Pray For Peace

[NOTE: This post was written 2 years ago. I have my reasons for waiting until now to publish.]

I won’t bore you with lengthy backstory, nor will I give away the location just now. But I’m currently in the midst of a thinky-strategery kind of process for my employer in a very recently post-conflict place. Even to say that it is, in fact, post-conflict is a matter of debate by some. There is a very tentative and uneasy calm in place, but everywhere I see the signs of churn just beneath the surface. This place is textbook “fragile context”—a term I dislike, but am, for the moment, stuck with.

A few days ago I visited a settlement for internally displaced persons (IDP). This is a community of people who fled, together, as I understand it, on foot, from their original home more than one hundred kilometers away. After a lengthy series of mishaps that involved essentially being held prisoner by an insurgent armed group (basically local terrorists), and a couple of failed attempts by the aid system to “help”, they ended up there. It was a decent enough (considering the overall state of affairs in that place) settlement, close to a market and a road, with houses, a meeting space/Mosque, and a few other miscellaneous buildings constructed at better than Sphere standards, but following local styles.

At each corner of the settlement were elevated guard posts where, I was told, UN peacekeeping soldiers would stand watch at night to protect the IDPs from the local community. Then apparently, a week prior to my visit UN mission in that place determined that the situation had stabilized enough to no longer post guards in those posts. The first night that there were no UN soldiers standing guard, people from the local community came and stole all the metal doors from the latrines.

When the local Imam showed me, it was actually pathetic to see: blocks of constructed latrines, standing wide open with no doors. No chance to go relieve oneself in private. It seemed very demeaning and dehumanizing.

Yes, of course I get that the surrounding community was also abjectly poor. And yes, I do get that it often creates tension between local and displaced communities, when the displaced receive especially international help and the local do not.

But still. What kind of asshole steals the bathroom doors from IDPs?

Hardly one hundred meters from the edge of the IDP settlement, we came across the local chief of police and the senior religious leader from the local community, having a couple of mid-day beers. They pumped my hand enthusiastically. “Thank you, [MY ORGANIZATION] for everything. Yes, the situation in [THIS COUNTRY] is still very bad. Let us all pray for peace.”

Pray for peace? How about stop stealing stuff from the IDPs?

*

Then, yesterday I learned that during the height of the recent internal conflict it was rather common for people to murder their neighbors—people against whom they held a grudge, or to whom they owed money, as examples—with machetes (or whatever), and then toss the bodies down wells. Apparently this practice was prevalent enough that it negatively affected the statistic on access to potable water nationally.

Not to dramatize or overstate the problem, but just so you’re clear on the implication: There are so many wells contaminated by the rotting corpses of murdered villagers that it is statistically significant in a nation-wide data set.

And once again, it was the energetic handshakes, and the effusive thanks, and the solemn invocation: “We must all pray for peace.”

*

I have most definitely had my moments of extreme internal ethnocentrism while on this assignment. I mean, they’re talking and in my head I’m thinking: “Friends, you’ve thrown so many dead bodies into wells that you now need emergency water interventions in areas that previously did not. And the best solution you can articulate is ‘pray for peace.’ For real?”

I’ve [EXPLETIVE DELETED] had it with, [EXPLETIVE DELETED] “pray for peace.”

But those thoughts quickly give way to extreme jadedness with the aid system. (Not cynicism, jadedness. The difference is important.) I’m jaded because I already know how this is going to go. Over the next couple of years, the aid system is going to pour untold resources—cash, human hours, travel, workshops…—into “innovative peace-building solutions,” or variations on that theme. Books will be written. Experts will sit on panels. Working groups will be formed. Jargon will be created. Niche/boutique NGOs and INGOs will come into existence. None of which/whom will do much more than add complexity and perhaps some more specialized jargon around a central basic question:

How do we persuade people to not hack their neighbors to death with garden tools?

*

Okay, of course it’s never really that simple. And in this particular setting, you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to realize that things here are actually very, very complex. There are multiple layers of perception and multiple layers of reality that do not align; there are national and regional, and even global entities with vested interests in what happens here, and in some cases vested interests in keeping this place unstable. That’s right. There are global entities who benefit when the villagers kill each other, and who use their power and influence to keep that happening.

