Aid Worker Voices

A conversation with Linda Polman and insights from the field

“Everybody inside the aid industry knows what should be done. Everybody knows how it could be better.  But to implement all those recommendations, that’s the problem. To think of how it should be better, how it can be better, is not the difficult part, it’s the implementation part.”

-Linda Polman

 

A conversation with Linda Polman and insights from the field

This semester I am again teaching a course on the humanitarian aid industry. Last week we had a special visitor to my class, Dutch journalist and author Linda Polman.  I have been using her book The Crisis Caravan in my class for the last five years and was pleased that she was able to take time this semester to talk with me and my students.

Implementation
One of the biggest takeaways from our half hour conversation was that there is a chronic and perhaps intractable gap between broad stroke policy fixes to the aid sector and the actual implementation of those changes. This is not a new theme, of course.  Just the opposite, most veterans in the sector have had this very discussion more times than they can count. Here are a couple examples:

At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey there was much discussion about more aggressive movement toward ‘localization’ or ‘nationalization’ of the industry, but putting those lofty ideas fully into action is still, to be generous, a work in progress.  My recent research into Filipino and Jordanian aid workers sheds some light onto this issue.

A second example is the recent sector-wide reaction to the #oxfamscandal/#aidtoo controversies (see here for a curated bibliography of media coverage).  Here is the way one management level aid worker now in the Middle East describes this gap:

“As anyone who’s been following the post-Oxfam #aidtoo/#metoo fallout knows, internal reporting mechanisms that make sense in local cultural contexts (and are also effective), along with a contextually appropriate interpretation –> application of “zero tolerance” is the tough part of this issue for most field managers.

Easy enough for executive leadership to say “zero tolerance”, but what does that mean practically, in [MY LOCATION]? Does that mean I summarily fire the driver who commented on the propriety of what one of my female staff chose to wear to the field? (there seems to be a general sense on Twitter that zero tolerance = every accusation results in somebody being publicly fired).

Something that keeps coming up is that female staff are afraid to report because they are afraid of being killed, in some cases by their own families.

It goes to cultural assumptions about gender (obviously) and who is at fault when a man commits harassment or rape. The traditional view is that it is the woman’s fault. And so if an accusation of harassment becomes public, the default assumption will be that the woman “asked for it” because of how she dressed or acted, and is therefore tainted (and deserving of punishment, in extremes case up to and including honor killing).

We have field based accountability systems that (mostly) work well. If local authorities or aid workers (local or expat) abuse or coerce refugees in some way, that is usually picked up. And there are cases under prosecution across the humanitarian community here at this moment as the result. But aid worker on aid worker, especially when it’s local on local, can be very tough to get reported. And in those rare instances when it is reported they prove very difficult to investigate.

I have a small group on my team tasked to come up with recommendations for an mechanism for reporting aid worker on aid worker abuse/harassment that a) make sense culturally (most INGOs have web-based anonymous reporting, or an international hotline which many, especially local staff, don’t trust), b) that people will trust as actually anonymous, c) is gender-sensitive (most reporters are female); d that is sensitive to allegation versus direct witness versus actual survivor (in most cases where reporting happens, it is via a third or fourth party); e) after all of that, leads to the possibility of actual investigation whether internal or external…

We’ll tackle what “zero tolerance” means in actual practice next.”

Sector insiders know that there are few ‘one size fits all’ simplistic pathways to policy implementation and become, with reason, frustrated when outsiders come at them with a ‘why don’t you just’ comment. When those comments come from a donor who thinks in that Excel-driven M&E certainties should emanate directly from their offices to –> each particular instance in the field, well, that’s tough to hear, especially given that the purse strings are controlled, of course, by the donors.

“Fixing what is wrong with the aid sector” just not that simple. As Polman pointed out in her conversation with our class, the UN and the other ‘think tank’ organizations have solutions to offer but the reality is getting solutions put in place a constant challenge for practitioners all around the globe. Reflecting on data presented in Aid Worker Voices, I can say with some confidence that the vast majority of veteran aid and development professionals would agree.

Dunant versus Nightingale
The tendency for all of us to think in monochromatic, binary terms is natural. We want the world around us to make sense and we tend to reduce reality into simplistic language.

Aid sector binaries are many, and include ‘expat’ versus ‘local‘, ‘relief’ versus ‘development’, ‘HQ’ and the ‘field’, and, the most important, ‘Dunant’ versus ‘Nightingale’.  We talked about the ‘Dunant versus Nightingale’ issue as a class both separately and with Polman and came to the obvious conclusion that it is rarely that easy.  Is is never as binary as ‘give aid to all who need it’ versus ‘only give aid when you know that it is not going into the war chest of one side or the other or is otherwise prolonging the conflict.’

We need look no further than the current situation in Syria to see how muddy the waters are, chronically and acutely so.  Ms Polman makes this argument both in her book and in our conversation in support of a Nightingale approach:

“There are so many victims of wars and other disasters that never receive one cent of aid from us. We say no to aiding people all the time, we are just not talking about it, we all keep this charade up, that we are always there for all victims on this planet, but we’re not, we say no all the time.”

My response just now is, yes, but how can you look away?  Quite imperfectly and incompletely, I write about the humanitarian imperative here, noting that the tug of war between the Dunantists and the Nightingale supporters is never that simple, thus making me roughly the millionth writer/academic who has come to that conclusion.

If you have questions or comments you can contact me here.


Below is a transcript of our class conversation with Linda Polman.

 

Tom Arcaro:          Can we kind of start off with you giving a little bit of an introduction and a background and then maybe giving your blush on that very broad question, ‘what is the humanitarian imperative, and how should we look at that in 2018?’

Linda Polman:          Obviously, it is very deeply embedded in our Christian roots. It’s alms for the poor, it’s aid for people who don’t have anything. I’m sure you are familiar with the story of Henry Dunant and Florence Nightingale, who visited wars in 1850, 1860, and Henry Dunant was the establisher of the International Red Cross. He, by accident, stumbled onto a battlefield there, and he saw tens of thousands of guys dying in the battlefield who were left behind by their armies, because the armies did not bother to send medics with their armies, so he saw all those men dying in pools of blood, all really disgusting, and he decided to help them, he thought they were human beings and they deserved help, so he mobilized all sorts of people from the villages around the battlefield, he paid for that out of his own pockets, plasters and the oranges and the water, he all paid for them by himself. After that he asked himself “Why is there not a professional organization?”

Anyway, he established the International Red Cross, and international organization for humanitarian aid for the war of wounded, and it became very quickly a success because it is so deeply rooted in our Christian society, but from the very beginning, there have always been people against the imperative of the International Red Cross, and Florence Nightingale was the biggest oppose of this whole idea. She thought that aid, humanitarian aid, aid in warzones, should not be for anybody. She said that it’s really important to realize who you are giving aid to, who are those people laying their wounded? Are they the causers of human suffering? If they are, they you should not aid them, because you will only lengthen the wars that they are fighting. So, there has always been a debate about the humanitarian imperative. Should it be for everybody, because every human being deserves aid? Or should it always be attached to restrictions?

Tom Arcaro:             So, if Florence Nightingale had been at Goma, she would not have wanted to treat the Hutu coming in?

 Linda Polman:            Exactly.

 Tom Arcaro:               Yeah.

Linda Polman:            Exactly, yes. Because in Goma, many people were under the impression that all the aid that went to Goma after the genocide was for the victims of the genocide, but the aid actually went to the perpetrators of the genocide, so yes, Florence Nightingale would have been very much against this idea of aiding people over there. Also, because it actually did fuel the war, from all the UNACR camps, where the Hutus were being taken care of, and it was one of the biggest humanitarian aid operations at the time, the most money went there at the time. Thanks to the aid money, the Hutus were able to continue their war against the Tutsis, which were only a few miles away from where the Hutus were. So, I believe that still, even now, 22, 25 years later, we are still suffering the consequences from that period.

Tom Arcaro:               So, is it possible to have, I guess – how would Florence Nightingale have described the humanitarian imperative?

Linda Polman:            She said that responsibility should be where they belong. She says that wars are cost and fared by states, by ministers of war, and she said it’s their responsibility to pay for the mess that they created. Because you make them financial responsible for what they are doing to people, you will shorten wars, because they will have less money to spend on the wars.

Tom Arcaro:               Right, right. So, how do you see it, from your seat? How would you – are you in Henry Dunant’s camp, or are you in Nightingale’s camp, or neither?

Linda Polman:            I’m definitely in the Nightingale camp, definitely, yes. I also believe that it is important to – it all sounds very nice, that you are a humanitarian, and every human being deserves aid, et cetera, but if you look at the damage and harm that aid can do, if you look at the amount of wars that are being fueled by aid money, then I believe you should take responsibility for that, and there is a point where you will have to say no for aid, and we all make a big drama out of that, “You cannot refuse aid to people, because they are all human beings,” but we are saying no to people all the time. There are so many victims of wars and other disasters that never receive one cent of aid from us. We say no to aiding people all the time, we are just not talking about it, we all keep this charade up, that we are always there for all victims on this planet, but we’re not, we say no all the time.

 Tom Arcaro:               Right, right, and so, I immediately think about Syria, and the response there, you know, if we look at the Jordanians and the Turks and the Lebanese and the Iraqis, actually, that are taking in the Syrians, where are they on this academic debate between the Dunants and the Nightingale people? Whose responsibility is it to respond to those Syrian refugees? And how should they be responded to in a way that Nightingale would agree?

Linda Polman:            Well, for the large part, I think those neighboring countries of Syria never had a choice. People just poured in. And also, actually, the history of Syrians in those neighboring countries, they already had families there, they already had friends there, so it would – and they didn’t need Visas, they just came, and by the time, I believe, that those countries woke up to the fact that there’s more and more coming, it was already too late. In the end, they did close their borders. Many people are now camping just on the outside of the border, on the Syrian side, hoping that they can still get in, but they cannot. So, for the large part, they didn’t have a choice. Also, they were promised, especially by the European community, that the European community would come and help, financially, that they would share the burden of all those refugees, because the European community has a large interest in keeping refugees in there, in the region, so they promised to send money, which they did only in very small amounts, but that was the deal between the neighboring countries and the European Union.

