“I. Love. This. Job. Oooh-rah!” Letters Left Unsent. My humble review

And I finally did it! A long time ago I promised J. I’d write a review about his latest book. But I took my time to read carefully each Letter in his book: Letters Left Unsent. And I don’t regret it.

For all those who don’t know the author, J. is a full-time professional humanitarian worker with more than twenty years of experience in the aid industry. J. has written two humanitarian novels: Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel and Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. This is his first non-fiction book.

While I was reading through the pages of Letters, it helped me think of my own journey and experiences. I think it’s a great book for anyone who works in the aid and development industry. And also for those who want to know more about the life of aid workers. This doesn’t mean that every point or idea put forward resonated with me (for example a simplistic explanation of Menage o Trois) or will do with you. But overall I felt it’s a good and fair representation of some of the core issues aid workers face.

As I was slowly making my way through the pages, I stopped in certain ‘nuggets’ of wisdom, funny aspects and letters not to be missed. I noted them down for my personal use. So here I’m sharing them with you as a taster of what you’ll find in the book.


10 Nuggets of wisdom

(In order of preference)

  1. I am continually amazed at how regularly I have to reiterate this very basic principle, and how frequently it comes across a surprise to local counterparts and colleagues alike: you should consult the actual people for whom an aid project or program is intended during the planning process.
  2. Know who you’re talking to. Nobody is just one thing. People almost always have more complex roles in communities than is immediately obvious to an outsider. Things are almost never what they seem at first to be.
  3. It’s been one of those moments when I see with great precision what aid is, when I get how it works, and that it does Or at least can. It’s a good moment.
  4. It doesn’t make me better than anyone, but it means there is a great deal of my experience that it is just easier to keep to myself when I am not around those who have not had similar experiences.
  5. It’s important to understand that the ways we think about aid and development matter. The ways we think about aid and development have an effect on the way we do it. Bad thinking (wrong thinking, incorrect thinking) about aid, begets bad aid itself. And in exactly the same way, bad fundraising and bad awareness-raising also beget bad aid. It’s not enough to simply raise awareness. Awareness has to be raised properly. Why? Because if you raise awareness wrong, then you understand the problem wrong; and if you understand the problem wrong, then you’ll inevitably envision the solutions wrong. If you’re a potential donor who’s awareness has been raised wrong—that is, if you were made aware of the issues in the wrong way—then it makes sense that you’ll support organizations that go about addressing the issue wrong, thus perpetuating more bad aid.
  6. It seems unfair and also a bit sad that the future of a large number of refugees in part comes down to our internal debates about staffing structures and budget categories. In the wee hours, with a deadline looming, it is easy for the work to become primarily about a document and about getting the money—and at least temporarily less so much about helping refugees.
  7. Aid work is Often in ways you don’t expect. And it’s not for everyone.
  8. You should receive fair and adequate compensation for the work that you do, even when doing work that is supposed to make the world better, help the poor, and all of that.
  9. Ever eaten a high-energy biscuit? How about CSB porridge? Ever drunk water that used to be nearly raw sewage but has had the contents of a PUR sachet swished around in it? No? I didn’t think so. Try some of that before handing it out to disaster or famine survivors with the attitude of Michael the Archangel.
  10. Don’t get me wrong. I love aid work, and I get that it—almost by definition—includes NGOs. But as I look at how hard it is for aid organizations to stay on track, or by contrast, how easily we get distracted, entangled, and muddled, it becomes tougher to fight a growing sense of despair with the system (punctuating moments of brilliance, obvious good that gets accomplished, notwithstanding).

Funniest aspect of the book

The Aid Work Suitability Self-Test. It’s just hilarious. Don’t miss it. I’d say, first do this and then start reading the book! My favourite question: Which of the following do you envision yourself doing when you daydream about your future aid career? And I went for option f: Getting carpal tunnel syndrome from the amount of typing/writing you do.

