Bits & Pieces

I don’t know about you, but 2017 has been pretty full-on for me. Lots of deployment, lots going on during non-deployment times. Certainly lots of crazy in the world. During it all I had tons of thoughts, wrote pages of notes. But, sadly, very little to show for it in the way of blog posts, articles, or new books.

Sorry — I promise 2018 will be more productive on the writing front.

In the meantime, here are this year’s main bits and pieces. Ideas for articles or books that never quite materialized (but still may):


Two weeks: If you resign or get fired from your aid job it will take two weeks for you to have been moved on from. No matter how good you think you are, how important, how crucial, innovative, or whatever, in two weeks—maximum—your workload will have been absorbed by others or simply abandoned. No matter how senior or junior you are, within two weeks or less everyone you worked with or for will have stopped looking at your handover notes.

Two weeks. Think about that next time you’re tempted to work all night on emails that seriously could wait until tomorrow or the next day. Or before you shred a colleague, whether to their face or behind their back, as if you’re the gatekeeper of humanitarian ideological purity on your team.


Change costs. I wonder if it’s time to nuance some of the conversation around changing the aid sector, particularly vis-à-vis the sort of big issues of recent months: Localization and the incorporation of voices from the global south, the way humanitarian funding works, testing and mainstreaming innovations, etc. Much of the frustration voiced online about the pace of positive change in these areas tends to zero in on the famous isms – racism, sexism, neo-colonialism, cronyism… —as reasons for why things don’t change for the better, faster. And to some extent, fair enough, as these isms all do clearly exist in the humanitarian industry.

But I wonder if some of this critique doesn’t miss the point that change to an organization or industry is very costly, and not just costly in money but also in time, staff morale, loss of productivity (depending on the change), etc. And further, while cost is not necessarily a reason not to make certain kinds of changes, the cost of change does have to be understood before change can be undertaken. Very easy to make the pronouncement that such and such a change must happen. Much tougher, in the real world of organizations, coalitions, and systems to make those changes happen. But understanding and clearly articulating the cost of change is a key to helping change.


Expat vs. Local. I have 30,000 words written toward a manuscript of a (short) book just on this topic. Maybe I’ll finish and publish at some point. But I’ll give you the spoilers now: in the end it boils down to three things.

First, can we just stop saying “Expat” and “Local”? These are outdated terms with decades or even centuries of baggage and connotation that just don’t help us now. “National” and “international” staff should be just fine. Great, thanks.

Second, meaningful performance management is central to this issue. Yep, I know – no one wants to think about, let alone have more reason to be in more meetings with HR. But I see lack of meaningful performance management as THE reason why incompetent international staff continue to get recycled, while amazing national staff can’t seem to breach mid-management. Can one good national staff really do more than 10 internationals and at a fraction of the cost, as those angry tell-all “secret aid worker” articles opine? I don’t know. And until we do meaningful performance management, neither will you.

Third, invest in understanding the global humanitarian ecosystem. The vast majority of humanitarians that I know and interact with personally are entrenched in their respective bubbles of departmental or local office politics and project-level technical issues. Most of us are unable or unwilling to lift our heads above our own spreadsheets to see how our pet issue(s) fit(s) into the overall ecosystem. And without that view of the whole, along with an understanding of the interactions of its component elements, it is just not possible to have a rational conversation about “expats versus locals” in the context of a system that needs the contributions of, and therefore must at some level accommodate the special needs of both.


Get good at management: The humanitarian world does not need another personal water purification solution. The humanitarian world does not need another water purification solution for mass provision. The humanitarian world does not need another kind of emergency or transitional shelter. The humanitarian world does not need another kind or brand of ready-to-eat emergency ration. The humanitarian world does not need another NGO (nope – not even yours), another book on humanitarian principles, or another special working group on evidence or data, or another high level forum on localization, or more drones. So don’t waste your time and energy on these things. There is very limited need for more theory or debate. We know how to set up latrines, run NFI distributions in high-security contexts, and do cash-based programming.

But mostly we suck at people management. If you want to make a difference, if you want to change the humanitarian sector for the better, get good at managing people.



  • I never buy or consume the “light” version of anything.
  • When I’m in the Middle East, I put saffron on my food everyday, just because I can.
  • The Core Humanitarian Standard is your friend.


Updates 30 Dec: Fixed a few editorial errors.