I can speak Vietnamese at level 10 in the Berlitz system. The Berlitz system goes to level 12. When I’m there, in Vietnam, I’m very comfortable not using English. I mostly speak northern, but occasionally a bit of southern twang creeps in – a reminder of my early days as a debonair young staffer down in the Mekong Delta. At the end of the period when I lived there full time, I could – with proper prep – give speeches in Vietnamese. I could sometimes pass as Vietnamese on the telephone. It was my job to occasionally spend days, sometimes weeks in remote parts of the country with no contact with another foreigner. During those times I would eat, breathe, sleep Vietnamese language and culture. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into understanding Vietnam and it’s people.

But of course I am not Vietnamese. You only have to take one look at me to know this. Despite my knowledge of it’s language, culture and history I would never presume to speak for Vietnam or on behalf of Vietnamese people.

* * *

I speak Michigan fluently. Both standard and redneck. Michigan is where I was born and it’s the language I grew up hearing. I can pass myself off as a native in Ohio or Illinois, but not Indiana. I can understand New York and New Jersey fairly easily, but I have to concentrate to catch what people from Massachusetts (especially Boston) are trying to say. I’m told that I do a pretty good “Virginia” impersonation, but by the time I get as far south as the Carolinas, people know I’m faking it. Georgia takes some effort, and I’m completely lost, linguistically and culturally, in Florida, rural Mississippi, and Louisiana.

I’m American. I’m as legitimately “from here” as any other fourth generation, white, non-Native American person. And yet there are places – Idaho, Oregon, Utah… – where I am most definitely an outsider. The culture is different; I talk funny and use different words for things. If you get very far away from interstate highways and chain restaurants, even the food is different. In a specific local sense, I am not “from there.”

I would be as hesitant to speak for the residents of Texas or Minnesota as I would be to speak for the residents of An Giang or Tuyen Quang.

* * *

I know from repeated personal experience as an aid worker, working internationally and cross-culturally the disadvantages of being an outsider. Whether it’s a conversation about program design or strategy with local colleagues, or a focus group with disaster survivors as part of an evaluation survey, I am keenly aware that there are elements I will not understand. Why? Quite simply, because I am not them and I am not from there.

I remain also keenly aware that anything I may say about a place or people, as an outsider, can at any time be called into question on the basis of the fact that I am not from there. Perhaps I misunderstood what I saw or heard. Perhaps my own biases, whether as an American male or as an aid worker, skewed my judgment and I was, unknowingly or not, predisposed to reach particular inaccurate conclusions.

But there are other settings where being an outsider has it’s advantages, too. There have been times where beneficiaries have been more open with me than with my local colleagues. Sometimes it is because they perceive – accurately – that local people also have their biases. Just as I have my own preconceived notions about what people are like in Missouri or Maine, so do my colleagues from Baku or from Jakarta have sometimes inaccurate preconceptions about people living Minqechivir or Nias. And so, as an outsider, I am more likely to be immune to those local prejudices – basically, more sympathetic – than someone who may look like them and even speak their language, but who is not really from there.

Someone who, like me, is also an outsider.


Between Arrogance & Defeat

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon.


Q & A

This is follow-up to a prior post entitled “What do YOU think?” As hoped, “What do YOU think?” generated some excellent, thought-provoking comments and discussion. “Thank you” to those who took the time to share their thoughts.

This doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation, nor is it meant to be an exhaustive response, but I have tried to pull together a few thoughts in response to some of the issues raised.

* * *

What’s ‘Normal’?

@viewfromthecave articulates some of the complexity around defining and getting a handle on ‘normal.’ Joe notes, correctly, that we’d need some sort of pre-disaster baseline as one part of determining what is ‘normal.’ And Jina suggests that perhaps ‘normal’, to quote a UN strategy officer in Sierra Leone, is when “things work unexceptionally.”

My thoughts: In my opinion we just don’t know. No one that I’ve read or spoken to can clearly, convincingly define what ‘normal’ is in the context of a disaster response like Haiti right now, or, say, Louisiana or Tsunamiland before.

A better question in my mind would be, “what does aid success look like?” My sense is that anyone who thinks about it for even two meaningful minutes understands the futility of talking about ‘normal’ (especially to disaster responders). But it think it is absolutely fair to ask what minimums aid workers and aid agencies should be held to, to define in as-objective-as-possible terms the conditions under which they can be declared by the media, the host government, their beneficiaries, or their donors to have “failed”, “performed poorly”, “performed adequately”, or “kicked ass.”

The present reality is that in the early days after a disaster, simply saving some lives, any lives, or getting something, anything out to survivors, making things better even if only incrementally is sufficient. But by the time week four rolls around, after the dust has begun to settle and the fog of war has worn off, just trying to make things “better” is obviously not good enough, yet any concept of “success” remains also untenably vague.

How Long?

Joe asks a good question: Why wouldn’t we spend down what we raise in the year that we raise it?  Blair, Didier, C-sez, and Linda all provide good discussion in response. Much of what they say echoes my own sentiments.

My thoughts: Let me first clarify that the 50-70% in the first year is not based on a hard-and-fast industry standard. It is, rather, a very general guideline than many organizations loosely follow. Further, whether that guideline is even relevant depends to a very large degree on how much funding has come in. Whether you’re following a resource transfer or investment paradigm (see Didier), the amount of effort that it takes to spend $5 billion dollars at all responsibly (even if only from the perspective of good financial management and accountability) is simply immense.

As well, the issue of spend-down is inextricably linked to one’s assumptions about what aid programming looks like beyond the initial emergency response. Most aid practitioners assume the need to adequately plan for some kind of recovery programming that takes place beyond the immediate disaster response. For all of the vagueness around what aid success looks like (see above), we’re all pretty sure – and I include myself here – that 3 months of emergency distribution, followed by a full-scale pull-out, is poor practice. Given the reality of what we see following large disasters, I personally think we’re right to plan for multi-year recovery programs up front, and in my opinion it is appropriate to use funds raised for the emergency response to support those recovery programs.

