Ants

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.

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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?

 

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Waiting For Payment

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are alight right now with people carrying on about the widely touted Living Level-3, a graphic novel about what it’s like to be an aid worker, produced by World Food Programme. The Huffington Post is releasing a chapter each day. Here’s Chapter 1.

Some are loving it, some hating it, some making pithy comments about it, and in a few cases asking me to comment. So, here you are. My comments:

Graphic novels as a medium leave me nonplussed. I know this medium appeals to many, and that’s fine. But the reality is that I will probably not read all of Living Level-3. I’ve skimmed the chapters released so far, looked at the pictures. I’m too busy writing my own next actual novel, like, with paragraphs of words…

What’s the point? It’s not clear to me what the point of this project is. Fundraising? Recruiting? Set the record straight on some issue? Entertainment? Maybe, but for whom?

Is it “realistic?” As I’d expect, a fair amount of commentary coming through my social media right now is focused on the question of whether or not it’s literally realistic. Some point out that the frustrating cluster meetings are missing. Good point, but then we’re only on Chapter 4 (as of this writing). Also, the main character, Leila, is a junior VAM, so unlikely to be repping for WFP at a cluster meeting. Others say that the Iraq presented is quite unlike the Iraq that they experienced. The truth is, I’ve never been to Iraq at all, so on that point I can’t weigh in.

Some of Leila’s inner monologue seems gratuitous. Of the Istanbul airport—“Just a mall on the edge of calamity.” (And, “Everything felt sterile”? The author has obviously never been to the Istanbul airport.) C’mon, WFP. This all sounds like stuff Angelina Jolie or Sean Penn would say. We’ve got a representation issue in the aid industry already. This isn’t helping.

Useful

Similarly, the final panel of Chapter 3: “I chase them. I look for the truth. Fueled by a desire to hear every single one.” This sounds like something a junior comms officer would say on her first deployment ever. Or maybe Leila will become a bitter, jaded, chain-smoking aid worker by the end, and her thoughts will shift to something far more realistic: “I take their story as quickly as possible. I’ve heard it all before. I’ve got a deadline to meet, and a desk-jockey in Rome to keep off my ass.”

truth

And finally, in over 20 years of humanitarian work, I don’t I’ve ever heard anyone say anything even remotely like, “… chase intelligence, trying to get a lock on Sinjar’s ground truth.”

ground truth

 

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The jaded side of me wants to say that, like every other depiction of aid work and aid workers that I’ve seen, Living Level-3 misses the reality mark. I’m sure many of us could nit-pick it to death. The snarky side of me wants to say that a G.I. Joe comic from the early 1980s is a much more realistic depiction of my life in the aid world…

GI Joe
Just another day at HQ…

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But then, nit-picking about Iraq and picking on WFP aside, I think it says something that there are now graphic novels about aid workers. With every new movie, and television show, and graphic novel, aid work and aid workers become more tangibly a thing. Remember, there was a time when J. Edgar Hoover used comics as a way to mainstream the idea of the United States FBI.

G Men

50+ years later, it’s easy to look at those old G-Men comics and chuckle at the art and the writing. Yeah, not realistic. Over-the-top. Even now I imagine that real FBI agents cringe and laugh at how they’re depicted in shows like “Criminal Minds” or “Quantico.” Just like real doctors (I guess) shake their heads and look away when re-runs of “Grey’s Anatomy” come on, or real spies can’t bear to read Robert Ludlum novels except when they’re drunk.

No telling what WFP’s intentions are with Living Level-3, but I don’t suppose that the point was ever to depict aid work in all of its variation, nuance, angst, exhilaration, and contradiction. Some aid workers will shake their heads in dismay. Maybe, after reading Living Level-3 some bright-eyed noobs will apply to WFP with dreams of international adventure and romance (of which they will be summarily disabused once in the door as a P1).

 

So, yeah, I wanna snark and jibe at Living Level-3. I wanna belly up to the bar and make all kinds of deflating comments about how it’s not true to life. But I won’t. The idea of aid work as a real thing that you prepare for and do for real is now one step closer to being mainstreamed in the popular psyche. And that’s a good thing. Just this once, I’ll say it:

Go WFP!

But seriously, this is a more accurate depiction of what I actually do:

On the Run

 

 

(You know that WFP stands for “Waiting for Payment,” right?)

Give

It’s that time of year again.

