassment is consistently a concern. I don’t know if it’s at a point of crisis or emergency (okay, even one instance is already unacceptable), but it is at least chronic. I am not one of those who deny the existence of this particular problem. Humanitarians are as prone to inappropriate behavior and as likely to abuse what counts as power in our world, as anyone. There is a problem.

Females are generally at a disadvantage in the humanitarian sector. This just has to be said. To me this is blindingly obvious, nearly all the time, in nearly every aspect of life in the humanitarian ecosystem. This, for all the reasons, and in all of the ways that we’re familiar with in all other sectors and industries. This is not a cause of or a reason for normalizing sexual harassment, but it is a huge contributing factor.

We make ourselves vulnerable. More than many other industries, I suspect we fudge the boundaries between personal and professional. I feel this personally: the fact that I have virtually zero social life outside of the humanitarian industry speaks to it. So while I treasure my relationships with some truly dear friends, male and female, I am also keenly cognizant that there is risk there, as well. The legendary amount of humanitarian consensual hooking up “in the field” or “on mission” means that the question of a consensual hookup is forever on the table. Moreover, in the pressure cooker of a response or embattled HQ team, workplace relationships can often take on a temporary deep, close quality that is not actually there. I see and experience this often. And unless we have good social and emotional intelligence, it can be easy to assume a level of familiarity that isn’t reciprocated, and with too little sleep or too many drinks, similarly easy to assume consent that in fact has not been given.

Further, situations rarely feel straightforward, and that can make lines of principle appear artificially blurry.

Many things about the humanitarian industry contribute a sense that the rules are somehow different for us. We’re very often far from home and support networks, in situations where we may already be uncertain, squashed in the back of a Land Cruiser or sharing accommodation with total strangers often from other cultural backgrounds, under-rested, and often under great stress. These and more mess with our heads and sometimes lead us to feel as if situations are different than they are. In such settings, I have seen some people come to believe that they are entitled to take liberties with colleagues that, in fact, constitute harassment. Or more darkly, they engage in harassment knowingly, because they think there will be no consequences

As an industry, we have to acknowledge and speak plainly about the unique vulnerabilities that we and our colleagues take on when we do this job. While the basic principles of what is and is not acceptable should not change from one industry to another, I think we have to engage with the realities of our industry and the ways in which those realities intersect with the issue of harassment.

Combination of policy, process, and culture. This is a very general pronouncement, but NGO and INGO policies on this issue establish little practical difference between inappropriate but consensual encounters between colleagues and actual harassment. There are lots of procedures around documenting, intermediate redress, giving both parties a chance to have their say. But short of behavior or an event that warrants criminal prosecution, most in-house INGO/NGO process is likely to be heavy on talking and mediated resolution.

Which means that while policy and procedure are important, just as are documenting and reporting, we all need to manage our expectations around procedural outcomes, at least in the immediate term. I guess that some humanitarian organizations will make “zero tolerance” statements, and perhaps revise and strengthen in-house policies in the wake of the cultural spiral of #metoo. Who knows? Maybe there will be the humanitarian equivalent of a Henry Weinstein or Kevin Spacey expose. But in general I think that the way forward needs to be a mixture of policy/procedure and industry culture. Which means…

Leadership & management set the tone. Yes, a workplace free from harassment of any kind is everyone’s job at some level. Everyone has a role to play, holding oneself accountable to a high standard of interpersonal behavior at the bare minimum. That said, if you are senior, if you manage others, if you are looked to by others for guidance in any way, you have a responsibility to articulate and then set the example. It does not matter whether someone up the chain of management from you sees the issues differently; this is not the time to quibble about the line between actual harassment and just creepy. As a manager or leader it is your job to communicate, and then model by your own interactions, a higher standard. And then hold those below you accountable to that same standard.

Update: And in case it is somehow not clear, the time for management and leadership to set the tone and lead by example is immediately.


“The thing to understand,” Patty was speaking again, “and that I figured out far too late, is that for all of their originally laudable, altruistic intentions, NGOs become primarily about ensuring their own survival, pretty much within minutes of forming.”

Honor Among Thieves, Chapter 23

*  *  *

Some time ago I had a conversation with an industry colleague, in which we pondered the question: What would it take to bring down an NGO, INGO, UN agency, or household charity? (Bring down, as in somehow cause it to be no longer viable and force it out of existence.) We discussed large-scale programmatic meltdowns; gross misconduct by senior staff; high profile resignations and subsequent tell-alls in the NYT; and of course those wildly retweeted, endlessly snarked (and often hilarious) ‘celebrity ambassador malfunctions.’

Those things all take their respective tolls, of course. But the real answer to our question is much simpler and more direct: Money.


Not long ago Report The Abuse announced that it was closing, due to lack of funding. Humanosphere, too, recently made a similar announcement. I’m sure there are others, but these two really represented for me the so-called cutting edge in some ways (yes, I’m aware that Humanosphere was/is not an NGO, per se). They did things, or attempted to do things that others were not, in ways that others were not. But when the cash dried up, so did they. Any organization that previously relied on US government grants to work with refugee resettlement is not taking a hard look at its budget and strategy right now.

