Aid Worker Voices

Would you recommend this line of work to young people in your life?

Would you recommend this line of work to young people in your life?

imagesKunduzTo state the obvious, being an aid worker can be dangerous physically and mentally; many deployments can be existentially challenging in all senses.  The career trajectory of an aid worker can generate hinderances to ‘normal’ home and family life.  For many aid workers, the early career bloom of idealism soon withers and turns into rock-hard realism and even cynicism.

In other words, being an aid worker ain’t no walk in the park.

Given the nature of this line of work, the responses to Q39 are very interesting and perhaps speak to the deep conviction of many aid workers that what they do is valuable and meaningful.  We asked, “If someone you are close to (a child or mentee) wanted to become a humanitarian aid worker, would you encourage him/her, or would you try to discourage him/her?” and the response was overwhelmingly ‘yes!’  If you combine the ‘Strongly encourage’ and ‘Encourage with qualifications’ you get a rousing 92% affirming that they would recommend to youngsters that they should become humanitarian aid workers.  That there were no significant differences between the responses of males or females is at least mildly surprising. Here are the data for the whole sample.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 13.30.14

















What do these data mean?  I’ll stand by my observation that this is a positive sign for aid workers and that though many may have lost some of the initial idealism with which they began their careers, it is a path they would recommend to young people.

Let me know if you have thoughts, feedback or comment.



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Why do you remain in this sector?

“At this point, I have seen too much as a emergency aid worker and feel it is unlikely I would be able to a job outside of this field.”
–31-35 yo female expat aid worker

 “Not sure if I can do this work forever but don’t know how to turn my back on those that I committed to work alongside in their fight for justice and survival.”
–18-25 yo female working in HQ

“Injustice merits a response and the longer I work as an aid worker the greater I see the injustice, particularly the ways in which aid and the UN perpetuate and cover up injustice.”

Why do you remain in this sector?

First this
In a recent post I presented and then commented responses to Q’s22-24, with an emphasis on examining reasons people gave for getting into the humanitarian aid and development sector.  This post expends that conversation.  Q22-24 ashed about why respondents became aid workers and then remain in the sector. Q28-29 delve into questions regarding the level of idealism held and Q59-60 ask the respondents views on the future of humanitarian aid work.  All of these questions are clearly interrelated and will be the grist for my next several posts.  Stay tuned.

Q24 was a followup question asking “What are your primary reasons for remaining an aid worker? Are your reasons for staying in this field different from the ones that brought you to it in the first place?”  While many of our open ended questions generated robust response, with 614 of the 1010 people who started our survey taking the time to write something, this question obviously struck a nerve.

Let me begin with the words from one 36-40 female expat aid worker who exemplifies the honestly and seriousness with which many our respondents approached their answers.  She also articulates a wonderful sense of duty to the sector, remaining active despite frustrations and trying to make positive change from within.

“These are really difficult questions! I have asked myself many times recently why I remain working as an aid worker. In the last few months I have wondered if I might be better off working in a different field. Over the years my commitment to children’s protection has probably increased as I’ve learned more about the areas I am particularly passionate about. But my commitment to the international humanitarian system has significantly waned. I have remained because the more of the world I see and the way that international organisations respond the stronger I feel the need to contribute and challenge the way we do things to improve our understanding and our responses. But I have altered the type of work I do and with whom I work.”

This next respondent nails the complexity of trying to address the “why?” question with any single answer.

I do still feel called to love the poor, and by loving them in tangible ways by enabling them to come out of poverty and injustice. I no longer feel like I can make the change, but create the space. I don’t develop or cause development, that’s the job of the community itself. I stay in the field because I like it and I’m good at it and I’m compelled by the suffering of the world and feel that I am to respond to that compulsion by direct work rather than giving money alone. The motivation changes day to day, somedays I need to pay the bills, other days it feels good to do your work well, or you love your team. Some days it really is about the children and the community. Most days it is a mix. -26-30 yo female HQ worker

Can’t turn back
One theme struck powerful note with me.  Many responses reminded me of research I had done years ago on soldiers who volunteered for second, third or more tours of duty in Vietnam.  Why go back to a danger zone when you could be home and safe?  The answers were many, somewhat interrelated and foreshadow central themes in the answers given by many of our respondentstotal-aid-worker-victims-by-year to Q24.  Why a second (or third) tour?

  • A deep allegiance to the people with whom they served, as in “I can’t leave them back there alone after what they have done for me”.
  • A sense that they would not fit in any more back at home; the war had changed them in ways friends and family might not understand.
  • No one would be able to understand what they had seen in the war back home.  It is best to remain with people with whom I can share.
  • An inner desire to reach individual potentials -mental, physical and spiritual.  Being in “the shit” was real, intense, and brought out potentials that would have remained mostly dormant in civilian life.  Back home defines banal.

This final point is worth a deeper look.  It is my view that, in general, that humans seek intensity, meaning, and deep, human connection to those around them. In the words of Erich Fromm, they simply seek to be fully born, and the ‘conveyor belt’ life outside of aid work can seem quite pedestrian. Deployment in a conflict zone is richly intense, as many aid workers can testify.  I also believe that people are naturally motivated to feel a sense of accomplishment (happiness? self-actualization? wholeness?) when they are stretching their mental, physical and spiritual capabilities.  Many of our respondents appear to stay in this sector for exactly these reasons.  Why not go home instead of being redeployed?  One respondent mused that it is sometimes “…difficult to differentiate between loyalty and stupidity.”

Point taken.

Here are a few more choice responses that help illustrate the above.

“There are still so many emergencies and so many things to improve in the world. You do get addicted to the job and it’s hard to settle back in life in Europe and a “normal” job.” –30-34 yo female HQ worker

At this point, I have seen too much as a emergency aid worker and feel it is unlikely I would be able to [do]a job outside of this field.  –26-30 yo female expat

Stubbornness. Sheer stubbornness. The work does not get better, easier or more rewarding but I stick at it. I feel like a rottweiler that has bitten into a leg and will not let go even though it’s been bashed over the head with a heavy metal frying pan.  –-30-34 yo female expat

banalWhat else would I do with my life? Live in the suburbs and drive kids to sports activities?  –36-40 yo female expat

“Yes. Having been in war zones I now want to make sure my work has some impact on the people caught up in them. Working on other issues now seems irrelevant when you know kids are getting shot at.”  -26-30 yo male expat

This last one sums up the feelings of many.  What the aid worker does matters in a life and death kind of way and going back to “traditional” work would be “meaningless.”   Leaving the sector meant for many  going into the for profit sector and that would be impossible given their sense of what they wanted to do with their life.

“Working with likeminded people with similar value sets. Working somewhere were the goal is not about raising profits – but about making the world more safe, equitable and just. (however – often think it would be MUCH easier working elsewhere).” –-40-44 yo male expat

Basic commitment remains
Here is a great example from a woman staying in the sector for what I believe is one of the most important reasons, namely passing on wisdom that comes from experience.

I think my overall reason, the underlying moral call to action, remains the same. As I get older I am also driven to stay in the field because I think I have more to offer based on previous experience. Finally, am a passionate believer that aid organisations can and must do better at communicating with disaster-affected people, and his motivates me to keep on, because there are so few of us who seem to be advocating for this and know how to do it. -31-35 yo female expat

Many indicated that they stay in the sector despite having lower expectations in part because it beat any alternatives.

That belief in a more just world hasn’t changed. However, my understanding of the complexity of the structures that fuel inequity has deepened. I have accepted that I can impact only a small fraction of the problem, but that the efforts are worth doing. That said, in my current role, I am quite overloaded and unhappy with the shift of focus in my role, so am considering leaving to pursue a PhD to deepen my knowledge even further in my area of interest. –41-45 yo female HQ worker

“Sometimes, just sometimes, I feel I am achieving something, a cog in a bigger machine.” –30-34 yo male expat

I find it not surprising but rather a little saddening that this young woman quoted below so soon feels a sense of futility in her efforts.

I still am learning every day about what makes change happen and what makes communities work – I am much less convinced that I can have any noticeable effect on communities, but since I came here to learn, I am still learning.  –18-25 yo female expat


Called by God
There were many respondents (doing the numbers now) that mention being “called” to do humanitarian aid work of some sort.  Just short of 6% of the total sample indicated that they came to aid work initially because “They felt called by God or a higher power.”  Not infrequently these respondents note a change in their feelings in this regard as the years of service pass.

