Happy Trails

Here’s the band that made us all want to learn guitar back in about 1983: Van Halen. Not Van Hagar. And their infinitely memorable acapella rendition of the old Dale Evans classic, ‘Happy Trails.’

It’s not a great video. But do listen to the whole thing…

It’s been fun, ladies and gentlemen. But now it’s time to say ‘good-bye.’

This is the last time that I’ll post, here at Tales From the Hood.

I’ll keep the site up and the comments threads open, at least for now. I will also keep my Gmail account open (I promise to read, but not necessarily respond to every message) and my twitter account active.

It has truly been my pleasure to write for you all for the past several years. Some of you are close friends with whom I look forward to remaining in contact.

The rest of you may see me around the aid blogosphere as a guest blogger from time to time. Or maybe in a life-saving coordination meeting or expat party in a disaster zone near you…

Happy Trails!


Tom Sawyer

Almost through the Tales From the Hood rock ‘n’ roll marathon…

Here’s the fifth tune in the playlist:

A modern day warrior

mean, mean stride

Today’s Tom Sawyer

mean, mean pride

I once asked rhetorically whether or not aid blogging matters. Now I’m telling you straight up:

It matters. It matters a lot.

The conversation about what international development and aid are, what makes them effective, how they should be done, and what they’re capable of accomplishing is dominated by simplistic, happy, and  occasionally even plain dishonest messaging about how this NGO or that is eradicating hunger or making poverty history.

It’s not that I or anyone else wants to be known as “negative” or “cynical.” But right now independent blogs like the ones in my extended blog roll are the only place where you can consistently count on an unfiltered alternative to the meticulously crafted stories that you get from branded NGO websites, blogs, and published reports. Or, similarly, to those usually too-long, over-edited, jargon-intensive and generally LAMEified summaries coming out of those famous life-saving high-level workshops and forums where intelligentsia and aristocracy gather to discuss “the bottom of the pyramid.” No, it’s not that we want to be negative or angry or cynical as a matter of principle. It’s not that everything said within the hallowed halls of the HRI-affiliates is wrong or inaccurate or suspect, or that everything said on aid blogs is spot on. But vibrant, diverse discussion adds value by definition and is a good thing as a matter of principle.

The whole blogging thing may seem too messy, too emotive, too unfocused for you. The aid blogosphere may feel like and maybe even be so much opinion, conjecture, hearsay, assuming facts not in evidence. It may annoy you, all the cynicism and negativity. It may make you plain angry.  You may hope and pray for the day when this reality will change, but until the aid industry gets past its own dogma and NGOs get past their fears of internal diversity of thought, these blogs do matter.

Oh, and before you condescendingly wonder how I can ever find the time, or go on about how you’re too busy working to waste time blogging, let me just say: everyone finds the time for what they think is important. Some of you follow sports or collect stamps. Some of us blog.

Though his mind is not for rent

don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve, a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events…

I get it. The real world is about give and take, about compromise, about finding middle ground. Fair enough.

In my day-to-day work I am committed to finding those workable compromises – without compromising the bottom lines of what makes good aid good aid; to engaging in the give-and-take in a collegial way. At any given time there are multiple, contingent and competing realities. I do get this. I am not naïve. I get that humanitarian work, at least as we know it now, requires the architecture of an organization behind it, and that both the work and the organization(s) require resources in order to continue existing, and that those resources have to come from somewhere.

But let’s just be very clear:  This all as may be, the way things currently are in the aid industry is not the way that they should be. The natural tendency of the industry is not toward good aid.  The political economy of this industry just wants to favor someone other than the poor. And left alone, that’s what it will do. All of which means, in my opinion, that no matter where any of us sits in the humanitarian industry, whether we’re on the front line handing out food parcels to disaster survivors, or buried deep in the bowels of HQ, managing spreadsheets and sending life-saving emails, it is our job – every single one of us – to be steering our spheres of influence in the direction of “the way things should be.”

Yes, I understand that at the level of individual inter-departmental or inter-agency transactions we have to cut deals and compromise. But in all areas and at all levels of our industry right now the status quo is simply not good enough.

I don’t care who you are, if you work for or are in some other way affiliate yourself with an NGO of any size, if you claim for yourself the title of humanitarian, then it is your job to move the needle towards the way things should be.

What you say about his company

Is what you say about society

Catch the mist, catch the myth

Catch the mystery, catch the drift

Maybe you think that all of us aid bloggers are just a bunch of stuck-up elitists hiding behind our computers, out of touch with how the real world works? (Well, you’re wrong about me hiding behind my computer. I get out in it on a regular basis.) But I am an elitist, absolutely. I see no reason to compromise on the principles of good aid. Maybe my views create an inconvenience for you. Maybe you don’t like what I have to say or how I say it.

Maybe you think my tone is too harsh or (heaven forbid) snarky. Okay, fair enough – I sometimes shout into the void here. I don’t mind admitting that after a day or a week or a month of playing all nice, whether in in-house strategery or coordination meetings in the field, I need a space where I can crank the volume up to 11.

But this doesn’t make me wrong.

No his mind is not for rent

To any god or government

Always hopeful, yet discontent

He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is…

We all have our own intellectual lives that extend beyond the logos on our namecards. Mission statements are words. Organizations, like their taglines, come and go. But the humanitarian imperative remains.

Discontent with the way things are in the industry is not the same as disloyalty to an organization, and different still from unwillingness to perform. Most real aid workers that I know would rather spend a few rounds of cynical, self-deprecating pub-based reflection than go to a company pep-rally. Seriously, the sports metaphors and high-fiving leave us cold. But that doesn’t mean we’re not on board with the program.

