Aid Worker Voices

Exceptionalisms

Using ‘exceptional’ nations as examples of positive deviants

A look around the globe with an eye toward ‘exceptions’ can yield some interesting observations and lead -perhaps- to some useful questions.

Not long ago I spent 5 months in Costa Rica teaching a class which compared the American culture with that of Costa Rica.  What I found doing my background research (see Bowman’s New Scholarship on Costa Rican Exceptionalism) is that these two nations have something in common:  both believe themselves to be exceptional.  American exceptionalism has been an oft used -and maligned- trope for many scores of years, the idea being first offered by the French historian and ethnographer Alexis de Tocqueville back in 1931.  That many nation-states (and before that, empires) see themselves as exceptional is just another manifestation of ethnocentrism or, by its other name, nationalism.

Are there other ‘exceptional’ nations?

Ghana and Namibia have been cited as examples of “African democratic exceptionalism”, with Ghana arguably being an exception in its geographic neighborhood, especially compared to the some bordering nations.  Further east and south of Ghana is Zambia, far more stable than its bordering nations to the north, south, and east,  DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, respectively.

In southeast Asia there is Singapore, a city-state island in a sea of turmoil is hard not to notice as exceptional on many levels.

Though it may be now waning, Chilean exceptionalism was recognized by some for years.

Jordan as a ‘positive devant’?
I have turned my attention in the last six months toward the Middle East and more specifically to the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Why is the organizational hub for this response in Jordan?  At first the answers seem obvious, with all of the surrounding nations ruled out by their current crises and/or lack of apparent neutrality.

But why Jordan?  Is it in some way ‘exceptional’, or restated, a ‘positive deviant’?  The humanitarian aid industry has employed the concept of positive deviance for decades, at least since 1998 when it was used for household livelihoods assessments in Cambodia. This concept has staying power and appears in sector discussions most recently in the context of data driven development.

I am not alone in thinking Jordan exceptional.  The sociologist Dr. Mansoor Moaddel provides some very useful insight in 2002 in his book Jordanian Exceptionalismcarefully outlining the history of the state-religion relationship in this nation.

Applying this concept to a nation as a unit of analysis is, to say the least, problematic.  Accepting that assessment, there are yet some questions that are worth asking not only about Jordan but also of the other ‘exceptional/deviant’ nations around the world.

  • What about their history, politics, leadership profiles, ethnic/tribal/religious makeup and overall cultural configuration have contributed to their successes?
  • Why is it that some nations wax and wane being and being seen as exceptional?
  • What external geopolitical and economic factors play into the depth and longevity of these exceptionalities?
  • Do those in the region depend on these deviants for their guidance or show a need for the stability which they represent?
  • Can their deviance best be seen as a zero-sum or, alternately, a non-zero-sum situation?

In the case of Jordan all of these questions may be relevant, but perhaps one key factor is their leadership profile, with the monarchy being in some way the ‘secret sauce’ that makes this nation so stable.

Below is what one Jordanian had to say.

Hala and I on Skype talking about the history and politics of Jordan as it relates to aid work.

“The Levant has been a mixing bowl of ethnicities from all the region (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Turkey). It stared as early as the 1890s when the first waves of Circassians and Chechens started pouring in from Russia. These communities are well established now and well integrated into what is now known as Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Fast forward a few hundred years to the invasion of Palestinian land by the Zionist movement in the 1940s, thousands of Palestinians fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and even Kuwait. Many of which ended up in Jordan, adding to the already existing population of Bedouin and Caucasian origin. This was not unique to Jordan alone, but to the region in general. These waves of migration continue after the first gulf war and the Sudanese war of the late 1980s, the Iraq invasion in the early 2000s and the Syrian civil war of 2011. Jordan now host people of Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, and Sudanese decent. Jordan is a Suni-Muslim majority country, with a Christian minority population living in peace with one another following more or less the same culture.

In broader context Jordan looks stable compared to its neighbours, but there remains some unrest within its borders, from Bedouin tribe clashes to peaceful sit-ins in response to heightened by the economic stagnation, high inflation and unemployment rates.

Some might argue that Jordan owes its relative stability due to its peace treaty with Israel, and its good relations with the United States, in which they need a “stable” ally in the region. Hence, after witnessing the mass displacement of their Arab counterparts, Jordanians are well aware of the volatility of the region and that it could have easily been them. Many stand behind the leadership of the HRH Kind Abdullah II and credit his efforts for the stability that Jordan is enjoying”.

Asked for a summary of the current situation Hala responded,

“Well I guess it is unique and it isn’t at the same time. I think it’s relatively “stable” because of the unique-ish regional political climate, in which it is playing a small part in what is becoming a clearer picture of what some leaders of countries want [read:  the United States]. I think that Jordan in able to keep the cork in place for the time being, but it might not be that easy down the road…  I think It’s unique that there isn’t any obvious mass killings and bombing, but there are real issues under the surface.”

That Jordan is stable and an ‘exception’ in the region may be true, but the why that is so is a very complex mix of history, geopolitical machinations and, yes, personalities.

