Deal with the *Land*

I’ve written about land before. If my neighborhood was to be leveled by a huge – or even just a medium – disaster, if I lost everything; if the records of land ownership, wherever they are, were somehow also lost, I shudder think about how I might go about proving that I own the piece of ground where my house is now.

* * *

I spent about half of November 2009 weeks slogging through the still damp outer neighborhoods of metro-Manila that had been slammed by Typhoon Ketsana. In some places flood waters reached almost to the third storey, and in some places it was still more than a meter deep. People were crowded into unbelievably squalid “temporary relocation centers” – and not to self-aggrandize, but I’ve been to a few disaster zones and am not one to use the term “squalid” wantonly. In some (not all) cases those centers were themselves flooded: families of five crowded onto less than four square meters of raised platform space over thick, black water that smelled like, and if fact was, sewage.

My employer, along with most others involved in that response, was doing the predictable assortment of food and NFI distribution, and some “livelihoods” interventions, mostly cash-for-work (CFW). I remember that we all sat in a Jollibee one afternoon, eating greasy chicken and commenting on the fact that most of those displaced by Typhoon Ketsana were actually urban squatters who would have no place to go after the displacement centers.

displaced Typhoon Ketsana survivors, more than a year later, still waiting for a permanent place to live...

I was back this past January (2010). More than one year later, Typhoon Ketsana survivors were still living in some sort of “temporary” space, tents, mostly. And why? Well, I can tell you that it’s certainly not a technical problem: We know how to build “transitional shelters” that are in many instances nicer than what people had pre-disaster. Nor is it money: spend-down is always always always a challenge. Everyone I know involved in Typhoon Ketsana recovery complains that more than a year later their relief grants are all underspent.

You have to spend money building that T-shelter somewhere. The issue is land.

* * *

I did the Typhoon Megi and Pakistan Flood responses back-to-back, late last year. And I can tell you that while even now there are relief distributions going on and the DRR types (who I love dearly… mostly) are going on about early recovery and “building resilience into relief”, it’s all going to be a lot about nothing if the land issues aren’t adequately addressed.

Asset replacement is all good and well, as are emergency shelter and shelter “rehabilitation” kits. Soft loans and maybe cash transfer help. Seed fairs and health extension are steps in a good direction. But unless the land issues are sorted out, it will all be about like band-aids on syphilis.

all those people displaced in Sindh will eventually have to go... somewhere...

If those people from Isabella or KPK who depend for their livelihood on less than two hectares of land for which their claim to ownership is based on several generations worth of verbal ascent (or maybe they’re just squatting for three generations) suddenly find themselves at the mercy of official or unofficial “interests” in “their” land, they’ll have no recourse.

And they’ll be totally screwed.

* * *

As practically everyone who was even partially paying attention during the early days of the Haiti response remembers, land was a key issue. And it still is: three weeks ago, as I was fighting the urge to laugh (“Power”), I was also standing in thee middle of a huge tent camp. Hundreds of thousands of urban squatters suddenly have nowhere to go. The government can’t figure out where to put them all. For all practical purposes, they are refugees in their own country.

Corail, February 2011...

Anyone who’s even just driven past Corail knows that the technical challenges of getting a nice T-shelter attached to a flat slab are not the issue. And very much like in the Philippines, pretty much everyone in the industry who I know personally complains that spending down grants – especially shelter grants – in Haiti is a challenge, still a year later. We know what to do – which is to say that we know how to build a decent transitional shelter. And we probably have enough money to do it.

But we have to spend that money building those T-shelters on a particular patch of ground somewhere. And call me paternalistic, but I want to do it on a patch of ground that “our” beneficiaries will not be forcibly evicted from once the INGOs have all gone and the journalists and actors are all onto the next most interesting thing.

Despite what you might hear about politicians coming or going, or actors doing this or that, the issue in Haiti right now is land.

* * *

Disaster response teams in the field and at HQs need to start focusing on land on, like, day two. (We usually put it off until about month 2 or 3.) We all know the importance of the land issues, particularly in urban disaster responses. It’s time to start treating land as it’s own core issue, rather than burying it somewhere in the shelter and/or camp coordination cluster. For every NGO responding to the disaster, there needs to be someone on the team whose job it is to specifically to understand the land issues at play in that context. We need to start sooner rather than later to look for workable strategies to address land concerns for the poor affected by the disaster.

(Note: “workable”, not necessarily “innovative”… there’s a huge difference… just sayin’.)

Cash-for-work has it’s place, but long-term it is basically pressure on a gaping wound. Vocational training as a disaster response intervention is an early admission of failure.

Deal with the land.

Land needs to be the central focus of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Market access, health systems, last mile delivery, value-chain analysis, MFI financial sustainability, and all of the ‘way trendy livelihoods stuff going on right now is all good and well and incredibly important. But it’s also all somewhere between swimming upstream and falling over the Niagra if the people we’re targeting have no land. Basic things like simply documenting existing land tenure laws before a disaster happens can make a huge difference in advocating for landless poor sooner after the disaster happens. Working with people to document their own land holdings or land rights pre-disaster will make more difference down the road than expensive early warning systems, prepositioning fancy gadgets.