Good cop/bad cop?

Carla and Stephanie ask some really good questions around accountability. As I read them, both humanitarian accountability and also, I guess, financial accountability.

My thoughts: Didier (again) gives pretty much the same answer to Steph’s question about the financial “float”  that I’d give. I think that holding funds in some sort of interest-bearing account until it’s time to deploy those same funds to the field is simply good stewardship. Further, for as long as I’ve been in the industry, I am not personally aware of an aid agency that has used the earnings on such funds for anything other than the same purpose that the original funds were donated for. This doesn’t mean there is no example out there – only that I’m not aware of one. And at least in the USA the laws which govern not-for-profit organizations are fairly strict: I wouldn’t expect to find too many examples. (And please don’t fill the comments thread here with examples.)

Carla’s comment really gets at the issues of a) no clear and/or more or less universally accepted view of what aid “success” looks like; and b) the fact that the aid industry is, for all practical purposes, self-regulated. And not only self-regulated, but self-regulated on an opt-in basis. Without a clear picture of what “success” looks like, it’s hard to think through what failure looks like as well. It’s hard to know with real certainty which white SUV or which expat were “necessary”, and which were NGOs wasting good money that could be used to help more people. Is lack of food distribution in this camp evidence of incompetence? Is it evidence of NGOs being self-absorbed? Is it evidence of system failure? Or is it that even with all of the resources available the need still outstrips combined capacity to respond? I’m not presuming an answer – and I have no illusions that there is brokenness and waste and sometimes incompetence, and sometimes even outright abuse in the humanitarian aid industry. But once again, without being able to articulate what aid success is, in the end we’re down to a “their word against ours” situation between the media and watchdogs on one hand, and aid providers on the other.

Finally, yes. The aid sector is unregulated. I’ve complained about this before. The only bodies really capable of regulating the actions of aid agencies are host governments, and they are almost always painted in a negative light whenever they do so: “Government obstruction keeps NGOs from delivering aid to those who need it most…” Honestly, I don’t know what a good answer is. I’m not sure that formal, international regulation is the answer (even if feasible). But the current shame/honor, opt-in model is not exactly working either.

What do YOU think?

I know that I’ve done my share of ranting, especially since the Haiti earthquake, about mass media, journalists, celebrities, self-appointed watchdogs, and those ordinary citizens who – it seems obvious to me – just don’t get it.

But now, I think it’s time to turn the table a bit. I’d like to hear from you. Thanks to the tools available in WordPress and Twitter, I know you’re reading. I would specifically like to hear your thoughts on:

How much should be spent for the response to a large disaster by the six-month mark? At the one year mark? Beyond?  From inside the aid industry, I can tell you that as a rule of thumb, we try to spend down within the first year somewhere between 50-70 percent of funds raised in the first year. In other words, if in the first twelve months after “Cyclone X” we raise US $10 million for that disaster response, we should be spending down in the neighborhood of $5-7 million during that same period. Some organizations have a policy about it. Others just follow a general principle.

How does that sound? There’s been plenty of criticism of large INGOs in Haiti for supposedly spending too slowly at the six-month mark. What number or percentage of spend-down sign would be adequate? What proportion of an organization’s income for Haiti would need to be spent down by six months in order for this issue to not be raised? On the other side, what would be too high a proportion? I’d especially like to hear from, say, Sharyl Attkisson on this one.

How long should it take to get back to “normal”? And what is “normal”? I’ve written before that there’s plenty of precedent for recovery following a large disaster to take years. And yet, after every earthquake, typhoon or tsunami, there are accusations and insinuations that the aid is slow in coming and that things are taking too long to get better. Personally, I think that Haiti will, for all practical purposes, be an emergency response for a full 12 months. As was Aceh and eastern Sri Lanka. As was the Aerawaddy River Delta. No, not emergency in the sense of people being pulled alive from rubble. But emergency in the sense that many of the basic life-sustaining and life-preserving measures being taken are and for some time will be emergency ones: food and water distribution, emergency sanitation (as opposed to permanent sanitation), and emergency shelter. Land is a key element in determining the rate of transition to “recovery” in this case, and land remains a difficult issue to resolve.

Anderson Cooper  and Eric Klein seem pretty certain that good progress isn’t being made. What about you? All things considered, what should Port-au-Prince look like right now? Or, for that matter, Louisiana? What would a realistic set of expectations around things like the proportion of people living in something sturdier than tents, or the proportion of people still reliant on food distributions? (Mind you, “realistic”, not “wishful thinking.”) What do you think is a reasonable timeframe within which to return things to “normal”? And what does that “normal” look like?

Transparency, Honesty and Accountability. I’ve shared my thoughts on these before. The Disaster Accountability Project  is pretty sure that aid agencies in Haiti have not been sufficiently transparent and, by extension, not accountable.

I’ll keep this one short: What about you? What would you see as the minimums around transparency and accountability for aid agencies responding to disaster with public and private funding? What kinds of information should they be required to voluntarily share with the public? What kinds of information should they be required to share upon request? And what kinds of information, in your opinion, if any, should they be allowed to withold? Under what circumstances?

* * * * *

I’m most interested in hearing from journalists/media types, disaster survivors and aid critics. Aid workers and ordinary citizens, you’re welcome to share your thoughts as well.

I may springboard some responses or comments into full posts on this blog in the future.

Add your thoughts in the comments thread below this post, DM me at @talesfromthhood, email at talesfromethehood(at)gmail(dot)com (be sure to spell correctly).

RT and forward this post.

Let me know what you think.