Nomothetic versus ideographic
Perhaps the sociologist Max Weber was right, and we can and should avoid the tendency to explain our world by reference to general laws and focus on treating real life examples each as unique and qualitatively different from other social realities.  Jordan is neither Ghana nor Costa Rica nor the United States.  The story of the Levant is important to understand alone, without compromising details and interpretations just so they can fit into a larger global sociopolitical pattern.  History stumbles forward and our best efforts can only yield a tentative understanding of why things are they way they are in the present.

One aid worker colleague put it this way, “I think the “uniqueness” factor is that these countries (with the sum of their history, leaders, complexities, demography, etc.) actually found the balance between a relative quality of life for an increasing number of people, relative political and social stability
because every country-mix is different, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for this, hence the feeling of having cracked the code of the masses.”  When asked, who is driving the search of for this balance? and, can the balance mechanisms in one be applied to another?  she replied simply that “…impossible to take a recipe and apply it elsewhere.”

Indeed.

Extrapolating current trends and directions is our wont as humans, our egotistical and anthropocentric hubris leading us to the conclusion that we can know the past, understand the present, and control the future.

Have we learned anything useful?
Can we learn from positive deviants and make use of their examples as a guide for how to ‘fix’ the present and proactively guide our future?  I am not sure.  Perhaps we should ask the aid workers who used this conceptual tool for household livelihoods assessments in Cambodia back in 1998.

All for now on this excursus.  Back to our regular programming soon.  If you do have comments or questions contact me.

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What can we do?

And the student asked, “What can we do?”

Bringing aid worker voices to students at my university
I can’t take my class on a field trip to the Middle East or to the Jordanian headquarters of some INGO that is part of the Syrian refugee response, but via Skype I can bring meaningful voices into our classroom space.

Last spring I invited an Evil Genius to my class.  Then deployed in Jordan, our class had a chance to learn from J, a 25 year veteran of the sector.  Here is the post about that visit.

At exactly the same point in my Intro to Sociology course this fall -covering a chapter on global poverty and wealth- I again invited a humanitarian to class, this time a young, bright local aid worker named Hala, a Jordanian of Palestinian decent, that I met when I traveled to Amman last August for my research. As I expected, my class listened to our 35 minute chat intently and several were bold enough to ask Hala questions near the end of our session.

I must point out that in this class of 28 students only a small handful indicated they felt confident finding Jordan on a map, and most had no clear idea the scope of the refugee crisis in the region.  I spent class time before our Skype session giving a broad history and overview and then, after we signed off, lectured about (among other topics) the critical role that remittances and cash transfers play in the lives of the refugees.  My intent here being to clarify and expand on the complicated and complimentary support responses being made by the Syrian diaspora and the aid sector.

Hala offering insights to my class.

Our conversation
Given that the audience was, in general, not well informed Hala kept her comments both general and largely positive. We talked about life in the camps and how the traditional cultural norms were maintained as much as possible.  Our conversation touched on the reality that going ‘home’ to Syria was not an option for most families, and that though most refugees (80%) have been integrated into the Jordanian economy in some fashion, those that live in the camps like Azraq and Zaatari have a difficult life, especially when looking into the future.

Hala told me after the session that,

“I didn’t want to paint a negative picture of people who live in traditional/strong cultures as bad or backwards. These cultures exist all around us, even in the U.S, and it is not about pointing fingers, agreeing or disagreeing, it is about recognising them and choosing to respect them, as well as involving them in the conversation. How would these people like to be fed, what is considered the cultural norm and what isn’t?”

“What can we do?”
The prompt I gave my students was fairly simple.  I asked, “What did you learn from Hala and how did your experience in this class learning the sociological perspective help you understand what was being talked about?”

One theme of their responses was captured by this student who wrote, “Hala’s advice to us to help with the Refugee Crisis was to be aware of what is going on and be educated. By saying this, she is telling us to avoid ethnocentrism. We cannot only pay attention to what is going on in our country. We must be global citizens and worry about what is happening to the world around us.”

A view of Azraq, an arid, rocky, and isolated location.

Indeed, on the opening page of my syllabus is this quotation, meant to convey my teaching philosophy and an intellectual charge:

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

This next student shows a deep understanding and provides affirmation that this investment in class time is very positive.

“Hala taught me that bad things happen in the world that are depressing, and as privileged people, we do what we can to help those who have much less and are less fortunate than us. To help me understand privilege from another angle, she explained that Syrian refugees and other families that end up in refugee camps in Jordan have done nothing wrong that caused their current situation. Simply “working harder” or persevering would not allow these people to have a different outcome. In the same way, most students at Elon didn’t do anything better than refugees to grant us access to an upper-level education. She helped me to understand that bad things happen to good people, and we must do our best to educate ourselves on injustices in the world and take action in whatever way we can, from voting for a politician who favors support to refugees to donating money to the cause.

Learning the functionalist perspective in this class helped me understand different elements of Hala’s talk with us over skype; for example, the functionalist explains how all elements of society are interconnected. Hala talked a lot about the interaction with the refugee crisis in the Middle East with the economy. As a sociologist, I can begin to understand how adding thousands of new families to an area with limited jobs and resources can add pressure to the economy as well as competition for jobs and substinence to support a family. Adding more cash flow through remittances and donations stimulates growth in the economy since people have more to spend, which will allow businesses to thrive. 

