Aid Worker Voices

Local aid and development workers in Zambia: preliminary results of a survey

Local aid workers
Dealing with nomenclature when discussing the aid and development sector can be both a challenge and an opportunity, and this is clearly the case when talking about ‘local aid workers’ as I have done in my last several posts.  Certainly domestic (in this case within the United States) workers like Jennifer Foy and Marlene Myers fall within a very broad definition of ‘local aid worker’, but these women fall outside the more classic (stereotypical?) image of local aid workers that, for example, made the news recently in Afghanistan.

By some estimates, local aid and development workers outnumber expat aid workers by a ratio of as much as 10 to 1, with one US based aid and development NGO of which I am aware reporting only 5% of their international staff as expats.  Local workers are, in the most literal sense of the word, essential for the delivery of aid in much of the world, and the recent deaths of images6 local International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid workers in Afghanistan underline how dangerous their jobs can be.

Western centric methodology
Although it is an open question as to what the best methodology for hearing the voices of local aid and development workers might be, I am certain that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer.

The age-old tradeoff is between more in depth and time intensive ethnographically oriented approaches with inherently limited generalizability and the quicker, more comprehensive survey technique.  Within the survey technique there are wide array of tools going from the time intensive but data-rich door to door and/or face to face interviews all the way to the more technology dependent online survey.  The advantage of the former is rich data, the downside is that it is very time/human resource intensive and, since many ears can be listening during an interview, the respondents may compromise what they say.  The advantage of the online survey technique is ease and speed, but access to all respondents because of limited access to technology, translation complications, and security issues will inevitably into play.

Inherent in all of the approaches is the hoary ‘GIGO’ warning, namely, garbage in, garbage out:  ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer.  But what are the right questions in each specific setting?

One colleague I know has been doing ethnographic and extensive face to face interviews of local aid workers in Kenya, and this method allows for very rich data.  One massive hurdle for both face to face interviews and online surveys -any methodology for that matter- is language differences and the attendant translation issues.  I had that lesson presented to me very clearly when I worked to get Arabic, French and Spanish versions of the online survey the data from which is the basis for Aid Worker Voices. All three translators pointed out numerous phrases and words that just could not be translated and/or had embedded cultural assumptions.  Of note is that Caroline Abu-Sada and other researchers in In The Eyes of Others (click the link for the book in pdf: msf-in-the-eyes-of-others) talked about similar translation issues when doing their work for MSF.

But now to the preliminary results referred to in the title to this post….

A Zambian development worker since 2009
I have known and worked with Mr. Voster Tembo, a Zambian development worker, for many years.  We have worked on several projects, the most significant of which was the founding of the Zambian Development Support Foundation in 2013.  Yes, I know about the pitfalls of MONGO’s, but this one is different  (isn’t that what they all say?) and

screenshot-2017-02-14-09-01-39 intended to be scaleable. But details on that can wait for another post.

My most recent collaboration with Voster is an attempt to address one failing of the survey of aid and development workers that my colleague J (aka Evil Genius) and I launched nearly three years ago. That survey reached over 1ooo self-identified aid and development workers,  but only 5% identified as ‘local aid workers’ hence we heard and reported on a very skewed, likely Western centric set of voices.

Voster and I talked about these results and agreed that the voices of local workers needed to be heard. After discussion with some of his colleagues we constructed a short online survey intended to be an exploratory study that might lead us to both better questions and to finding efficient ways to gather data.  The best first step would have been to do extensive interviews of a number of development workers and learn from them which questions were relevant and seek their counsel as to how to get more voices gathered.  Given time and resource limitations we decided that an exploratory study seemed an acceptable  second choice.

Background regarding the survey
The population we intended to reach were Zambian ngo/aid workers who regularly interact with visiting mzungus (either individually or in groups), with the overall goal  to get 100+ responses within 30 days.  Our purpose was to understand how visiting mzungus are seen by those who work with them with the ultimate goal being to better facilitate and enhance inter and intra group communication, coordination and cooperation.  A secondary goal was to do preliminary work toward the establishment a useful typology of muzungu visitors, with descriptions of each category type that might lead to refinement of a typology and eventually provide data for analysis and explanation that would be useful in establishing enhanced interaction protocols for both muzungu groups and those who work with them.

Examples of settings where Zambians would interact regularly with outsiders include INGO based home building teams coming from primarily the US, western Europe and the UK, staff of international development NGO’s, USAID staff, Peace Corp volunteers, and so on.

After the short survey was constructed and made live online, we used social networking to get the word out about the survey.  For a variety of reasons the response has been anemic, with only 20 respondents.

Through our eyes: views of Zambian (and other African) aid and development workers
Given the small and markedly limited sample, the results are at best preliminary.  With that stated, here are some highlights.

screenshot-2017-02-14-09-10-56The responses to the first question (Q1) indicate a markedly positive attitude toward working with mzungus.  Q2 asked the respondent to expand on their answer and all 20 respondents offered some insights.

The positive comments were many, perhaps best presented in this one respondent’s words,

“I like working with Mzungus as there are more benefits attached to the working relationships: 1) cultural learning from each other in a global environment. 2) platform for sharing knowledge on best practices on the core business e.g housing delivery models. 3) Resource mobilisation- by this I mean they are able to link or bridget up opportunities for development between their country of origin and the country hosting them. The current scenario is they are from developed countries and the housing country is still developing. 4) They bring in innovations on issues bordering on socio- economic activities for improved living of the target groups.”

A few other positive comments were,

  • “Most of them show eagerness to learn about Zambia and how we do things and I get great satisfaction in talking about my country and the many strengths as well as weaknesses and challenges that we have.”
  • [They] show openness and most are willing to learn but also to learn about the countries where they are coming from is really fulfilling in working with them.
  • “When we work and eat together like a family that gives more pleasure.”

These next two comments are from respondents who indicated “I have no strong feelings either way about work with visiting mzungus”,

  • “I am neutral to anyone I work with, I am just careful working with strangers. Generally, whites are more exposed so I am always eager to learn from them, and to me they have been helpful.”
  • “I have no strong feelings either way because they come in different shades. Some of them come in as professionals who know what they ought to do while some come in as ‘apprenticees’ who are learning there work but behave like they know.”

And these next two speak to the a sore spot,

  • “I don’t really say I don’t like them, I can work with them but most of the time they think they are more superior than Africans.”
  • “There are some that make you feel inferior.”

screenshot-2017-02-15-10-42-05The remainder of the short survey asked questions continuing the focus on working with non-Zambians, several asking about which categories of mingus were harder to work with, males or females, older or younger.  These data indicated that those two variables were a wash, no real pattern differences could be identified.

After considering the cross-cultural cache of the phrase “white savior complex” we posed a question with that in mind.  Here are a few statements from respondents that extend these data and provide some suggestions.

  • “Whites who volunteer with NGO’s are different generally from those who come to Africa for commercial business. Those with NGO’s are more open but with a subjective perception of the continent, yet those in the business world, here for profit are objective and even corny.”
  • “The muzungu should take time to learn the local environment and then work. And there is no need to bring in a muzingu expat when there are indigenous people with the same skills and qualifications.”
  • “They should not come with pre-concieved minds and should know that blacks/Zambians have their own strengths that can add value to any project/intervention.”
  • “It is important to engage the locals in the planning and implementation of projects unlike just imposing. Most take funding of the project to be owners of the projects.”

