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.



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.


This started out as a longer essay. Maybe a short book. Now it’s just some random notes. Maybe I’ll finish this book and publish it. Until then, this post.


Expressions of kindness (doing nice things) is not the same thing as helping. Helping is not the same thing as fixing or solving problems.

Expressions of kindness feel good for a moment. They are things like holding open the door for the old guy with the walker, or giving the pregnant woman your seat on the subway. They’re things like volunteering at the homeless shelter, or giving $5 to the homeless person at the stop light. An expression of kindness is my daughter, at the age of 8, making me pancakes (and turning the kitchen into a disaster zone!).

In the international space, expressions of kindness are things like collecting bicycles for Zambia or going to build a school in Mexico. Forget for the moment the very real negative effects: International kindness is volunteering at an orphanage, or collecting clothes to take to Haiti.

Recipients of kindness are very often genuinely grateful. They often smile and say “thank you.” “Yes, thank you, grandma, for that ugly-ass sweater. I know you meant well…” Very often kindness is as much about the doer as the recipient.

Being kind is a good thing in your individual day-to-day life. But as professional humanitarians we need to move beyond simple kindness.


Helping is different. Helping is when you use resources tactically to improve a situation. If giving the pregnant woman your seat once is kindness, then giving her something that guarantees she’ll have a seat every time she rides the subway is helping. Giving her six months’ worth of taxi fare, for example. Helping is when parents help their grown children pay off student debt.

The majority of well-planned, well-executed aid work fall into the helping category. We use resources tactically to improve the situation of people affected by conflict, disaster, and extreme poverty. Or we should.

Being helped doesn’t always feel like kindness. An addict whose family and friends stage an intervention might be wildly pissed off, and rehab might be miserable. Making my son plough through his pre-algebra homework isn’t fun for either of us. And he might feel it monumentally unkind that I don’t simply tell him the answer. But that wouldn’t be really helping him, would it?

Using resources tactically means making choices. Sometimes difficult choices. Resources are limited, and you can’t do everything. It’s also important to understand the difference between helping and problem-solving. Helping is not a panacea.


Solving problems is making them go away. Full stop. Solving problems requires the strategic application of resources over a sustained period of time, at scale, and in a way that addresses all or many aspects of context. Recycling at the household level is a good thing, but it won’t reverse climate change – that would take a lot of people recycling plus do a lot of other things, too.

Solving problems may not feel like kindness either. There is no path toward reversing climate change that does not involve all of us consuming less, and no one wants that. There is no path toward peace in DR Congo without addressing the issue of conflict minerals, which then means all of use use less or different communications technology – yes, even the technology that I use to write and publish this post. Eradicating malaria or tuberculosis means prioritizing efforts to do those things at the expense of other issues – someone will almost certainly die of typhoid or meningitis in the meantime, and the reasonable response will be, “but what about me?” (or “them?”). Solving world hunger will mean reducing the profit margins of some pretty powerful global corporations, and reducing the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” – an idea that many in the “haves” category find distasteful. For the “have nots” to have more, the “haves” may need to have less.

Humanitarian aid and development won’t solve any problems. The tsunamis, the earthquake in Haiti, the war in Syria, and all the other disasters and humanitarian crises you’ve ever heard of highlight a vast array of problems that the humanitarian system can never hope to solve. Let’s not confuse helping with problem-solving.

And let’s stay clear, to on the purpose of the humanitarian system, as well as of the individual NGOs, INGOs, UN agencies, and donors that comprise it: Our purpose is helping. We don’t solve anything.

Hopefully we do help.

Are you good at your job?

In November of this year (2016) I released a mini-poll entitled “Are you good at your (aid industry) job?” It was partially my own continued train of thought from this post: Represent. I wanted to see how others – you – see them/yourselves around this question of whether just anyone can do this humanitarian aid and development thing.

The poll is still open, so if you’ve not taken it yet, you still can. These results are preliminary.

(Not familiar with my mini-polls? See this post and this page.)


My read of Q2 and Q3 together is that the respondent pool is primarily what I would call mid-management and technical. These are your run-of-the-mill NGO and UN system employees, doing moderately specialized work. Walk through the cubicles of any household charity field office or HQ programmes unit, and you get a sense for the majority of the respondents to “Are you good at your job?”

“Which of the following best described how specialized or difficult your aid industry job is?”



Q4: What would happen if you unexpectedly missed a day of work?

Obviously this gets away, strictly speaking, from the question of whether we’re good at our jobs, and gets into something around the immediacy of what the vast majority of us do. Look at the capture of the responses: A combined 92.3% of us could simply miss work for a day without beneficiaries noticing. I’m not saying that 92.3% of us could all miss work on the same day – I expect there would be a huge impact if that was to happen.