3 Letters you can’t miss!

  1. Things I’ve Learned
  2. What do the poor deserve
  3. Sacrifice

And to conclude, I’ll leave you with this wonderful reflection:

“The hardest part of this job is not seeing awful things in the field. It’s not repeatedly witnessing the suffering of others and being able to offer little as a remedy, dealing with corrupt district officials, getting sick, or spending too long away from one’s family too often, hard as those things truly can be. No, the hardest part of this job is simply dealing day after day with the crushing weight of a system that fundamentally lacks real incentives for getting right what it claims as its core purpose. And by the same token, the most dangerous part of this job is not armed militants, or bad drivers, or blood parasites. No, the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself. It will eat your soul if you let it.

Some days it is about just getting through the day. Some days it comes down to a conscious decision to invoke—almost as an act of faith—the “what is possible,” in order to cope with the “what is.” Some days it’s about identifying spheres of influence, focusing my efforts in those places where I know I can make a difference, and letting the others go. Some days I have to consciously reassess where I fit into the big picture and adjust accordingly my expectations of what I can feasibly contribute. Some days it’s about finding that Zen place. Some days it takes a conscious act of dogged will to stay.”

I can’t agree more.

Thanks J. for your writing. Keep it coming!


My latest blogs, article and video presentation

I’ve been busy writing for others during the last months and didn’t have a chance to post in my own blog! To feel less guilty, I’m sharing here some of the latest blogs, article and video presentation I created on Participatory Video, hoping it’s a useful resource for you:

  1. Participatory video for M&E: supporting bottom-up learning. ONTRAC 55, INTRAC magazine. This ONTRAC issue focuses on ICTs in M&E and how we can push the boundaries. You can download it for free!
  2. Participatory Video: an approach to community-led and community-owned development. Local First Blog. Local First is a great initiative sharing good practice on community-led and community-owned development. They kindly invited me to write an introduction to Participatory Video as practice by InsightShare. A good intro for those who are still wondering what Participatory Video can do for you!

  3. Video presentation for the American Evaluation Association conference 2013: The strengths and challenges of Participatory Video for M&E in gender-based violence programmes. I was invited by UN Women to be part of this panel, so I created this video to share my presentation by distance as I didn’t have a chance to attend this year in person. A good resource if you work or are interested in gender-based violence programming.
  4. Participatory Video for M&E: unpacking how change happened. Better Evaluation Blog. This is my latest piece. ODI invited me to be part of their video for evaluation blog series. I focused on one of my latest projects in Kenya.

I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section. All views welcomed!

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic and Misfit: A review

I had the pleasure of knowing about the launch of J.’s second book, M4 (Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic and Misfit), well in advance of it becoming available to the public. So I was eager to get a copy for a long time, which I did the very first night it was available on Kindle. Oh, such a nice feeling to see it in my screen!

Let me start this review by saying that M4 is, more than anything, an excellent piece of literature. It is a great contribution to humanitarian fiction. It flows, it really does. No effort to go back to it every now and then while on deployment. Despite my mind being like a waterfall with a myriad thoughts competing for my attention before I went to sleep every night, the book caught my full attention every time I turned on my Kindle in bed.

The book is light enough to be considered a recreational read, but is actually a great example of edutainment. In that, it strikes a balance that is hard to achieve in my view. It is not easy to make the reader ‘enjoy the ride’ while also help them to think deeper about how they work, the challenges they face as an aid worker, and reflect on the big picture for the aid industry as a whole. M4 does all of that. Plus it makes you giggle from time to time with small colourful scenes here and there.

Getting down to its core, the book provides a great platform to analyse the contradictions of the aid industry. It shows how the ’good intentions‘ of some, the hard work of others, and the typical ’business as usual‘ approach of many more – are all happening at the same time in parallel in the industry. The unavoidable ‘expat versus local’ power dynamic is laid bare in crystal clarity by the book. The pressure for money and organisational success which, sceptre-like, seems to haunt us all and holds us in a grip from which it seems there can be no redemption, is a topic that is also treated deftly by the book.

It struck me how the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture.

I think M4 is essential reading, especially for donors looking to learn and better understand the dynamics of the aid industry from the aid worker’s perspective, particularly at this time when ‘aid effectiveness’ is on everyone’s agenda.

The book gives a much more ‘real’ picture of the aid industry compared to J.’s first book, Disastrous Passion, especially in terms of the decisions and trade-offs that professional aid workers have to routinely make to survive in the industry’s harsh environment. It points towards an answer to the question  – Who benefits from the aid industry? –that can help us all to reflect upon the real consequences of our decisions for those we are supposed to serve.