A close reading of the above suggestions, I think, gives a local  Zambian voice to some of the discussions and debates I have seen throughout the blogosphere related to local aid workers.

Moving forward with this project?
Our exploratory online survey attempting to reach local aid and development workers in Zambia has been minimally effective.  I am just now off a Skype conversation with Voster and we agreed to continue exploring and critiquing not only the methodology but as well the many assumptions and intentions that underlie this research.  Our question choices were intended to be relevant and interesting, but we are not convinced that goal was reached.

We do remain convinced that these local Zambian aid and development worker voices need to be heard.


Village Health Workers at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, India.

Post Script
My research on local aid workers began  decades ago in 1994 when I piloted a new technique for doing survey research. My study was on the self esteem of the Village Health Workers at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) in Jamkhed, India.  This research technique may still be of use in some instances; click here to read: the-likert-scale-goes-marathi and let me know if you have any questions or feedback.


Please contact me if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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The impact of the Trump Executive Order On Immigration: an interview with Jennifer Foy

[Note:  Read here my interview with Marlene Myers, NC State Refugee Coordinator. These posts are part of my continuing research on local aid workers.]

UPDATE:  The situation regarding the Executive Order On Immigration remains extraordinarily fluid on many fronts.  Wednesday World Vision issued a press release that was published as a full page ad in the Washington Post. The title, “Evangelical Leaders from All 50 States Urge President Trump to Reconsider Reduction in Refugee Resettlment” says it all.

The impact of the Trump Executive Order On Immigration:  an interview with aid worker Jennifer Foy


One basic sociological truism is that everything is connected to everything else, and, increasingly, what happens in one part of the world has ripple effects around the globe. The bigger the stone, the more far reaching the ripples.  Impact meant for a contained target almost certainly has ramifications far beyond the prime intent.

And then came President Trump adding a whole new dimension of volatility.

Any social change engineered by politicians or activists alike has many consequences.  The manifest or intended purposes may seem straightforward (“make our nation safer”), but much more important perhaps are all of the unintended and/or indirect impacts, some positive and some very, very negative.  Executive Orders, especially those signed without proper vetting, are a case in point.  The many repercussions of the EOOM are being illuminated every day in the news, and none appear to be positive and provide material for future post.  The present task is to take a local, domestic look and to perhaps provide more context around the refugee situation in the United States.

A calm but passionate aid worker voice
Earlier this week I talked with Jennifer Foy, the Executive Director of the World Relief offices in High Point and Winston-Salem, NC.  Our conversation came right on the heels of the Trump Executive Order On Immigration (EOOM).

She and her staff watched the breaking news at 4:45 Friday afternoon and immediately began planning next steps.  Though rumored for days that this EO would come out, the reality that late afternoon was still jolting.

Later that evening Jennifer sent messages to both staff and clients that an information session would be held at their offices Saturday morning. At that meeting she and her staff did their best to explain the implications, outline positive steps people could take, and steps they should not take (e.g., travel outside the US).

On Wednesday (the morning of our meeting) she found on her desk a plate of food.  Here’s the story.fullsizeoutput_d7c9

“One of our client’s didn’t speak English very well, but she literally knew that this was going to hurt our office, so she brought in a plate of food at every desk at our office. So I have a nice plate of Afghan food to eat this afternoon at my desk.”

Gulzari is an Afghan woman, a single mom with children, and a recent refugee who does not speak English.  She does not have  a lot of money but found the resources to cook a meal for 24 people, individualize the plates with names and deliver them – using public transportation.  The gift of food did not mean she was giving from abundance, it likely cost her a meal or two, according to Jennifer.  Among the refugee families Jennifer knows there is a ethos of hospitality that is common to all, regardless of culture.

“The difference in what hospitality means, it is much more that just a clean house and a cup of coffee…it goes well beyond that in so many ways and we see that here in ways that most Americans have never experienced.”

This gesture is an indication of a universal empathy and response that transcends cultures. Jennifer points out that this is a characteristic response in the refugee community. They feel so deeply appreciative and they want to honor the gift of being accepted into a new home in any way they can.  This one example is not an exception, but rather just one among countless others to which Jennifer and her staff could point.

Understanding this fully one must keep in mind that the ‘refugee community’ is and is not a monolithic whole.  Yes, refugees all share a common experience once they come to the United States and are seen -and to an extent see themselves- bound together, but the fact is they come from dozens of different cultures and cultural traditions.  Generalizations made about ‘refugees’ no not deny their cultural and linguistic diversity but rather celebrates their common humanity, a sentiment aid workers around the world know very well.

No, neither Jennifer nor I are trying to sanitize or romanticize the refugee population; they are human and occasionally make human mistakes.  That said, both anecdotal and hard evidence indicates that, as a while, their crime rates are much lower, their level of community involvement much higher, and the high value and respect they place on their new homeland is amazing.  Read here my interview with Marlene Myers, NC State Refugee Coordinator for more examples.

Here is Jenn describing the gift of food.  It was not the only one her staff has received from clients in the last week.

“You are fracturing the foundation”
Doing a thorough social impact assessment means comprehensively examining the immediate impacts of, in this case, the EOOM, and certainly that is where most of the news stories are focusing:  people stuck in airports, protests, students and faculty not able to come back to (our leave) campus, and so on.  But beyond the now there is the near and not-so-near future, and that is where our conversation leads us.

In short, though the restrictions on immigrants and refugees are as we understand now limited to 120 days, the impacts of this 4 month hiatus will last far beyond those years.  Jennifer puts it this way,

“Nationally what we fear is that this can and will shut down a lot of small offices [handling refugee’s nationally], or offices that weren’t as financially well supported….  What’s going to happen is that all of these agencies are going to close…. this is 35 years of history of building this network…you are essentially fracturing the foundation of the refugee network.”

Jennifer seems confident that the longer term impact of the EOOM will yield a more robust system, a bit more able to anticipate and respond to existential challenges.  I hope she is right, though as a sociologist I know that once broken systems tend to struggle recovering. In the short term it appears certain that if aid organizations serving refugees have to close or severely cut staff there will be at minimum tension and uncertainty among this population.

The emotional toll and compartmentalization
As the executive director Jennifer knows that her staff and clients take cues from her behavior and general reactions, and that even in -or especially because of- the unique and confusing circumstances surrounding EOOM she must maintain an outwardly calm and assuring demeanor.  Her staff must be exactly the same way whenever they interact with clients, holding back more negative comments and emotions that would be counterproductive.

“I think most staff are asking the question everyday of how to balance the responsibility they have to help the people and serving [being mindful about] with their own emotions. I think they have not fully figured out how to juggle both of those opposing obligations. They can’t show panic, they can’t show fear because there are dozens of very vulnerable people who have had enough of that.”

In other words, the aid workers are required to compartmentalize their personal response from their professional response all week hile maintaining an aura of humanity, compassion and understanding.

When Jenn came in Monday morning she gave her usual round of hugs, but the toll was beginning to become real. Monday mornings there is regular a meeting among the managers. Jenn knew that if the EOOM was real, there would be impacts both on the staff and the clients.  She said, “I was sitting in a circle with 25 people, knowing that some may not be with us in coming weeks.”  

This very scene, one has to assume, is being repeated in similar offices throughout the US.

By pushing the task of carrying the conversation on to others Jenn was able to protect herself and compartmentalize in order to hold everything together for her team members. There were tears, but not then, not around the manager’s table meeting or in from of clients.