Deal with the land.

Development programs too often take land for granted. The second biggest and most common flaw that I see in development programs is simply that they naïvely assume their target population has stable, uncontested access to the land where they live and work. (The biggest, most common flaw I see is failure to do good assessments.) And this is not just an urban phenomenon, by the way – it affects rural poor just as much. And as soon as there’s a shock (it doesn’t even have to be a full-on disaster), and people are displaced or can’t pay the rent, then there’s a whole new class of “poor.” Investments in health and agricultural extension go out the window. And again, land is a key issue.

Development workers: take the time to understand the land context of the population you’re working with. Understand both the sociological and also the legal relationship between them and their land. Now that I think about it, you should probably also understand their spiritual relationship to their land, too. If the people you’re trying to help have to move tomorrow – whether they own, rent or are just squatting on the land – your years of effort may very well evaporate into thin air.

Deal with the land.

Is there a human right more basic than having a place to exist in a place? If you’re in advocacy, chances are that FGM or ethnic-cleansing or human trafficking or child soldiers, or maybe even debt relief are far more interesting than land. But think about it: if people have land – that is, if they have a place to live, unmolested, and make a living.. I won’t say that other problems go away, but they become far more manageable.

Deal with the land.

If you’re one of the many, many aid pundits out there, but through some adverse miracle land is not central to your paradigm, the fact is you’re missing the plot.

Yes, I get it: much more fun to whinge about the waste in the aid system (and there’s plenty to whinge about). Or to point out that INGOs are self-interested (duh), or rant about badvocacy (I do it, too). And while those are all important issues, it’s all peripheral if the people you claim you’re concerned about have no place to call home or to make a living.

Deal with the land.

Late addition: another great post that addresses land issues in Haiti: “The Importance of Property Rights”



I’m sure that someone at Microsoft can articulate a very convincing case for why the Zune is a “better” device than the iPod.

Maybe it has some awesome obscure feature or function. Maybe its’ battery lasts longer, or maybe it has more hard-drive space. But the sales tell the story (and no, I don’t believe that it’s just slick Apple marketing. If the Zune was truly a better product, the word would be out by now). It’s not that there isn’t one single person anywhere on the planet who prefers the Zune. But the majority of the worlds’ consumers of have voted with their wallets and essentially declared the Zune as #SWEDOW.

* * *

A number of things have been slowly crystallizing for me over the past several months. This comment (here) on my blog not long ago, plus the whole #100kshirts / invigorated GIK discussion (too many places to link individually) helped it gel for me. I’ve written about elements of it before (here, here…) – it’s nothing particularly new or earth-shattering. It is simply this:

We’re incredibly distracted.

For as much as we say we want to “help the poor” – and I believe that we’re at least mostly sincere – we spend an awful lot of time on things that don’t further that aim.

I’ve written before repeatedly that aid work is complicated. We take on complicated problems, very often in highly complicated contexts. The work itself is often very difficult. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to some of the most basic concepts there are. The basic concepts of aid work are not rocket science. Not just not rocket science, but not even remotely close:

  • Ask people what they need –>Listen to the answer.
  • Understand the issue or the problem –> Use basic logic to come up with the most reasonable response.
  • If the need is X –> Provide X (not Y)

And yet it often feels as if we’re making it all more difficult than it really has to be. Many days it feels as if we spend increasing amounts of time in discussions about issues that – even once they’re resolved – will not move us collectively in the direction of better aid. The amount of time and emotional energy behind the GIK or volunteers discussions, for example. No one is saying that as a matter of principle all GIK is bad all the time, regardless of what it is or the context in which it is being delivered. Nor is anyone saying that in no circumstance whatsoever is it ever ever ever appropriate for an unpaid (or marginally paid) foreigner – a “volunteer” – to perform some function which contributes to the aid endeavor. But the amount of time spent and the lengths gone to to justify those two particular activities as a matter of principle, you must admit, is rather astounding. Not to mention annoying.

If as much energy was put into just doing plain old good aid – whatever that means – as into explaining the whys and wherefores of how and under what circumstances GIK might work or volunteers might be effective, I’m thinking we’d be better at this aid thing than we are. And while this is nothing even close to scientific evidence, I can’t quite shake the feeling that if volunteers and GIK were all that effective as interventions, it would be a bit more obvious. It feels, to paraphrase Shakespeare, as if the lady doth protest too much.

I’ll say it again: This stuff is a huge distraction. We’re going through lengthy logical contortions to come up with a statement about what “might” or “might not” work. We’re endlessly intellectualizing about the differences between “always” and “usually” and “sometimes”, and then putting all of our chips on “sometimes.” We’re conflating “help” with “doesn’t harm”, and “doesn’t harm” with “doesn’t harm too much.” We’re trying to give someone a great deal on a Zune, when the iPod is straight up a better product.

