“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!


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!

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.

To facilitate or not to facilitate…

The third stage of the Participatory Video for Monitoring & Evaluation capacity building process that I’ve been working on in Guatemala has come to an end. After completing stages 1 and 2 (see this and this other posts respectively on those stages) focusing on monitoring girl programming, stage 3 was focused on carrying out a participatory evaluation analysing all the stories of change, collected using PV MSC: Participatory Video combined with the Most Significant Change storytelling method.

These days have been a great time to work on the fine line of when to be actively facilitating and when to have complete hands off the process. It’s been a time to let the trainees go and fly by themselves, while finishing the capacity building process that we’ve started in August 2011.

The girls have made a big progress in both Participatory Video & facilitation skills as much as in critical thinking. The initial days have lend themselves to be a process adjusted to their rhythm with an analysis structure that was simple, repetitive and that merged individual and collective thinking, going deeper in each day.

Watching – reflecting – filming has been the other key to success. Films prompted ideas, and through active facilitation we supported them to think how and why social change happens. This process harvested learning to create films about it. After screenings, the trainees discussed about the films to make sure that all the results and information were well represented. Re-shooting also deepen their space for thinking about those ideas.

Our role was primarily to give trainees structure, but lose enough to let them make sense of their ideas. They defined concepts, enablers and disablers of change. They dramatised how change happens and then incorporated other stakeholders in the process: beneficiaries & staff.

The process of facilitating others to respond to films followed the same flow: watching – reflecting – filming. That was 100% facilitated by trainees, without any support from us. They managed to connect with the groups, facilitate with great skill the complete process independently and ask difficult questions in a soft and natural way. The groups enjoyed the process and gave their best in their response dramas.

Finally… How to present all in a coherently way, in their own words? Beyond the dramas created by each group and the analysis dramas built up by the trainees, a complete video report was essential for any outsider to make sense and see it as a rigorous process that included triangulation and participation of diverse groups in the sample. The girl leaders created a video report including a description of the participatory evaluation process and a summary of the main findings.

Clearly hands off was the best way to build up their confidence and let them grow as facilitators. Now, they are ready to fly on their own.

Oh dear: Are we already in Stage 3?

Yes. Crazily enough, time has gone extremely quickly once again. I’m in Antigua Guatemala, for the third time. And I didn’t even have the chance yet to absorb that half of the project was finished last year!

So many things have happened since the last time I was able to sit and write about it in this blog. The Participatory Video for Monitoring & Evaluation project that I’ve been working on had advanced the capacity building process in Stage 2, last November, and also finished its monitoring of girl programming. We are now starting the participatory evaluation at country level and the sustainability plans for incorporating the tool in the regular M&E life cycle of the partner organisation.

What have we learnt so far? Well, below are some key things that we’ve achieved and faced in Stage 2.

What went well:

  • Team work: the group cohesion increased and the trainees are able to perform as members of functional groups.
  • Critical thinking: trainees were able to identify issues linked the MSC stories filmed, tagging them into domains with ease.
  • PV MSC process: The method and process required for collection and selection is clear for the trainees, who are able to perform independently of the trainers.
  • Local staff assigned to the project: Great support of the staff assigned to the project was essential to accompany the trainees’ evolution during post-training assignment 1 (PTA1) and Stage 2.
  • Logistics: The logistics for PTA1 and Stage 2 were both satisfactory thanks to the high level organisation done by the M&E coordinator from the partner organisation.
  • Documentary makers visit: The visit and exchange with a filmmaker and his crew, who was commissioned with the production of a documentary for the UN fund to prevent gender-based violence, was an interesting and positive experience for the trainees, who not only were at ease while being filmed and interviewed, but who also pointed out their cameras to interview the filmmaker!
  • Audiovisual skills: trainees harnessed their skills, incorporating understanding on the importance of diversity of images and sound and video language.
  • Online platforms: Trainees learnt how to use Vimeo and upload videos into their channel; created a facebook account and joined a secret group to exchange photos and comments in a safe space; opened a gmail account and join a google group created for the initiative to easily write to all those involved in it.
  • Editing skills: Trainees sharpened their editing skills with advanced sound and titles skills, as well as being able to export videos for DVDs, internet and full quality. They also learnt how to do dubbing from Spanish into their mother tongues, adding up to their existing skills of subtitling, and how to burn DVDs with another piece of software.
  • Girl-to-Girl exchange: Trainees re-connected with the trainees in a similar project in Uganda and had a conversation through skype, discussing about their process, what they liked so far and what they’ve found difficult.
  • Celebration: The last day, the partner organised a dinner to close Stage 2 and the trainees planned surprises. It included fun, laughter and a deep moment exchanging gifts and messages.

What didn’t go so well:

  • Shifting power relations: The girl mentors had difficulties accepting the new role of the girl trainees, not only being now girl leaders but also acting as facilitators of PV MSC, and the new status that this role gives them in the programme. The partner staff is aware of the reactions and are following up closely the process of the girl mentors as well as supporting fully the trainees.
  • Busy time: November was a busy time for staff, having many activities to attend and support in the same two weeks, which stretched them and reduced their attention to Stage 2. Nevertheless, the M&E Coordinator was available and following up closely the delivery, participating as much as it was in his capacity, while also coordinating the logistics. The intern to this initiative was supporting us during the whole workshop.
  • MSC collection: Less girl participants than predicted attended the MSC collection. Instead of having three groups we had to re-organise the teams and create two groups to collect stories of change. One group included alumni and current girl mentors. The second group included 13-17 girl club participants. The re-organisation of the trainees caused some confusion and clashing of their planned roles. Nevertheless, trainees performed well and girl participants enjoyed the process.
  • Jealousy: The trainees felt jealous and tense when they had to share their space with the 13-17 girl participants. The trainers and staff had a deep conversation in which trainees were able to appreciate their new role and the importance of being inclusive and supportive of all the girls they have to work with.

The pearl: Trainees giving their impressions of the NGO world

One memorable moment in Stage 2 was the trainees representing diverse stakeholders that influence the programme and they want to influence through the videos. Some tough words were said about governments and corporates, but the one actor that was perceived by them as a “sympathetic friend” that would empathize with their cause was the development sector. Just to remind the readers, these are 16 to 25 year-old strong young women and leaders in their communities, coordinating girl clubs and now becoming PV M&E facilitators. They described us (and when I mean us, I include anyone working in the development and aid world) as people with willingness to support and help from the heart, thoughtful, emotional, and with eagerness to create new projects to improve the lives of young girls.

I leave it to you to digest that image and try to think if we fulfil their expectations…