Adam Clark, WR-Durham Photo Credit: Amelia Cassar Photography

To keep positive and strong she knew that for her and her staff members all they would have to do would be to spend time with the clients, walk into their houses as a reminder to keep going, and that’s enough.

Near the end of our interview Adam Clark, the Office Director from World Relief in Durham, joined us and we expanded the conversation to include discussion of the many volunteers and college interns both offices have.  Both Adam and Jennifer agreed that in the coming weeks non-paid staff will have to take more tasks.  Jennifer was optimistic about this and said, “They’re ready to pick up and ready to serve.”

I asked what kind of messaging were they encouraging them to pass on and what do you think they’re picking up?

 Adam offered,  “We see every member of our team as an ambassador to their own circles. Many team members have a foot in very different political worlds. They may face a lot of opposition at home, at church, and there are a lot of questions. We encourage them to listen, so they can engage in conversations, because we believe that we have more in common.”

Regarding the ongoing educational role of all the staff including interns he went on, “People who are reacting in a different way than they [those who would support the EOOM] are doing so because they have valid concerns. Whether those concerns are well informed is a different matter.”

Aid workers are a bridge between worlds and world views more so than perhaps any profession, and serving this function may not show up prominently in any job description, but remains critically important.


Photo from

Getting people woke, one by one
Earlier this week Jennifer spent a few hours at a local TV news station and after being on a small ‘expert’ panel about the impact of EOOM she and her counterparts answered phone calls from the public.  The vast majority were supportive of Trump’s EOOM and railed against ‘immigrants and refugees’ citing a variety of reasons.  One of the frustrations felt by Jenn and many of her staff is that they know from countless experiences that if most of these people would only have the opportunity to simply share a meal with a refugee family they would have their eyes and hearts opened.

One story is that of an older man, maybe late 50s or early 60s, who was well-known in the bar scene around the small town of High Point. A family of Syrian refugees was placed by Jennifer’s organization into the vacant house right next door to where he lived. His initial reactions were predictable and negative, but it now, one year later, the little Syrian children next-door run in and out of his house as if he were their uncle, the family share meals together, and his opinion about these Syrian refugees has been altered 180°.  They are no longer abstract threats but real people with faces, emotions, sharing with him the simple desire for a life of safety, dignity, and marked by the compassionate fellowship of close friends and family.

Where to from here?
This story continues to unfold, and as I write this word of a Seattle judge halting Trump’s immigration order is on my news feed.  As the situation alternately becomes more and less clear aid workers like Jennifer remain focused. She and her staff -and their countless counterparts across the United States-  read, respond and keep moving forward with their mission of serving refugees in the best way possible.

For comic relief we can watch as the European Union trolls Trump with a friendly competition to be “second”, but breaks like these seem a guilty pleasure when there are so many immediate needs.

Some bullet points to share
Finally, here are some facts that Jennifer and other staffers share as part of their ongoing social media push to educate:

• The EO refers to 9/11 three different times as a reason for new “extreme vetting” for the refugee program. ZERO of the 19 hijackers were refugees. 15 of the 19 were from Saudi Arabia, which is not on the list of suspended countries. 

• ZERO Americans have been killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee. About 3 million refugees have entered the US since 1980.

• Refugees are highly screened immigrants. Much more vetted than other visa carrying immigrants.

• The current vetting process for a refugee takes, on average, 1.5-2 years. 

• Syrian refugees are victims and are fleeing from real and incredibly dangerous persecution.

• The situation in Europe is COMPLETELY different than in the US. Refugees do not walk across (or swim to) our borders. To arrive in the US, refugees go through an organized, thorough, complex vetting process.

• Resettlement to another country is the LAST resort for these individuals. They are identified as refugees because they canNOT return to their home country.

• The United States was founded by a group of people fleeing religious persecution.


There will be edits and additions to this post, but in the meantime contact me if you have comments.  If you feel moved to help the refugee program in the United States directly read this and then donate.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Aid workers are tired and concerned, but now cowed

Being an aid worker in the age of Trump

The toll of dealing with an impending existential crisis
Today I had the pleasure of spending a couple precious hours with Jennifer Foy, the executive director of World Relief for the Winston-Salem/High Point offices in North Carolina. The job of her staff is to facilitate the processing and support of refugees coming into the state from placed like Cuba, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and elsewhere.

It will take a while to put together my notes and do a follow up with her, so the full report of our discussion will come in several days.

We began the chat in her office commiserating about the news of the day, shared stories of how the last couple weeks were utterly exhausting and Trump-news  dominated.  She observed that she and her staff were having a hard time focusing and were spending more time on social media and news outlets, waiting for the next news bomb to drop.

Words of wisdom
My next post will detail the many topics Jennifer and covered, but more immediately I wanted to share some very wise thoughts from my friend and colleague.  Evil Genius put this post on Facebook last night, and I believe that it is good advice.  He counters the facist Nequiquam est refragatere with this:

Illegitimi non carborundum*
To my aid worker colleagues around the world. Especially, in some ways those of you who are American, like I am, or maybe British; but at the same time not at all to exclude anyone. Whether you’re out on the front lines in South Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, or innumerable other places where connectivity is sketchy and lattes are made with Nescafe; whether you’re buried in a maze of cubicles in one of the humanitarian capitals; in a UN agency or governmental donor like USAID or BPRM, this is for you:
Hang. In. There.
If you feel like the floor is shaking, you can’t concentrate, can’t tear yourself away from the horrific freakshow that is the first 100 days, take a mental health day. Or five. Or ten. Because this is not normal. 
Take a week of sick leave (the world won’t end). Have the flu. Have your period. Have a toothache. Cash in some comp days. Call in a few favors. Threaten to post those R&R pictures on Facebook, if you have to.
Take a week. Hell, take two if you can. Because we’re in for the long haul. We won’t survive if we all flame out in the first few days. 
The activists in America are all, “DON’T NORMALIZE THIS!!”, and I agree. The current state of affairs is neither screenshot-2017-01-26-22-41-11normal nor okay. But we’ve seen this kind of thing go down before, in lots of places. A despotic leader takes control and things turn to shit in short order. We have to normalize it at the individual level. We have to get to the point that we can get through the day without our amygdalae popping like little balloons every time The Guardian or NPR or Jezebel posts another article. No, this is not normal, and things will almost certainly get worse before they get better. But we do have to get through it.
Let’s not self-aggrandize, but at the same time let’s not understate the situation either: the world needs us to keep doing what we’re doing. Which we can’t do if we’re unable to roll out of bed in the morning. 
Take the time. Take the meds. Get the counseling. Drink the extra beer. Do what you have to do to get over the emotional hump of accepting this new (NOT NORMAL) reality, because it’s going to be a long, bumpy ride. 
And while we’re at it, let’s hug each other. If your context approves, hug your local colleagues, too. Or at least buy them chocolate, or whatever. This is do-able. We can get through it, but it will have to be together. 
Illegitimus non carborundum

[*I added the image and will expand on its relevance in a future post. It does not appear in the Facebook post.]
 Thanks for the solid, EG.
 More to come soon.  Contact me if you are an aid worker -local or otherwise- and would like your voice heard.
Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Which is worse?

unknownWhich is worse? (You have to choose…)
Some months ago my friend, colleague and frustrated social scientist Evil Genius (otherwise know as J) put out through social media a link to a ten item survey.  The ‘hook’ used in this survey is the fun involved in encouraging aid workers to express exactly which is worse when posed with two similar options, both of which are annoying, contentious or otherwise frequent points of controversy within the sector. Here’s the survey (still open).

