Aid. Industry.

It’s become increasingly common over the past few years to describe the Aid Industry as the Aid Industry. An industry. And rightly so, because it is an industry.

What’s this mean? In my mind it means several things:

It is absolutely possible to regulate the aid industry, to standardize both the product that aid providers provide, as well as the ways in which they provide it, down to the capability of the individuals who are part of that provision. The healthcare industry does it. There’s no good reason why we cannot do the same.

It is absolutely feasible to certify the humanitarian industry workforce. It is possible to articulate a professional standard for every job, every role and function currently represented in the humanitarian industry. Microsoft and Apple can internally certify tens, maybe hundreds, of kinds of “engineer,” and Wall Street can identify tens of kinds of “accountant” (non-profit accounting is its own thing). Heck, even the Government of Australia has classified the levels of “bartender and barista.” It’s absurd to try to argue that aid industry cannot also specify and establish standards for its workforce. [Interesting discussion around certification.]

It is time to dispense with the traditional, romantic notion of the “aid worker.” We are professional people with specific, identifiable skills who work in the humanitarian industry. Moreover, understanding and acknowledging the diversity of possible occupations within the aid industry has huge implications for everything from how we market, to how we analyze and describe “quality” and “efficiency”, to how we recruit and manage career trajectories. The stereotypical image of the haggard foreigner jack-of-all-trades hipster MacGyver out on the border just kind of “figuring it out” is an offensive relic that demeans both aid workers and aid recipients. We need to react against it at every possible opportunity.

It is time to dispense with traditional notions of where the heavy lifting happens. Anyone who’s ever had the experience of taking a flight that actually arrived safely, was fed during the flight (if it was international), landed on time, with luggage, knows that taking making it all happen is whole lot more complicated than just getting the plane up, and then down again, without crashing. There’s even an argument to be made that the pilots are simply technicians—highly trained and regulated bus drivers—and the real front-line service providers are flight attendants.

And in the same way, bags of food off the truck and into the hands of refugees, or live vaccines out of the cold box and injected into people, are simply the last motion in a long sequence of highly-choreographed moves by an entire global cast of characters. Understanding that this is, in fact, a global industry, means also understanding that every single person in the industry is part of a larger whole. I think we’ve failed to articulate to those who want to enter this industry the possibilities and limitations, based on the actual jobs that need doing. Not everyone who works for Lufthansa or Virgin Atlantic gets to sit in the cockpit.

To understand the aid industry is it’s own kind of subject-matter expertise. There is inherent qualitative value and quantitative efficiency in understanding how the aid industry works. Historically, and in my opinion much too often, the assumption is simply that the aid industry is an endearingly incompetent version of a for-profit sector. Not only is this insulting and offensive to those of us who have intentionally planned for and implemented professional careers in the aid industry, but it’s just plain incorrect. Like any other, the aid industry has its own unique dynamics, its internal political economy, its underlying values and core assumptions. Being successful in the aid industry requires understanding the aid industry.

It’s not unheard of for airline execs to take over as the CEO of NGOs. I want to see the day when a relief manager gets head-hunted for top leadership at a Fortune 500 company.

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Sideshow

I was so not going to enter the BandAid30 fray. In my opion, BandAid30 is little more than a tacky sideshow, noteworthy only for the fact that it may well overshadow the main circus. The Circus in this case is the international, interagency Ebola response.

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Do they know it's 2014?
Do they know it’s 2014?

The digital space is lit up right now with strident opinion about the extent to which, the lyrics of The Song are factually accurate and/or somehow offensive (too many links to include all). But I don’t see these as the real story.

No, the lyrics are not factually accurate. But then it is, after all, a pop song, not a doctoral dissertation. On the basis of factual accuracy alone, one could level a similar critique at the lyrics of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” or every Justin Bieber song, ever. “She’s got a booty like a Cadillac,” is almost certainly an untrue statement, but I don’t see anyone carrying on about it over at Vox.com. We need to go deeper on this one than simply expounding at great length that most people in Ebola-affected West Africa do, in fact, know about Christmas.

Similarly, sure,  you can find offensive stereotypes in the lyrics. Although in my opinion there’s nothing in there that’s any further over-the-top than, say, “China Girl” or “Ahab the Arab.” On the scale of “Innocuous enough for Seasame Street” to “So wildly inappropriate, we’re gonna go ballistic on Twitter”,  the BandAid30 version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” seems, well, on the benign edge of middle-of-the-road compared with, say, “Brown Sugar.”

There again, it’s a pop song, not a scholarly treatise on politically correct expression. And once more, we need to look deeper than the fact that some lyricist relied on easy stereotypes in order to make the lines rhyme.

There’s the lack of transparency angle, too. If you go to the BandAid30 website, it’s unclear what they plan to do with the money. But then, one can make the same complaint about USAID, DFID, DEC, JICA, GIZ, the Gates Foundation, the UN flash appeal, the ONE Campaign… It pains me to admit it, but BandAid30 is hardly the worst offender out there when it comes to donor transparency.

In my opinion these kinds of critiques, despite their general context validity, fail to strike at the real core of what is wrong with BandAid30.

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I was so not going to enter the BandAid30 fray. Until I saw/listened to this:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02c7bxn

This stuff just pushes me right around the bend. It pushes all of my buttons. It’s a conversation on air between Robtel Neajai Pailey who is “from Liberia”, and Harvey Goldsmith, who is “one of the world’s great producers and concert promoters,” and the actual producer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Pailey (in very articulate fashion) brings the by-now mostly old hat arguments, but Goldsmith’s angry retorts tell the real story.

A few excerpts with my comments:

0:42. [Goldsmith] “But in a way, couldn’t you argue the song has been written not for people in West Africa, but for people here..?”

