It’s a turbulent time in much of the so-called “developed world.” Nativism, nationalism, supremicism of different kinds. Humanitarian aid and development are inherently and increasingly politicized, and under fire. And polarized. You can’t be in favor of small government and also favor refugee-friendly foreign policy, or so we’re being led to believe. You can’t support refugees and also love your own country, or so the politicians tell us. You can’t want to help your own and also help others; it has to be either / or. And at least in the United States, the either/or, ‘us versus them’ narrative has become increasingly entrenched as almost mainstream worldview.

It’s no surprise that right now is a tough time to get people on board with the idea of foreign aid. Every dollar donated toward humanitarian response in the Horn of Africa or the periphery of Syria is one not spent “making America great again.” (Or wherever.) Basic compassion has, in the past decade, become a partisan issue.


I’ve seen the fundraising, marketeering types in the aid industry use all kinds of arguments to (try to) persuade donors (often wealthy individuals) that they ought to part with their mammon to help poor people in other countries. Some try to make the point that helping poor people in other countries is actually good for us. Some brow-furrow and hand-wring about the possibility that the refugee waiting for third country relocation just might be the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs. Some fall back laborious reinterpretation of religious texts (“Jesus was a refugee, too…”), or some such. Among many other tactics.

But I have to say straight out that none of that really works for me. And I often worry that if we are to the place where people have to be persuaded of the basic value of helping others, then things are probably much worse in the world than we previously imagined.

I mean, you can go on YouTube and find videos of elephants looking out for each other, for goodness sake.

I don’t need some novel theology or the concern of potentially lost genius as a prod to be kind to those fellow humans who need it.

Even the ants help each other. So, what is our problem?



Choose your battles

Not long ago I was in a meeting that eventually devolved (as most do) into ranting about organizational politics. Lots going on internally and externally, and people need to process. And processing is always lots more fun with other people.

One colleague raised the question of how, in the midst of significant turmoil, churn, and general change, to know which battles to fight? It’s a great question. It’s one that I myself, as well as many humanitarians to whom I am close have wrestled with.

I take it as a given that no organization is perfect. No organization is the end all, be all. No, not one of the so called “Big 5” household charities; not your current favorite boutique NGO; not the local NGO you started, or to which you just donated your life savings; not the Gates foundation… Any humanitarian sector employer you work for has its dark side, those things that grate, and perhaps those things that cause you to question life choices. For NGOs who depend for their very survival on the goodwill of fickle and (let’s face it) often clueless donors (if you’re a donor reading this, I obviously don’t mean you), the humanitarian ménage a trois forces decisions at the executive level which often feel like betrayal of principle at the level of the rank-and-file aid worker, buried in the trenches (cubicles) of a household charity.

So, say you’re one of those rank-and-file staff, flying a desk in D.C. or Erbil, or maybe out in the “deep field” of Jalalabad or Goma, and you’re struggling with something that’s just been handed down from on-high. How do you know what to resign over, or what to just keep your head down, find that Zen space, and treat yourself to an extra shot of Johnny Walker Blue over? What do you get up in arms about, burn political capital in meetings over? And what do you just roll your eyes and make a mental note to take off your name badge before going to the interagency soccer match over?

When it comes to these kinds of angst-inducing issues, I ask myself three questions:

Can I personally move the needle on this issue?

If the answer is “no”, your choices are basically whether or not you want to fight on, or need to simply beat a retreat.


Will this issue require me to compromise my own core values? This one requires some intellectual honestly. Many people choose to throw down over personal pride, preferences, issues around technical rigor – all of which may be important, but fall short the “my own core values” bar.

If the answer is “yes” and I can personally move the needle on the issue, then I fight it to the very end.

If the answer is “yes” and I cannot personally move the needle on the issue, then have my own hard choices and perhaps compromises to make about whether to stay or leave the organization or role (depending on the issue).

If the answer is “no”, this thing won’t cause me to go against core personal values, then these days I mostly just pipe down. Humanitarians spend too much time being wide-eyed and red-faced about too many things as it is. Let go of as much as you can. But if I can personally move the needle on the issue, then I may do so depending on the next question…


Will this issue result in beneficiaries feeling a difference? I am convinced that the vast majority of what gets argued about in NGOs won’t result in a change that is perceptible by beneficiaries. Which is why, these days at least, I stay out of as many in-house (and external) debates as possible.

If this issue does not require me to compromise core values and beneficiaries won’t feel a difference, I don’t engage.

“What can I do?”

Every so often I’ll have a conversation with a ‘normal person’ (humanitarian industry non-insider). Maybe it’ll be a celebrity you’ve never heard of or some wealthy “potential donor” sent by my employer to the field where I’m onsite and expected to host. Or maybe it’ll be a friend of a friend that I find myself talking to in a social setting. I dunno – maybe cable news is full of the latest large-scale natural disaster, or maybe they just read one of the famous tomes about humanitarianism. Somehow they’ve just had their moving epiphany about poverty, or for some other reason begun to feel the humanitarian impulse personally.

And the question that comes is, “So, what can I do?”

It’s a good question. It’s the right question. I’ve certainly devoted plenty of time in pubs around the world and words on websites around the Internet carrying on about what those well-intended amateurs should NOT do. So, good – they’ve asked the right question.

For posterity, here’s the answer:

If you are a normal everyday person, not a full-time professional humanitarian, and you’re moved by what you’ve read or see on the news, or have seen with your own eyes somewhere; and now you want to “do something”, great! There are three things that you can do.

1. Donate money to an organization that makes a difference. Cash, not stuff, not time, or some other form of gift in-kind (GIK). Cash. There is lots of opinion around about which organizations and charities do or do not make that difference. I won’t endorse or slam any specific org here. For me, the things to look for are: Actual programmes in-progress now dealing with the issue you’re passionate about, on the ground in the place you’re passionate about. Do your research, know the organization. Don’t base your decision on how nice their website is or how “responsive” their call center is. Don’t pay for startups.

2. Vote for politicians who push poor-friendly agendas. No political party has a corner on the market here. You have to do your research. It’s person by person. National elections are relatively easy. The next level is becoming politically engaged in your own voting district on issues that matter, whether local or global.

3. Make the commitments necessary to become a full-time humanitarian yourself. If this is the life you want, go for it. It’s a good life in many ways. Similarly lots of information around about what the life is like, how to get a job in the aid industry, and all of that. But for me, on this issue, the operative point is make the commitments necessary to become a full-time professional humanitarian. Don’t volunteer for two weeks. Don’t go to Mexico to build a church. Don’t start or work at an orphanage in Uganda or Cambodia. This is a full-time job, a life choice. Make the commitments or don’t make them.