No, the idea having fun making binary choices is not new.  There are some pretty, uh,  juvenile web sites devoted to just this including one that allows you to make a choice and then instantly see the results and another that uses your choices to act as personality test.

All snarky comment aside, the parlor game of being asked to choose the ‘lesser of two evils’ is of some value and, in this case, may allow us to know aid and development workers a bit better by hearing their voices -and choices- yet again.

Here is how the survey was introduced:

Which is worse? (You have to choose…)

Aid workers love to complain. It’s just how we roll. But now it’s time to make some hard choices.
For each of the following 9 pairs you must choose which is worse. And by “worse”, I don’t mean “which annoys you more?” (that poll will come later). I do mean, of the two things mentioned, which one represents the most actual harm to those we claim we want to help. In some cases “harm” may be direct (the thing actually hurts people), while in others it may be indirect (the thing hinders or obstructs help to people).
Select the one that is worse than the other. No skipping.


Interesting -maybe some telling?-  results
The nine pairs included some clarifying information, making the choices seem clearer.  A total of 148 responses were completed, and a few offered some additional thoughts. There appears to be no logic or intention thereof regarding the order in which the pairs were placed, though there are a couple themes.

screenshot-2017-01-04-14-26-161. Voluntourism or celebrity activism?
By a big margin 76% to 24% people felt that volunteerism was worse.  I can hazard a guess that this result is a reflection of the fact that there is far more impact of voluntourism overall.

2. TOMS or Raising Malawi?
The TOMS shoes versus Raising Malawi response was similarly skewed, with TOMS taking the bigger beating, 68% -32%.  Amy Costello, founder of Tiny Spark, perhaps explains this result here, though if Raising Malawi had gotten the same level of coverage the results may have been different.  Madona is trying her best to save the day, though.  Stay tuned.

3. Low intern salaries or inadequate staff care?
This one was clarified when the full choices were presented.  The respondent was asked to choose between “The fact that UN interns get paid next to nothing.” and “The fact that most INGOs do not cover staff care for employees who suffer traumatic stress (being abducted, being assaulted, etc.) in the line of duty?”  The results on this question were more skewed than any other with “The fact that most INGOs do not cover staff care for employees who suffer traumatic stress (being abducted, being assaulted, etc.) in the line of duty?” garnering 88% of the votes.  This issue has been discussed in the blogosphere a good bit and one would hope HR is listening.  There do seem to be policy changes along these lines, happily.

4. Americans or Chinese?
This one gets specific and infers a certain depth and breadth of knowledge for the respondent. The more detailed choices were “American evangelical anti-LGBT lobbying in Uganda.” or “Chinese mineral extraction in the Congo.” By a 63% to 37% spread aid workers thought the anti-LGBT lobbying was worse.  This result is no surprise, at least to me given my previous research  on LGBTQI+  issues.

5. Poverty porn or charity muggers?
This one was pretty straightforward the the results were demonstrative with ‘poverty porn‘ as the frequent response by an almost 4 to 1 ratio (81% -19%).  This article about ‘chuggers’ allows you to vote, so have at it.


6. Overhead or being led by industry non-experts?
Yes, this one needed more detailed choices. Which is worse, “The fact that major industry watchdogs (e.g. Charity Navigator) and the media (e.g. AlertNet) still flog “overhead” as a metric of aid effectiveness.” or “The fact that most major charities place industry non-insiders in positions of executive leadership?” Of the nine pairs, this choice seems too most “apples to oranges”, but both deal with the overall frustration with bureaucratic politics and policies.  Perhaps appropriately this one has the closest results at 48% to 52%, respectively.

7.  Metrics or innovation?
Or, in a shade more detail, “Obsession with metrics” or “Obsession with innovation.”  I find the result interesting with “Obsession with innovation.” winning, as it were, with 60%.  As I reflect in the many narrative responses presented and commented upon in our original research (now in book form), this seems to make sense.  Collectively aid workers have “been there, done that” and know that the (typically top down) obsession with the “next big thing” is misguided.

8.  Racism or sexism?
As a sociologist, this one is fascinating and brings up so many issues.  The choices were “Widespread institutional racism within the aid industry.” or “Widespread institutional sexism with the aid industry.”  The results were near even, with racism being seen as causing slightly more harm (55% to 45%).  Both are significant, chronic issues that must be addressed more aggressively on many levels both within and outside the sector, of course.  In the comments one respondent noted that, “The racism vs sexism question was HARD.”  Yeah, exactly.

We asked nearly the same question in our original survey, focusing rather on how these social forces impacted the aid workers themselves.  Look here (gender) and here (race) for these results.

images9.  Land Cruisers or big team houses?
Or, more specifically, “White land Cruisers” or “big team houses.”  Yeah, tight race here but the land cruisers won (60%-40%).  Why?  Land cruisers, well, cruise; they go places and are seen by more people, spreading the brand far and wide and, with it, the perception of aid workers as monolithic, powerful and flush in resources.  Not an image that many aid workers feel good about perpetuating, methinks.


Many people appreciate being asked these kinds of questions because they do serve the function of clarifying and prioritizing issues, so kudos to J for presenting this opportunity.  Do we now know anything we didn’t before this survey was responded to and the results presented?  Not a whole lot.


But that’s how social science works:  we add one tiny, seemingly mundane bit of insight after another until voilà! we know now more than we did before.  And, more importantly, we have heard many voices speak.

You’re welcome.

As always, contact me if you have any comments or questions.  Reach Evil Genius through his website if you’d like to get all snarky about the survey or go here for links to all his mini-polls.

Want to learn a whole lot more about what aid workers think?  Buy the book:  Aid Worker Voices.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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An embrace

Embracing a development worker
On this New Years Day I got up early before the family. After making my coffee I immediately settled into reading a book recommended by my wife and 12 year old daughter, a book that came as a Christmas present just a week ago.

fullsizerenderMy wife is an amazing mother and constantly challenges our children to read and explore the world, and the choice of Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water was made easy because it had been both on the New York Times best seller list and honored by the Newberry Award committee.

The book tells two stories that connect for the reader as they read the final pages. One story is of a young girl -just as countless other young girls around the world- who grew up taking long walks to fetch water, the other about a “Lost Boy” who comes of age in refugee camps and ultimately gets official refugee status, comes to the United States, and starts a new life in upstate New York.

The story comes full circle when the young boy -now an accomplished and educated young man- starts his own ngo Water for South Sudan and is responsible for bringing a bore-hole well to the village of the young girl.

Yeah, I know the opinion many aid workers have about MONGO’s (MyOwnNGO) and general ‘do-goodery’, but the story of Salva Dut, an aid and development worker by my measure, seems positive and appropriate as we begin a new year.  I say this despite a chronically deteriorating situation in South Sudan, and one does wonder how many of his wells will survive.  Not unlike many development efforts, Dut’s work has a Sisphian quality, indeed.

In my last post I described a discussion with the North Carolina State Refugee Coordinator.inside  One story she told was of four young single men from Sudan who had been placed together here in North Carolina.  Now, having just read A Long Walk for Water, I know a bit more clearly the back story likely behind their lives.  I will have to follow up with the NC State Refugee Coordinator Marlene Myers and see if she can recall if these young men were also part of the “lost boys” chapter in refugee history.