And in this setting, with this knowledge, thinking through what needs to happen, and then, what an organization’s role is in making it so, all becomes very daunting. I do not think it really possible to honestly identify what it might take to move the needle on any issue of consequence at any kind of scale, and not come away feeling terribly insignificant. The question of where to begin is tough enough. Worse still, the question of where to focus capacity. You can’t fix everything. Hell, you can’t really fix anything. So what do you do?

Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. But for today, all I can come up with is:

1) Help where you can.

2) If you can’t help, at least don’t hurt.

3) Pray for peace.

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One

This weeks it’s the Tales From the Hood rock ‘n’ roll marathon.

Here’s the first tune in the playlist:

U2’s “One” sounds to me like a conversation between aid workers and beneficiaries about the issues in the aid system…

Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame

Sometimes aid is broken. Sometimes, no matter how badly aid donors or aid workers wish otherwise, change just doesn’t happen. We do our best and it’s not enough. Or maybe we’re just tired and can’t get it together.

Sometimes, no matter how abject things are “on the ground” or “in the field”, and no matter how well-planned the intervention is, it fails. Sometimes there is local resistance to aid. Sometimes it’s overt, “get the hell out!” Sometimes you can’t put your finger on it.

Everyone in the aid equation is culpable at one point or another.

Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without? 

Everyone – aid workers, beneficiaries – comes to the conversation with expectations that, in the end are not met. We expected each other to think differently, to act differently, to value and prioritize different things. And we were all disappointed, disillusioned at some point.


Well it’s…

Too late
Tonight
To drag the past out into the light

Sometimes it’s good to analyze what’s happened before in order to clarify the way forward.. Sometimes, though, the past is just that: the past. Sometimes you just need to start from where you are right now and move on.

We’re one, but we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

Indeed.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?

Every aid worker on the planet comes to this line of work, in addition to whatever else, for personal reasons. Maybe we have a Jesus complex – we are going to save the poor from their poverty. Maybe we seek absolution from a dark past. Maybe it’s both of these and more.

Did I ask too much?
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it’s all I got

What do the poor deserve from us?

We’re one
But we’re not the same
Will we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again

Indeed.

We’ll continue doing humanitarian work. We’ll get it wrong. And sometimes we’ll get it right. And one day – who knows? – we’ll find ourselves as beneficiaries of aid programs run by those we once purported to help.

Fail

This post is my contribution to the Second Aid Blog Forum on “Admitting Aid Failure?”

* * * * *

“Admitting failure” has been slowly gaining momentum for a few years, now, at least in the aid world. It’s one of those ideas whose time, as MJ correctly points out, is just around the corner. Much like all things “local”, like “sustainability” before that, and “evidence-based programming” before that, “admitting failure” is the sexy new relief and development language convention of the month, and as MJ further points out, is almost certain to become de rigeur in proposals, monitoring and evaluation reports, and NGO external publications within the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for practitioners of humanitarian relief and development? I think it means at least the following:

PR v. Organizational Learning: As I wrote in the comments thread beneath @ShotgunShack’s (really good) post on “Mainstreaming Complexity and Failure”, I think it’s important to remain clear in our own thinking about the distinction between “admitting failure” and “learning from mistakes.” The first is essential a public relations activity – something that I think we’ll be increasingly constrained to do simply as a matter of remaining citizens in good standing of the aid community. In the current discussion on admitting aid failure, though, there is a strong tendency to tacitly associate those admissions of failure on the one hand, with follow-through corrective action on the other. But as we all know, admitting mistakes and changing practice based on what is learned from mistakes are not at all the same things. If admitting failure is to be more than an exercise in conspicuous organizational humility, it will be up to us to link acknowledgement of failure with positive change.

The right level of analysis. Right now I don’t see a lot of focus in the “admitting failure” discussion on what exactly we’re to admit failure of. As those of us who have actually implemented relief and development programs in the field know, the failure of an activity (say, food for work) does not mean the failure of a project or program within which the failed activity is but one part. Or, conversely, it is also possible for individual activities to succeed where the overall program fails. The failure of one program does not mean that the overall effort in-country has failed. Which is different yet from a failure of the overall aid system. We will need to educate our constituents (what I have called “The Third Audience” on this blog) to understand these differences, and what failure at one level or in one area means – and importantly, does not mean – in others.