On the other hand, we can all recount instances where implementation went really badly, or perhaps did not really happen. We can talk about the times the actress got all the way to Africa without knowing the basic philosophy of the organization she was there to be an ambassador for, and then went on to mistake Dakar for Darfur. We can talk about the executives forced from office for misconduct, or the INGO CEO who routinely makes absurdly inflammatory statements about Muslims. Along with many, many more. All of these organizations, despite what I assume were untold person hours of conference room angst, reactive media statements, public relations hand-wringing, and nasty comments on Facebook, are all still doing relatively well for themselves.

NGOs can do the dumbest stuff ever. And still, there they are, their staff in coordination meeting after coordination meeting, disaster zone after disaster zone, still fighting for territory, going after grants, maybe even sitting on the HCT.

By the same token, you/ your NGO can have the best, most disruptive innovative locally-focused stakeholder owned programming model ever in the history of NGOs. Heck, your organization can be the best ever at scientifically proving that your programmes actually do what they say they do. But if your fundraising can’t cover the basics like office space (even working from Starbucks costs something), business services like Internet (Facebook and Wix aren’t as free as you think they are), or pay your staff and yourself some kind of salary (volunteerism – even local volunteerism – goes only so far)… well, you should start botoxing your LinkedIn and HumanSurge profiles right now.

It seems almost too obvious to be true. Humanitarian aid and development is a pay to play game. NGOs orient themselves to be primarily focused on ensuring their own survival, pretty much within minutes of forming.

This isn’t cynicism. This is just the way the world, including the aid world, works. And it’s not all negative. Sometimes there’s value in simply knowing. But from my perspective it means three main things:

1. We are donor-driven industry. Deal with it. We need renewed and serious discussion of what it means to exist in a totally donor-driven reality. Again, not 100% negative, but too many of us pretend that it’s a non-issue. Listen, every donation – every single one – comes with strings attached. Even if the donor leaves their donation as cash in non-sequential unmarked bills in a brown paper bag on the front door of the head office with no note, they still chose this NGO rather than another. And that decision was based on something. Every donor has an agenda. (Even MSF’s donors.) The sooner we collectively recognize that and talk about how to maintain humanitarian principles in the context of funding that always, always, always has strings attached, the better for everyone.

2. Bigger is not necessarily better. We have to get better as Aid NGOs/INGOs at understanding our role in the larger ecosystem of aid sector entities, and adjust our sizes and scales appropriately. That is, adjust our sizes relative to our actual role. Right now the tendency of every NGO that I have any knowledge of is to prioritize growth. More, more, more. Bigger. More market share. More regions, more countries. Even forced attrition is couched as “strategic”: We’ll pull back, regroup, and then grow even larger with new/different/better focus, or something. But maybe bigger is not always better for purpose. It’s a tough perspective for some to get their heads around. Especially in an industry that many outsiders don’t see as an industry, saturated with for-profit sector transplants as executives, largely out of touch with the rank-and-file, day-to-day business of the organizations they run. We have to get to the place where we’re more comfortable talking about being the right size, even if that means smaller.

3. We are all expendable (yes – you, too). As organizations, sure, but more to the point as individuals. Career mortality is forever out there. It takes maximum two weeks for a team or organization to move on after your departure, no matter whether you were fired or resigned in protest. When times are tough, as they frequently are, your bubble on the org chart will be looked at in the cold, hard light of cost/benefit. It doesn’t matter how incisively insightful you are, how good you are or how much some local staff somewhere love you. Let that sink in. Adjust your more-ethical-than-thou attitude and propensity for working all night accordingly.


It’s a turbulent time in much of the so-called “developed world.” Nativism, nationalism, supremicism of different kinds. Humanitarian aid and development are inherently and increasingly politicized, and under fire. And polarized. You can’t be in favor of small government and also favor refugee-friendly foreign policy, or so we’re being led to believe. You can’t support refugees and also love your own country, or so the politicians tell us. You can’t want to help your own and also help others; it has to be either / or. And at least in the United States, the either/or, ‘us versus them’ narrative has become increasingly entrenched as almost mainstream worldview.

It’s no surprise that right now is a tough time to get people on board with the idea of foreign aid. Every dollar donated toward humanitarian response in the Horn of Africa or the periphery of Syria is one not spent “making America great again.” (Or wherever.) Basic compassion has, in the past decade, become a partisan issue.


I’ve seen the fundraising, marketeering types in the aid industry use all kinds of arguments to (try to) persuade donors (often wealthy individuals) that they ought to part with their mammon to help poor people in other countries. Some try to make the point that helping poor people in other countries is actually good for us. Some brow-furrow and hand-wring about the possibility that the refugee waiting for third country relocation just might be the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs. Some fall back laborious reinterpretation of religious texts (“Jesus was a refugee, too…”), or some such. Among many other tactics.

But I have to say straight out that none of that really works for me. And I often worry that if we are to the place where people have to be persuaded of the basic value of helping others, then things are probably much worse in the world than we previously imagined.

I mean, you can go on YouTube and find videos of elephants looking out for each other, for goodness sake.

I don’t need some novel theology or the concern of potentially lost genius as a prod to be kind to those fellow humans who need it.

Even the ants help each other. So, what is our problem?