A net positive?
We all strive to move the needle incrementally in a positive direction. Salva Dut is doing it in his way, and with this post, in this moment at the beginning of a new year, I chose to let myself be inspired by his strength and feel good about my twelve year old learning about worlds far removed -but at the same time intersecting- from her’s.

An embrace.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Interview with ‘local aid worker’ Marlene Myers

Interview with Marlene Myers, North Carolina State Refugee Coordinator

Refugees in North Carolina give back
Amid a global rise in zenophobia, recent news stories from the US indicate increased resistance to accepting migrants and refugees, especially in the Southeast.

Perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation fuels much of this sentiment.  What most people don’t know -some inside but mostly outside the aid sector, especially here in the United States- is that refugees almost immediately give back both internationally and in their local communities.  Most become tax paying, fully functional contributors to their new home communities in an astoundingly short number of months, giving back in large measure.

Refugees overcome seemingly endless obstacles to establish a meaningful new life in their host nations and, typically, are amazingly resilient and resourceful people who, arguably, represent the best of humanity.

Listen here for Marlene’s voice describing refugee contributions.

One way they give back is by sending money back to their country of origin.  According to various sources total remittances from relocated refugees and immigrants are now well over US$500 billion per year, and is now more than three times larger than total global aid budgets.

This recent article about remittances to Somalia gives some great detail.  Marlene pointed out that nearly 100% of refugees begin making remittances back to their home nation, oftentimes at great personal sacrifice.

Local aid workers, indeed.


Now for some background
I am working on documentary film project with my Elon University colleague Dr. Ahmed Fadaam on the topic of how refugees adjust to life in North Carolina.

Last week we met with Marlene Myers who has worked for the last 25 years as the State Refugee Coordinator for North Carolina.  She is employed by the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Social Services and works with the United States Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.  Her job is to oversee the placement of refugees in locations around North Carolina.

In fiscal year 2017 she will help direct the placement of 3,845 refugees through 13 affiliate organizations around the state under the auspices of the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program.  These refugees come from 40 different countries around the globe, nearly all of whom would have had contact with aid workers as part of their journey.

Dr. Fadaam with Marlene Myers.

Dr. Fadaam with Marlene Myers.

As part of her job Marlene vets and meets regularly with senior staff members for global aid organizations such as World Relief, Church World Services, Episcopal Migration Ministries and others.

Most of these organizations rotate aid workers deployed outside the US back to duty stations all over the US where refugees are being resettled. One example is the World Relief office in High Point, North Carolina.

We talked about many topics, and Dr. Fadaam and I learned a great deal.  By my definition Marlene is an aid worker. Her voice needs to be among those to which we listen closely.

History lesson
The US war in Vietnam (refereed to as the “American War” by the Vietnamese) had many legacies.  Wars are like that, changing history and all. One positive impact of this war, in my humble opinion, was the establishment in 1980 of the Bureau of Refugee Programs, the name of which changed in 1993 to its currently title, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the initial purpose of which was to organize the intake of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laosian social casualties of that prolonged conflict.


This chart shows the final refugee placement numbers for North Carolina for FY 2017.

In the early years the refugees processed by the PRM were from from a small number of nations, primarily in Southeast Asia.  Over the next two decades the changes in the nationalities of those processed by the PRM have mirrored global conflicts.  In the last five years both the numbers processed and the range of nationalities have increased significantly, and in 2016 there are more than 40 different nationalities represented.  In FY 2016 the United Stated welcomed 84,995 refugees to 49 of our states, with the most welcomed by California, Florida, Texas, and New York.  In FY 2015 refugees represented only about 10% of all immigrants to the United States.  The US takes in more refugees per year than any other nation, though when looked at per capita the US lags far behind most nations.  Other nations accepting fewer refugees have programs that support these individuals and families for a long period time where the US allow for minimal support and expects the refugees to be mostly self sufficient in just over three months.

Though there are domestic vetting  processes, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does the all the major vetting (security, health, etc.) and makes country by country allocations and it is the job of the US PRM to place the yearly allocation.

North Carolina, as a state having many military bases that were the training grounds for  soldiers who fought in Vietnam, has always had a welcoming tradition perhaps because so many had connections with the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  North Carolina in fact has the second highest population of Montagnards outside of Vietnam.

Marlene Myers
Marlene is a dedicated  civil servant who has devoted her career to assisting refugees from all over the world and often tells people that she “…has the best job in North Carolina.”  She is the Past-President and current Vice-President of the national organization of State Refugee Coordinators, and has networked extensively both with her domestic counterparts and with those in other nations.  She is open, passionate, tireless and unabashedly devoted to her life of service.  The stories she told of specific situations and refugees spoke volumes as to her humanitarian commitment. I feel honored to have met and learned from her.

At the national level, the  State Coordinators of Refugee Resettlement (SCORR) meets face to face yearly and has monthly virtual meetings via email and phone conferences, etc.  SCORR is broken down into committees working on various issues.

Marlene also frequently mets with her international counterparts, most typically as a host to international teams looking at how North Carolina manages their refugee resettlements.

During our interview she outlined many challenges.  Here are just a few.

  • An increasing number are “urban refugees” who have taken temporary refuge in places like Jordan and Lebanon.  Those escaping conflict situations carry psychological burdens.
  • In the last ten years there are more people from many more countries.  This growth has not been matched by more Congressional funding, meaning far less resources for more people.
  • Getting translators for the many languages and dialects is difficult, as is dealing with many cultural and religious differences.
  • Singles typically get placed together so as to ease financial burden.  Even when they are from the same country they frequently have language difficulties.  Marlene tells of four Sudanese men who were placed together and told her they could only communicate after they all learned English because they all four had very different dialects.
  • Many come from ‘high functioning’ nations like Syria or Iraq where they are likely to have skill sets that can be useful when finding employment and in general when navigating a new life in a foreign nation.
  • The down side of coming to the US with high qualifications is that in a majority of cases employment options tend to be limited to very low level positions.
  • On the other end of the spectrum are some coming from refugee camps where they have lived, in some cases, for nearly two decades (think Dadaab in Kenya).  These refugees face tremendous challenges dealing with the most basic day to day activities.
  • Long term follow through is difficult.  Long term assessment of the adaptation of refugees is done mostly by academics doing, though she also meets with the various local ethnic social/religious groups and do ad hoc focus groups and learn what challenges they face.

img_3983-jpgThe humanitarian imperative
One final question I asked Marlene was how she would describe the value of what she does.  Why does the United States take in refugees and why does she do her job facilitating this process?

She said she gets that question frequently when she talks with outsiders about what she does.  She asks them what they would do if they were in the same situation as these refugees, ‘how would you cope?’ she asks.  She basically responds with one articulation of the humanitarian imperative, that we need to respond to others as we would want them to respond to us were we to be in that same plight.

Grounded thoughts from a local aid worker dedicated to serving.

Drop me a message if you have questions or thoughts you’d like to share.






Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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A snapshot of how sector insiders communicate


Opening thoughts
Aid workers are amazingly diverse in many ways but share in common an understanding of aid and development issues that is deeper and more personal than any other work force.  They are the action mechanism that lies between sources of material support and those this support intends to impact.  In all manner of fora they talk amongst themselves and often these conversations can be instructive.