Anyway, you really have to read this one. Whether you are a student, aid worker in ‘the field’ or HQ based, expat or local, donor, freelance consultant or researcher, this book will make you have fun while simultaneously supporting you to reflect deeply on the dynamics of the aid industry affecting you and your work. So get your copy and share your views in the comments section. Enjoy the ride!

Video in Eval Week: Soledad Muñiz on Participatory Video for M&E

My latest post for the American Evaluation Association AEA365 A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators blog: http://aea365.org/blog/?p=8777


By Girls for Girls: My guest post at A View from the Cave

By Girls for Girls: My guest post at A View from the Cave

Check out my latest post for the International Day of the Girl!

Who are the experts?

Zehra has invited me some weeks ago to write a post for the blog series from the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC): “Gender based-violence & livelihoods: how do we do better?”

WRC has presented really interesting research results and tools to support program implementers working around women empowerment issues, particularly focusing on discussing the intersection of Gender-based violence & livelihoods. I’ve taken an hour to listen to the recordings of their webinar, worth each minute!

My predecessors in the series have done a great job at discussing the issues around protection & unintended consequences of programming, the resources that WRC have developed and the importance of integrating men and boys.

I’m keen to discuss through my experience about three key recommendations from the WRC publications that, in my view, are interconnected:

  • The need for a practice-based learning agenda on what works for enhancing protection & women empowerment through monitoring & evaluation,
  • monitor for unintended consequences in programs, and
  • modify program design in consultation with participants.

We need to get past our assumptions. Mendy Marsh from UNICEF has said it crystal clear in the webinar: “We assume that when women and older adolescent girls have income, they are safer. We assume that when households have income, children are more likely to be in school, that they are accessing healthcare, and that they are better fed.” We often assume things, based on the theories of change that our organisations or our donors develop. “But do we know whether that is true or not? What does the evidence say?” Linda asks in her post.

Well, I’m a firm believer that those who better understand the problems they face and are knowledgeable to develop solutions to those problems are the main actors of development: the people that we are trying to support. Women and adolescent girls in this case, can advise on the risks they face, suggest ways to manage them and judge whether to take certain risks. The WRC publication Preventing GBV, building livelihoods highlights: “programs need to involve women throughout the project lifecycle – assessment and design; implementation; and monitoring and evaluation.”

I was engaged in the last year in an initiative that supported adolescent girls that are part of empowerment projects to take a leading role in evaluating girl programming. The Initiative run in parallel in two countries, Guatemala & Uganda, working with two different program implementers and in different type of programming. During 7 months, 12 adolescent girl trainees in each country learnt how to use participatory video combined with most significant change to support 450 other girls to share their stories of change. At the end of the process, the trainees -who became strong video girl leaders– analysed the 64 collected video stories of change (32 per country) & scribe notes from the process, and presented the results & recommendations to the program implementers & donor in video reports.

On the one hand, the Most Significant Change technique is a form of participatory monitoring and evaluation that directly involves the voices and perspectives of beneficiaries. Essentially the process involves the collection of stories of significant change, followed by the systematic selection of the most significant of these stories by panels of designated community members and other stakeholders.

While on the other hand, Participatory video is an accessible, flexible medium for recording community stories of change. With InsightShare’s games and exercises and experiential learning approach participants can rapidly learn video skills, allowing people to tell their Most Significant Change stories in a familiar context and to someone they trust. The process itself is fun, direct and the results can be played and reviewed immediately. It also helps to avoid situations where project staff or external evaluators speak on behalf of communities, allowing people to speak for themselves.

When participatory video and the Most Significant Change technique are skilfully brought together, the human stories behind development projects can be captured in an accessible form, even for those with low levels of literacy. These combined methodologies promote peer-to-peer learning, collective reflection, triangulation and wide distribution of these important stories. Participatory video allows for everyone to get involved, contribute, feel, and respond to, other people’s stories and can strengthen community ties and identification with developmental objectives.