Tom Arcaro:               Right. We’re asking a question about the follow-up on the Europeans in general, in the Syrians, and of course, that’s happened in various ways, in various degrees. Let me go to a big global question, if we look at the percentage of GDP that the United States puts into humanitarian aid, and I’m looking specifically at the response in Yemen, where our – I think it was $87 billion, pales in comparison with the $500 billon that the Saudis are giving, and if you look the list of countries that are given that have pledged, this last Tuesday, to the UNHCR response to Yemen, the United States is way down on the list, and if you factor in percentage of GDP, we are even farther down on the list. So, my question, I guess, is what is your take on that disparity, and is there anything that the international community can or should do to help equal out the proportion of aid being pledged by different governments?

Linda Polman:            Well, in general, I would say that disaster areas are, most of the time, the responsibility of the superpower that is closest by. America has its own backyard, Europe has its own backyard, and so does Saudi Arabia. It’s in the backyard of Saudi Arabia, so it’s only logical that Saudi Arabia should be the largest aid giver there. But, to be more specific, I believe it was the intention of Saudi Arabia to be the biggest aid, to be the biggest donor in Yemen, because it gives them a lot of power in Yemen. It is not like the Saudi money is going to all the victims, the Saudi money is going to victims that are of use to Saudi Arabia, they are – the aid goes, for the most part, to government forces, for example. A big priority in the aid of Saudi Arabia is patching up wounded government soldiers, the absorbs a lot of aid money. It is also buying followers, it is buying supporters, by sending the aides to areas where Saudi Arabia has allies or has people that are sympathetic to the Saudi course. So, for Saudi Arabia, giving aid to Yemen is very much a weapon of war. They use it to keep people calm, or to buy supporters.

Tom Arcaro:               So, if I heard you correctly just now, you’ve essentially repeated, with different examples, much of what you’ve described back when you published Crisis Caravan, or War Games, as it’s called over there.

Linda Polman:            But that is so much the core of international aid, especially in warzones. It is not given out of charitable feelings, it is not given out of feeling sorry for people, it is not given out of feeling that justice would be done. International aid, humanitarian aid, development aid, is very much an instrument in the foreign policy of our governments. That goes for United States, through US Aid, as a sort of contract with American NGOs, saying if they do not serve the American political agenda, the foreign policy agenda, then they are not getting any American money, any government money. They have to follow the American foreign policy. The same thing goes for European aid organizations. If they do not follow the EU foreign policy agenda, which is abysmal, the anti‑immigration agenda, then they’re not getting money from the European Union. And that has always been the case. International aid has always been an instrument in foreign policy, it is not something that we do out of charity.

Tom Arcaro:               So, you know, we talked about this when we had our test call, the place that people like you, as an outsider, and maybe people like me as academics, outsiders kind of studying it, as we look at the tables in Geneva and maybe Vienna and New York, do those tables appropriately include seats or people like you that have a more objective – you’re not connected to a government, you’re not connect to any INGO, are there seats at the table for people like you, and if not, is that a goal that we should work toward?

Linda Polman:            Well, I have often been invited, after the publication of my book, to come and join forums, to come and join think tanks, for example, and often, it stays with one invitation, after that, I’m not longer welcome. [laughter] The critical voices are not very much appreciated. It’s difficult for them to accept criticism, and it is very, very difficult – even if they agree to the criticism, it is very, very difficult for them to change anything inside that system. Humanitarian aid and development aid is an industry, it’s a gigantic operation involving dozens of donor governments, involving tens of thousands of aid organizations, and involving agenda, foreign policy agendas. It is so difficult to change even small things there, so to have critical voices inside there makes it extra painful for people that want to do good, for people that do want changes, because it makes them realize more of the change is so difficult to establish, so there are opportunities for independent voices to speak, but most of the time, only once, and then, they are no longer invited.

Tom Arcaro:               Right, not invited back, right. And so, that leads to a related question about the Sphere Standards, and the Core Humanitarian Standards, and the Core Humanitarian Alliance, and other efforts like that, that have overarching entities that look at the whole sector and make – you know, come up with guidelines for how to administer aid, and how to involve the affected community. Do you think those efforts are going in the right direction? Are they enough? Is there a place for an additional one or two, you know, bridge kind of organizations that can serve the function of being more critical, and serve the function of making positive change?

Linda Polman:            Well, the thing with all the – Sphere is also like a think tank, you have very many of those bodies inside the aid industry that are called think tanks, and they come with advice for policies, et cetera. But, again, it is so difficult for the aid industry to change itself. Everybody inside the aid industry knows what should be done. Everybody knows how it could be better.  But to implement all those recommendations, that’s the problem. To think of how it should be better, how it can be better, is not the difficult part, it’s the implementation part. So, all those think tanks inside the aid industry come with wonderful recommendations, and the next year, they come with the same recommendations, and et cetera, but the implementation is the problem.

Tom Arcaro:               Right. Well, let me counter that with maybe – yeah, I get your opinion on this. If we look at Turkey a couple of years ago with the World Humanitarian Summit, there seemed to be some rhetoric, at least, around, for example, nationalizing and localizing and moving the economic power from the head offices in Geneva and New York and so on, moving the powerbase more toward the regional and national centers. So, you know, are the summits, like what happened in Turkey, do those produce policy changes going in the right direction? And again, my example is the benchmarks created for more nationalization and localization of aid?

 Linda Polman:            In fact, I was there at that summit in Turkey, and the press releases were a bit different than what actually happened on the ground. [laughter] Like, for example, this whole big thing that it should be more from bottom-up, less Geneva and less NGO CEOs who decide where the money should go to, but more to local organizations and to small organizations. And everybody agreed, and everybody has happy press releases. And, since then, it didn’t change. Since then, there is not more money going to local organizations. So, again, I am making the same point here, to think of solutions is a lot easier than to implement them. It is very, very difficult. And, you see, the problem is that most solutions, or most improvements, inside the aid industry, would involve aid organizations and donors to give up a lot of their sovereignty, a lot of their power. It is now the donors and the large aid organizations who decide where the money goes to, how much money, and what it is spent on, et cetera. And, to improve things, they should let go of that sovereignty, they should let go of that power of their money, and they are not prepared to do that.

Tom Arcaro:               Right.

Linda Polman:            Donors and aid organizations still believe that they are the only ones who know what’s best for people over there, so it’s very difficult for them also to give more power and more money to small, local organizations, but they know it would be better, but they won’t do it.

Tom Arcaro:               Right, right. And so, which leads us in the same spot, things will keep going in the same direction. Let me refer back to the research that I did, and the survey that I did on aid workers, I asked them basically the same question, you know, “What do you see about the future of the sector, and what can be done to improve it?” And some of the more cynical but maybe accurate answers had to do with global neoliberalism, and how that is spreading certainly, you know, in the United States and certainly in much of Europe, with what’s going on. You know, we seem to have no grasp of responding to neoliberalistic tendencies, and a lot of the respondents that I read there, their comments, a lot of the respondents basically pointed out that unless we change the fundamental nature of an economic system which benefits from this low regulatory kind of governmental policy, then nothing is going to change. The analogy that one of them used is that, “We’re just putting out fire, but the fires will continue to be started, because the fundamental system is going to generate those fires.” And so, I guess I’m asking kind of the neo-Marxist question, is it possible to imagine a non-neoliberalistic economic system globally?

Linda Polman:            Imagining that is the only thing that keeps me going. I think you need idealism to make a better world and to want a better world And I’m an old hippie, you know, I think things can be better if we only want it and we only do it. I spent quite a lot of time inside the building of the United Nations in New York, for example. I did a travel story about being in that building, and I traveled around that building for about three weeks, going up and down the escalators, going into offices, and seeing what’s happening there, talking to people in the canteens, et cetera. And there was a certain stage where I walked into a meeting hall, and there was a remembrance service for an economic advisor who was on the payroll of the United Nations, and he had died, and people were giving speeches about him, they were remembering him. And then, I realized that inside that hall, there were about five or six Nobel Prize winners, and they were all on the payroll of the United Nations, they were wonderful minds, you know? So, there’s a lot of people who know how things can be better. The United Nations has all of the solutions the world needs to be a much nicer place. The only thing that we need to do is take those solutions off the shelves and implement them.

 Tom Arcaro:               Right.

Linda Polman:            Without being too nasty, this decision coming, for example, now, the whole thing in Yemen, it’s arms dealers, the fact that Saudi Arabia is able to do what it’s doing in Yemen without anybody commenting on it, it’s because it’s a very good customer for our arms dealers, for our arms industry. Then, you get into big oil business, you get into the people smuggling business, so yes, the world could be a much nicer place, if we would be much more of a hippie. [laughter]

Tom Arcaro:               [laughter] Well spoken, well spoken. My inspiration for thinking along those lines comes from the opportunity I have had to study and then visit the Zapatistas down in Chiapas, Mexico. If you read what [Subcomandante] Maros has written, and others have written, he talks about the capitalistic hydra and how it needs to be recognized and addressed at a fundamental level. I think the people like that, who are speaking with and for the indigenous communities around the world, I think they might have a different perspective that we can learn from, and I think your answer to that would be, “Yes, but we need to listen, and we need to have a resolve to continue to demand answers to fundamental questions.”

Linda Polman:            Yeah.  One of the recommendations I would like to give to the younger generation, people who are much younger than me, be much more political, be involved in the politics of your own country, you know? Don’t believe that the change should be there. You should change the foreign policy and the local policy with your own government. Be political. Join a political party. Join lobby groups. If we want Saudi Arabia to behave better, if we want it to stop murdering people, then we should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, but we do not. We sell billions and billions. So, part of the solution for Yemen is, in fact, inside the United States. Part of the solution is also inside of the European Union. Europe is the second biggest arms dealer to Saudi Arabia. So, we all lick the heels of Saudi Arabia, because they spend billions of dollars in our economies. So, that is the way forward, to influence our politicians, to influence our politics lots of things that are wrong in the world, hunger in the world, poverty in the world, the solution lies within the United States and within the European Union. If we behave better, if we are more honest, if we are more willing to share with the rest of the world, then the world will be a better place, so be political, influence your own policy team.

Tom Arcaro:               Right. And I’m hearing and agreeing with what you’re saying, but at the same time, we see a wave of populism, both in our country, here in the United States, and even, to a certain extent, in the UK, with the BREXIT decision. How do you respond to those populist movements, and have a more humanitarian and positive perspective? How do you persuade people to go in that direction, rather than the populist direction?