Now in Aleppo
The situation in Aleppo is getting more desperate by the hour, and over 275,000 residents are beginning to face a harsh winter with the last food supply deliveries from the UN made now nearly three weeks ago.  Starvation faces many, among these perhaps 100,000 children.  The international response to this crisis has been frustrating, and many are asking “what can I do?”  Sadly, here in the United States the response by far too many is, tragically, “what is an Aleppo?”

One web site took the situation as an opportunity to satirize slacktivists who delude themselves into believing they are being progressive or sociallyyou_doodle_2016-11-29t19_34_30z active when they respond on Twitter or Facebook with retweets, ‘likes’ or with various other emojis.  The headline says it all: “FIRST CONVOY OF FACEBOOK LIKES ARRIVES IN ALEPPO

A snapshot detailing how sector insiders communicate
Very recently a humanitarian aid industry insider linked this article on Facebook commenting with his own sarcasm “Pretty much sums it up.”

His post generated many comments (and ‘reshares,” including on my own Facebook page), and as I read the many comments it struck me that these aid worker voices are a great snapshot of what happens all of the time, namely aid industry insiders thinking, talking and writing about global humanitarian crises -like the shit storm happening in Aleppo- in a thoughtful, detailed, passionate manner and that there are many people –namely aid workers- who continually give much more than slacktivist “Likes”.

In Aid Worker Voices -the book based on this blog analyzing the data from over 1000 survey responses and other interviews from aid workers globally- I argue that, collectively, the global community can be viewed as having a “collective consciousness” assuming sociologist Emile Durkheim and others are right.  Pushing this idea one step further and employing the notion of globalization –with its myriad and highly charged definitions– if humanity can be said to share a collective consciousness then the aid worker community is the conscience of that consciousness, the part that embodies both the knowledge and the judgement to speak as the moral voice for humanity.  From the thousands of narrative responses I read in the data I saw over and over again a deep sense of  the ‘big picture’ globally on many levels; they are collectively a sober, sane, and informed  voice.  Yes, there are other professions that think and act in globally informed ways, but aid workers stare into the abyss in the most direct and intimate way possible; they have an unparalleled perspective and mandate.

The threads from the Facebook post
There are two comment threads that were populated in the hours after the post went live, both with a great back and forth of fact, opinion and solid advice.  Those outside of the aid industry can learn a good deal, but veteran aid workers will find nothing novel.  The point I am making is that the “off the cuff” from these individuals is intensely thoughtful, based on broad knowledge and deep moral conviction that “shit storms” like Aleppo can and must be addressed.

Here are the posts, with names changed.

Dave Rodgers: Pretty much sums it up.

(article: First Convoy of FACEBOOK LIKES arrives in Aleppo)

First thread:  what can I do to help?

Sue: My phone has not been able to open the link yet, but what do you recommend people do to actually help? Other than donating, is there anything that can be done? Calls to Congress, or write letters to anyone? I wish there was something we could do.

Dave: ‪Calling Congress is a great idea. We also have to think about how to put pressure on the incoming administration. Nikki Haley and the next Sec State need to hear about this.

Sue:‪ Who do we call? Is there something specific we should be asking for? I’m willing to call, I’m just not sure where to start

Sue: ‪ Who as in our state senators or is there a specific committee?

Dave: ‪ Best is to call your representatives and Senators since you are a constituent, so that gives you a lot of value to them as a voter. Specific asks include: allocating more money to the Syrian humanitarian response, taking in more Syrian refugees, supporting a quick diplomatic solution to stop fighting. Members of Congress can send an important signal by publicly calling for a humanitarian pause in Aleppo and denouncing Syria’s military support for the Assad regime.

Sue:‪ Thank you!! Will start making calls today.

Dave:‪ Trouble is that solutions are not easy, but there is a value to signaling at high political levels – especially as that can help at least broker short term deals to provide relief to people in some of the embattled cities.

Sue:‪ Oh I know, I wouldn’t even know where to begin . . .

Dave: ‪ Two more tangible things to bring up to members of Congress that are not Syria related: 1) arms embargo to South Sudan; 2) stop supporting the Saudi-coalition’s bombing of Yemen and to not sell Saudi Arabia arms.

Sue: Dave, thank you! I really do you need to be better about calling and demanding action. I will share this with like-minded friends that I know will be willing to call. Thank you

J:  1) Read stuff on a computer.

‪2) Engage as Dave says with local, state, and national political processes.

‪–Specifically asking for political pressure on Russia for it’s support to the Assad regime;

‪–US political positions which do not recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime (it would be a sound loss to come out the other end of this with Assad still in control of Syria – that would amount to rewarding the perpetrators).

‪3) Support organizations (UN agencies, big box charities) which have Syria-specific programming in the region already.

Sue: J, thank you! I plan to make calls later today but until then I primarily directed my support and encourage others to donate to the international rescue committee’s projects in Syria. There might be better organizations but I used to intern with the IRC and they do amazing work

J: Sue, Cheers.

Sue:‪ Dave Rogers – not sure if this is something that you could do through Humanosphere or another platform, but it would be awesome to have a weekly call to action that could be shared on social media. Something easy to do like call your senator about the arms embargo to South Sudan and then a brief explanation why it’s important. I know I want to be better about taking action, but between work, kids, and my nonprofit I often don’t have the energy to do research on my own

Betty: Dave, On South Sudan, I don’t think convincing Congress is the issue – US was all set to table a draft resolution earlier this week but they don’t have the votes.

Dave: Betty, Yea, my thought behind the recommendation is to keep support for the embargo. Kind of similar to getting members of Congress to call out Russia on Syria, like Lake suggests.

Betty: We should get our Japanese friends to call their senators.


Second thread: petitions, airdrops, and R2P 

First, a note about ‘R2P’ for those less familiar with this acronym.  The official pillars of the Responsibility to Protect were adopted by the the United Nations in 2005. R2P is based on the premise that “Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility that holds States accountable for the welfare of their people.” Given this premise the  global community has a responsibility to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities.  Implementing R2P is never uncontroversial.

Hank: ‪ It really seems like a last chance saloon. MPs have started a petition here to start humanitarian air drops into Aleppo (

Sue:‪ Darn. Only British citizens. I wonder if there is a similar one for the US? Thanks!

Hank: ‪ It’s received very few signatures. Not nearly enough to be debating in parliament

Sue: ‪I saw that. I wish I could sign!

J: air drops are almost always a bad idea. Great publicity, but usually work poorly.

Hank: Lake, in a normal circumstance I would normally agree, but there’s little else that can be done, surely?

J: Hank, Air drops are token gestures. I take as granted that there is *always* another option. Maybe not an attractive or palatable one, but another option or options, nevertheless. In this case, my mind goes to things like immediate and very strong pressure on Russia–incentivize Russia to make a humanitarian corridor a real reality.

Also, I’d think that if ever there was a time to invoke R2P, it would be now. Also costly, both literally and politically. But seriously, this is the kind of situation for which R2P was written in the first place.r2p

The international community is so apathetic that it has deluded itself into thinking that, really, the only/best option is throwing things out of planes.

Hank: ‪ Sure, I’m absolutely in agreement with you there. If anything the moment for R2P has already passed long ago, especially with Obama’s reticent foreign policy which has complicated the situation entirely – the fact that there are around 28 rebel groups in eastern Aleppo, and no coordinated US strategy in Syria really doesn’t help matters at all.