“Now that I’m here, it’s probably a good thing that I sit behind a desk in the US and am not more directly involved in relief or aid work, and I’m not spreading my arrogance and “wisdom”. I don’t have a special skill set (even with an MA), so I feel it would be more foolish of me to work in the “field.” So I continue as an aid worker because it interests me and I like to travel and work with colleagues from all over the world, and I like that in the long run what I do makes a difference to people (as opposed to a career in the private sector.) The sense of excitement or adventure I was seeking in the beginning still impacts my decision to stay, but I’m definitely more jaded about my feeling that God called me to this profession. It’s still true, but it’s far more complex than that now.” 26-30 yo female HQ worker

“Still called by God to help provide dignity through humanitarian assistance.”


Options limited
Many reported feeling “good at it [aid work]” and now only have skill sets relevant in this sector.  Some noted specifically that they  could not get paid as much in private sector. As one male put it,  I stay in the sector because “mo cash”.  Another male, one assumes tongue in cheek, offered cash“The phat stacks of cash”.  Though many respondents voiced similar sentiments, I find it interesting that by a wide margin males were more likely to explicitly mention money as a motivation.

“I’m trying as hard as I can to become an ex aid worker. it’s not easy to transition out of the aid world, especially in today’s economy.”  –36-40 yo male HQ worker

“Many of my initial reasons are still in place, if (greatly) tempered by cynicism about the aid and development industry. At the same time, I am now around 15 years in (post- grad school), as is my spouse; there is a certain element of “if not this, then what?” present in our decisions….it is, to some extent hard to imagine changing to another field, or at least to one that is radically different. After so much time gaining expertise and competence in this field, it seems daunting to start again all over in another one…even if I could figure out which other one I would choose.”  –46-50 yo male expat

The comment above could have been made by a worker in virtually any other profession.  Lateral moves within a job sector can and do happen with regularity throughout one’s career, but radial career change is daunting and, frequently, means settling for less pay, responsibility and status -at least initially- in the new position. And so as I get deeper into using these data to understand the world of humanitarian aid workers I am finding more similarities than differences to other types of jobs.

This of course raises the basic question about how to define this sector.  Our survey conflated relief work (e.g., emergency responder types) and development work and thus lumped together responses from workers in very different realms.  That said, my sense after reading thousands of narrative responses (many respondents took the time to write answers to all of the open-ended questions, some just a few) is that any one person, especially those beyond the first years in their career, could have served in many places along the continuum from ‘pure’ emergency response to long term development work.  In a sense field itself is conflated.  We will continue to explore what makes working in this sector unique.

In my next posts I will further this conversation.

As always, please feel free to contact me with reactions, feedback or suggestions.

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Our survey had 1,010 respondents. Only one was The Lord.

Our survey had 1,010 respondents.  Only one was The Lord.

Our survey was live for many months and when we finally deactivated the link we had 1,010 respondents completing at least some portion.  I was pleasantly surprised that with 61 items -including 19 open-ended and/or follow-up questions- so many people gave their time to do the survey and took the effort in many cases to compose very thoughtful narrative responses.

Some respondents were more serious than others.  None more so than The Lord.  Below are some of His responses.


Q1: Which best describes your current situation?
  • I am currently employed by a humanitarian aid organization.
Q2: Which best describes your current situation?
  • Local aid worker
Q3: Which best describes your history of experience doing humanitarian aid work?
  • I have been doing humanitarian aid work for ten or more years.
Q4: With which gender do you identify?
  • Male

Aid Worker Jesus appears to be a deployment smoker.

Q5: How old are you?
  • 71 or older
Q6: Which below best describes you?
  • Non-White
Q7: Please use the space below to (1) react to the inappropriateness of the choices in the question above and (2) describe how you identify yourself based on common cultural-linguistic, ethnic, racial, tribal, national or other categories.

I am the Lord thy God.

Q8: Which best describes your institutional educational background?
  • Less than high school
Q9: How would you describe your non-institutional educational background?

Carpentry / woodworking apprenticeship and trade practice in my adopted father’s workshop, from age 14-30.

Q10: Which nation do you currently call home?
  • Country:Occupied Palestinian Territories
Q12: Which best describes your relationship status?
  • Single and not dating
Q13: Which best describes your marital status?
  • Unknown
Q14: Do you have any children?
  • Yes, three or more 
Q15: Which best describes your travel experience related to humanitarian aid work?
  • I have done work related travel outside of my home nation more than 20 times.
Q16: Which best describes your deployment experience related to humanitarian aid work?
  • My longest deployment outside of my home nation is more than 2 years.
Q17: Which best describes the humanitarian aid work organization with which you are (or were) most recently affiliated?
  • Faith based. [author’s note: well, duh]
PAGE 3: Reflections on your experience as an aid worker 
Q22: Which statement below *best* describes your primary reason for becoming an aid worker?
  • I felt called by God or a higher power.
Q23: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above on why you became an aid worker.

Many aid workers early in their career feel they are trying to save the world, to prove themselves. Unlike other aid workers, I already saved the world, back when I was 33. So you could say I am in the aid worker game as a sequel. And like most sequels, the budget is bigger but the story is worse.

Q24: What are your primary reasons for remaining an aid worker? Are your reasons for staying in this field different from the ones that brought you to it in the first place?

I was put on earth to work miracles by my father. Nowadays people need miracles of a different kind: keeping an airbridge open; getting a better price from suppliers for a few tons of soap; recruiting some good technical leads. It is either stay in aid work where the need for miracles is profound, or go back to carpentry.

Q26: Which response below best describes your coping mechanisms (coping with stress, coping with burnout, coping with loss of idealism)?
  • I have used an array of coping mechanisms but my “go to” is finding strength in my faith.
Q27: Please use the space below to elaborate on the response to the question above concerning your coping mechanisms (coping with stress, coping with burnout, coping with loss of idealism).

Well, a lot of people believe in me. About 2.1 billion by recent estimates. I try to use that to sustain me. It would be churlish not to, don’t you think?

Q29: Please use the space below to elaborate on your level of idealism related to your humanitarian aid work.

When you have been nailed to a cross, then maybe come and talk to me about how tough your job is. Until then, my idealism is undiminished.

Q31: Use the space below to elaborate on what do or do not like about being a humanitarian aid worker. An illustrative anecdote will be useful, perhaps.

Likes: Irregular hours, lots of travel, services in constant need in the minor daily miracles department just to keep the program running, not being nailed to a cross. Dislikes: Having a driver is nice and all, but it is no substitute for having a dozen disciples. I really used to “roll deep” back in the day, you know.

Q33: Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker non-significant other adult family members the nature of your job?
  • I have some difficulty explaining my job, and can only articulate a general sense of what I do.
Q34: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above regarding explaining your job to adult family members.

My father created the heavens and the earth. Not a sparrow falls that he does not see. He gifted all mankind with the gift of free will. Nonetheless it is still impossible to explain participatory appraisal methods without devolving into debates about PFIM and the like in the time between now and judgement day.

Q35: Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-aid worker significant other the nature of your job?
  • I have some difficulty explaining my job, and can only articulate a general sense of what I do.
Q36: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above regarding explaining your job to your significant other.

I’m not allowed to comment about my significant other, despite the allegations in certain racier pages of the non-canonical gospels.

Q37: Which statement below best describes your ability to explain to non-adult family members the nature of your job?
  • I don’t even try to explain my job.
Q38: Please elaborate on the response you gave to the question above regarding explaining your job to non-adult family members.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. By which I mean he/she hasn’t really been a good family member in recent years. It’s been difficult. Teenagers eh?

Q40: To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?
  • Overall has been a very negative factor
Q41: Please use the space below to elaborate how your gender has or has not been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience.

When two thousand years old you are, see how many times a week you are accused of being ‘too male, too pale, stale’.

Q43: Please use the space below to elaborate how your race/ethnicity/cultural identity has or has not been a factor on your humanitarian aid work experience.

People tend to project their own race onto me. (See: Renaissance, Art Of). This comes in handy both in meetings with donors and also with community leaders. Son Of God skills FTW.

PAGE 4: Your views on the current status and future of humanitarian aid work 
Q45: Please use the space below to elaborate on the previous question about why humanitarian aid workers will ultimately become ex-humanitarian aid workers. 

All aid workers will ultimately be gathered unto my father. Well, except maybe Protection types. Dad says the jury is still out on them.

Q58: What is your general view of so-called MONGOs (My Own NGO) or other smaller humanitarian aid work entities?

Yea, the smallest miracle brings grace to the giver and receiver. Grace but perhaps limited impact.