Linda Polman:            I’m sure that more souls can be won, but I also know that that movement, the humanitarian movement, is so big already. Look at the globalist movement. Look at the movement that young people in America have in their fight against NRA [National Rifle Association], for example. And as far as Europe goes, I will never forget in 2015, that summer, when hundreds of thousands of refugees walked into Europe, they walked through Europe. Official aid organizations, nor governments, were there to do anything for them, they just ignored them. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them barefooted, you know? No money, nothing to drink, nothing to eat, all of them had routes that were several thousands of kilometers long.  There were civilians, there were tens of thousands of civilians there, waiting for those refugees, feeding them, giving them warm hats to wear, giving them shoes to wear, giving them water, putting them up, there were tens of thousands of ordinary people helping those refugees. More than a million of the refugees were accepted into Europe, and they found friends here, they found people who are willing to help them and were willing to mix them into the local population. So, the movements of people who wanted to better the world is big. Look at the natural environments movements. There are so many people who wanted better worlds. So, yes, there are populist movements, but there are also a lot of common sense movements, and people who want the best for other people.

Tom Arcaro:               Thank you for that, thank you for that. Last chance for questions. Linda, I feel – I very much appreciate your time. It was just an absolute gift to be able to talk with you for a bit, and I appreciate very much this time and the insights that you shared with the students, so thank you, thank you.

Linda Polman:            You’re very welcome, and I hope that my skepticism does not put people down. I hope that everybody will get involved, that people will go for this better world. Don’t listen to me. [laughter]  Do your thing, and do what is best for other people. Think, be political, and do your best. So, don’t let my cynicism or skepticism drag you down.

  

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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Overview of the data from the Jordanian aid worker survey

Overview of the data:  Jordanian Aid Workers عمال الاغاثة الانسانية الاردنية

 

Overview
Just over a year ago I began researching Jordanian aid workers with the goal of contributing to the dialogue about and the academic literature on ‘local aid workers’ in general and in particular national aid workers in Jordan, most of whom are dealing with the humanitarian crisis generated by the protracted war in Syria.  See here for more background.

My research is based on (1) 23 interviews in person or over Skype with 11 different Jordanian aid workers and (2) an Internet based survey comprised of 43 questions.

A total of 86 individuals spent an average 15 minutes taking the survey, 73% completing all questions. Of the 43 questions, 13 were forced choice with no option for comment (mostly descriptive/demographic questions), 27 were forced choice with an option to comment, with the last three questions on the survey all open-ended.  A total of 278 comments were offered by the respondents, with 122 of those coming on the last three open ended questions.  Most comments were short, but several were detailed, offering useful insight into several issues.  These qualitative data will be reported and analyzed in future posts.

Who were the respondents?
The vast majority were aid workers and/or insiders with in-depth knowledge of the sector in Jordan, and virtually all self-identified as Jordanian. Most were fairly new to the sector, with over 61% having five or fewer years of experience, leaving 39% with six or more years, 14% reporting more than 10 years experience.  The modal respondent was female (66%), younger, between 26-35 (61%), and unmarried (64%). Worth noting is that 70% of the females indicated ‘unmarried’ as compared to a somewhat lower 52% of the males.

The vast majority of the respondents -92%- reported working for an INGO with headquarters based outside of Jordan (e.g., OXFAM). When describing the nature of their organizations work most -65%- indicated a mix of both relief and development, with an equal number -17% saying either mostly relief or development.  Jordan has been absorbing refugees for over 70 years, and most recently the six year (plus) conflict in Syria has generated waves of individuals and families needing aid.  The line between where relief work stops and development work begins is always blurry, both through the eyes of the aid organization staffers and those in the affected communities.

Click on image to enlarge.

When asked how they spend their day as an aid or development worker, just more than half -52%- indicated a mix between working in ‘the field’ and working in the office.  Only 9% reported working mostly in the field while 39% indicated in the office.  That said, just as the line between aid and development can be blurred, my interview respondents said that the same holds true for the ‘field’ and ‘office’ distinction.  Only a small percentage of the total affected  population are in rural refugee camps, and thus the vast majority of ‘field’ work is done in and around Amman or in the other larger cities adds to that blurring.

When breaking down the data for this question gender differences did appear to be somewhat significant, with a higher percentage of  males working in the field and, just the reverse, a higher percentage of females reporting working mostly in the office (by almost double, 24% males compared to 47% females).

Click on image to enlarge.

Lateral movement common
Given those data, the next question “How long have you worked at your current organization?”  had predictable results, with over 50% being in their current position less than two years.

The results of the next question surprised me a bit, and appear to paint a picture of the aid sector in Jordan as being somewhat fluid.

Click on image to enlarge.

Just over 44% reported that they have worked for three or more different organizations.  In   interviews I talked with several younger aid workers for which going from one short term contract to the next was seen as a typical career trajectory, the hope being that one of the positions would be more permanent and/or have clear pathways for vertical movement.  In between contracts other life options are explored, and for some leaving the sector altogether was a choice -a better job in line with their training, and for others it meant time for additional schooling (e.g., Masters or PhD level).

At least at first glance, the downside of this fluidity is that learning both the formal and informal norms and overall organizational culture of any aid organization takes time and resources for both the new staff person and those within the host organization tasked with bringing the new hire ‘up to speed’.  As a basic fact, high staff turnover tend to be inversely correlated with organizational efficiency.

 

More posts on the remaining data are coming soon. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments please email me.  Follow me on Twitter (@tarcaro) for updates and comment.

 

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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Follow Me:
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Jordanian Aid Workers عمال الاغاثة الانسانية الاردنية

(الترجمة العربية ادناه, مع الاعتذار لعدم الدقة في الترجمة)

عمال الاغاثة الانسانية الاردنية

Jordanian Aid Workers

The context
The aid and development ecosystem comprises one of the most important industries in the world. Collectively, aid and development organizations impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people in virtually every nation all around the world.  The literature on what some have called “Aidland’ is growing, but there is still a great deal left to be described about what aid organizations do, how do they do it, and who are the people that are the connection between the donor and the people that make up the affected communities.

The voices that write about the aid sector come largely from the global North, and as one would expect there is a disproportionate emphasis on aid workers that are from the global North, commonly referred to as expats or ‘internationals’.

Several years ago I embarked on a research project focusing on aid workers around the world and, not surprisingly, the vast majority of those who responded to my survey fit the  stereotype.  Out of a sample of over 1000 respondents only 5% self identified as ‘local’ aid workers.  Indeed, the book I published based on that survey –Aid Worker Voices– could have been more accurately titled “Mostly Global North ‘Expat’ Aid Worker Voices“.

Eighteen months ago I began research intended to fill in the gap left by my first large scale survey, and partnered with a Filipino aid worker to construct and administer a survey of aid workers in his homeland of the Philippines.  The data and results from that survey can be found elsewhere on this blog in the section labeled ‘Filipino Aid Workers‘.

Now to Jordan
One year ago I began making contacts in Jordan, and established a partnership with several national senior level staff members at a major INGO. I was subsequently hosted on a visit to Amman to workshop with small focus groups early drafts of a survey intended for Jordanian aid workers.  After nearly two dozen revisions using the feedback from both Jordanian aid workers and fellow researchers, a final version was made live in November 2017.  On the advice of my colleagues in Jordan, the survey has remained open until now. Using the same methodology as my previous research, information about the survey encouraging Jordanian staff to participate was circulated using a variety of social media vectors.

In the coming weeks and in cooperation with a Jordanian communications director from a major INGO, I will be presenting and analyzing the results.  As highlighted in the cover information that appeared at the beginning of the survey, all summary results will be published on this blog and organized in the section labeled ‘Jordanian Aid Workers.’  In this section you can find already six posts that describe and comment on some interviews related to this research.

According to the Jordanian INGO Forum, JIF organizations employ over 4,400 Jordanian staff, and a more comprehensive count likely includes a total of nearly 7,000 Jordanian aid workers in various capacities. I have no delusions that the data that I will present fully captures the views of all these women and men.  That said, this exploratory research does provide a point of departure for additional academic inquiry.

Please know that in the coming weeks I sincerely hope that Jordanian nationals will read the results and provide additional insight or comment.  I can be reached here.


السياق
يشتمل النظام البيئي للمساعدات والتنمية على واحدة من أهم الصناعات في العالم. بشكل جماعي ، تؤثر منظمات المعونة والتنمية على حياة مئات الملايين من الناس في كل دولة تقريباً في جميع أنحاء العالم. إن الأدبيات حول ما يسميه البعض “آيدلاند” آخذة في التزايد ، ولكن ما زال هناك الكثير مما يمكن وصفه حول ما تفعله منظمات المعونة ، وكيف تفعل ذلك ، ومن هم الأشخاص الذين هم الرابط بين المانحين و الأشخاص الذين يشكلون المجتمعات المتأثرة.

إن الأصوات التي تكتب عن قطاع المساعدات تأتي إلى حد كبير من الشمال العالمي ، وكما يتوقع المرء أن هناك تركيز غير متناسب على عمال الإغاثة الذين هم من الشمال العالمي ، والذي يشار إليه عادة باسم “العمالة الاجنبية” او “العمالة الدولية”.

 

منذ عدة سنوات ، شرعت في مشروع بحثي يركز على عمال الإغاثة في جميع أنحاء العالم ، وليس من المستغرب أن الغالبية العظمى من أولئك الذين استجابو لاستطلاع رأي يتلاءم مع الصورة النمطية. من بين عينة تضم أكثر من 1000 شخص ، تم تحديد 5٪ فقط كعمال إغاثة “محليين”. وبالفعل ، فإن الكتاب الذي نشرته استناداً إلى هذا الاستطلاع – أصوات العاملين – كان من الممكن أن يحمل عنوان “أصوات العمال الأجانب المغتربين في شمال العالم” بشكل أكثر دقة.

منذ ثمانية عشر شهراً ، بدأت البحث بهدف سد الفجوة التي خلفتها أول دراسة استقصائية واسعة النطاق ، وشاركت مع عامل إغاثة فلبيني لإنشاء وإدارة مسح لعمال الإغاثة في وطنه الفلبين. يمكن العثور على البيانات والنتائج من هذا الاستطلاع في مكان آخر في هذه المدونة في القسم المسمى “عمال الإغاثة الفلبينية”.