The US, the UK and France have missed their opportunity long ago to stop Assad and Putin bulldozing Aleppo. The most we can do is to ensure that we provide humanitarian access while we can – and since we do not have coalition access to Aleppo, and many roads, including Castello Road – which is the main artery into eastern Aleppo – is blocked, there is really no way in the current climate that we can or should meet Russian and regime aggression with aggression.

Any real hopes of meaningfully being able to engage through the UN Security Council have absolutely failed. The West’s strategy – where that was the failed attempt in the UK parliament to reach a consensus to bomb Assad’s positions in 2013, which resulted in the 2015 decision to bomb IS targets – has helped Russia and Assad to demolish Aleppo. Our strategy has been woefully coordinated, and it’s been too late to meaningfully opposed Russia in any coherent way sadly. Perhaps where Clinton would have made a better president and how, with Trump coming in, sanctions and penalties on Russia will be relaxed and the US will allow Putin to expand his sphere of influence..

‪There are some shifting dynamics in play here, and I believe that we weren’t strong enough in standing up to aggression when we should have been. Air drops of course are not anywhere near a perfect solution, but when civilians haven’t seen aid delivered in months, these are people truly at wits’ end

Hank: As for R2P. The only route to invoke R2P would be blocked through the UNSC. I think R2P can only be used when the duty to protect after invasion is explicit. I don’t think that, given how complex a conflict Syria is, that R2P would have been the right response, unless all sides could agree on terms. Bogged down with the UN system, Obama and Cameron were unable to make progress.

‪R2P has not always been successful either. Libya is a classic case, so too was the Iraq invasion. Elsewhere the French invasion of Mali to prevent Islamist extremists worked out because those contingency plans were in place, or NATO’s bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and 1999. Blair’s intervention in Sierra Leone too. If you can ensure a cohesive political settlement once you’ve stablised a region or city, then it can work

J: Charlie, Yeah no, you’re right. R2P is complicated, and very hard to make work. I guess my real point was simply that there are always other options. So I basically don’t buy that “but air drops are the only option we have left” line coming from some quarters. Cheers, man.

Hank:‪ what other ways can aid be realistically delivered into Aleppo right now then? Other political solutions have been exhausted, especially the ceasefire being the largest example of an aid truck waiting for days in northern Syria to deliver aid into the city.

‪Given that politically we can’t reach a settlement to deliver aid – and of course I agree with you in saying that its the best solution – what other practical methods can you, or can you employ? I think as a solutions it’s borne out of frustration, sure, but I can’t see any other solutions.

‪Tied into the issue is that ideas to create no fly zones over Aleppo have also failed. Could we practically deliver aid through, say, targeted drones? I think it’s better to consider any option right now as a form of moral obligation from being so weak on the issue.

Two simple points
Just like your personal conscience, aid worker voices are worth listening to, and even their more informal chats are fonts of insight for those who wish to more deeply understand the world in which we live.  The snapshot presented here is just that; countless conversations like this happen every hour of every day on all manner of platforms, Facebook and beyond.

As always, contact me if you have questions, comment or feedback.  If you would like to contact J (above in the comment threads) you are invited to do so here:


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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The impact of the Tump election

Yes, November 8th happened.

We have a new President-elect here in the United States by the name of Donald Trump.  Reading about his recent meeting with President Obama was a challenge for many, perhaps acutely so for Vice-President Biden. Though many here are jumping on the #notmypresident bandwagon, the democratic process will move forward and on January 20th, 2017 Trump will be sworn into office, having already moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

trumpYes, I get the irony. Pennsylvania was indeed part of the ‘blue wall’ that crumbled.

My personal and professional responses have been many, but I find myself wanting to know how aid and development workers around the world see this event.  In the last few days I have talked with colleagues and friends on four continents and the near universal reaction to the Trump “upset” is stunned fear.

Some blog sites have some very insightful posts up right now that are very good reads. poses some good questions, and adds good points of departure for thought, discussion and possible action, for example.  Just after the election Goats and Soda published From AIDS To Zika: Trump On Global Health And Humanitarian Aid.  This IRIN piece  “Who’s afraid of Mr Trump” contains some valuable insight and useful hard numbers.  Spoiler: the answer to their rhetorical question is the entire sector.

Those are other’s thoughts, but what are yours?  What do aid and development workers like you think about how this election result will impact them in their work and in their personal lives?  I hope to get many more answers to that question with a short survey.  Please take the time to respond, and I’ll be posting results as they come in.

Preliminary survey results
From the results thus far here’s what one industry insider said,

“The immediate challenge I see is the potential impact on safety and security of aid workers. Particularly if Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims doesn’t change, American aid workers will be at significant risk when traveling in the Muslim world. For instance, I have a trip planned to Afghanistan which was supposed to fall over the inauguration weekend and I’ve already been asked to change the dates to reduce risks in country.”

Another aid worker noted,trump-effect

“This may be a bit short term and a bit long term but my biggest concern overall is around funding and funding restrictions. Does Donald Trump even know what USAID does?? His isolationist, “care for the Americans first” attitude will likely have negative effects in relief and development spending from USG. He may bring back a reversion to the played out idea that it’s a zero sum choice to address issues at home and address poverty abroad. The current administration made considerable progress in ensuring gender mainstreaming, climate sensitivity, inclusion, and LGBTQ issues were addressed in programming. Without the push from the funding agencies, I think most NGOs would have continued their programming as usual. Without this pressure (or at worst, with pressure to the contrary), we may see a back sliding in the quality of programming and attention to address deeper root cause issues.”

Agreed, the idea that aid and support are not a zero sum choice is hard to comprehend for many people and the incoming Trump administration’s rhetoric is clear in supporting “American first.”

More updates as data roll in.

Click here to take the survey.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Aidnography review of Aid Worker Voices

Here  (and below) is the review of Aid Worker Voices by Tobias Denskus published in Aidnography.


awv-ecover“One of the many advantages of being in charge of your own blog is that formats can be adapted. 
As much as this is my review of Thomas Arcaro’s Aid Worker Voices: Survey Results and Commentary, it is also a snapshot of my ongoing discussion I have had with the author prior to reading his book and discussing the current state and future potential behind the project. 

In many ways, Aid Worker Voices is a hybrid: It is a work-in-progress report, a data handbook and an example of reflective writing at the intersection of academia and the aid industry. 
It is also an invitation to listen to an incredible variety of aid workers and their voices expressed through a unique, comprehensive, long-term survey project. 

Based on a census-style 60 question survey that just over 1000 aid workers completed between January 2014 and March 2015 and that is documented on the companion website, the project gathered an incredible range of responses on the state of play of aid work and the aid workers inside the industry. 
Tom Arcaro is very clear about the limitations of his endeavor: 

From the very beginning we were sober about the fact that our respondents were self-selected and, in the end, the survey was only conducted in English, narrowing that self-selection (p.5). 

But all qualitative, often ethnographic, engagements with aid workers suffer from various biases and generalizability was never the aim of the project. I agree with Tom that ‘focusing of this need to vent, share, support and laugh together’ (p.8) is an important aspect of any reflective writing and engagement process. 

Another core premise of the project and book is Tom takes a positive, humane encouraging approach toward the subject matter of understanding the aid industry through quantitative survey data and many, often very long and thoughtfully articulated, personal reflections that really highlight the ‘voice’ aspect. Here, ‘global citizens’ come together in a ‘humanitarian aid system (that) is far more inclusive than even the complicated ALNAP model infers’ (p.19) is a key premise the project relies on-even if there are many complexities and imperfections within the industry. 

