Can ya hang, ain’t nuthin’ but a she thang…

A conversation with a colleague today left me feeling the need to do a shout-out…

To single mothers who are also aid workers.

Yes, I know that everyone here sacrifices in one way or another, and in some way lays it on the line to do what we all do…

But I have to recognize the single moms.

* * *

My single-mom colleague manages what those who work for my employer call the “kevlar portfolio”: Lebanon, Gaza, West Bank, and Afghanistan.

Strictly speaking, she’s not on the emergency response side of our International Programs department. She’s on the “development” side. But really…  are there really any development programs in Gaza or the West Bank? When beneficiaries live daily with the very real threat of rocket attacks, stray UZI rounds, or tanks randomly driving through their fields, I tend to think of that as an “emergency context”, rather than a “development context.” I do understand why it’s important to some to refer to work in Afghanistan as “development.” But seriously, go there. Go through the process of visiting the field in Herat or Jalalabad or Badghis: it’s the world’s most invisible slow-onset (or not so slow) emergency.

When I wrote about hearing the bomb blast, my single-mom colleague, coincidentally traveling with me on that trip, actually saw it. She was just across the street when the bicycle bomb detonated.

And she’s about to deploy again. To Afghanistan.

* * *

Single-mom-aid-workers… you know who you are. You have my respect.

And Christine – travel well. Stay safe. Cheers…

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“Silo-ing” or “Collaboration”? (’cause there’s no in-between…)

This morning I had to get up early for a conference call. It was an important one, with several people joining from multiple time-zones. Without being specific enough to divulge any company secrets, let me just say that it basically had to do with the division of labor in very specific cases between those who do “development” and those who do “emergency response.” I was on the call representing perspectives on the latter.

I was and am not bothered by the fact that the conversation was necessary. Despite the theory of the “relief-development continuum” (or now it’s actually a spiral) which takes away the hard lines of separation between the two (I do not dispute that there are no hard lines), a practical reality of aid organizations is that different people and different teams do different tasks. Moreover, at the extreme ends of the continuum the actual tasks and skillsets required to do those tasks can be very different (maybe hard to clarify from the spiral perspective…). Clarity around who does what, and making sure that the right people/teams are given the right tasks can only be good things. Right?

But I came away from today’s call frustrated by the fact that rather than actually clarifying who does what – and perhaps more importantly, who does not do what – the group ended up with a to-do list of action points around more ‘protocol’ and ‘process’ and ‘collaboration.’

I’ll just be vulnerable and say here that some days ‘process’ and ‘collaboration’ simply feel like code for: “yes, we can meddle in whatever you’re working on… and no, you cannot actually make any decisions…”

I could just about burn incense to Alanna’s post about ‘process.’ And I am frustrated by what feels like an industry-wide culture of too-frequently valuing and insisting on collaboration, purely for the sake of collaboration. It’s like we think because we’ve engaged multiple stakeholders across the organization in conversation X, that the outcome is better necessarily.

Although I find myself basically disagreeing with Scott MacLennan’s post about how small NGOs and projects are almost always more effective than large NGOs and large projects, I do resonate with the vibe of being able to act without undue hindrance from the machine of a large organization. I don’t think the size of the organization or program budget, or even necessarily the complexities inherent in large size, is/are the key factor(s) in determining the success or failure of development interventions. But that post does highlight that we very often make things more complex and more difficult than they really need to be.

That said, I do see the value in and even myself embrace ‘collaboration’ where it adds value. What troubles me, though, is that there is very little room to question ‘collaboration.’ To do so invokes accusations of “silo-ing” or being a “relief cowboy”, either of which are the aid-work equivalent of heresy, offenses punishable by stoning or being burned at the stake. But like the medieval heretic who recants verbally yet in his heart remains unchanged, I am steadfast: sometimes processes work better when they’re not written down as protocol, but instead are left fluid; sometimes collaboration does not improve the end product, and in fact, sometimes collaboration for collaboration’s sake can reduce quality.

There has got to be some middle ground.

Vacation and never leaving

I’ve just come back from three weeks on the road. Not the longest I’ve ever been away, but a bit longer than the median since starting this job. It was two weeks of fairly intense proposal-development work in Jordan, followed by another week of pure vacation someplace else…

About once each year I spend a few frequent-flyer miles to buy a ticket for my wife so that she can join me for part or all of an international trip. Usually, due to deadlines of one kind or another, I’m not able to take vacation at those times and so she simply goes where I go for work (she’s an aid-worker-turned-stay-home-mother). But this time the stars aligned and it worked out to actually take vacation.