That most unfortunate period between more or less Diwali and more or less Lunar New Year when the Western World is inundated with nonstop gag-reflex-triggeringly bad aid marketing. For the next four months it won’t be possible to ride a subway, turn on the television, or go into a coffee chain without being accosted by kitchy, guilt-laden, seasonally themed opportunities for partnership with the poor. Buy this special-edition thingy, and someone else will do something for another someone else. “Like” this, tweet with that hashtag, sign the petition, use a particular credit card… then sit back and watch contentedly while peace, justice, and equality wash over the world as if in a tsunami of good will.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to carry on for too long, here. But there is one particular kind of aid marketing social culture that gets particularly annoying this time of year. And so, as a public service, I’m going to write what many of you are thinking and perhaps have wished you could say:

If you don’t want to give me a gift, that’s fine. Whatever the reason is, I’m sure I’ll live. Or don’t share any reason at all. If you don’t want to give me a gift, then don’t. Easy.

If you want to donate to charity, that’s fine, too. For the sake of this post, I don’t really care very much why you want to give, nor do I care too much which charity you choose. If you want to give, then give. Easy.

But, please. Do not try to pretend that the two are related.

Do not buy a goat for someone in Sarawak, and then tell me that’s my Christmas present. Do not pay for a well in Zimbabwe, and then give me some certificate. Do not make a big show of inviting me to something, and then be all, “oh, actually there’s nothing because I gave it all to charity, so let’s sit here and celebrate.”

Yes, do buy someone a camel. Just don't make it about me.
Yes, do buy someone a camel. Just don’t make it about me.

You can chip in for a women’s shelter; you can sponsor a child or a family; you can build a house for refugees, or plant a tree, or set a bird free. You can skip your holiday dinner party and donate the value to a local soup kitchen.Those are all wonderful things, and you should definitely do them if you want to and can afford it.

Just don’t make it about me.

When you contribute to a charity of your choice and then try to dress it up as a gift for me, it is manipulation. When you do that it is like you are trying to implicate me in your self-righteous humblebragging. When you do this it’s like you’re directly asking me to affirm you publicly, and maybe I don’t feel like it. It’s like you’re trying to use me to get more Facebook likes or more of those stupid little hearts on Twitter. Or maybe you’re trying to judge me for not giving as much as you or shame me into giving more (maybe you think you’re the judge of how much other people should give).

You don’t have to invite me over or give me anything. And you can contribute toward making the world better as you see fit.

But I’ll manage my own charitable contributions, thank you very much. And I may or may not tell you about it.

*

Post to your Facebook, tweet the link, strategically share directly to certain friends or family members.

Stunt

I mean, you have to wonder what UNICEF was thinking.

For those so far out in the field that they have poor internet, and/or are otherwise simply too busy to click the link, here’s summary, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

In an attempt to raise awareness of the conflict in South Sudan, UNICEF traveled to a gaming convention in the US and pitched a fake video game based on the life of a South Sudanese refugee.

UNICEF sent actors, a film crew and two South Sudanese youth to the Video Gamers United convention in Washington, DC, to present a new idea to the gaming community, and filmed their reactions.

The fictional game ‘Elika’s Escape’ generated gasps from the audience when they were told the protagonist would be a seven-year-old South Sudanese girl escaping the horrors of war. The audience was not told, however, the story highlighted in the pitch was based on the actual experiences of one of the South Sudanese attendees.

 

Any second, now, the aid blogosphere will explode with the usual rants from all the usual places. We know the lines by heart. This video crosses all the cringe-inducing “T”s and pushes all the righteous indignation-inducing buttons.

I’m going to simultaneously stay above the fray and get myself on the board early by not ranting, but simply sharing my personal takeaways:

  • The world that those who implement aid and development inhabit, and the world portrayed in marketing, fundraising, awareness-raising, and all the other “ings” are quite simply different worlds. Let’s not make any snap judgments about what UNICEF actually does in the real world based on this video.
  • Not all awareness-raising is good.
  • Just because you can find a local person who goes along with it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
  • You’ve got to love the irony of UNICEF choosing to take a wildly inappropriate publicity stunt live in the same week that the brains organization behind KONY2012 (according to some the archetypical aid marketing/awareness-raising campaign that goes viral) announces its own imminent demise.
  • In general, it’s been a tough few months in the aid, development, publicity stunt department… [Exhibit A; Exhibit B; I’ll add others later].

 

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”?

What does that make us?