 

الآن إلى الأردن
منذ عام مضى ، بدأت في إجراء اتصالات في الأردن ، وأقمت شراكة مع العديد من الموظفين الوطنيين رفيعي المستوى في إحدى المنظمات الدولية غير الحكومية الكبرى ، وبعد ذلك تم ترتيب زيارة إلى ورشة عمل في عمان مع مجموعات صغيرة في وقت مبكر من مسودات مسح تم إعداده لعمال الإغاثة الأردنيين. . بعد ما يقرب من عشرين مراجعة باستخدام التعليقات من عمال الإغاثة الأردنيين وزملائهم الباحثين ، تم إصدار نسخة نهائية مباشرة في نوفمبر 2017. بناء على نصيحة زملائي في الأردن ، بقيت الدراسة مفتوحة حتى الآن. باستخدام المنهجية نفسها التي اتبعتها في بحثي السابق ، تم تعميم المعلومات حول الاستطلاع لتشجيع الموظفين الأردنيين على المشاركة باستخدام مجموعة متنوعة من مواقع التواصل
الاجتماعية.


في الأسابيع القادمة وبالتعاون مع مدير الاتصالات من إحدى المنظمات غير الحكومية الدولية الرئيسية ، سنقوم بتقديم وتحليل النتائج. كما هو موضح في معلومات الغلاف التي ظهرت في بداية الاستطلاع ، سيتم نشر جميع النتائج الموجزة في هذه المدونة ويتم تنظيمها في القسم المسمى “عمال المعونة الأردنية”. في هذا القسم ، يمكنك العثور على ست مشاركات تشرح وتعلق على بعض المقابلات المتعلقة بهذا البحث.

 

السياق
يشتمل النظام البيئي للمساعدات والتنمية على واحدة من أهم الصناعات في العالم. بشكل جماعي ، تؤثر منظمات المعونة والتنمية على حياة مئات الملايين من الناس في كل دولة تقريباً في جميع أنحاء العالم. إن الأدبيات حول ما يسميه البعض “آيدلاند” آخذة في التزايد ، ولكن ما زال هناك الكثير مما يمكن وصفه حول ما تفعله منظمات المعونة ، وكيف تفعل ذلك ، ومن هم الأشخاص الذين هم الرابط بين المانحين و الأشخاص الذين يشكلون المجتمعات المتأثرة.

إن الأصوات التي تكتب عن قطاع المساعدات تأتي إلى حد كبير من الشمال العالمي ، وكما يتوقع المرء أن هناك تركيز غير متناسب على عمال الإغاثة الذين هم من الشمال العالمي ، والذي يشار إليه عادة باسم “العمالة الاجنبية” او “العمالة الدولية”.

 



		
Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Jordanian Aid Workers | Leave a comment

Survey results from Jordanian Aid Workers

( الترجمة العربية أدناه مع الاعتذار لعدم الدقة في الترجمة )

عمال الاغاثة الانسانية الاردنية

Jordanian Aid Workers

The context
The aid and development ecosystem comprises one of the most important industries in the world. Collectively, aid and development organizations impact the lives of hundreds ofmillions of people in virtually every nation all around the world.  The literature on what some have called “Aidland’ is growing, but there is still a great deal left to be described about what aid organizations do, how do they do, it and who are the people that are the connection between the donor and the people that make up the affected communities.

The voices that write about the aid sector come largely from the global North, and as one would expect there is a disproportionate emphasis on aid workers that are from the global North, commonly referred to as expats or ‘internationals’.

Several years ago I embarked on a research project focusing on aid workers around the world and, not surprisingly, the vast majority of those who responded to my survey fit the  stereotype.  Out of a sample of over 1000 respondents only 5% self identified as ‘local’ aid workers.  Indeed, the book I published based on that survey –Aid Worker Voices– could have been more accurately titled “Mostly Global North ‘Expat’ Aid Worker Voices“.

Eighteen months ago I began research intended to fill in the gap left by my first large scale survey and partnered with a Filipino aid worker to construct and administer a survey of aid workers in his homeland of the Philippines.  The data and results from that survey can be found elsewhere on this blog in the section labeled ‘Filipino Aid Workers‘.

Now to Jordan
One year ago I began making contacts in Jordan, and established a partnership with several national senior level staff members at a major INGO and was subsequently arranged for a visit to Amman to workshop with small focus groups early drafts of a survey intended for Jordanian aid workers.  After nearly two dozen revisions using the feedback from both Jordanian aid workers and fellow researchers, a final version was made live in November 2017.  On the advice of my colleagues in Jordan, the survey has remained open until now. Using the same methodology as my previous research, information about the survey encouraging Jordanian staff to participate was circulated using a variety of social media vectors.

In the coming weeks and in cooperation with a communications director from a major INGO, I will be presenting and analyzing the results.  As highlighted in the cover information that appeared at the beginning of the survey, all summary results will be published on this blog and organized in the section labeled ‘Jordanian Aid Workers.’  In this section you can find already six posts that describe and comments on some interviews related to this research.

According to the Jordanian INGO Forum, JIF organizations employ over 4,400 Jordanian staff, and a more comprehensive count likely includes a total of nearly 7,000 Jordanian aid workers in various capacities. I have no delusions that the data that I will present fully captures the views of all these women and men.  That said, this exploratory research does provide a point of departure for additional research.

Please know that in the coming weeks I sincerely hope that Jordanian nationals will read the results and provide additional insight or comment.  I can be reached here.


السياق
يشتمل النظام البيئي للمساعدات والتنمية على واحدة من أهم الصناعات في العالم. بشكل جماعي ، تؤثر منظمات المعونة والتنمية على حياة مئات الملايين من الناس في كل دولة تقريباً في جميع أنحاء العالم. إن الأدبيات حول ما يسميه البعض "آيدلاند" آخذة في التزايد ، ولكن ما زال هناك الكثير مما يمكن وصفه حول ما تفعله منظمات المعونة ، وكيف تفعل ذلك ، ومن هم الأشخاص الذين هم الرابط بين المانحين و الأشخاص الذين يشكلون المجتمعات المتأثرة.

إن الأصوات التي تكتب عن قطاع المساعدات تأتي إلى حد كبير من الشمال العالمي ، وكما يتوقع المرء أن هناك تركيز غير متناسب على عمال الإغاثة الذين هم من الشمال العالمي ، والذي يشار إليه عادة باسم "العمالة الاجنبية" او "العمالة الدولية".

منذ عدة سنوات ، شرعت في مشروع بحثي يركز على عمال الإغاثة في جميع أنحاء العالم ، وليس من المستغرب أن الغالبية العظمى من أولئك الذين استجابوالاستطلاع رأي يتلاءم مع الصورة النمطية. من بين عينة تضم أكثر من 1000 شخص ، تم تحديد 5٪ فقط كعمال إغاثة "محليين". وبالفعل ، فإن الكتاب الذي نشرته استناداً إلى هذا الاستطلاع - أصوات العاملين - كان من الممكن أن يحمل عنوان "أصوات العمال الأجانب المغتربين في شمال العالم" بشكل أكثر دقة.

منذ ثمانية عشر شهراً ، بدأت البحث بهدف سد الفجوة التي خلفتها أول دراسة استقصائية واسعة النطاق ، وشاركت مع عامل إغاثة فلبيني لإنشاء وإدارة مسح لعمال الإغاثة في وطنه الفلبين. يمكن العثور على البيانات والنتائج من هذا الاستطلاع في مكان آخر في هذه المدونة في القسم المسمى "عمال الإغاثة الفلبينية".

الآن إلى الأردن
منذ عام مضى ، بدأت في إجراء اتصالات في الأردن ، وأقمت شراكة مع العديد من الموظفين الوطنيين رفيعي المستوى في إحدى المنظمات الدولية غير الحكومية الكبرى ، وبعد ذلك تم ترتيب زيارة إلى ورشة عمل في عمان مع مجموعات صغيرة في وقت مبكر من مسودات مسح تم إعداده لعمال الإغاثة الأردنيين. . بعد ما يقرب من عشرين مراجعة باستخدام التعليقات من عمال الإغاثة الأردنيين وزملائهم الباحثين ، تم إصدار نسخة نهائية مباشرة في نوفمبر 2017. بناء على نصيحة زملائي في الأردن ، بقيت الدراسة مفتوحة حتى الآن. باستخدام المنهجية نفسها التي اتبعتها في بحثي السابق ، تم تعميم المعلومات حول الاستطلاع لتشجيع الموظفين الأردنيين على المشاركة باستخدام مجموعة متنوعة من مواقع التواصل 
الاجتماعية.

 
في الأسابيع القادمة وبالتعاون مع مدير الاتصالات من إحدى المنظمات غير الحكومية الدولية الرئيسية ، سنقوم بتقديم وتحليل النتائج. كما هو موضح في معلومات الغلاف التي ظهرت في بداية الاستطلاع ، سيتم نشر جميع النتائج الموجزة في هذه المدونة ويتم تنظيمها في القسم المسمى "عمال المعونة الأردنية". في هذا القسم ، يمكنك العثور على ست مشاركات تشرح وتعلق على بعض المقابلات المتعلقة بهذا البحث.

السياق
يشتمل النظام البيئي للمساعدات والتنمية على واحدة من أهم الصناعات في العالم. بشكل جماعي ، تؤثر منظمات المعونة والتنمية على حياة مئات الملايين من الناس في كل دولة تقريباً في جميع أنحاء العالم. إن الأدبيات حول ما يسميه البعض "آيدلاند" آخذة في التزايد ، ولكن ما زال هناك الكثير مما يمكن وصفه حول ما تفعله منظمات المعونة ، وكيف تفعل ذلك ، ومن هم الأشخاص الذين هم الرابط بين المانحين و الأشخاص الذين يشكلون المجتمعات المتأثرة.

إن الأصوات التي تكتب عن قطاع المساعدات تأتي إلى حد كبير من الشمال العالمي ، وكما يتوقع المرء أن هناك تركيز غير متناسب على عمال الإغاثة الذين هم من الشمال العالمي ، والذي يشار إليه عادة باسم "العمالة الاجنبية" او "العمالة الدولية".