Q59: Which statement below best describes your views about the overall direction of humanitarian aid work?
  • Humanitarian aid work is and will continue to have a significant positive impact on the lives of more and more people.

So, yes, I would love the chance to ask The Lord some additional followup questions.  Lord, if You read this humble blog post please know that I would be honored to hear from You.  Email works great and Skype is even better, and, well, f2f would be kicking’ it, but, hey, Your call.

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Why did you become an aid worker?

“To make the conditions present for a life of human dignity for all.”

-36-40yo female expat aid worker,  white

“It comes down to this: there is serious injustice in the world, and that makes me really fucking angry.”

-18-25yo female expat aid worker, non-white

I think it’s a mixture of accident, the lure of adventure, and (self)righteous indignation over how messed up the world is combined with an (arrogant) sense that maybe I could make things suck slightly less.

-31-35yo female expat aid worker, white


Why did you become an aid worker?

An overview
Our personal lives seldom unfold in a linear, logical, preplanned fashion.  We rarely know exactly what external forces will push or pull us in various directions.  Even the assumption that we are sole masters of our fate, unfettered by cultural currents and eddies, can be called into question. Perhaps anthropologist Miles Richardson said it best in his essay Culture and the Struggle to Be Human: “Rather than thinking and then proceeding to act; we act and then proceed to explain.”

Here’s one respondent, a 26-30yo female expat worker, that states this nicely:

“It’s too simplistic. Yes, I wanted adventure… yes, I wanted to do something productive with winning the birth lottery… yes, it’s kind of an accident…”

This next statement comes from a 40-44 yo female aid worker in the sector for more than ten years who had indicated she became an aid worker “by accident”:

 “I would hope that I am no longer in it by accident, but to be honest, I am not entirely sure.”


That said, what did our survey respondents have to say about their life-path decisions?

The quantitative data
That said, our Q22, Which statement below *best* describes your primary reason for becoming an aid worker?, put the respondent in a position of trying to explain the past.

Somewhat predictably, at 34%, the most frequently selected closed ended response was  “None of the above even comes close to articulating my reason for becoming an aid worker.”

Screenshot 2015-09-18 09.41.50

Males and females responded very similarly to this question, though males were almost twice as likely to choose “I needed adventure in my life and being an aid worker seemed like a good idea.”  Females were slightly more likely to indicate the altruistic response, I was following my dream to provide aid to those less fortunate than myself.” and also to say, in effect, “it’s complicated.”  These specific differences were apparent as I read through the many narrative responses.

Screenshot 2015-09-21 03.26.13


Some narrative responses
The open ended invitation to elaborate on Q22 generated a very robust 596 narrative responses (out of a total of 1010 that started the survey), 410 from females and 187 from males.  Q24 asked a two-part followup  “What are your primary reasons for remaining an aid worker? Are your reasons for staying in this field different from the ones that brought you to it in the first place?” and 615 people responded (426 females, 189 males).EVEREST--012

First we’ll take a look at some of the reasons people gave for becoming an aid worker.

This first example is both interesting and representative of many other respondent’s thoughts.  This 36+yo female aid worker working for a “bog box” organization indicated that she came into the field because I felt called by God or a higher power.”  

She goes on to say,

“I bought into the Liberal narrative fed to me by my left-leaning university professors and supported by a guilty and near-sighted North America: “The Third World” was an innocent place “out there” where innocent good people suffered, because of the Big Bad West – due to All Catastrophic Colonialism -both historical and neo. I could not call myself a Good Person, a Good Christian, or on the Right Side of History if I didn’t Make The Sacrifice and Go Out There and Do Something (sorry for obnoxious capitalization).”

Why does she remain in this sector (Q24)?

“Salary and Benefits. Though no longer idealistic and no longer buying the narrative in Q23, I don’t see the aid industry as being any worse (or better) than anything else out there. It’s still more interesting than working at A-1 Insurance Company and more sophisticated than being a high school teacher…you do still get to travel and see and learn things most other careers do not afford you. Finally, expat colleagues are really great even when annoying. You can’t really go back. Besides, not sure what else I would do at this point. Yes, reasons are very different. But I’ve learned to accept a different narrative so it makes it ok.”

This transition from idealism in the early going to pragmatism in the later career seems a common pattern.  Here is a 26-30yo male expat aid worker’s description:

“Slowly changing indeed. Even if my organization is the biggest and most present actor in the medical emergency field, we still spend 65% of our annual budget in stable projects where the emergency is long gone and we don’t know how to get out. Which ultimately leads to a normal office job for me. It’s still ok, mainly because the challenges and level of responsabilities are much  higher than what a guy my age would be able to get at home. If I remain an aid worker in the next years, it will be because this organization offers a lot of opportunities to get more important responsibilities. The altruist feelings I had at the beginning are still there, but much less present.”

whiteguilt_flow_emperor(White privilege) guilt seems a quite common force pushing people toward this sector.  Here are a couple typical responses.

“Ever since I was a child I felt like I didn’t deserve my privilege of being an upper middle class white American, and I’ve known since then that I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place for everyone to live, but actually living in Rwanda and doing the expat aid worker thing sorta happened by accident. I thought for a long time that I’d be helping people in the United States.”  18-25 yo female expat aid worker

“I felt like the postcode you are born in, or on a larger scale, the country you are born in, should not dictate your opportunities for the rest of your life. It is a politically motivated decision to be an aid worker, I do not think the Western world deserves the right to the best standard of life.”  26-30yo male expat aid worker

So many of the responses were heartfelt and thoughtful, few more than this one from a 26-30yo female expat aid worker.

“I believe in solidarity and mutual aid; whenever possible, elevate and act on the priorities and needs of people advocating for themselves, for example in justice-oriented social movements. I do aid work for my job because it’s a way to offer help and resources at the moment when people most need it, with (I beleive) less harmful impacts than ‘development’ that’s done without the active centering of social movements. The rest of my (nonworking) life is devoted to organizing and solidarity activism. Aid work is my compromise: I get paid, I get to help, I get to learn first-hand what is going on and how, and I get to feed my cowboy streak without buying too deeply into a development project that dictates longterm distribution of resources according to funder pleasure. I realize this sounds naive at first typing, but I do really think that the longterm balance falls (generally, with many exceptions) on the side of humanitarian aid as a necessary, useful tool, whereas development projects led by foreign NGOs tends to undermine local organizing over the longterm. Philosophically, I’d rather be an advocate or researcher with Food First working to support the work of La Via Campesino. And I have been– I’ve participated in plenty of protests and campaigns against smallholder farmer-damaging free trade agreements and for local community gardens in US cities. But I also want to be a direct participant, embracing the moral dilemmas and engaging with (instead of studying) the complexity. Aid work seems like a good way to do so.”

There is much more to add at this point, but I’ll close with the assertion people gravitate toward life paths that makes them feel good and responds to their basic urge to have justice.

“I believe that we have an obligation to correct structural injustices in the world and enable each and every person to realize their full potential, irrespective of where they live or what privilege/underprivilage they access.” 36-40 yo HQ female

As always, please feel free to contact me with reactions, feedback or suggestions.


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The Crisis Caravan: Inter-agency coordination

The Crisis Caravan:  Inter-agency coordination (updated 9-14)

Q56 touches on what has been euphemistically called the “crisis caravan.”  The results below indicate that well over half (53%) of our respondents thought that there were frequent or even constant problems related to inter-agency coordination and cooperation.

Here’s the data on Q56:

Screenshot 2015-08-30 09.56.39


Yeah, well, yawn.

The world is a complex mess and, of direct relevance to this question, there has been a constant and perhaps dysfunctional increase in the number of entities that are responding to humanitarian crises around the globe.  At least 50 “big box” NGO’s and literally countless smaller and/or MONGO organizations appear where ever there is a major humanitarian crisis. How many in the “crisis caravan?”

Too many to count is the most accurate number I can come up with.

If there are communication problems within humanitarian organizations (as discussed in my last post) it stands to reason that of course there will be even more complex and distressingly pervasive inter-agency communication issues.

When Polman wrote her book she was looking backwards, writing about what was.  No one sober looming back at 1994 and Rwanda or post-quake Haiti can disagree with her very critical observations regarding the big picture:  seen from the advantaged perspective of frozen time and access to all of the ‘data’, the crisis caravan seemed then -and perhaps seems now- quite a hot mess.

But is it really?  Our respondents seem to think so.

So, what has been, is being, and will be done to address this problem?