There’s been a great deal of discussion, lately, about this thing called “poverty porn.” It’s not new a new idea. I don’t know who first coined the term, or when. I’ve known about it for at least fifteen years. Aid Thoughts, too, has been ranting about it for some time (along with plenty of others). In fact, in my opinion they give us one of the best articles on why it all matters, along with some early attempts at definition, here. More recently, there’s a new-ish website called Regarding Humanity dedicated, not to poverty porn per se, but to the issues around representation of “the poor”, more broadly (but of course, poverty porn is a consistent—if not central—theme in much of that discussion). Then there was the Kurante-facipulated Google Hangout on poverty porn just a few days ago, featuring some of the more outspoken thought-leaders on the subject in the aid blogosphere/Twitterverse (links to existing recordings and Twitter convos, here). And, of course, the inevitable round of follow-up blog posts since. Maybe this post fits into that category.

Poverty porn is controversial. The concept is controversial, and the term itself is controversial. That’s the whole point. At least to Western, native English speakers, just the word “porn” comes fraught, with loads of emotional and cultural baggage. Poverty porn, the word, is catchy, punchy. It grabs attention, and plays on our assumptions about, and perhaps real encounters with real porn. It conjures mental images of abuse and perversion, captured as pictures or videos for the pleasure of others.

It is important to understand that poverty porn is a metaphor. We need to look past the literal meaning of the English word “pornography”, and understand its metaphorical translation into the aid world. To that end I don’t personally see a great deal of value in further trying to define what poverty porn looks like. Nor do I think that there’s much more to be said about the exploitative nature of poverty porn. There are image standards and codes of conduct in the aid industry, and these days most orgs and people play by the rules to the letter, even if not the spirit.

I don’t think I can recall the last time I saw aid marketing that included images of distended bellies or flies on eyes—at least by a serious, credible aid organization. Happy, plump babies, grinning women entrepreneurs, and newly self-sufficient farmers are all the rage. Even disaster response marketing shifts very quickly to something about “dignity”, “sustainability”, or “empowerment” within a few days of the disaster. Remember, there are places in the world where the “Victoria’s Secret” catalog is considered pornographic. Heck, there are places in the world where images of Bollywood starlets with their belly-buttons and noses, bared for all to see, are considered pornographic. Outside of extreme, and usually famous examples, poverty porn defies us to define well it in a way which makes it possible to identify it simply by looking.

No, in order to understand poverty porn, we need to look beyond traditional (and always fraught, anyway) definitions. I think it helps to take a break from analyzing poverty porn in terms of what it portrays, and instead understand what actual porn actually does to and for those who consume it.

At its core, real pornography creates illusions of relationships. In the real world, in real life, relationships are difficult, messy, negotiated, based on (ideally) some kind of equity. But porn allows its consumers to bypass the difficulty and messiness, skip any negotiation, leave aside any notion of equity or reciprocation, and get straight to having it their way, on their terms, whatever “it” might be. Porn creates a false sense of reality that many find appealing—appealing to the point that many prefer it to reality, and are willing to pay for. Put bluntly, real porn tells a lie—a lie that makes money.

And that, for me is the real point when it comes to using the metaphor of “porn” to say something about relief and development work, about those who are meant to benefit from it, and about aid workers, too. Real porn tells a lie about relationships, a lie many find preferable to reality. Porn works precisely because people want the untruth more than they want the truth, and will pay for it—to the tune of a widely touted $14 billion USD per year (will probably surpass the humanitarian industry soon).

Aid and development marketing, as well as journalistic portrayal of aid and development work, struggles to get at the truth. To a certain extent, fair enough. Aid is a complicated thing, trying to tackle complicated problems. There are many legitimate, and at times contradictory, realities in the world of aid and development, and exponentially more perspectives. Telling the real—if you will, the True—story of aid, in all of its nuance and variation and built-in contradictions, whether for marketing/fundraising or for some other purposes is a truly colossal task. Most organizations and people simply do not have the endurance or the fortitude required to commit to telling the fully, true story of aid.

Yet I find it fascinating that more and more aid marketing is described and justified and framed in terms of somehow enabling a “relationship” between the viewer/consumer, and a real beneficiary in the field. This is the entire shtick of schemes like BOGO and P2P (although they’re not the only offenders). “You can have a relationship, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. You can make life better for this other person on your terms.”

Many have also described real aid—relief and development work, variously described and defined—as relationships, and rightly so. But real relationships are complex, often difficult things. Real people, too, are complex. It is not easy to know someone, to understand their context. It’s not easy to have a relationship with another person based on respect and understanding, a relationship equally grounded in the strengths and weaknesses of both parties. It’s not impossible, but it takes time and effort.