منذ عدة سنوات ، شرعت في مشروع بحثي يركز على عمال الإغاثة في جميع أنحاء العالم ، وليس من المستغرب أن الغالبية العظمى من أولئك الذين استجابوالاستطلاع رأي يتلاءم مع الصورة النمطية. من بين عينة تضم أكثر من 1000 شخص ، تم تحديد 5٪ فقط كعمال إغاثة "محليين". وبالفعل ، فإن الكتاب الذي نشرته استناداً إلى هذا الاستطلاع - أصوات العاملين - كان من الممكن أن يحمل عنوان "أصوات العمال الأجانب المغتربين في شمال العالم" بشكل أكثر دقة.

منذ ثمانية عشر شهراً ، بدأت البحث بهدف سد الفجوة التي خلفتها أول دراسة استقصائية واسعة النطاق ، وشاركت مع عامل إغاثة فلبيني لإنشاء وإدارة مسح لعمال الإغاثة في وطنه الفلبين. يمكن العثور على البيانات والنتائج من هذا الاستطلاع في مكان آخر في هذه المدونة في القسم المسمى "عمال الإغاثة الفلبينية".

الآن إلى الأردن
منذ عام مضى ، بدأت في إجراء اتصالات في الأردن ، وأقمت شراكة مع العديد من الموظفين الوطنيين رفيعي المستوى في إحدى المنظمات الدولية غير الحكومية الكبرى ، وبعد ذلك تم ترتيب زيارة إلى ورشة عمل في عمان مع مجموعات صغيرة في وقت مبكر من مسودات مسح تم إعداده لعمال الإغاثة الأردنيين. . بعد ما يقرب من عشرين مراجعة باستخدام التعليقات من عمال الإغاثة الأردنيين وزملائهم الباحثين ، تم إصدار نسخة نهائية مباشرة في نوفمبر 2017. بناء على نصيحة زملائي في الأردن ، بقيت الدراسة مفتوحة حتى الآن. باستخدام المنهجية نفسها التي اتبعتها في بحثي السابق ، تم تعميم المعلومات حول الاستطلاع لتشجيع الموظفين الأردنيين على المشاركة باستخدام مجموعة متنوعة من مواقع التواصل 
الاجتماعية.
 
في الأسابيع القادمة وبالتعاون مع مدير الاتصالات من إحدى المنظمات غير الحكومية الدولية الرئيسية ، سنقوم بتقديم وتحليل النتائج. كما هو موضح في معلومات الغلاف التي ظهرت في بداية الاستطلاع ، سيتم نشر جميع النتائج الموجزة في هذه المدونة ويتم تنظيمها في القسم المسمى "عمال المعونة الأردنية". في هذا القسم ، يمكنك العثور على ست مشاركات تشرح وتعلق على بعض المقابلات المتعلقة بهذا البحث.

 وطبقا لمدونة المنظمة الاردنية الدولية غير الحكومية, فان هذه المنظمات توظف اكثر من ٤٤٠٠ عاملا اردنيا, ومن المحتمل ان يشمل عدد اكثر شمولا بما يقارب ٧٠٠٠ عامل اغاثة اردني بمهارات مختلفة. ليس لدي اي شك بان البيانات التي ساقدمها تعكس بالكامل وجهات نظر كل من النساء والرجال, ومع ذلك, فان 
هذا البحث الاستكشافي يوفر نقطة انطلاق للبحث الاضافي. 

يرجى العلم أنه في الأسابيع المقبلة ، آمل بصدق أن يقرأ المواطنون الأردنيون النتائج وأن يقدموا المزيد من البصيرة أو التعليق. يمكن التواصل معى على الايميل هنا.

 



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Jordanian Aid Workers | Leave a comment

What is the ‘humanitarian imperative’?

[Updated 3-27]

The humanitarian imperative
As part of my spring semester course on the humanitarian aid and development sector I have asked my students to do no less than arrive at an understanding of what the ‘humanitarian imperative’ is based on our many readings, class discussions, and their own research.

Here’s their current assignment:

Warning:  Difficulty level  = high
For this post I ask you to define, discuss, and critique the ‘humanitarian imperative’, making a special effort to do so through the lens of race, class, gender, and other sources of privilege and marginalization.

Some questions to consider might include

  • To what extent is the ‘humanitarian imperative’ solely a Western concept?
  • How is our natural human empathy-and the impulse to act on same- expressed in various contexts and cultures?
  • How is our empathy connected with the concept of the humanitarian imperative?
  • Historically, to what degree is the articulation by the aid sector of the humanitarian imperative inherently biased by race, class, gender, and other sources of privilege and marginalization?
  • At the present, to what degree is the articulation by the aid sector of the humanitarian imperative inherently biased by race, class, gender, and other sources of privilege and marginalization?
  • As evidenced in their mission statement and/or by their actions, how is the ‘humanitarian imperative’ articulated in the various INGOs that we have covered so far in class?

So, only fair that the professor have an answer as well, yes?


My preliminary thoughts


A first point: we care about those around us

That empathy is an inborn human quality seems affirmed by a great deal of research, and only those who argue for a radical and unfounded ‘blank slate‘ understanding of human nature would disagree.  Ethologists have long encountered and documented behaviors that are best interpreted as deep empathy among many species, and ours is no exception.

As a central part of our humanity, we smile when those around us laugh and feel sadness when those around us weep (not to mention yawn when those around us yawn!).

Mirror neurons, though only discovered in this century, were long anticipated by sociologists like GH Mead who argued we all learn to be human by ‘taking the role of the other’, by Max Weber’s verstehen approach, and GH Cooley who gave us the ‘looking-glass self’ concept. Directed by our mirror neurons, we literally feel what those around us feel.  Sympathetic understanding is not a vacuous phrase but rather an empirical fact.  We have, as Marc Hauser argues, ‘moral minds.’

It will surprise perhaps few that there are countless articulations of this caring in virtually every major religion and philosophical thought system around the world.  We are compelled to ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us.’  Though most in the West know this as the Gold Rule, this sentiment is definitely not exclusive to the three major Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  Indeed, philosopher Stephen Anderson points out,

“That many people from a variety of situations seem intuitively to have discovered the values articulated by the Golden Rule would seem to imply that the Rule is not the exclusive possession of one culture or of a group of cultures, but taps into a universal moral recognition.”

In many major world religions the ethos of serving and ‘giving back’ to one’s community is woven into the very fabric of the faith.  Indeed, zakat is one of the five major pillars of Islam. Perhaps on an international/political level the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is an organizational manifestation of the “Golden Rule’ sentiment.

Back in 1859 Henri Dunant, co-founder of the Red Cross movement, felt moved to respond to the wounded at Solferino, but he was neither the first nor certainly not the last compelled to action by the suffering of others.  I submit that his was a universal and natural reaction, and can be found in humans throughout history and all over the globe. To some extent, though, he was an exception because he was not only moved -we all are- he was moved to act.  Not all of us take that next step, turning caring into action.

So my first point is that, in the broadest sense, the ‘humanitarian imperative’ is part of all our humanity, it us not just an Western concept and is articulated in many ways across the globe.  Just recently a young female humanitarian wrote a short note that voices this sentiment very well and illustrates that frequently our empathetic impulses encompass others beyond our immediate lives.

Inequality. I look at my daughter sleeping on my lap and the only difference between her and the Syrian child being carried in a suitcase, is luck. We are not fleeing war, we have food to put on the table, we are healthy, and we only have minor worries. We don’t face starvation in Yemen, we don’t have to cross the Mediterranean on a boat. My heart breaks for the families who, for no fault of their own, have to see their children suffer. I feel guilty for being so privileged. I wish I could do something. 

 

A second point: racism, sexism, and classism are woven into the very fabric of all our institutions, all our modern cultures
As sociologist Georg Simmel taught us long ago, we live in a world created by generations that came long before ours. Virtually all aspects of both our material and non-material culture –locally, nationally, and globally- are in various stages of reification and ossification, and take the form of structures that dominate our world and our minds.  The most important and impactful structures were created as articulations of that long, complex, and ever unfolding dance between biology and culture.  As E.O. Wilson famously put it, “We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology.”

Our forms of government, education, religion, our media, and, perhaps most importantly, our economic systems evolved and developed in the long-ago past, a central core set firm by time and capable of generally only surface changes in structure. That these institutions were formed largely based on the interests and visions of those in power (“The ruling ideas of any age are ever the ideas of the ruling class,” noted Marx) seems a solid assertion, and this helps us understand a basic and critical point. Could it be that racism, sexism, and classism are woven into the very fabric of all our institutions, all our modern cultures? [Note, a colleague just pointed out to me that I should add ‘heterosexist’ as well to the list above.  I agree, and that topic indeed is another important addition to the conversation.]

I will argue yes.

Long ago social differentiation gave way, perhaps inexorably so, to social stratification. Gender differentiation has universally morphed into into the structural sickness of gender stratification. The concept of race so prominently in play as a justification for the rape of Africa, the Americas, and much of Southeast Asia during the period of active colonization by the European powers remains dominant, a classic example of when those in power define something to be true it becomes ‘true’, a reality that impacts us all but most dramatically and tragically the lives of the victims of racism.

The humanitarian imperative
The hydra that those striving to enact the humanitarian imperative must confront has many heads: sexism, classism, racism, neoliberalism, and soft and hard colonialism among them. And each head has many faces, some of which are seductive, but all of which serve to diminish our collective dignity.

The fact that racism, sexism, and classism are woven into the very fabric of all our institutions and cultures can be seen in what sociologists call ‘institutional racism/sexism/classism’.  Examples are easy to identify, as least for me here in the United States. A quick and very incomplete list would include whitewashing in movies and the media in general, a criminal justice system that fills prisons with people of color and the poor and lets corporate criminals literally get away with murder and theft that hurts us by orders of magnitude so much more, an educational system with systemically biased testing mechanisms, a government still unwilling to remove Confederate statues in public areas, and an economic system that even now, in 2018, pays and promotes women and people of color lower than their white, male counterparts.

Race, gender, and class bias are everywhere, permeating every aspect of our culture and impacting every aspect of our lives, quite obviously much more so for all those marginalized.

These deeply seated inequalities must be addressed or at the very least acknowledged by humanitarians as the sector moves forward. Said one aid worker,

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.” 