CHS_Diagram_smallHas been and is being done:  A couple answers appear immediately.  First, two words:  cluster meetings.  Secondly, the Core Humanitarian Standard is the most recent demonstrative example of concerted and coordinated efforts in this sector to articulate and make public universally accepted standards for humanitarian responses.  Read the history of this development here.  This and other efforts emphasize common standards that will, if adhered to, will enhance coordination and cooperation.

What will be done:  I’ve thought about this a bit and here’s what comes up.  We live in a world dominated by a species that is wired to desire justice and to have empathy for others.  There will always be a steady supply of those who want to help others. And, given the trend in American higher education in the last 15 years toward more and more “service learning” programs and “social entrepreneurship” pathways, the stream of do-gooders coming from the US will not dry up any time soon.  Just the opposite -bad news coming- I predict that there will be an even increasing number of MONGO’s started in the coming years.  More do-gooders and MONGO’s means inevitably and inexorably that the ‘crisis caravan’ will look even more chaotic in the coming years.

What will be done?  The well intentioned organizations and individuals working to enhance the sector and to address all of the ‘crisis caravan-esque’ issues will continue working, innovating, messaging and, in the end, being always frustrated that their best efforts will never be complete or perfect.  Their ernest work will be counterbalanced by the nature of the beast:  more MONGO’s, the inherent problems of communication in all and any bureaucracies, and, perhaps most distressing, the tendency we all have to “put out the fire closest to us.”  The world, as I noted above, is a complex mess, and so far there is no ‘silver bullet’ to be found, though many seem fixated on finding one.

Thinking in terms of the big picture is a luxury many of us don’t have when confronted with the immediacy of current crises.  We are, and must remain, given the life and death urgency of the now, stuck in the weeds.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.



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Not so good: The relationship between the “home office” and the “field”

And now more on the survey results…

The relationship between the “home office” and the “field”

“Well, HQ is HQ and the people there are just different. Not necessarily ill-intentioned or stupid (although it seems that way at times), just different.” –26-30 yo female expat aid worker

Yes, we are aware of the increasing blurring between what can be called “home office” and the “field” and also that many aid workers are neither and both at the same time.  That said, here are some interesting results from our survey questions that simply asked for an overall perspective.  Below we look at both the quantitative and qualitative results from three questions, Q50-52.

Q50 results below indicate a pretty negative view of the relationship.  Our results indicated a microscopic 1% indicating that “The field and the home office are completely in sync regarding important matters like priorities and processes.” A hefty 40% indicated these two realms were “rarely in sync.”  Why is this?  One broad-strokes answer is the truism that as bureaucracies get larger -and a good percentage of our respondents are from “big box” organizations- communication and coordination are structurally more complicated and, hence compromised.

Here is one narrative example to illustrate:

“Generally its all down to regular communication and putting faces to the names. The home office sometimes push “top-down” priorities that they want to see be coherent across all active programme-countries, and sometimes need to step back from their perfect plan and accept that it can’t be copy/pasted across different sites. On the other hand, I have seen the field staff exaggerate how “badly understood” they are by the home office (sometimes to excuse a lack of progress…its so easy to blame things that the home office “just dont understand” about the conditions. But sometimes, it really is just due to bad field-management!..that makes it hard for the home office to know the difference).”  -26-30 yo female expat aid worker

This next respondent nails my point:  “This [lack of sync] applies to all organisations with HQ and regional offices, not just aid work.”  –56-60 yo female consultant

So, here is the quantitative data from Q50 and Q51:

Screenshot 2015-08-28 17.07.59


Q51 results are interesting in that it gets a bit more personal, our question asking about the current organization of the respondent.  The “rarely” response, like Q50 above is still low at a paltry 9%….less than one in 10.  The “rarely” response is still high, but now that the respondents are talking about their own organization the number is 29% (as compared to the 39% reported about the relationship in general in the industry.

Screenshot 2015-08-28 17.08.38


Here are some specific narrative responses that flesh out the numbers above.

First these two from what I would call a reality-based perspective:

  • “Much of the decision making is done in the field and since the vast majority of employees are very competent, this works well. The biggest source of feeling “out of sync” is in regard to human resources- both being able to staff the field adequately and taking care of people when they leave.” 31-35 yo female expat aid worker
  • “Time zones, language/cultural barriers, personality differences, technological skill- these are just some of the challenges to attaining complete alignment between the 2 types of offices.” 18-25 female working in HQ

You can sense the frustration in these next three:

  • “We are regularly left out of home office conference calls and group emails that include all other country offices in the region. I don’t know whether the home office forgets to include us or is being passive aggressive. Either way, we are a mess. The leadership of my country office criticizes our regional office and our HQ/home office regularly. It seems like the feelings are mutual.” -18-25yo female expat worker employed within the UN system
  • “Put simply, there is an immense disconnect between reality and policy. Also, I often feel or am made to feel inferior by the hierarchy in which final decisions must go through HQ and are decided by people who are totally removed from the contexts. To make decisions, you must spent endless hours justifying a decision before you can make it. Can’t imagine what national staff must feel like (hence the indifference, I suppose).” –36-40 yo male working in HQ
  • “Damn emails. the world was beautiful before emails and the immediate responses needed by someone at HQ. that^s why I like to work in the field where I can decide that the internet ‘didn’t work for several days’.”  –56-60 yo male expat aid worker


These next two are particularly insightful and speak to issues that most in the sector will recognize:

  • “In my experience, the relationship between the field and home office is good when there is a close dialogue and working relationship between the Country Director an the Regional Director that the CD reports to. This being said with increasingly multiple reporting or accountability lines, I am not sure that the above really applies… It’s always a difficult balance, especially in high profile emergencies, between the field having space and support to make decisions and the home office feeling that its interests are being met.” –46-50 yo female HQ based
  • “This is the results of having very high turnover at all positions including high level management ones. Some people came with centralization ideals, others with decentralizations. Result: we find ourselves with two layers that develop themselves regardless of the other. Processes, procedures and responsibilities are often blurry. “Home office” works 4.5 days a week from 8 to 4pm, “field” is 6.5 days a week from 7 to 8pm. “Home office” is gangrened with political and career building moves. Often, the field ends up flipping the finger and taking over everything. “Home office” then try to finds itself a justification to exist in terms of informal support line. Once in a while they get hormones rush, and they go top-down very strongly. At field level, you then choose your battles. Field has a strong feeling that they don’t need the “home office” to operate. The “home office” thinks that they are the captain of the boat. The whole thing could be a giant case study to analyse for a final exam in management.” –26-30 yo male expat aid worker

Indeed, this is a problem of organizational management, but though we can react to communication and sync issues as they arise, the bigger picture is that the problems identified about are inherent whenever organizational size increases.  The truism in the business sector that “big fish eat little fish” -and hence that there is a force toward the domination by bigger business entities- is somewhat also true in the aid sector, if only because the economy of scale.  That and, well, Max Weber was right in pointing out the bureaucratization inevitably leads toward quantification and depersonalization and to the overall phenomena of organizations acting in the interests of survival as an entity and straying from original mission.

The point made in the last respondent’s comment that there is “very high turnover at all positions including high level management ones” cannot be ignoreed as a major factor impacting the overall efficiency level of aid organizations.  Two obvious impacts include (1) training new personal takes time, energy and both human and material resources and this constant drain inevitably impacts overall system performance and (2) institutional memory is constantly being lost as personnel come and go, hence the sense that some organizations are always recreating the wheel.  To be clear, these issues are not unique to the aid industry.

To go back to the sociologist Max Weber for a moment, he invokes the image of the stahlhartes Gehäuse or ‘iron cage’ in his ruminations about the inexorable rise of bureaucratization in the modern world.  He would look at the aid world and say ‘it is what it is’ (or some German phrase meaning as much).  Big bureaucracies will always be necessary and indeed to only way forward for social organization but they will always be inherently hampered by their size:  the bigger they get the less efficient they become…for many of the reasons touched on above, and more.

When I talk about the “iron cage of rationality” with my students I will trot out an aphorism I coined may years ago to explain one important dimension of the problem of bureaucratization, this one especially relevant in the aid world when examining the need to “show results.”  Merging a thought by Blaise Pascal “Not being able to make what is just strong, one made what is strong, just” with my understanding of Weber I came up with “Not being able to measure that which is real, we tend to make that which is measurable, real.”  Where was the drunk looking for his watch?  Under the lamp post.  Why?  Because that is where the light is best.  Hence we forever spin our wheels constantly inside the iron cage.