Discontent? Sure, we have some of that. But if we weren’t at least a little bit hopeful, we wouldn’t be here.

Somebody’s gotta do it

The Tales From the Hood rock ‘n’ roll marathon continues. Here’s the fourth tune in the playlist:

(the lyrics to this song are R-rated for language… just so you know)

It must be really awesome to be one of those who get to sit up in the ivory tower analyzing spread sheets and randomizing stuff and coming up with all kinds of theories about what’s wrong with aid. It must be really cool to be the one just asking all of the hard questions, but to never have to – you know – get out there and, like, do stuff.

Somebody’s gotta be there when it gets ugly
Somebody’s gotta be there when it gets bloody
Somebody’s gotta get their hands dirty
Yo, it’s a f—ed up job but somebody’s gotta do it

Yep. Aid sure is messed up. There is sure a whole lot wrong with aid. Everyone has ulterior motivations. Everyone stands to benefit, except perhaps the poor. Very easy to see all of that from 35,000 feet. Very easy point out big picture issues. Very easy to ramble on about what not to do. Very easy to pontificate on about how everything that everyone who’s actually doing something is in some obscure way the wrong thing.

But figuring out what to do: quite another matter.

Somebody’s gotta come up with a plan
And be there when the sh!t hits the fan

Easy enough to get bogged down in epistemological inertia. Easy enough to hammer away at philosophical issues which, in the sanitized order of the halls of academia are important and clear, but that, by contrast, in the gritty reality of the real world don’t really move us closer to the goal of saving lives.

I hope ya’ll out there understand
Look man it’s a f—ed up job, but somebody’s gotta do it

I’m just sayin’

The narrow margin with the haves and the have nots
Will get smaller as I approach – so watch your stash box
Fox logo if your fave is local
Get bruised till you’re the color of the Laker’s logo
This is work n_____s

Go ahead. Bone up on Sachs and Easterly and Collier in grad school. Write your papers and blog posts about what’s wrong with the industry, without having been out in it. I’ve seen a hundred like you. Eventually the bills have to be paid. I know how this ends.

We all sin – the devil, what did I tell ‘im
Somebody gotta get their hands dirty and shoes muddy
I see things vividly, ya’ll vision is blurry

Yeah, yeah. Everyone knows what the aid workers should have done differently. Everyone’s an expert pundit.

But real clarity comes only when you’ve been the one to make the decision about which poor people get help and which don’t.  Or when you’ve been the one to have to tell them that decision.

Look man it’s a f—ed up job, but somebody’s gotta do it


This weeks it’s the Tales From the Hood rock ‘n’ roll marathon.

Here’s the second tune in the playlist:

This one’s easy: I think that we are all far too anxious to declare aid successes or failures far too soon.

Who knew that Axel Rose would have the answer?

Said woman take it slow
It’ll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience
Said sugar make it slow
And we’ll come together fine
All we need is just a little patience
Patience, patience, patience
Ooh, oh, yeah…

I really like Jacqualine Novogratz’s description of “patient capital.” (read her interview on Social Edge). As I analyze it, she’s basically talking about two age-old “good aid” ideas kind of rolled into one.

1)      Look at aid outcomes in the terms of those we’re intending to help (“the poor”).

2)      Take the time that’s needed.

We’re talking about peoples lives and, importantly, their ways of life, here. How quickly does change happen in your organization? At your institution? In your family? Yeah? It doesn’t happen quickly in “the field”, either.

This stuff takes time. Yes, I get that donor funding cycles and life-of-project realities mean that we have to try to talk about results before they’re all the way ripe or describe progress that can’t really be measured yet. But as humanitarian aid practitioners, it’s our job to see past funding cycles. The rhythms of change in the communities where we work are not based on annual congressional statements, the European Commission’s budgeting process, or when the tax year ends for that wealthy area businessman who’s been a “strong supporter” for a long time.

Sure, aid is not perfect. And sure there’s room for improvement. But it works better than you think. But you have to give it time.

Just have a little patience.


This weeks it’s the Tales From the Hood rock ‘n’ roll marathon.

Here’s the first tune in the playlist:

U2’s “One” sounds to me like a conversation between aid workers and beneficiaries about the issues in the aid system…

Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame

Sometimes aid is broken. Sometimes, no matter how badly aid donors or aid workers wish otherwise, change just doesn’t happen. We do our best and it’s not enough. Or maybe we’re just tired and can’t get it together.

Sometimes, no matter how abject things are “on the ground” or “in the field”, and no matter how well-planned the intervention is, it fails. Sometimes there is local resistance to aid. Sometimes it’s overt, “get the hell out!” Sometimes you can’t put your finger on it.

Everyone in the aid equation is culpable at one point or another.

Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without? 

Everyone – aid workers, beneficiaries – comes to the conversation with expectations that, in the end are not met. We expected each other to think differently, to act differently, to value and prioritize different things. And we were all disappointed, disillusioned at some point.

Well it’s…

Too late
To drag the past out into the light

Sometimes it’s good to analyze what’s happened before in order to clarify the way forward.. Sometimes, though, the past is just that: the past. Sometimes you just need to start from where you are right now and move on.

We’re one, but we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other


Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?

Every aid worker on the planet comes to this line of work, in addition to whatever else, for personal reasons. Maybe we have a Jesus complex – we are going to save the poor from their poverty. Maybe we seek absolution from a dark past. Maybe it’s both of these and more.

Did I ask too much?
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it’s all I got

What do the poor deserve from us?

We’re one
But we’re not the same
Will we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again


We’ll continue doing humanitarian work. We’ll get it wrong. And sometimes we’ll get it right. And one day – who knows? – we’ll find ourselves as beneficiaries of aid programs run by those we once purported to help.