I’ve written before that I think how we think and talk about aid matters. It matters how we portray it to those not part of it, whether donors or constituents or someone else. It is simply not acceptable to say that we’ll message a particular way because “donors want” the message a particular way. It is absolutely unacceptable to say that this or that kind of marketing is good because it makes lots of money. Of course everyone in the aid industry understands very well that the aid industry runs on money, and that that money has to come from somewhere, but making money is not the endgame. There are other, equally or more important considerations (as Ian Thorpe points out exceptionally well).

Yes, I know. “Poverty porn” is controversial. It’s repulsive to be compared to someone who would violate beneficiaries for money. But if we are presenting a story of what we do, of how others benefit, or of who those others are, that does not convey reality—even failure to convey reality by omission—then we are essentially presenting an untruth. We are presenting an illusion. We are presenting an illusion that others prefer to the difficult, complex reality of what becomes of what we do; an illusion that that others pay to get more of. And, if knowing all of this we continue to market that same illusion, rather than committing to the difficult, complicated, sometimes downright unpleasant truth, precisely because people will pay for it…

What does that make us?

Pop Quiz, Hotshot

You know how it goes.

Every so often WorldCAREPlanSaveOxCorpsWithoutBorders has a publicity stunt that goes sideways and gets all kinds of snarkastic coverage in some widely acknowledged authoritative source on humanitarian issues–say, Huffington Post–and the whole world is all up on them, all, like, “you guys are EVILLLLLLLL.” Twitter heats up, there are blog posts back and forth, each new pundit stridently claiming the status of having the sole legitimate perspective on the matter. All the while, the real aid workers breath sighs of relief it’s not their employer getting the negative press this time.

Or maybe it’s some marketing gaff. Some clueless marketeer, buried in a cubicle, never been to the field (except for that one, highly scripted 3-day visit, 5 years ago, with 20 other people), comes up with a piece that seems innocuous enough in the conference room, but which, once live, goes viral for all of the horribly wrong reasons. And the same thing, more or less, happens: The internet lights up with righteously indignant vitriol, celebrities and famous journalists pledge allegiance(s), and casually earnest talkers from tiny startup NGOs no one’s ever heard of before are suddenly doing TED talks about their “innovative community-based multi-stakeholder participation model.”

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A few weekends ago I was sitting, having a few beers with Tom Paulson, wondering aloud how many people actually know the difference between one NGO and another. I mean, we all get bent out of shape very quickly about aid marketing, especially when it doesn’t conform to our unique notion of good-speaking-about-good-aid. But how many of us–and I’m talking to industry insiders, too–can say in any real specific terms what the differences are between the common household charities? On my last work-related trip I saw Oxfam, CARE, and Church World Service advertisements in airports along the way. In the last week, I’ve seen Mercy Corps, Red Cross, and Plan commercials on television. But even as a 20+ year industry veteran, I’m not sure I could explain the differences between them all in terms of their respective approaches, paradigms, sectoral foci, etc.

We all know their marketing. But do we really know what they do? I’m guessing we don’t. But maybe you can prove me wrong.

NGO QUIZ: (if I was teaching a class on humanitarian aid and development, there would be a quiz like this at some point…)

In a sentence or less, each:

1) Practically speaking, what is the difference between ICRC and IFRC? Yes, I know what the acronyms mean. What is different about what they actually do? You only have one sentence, so make it count.

2) Imagine that nothing was branded–there were no branded Land Cruisers, T-shirts, name badges, etc. Based on programs only, how would you distinguish between Concern Worldwide and World Concern if you encountered their work in the field?

3) Name two things, not related to marketing or public persona, that MSF and Oxfam have in common, besides both being (sort of) European.

4) What is one similarity and one difference, each, between CARE and World Vision in the way that they implement programs in the field? Your answer cannot be anything about their marketing, global structure, or their faith-based status.

5) Name one uniqueness in terms of approach to community development between each of the following: Plan, Mercy Corps, and IMC.

6) EXRA CREDIT: Name one unique programmatic or technical contribution to the aid industry (a methodology, a tool of some kind, a useful acronym…) of each of the following: Save the Children, Tearfund, and GOAL.

7) EXTRA EXTRA CREDIT: Write 100 words on which you would personally support, based on demonstrable impact in the field: Clowns Without Borders, or Surfers Without Borders.

Post your answers in the comments thread below this post, or publish the answer on your own blog and @ me with the link.