So I’ll end not with comments from our respondents but from my muse Max Weber.  To wit,

When those subject to bureaucratic control seek to escape the influence of existing bureaucratic apparatus, this is normally possible only by creating an organization of their own which is equally subject to the process of bureaucratization.”

Yes, MONGO’s do seem like a good idea at the time….

And, finally, on a realistic (?) and melancholy note

Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.”

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.




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Deepening The Data With More Voices: Invitation for in-depth interviews

Deepening the data with more voices

Where you might come in
We are entering the next phase of our AidWorkVoices project and again need your help, this time from a few of you who want or may be wiling to share your stories.

One of the most interesting nuggets to come from the survey data thus far are the thoughts you’ve had about identity.  In the post “You are as you are seen” many of our respondents–you–wrestled with exactly that: how you are seen by those around you matters on many levels. Many of you believe that the way you are seen (for example:  young, white, attractive Western female) has an impact on your overall effectiveness.  A second impact is that on the self concept of the aid worker: how she or he feels about her or himself.

Our goal at this particular stage is to deepen the data with more in-depth voices speaking about identity management both in the ‘field’ and in other locations, including at home, and throughout the aid industry. We especially want to hear from aid workers whose ‘at home’ identity (what Goffman would call ‘back stage’) may at times present a challenge.Goffman

We’re specifically working here with the concept of “master status” in sociology. There are two general categories of master status: Those that are disclosed as soon as people see you, such as skin color, sex (probably), age (possibly), and some kinds of physical disability or special-ability; And those that can remain disclosed with some effort, for example religion (or lack thereof), sexuality, and relationship/marital status.

Who would we like to talk to?
We are interested in more in-depth interviews with aid workers that may have faced and/or currently face workplace challenges related to “how they are seen.” Basically, we want to talk to any aid or development worker in a setting where your sex, sexual orientation, marital status, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, local/non-local designation, age, religion, worldview, or other identity status somehow shapes your ability to be effective. Some examples include (but of course are not limited to):

  • Jewish aid workers in predominantly Muslim locations, or vice versa.
  • Atheist aid workers working in faith-based organizations and/or in locations where devotion to some religion is expected (Bangladesh comes to mind, based on recent news coverage).
  • Non-heterosexual aid workers in, well, most anywhere.
  • Red-headed aid workers (or those with some other  exceptional physical attribute.  Any 2 meter+ aid workers?)
  • Differently-abled aid workers (sight/hearing impaired, ambulatory challenges, etc.)
  • Medication dependent aid workers (e.g., insulin dependent).

You get the idea…..

interviewSpecifically we want to arrange open-ended interviews (via phone, Skype or otherwise) with aid workers who deal with identity management issues such as the above.  If you are interested and/or have questions please send a message to me (Arcaro) with details of how you would prefer to be contacted.

We expect that interviews will take approximately 30 minutes. While we may need to interact with you as yourself in the context of an interview, we promise to maintain your anonymity in any publication or other external reference to your interview.

The big picture
We are now entering a very intense phase of analyzing and writing about all of the survey results, both quantitative and qualitative. In addition to making regular (weekly) posts to this blog we are in the midst of outlining a book-length treatment of all the results.  Our hope is that we have a beta-version draft out by late fall.

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You’re Fired! Not a phrase heard often in the sector

You’re Fired!  Not a phrase heard often in the sector


For starters:

“Ha ha. I work for the UN. Nobody gets fired.”
 –not-to-be-identified respondent

“I have worked with too many colleagues – senior managers included – who were not qualified for the jobs they were hired to do. I wish the development and aid industry would take on a more private sector approach when staff clearly are not performing in their jobs – despite coaching, training, investment etc. It makes me angry that public funds from taxpayers or donors are wasted.”
–36+yo female local aid worker

“Fired? Really? Does this happen? I wish more would be fired, the incompetence in this sector is one of the reasons I will probably lose confidence in the system.”
–36+yo female HQ worker

“My position does allow me a line of sight to the HR processes in some of the terminations at my org. All of those reasons explain why people I know of were fired: those that were promoted too high too fast and aren’t competent in their current roles are often “downsized”, those who chronically bump heads with their superiors are often “downsized” (whether personality clashes or different of philosophy), and I’ve seen an (otherwise) good employee drive drunk once using the company vehicle (and then lie about it!) “resign” in the middle of the investigation. In my org, at least, many more employees are “downsized” or during a “restructure” their job description changes, and they’re asked to reapply and don’t get it. Not too many are outright fired (due to legal liability that would open us up to). Others simply don’t have their contracts renewed when they expire.”
–not-to-be-identified respondent

Where we’re headed
Below I both present more data -mostly qualitative- and also offer some analysis, comment and opinion regarding gettin’ fired in the aid worker world.

The big picture?
Gross generalization:  this sector’s work-force profile is the way it is because of the nature of the work and the unique -and recent- exponential growth in the number of aid entities in the last 20 years.

For present purposes we can go with the most basic taxonomy:  there for-profit and not-for-profit organizational entities.  In general, in the for-profit sector there is very little patience for incompetence and, given chronically high under and unemployment factors, -that is, it is a buyers market- it is understood that lack of performance will get you fired; the bottom line is the bottom line. A related factor is that measuring output/performance is, at base, very simple in the for-profit world; again, the bottom line is the bottom line.  In direct relation to the difficulty of firedquantifying performance the nature of the firing process gets more complicated. Hence in the non-profit world the deliverables may be inherently more nuanced and non-quantifiable.  Yes, some tasks are easier than others onto which attach metrics, but there are so many tasks the outcome of which is (1) long term/beyond the contract period of the worker, (2) interconnected with myriad other factors that make it difficult to discern clear linear impact, and (3) are part of a team effort that make individual contribution hard to parse out.

The not-for-profit world includes many organizations such as in the humanitarian aid world but also, for example, higher education. As an academic I am keenly aware of the promotion and tenure process and know well the battles that are fought over what “counts” toward same.  Indeed, in my world, unfortunately, not being able to make that which is real measurable we tend to make that which is measurable real.  Translation:  publish or perish because you can’t measure service and “good teaching.”

The nature of the humanitarian aid world
There will always be those who feel they belong in the humanitarian aid world in whatever role because they feel compelled to “help”.  I stand by my assertion that this is a basic human need; we are wired to feel empathy (mirror neurons, anyone?). As one respondent put it, “There will always be disasters, there will always be poverty and there will always be some people who feel impelled to try and make a difference.”

Given the questions we asked there is no way to tell if our respondents associated with at any specific aid organization -with the major exception knowing that 6.5% of our respondents work “somewhere in the UN System”- but my guess is that very few if any were with MSF.  Their reputation in the aid world was clearly elevated -and affirmed?- in 1999 when they received the Nobel Peace Prize, and my sense is that though they “play well with others” on important matters there is a clear demarcation between “us” and other aid organizations.  On a smaller scale, in Haiti Partners in Health can be seen in a similar light.

The reason I am pointing this out is that I believe that what these two organizations have established is what the rest of the industry appears to lack, namely very high entry and renewal standards for all associates.

There is a non-existent -or at the very best, weak culture of firing in the sector in many organizations.  As evidenced by our respondents comments, that this should change is without question.  But how do you create and sustain a “culture of firing?”

That is, how do you close the wide gap between what we say standards are and actual behavior?

Reasons why people do not get fired
A reading of all the narrative responses yields the following observations. People do not get fired because (1) a warm body that can function minimally is better than an empty desk; something is better than nothing (“Lots of people think their very presence is valuable, because poor people need all the help they can get or something.”, (2) metrics for performance are unclear and hard to measure, (3) it is much easier to just let a contract run out and not renew, i.e., passive firing (said one respondent, “Honestly, it can be hard to be fired. Many people simply don’t have their contracts renewed.”), and (4) the hiring process can be time  consuming and, ultimately, more trouble than it is worth for the supervisor.

Some data
Q48 asked “Some humanitarian aid workers leave because they are fired. Which below do you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?”  Here are the responses:

Screenshot 2014-08-26 15.25.17

A robust number of respondents -341- chose to complete the open-ended question Q49:  “Please use the space below to elaborate on the question above concerning what you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?”  Here are some of their responses.