Relating micro-issues to the broader humanistic goal of maximizing all human potential 

Whether the questions relate to faith and religion, gender or family, the insights from the survey offer an interesting mix between not-so-surprising insights (organizational contexts are often paternalistic and many aspects of the industry are not child-friendly) and a confirmation of how aware about various inequalities and problems many respondents are. So for many colleagues and academia or regular readers of the blog notions of complexity and many different shades of grey will sound familiar. 

But the thing about aid work that they don’t tell you…you can’t un-see what you’ve seen, good or bad. I can’t un-see or un-experience the amazing days I spent at the beach on the South China Sea in Vietnam any more than I can un-see or un-experience working in an HIV orphanage in Uganda (Becca, 36 years old, female, unmarried) (p.79). 

I agree with Tom that ‘being human means to constantly battling contradictions and dealing with multiple options’ (p.83) – a fundamental fact we often tend to forget in our desire to ‘professionalize’ aid work and workers. 

‘Thank you for coming. Nobody else has.’ 
As much of a work-in-progress as this book may seem, it is important to stress that Tom has spent not only time to read through all the responses, but that he put some thought into the quotes, the voices, that are (re)presented throughout his book. 
Chapter 10 (What do you like – or not like –about being an aid worker?) offers some very profound insights: 

I have the privilege to bear witness to and affect change to some niche parts of the human experience (26-30yo white female expat aid worker) (p.112) 

That moment when someone comes to you and says ‘Thank you for coming. Nobody else has’ (41-45yo white female expat aid worker) (p.113) 

I think that this illustrates the purpose of the project really well: To provide a space for articulating our humanity in a context of sometimes dehumanizing circumstances-both from within the sector, but also from powerful actors outside the industry who create humanitarian ‘theaters’ in the first place and then complain about the failings of those who step in to help. 

‘The fired get re-hired’-realistic professionalism 

But survey project and book are still grounded in the daily experiences and routines of ‘doing aid work’. Comments about ‘Human resources is one of the weakest departments in aid organizations’ (p.144) and strong criticism of MONGOs that Tom summarizes as endeavors often made up by ‘those with big ideas and skinny jeans coming from the global north’ (p.177) are hardly surprising and are a strong reminder that simply brushing off ‘the system is broken’ critique is also not an option to current and future challenges. 

Having talked to Tom in two long Skype calls recently I know that he is aware of some of the shortcoming of the current book and welcome critique openly. 

Because of the nature of the Aid Worker Voices project the book is missing ‘punch lines’; from a research perspective such ‘confirmatory research’ is important and relevant, but it is also not easy to ‘sell’ to journalists, bust aid workers and ‘civilians’ pressured for time: Tom is working on a series of blog post and other multi-media projects and it will be interesting to see what emerges from the ‘big data’ of survey result. 

The book is still a very important contribution to ongoing efforts of ‘representing’ aid work and aid workers in new and different ways, using different tools and writing formats. In that sense Aid Worker Voices is also an experimental contribution, with some of the chapters a bit too long while others, especially towards the end of the book, seem a bit short and lacking more context. Some of the graphics are also a bit difficult to read which turned my focus almost immediately to the longer reflections rather than the aggregated overviews. 

I know that Tom was eager to ‘get the book out’ and I look forward to discussing the results further and see how this project evolves-it seems to be the proverbial first step which sets an important journey into motion! 

Let’s end on an aid worker voice that captures the spirit of communicating differently with each other that underlines much of the project. 
Here is Karen, a twenty-something years old expat aid worker stationed in Iraq at the time of writing: 

My least favourite things 
(To the tune of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music) 

Writing reports and proposals for ECHO; 
Drivers who lie and say they know where to go; 
Poor internet signal so skype never rings, 
These are a few of my least favorite things. 
Kisses not handshakes used by strangers as greeting, 
Especially occurring at long drawn out meetings; 
Packing for missions, who knows what to bring, 
These are a few of my least favorite things. (pp.120-121)”

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Some reviews of Aid Worker Voices

Some reviews of Aid Worker Voices

Below are some reviews of Aid Worker Voices.  Though I put this book together with only the survey respondents in mind, I agree with the reviewers that it will be a useful source of information for those on the outside of the industry that want to get a sense of what aid workers think, feel and experience.

awv-ecoverA must-read for whoever is interested in understanding aid workers
“A must-read for whoever is interested in understanding aid workers or wants to become one, as well as for anyone who took part to the “Aid Worker Voices” survey whose results are presented in this book. The author provides some useful background and reflections, but mostly lets aid workers explain, in their own words, what being an aid worker really means to them: from the initial motivation to work in this field to why they keep doing their job despite frustration and disillusionment, whether and how it is possible to have a relationship and even a family, etc. This book does not give solutions to “fix” the aid systems, but paints a quite accurate picture of what aid workers experience in their, which is very far from Hollywood representations of it.”

This is an excellent snapshot of the experiences of aid workers
“This is an excellent snapshot of the experiences of aid workers. Dr. Arcaro’s commentary is engaging, often humorous and gives important context (and occasional limits) to the quotes from the workers themselves. Dr. Arcaro and his team chose questions that solicited thoughtful replies — and garnered a surprising variety of responses. Chapters address issues as diverse as corruption in the field to balancing work with family to the future of humanitarian aid. This is a must read if you are in the field or are considering entering it. However, many of the concerns the workers expressed provide a glimpse into modern life as well — and I would recommend it for a broader audience as well.”

MUST read for anyone curious about aid work
“If you are an aid worker, know/live with/are married to an aid worker, or just want to know more about what exactly aid workers experience – this book is for you! Reading this has been like reading my own diary – I found myself saying “YES!” more than once in relation to the experiences shared by the survey respondents. Dr. Arcaro does a superb job of breaking down survey results, adding witty commentary, and giving aid workers a relatable narrative they can share with people in their worlds who don’t understand quite what it is that we do (NO, we’re not spies). I loved this book, and think it’s a must read for anyone seeking insight into the aid workers world!”
An imperative read for those trying to understand the complex relationship between aid work and the state of the world today
“The book Aid Worker Voices was a very impactful read for me. Truthfully, I found a lot of it to be surprising. I had an (incorrect) notion prior to reading this book that most aid workers were optimistic about the state of the world, and that’s why they chose aid as their line of work- because they felt they could make a difference. However, I found the voices of the aid workers to be surprisingly sober about the complexity of aid work and the seeming inability to fix the many problems of this world and the institutions that exacerbate them. I also found it surprising just how impactful aid workers found their jobs to be, in ways both good and bad. They described an inability to “un-see” anything they had witnessed in their work. I believe this creates a sense of isolation in aid workers, as they have seen far more than the many privileged members of society that turn a blind eye to injustice, evil, and need. This, to me, illustrates the need for the book. Aid workers need a space to articulate and share how their very unique work has made them feel. To debrief, decompress, and feel a relief that others have shared similar experiences. No matter what your relation to aid work is- whether you yourself engage in it, a loved one does, or you are simply interested in the industry, this book is a must-read as it highlights the very profound voices of those who are actually serving on the front lines. We have become accustomed to “social justice warriors” sharing informative articles or writing long rants on social media, but how many people do we know that are actually living in the midst of the injustice, trying their best to remedy it? Aid Worker Voices chronicles the story of those who are, and subsequently, is an imperative read for those trying to understand the complex relationship between aid work and the state of the world today.”

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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