Aid Worker Voices

Which is worse?

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

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

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

Here is how the survey was introduced:

Which is worse? (You have to choose…)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

You’re welcome.

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

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



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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An embrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An embrace.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Interview with ‘local aid worker’ Marlene Myers

Interview with Marlene Myers, North Carolina State Refugee Coordinator

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

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

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

Listen here for Marlene’s voice describing refugee contributions.

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

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

Local aid workers, indeed.


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

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

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

Dr. Fadaam with Marlene Myers.

Dr. Fadaam with Marlene Myers.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grounded thoughts from a local aid worker dedicated to serving.

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






Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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A snapshot of how sector insiders communicate


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the posts, with names changed.

Dave Rodgers: Pretty much sums it up.

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

First thread:  what can I do to help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J:  1) Read stuff on a computer.

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

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

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

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

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

J: Sue, Cheers.

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

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

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

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


Second thread: petitions, airdrops, and R2P 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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The impact of the Tump election

Yes, November 8th happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another aid worker noted,trump-effect

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

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

More updates as data roll in.

Click here to take the survey.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Aidnography review of Aid Worker Voices

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The fired get re-hired’-realistic professionalism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Some reviews of Aid Worker Voices

Some reviews of Aid Worker Voices

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

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

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

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

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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Some questions about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Some questions about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as it relates to a more comprehensive picture of aid and development efforts

What does assistance look like from the recipient’s perspective?

In 2012, MSF published In The Eyes of Others:  How People in Crisis Perceive Humanitarian Aid, edited by Caroline Abu-Sada.  I have used selected chapters from this book in my classes in recent years and it is recommended reading for all students in our Periclean Scholars program.  In the very last chapter author Antonio Donini states, “Humanitarianism started off as a powerful discourse; now it is a discourse of power, both at the international and community level (p. 190).”

Indeed.  At play is the control and flow of resources, both human and material, inexorably complicated by cultural (mis)understandings and (mis)perceptions.

It might be useful to revisit the question of what comprises the aid and development sector from a more comprehensive “in the eyes of others” perspective, i.e., from the view within the villages and communities across the world that are the focus of aid and development efforts.  One critical question is whether all those who seek to partner and ‘help’ are part of a confusing and dysfunctional cacophony or comprise a healing, harmonious set of responses.  What comprises the array of people and organizations seeking to help? A comprehensive list of all the entities and actions intending to support economic and/or social equity initiatives in any given location would be long.  [Note:  I recognize that aid and development are inherently different but argue that frequently they far are from separate categories of response and rather lie on a very fluid continuum.]

Below is my effort listing major categories:


  • CSR-International
  • CSR-national
  • Domestic regional/local corporations (CSR)


  • High school and university/college ‘service’ trips, local and national community outreach
  • Fulbright exchanges
  • In country educational institution outreach


  • Remittances
  • Neighbor to neighbor support
  • Local community groups
  • Local philanthropic support

Traditional aid and development organizations

  • Big box NGO’s such as OXFAM, World Vision, MSF, etc.
  • Small “boutique” NGO’s (aka MONGOS)

Governmental organizations

  • United Nations
  • National government schemes (the US Peace Corps, for example)
  • In country nation/state/municipality government schemes

Faith efforts

  • Faith communities-local
  • Faith communities-national
  • Faith communities-International

Given this long and likely incomplete list, it is almost inevitable that there will be a high degree of redundancy in terms of support with various well-intended schemes covering the same needs.  That said, the call for more communication and coordination seems both obvious and impossible.  How can we move the needle toward a more effective system?

On that note, what is known about how one main player -corporate CSR- operates?

Some questions related to CSR efforts
Detailed answers to most of the questions below will be difficult to get, and then only on a case by case basis.  The suggestive list below may allow useful research to move in a positive direction.

  • What is the typical pathway to become part of the CSR teams?
  • How are CSR staff recruited?
  • What training and/or background is required?
  • What steps are taken to maximize cultural sensitivity?
  • How does CRS staff attrition/retention compare to other divisions within the corporation?csr
  • How are non-CRS staff recruited, trained, and placed with regard to volunteer activity related to CSR?
  • To whom do senior CSR staff report?
  • Are there professional development opportunities for CSR personnel related to aid and development work?
  • Are there standard measures of community impact used?
  • To what extent is branding emphasized by CSR staff when messaging their outreach?
  • Are there internal corporate standards/rubrics for ethical and/or effective aid and development?
  • Are there CSR policies for dealing with corruption w/in countries of focus?
  • How do corporate CSR leaders in various locations around the world coordinate with other aid and development organizations (both domestic and international) and with host governments?
  • How do corporate CSR leaders communicate and coordinate with their counterparts industry-wide?
  • Is there a need for a set of guiding principles for all corporate CSR similar to the Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) that exist within the aid and development industry?
  • What are some of the more difficult challenges with regard to CSR outreach?

Getting objective, systematic and thorough answers to the above questions for any one corporation is a place to start, and perhaps that might be a useful next step to get us closer to a world where aid and development efforts are -and are perceived to be in the eyes of those for whom these actions are intended- to more effective, coordinated, and ethical.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback to the above.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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A quixotic next chapter?

A quixotic next chapter?

Aid Worker Voices is now published, and I am ready to start a new chapter.

Next steps?
Having just come off of my work on the lives of aid workers I know that there is much research work to be done that can serve the goal of better coordination and cooperation among and between all organizational entities sharing the goal of addressing pressing humanitarian and development needs on a global scale.

Beyond what I have been referring to as the “aid sector” are many other entities devoting considerable humanitarian oriented energies, perhaps the three most important of which are corporations, higher educational institutions, and the faith community.  That all entities sharing the mission of addressing social justice issues and the short and long term needs of the marginalized should coordinate and cooperate at a much higher level than exists presently cannot be disputed.  How to move the needle in that direction is the question.