  • “I don’t think nearly enough aid workers get fired for chronic incompetence. If it was up to me there’d be more of it. The problem with people on 3, 6, 12 month contracts is people are too busy / not good enough at management to performance appraise, and tend to just let people’s contracts lapse, or let them move on – noone reference checks properly, or does informal checks, and it means genuinely dreadful aid workers get employed again and again. This does real damage to the NGO sector. The UN is probably worse by the experience I have had of those agencies – so well paid, and benefits so good that complacent, disenfranchised people stay in jobs otherwise their kids would have to come out of boarding school/they’d have to give up that holiday house and the enormous DSRs. It’s dispiriting. I’m sorry if that doesnt quite answer your question, but I have not really seen many people fired. The only was was , a bad judgement on security brought on by incompetence and inexperience. Sometimes also people are promoted way too quickly and
    Word cloud of all responses.

    Word cloud of all responses.

    lack any depth of knowledge on a context which can lead to some very naive decision making.” female 31yo+ expat aid worker

  • “Incompetence generally doesn’t get people fired on its own (not unless it results in some really major fuck up), but incompetence coupled with interpersonal issues with a superior is definitely going to put someone at real risk of losing their job. Interpersonal issues really come to prominence in shared housing.” female 26yo+ expat aid worker
  • “Unfortunately, incompetence is more rarely the cause of losing your job as a humanitarian worker, than politics around principles, opinions or personality differences within the team (not necessarily a superior).”  female 26+ expat aid worker
  • Chronic incompetence is the least likely reason….”  36yo+ male HQ aid worker
  • “I think it’s incredibly difficult to fire people in this field and most who are fired are for issues to do with supervisors. Not incompetence. That’s usually encouraged or promoted (seriously..).” 31yo+ female working in the UN system
  • “Man, if people got fired from humanitarian aid jobs because of chronic incompetence, the industry would be a better place. I think most people get fired out of a combination of interpersonal issues with superiors or funders, combined with a sense that they’re not quite what the organization needs.”  36yo+ male in regional office
  • “It really has to be chronic, chronic incompetence as the sector seems to recycle poorly performing workers all the time.” non-white female 26yo+ expat aid worker
  • “Unfortunately, it is not for reasons for which firing should occur (eg. sexual misconduct, abuse of minors, fraud) but for failing to successfully navigate relationships with a boss. I have never been fired, by the way, but seen many occasions where it unjustly occurred, or unjustly did not occur.” 41+yo female expat aid worker
  • “I would guess that the most common reasons would be interpersonal issues and a difference of opinion. Aid workers have strong personalities and strong opinions…and sometimes superiors have plenty of pride. A moment of bad judgement could also lead to being fired.”  female 26yo+ expat aid worker
  • “Incompetence plagues this sector. Many people get jobs through personal connections with little or no relevant experience. Training is generally poor and opportunities to learn come from other people with academic and developing world experience only. We need more people transitioning from senior private sector roles ideally to up-skill the development labour force.” 31+ female expat aid worker

The data indicate that people do, rarely, get fired because of gross inappropriate behavior, to be sure, but it appears that personality clashes, especially with superiors, is a more common reason.

I was a bit surprised how strong the “incompetence does not get you fired” thread was throughout the 341 respondents, but there you go.  Having said that, as I look at other sectors both for-profit and not-for-profit one can find similar dynamics at play.  Despite Donald Trump’s popularization of the phrase, “You’re fired!”  in many sectors it is just not that common.  In the US at least, people are forced out, leave as they see the writing on the wall, get transferred, downsized, “made redundant” in all manner of creative ways, etc. -all the reasons permutations mentioned above in our aid worker data- in lieu of getting the proverbial “pink slip.”

Is the aid sector really all that different?  Certainly we do not have the data for any conclusion along that line but I offer the conjecture that any exceptionality is a matter of degree, not of kind.

Human Resource officers take note
Aid workers are frustrated by many aspects of their employment, especially when it comes to working with and dealing with the consequent actions of incompetent co-workers.  This is certainly evidenced in the data from Q’s 48 and 49 and, of course, cannot come as a huge surprise to anyone in the sector.  For me the take home from a HR perspective from the above includes at least action points:

  • do more and better background screening of any new hires, especially those who are making lateral moves
  • have more extensive exit interviewing of all employees (make it a condition of final pay if necessary) and use those data effectively to make hiring and care-and-feeding policy decisions
  • do not promote beyond credentialed expertise; sometimes nothing is better than an incompetent somethingHR
  • consider more extensive psychological/personality testing of potential hires
  • make more public and obvious rubrics/expectations for performance
  • use every new hire, lateral move or promotion as an opportunity to move your organization in a positive direction, especially regarding weeding out the marginal and those who fail to grasp and hold true to the core missions of the aid sector
  • network with your HR counterparts across the sector to work toward more standardization of hiring criterion and
  • perhaps most importantly, start in the interview process creating a more demonstrative “culture of firing” (as mentioned above) and reinforce this rhetoric with action

A warning of a coming demographic change
The work force in the US and in much of the rest of the Western world is aging, and this demographic shift will have an impact on the aid sector in the not too distant future.  This can be seen as good news.  Organizational cultures with low staff turnover are slow to change, but those with rapid turnover can use this dynamic to bring about desired cultural change.  Another post will have to be devoted to that topic, but, in short, this can be seen as a moment of crisis for the aid sector.  We have all heard the trope that the Chinese character for crisis is the combination of danger and opportunity, and perhaps now is a time for the entire sector to devote some time looking into the future and planning for how to be more robust, effective and, at the very least, find a way to weed out the incompetent.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.

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Aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

Aid worker voices on the future of humanitarian aid

I will use the prompt of last weeks’s  World Humanitarian Day to share a few gems from our survey data.

Background reading
First, some background.  I did comment on what our respondents felt about the future of humanitarian aid in broad strokes here  and here, going a bit off-script with less survey data analysis and more personal/sociologically informed observation.  While I was skimming through the posts I shared this as well.


Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Many themes have emerged from the 279 respondents who took the time to address the question about the future of the sector.  Below I highlight some of these themes and provide some representative responses.

Aid is not the same as development
There is a big difference between the relief/disaster response and development work, to be sure, and this difference is highlighted in the responses to the penultimate question on our survey, Q60 “Please use the space below to elaborate on your views about the future of humanitarian aid work.”  It is clear to me now that if we had separated out relief/disaster response and development work in our questions the responses would have been even more telling.  Here are a couple good examples of this differentiation and some of the issues involved.

  • “Distinction between humanitarian and development work should be made. Humanitarian [aid] will continue to serve its purpose, especially for those places where the states are unable to provide relief themselves. Development work – I have no clear idea on the impact it has, and whether it’s mostly positive or negative.”
  • “I think emergency relief work has the best impact – particularly when responding to an acute crisis in a somewhat stable country
    where specific expertise and materials are needed to bolster the national response. At the other end is development work in chronically unstable and corrupt countries where I think humanitarian aid work probably does more harm than good and ultimately helps build and solidify a permanent upper class of wealthy elites who pay lip service to the UN while using vaccine money to build themselves swimming pools and send their children to university in Europe.”
  • “There is really no comparing relief and development…”

Marx 101
As a sociologist  I was somewhat struck by the number of respondents that expressed an understanding of and a concern about the forces of capitalism that seem to be at play vis-s-vis all things international, especially aid work. As I wrote in the earlier posts linked above, the unfolding algorithm of capitalism is as inexorable as that of biological evolution.  But there you go.

  • “Humanitarian work is going the way of the dinosaur or jersey’s free of logos … soon enough, it will all be green-washing by some corporation to make themselves or others feel good about how the help people. The end-of-history is starting to subsume humanitarian work; eg., capitalism is dollar-for-dollar far larger than any aid agency, even in the poorest areas.”
  • “Probably will go commercialized for profit and things will go much worse. But this isn’t humanitarian aid work – that is business. The non-profit category defines the truth of humanitarian work. All the rest is business – which is also really important, but different.”

The impact of the sector
I love this first comment in large part because it addresses the hubris embedded in the assumption that we know what we are doing most of the time.

  • “We are like the frontier doctors– right now we are “bloodletting” and have no clue how to help people, although we may accidentally have a positive effect. But, our efforts will enable future generations to learn from our mistakes– at least we are doing something!”
  • “I do NOT believe that development work has a longer term positive impact, and I generally do NOT agree with development programmes.”

Professionalizing the sector
That there is more need for professionalization of the sector is a given.  How to get there from here is the big question.

  • “I think we need further professionalisation and streamlining, especially for work in increasing numbers of middle income countries. More focus on disaster prevention and mitigation is required.”
  • “The professionalization of humanitarian work is/was a good attempt at improving technical competence, but it doesn’t seem to have translated much in improved responses. Lessons learned are not learned. Same incompetent people who responded once will respond again.”
  • “It’s going to have to get more professional. Unfortunately I think it will continue to be a desirable line of work, which will see lots of people willing to work for free just to get the chance to work for very little money. I think mistakes will be learnt from the major humanitarian crisis and how we respond, but there are always new mistakes to make.”