Is dismantling the ‘whac-a-mole’ game possible?
Work in the aid sector can feel like the amusement park game ‘whac-a-mole’ sometimes.  As soon as you tamp down one problem another immediately pops up, an endless series of temporary ‘victories’ and new problems. The only real solution is to dismantle the game, to address holistically the sources of inequality and marginalization.  Smash the patriarchy/racist structures/bourgeoisie indeed.

All lofty goals, perhaps, but the reality is that needs must be met now in the many crises around the globe, and most humanitarian energy is being expended toward real people in real need in the moment.  We are indeed caught in the trap of being forced to only ‘put out the fire closest to us’, complicit in allowing the hydra mentioned above unlimited access to matches and petrol.

In the end -both individually and collectively- we respond to the humanitarian imperative, acting on our empathy and chosing not to look away, and all within institutional systems created by those long dead.

I’ll end on a positive note.  Public scholar Steven Pinker asks us to see the long view and to recognize that we humans are getting less violent and more civil as the centuries pass.  In 2011 he published On Better Angels of Our Nature and just this spring offers an update in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  His arguments are based on painstakingly thorough research taking into account data from a wide variety of sources. Pinker affirms the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said,  “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I recently started to learn about the NGO Namati which focuses on legal empowerment.  Their name is an homage to ML King, Jr’s statement; ‘namati’ in Sanskrit means to shape something into a curve.  Their efforts at addressing whac-a-mole through legal means have born substantive fruit in many nations.

Can the reified and ossified structures that created and support inequality and marginalization in all its forms be eroded and turned more humane?  Can there be freedom from othering?  Can science and reason rise above echo-chamber rancor? Pinker has evidence that argues yes, and I agree.

But, like my female friend notes above, it is still damned frustrating to live in a world where gross inequalities exist and pathways to dignity are cut off to so many.

Please contact me with comments or questions.  If one of your questions is, “why didn’t you answer all the questions you asked your students?” all I can say is that I’m still working on it….

Note: the  ‘hydra’ imagery has been used by many writers, none more poetically, powerfully, or politically than Subcomandante Galeano.  I owe much to SupGaleano for his writings about neoliberalism.

 

 

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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Voluntourism in Amman?

“In contrast to those who suggest that we act as soon as the whistle blows, I suggest that, even before the whistle blows we ceaselessly try to know the world in which we live — and act. Even if we must act on imperfect knowledge, we must never act as if knowing is no longer relevant.” (p. 6)  

Mahmood Mandami in Saviors and Survivors

Some thoughts on ‘voluntourism’

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US students visit a Himba village in Namibia, cameras in hand.

First, a definition
The usage of the term ‘voluntourism’ has increased exponentially in the last half decade and, for many, it carries negative connotations.  For some voluntourism is one manifestation of the overtly disparaging “slacktivism” meme that has gained a lot of traction as well.  This wikipedia article does a nice job reviewing the history, current status and controversies surrounding “volunteer travel.”

A conversation with a Jordanian aid worker
This semester I am teaching a class on the humanitarian sector, and I recently had a Jordanian aid worker, a communications manager, Skype into class from Amman, Jordan.  Among the topics we discussed was his reaction to what he called ‘voluntourists,’ those who come to Jordan, travel to the refugee camps, and treat the experience like an open-air human zoo.  Though they will deny this is the case, these people come looking to confirm stereotypes and preconceptions they already have, in many cases arriving in Jordan having done scant background research. The fact that only a relatively small percentage of Syrian refugees (less than 20%) actually live in camps like Azraq or Za’atari is lost on them.  No, all -or even the majority- of visitors are not ‘voluntarists’, but enough fit the description to make national aid workers in Jordan wince as they see new faces arrive requesting a ‘tour.’  Though these visitors may haver the best of intentions, only wanting to bear witness to those they want to understand and to help, the national aid workers responsible for arranging these visits must remain sensitive to rights of the those in the affected communities.

As James Dawes put it in his 2007 book That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, “This contradiction between our impulse to heed trauma’s cry for representation and our instinct to protect it from representation -from invasive staring, simplification, dissection – is a split at the heart of human rights advocacy.” (p. 9; emphasis in original).

During our Skype conversation we talked about the line between giving a voice and taking a voice.  The comms staff person’s job is to give a voice, and the voluntourist, deliberately or unwittingly, tends to take a voice.

Required reading
Perhaps required reading for all humanitarians should be the March 2012 Atlantic article by Teju Cole “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” (with a nod to the dated but more-relevant-now-than-it-was then farewell address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower entitled “The Military-Industial Complex“).

Cole’s essay has become part of the cannon with regard to critiquing the activism and voluntourism efforts of many -mostly white- Americans, and it is cited or nodded to by an increasingly wide away of authors and bloggers.  Cole famously made the point that “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”  His words challenge me and my students to examine our privileges: our Global North status, Americanness, our skin color (those who are ‘white’), our English language facility, and, perhaps most prominently, our [relative] wealth.

In an address to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on April 20, 1968 US critic Ivan Illich raises the issue of doing unintentional harm, “… the Peace Corps spends around $10,000 on each corps member to help him adapt to his new environment and to guard him against culture shock. How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture shock of meeting you?”

Here Illich anticipates many contemporary critics of so-called voluntourism: “There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others – and thus become more mature people. Yet it is less frequently stated that most of them are ridiculously proud of their ‘summer sacrifices.’ I do not agree with this argument. The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.”

Another statement from Illich merits a closer look. He points out an unintended and potentially harmful impact of our best-intended acts as we travel abroad to “help.” He says to that gathering of Peace Corp volunteers, “By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is the only life you know.” Simply stated, we are social beings and we learn from each other -sometimes actively but most of the time unconsciously and passively- elements of culture and life-perspective. We “teach” our culture wherever we go and are at the same time we learn from the cultures we visit.

Do I see myself here?
In their article “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism”, sociologists Lauran Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta argue that “Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.”  They break voluntourism photos into three telling categories The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

Ouch. In various ways on past travels around the world I am guilty of taking all three, though not recently.

IMG_1628

The author as voluntourist (?) in Oventic, 2008, posing with some Zapatista women and men we had listened to about their roles in the junta.

As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?” posted on the Carrie Kahn’s “Goats and Soda” blog at NPR offers some soft challenges to the idea of voluntourism.  As is often the case, though, commenter ‘emanresu on the post was even more informative and incisive.  I include the whole comment because it is so well written and expresses many points with which I agree.

“The voluntourism trend has given countless white middle-class western kids the opportunity to get a glimpse of what life is like for most of the rest of the world. After a couple weeks of squat toilets, intermittent electricity, and massively overcrowded public transportation, they fly home to tell their families about how life-changing it was to teach English to brown children and get over their fears of cockroaches. All well and good for those who have the resources to pay for a trip like this, and I sincerely applaud the good intentions– the world needs more people with their eyes open to the plight of others, and a bit of international awareness. But, can we all stop trying to pretend that voluntourism isn’t another form of soft colonialism?

Consider this hypothetical situation: you are planning a two-week trip to Nicaragua to build a school for orphans. You are spending thousands of dollars on airfare, and likely another fee for signing up with the school-building organization. During your stay, you will very likely do shoddy construction work, have “meaningful interactions” with adorable kids in your terrible Spanish, get mild food poisoning, and reinforce the image of Rich White People as Saviors of the Third World. After you leave, the building may or may not be used for its intended purpose. Perhaps more volunteers, or else locals with proper expertise, will have to undo the poor work that you did with such good intentions. In any case, you feel satisfied, the poor people have a school, and now you can all go home and continue your own lives.

But. What about the unemployed carpenters in that village? Why not spend a fraction of the money you used to pay your travel there, and employ them to do a proper job? Or sponsor the whole community to build it together, thus creating a sense of responsibility towards the building and its future? And what about the school itself, what happens when the organization leaves, having done what it set out to do, and there is no money to pay a teacher or buy schoolbooks for the adorable orphans? Maybe the building will be repurposed as a shed for animals, or will slowly fall into disrepair. It might just end up being “that place the the gringos built that can’t be used because they nailed the roof on wrong.”

I don’t wish to discourage anyone from applying their goodwill. I just urge us all to critically examine the implications of our actions, individual and collective, and try to examine the source of the problems that we are so keen so solve instead of addressing the surface. From a position of privilege, can we take a more informed view of the vast socio-economic discrepancies directly caused by our own complicity in a system which values capital over life? Of course the world needs help. And it’s a beautiful thing that there are so many people ready to offer what time and money they have. But the benefits of voluntourism are largely an illusion.

I think the term ‘soft colonialism’ is worth a deeper look, to be sure. Are we, from the US who travel abroad, as Ivan Illich argued long ago, nothing more than ‘salespeople for the middle class American way of life’?  This idea deserves more in depth exploration, and Daniel Dennett presents us with the fairly well articulated concept of ‘dangerous memes.’  In short, the argument goes, you can inoculate against disease viruses but ‘viruses of the mind’ are potentially even more damaging, infecting most dramatically the young [African, for example] children who crowd around the mzungus, their minds not yet fully protected because their cultural learning is still in process.  Richard Dawkins, originator of the term “meme” (in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene), elaborates on the idea of ‘viruses of the mind’ in his 2003 book The Devil’s Chaplin.

Doing harm?
Making detailed note of a specific -and perhaps insidious- form of voluntourism, visiting orphanages in the developing world, Rafia Zakaria in his article “The white tourists burden” explains that,  “Volunteerism presents an escape, a rare encounter with an authenticity sorely missed, hardship palpably and physically felt – for a small price.”  He is among may who are asking the question about whether or not voluntourism is doing more harm than good.

Scanning down the list of blog posts -some very on point and other not so much- on this Huffington Post  site is useful and can serve to shed light on the good, the bad and the ugly of voluntourism.  Of particular note is the blog post that went viral by Pippa Biddle entitled “The problem with little white girls (and boys):  why I stopped being a voluntourist” where she chronicles her transformation of perspective on her efforts to ‘help.’

My thoughts on this topic were put into some words of “Advice for new college graduates out to save the world“, though you’ll find nothing terribly new in this piece it may sum up some of what you have read above.