One answer lies here, I think.

CHS_Diagram_smallThe Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) are now recognized by the majority of entities within the aid sector and provide a benchmark for sound ethical practice with regard to interactions between aid and development organizations and their object partners and populations. Though an admittedly quixotic goal, I propose that not only should all of the major humanitarian players mentioned above have their own CSR-like standards, but that there should be a universal guide to humanitarian outreach to which all major -and ‘minor’ (e.g., small NGO’s sometimes euphemistically referred to as MONGO’s as in My Own NGO)- entities adhere.

Corporations have the B-Corporation designation, and for nearly a decade this movement, begun in the US, has spread internationally.  The general premise is that B-Corporations function with an eye toward the ‘triple bottom line of  people, planet and profit.’  Higher education neither in the US nor internationally has any comparable generally recognized philosophy of action.  The faith community (writ large), though there are strong efforts at ecumenical cooperation, is in the same boat.

For me personally, one question that is both fascinating and critically important was phrased best by James Dawes in the beginning pages of his book That The World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity.  He asks, “What is the line that separates those who are merely moved and those who are moved to act?”  The inference is that he is referring to individuals but I take license to expand that to organizations as well.

My interest in this general research topic is simple.  Using my skills as a researcher and writer I want to be a meaningful and useful part of the conversation as we move forward in our collective attempts to respond to humanitarian needs locally and globally.

CSR and Cargill
Many agree that the line between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and more traditional ‘big box’ aid and development organizations (OXFAM, World Vision, MSF, etc.) has been blurred for a long time and that in the future these two forces will follow the progressive lead represented by, among others, the long partnership between Cargill and CARE.

My research on CSR tells me that there are many –Cargill perhaps a leader- connections between INGO’s (like CARE) and corporations, but that this connection is not studied in any detail.  There are tons of articles about why corporation should do CSR, but most are from the business angle.  I also know that Cargill-Honduras is very progressive in working with the local communities and that a majority of Cargill employees volunteer in some way.

As one possible path forward, I think it may be useful to proceed with a case-study,  using the Cargill CSR efforts San Pedro Sula as the focus and go into the question of how the communities see Cargill and vice versa.

spsI am sober to the fact that any outside study would need vetting by execs at Cargill (and IRB here at Elon) but here is the bottom line.  As the world gets ever more complex the lines between ‘traditional’ aid and development entities (e.g., Peace Corps, World Vision, CARE, OXFAM, MSF, and so on) are clearly blurred -especially in the eyes of the community members.  There is an increasingly compelling set of reasons why the corporate world and the aid world should communicate and coordinate even more in the future.  This future needs to be informed by a clear set of rubrics and ‘best practice’ examples, and what I propose is preliminary groundwork for this be laid by careful and objective study.  That study could –should?- begin in a location that has both challenges but also much in the way of progressive success, namely San Pedro Sula.

What could come this effort?  More voices heard, more issues uncovered and more bringing together of thought leaders are all possible positive outcomes.  Let’s see what the future holds.

Contact me if you have questions, suggestions or comment.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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More on the blog that turned into a book

Below is a press release from Elon University about Aid Worker Voices.
Here is the revised press release that came out today that includes comments from Becca Price, Elon ’01, who helped in many phases of the project.

Sociologist Tom Arcaro tells the story of the global aid workers using their own voices

The book, published by Carpe Viem Press, is now available

awv-ecoverSept. 23, 2016 — Using expansive insights from more than 1,000 development aid workers around the world, Tom Arcaro tells the stories of their challenges, triumphs and motivations in Aid Worker Voices.” 

This latest book by Aracaro, a renowned professor of sociology at Elon University, is now available on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle edition through Carpe Viem Press. The book is the product of years of work by Arcaro including an in-depth survey of a broad swath of aid workers. Arcaro has distilled the results of that comprehensive survey to produce Aid Worker Voices, a nearly 300-page book that appeals to a wide range of readers. 

“A must-read for whoever is interested in understanding aid workers or wants to become one, as well as for anyone who took part to the “Aid Worker Voices” survey whose results are presented in this book,” says one reviewer on Amazon. “This book does not give solutions to “fix” the aid systems, but paints a quite accurate picture of what aid workers experience in their day-to-day, which is very far from Hollywood representations of it.”
“Aid Worker Voices” is the intersection of multiple interests — Arcaro’s role as director of Project Pericles at Elon, a program helps instill students with a sense of social responsibility and civic concern, and his growing interest in global development aid and those that work in the field. “Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more immersed in development aid material and literature, and reading more and more about development aid workers,” Arcaro said.

Arcaro said he was overwhelmed by the volume of respondents to the survey, which was made available online for about eight months, as well as the depth of the responses that aid workers provided. “The people that responded are the real deal — these are the aid workers with a lot of experience,” Arcaro said. “I was just amazed at the thoughtfulness that some people put into their answers.”

Many took the time to write a “short essay” in response to some survey questions, with Arcaro saying he heard from some that “it was cathartic to do the survey because no one had ever asked them about these things before.”Among the areas explored are the motivations workers as they entered the field, their thoughts on bureaucracies and aid organizations, how faith enters into their work, the impact of their gender on the work they do and how they are received, and issues surrounding race and identity.

Arcaro also dives into the challenges aid workers might face explaining the work they do to those that aren’t involved in the field and why those who have changed careers left this line of work. Arcaro also used the insights he gained from the survey to look at the future of the development aid sector. “It was just fun and frankly an honor to read all of what they had to write,” Arcaro said of the survey responses. “It was humbling that so many took the time to respond so thoughtfully.”

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He founded the Periclean Scholars program in 2003 and has been working on and studying about development issues for nearly two decades.

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