Unknown.2Future of the sector
The future, if we are sober, is murky at best, and the sense that I got from many respondents is that though there will always be need, meeting those needs in a meaningful, efficient manner -both in terms of immediate aid and long term development- is not a certainty.

  • “I did not like your choices. A key challenge for humanitarian actors is a very narrow donor base (US+N/W Europe) which is vulnerable to budget cuts. We are also entering a new time where most people live in middle income countries, and their governments have greater capacity. In many cases our business model is no longer so relevant. ‘Humanitarian’ work has really ballooned in scope and volume during the last 15 years, in part to get around Paris Declaration-type principles and circumvent host country governments. I think this will have to be scaled back. We are also all very confused what ‘humanitarian’ is – is it defined by the funding source (donor country emergency funding) or is it the type of work (temporary and unplanned)? Much if not most work funded by donors through emergency envelopes is really quite routine and planned, but this modality allows less recipient government scrutiny and coordination – for better or worse.”
  • “The field is becoming increasingly theoretical and ego-driven. Skills that actually save lives are being drowned out by debates on buzzwords.”

More to come
There is so much more to report from the data but for now I’ll just close by saying I felt an overall sense of frustration and cynicism among many of the respondents.  The future of humanitarian aid is in whose hands?  Quite a big question, that.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.

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Aid worker views about MONGOs (My Own NGO): mostly negative

“I think that if every overly bright, well-dressed 20something would just get together and co-run the skinny jeans appreciation society in their respective countries, the rest of us could put all that money and press to actual use.”
-20 something female, HQ aid worker w/5+ experience

“Deep breaths.    Too many.”
-41-45 yo female HQ worker [extra spaces for emphasis in the original]

Aid worker views about MONGOs (My Own NGO):  mostly negative

The recent kidnapping of two young Italian women in Syria (see here) underscores the fact that being an aid worker comes with risks. ThereUnknown may be something specifically about this particular episode that merits a deeper understanding, and a start might be to examine aid worker voices about the kind of organization to which these young women were associated, namely a very small, new, self-started NGO.

What kinds of organizations are best suited to doing aid work?  Does size matter? How do our survey respondents feel about smaller humanitarian aid entities and what are some of the positives and negatives from their perspective?  These are some questions that I examine below using our survey respondents views to illustrate and, hopefully, provide a deeper perspective.

To date we have have 429  (of 896) people respond to our open-ended question regarding MONGO’s.  Here is the prompt for Q58:  “What is your general view of so-called MONGOs (My Own NGO) or other smaller humanitarian aid work entities?”

I went though every response and tagged each as  “positive” , “neutral” or “negative,” and the results indicate clearly that MONGO’s have a mixed and mostly negative image among aid workers.  Here are the results of my tagging, and as you can see the “negatives” outnumbered the “positives” nearly four to one:

  • Overall positive:  11%
  • Neutral/mixed:   46%
  • Negative:           43%

The short of it
The vast majority of respondents had a very negative view of MONGO’s, with “negatives” outnumbering “positives” by almost four to one and most of the responses that I tagged “neutral” pointing out that there were both positives and negatives to be argued, stressing the negatives of those organizations which are not “done right.”

As many of the “neutral” responses pointed out, correctly, MONGO’s are not a monolithic whole.  The differentiating variables are many, but some of the most important appear to be:

  • Type and motivation of leadership
  • Western primarily US and UK) originated and based vs locally/community organizations
  • Degree of focus/breadth of mission
  • Level of overall professionalism
  • Whether or not aid or development focused
  • Ability to make sustainable change/scalability

Many of the “neutral” responses leaned negative but qualified their answer tended to say, in short, some MONGO’s can be great/effective if the leadership is good, there is a narrow, defined focus and they are run professionally.  MONGO’s that score high on all the variables above can have many positives:

  • Flexible; can change/modify very quickly
  • Have generally low overhead
  • Can have very creative responses to niche conditions

Perhaps one of the more astute observations made by one respondent was that, after all, this is the way all aid organizations started (see Red Cross, MSF, etc.).

The list of negatives the appear in both “negative” and “neutral” responses is long and damning, and I invite you to read the sections below for some great examples.

  • Lack of professionalism
  • Lack of standardization
  • “White savior complex”
  • Just adding to noise and confusion for beneficiaries, donors and the aid industry

    Screenshot 2014-08-17 12.42.47

    Word cloud of all responses

  • Poor/misguided mission
  • Ego-driven leadership
  • Just reinventing the wheel
  • Inefficient
  • Do harm in some cases
  • Self-serving
  • No accountability
  • Prone to corruption
  • Thinly disguised proselytization
  • Overall give aid section a bad reputation

Many respondents touched on a current debate voiced succinctly in the comment made by an experienced female aid worker, namely:  “Humanitarian aid is a profession not a hobby.”

In short, MONGOs: not so good except in rare cases.

A thought from my sociological perspective:  I believe that it is human nature to have empathy toward others and to want to help somehow when one sees other’s in need.  Indeed, that is what prompted Henri Dunant to do what he did in response to the wounded at Solerfino and later help establish one of the very first humanitarian aid organizations, the Red Cross. The urge to create MONGOs is there.  What to do with how individuals act on it is the question we must explore.

Below I present representative responses from each of the three groupings.


  • “Great! I love the small initiatives, but I’d qualify it since it depends a lot on the origins, agency of the organization and what they’re up to (since many depend on assumptions we give them that we say works, when it very well might be ivory-tower driven). We can’t work with them because of rules from up top, but generally, I think they do our work better than we do.”
  • “Have limited reach but have the potential to be better with adaptation, better at identifying nuances to local development, and may be better at small scale development.”
  • “Can be useful if service providers in niches. But no way to partner with at scale.”
  • “Some are quite nimble and do good local work and focus very effectively on social justice. However they can lead to too much Screenshot 2014-08-17 13.30.54fragmentation and some serve the egos of their founders too much.”
  • “Often the smaller ones achieve more with fewer overheads and admin costs.”
  • “Some can grow to be great organisations as long as they learn from their mistakes and have clear leadership which understands the complexities of the isssues they are dealing with.”
  • “There is plenty work to be done, problems, issues to be adressed. Plenty spaces for MONGOs. And it is good as well to have a variety of organization.”
  • “Some made the critical differentiation between local and Western/Us based organizations.”
  • “If they are local NGOs/CBOs, they can make very good work because they can understand and address the very local issues and problems. Creating an NGO in the US to do fantasy projects to rescue poor dying African children is ridiculous.”

Some respondents just had no opinion, some gave both sides, some qualify in very insightful ways (spelling, grammar, and syntax left as-written):