It was the first time in about 8 years (since having children) that this has been possible. Truly an opportunity not to be squandered. She met me in Amman, and from there we traveled to a place she’d always wanted to visit: Istanbul.

There is plenty to like about Istanbul. Interesting sites. Lots of history. Good museums. Great shopping. Decent food (I’ve been ruined by Thailand – food anyplace else is just okay). Istanbul is the convenience and ease of travel of western Europe, some of the color of eastern Europe, some of the je ne sais quoi of the Middle East… I stood in the Aya Sofya and felt as if I should probably go back and re-read Foucault’s Pendulum.

It was the first time in a very long time that I turned off my Blackberry, and – even more challenging – abstain from “thinking about work.”

Well, mostly abstained from thinking about work. Even sleeping in, lingering over a third cup of coffee at the breakfast buffet, it was impossible to not keep up – out of the corner of my eye to the TV on BBC – with the deepening crisis in Sri Lanka. Even just checking gmail and my blog stats, it was impossible to miss the Yahoo! headlines about survivors of Cyclone Nargis or the Sichuan Earthquake one-year on, or demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok.

Not checking messages is one thing. Actually dis-engaging is quite another.

Even sightseeing, I found I could not leave behind my training as a photographer, anthropologist or aid worker: I started out in Southeast Asia, but in the past few years my work has taken me increasingly to the Islamic world = as a curious student of human behavior, even on vacation I could not steal myself from trying to learn – if only informally by observation from a distance – more about Islam = every time I lifted my camera, what I followed through the literal lens was also filtered through my anthropologist/aid-worker lens. And while the images are surely of Istanbul, as I look through them there is an obvious emergent theme.

Back now at my house in a suburb of Seattle, I’m almost out of jet-lag. I check my work email. My inbox is hemorrhaging red, ‘unread’ messages. I settle back into the routine of meetings, reports, reasons to run to Starbuck’s, the latest office drama. It’s amazing how quickly the well-rested feeling of vacation can evaporate. But then, in some ways, I never totally left.

HQ v. “The Field”

I’ve been thinking back lately on relationships between field offices and head offices. I’ve been in both setting at different time, always stridently outspoken about the lameness of the other. Trying for a brief moment, however, to more rationally analyze for myself why those that worked well did and why those that didn’t work well didn’t, it seems that overall things went better when the following happened:

4 Things You Must Do When Working in a Head Office:

1) Be flexible with colleagues in the field whenever you can. Don’t sacrifice quality or industry standards. Don’t violate policy or turn a blind eye towards mismanagement or fraud (unfortunately these sometimes happen). But if a request is reasonable and it is within your power to say “yes”, say “yes.”

2) Be as transparent as possible with colleagues in the field. Let them know what issues and decision time-lines are for those things that will affect them. Let them know the bad news as well as the good: they have an equal need to know both. Let them know where you stand personally on those same issues, so long as doing so will not violate trust or appear mutinous up your own management line.

3) Don’t give field colleagues the run-around. If they come to you for something that you’re able to provide – again, without violating a protocol or other agreement – provide it. If you can’t provide it, say so (see #2), and point them in touch with someone who can.

4) Don’t travel to the field without a purpose that both you and your field colleagues agree on. It should be a purpose which, if met, will actually add value. It should be something more specific than “see how things are going.” The existence of a travel budget that must be spent is not a purpose.

4 Things You Must Do When Working in a Field Office:

1) Give your head office colleagues the benefit of the doubt whenever you can. Think twice before sending a complaining email to the boss of your point-of-contact at the head office. Resolve issues with the head office at the lowest appropriate organizational level: elevate issues only when truly necessary. Give them the chance to prove their expertise technically, programmatically.

2) Fulfill your commitments to the head office (and be transparent when you can’t). Meet deadlines, provide information, participate in… whatever, as expected/promised. Particularly for grant-funded programs, don’t leave your head office colleagues holding the bag on a past-due report to the donor. Let your counterparts at the head office know as soon as you do that you’ll have trouble meeting a particular deadline or commitment.

3) Ask for help when you need it. Theoretically, at least, you and the head office are on the “same team.” If you’re struggling with a technical, programmatic, or managerial issue, bring the head office on board as a stakeholder (they are, anyway, whether it’s acknowledged or not).

4) Be a good host. You don’t have to be over-the-top about it. But make sure that visitors from the head office are well-supported. Unless you and the visitor have a specific other arrangement, make sure they’re met at the airport, have a hotel reservation, etc. Check before assuming to make sure that they know where to find the basics: food, water, pharmacy… Don’t make them grovel for things like help getting internet access or changing an airline ticket.