The danger of hyperbole. In many respects I see the call for aid providers to “admit failure” as backlash against the hyperbolic “dude, we can so make poverty history” language of the marketing and promotional material coming out of NGO communications and PR departments. And, perhaps ironically, the language of the “admit failure” discussion is similarly hyperbolic. Looking through what Wayan Vota describes as the 10 Levels of Failure, it seems to me that we are very often drawn to describe as “catastrophic failure” or “abject failure” what might in fact be only “version failure.” Or what might actually be what I’d call “lukewarm success.” Very few relief or development programs fully succeed or fully fail. Moreover, as I’ve written, even experts very often disagree on what success and failure mean, on what has succeeded versus what has failed.

While I wouldn’t see the term “admit failure” going away any time soon (and so we’ll be stuck using it), I think that the success in admitting failure, whether as a means of educating our constituents or of our own organizational learning, will depend on how well we move past hyperbolic language of “success” as well as “failure” into nuanced discussion about how to make things better.

Move away from simplistic marketing and communications. I have repeatedly over the past twenty years had the exact same conversation with communications and marketing colleagues. The upshot is that basically, in their view, the public – our donors – don’t want a drawn-out, nuanced discussion. Rather, they want simple, cut-and-dried facts in sound bite form. I honestly do not see how this perspective can survive a climate where NGOs are forced, either by legal requirement or the courts of public opinion, to admit failure. This is related to the above point: the NGO and aid world will have no choice but to find new ways of reaching out to their donor bases. The overly simplistic, happy-happy, headline-style marketing that pervades the aid world right now barely works. Once it is common practice for us to admit failure, simplistic marketing messages will stop working altogether.

Ethics and practicality. Thomas Edison is reported to have made some 9,000 attempts before succeeding at inventing the electric light bulb. But how many times should aid practitioners be allowed to fail at this kind of program or that before getting it right? How badly should an NGO have to fail before being barred from future practice? For how long should the mediocre success of a particular intervention be tolerated before being labeled “failure” and disallowed? While on one hand I acknowledge the value of learning from mistakes and sincerely applaud organizations like Engineers Without Borders for their nascent leadership within the industry to admit failure as a necessary part of that, on the other hand I do struggle to balance this against the conviction that what we do affects the lives and livelihoods of real people in very immediate, tangible ways. It may be state of the art in fields like engineering to celebrate failed attempts as learning. But once again, we’re dealing with people’s lives, here: ultimately the emphasis has to be more on the learning, less on the simple act of admission. More to the point, we have to be getting this stuff right or abandoning particular practices long before try number 9,000.

The Humanitarian Imperative

It’s hard for me to write this.

But I think it’s time for Aid to leave Haiti.

It’s hard for me to write this because it goes against everything that I believe and value as a humanitarian. It goes against my belief that not only should we “help”, but also that we can. I think the foreign experiment in Haiti, for the past two hundred years and culminating with a roundly botched response to the earthquake of 2010, however, is showing that we actually can’t and probably shouldn’t.

The international community has spent the better part of the past two hundred years proving itself fully incapable of helping. And if you look with any kind of objectivity at Haiti during that same period, it seems clear enough that Haiti has also shown by its actions that it is not particularly interested in being helped.

Before you fill my comments thread with hate for that, let me first clarify that I do not at all minimize the damaging effects of a brutal colonial period, the repeatedly exploitative nature of international treaties since independence, or basically self-serving interests of foreign investors, missionaries and secular humanitarians alike. Haiti has been and continues to be a victim, no question. But it also seems clear enough that the relationship between Haiti and everyone else is essentially a dysfunctional one. And it takes two to have a dysfunctional relationship.

It is hard for me to write this, because it feels ethnocentric or as if I am blaming the victim. It is hard to write this and I do so with deep reservation and misgiving. But this is how I see it.

I think it’s time for Aid to leave Haiti.

I’ve certainly defended Aid enough on this blog, including different things about the earthquake response in Haiti. In this case, though, I see the earthquake response in Haiti as simply the icing on the cake. Many have said that Haiti was a disaster before the earthquake, and I’d agree. What is said less often, is that Aid also was broken in Haiti before the earthquake. Depending on which numbers you crunch, and how you crunch them, Haiti is only incrementally worse off now than it was on January 9, 2010. I do not say this to in any way compliment the combined, inter-agency relief response, but rather to highlight just how bad things were pre-earthquake, despite decades of foreign assistance. It’s time to call this what it is: a massive debacle.