  • “Cant write all off with one brush. if they are filling an actual gap that can be a good thing. the big boy ngos are not necessarily flexible or nimble so small can be good. however the ones that show up without a clue are making things worse.”
  • “They can be frustrating in the sense that they rarely coordinate “with the big kids” – i.e. they tend to go off on their own and don’t connect or feed into the broader humanitarian system. However, if working in partnership, they can be helpful when working in isolated locations since they are sometimes the only ones willing to go and do work in tough places… especially National NGOs.”
  • “(chuckle… I think I’m running a sort of MONGO at present, but we try not to act like it!) It varies, some can do good work if they have a specific niche that they can fill, often as a sub to a larger organization. Others are of questionable competence and can have anScreenshot 2014-08-17 13.28.44 outsized regard of their own importance. If not well-focused (“I’m here and want to help!) they tend to be ineffective.”
  • “Specialized NGOs in particular sectors or communities or nations are only successful, effective and good when run by individuals who understand humanitarian principles and values and ways of working; those run by enterprising individuals or those who have money and “care” tend to make situations worse for everyone, including the people they are trying to help.”
  • “Impossible to generalize. Yes, I tend to roll my eyes. But there are some that are really good, a lot better at responding to local needs than the large INGOs. There are a lot that are bad. But even a bad MONGO is probably not going to do a lot of harm (in a global sense). I could say the same about large NGOs. Some are good, lots are bad. MONGOs have a similar track record.”
  • “Some are great and because they have very little resources they find innovative ways of delivering services. Others are terrible and completely undermine what the international aid community has aimed to achieved e.g. Standardisation, principles, good practices, do no harm, etc.”
  • “I think it depends on the experience and motivation of the person behind the NGO. If the person either has a background in development, or makes and effort to learn – and has the backing of the local community they seek to assist, then it can be a good thing. However, I think too many of these groups think ‘NGOs are doing it wrong, so I can’t learn anything from them’. Yes, there are many things wrong with the NGO system that can be improved. But the development system has also learned a lot of lessons the hard way that all NGOs can benefit from.”
  • “There is some truth to all sides of this debate.”
  • “Find it very interesting and thing there is definitely a place for them in the sector as the more established and larger INGOs start to move toward professionalisation and expansion processes that often make them more inefficient and less receptive to and understanding of needs on the ground. there is generally a fairly condescending and negative attitude of INGO and NGO to MONGO which is highly questionable given that none of us are exactly perfect…”
  • “Usually no harm, little large-scale impact but nice to see people trying to help people. I don’t feel the condescending outrage about this stuff that many of my peers do. If missionaries from Kansas want to hold AIDS babies for 8 weeks, as long as no one is interfering with treatment and care, and local communities don’t mind, why not?”
  • “This is extremely complex. People don’t give unconditionally, even if they think they do. Some people will only contribute if they can maximise their own opportunities for self actualisation. MONGOs are not generally the most efficient way to give aid. They also often result in aid that is sub-standard. However, some people will only contribute to a response when they do it largely themselves. This is, to a certain extent, their right, as long as they meet agreed standards. Small NGOs also have the capacity to be very nimble and innovative, this shouldn’t be stifled. Essentially there are both good and bad aspects and I don’t have the time or energy to write the thesis that one could on this topic!”
  • “Great in for small-scale community work in development settings. Horrible in large-scale relief/emergency settings.”
  • “I think MONGOs like small businesses begin when the larger NGOs or companies don’t listen to a good idea. Of course there is that bit of hubris in being able to say back home I have my own NGO. I think a more realistic term would be “my own short term project” like most start ups unless they are bought out (or funded) by a larger organization they won’t last long. I think any large INGO would be wise to create a space for ideas and innovation in programming to be heard from all members of staff not only the grants and program development people. This would help the INGO to grow and develop better programs while keeping their staff from quitting to start their MONGOs.”
  • “I feel they can still have a good impact if managers/staff are extremely talented and have a clear idea of their mission, vision and goals. Otherwise, funds would be better used within bigger orgs.”
  • “I don’t think it’s possible to clump them together. Some represent true citizen action and real empowerment within people’s own communities and within their own contexts. Others are purely ego trips that do more harm than good. The key is to understand the difference and support the potentially transformative ones that could potential become bigger players.”
  • “Get the skill set and capability to work for an NGO before going MONGO on us. And being 19 and reading Kristoff doesn’t count. Some small NGO’s are agile and well managed and if they have the resources they can help, but there is a challenge in coordination and doubling of efforts.”
  • “They’re like hipsters: super easy to mock. But maybe just maybe we should reserve our mockery for the enormous for-profit development firms that regularly generate batshit clusterfucks on a scale no MONGO –not even a celebrity-run MONGO– could ever match. That girl who runs a one-person NGO teaching yoga to ex-combatants? She’s fun at parties and has no money. Let’s talk about Chemonics. Snarking on MONGOs is fun, but let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s not serious.”
  • “I think if they want to work to address to a particular problem in a particular place where no one else is working then it can be a good thing. if it’s just ‘water in africa’ probably best to use people already doing that.”

It has been argued that the aid industry has three parts:  the beneficiaries, the donors and the aid workers (you!), and what the data shows is that MONGO’s create concerns about all three of these prongs.  Many of you felt that these smaller organizations harmed the entire industry for a variety of reasons. Other major issues included incompetence, corruption, ineffectiveness, poor preparation and questionable intent.  Here are some examples of what you said illustrating the many negative views, some of which are very critical and offer no reason for the reactions, but others offering a bit of depth in their critiques:

  • “Small NGO is a waste of financial and human resources. It also create confusion among the beneficiaries and the donors.”
  • “It is inline with the online age of personal world wide connection. MONGO’s are generally more efficient with their resources but lack the resources to demonstrate that they are effective. It is easy for a MONGO to fail which also brings down the reputation of the industry”.
  • “Most people I’ve met conducting this type of work are hardcore idealists who genuinely want to make a difference. However, they lack the realism and practical skills to further the organization from the backyard-project level. In fact, most of the time these are conducted by expats who are not always accepted by the local community, and they think good will is enough to make a change, but it evidently isn’t. It takes extraordinary beneficiaries to meet them halfway, but most of the beneficiaries just don’t care about that white person’s crazy idea, they’re too busy living their lives within their context, and the initiative will die out before it has any sort of measurable impact. The remaining MONGOs I’ve encountered are people stealing money and justifying it through creative financing.”
  • “More prone to corruption, less likely to have strong mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability, more likely to rely on unrestricted funding from private donors (which exacerbates the first two challenges), less likely to have any genuinely collaborative/democratic internal decision making processes.”
  • “In my experience, some are really fantastic, but others are at best laughable and at worst causing harm. Those I have seen that are most effective is when the organization is truly community-based and is founded and run locally with a specific focus. Those founded by well-intentioned white people who “just couldn’t stand to see the suffering” are the worst.”
  • “When they originate from the West: hate them. I’m sorry, but we dont need another church group flying out to country X to build another goddamn orphanage. If it’s a local organization supporting their own community thsn I’m all for it.”
  • “MONGOs are wasteful because the majority of one’s I know are incapable of recognizing that they are reinventing the wheel. They don’t even know the next NGO down the road, and repeat efforts. Guatemala has tons of NGOs and many of them serve the same populations. There is a lot of serving the same populations over and over again with the same services. They often refuse to collaborate. The worse are international tiny NGOs that have no clue how things work in country. They execute things badly and are very often uninformed of government policies and interventions in the field they work in.”
  • “I would like to sponsor an anti-NGO proliferation treaty. There are too many NGOs, lacking coordination, going after less funding, and all claiming to have the best solution, so they’re less willing to learn.”
  • “Noise. Their mistakes are blown up into ‘sector problems.’ They ruin it for the larger entities. Charity is not humanitarian work.”
  • “Well, they are called MONGOs for a reason – b/c the focus is on “my own” and not the work they are doing. This is exactly the type of stuff aid organizations are training political parties about – to be about the stakholder articulated needs and not your cult of personality.”
  • “Can’t stop them as some people are impelled to do something when they see a disaster or crisis. However, they are sometimes symptomatic of the lack of trust people have in the larger humanitarian organisations. We need to be better at explaining and justifying our overheads, added value and the economy of scale we can provide particularly in the big disasters. We absolutely have to do this in conflict arenas to reduce the number of people risking their lives going off in a small van with bit of clothing and a few medicines.”mongo_1350076255_600x275
  • “In Nepal, there are more than 30,000 registered local NGOs. Many of these are MoNGOs set up by idealistic foreigners with little technical knowledge and who lack familiarity with the Nepal context. These agencies poorly coordinate with other actors and often work outside the government systems. They often provide donated goods which are of low quality (e.g. Expired meds) and are not purchased on the local markets, thereby undercutting local businesses.”
  • “Ugh. Don’t get me started. Unless they are LNGOs in which case, good on ya if you are making a small, clearly planned impact in your own community.”
  • “KILL THEM ALL. Seriously, can we start weeding out the stupid and ineffectual?”
  • “Generally, I am highly critical and skeptical of USA-based MONGOs (I like this term!) as they generally have little background, experience, or understanding of the communities they’re trying to assist. I also generally take issue with the “at least we’re doing something!” attitude that is rampant among smaller NGOs and their supporters. I have a more positive view of fledgling local NGOs, in general.”
  • “They are petty indulgences normally of middle class white people who want to help someone and feel better about there privilege.”
  • “They should be banned, typically unprofessional, often distort markets, mostly don’t know what they are doing, often doing harm.”


So, what is the take-home from all of the above?  One thing clear is that aid worker professionals have a generally negative view of MONGO’s, but I am assuming most of the people reading this post would say that’s not a new insight (though we do now have some data supporting this commonly held perspective).  That said, what does the general public know about these opinions? If they were more informed about much of the above listed downsides of MONGO’s would they be more cautious about their support and perhaps support the “big box” organizations more?

As for the two Italian young women who remain missing in Syria, and while I wish the best for them, I harbor the thought that in a more well informed world–where aid worker voices are made more public and prominent- this situation might never have happened.

As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.

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