Yes, deadlines. There are times when it’s full-on and everyone works around the clock. But most of us are being overly dramatic when we carry on about the never-ending urgency of our jobs.


Q5 – this seems straightforward…


Q6: If you answered “Yes” to question 5: What makes you think you are good at your job? How do you know that you are effective?

An illustrative sample of the responses:

“I am not entirely sure if I am good at my job in the sense of making a ‘sustainable change’ for the better, but the fact that I am questioning it, finding solutions to improve and having discussions with others within the sector in order to increase impact (because that’s difficult to assess anyway, have we made a real difference?) is more than I can say for a lot of other aid professionals out there.”


“I don’t just do what is in my job description, I go the “extra mile” if I feel that it helps overall programme delivery / performance. I have worked in several contexts (different aid organisations and/or duty stations) and I have always been appreciated by colleagues and supervisors so I guess I am really doing well, or at least better than average. Clearly there have been situations in which co-workers did not agree with me on some specific issues, but overall they seemed to like my way of working. I never had any negative review (at least not that I know of).”


“I support monitoring, evaluation and learning processes across the organization. I see success every day in the fact that teams are eager to learn about their environment and impacts and openly reflect on how past decisions would have been made differently if they had better information. The processes aren’t easy but are far from impossible, having a global team who is eager to consume information for program improvement is a huge win! It will be a game changer when the whole industry feels the same way.”


“I see progress happening and nothing is falling apart!”


“I think I am good at my job because I have led the organisation to quadruple their budget, while ensuring we are still implementing with quality under my leadership. I am proud of the work that I have done and the team that I have hired.”


“In my head, I have two simple objectives. One is to improve programme quality and reach for beneficiaries. The second is to capacitance my team with clearer systems, processes, and knowledge and confidence, for when am I am not there, or they move on. If I get overwhelmed by the To Dos… I come back to these objectives; if what I am doing is serving these priorities, then I am using my time effectively.”

For as famously self-deprecating and cynical as we can sometimes be, in the responses to Q6 I got a very strong sense of people taking pride in what they do, and in a good way. This is very positive.

I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of these responses with the overall sense of Q4. How do we make sense of “no beneficiary will be affected if I miss work for a day,” vis-à-vis “I’m good at my job and what I do matters.”? This can mean many things, but to me first and foremost it points to that wide gulf between perceptions about what the aid industry is and how it works and how it is talked about, and what it’s actually like to be inside it.


Q8: Please rank the following attributes in terms of their relevance in *your own* aid industry job performance and capability.

Here’s how the ranking came out (scale of 1 – 6)

  • 5.1 – My experience: On-the-job learning.
  • 3.8 – My technical ability.
  • 3.8 – My people skills.
  • 3.5 – My understanding of the aid system and how it works.
  • 2.5 – My formal education: degrees, certificates, etc.
  • 2.14 – My strong commitment to the humanitarian cause (or my employer’s mission, “heart for the poor”, etc.)


Three things jumped out at me from this result.

First, the expressed importance of experience and on-the-job learning. This would seem to fly in the face of very popular opinions from elsewhere about the need to bring in non-insiders or the importance of “disruption.”

Second, the distant second clustering of technical ability, understanding the aid system, and people skills. Part of this might be sampling – most respondents seemed to have roles which focused internally (within their own organizations), and so understanding the aid system would not necessarily be top-of-mind for them, for example. And if you’ve ever lived for very long in a team house, you’ve confronted the reality that most humanitarians have mediocre commitment to people skills.

Finally, the dead last ranking of commitment. Every aspiring humanitarian needs to read this. Declaring your love for “the poor” doesn’t make you good at your job


And lastly, a response from Q9: Anything else you’d like to ask or add?

“I think that effectiveness in a humanitarian job is connected to length of time in a specific job. Based on my observations of myself and others, it is easier to be effective in the initial stages of being in a role but as time passes, effectiveness decreases. I have worked in organisations where people have the same job (with minor title and salary changes over time) for 5, 10, even 15 years but the ones who’ve been there the longest doing the same thing are no longer able to see an issue with fresh eyes and perpetuate the same habits.”

Don’t make me name names.

Four things

A few times each year I’ll get email from people or organizations who wants me to give a nod of endorsement for what they do. It’s usually some new start up organization or person with a new take on an old theme.

We can argue and wordsmith things to death. In my opinion there are four basic qualities that mark the difference between professionals and amateurs:


(1) It’s not just some random, occasional thing. This is not something to dabble in. Either you do it or you don’t.

(2) You have specific, identifiable skills that are relevant. Maybe you have a degree or a certificate to prove that you have those skills. Maybe it’s just something that you have done for many years and are very good at.

(3) You do what you do at a level that falls in line with established standards and norms (and there are standards and norms for most everything that we do in the aid world).

(4) Constant pursuit of improvement.