This initiative allowed adolescent girls to analyse how and why change happens in their lives and the lives of their peers; understand some negative and unintended consequences of programming; and propose recommendations to improve those programs they are part of. It also helped them discover what about girl programming was contributing towards positive change in their lives, as well as who were enablers & blockers of that change. They did it in their terms, using a method they became comfortable with, by which they could express themselves independently of staff or researchers. The video girl leaders had also the chance to talk directly to the donor and present some of the results and recommendations at the AWID 12th Forum last April in Turkey.

Both program implementers have taken into account the learning & recommendations, and are integrating the girls’ suggestions into the next year life cycle of their programs. The donor is also sharing the learning internally and with other grantees working with adolescent girls.

I hope this example can contribute to highlight the crucial points that the WRC research and publications are calling us to reflect about: a practice-based learning agenda is essential to understand what works for women and adolescent girls, what makes them safer and how programs can contribute to safety and empowerment.

Why we are building an international support network for isolated aid workers.

I’m cross posting a blog by Weh Yeoh, Sub-Editor at WhyDev on the importance of mentoring & connecting isolated aid workers. Worth supporting it!

International development work is often difficult, exhausting, and isolating. Many people who seek to serve and live abroad often become burned out by the overwhelming nature of their work. In isolated places, often the only people you can turn to for support are your boss or your partner. For various reasons, neither of these are a good choice.

However, we know that the support of a peer is an easy and effective way to reduce stress, burnout and, just as importantly, have access to someone to bounce ideas off.

This is why we, at whydev.org, have decided to build an online platform where international aid volunteers and workers can connect and discuss their challenges and experiences, allowing them the opportunity to support others across the globe who are also making a difference. Knowing that the world of aid and development is under-resourced as is, we think our idea fits well. This service does not require more resources to be added to the sector (in the form of professional mentors, coaches or counselors), but rather, builds on existing resources that are not connected.

We would like to think that it’s the first of its kind – an international support network for isolated aid workers.

Luckily, we’re not the only ones who think this is a good idea. Since asking for expressions of interest earlier this year, we’ve had over 320 people sign up to our pilot program. This is great news for everyone involved, because the larger the pool, the more likely we’ll be able to achieve a good match.

One international aid worker said, “I feel isolated, uncertain and a little forlorn about finding my way into development-related work, and would like to have someone to share my experience with, who is perhaps also experiencing the same thing.”

It is perspectives like this that make us want to keep working towards creating this platform. But, this is where we need your help. We’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign over on StartSomeGood where people can chip in amounts of money, small or large, to help us get this project going. If you are reading this post, chances are you are either working, studying or are at least interested in aid and development. Therefore, you’re probably the right demographic to understand the difficulties that aid workers can face across the globe.

Jennifer Lentfer, of How Matters, writes that having self-awareness of your own qualities and needs is crucial in becoming an effective aid worker. If you want to help us to build a future that supports the needs of aid workers across the globe, then this may be a worthwhile campaign for you.

Like anyone interested in smart aid and development, you’re probably interested in sustainability. So, just how sustainable is your funding? Good question! Once the platform is built, we think that we can keep the service running by adding in a tiered system of participation, so that it is self-sustainable.

Our vision is that peer coaching should always be accessible at no cost, as we promised right from the start. That option will remain, and people will still be able to be linked up to suitable peer coaches around the world at no charge. However, we think that people may also be willing to pay a small amount of money to get a value-added service. As such, we’ll be adding in different levels of participation so that those who are willing to pay a little extra will get a little more out of it. Whatever we make from this can then be fed back into the project to account for running costs. That’s why seed funding is so vital for us – the major outlay is not running the program, but getting it off the ground.

We’d appreciate it if you would consider donating whatever you can to our StartSomeGood campaign here, and spreading the word far and wide about what we’re trying to achieve.

If you have any questions at all about our campaign, please do not hesitate to contact either Brendan or myself. We’d be more than happy to answer any questions.

For the final word on the topic, here is Brendan, speaking from Ghana:

You can donate to our campaign on StartSomeGood here.

Weh Yeoh is a current job-seeker based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of New South Wales. With experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and in China, with Handicap International, he hopes to combine his interest in development and passion for visiting far-flung destinations in the future. You can view his LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter here.