Sadly, the worlds’ poor don’t have the same say in what kind of aid they get from us as do Western consumers when selecting MP3 players…


Power can sometimes be a difficult concept for us (humanitarian aid workers) to wrap our heads around in the context of some of the local communities where we work. The fact that things often look “impoverished” or like a disaster zone can mess with our minds. We assume that people are more powerless, in general, than they are in fact. When dealing with individuals, we often make unconscious (and ethnocentric) snap judgements about who has power and how powerful they are. We get distracted by their clothes, which may be ragged or out-of-fashion by our home country standards, or by their surroundings which we are often ill-prepared to read. In short, we often look at the wrong things – at least at first – in our assessment of who is powerful at the community level.

Moreover, it is very easy to fall into the trap of incorrectly and perhaps unconsciously assuming that because the material conditions are simple, therefore the political structure in that locale is also simple; or that if the immediate context appears chaotic, that the power relations in that place are correspondingly unclear.

Understanding who has power in a community is vital to doing good aid. And yet we very frequently get it wrong. We miss the cues. Local power often hides in plain sight in the eyes of outsiders.

* * * * *

So, today I was climbing through the maze of tarpaulin shelters that is camp “Acra Nord” with a couple of colleagues, making a routine follow-up visit on a few things. It was hot and dusty. Our blood sugar was dropping and we were ready to leave. And as we began to do so, some skinny teenager with a UNICEF notepad began following us, demanding that we make a stop to visit with the camp “boss.” We’d already gone through the usual formalities with the camp liaison that we go through when visiting the camps in and around Port-au-Prince, and so to our thinking visiting with the “boss” was not necessary, strictly speaking. We basically blew the kid off, and began walking back down the hill towards where our car was waiting.

About half way down, the teenager reappeared with the “boss” and one of the “boss’” minions. They demanded that we stop and talk with them, and after a brief exchange we did. The “boss” was an unimposing figure. But he surely wanted to talk to us about our plans for the future of “his” camp. He was very stern and very animated, waving his hands in the air, speaking out stridently. Clearly the “boss” had some strong opinions.

And it was at about that time that one of my colleagues – an American woman – and I couldn’t help but notice that the “boss’” zipper was all the way open.

And somehow in the heat of the day, absorbing a stern talking to in Kreole, feeling mildly impatient… my colleague and I made eye contact… and had to stifle giggles. The teenager and the minion saw what we were trying not to laugh about. Then, the teenager… casually reached over…

and zipped up the “boss’” zipper.

The “boss” didn’t miss a beat. He kept right on lecturing for another five minutes. My colleague and I barely kept it together until we were safely in the car.

* * *

I’ve been a few places and seen some weird things. But today was the first time I’ve ever seen a guy zip up another guy’s pants. In public, no less.

And as I think about it, not just anybody gets their pants zipped up for them. Note to self: That has got to be an  indicator of some serious local power.

(Rules of Aid Blogging)

It started as a series of jet-lag and annoying-comment induced tweets. Now it’s its’ own post, wordsmithed and expanded. For posterity, the Rules of Aid Blogging:

Aid Blogging Rule #1: Own your own opinion. The number one rule of aid blogging comes in two parts. Have your own opinion. And own it. Reposting lengthy excerpts from articles or other blog posts with one sentence of tepid analysis is not blogging. Use Twitter for this. Link, shout-out, and give credit where credit is due. But have an original thought, write it down, and claim it as your own.

Aid Blogging Rule #2: Don’t equivocate. The second you write something even remotely interesting or controversial, your comments thread will fill up with people trying to pick you apart. Acknowlege good points if there are any. But don’t be badgered into changing your opinion. Think Tom Petty: “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down…”

Aid Blogging Rule #3: Don’t feed the trolls. Most aid workers are pretty nice people. But some can be the most self-righteous, petulant and offensive people on the planet. Don’t bend to their level. Don’t encourage them. Don’t acknowlege them.

Aid Blogging Rule #4: Don’t allow yourself to be called out. Your blog is your space where you set the rules of engagement. Only take on the issues that you want to take on. Not every idiotic or malicious comment deserves response. Pick your battles. You don’t have to argue with everybody.

Aid Blogging Rule #5: Don’t demure from controversy. Everyone has an opinion about what “the poor” need. Many of those opinions are dead wrong. It’s okay to say that. Aid blogging is about discussing the issues, raising the (sometimes) unpleasant points, and pointing out things that need to change. By contrast, aid blogging is not about making everyone like you. You have your friends, and you have your readers. And while those two groups may overlap a bit, they are not the same thing. Don’t go trying to offend people in order to generate traffic. But say what you have to say, even when you know it may lead to trolls clogging your comments thread.

Aid Blogging Rule #6: Be Honest. Don’t front. Don’t be a poseur. Don’t make yourself out to be more or (importantly) less than you are.