Summary thoughts
Can the visitors to the Amma headquarters of the hundreds of INGO’s all be painted with one brush, all voluntourists?  Of course not.  But for the ones where ‘the shoe does fit’ string reaction is perhaps appropriate.  We should never proceed blindly as we seek to address our need to show -and act on- our empathy toward others, wherever this may happen.  Though we all need to avoid the “paralysis of analysis” that this self-questioning can generate, we must never act as if knowing the real impact of our actions is not relevant, despite our best intentions.

 

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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A brief thought about #oxfamscandal

A brief thought about #oxfamscandal

A moral voice for humanity?
I wrote this in a blog post over a year ago,

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.

At my university, I am teaching a class right now focusing on the aid sector.  Since our semester began, the Oxfam scandal has occupied much of our time. I have had my students look at, among other things, the long list of articles and links aggregated by professor Denskus on his blog Aidnography.  My students have been assigned various writing assignments, and one student, Jason Phillips, recently made this observation,

The aid sector obviously has the intent to bring more good to the world than bad, but the Catholic church did too, and that never stopped the ongoing worldwide priest child abuse scandal.

Excellent, perhaps even critical point, that.

Some ask, how could OXFAM, with all of the massive social capital it has built up over the years, be now found guilty of having a long standing “culture of acceptance” regarding sexual exploitation and abuse and gender based violence (SEA/GBV)?  How could a sector -and now the scandal is sector-wide- populated by so many people who chose this career because they wanted to “help others” be guilty of such egregious behavior?

The same question must be asked of the Catholic church.

And the same conclusion must be arrived at, namely that entrenched values, policy, and corporate norms (both written and unwritten) have supported and even encouraged a wide range of misdeeds, perhaps the most destructively impactful among them being SEA/GBV.  Women have always known and experienced these impacts much more acutely than males, though in the case of the Catholic church, young boys were clearly also a target of those in power.

There’s plenty of guilt to go around, but, yeah, it’s mostly men
But, of course, it is not just the Catholic church and the aid sector which have major and systemic issues with SEA/GBV.  That patriarchy and a deeply racist colonial mentality make SEA/GBV all too common in all major global institutions is a given.  The tragic fact is women have been victims of SEA/GBV throughout human history across virtually all cultures (perhaps more so in ‘modern times’).

We are all products of our culture and engage with the world as we’ve been taught. Those in positions of privilege  -male, ‘white’, from the Global North’, you name it- are especially blind to social structures and injustices from which they benefit.  I am reminded of Marx who said long ago that “The ruling ideas of any age are ever the ideas of the ruling class.”  His concept of false consciousness fits well here.  Those in power [read: men] see ‘no problem’ with treating women in a fundamentally misogynistic fashion, taking advantage of the power asymmetry woven into the social structures.  

Forward progress?
Each new age holds renewed hope for a more just world.  Perhaps now, at this moment, the blinders that have allowed endemic, culturally embedded sexism are more rapidly being removed.  Some argue that the #MeToo movement created a ferment that allowed for these aid sector scandals to now come to the surface.   I, for one, hope this episode will not wane as new issues catch our global attention.  But for this movement to be sustained and create real change it will take a great deal of work and a deep commitment to finding policy antidotes that address this cancer with more than just band-aids.  

The solution ‘smash the patriarchy‘  is, perhaps, the solution.  But the avatars of patriarchy are many, and forward action may seem a bit like a round of Whac-a-mole at times.  That said, to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, difficulty is an excuse history seldom accepts.

As a sober note, I’ll add that I live in a nation that elected a President who by deed, word, and action endorses SEA, so my hopefulness is, to say the least, tempered by the harsh reality that deeply held beliefs likely cannot be undone quickly.

Colleagues weigh in on this post
This important point comes from a friend and aid worker in the UK who read an earlier version of this post.  She notes, “I spent time and energy over the years to clarify that international development is not religious missionary work, and I feel the parallel with the Catholic church may blur things.”  

She goes on to observe that, “I see the risk for a renewed call for “purity” and “sanctity” in int’l development. I see the rationale for it, but I disagree. Precisely because it’s a systemic issue wider than int’l dev, there is no such a thing as purity. We’d better smash the patriarchy instead!”   Agreed.

Another friend and colleague, this one in the US, weighed in.  She observed, “I think it’s a strong article, but I fear that lumping all of aid into this Oxfam scandal is misleading.  There are initiatives within the development world that TRY to directly take on gender disparities.  USAID, for example, includes in every solicitation I’ve seen in recent months/years, a whole requirement on promoting gender equality with the expectation that the awardee will be responsible for implementing a gender-diverse and promoting program.”  Again, agreed. I hazard that there are no ‘big box’ aid organizations that lack similar policies. How do we more effectively close the gap between policy and reality?

I’ll add more to this post soon, but in the meantime you can reach me here.


Post script

A minor observation
Though the saturation coverage of the #oxgfamscandal continues, and there is no lack of opinion from from all over the world, many ‘well informed’ people have no knowledge of this scandal.  When I asked a class of students (mostly first and second year) if they had heard of this story not only were they were totally unaware, many of them had no or only a vague sense of what an “OXFAM” was.  I asked several colleagues in a wide array of disciplines the same question I got the same responses.

Though I am not surprised at this ‘ignorance’, it does make me pause and re-realize that the cacophony of information that occupies major swaths of the typical person’s bandwidth can’t include everything.  We all tend to ‘put out the fire that is closest to us,’ and many here in the US are focused on all-too-frequent school shootings, partisan politics, and the NCAA basketball season, among other trivial and not-so-trivial ongoings.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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“Local’ insight on survey and civic engagement

“This research is really needed and important for Jordanian aid and development workers.” 

–M&E  aid worker in Amman

 

As part of my research on national (aka ‘local’) humanitarian aid and development workers, I have been fortunate to talk with many Jordanians working for INGO’s in various capacities.  Their generosity and openness has been a gift.  Here are some thoughts from my discussions with one young professional.

Thoughts on low response to survey
Recently I have had a series of very informative interviews with a young female Jordanian research director at a mid-sized INGO working in Amman.

Among multiple topics, we have talked about my survey, live for many weeks now, and she said the release of the survey was badly timed because just now the ‘expats’ are coming back from holiday/New Year break and everyone is gearing back up and working long hours these early winter months.

To date, there are 79 responses to the survey, just over 1% of the thousands of Jordanian aid and development workers now in the sector.  There are 4400 working with organizations belonging to the Jordan INGO Forum (JIF) and likely 2000 more in various other organizations and capacities. Collectively, the aid and development sector may be the biggest industry in Jordan, even bigger that tourism in terms of numbers of workers.

As we talked about the survey response -or lack thereof- she noted that  “… it is hard to engage people in civil life” and that many are “conditioned to not trust the system.” She went further to note that, in her view, the more educated people were, the less likely they were to be engaged, and that this is related to a chronic sense of disappointment between governmental and organizational aspirations and the actual results.

In sociology we use the terms “ideal culture” and “real culture” (I talk about it in this post from 2014), and when I discuss these terms with my students, I note that the gap between the “is” and the “ought” is not the exception, but rather the rule in most organizational settings.  Just yesterday we talked about the aspirational “ought” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and the reality that the global situation on every continent is far, far short of the goals in this lofty document.

For another recent example, note the continuing gap between the rhetoric and actions of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) and the current state of affairs in this crippled state. The ideal and the real are further drifting part, methinks, not just in Afghanistan and Jordan, but globally.

Generations of Jordanians have been dealing with refugees at least since -paradoxically- 1948, the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published. Here are some numbers: 2,175,491 (Palestinian refugees) (2017); 65,922 (Iraqi); 655,624 (Syria) (2018) for a total of approximately 2,896,837, or just less than one third of Jordan’s total population of 10, 248,069 (source).  Given this over 70 year history of dealing with waves of refugees from their neighbors in the Levant, one can easily understand a Jordanian attitude of resigned acceptance of the gap between what is and what could be.  Peace and progress in the region seem beyond the control of any single person, organization, or even government, no matter how well resourced they might be. It is hard to get engaged in civic life when you have many reasons to believe that your civic engagement actions are, on the whole, unheard and ineffectual.

Indeed, why would a Jordanian humanitarian worker take the time to complete yet another survey, especially one that comes from an outsider, a non-Arabic academic from the US?

Methodology notes
As is noted on the opening page of the survey, the overall purpose of this research is to learn about the views and lives of local aid and development workers in Jordan.  My goals are to share these survey results with the humanitarian (aid and development) community in Jordan and much more broadly to the rest of the world via blogging and eventual academic publication of the overall results.  My methods to this point have included using social media, personal contacts, and an over ‘snowball’ strategy, with the hope that meme-like, word would spread and more would hear about the opportunity to share their views.  The survey itself was crafted using the extensive input from over a dozen Jordanian INGO workers, and I have not talked to any Jordanians who thought the research was a bad idea or that the questions were off point or otherwise not appropriate.

I’ll close the survey in a few weeks and immediately begin presenting the results on this blog, doing so with the intent to honor the the gift of time and intellectual energy given to me by each respondent.

I’ll be posting more in the very near future about my discussions with this young Jordanian woman.  In the meantime, if any of you reading this just now is a Jordanian working in the humanitarian sector, please consider taking the time to complete the survey.  Click here.

In you have any questions, concerns, or feedback I invite you to contact me.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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Wasta وَاسِطة

Its not what you know its who you know

Overview
The use of social networking as a tool to navigate both personal and professional life is a time honored cultural universal. Indeed, historically nearly every facet of social life was deeply influenced by (perhaps even determined) one’s family, clan, and tribal connections.  The traditionally accepted norm of using connections to move forward in life both personally and professionally is now simultaneously clashing with and merging into our more modern and bureaucratized world.

“Spreading the hummous of satire over the flatbread of news”, indeed.

Begun in 2002, LinkedIn matured the commodification of this social phenomena, and its corporate reach has grown rapidly. Versions of this platform have been launched in India, China, and Russia, just to name a few.  Two years ago the Middle East version was launched, and now all totaled there are nearly 500 millions users around the world able to connect in 24 different languages.

This post explores the use of wasta. Loosely translated wasta means as ‘connections’ and is roughly analogous to the concept of social networking. I explore questions about wasta as it relates to the lives and activities of humanitarian aid and development workers in the Middle East.

Complicated lives
As I continue researching the aid and development sector, I am constantly reminded that the lives of all humanitarian aid workers are complicated in ways that many outside of the sector likely will never understand. Meeting both material and psychosocial needs -their own, those of their colleagues, and those of the people they ‘serve’- can be hella tricky.