I honestly think that the very best thing for Haiti would be for us all to leave. I do not (yet) believe that Aid is broken globally. But it is certainly broken in Haiti. I sincerely believe that in the grand scheme of things we are not doing Haiti any real favors by staying on. We need to get out. All of us. All of the foreign governments with their incentives and their politicians who visit and make speeches about “Haiti’s bright future.” All of the UN and INGOs with their massive compounds and their VHF radios and their strategies. All of the hippy architects with their houses made out of recycled trash, the BOGO entrepreneurs with their GIK dumping, the bright-eyed innovators with their “platforms” and their earth-friendly gadgets. The journalist opining on about how “aid has failed” while utterly failing to understand what that even means. The comfortable-in-New York Haitian diaspora arrogantly claiming to be “one of the people.” For heavens’ sake, all of the church groups with their matching T-shirts and their pet orphanages.

I honestly believe that what Haiti needs more than anything else is simply the opportunity to figure out for itself what Haiti wants and needs, without interference variously disguised as “help” from outside. Haiti has never in its entire history had this opportunity. Yet it seems clear to me that this is what is needed most.

If we take seriously The Humanitarian Imperative – the value which holds that when people need help, the international community is obliged to respond – then I do not believe we can hide any longer from the reality that what Haiti needs more than anything else right now is for us to stop meddling. And historically we, the outsiders, have never once been up to the task of being part of the Haiti conversation without simultaneously imposing our will. It is time for Aid to leave Haiti.

It is hard to write this. But for the sake of The Humanitarian Imperative, if nothing else, we all need to have one last Prestige, and then head for the airport. All of us.

[See also: Looking Back on Haiti – Crisis of Purpose, Crisis of Practice ]

Tolerance

I remember several months ago sitting in the Karachi airport McDonald’s chatting with @ayeshahasan about the foreigners who go to Pakistan and try to blend in by wearing a salwar kameez (yes, I know there are, like, 20 different ways to spell it). Or, somewhat paradoxically, western-raised Pakistanis who go back “home” and think that since they’re Pakistani they automatically look like they’re “from there”, even though they’re sporting western casual wear. Even though you can recognize them a kilometer away.

* * *

I remember once in late 1993 during my Can Tho years, meeting this Vietnamese-American guy from southern California, same age as me, dragged back to the Mekong Delta by his parents to find a wife. We met casually, in Ben Ninh Kieu market. I was obviously not from there, and he obviously needed to speak English, to spend some time with a culturally Western person.

The woman making the coffee knew me. I was from there. Sort of. And even though the Vietnamese-American guy was from there, in an odd way, he also kind of wasn’t. She talked to me.

* * *

The international-ness of humanitarian aid work can mess with your head, if you let it. It can seduce you into believing that you’re from or, perhaps not from somewhere, when it’s really the opposite. No matter how much we try, whether through studied expatriate-ness or through the reality of being sequestered away in a place with no internet, to disabuse ourselves of our home culture, there is something both terribly alien and also reassuringly – well – comfortable and homey about walking into, say, Target.

And before you years-in-the-field expats in trendily obscure and simultaneously notoriously hardship locations fill my comments thread with hate for feeling comfortable in Target (and by the way, I feel comfortable in Target in the same ways that I feel comfortable in airports: familiar anonymity where conversations focus on goods and services transactions, and where there’s zero pressure to engage with anyone emotionally), let me ask you this:

Do you really belong where you are? I don’t mean, ‘can you speak the language?’ I don’t mean, ‘can you eat the street food and (most days, at least) actually like it?’ I don’t mean, ‘Have you ‘gone native’?’ I don’t mean, “are you friends with some of the people who are from the place where you’re now living?’

I mean, “do you really belong there?” And, how do you know? How do you know that your local colleagues are just putting up with you because they can tell that you “mean well”? How do you know that they’re simply too polite to tell you to get out of their country?

* * *

For all of our analysis, RCTs, regressions… our attempts to ensure good data (and data is obviously of great importance), it’s easy to lose touch with the importance of what, for lack of a more precise term, I’ll call good vibes. In the midst of having our exotic one-with-the-people experiences, it can be a real challenge to discern the difference between being accepted and being tolerated, and between being tolerated and simply not run out of town by villagers with pitchforks and hoes. Whether we’re talking about ourselves and the neighbors to whom we’re foreign, or what we have on offer to the communities where we work, I think that very often we are too willing to accept at face value the notion that we are accepted and appreciated.