Not only can you argue it, but it is the entire point, and not in a good way. This song is not about Africa or West Africa or Guinea or Liberia or Sierra Leone, or even Ebola, really. It is just a song. It’s a kind of CSR—which is to say that its overall purpose is promote the brand, if not increase the profit margin, of those involved in the project. Ask yourself why they’re singing for Ebola and not Syria?

Show of hands: who, in the humanitarian industry workforce, had heard of Geldof prior to the re-flare-up of the BandAid meme? I’m guessing not many. Geldof has spent the last 20 years as a washed up has-been in need of path back to the spotlight. Bono needs to atone for clogging all of our iPods with U2’s latest album. One Direction, tired of being mobbed by 12-year old girls, desperately want to be taken seriously by adults…

Let’s be clear. To exhaustively belabor the science of whether there really is “death in every tear” (there isn’t) is to dabble around the edges of the issue. BandAid30 exists precisely because it is good for the artists involved. Pure and simple. Ebola is a lucky break for them, and West Africa is a prop.

1:27: [Goldsmith] “Does that mean we have to sit back and do nothing?”

And then…

1:38: [Goldsmith] “And… you’re expecting us to sit back and do nothing…”

Uh, well, yes. If they’re not committed to doing it properly, to doing it in a way that respects, empowers, and builds up, then absolutely doing nothing is better. I’ve written about this before: do it right, or don’t do it.

3:26 [Goldsmith] “Maybe do nothing, or do what you want to do, which may not raise as much money…”

First, contrary to pop-culture mis-perception, not all awareness raising is good. You don’t need to look any further than every political campaign ever to know this. Or look at the immigration debates currently underway in both Australia and the United States: Lots of awareness being raised, but I bet we can all agree that it’s not all good. Raise awareness wrong, and the actions that follow are also wrong. Bad aid marketing begets bad aid.

Second, and it’s related: Can we just dispense once and for all with this notion that “good marketing” and “good aid marketing” are the same? Because they’re not. Yes, absolutely money is needed. Yes, absolutely, more money helps. But simply justifying any humanitarian fundraising strategy on the basis of volume is to completely miss the prior point. If photographs of children with flies in their eyes is poverty porn, then “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (both versions, actually) is softcore poverty erotica.

And no, the fact that they all intend well is not relevant.

4:14: [Goldsmith, angrily] “Okay, so we shouldn’t do anything, I mean it’s rid—it’s absolutely ridiculous” [Pailey] “That song is ridiculous…”

What she said.

1:33: [Goldsmith] I mean, if you saw the Panaroma programme last night, which was really heart rendering…”

What is “heart rendering”?

Honor Among Thieves (forthcoming humanitarian novel)

It’s that time of year again: The time when I begin the mad sprint toward an imaginary publishing deadline.

On tap this time, Honor Among Thieves, sequel to Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, and Part II in the Mary-Anne humanitarian fiction (#humfiction) trilogy.*

Mary-Anne has left East Africa and traded in her dusty cargo pants for business suits at the World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Her first major assignment, planning a new corporate-funded project in a rural village in Cambodia, seems simple enough—at first. Before long, she is caught in a web of high-stakes (for the aid world) board room deals, conflicting priorities, and hidden agendas that threatens not only to rob her of her career, but devour her soul.

From the iridescent rice fields of the Mekong Delta, to the curiously named bars and teeming backstreets of Phnom Penh, Mary-Anne finds her journey inextricably tied to others: a bereaved Cambodian mother, an arrogant colleague with something to prove, and a demanding donor with something to gain. As she searches for the sweet spot between humanitarian idealism and donors’ expectations, will she be able to do what she knows in her heart is  right? Whose version of “helping” really helps? And in end, will she embrace the code of honor among humanitarians and thieves? 

The manuscript is written and ready for review, revision. Which is where you come in.

Beta review: Calling all beta reviewers! Since this is, after all, a novel about the world of humanitarian aid and development, it’s only appropriate that I use a participatory, inclusive, empowering, multi-stakeholder process.

If you’re interested in reviewing an unpublished draft and giving your feedback on how to make it better, in advance of publication, drop me a line: talesfromethehood(at)gmail(dot)com (be sure to spell talesfromethehood correctly). Include the words “BETA REVIEWER” somewhere in the message header.

Once I hear from you, I’ll explain what’s involved in greater detail.

Blog tour. Maybe you don’t want to give feedback/critique (and if that’s the case, I sincerely doubt your aid worker credentials…), but prefer, instead, to read the final, ready-for-publication version ahead of publication.

Got a blog? All you to have to do is promise to a) read it; b) publish a review on your blog, including an image of the cover and a link to the Amazon.com purchase page. Drop me a line: talesfromethehood(at)gmail(dot)com (be sure to spell “talesfromethehood” correctly). Include the words “BLOG TOUR” somewhere in the message header. I’ll send you a .PDF of the publication-ready book before it goes live, along with more details about how it all works.

Give to the cause. Maybe you’re one of those people who prefers to make the world better by simply reaching into your wallet? Don’t worry, there’s a role here for you, too.

Support the IndieGogo campaign for Honor Among Thieves. 100% of funds raised go to my editorial team (my editoresses—they slap my manuscript around for money and I like it).

Click here (and have your PayPal or credit card info ready).

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/honor-among-thieves–6/

Spread the word. I get it, you’re super busy. That’s cool. If you can possibly spare the time, stop by the Evil Genius Publishing Facebook page, tweet the link to the IndieGogo campaign (bonus points if you use #HAT), “like” a bunch of stuff, and all of that.

And of course, buy Honor Among Thieves when it goes live, mostly probably around February, 2015.

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* Yeah, you read that right. Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit was Part I of the trilogy. Disastrous Passion was the prequel.