On a typical day professional humanitarians can be confronted with many situations where nuanced cultural understanding is not only helpful but, critically, may mean the difference between life and death -theirs or that of those in the affected communities with which they work.

On top of that onerous charge, they are tasked with functioning within and between large and inherently complex bureaucracies.  Oftentimes they are also involved with brokering communication and coordination between the social/bureaucratic world of their employer and the sociocultural world of the targeted affected communities.

This last task is made all of the more complicated because the affected communities with which they work -lets use the current example of Syrian refugees in Jordan- have a matrix of both formal and informal social structures and, as a further complication, much of this social fabric has been frayed, modified by war, loss, and relocation. A person who may have been a leader in his village back in Syria is now surrounded by many who are not aware of his important social connections, and only see him as an equal, just another refugee.  Further, in the eyes of the NGOs, individuals are seen as, well individual and less so part of a larger social network.  In a previous post I touch on the frustrations that come with this reality.

Vitamin W in Jordan?
For the aid worker, understanding and navigating culturally nuanced social networks and the related networking norms raises many questions, one of which is to what degree does the social capital and wasta that one had accumulated before fleeing Syria carry over to this new life as a refugee?  For my research, there are a series of additional questions that arise, namely

  • To what degree do humanitarian workers have to work both with and around informal networks such as wasta as they go about their jobs?
  • Do Jordanian humanitarian aid workers use their own wasta to get things done?  If so, how is this reconciled with bureaucratic protocols and the, to some extent, the broad anti-corruption policies of their organization?
  • To what degree do demographic variables such as gender, age, and current position impact the use of wasta both within the affected community and between those in the affected community and the people representing the aid sector?
  • How do humanitarian workers differentiate both personally and as agents of their organizations between legitimate and non-legitimate uses of social connections, of wasta?
  • Are there other units of analysis as we probe into wasta?  Can organizational membership bestow wasta?  To what degree are some NGOs more potent in terms of their connections and influence than others, and how does this play into inter and intra organizational interactions?  How do these differing degrees of influence impact the effectiveness of the organizations and the aid workers acting as the faces of the organizations?

Some background on wasta
There is a considerable body of literature on wasta. Here are just a few book-length analyses.

Wasta: The Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Society (1993) by Robert B. Cunningham and Yasin K. Sarayrah was published decades ago but seems as relevant now as ever.  The authors stress how the use of

wasta permeates the Middle Eastern culture but may hamper development since it inherently circumvents the processes and protocols of international organizations and businesses.  They suggest the wasta must be understood and adapted to by outsiders rather than ignored.

In Palestinian Refugees and Identities:  Nationalism, Politics and the Everyday  (2015) Luigi Achilli details issues surrounding wasta and the fine distinction between wasta and fasad.  His book focuses a small group of young men as they navigate their lives as refugees in and out of refugee camps.

In The Political Economy of Wasta: The Use and Abuse of Social Capital Networking (2016) edited byMohamed Ramady takes a global approach to wasta, noting that using one’s social capital to maximize outcome in both personal and professional spheres is a cultural universal, with LinkedIn a modified web version of this phenomena.

The clash playing out in real time
As I noted above, there is an inherent clash between traditional cultural norms and modern bureaucratic protocols and functioning.  To the point, while it may be culturally acceptable and expected behavior to hire one’s nephew for a job, national or international anticorruption laws may prohibit such an action. In some previous research I reported on and offered comment about mostly expat Aid Worker Voices on corruption.  See here for the original post.

Wasta-like power and influence, used for the right reasons and with positive socially accepted values as the driving logic, can be good and efficient under the right circumstances. Abuse of power, though, is as old as our species, and arguably, pre-dates it.  An Iraqi refugee noted to me that,

“You have touched on a very sensitive issue that is hindering development in regions like the Middle East. Wasta always was and is still keeping skilled people from doing their part in developing their countries.”

Indeed there are both positive and very negative impacts of wasta. One thing is certain, though, and that is we can only gain by understanding more clearly this and related cultural realities, and that means addressing the research questions I raise above.

In my next post I’ll present the views on the use and abuse of wasta among local Jordanian aid workers.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, if you would like to contact me, click here.

Post script
I know that it must be hard to enforce anti-wasta type laws, especially related to nepotism, when the President of the United States has appointed immediate family members into official positions of significant influence.  This irony is not lost on many and the impact is far reaching.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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The tension between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission

“In terms of dealing with the tension between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission, I think working on this project is the only thing that could have kept me in this field.”

-Lillie Anne, speaking from Amman about her work on the The Mahali Lab

 

Serendipity
Social media certainly has its downsides, but one major positive function of the Facebook platform is that groups can be formed, bringing together people that otherwise would remain proverbial ‘ships passing in the night.’  Many months ago I joined the closed Facebook group Fifty Shades of Aid, and scrolling through the posts has allowed me to deepen my understanding of aid workers around the world.

Researching and writing about humanitarian aid workers is part of my job as a professor of sociology, but a bigger part is teaching and mentoring undergraduates. This fall I am teaching our department’s required ‘classical sociological theory’ course and, as luck would have it, as I was covering the German sociologist Max Weber I happened up this poem in Fifty Shades:

 

Reading this poem I was struck by how clearly Lillie had captured a concept I had just discussed with my students, namely Weber’s  ‘iron cage of rationality.’  Her use of phrases to paint a picture of frustration, of being caught between the ‘humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission’ are masterful, and I immediately knew that this was something that I wanted to share with my students to amplify their understanding of Weber’s ‘iron cage.’

‘Our M&E tools grate against compassion’
I began a conversation with Lillie and found that she is working in Jordan with Syrian refugees.  That my current research is on Jordanian aid workers and issues related to work in that sector made our chance meeting all the more fortuitous. 

Over Skype I asked her about her life as an aid worker, her thoughts on my research on local aid workers in Jordan, and the poem that brought us into contact.  I wanted to know more about how she both experiences and understands the clash between the urge to maintain dignity for all and the need to ‘get the job done efficiently according to protocol.’

A Jersey girl working in Jordan
Getting to know each other at the beginning of the interview, I learned that Lillie is from New Jersey, which in her words is “well-known for its culture and international focus.”  Lillie allowed me to talk about my research -giving me very useful feedback on a draft of the survey intended for local aid workers in Jordan- and we talked about many topics before I finally asked her to explain the background behind the writing of her poem.

She explained,

“… I had just transitioned to the position I’m in now a few weeks before, and I had been before that in a cash and livelihoods program.  We had just revamped our coping strategies index and our vulnerability assessment that we were using to determine if people were eligible or not for cash assistance.

Screenshot of our Skype conversation.

You do have the sense when you’re looking at the questions -and there’s a standard one used for that in Jordan- that this is degrading.  This survey is dehumanizing, asking people specifically about the food groups that they’re
eating, and how many people are disabled?  How many people can’t work?  It’s rudimentary.  It’s a process-oriented thing when you’re conducting this survey, and you can be doing hundreds of them in a day.

            I had just gone from that work to this community-driven innovation lab, which involved very long, unstructured conversations with humans, just to build connections, build trust, and get to know people, and it was that juxtaposition that gave birth to that poem.”

I asked Lillie to explain what the poem was about just as she would if she were talking to my students.  Her explanation adds a new and powerful dimension to what I had given my students, and is a spot-on capturing of what I think Weber, a man who understood power, would say.  She noted that,

“I think really at the heart it’s about power and reflecting on the power that we have when we’re in this position, deciding if someone can meet their basic needs or not, if they have a livelihood or they don’t, or they have this opportunity or not, and that I don’t think we reflect enough on how enormous that power is in this humanitarian sector, and how people feel interacting with us, interacting with our services.  How do we make them feel?  It’s that bureaucratic influence, that people are a means to an end to implement your program or achieve certain outcomes or certain indicators.  We just rarely reflect on human experience for the person who’s interacting with us.”

When explaining Weber’s iron cage I steal some phrasing from Blaise Pascal (“And thus, not being able to make what is just, strong, one made what is strong, just.”). I point out that, increasingly in an age of inexorable, unavoidable and pervasive bureaucratization, with increasing frequency not being able make that which is real measurable, we tend to make that which is measurable real.  It is rational to move forward with a necessary process that allows for an accountable and efficient allocation of scare resources, but that act of rationality crushes out the humanity of the social interaction.

“Pluck this pain from midair and brutalize it with an algorithm/Your identity databased and replaced with heart-scraping simplicity”, indeed. The words of an artist.

A universally felt frustration
As evidenced by the scores of reactions and comments to her poem on Facebook, it is obvious that the clash between the humanitarian bureaucracy and the humanitarian mission Lillie speaks of is a universally felt frustration within the sector.

What I heard Lillie say, in so many words, was that at some points her job made her a participant in an almost inherently dehumanizing process where she was undercutting dignity by going straight to some very personal questions, or what could appear to be personal questions.  She agreed and said,

“Absolutely, and this is the thing that just kept coming back from these community consultations that we’ve just done is that people do feel like they’re completely compromising their dignity when they’re interacting with humanitarian services, and it came back from everyone we talked to in every city, male, female, youth, older people, so many different stories that people told us just to try to show us, this is what we experience and feel when we come to you for help.”

In his book That the World May Know:  Bearing Witness to Atrocity (2007) James Dawes puts it this way, “This contradiction between our impulse to heed trauma’s cry for representation and our instinct to protect it from representation -from invasive staring, simplification, dissection- is a split at the heart of human rights advocacy.”  (emphasis in original)

That the word ‘dignity’ is used in the very first sentence of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is significant and lies at the heart of the work Lillie and others are currently doing in the Mahali Lab.  This work, an effort to soften the bars of the ‘iron cage’, is important and, I hope, will continue to inspire more poems that bear witness to our human struggles.


My deepest thanks to LillieAnne for taking the time to help me with my research and explaining in such powerful detail the story behind her poem.  More of Lillie’s poetry can be found on her blog Torn to Canvas: Writings from a restless mind.

I have written a good bit in other posts about the bureaucracy in the humanitarian sector and about the sector as a whole.  You can find my book-length compilation of aid worker voices and comment about the sector here. As always, you can reach me here if you have comment, critique, or commentary.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.'

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Follow Me:
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