While Hala wants to have hope for the refugee situation in Jordan and other host countries, she illustrated her struggle in seeing an improved world for these people. One quote that we’ve discussed in class was, “What is the line that separates those who are merely moved and those who are moved to act?” Hala’s talk has moved me and my fellow students, but I wonder who will be moved to act.  Anyone can use their privilege to benefit those who are much less fortunate, and our talk with Hala has solidified my desire to do so.”

Most of the student responses were equally insightful.  I’ll end with this one which ends with a very mature statement.

” One thing that stuck out to me was at the very end of speaking with Hala, a classmate asked, “Is there anything we can do to help.” At first Hala said that really there is not much we can do. She seemed stumped by this question. But then she went on to talk about how we must educate ourselves, and educate others on the situation and to always be aware. I took from this that in order to prevent situations like these from happening, we are fortunate to have it not directly affect us, but we must be aware and ready to help and spread awareness.  Hala knows the situation in Jordan is not good, but her positive outlook on life is something I won’t forget. As she spoke to us she never seemed angry or upset, she seemed just as if she is constantly looking ahead. She explained that [INGO’s] help by sending them food and water, but even so, they are in the middle of the desert, receiving minimal treatment. The sociological perspective makes me thankful for the life that we have here, but also makes me want to learn more about those who have completely different backgrounds than I, have a different life than I, but do not deserve less than I.” (emphasis added)

One more thoughtful student response.

Several times in class I have mentioned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a high-water mark in terms of our global commitment to a more just world for all, and this student appears to have taken this seriously.

 

A needle moved?
So, what was accomplished by having this local aid worker from Jordan talk to a bunch of young undergraduates from the Global North? Social change is sometimes generated by focused and dramatic historical moments, but more often than not change is caused by the accumulated impact of countless seeds cast onto the vast landscape of our world.  Some of these seeds will germinate immediately, some only after much time has passed. Hala’s words and infectious smile are now part of these student’s memories, and my hope is that in time their actions will, collectively, indeed move the needle forward.

Thank you Hala for your visit!

Feedback, comments, suggestions?  Contact me here.

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My fellow Americans in Puerto Rico

A humanitarian crisis
As I write this the American citizens on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico are suffering from a major humanitarian crisis.  Hurricane Maria struck the island nearly ten days ago and as of today the vast majority of the population is not only without power many, especially in more rural areas, are critically low on drinking water and food.  Puerto Rico’s power and transportation infrastructures, already seriously compromised by previous storms this season and by a chronic lack of both human and financial resources, are broken.

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of Puerto Rico’s capital city has appeared on national media begging that bureaucratic ‘red tape’ be cut so that aid can get to not only her city but to the entire nation.  One massive logjam is tied to The Jones Act, a century old regulatory law for Puerto Rico requiring that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by U.S.-built vessels crewed by U.S. citizens.  Nearly 10,000 shipping containers filled with essential aid have been languishing in port.  As of today (28 September) our president has eased this restriction finally allowing this critical aid to flow more easily.

According to Mayor Cruz there are many examples of how layers of protocol and bureaucratic ‘red tape’ are hindering what have become life and death for Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million residents.

I am following this event closely not only because I am a fellow American but also because as a sociologist studying and researching the humanitarian aid industry I am seeing in real time some of the dynamics that have appeared in the responses to other ‘natural’ disasters around the world.

‘Natural disasters’?
The oversimplified dichotomy ‘natural disaster’ and ‘human-made disaster’ must be questioned on several levels.  That this hurricane season is historic is a matter of fact, and that the magnitude and frequency of these storms appears to be linked to human action induced climate change -specifically warmer waters that provide more energy for these storms- is doubted by only a few.  Maria is ‘natural’, yes, but her strength is ‘unnatural’ and caused by what humans have done (or, in many cases failed to do). How aid is being delivered -or not delivered- since Maria moved north is adding to the disaster.  Delivery of aid in many forms is hindered due to an array of logistically challenging circumstances, to be sure, but human avarice, incompetence, and yes even racism must be considered as factors.

Paul Farmer has referred to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as “acute on chronic” meaning that the quake itself was like a blow to the head to an already health-compromised cancer patient.  In the case of Maria, this storm was the acute event but must be seen in the context of an already weakened island territory.

Square peg in a round hole
How do the local actors -be they government officials like Mayor Cruz, community leaders, staff of local NGO’s, local staff of INGO’s etc.- deal with the complicated and sometimes convoluted world of log frames, assessment tools, accounting protocols, chains of communication demanded by the organizational structures who control the resources that are intended to help their affected communities?  How do the immediate and life-or-death needs of the affected community get addressed in a timely fashion when there are laws to follow and forms to fill out?

Sometimes rules need to be broken in order to save lives and restore dignity, but given the asymmetrical power dynamics that are very apparent in this situation, the default is to kowtow to the external actors -in this case the US government and large INGO’s who are responding- and follow laws and protocols.

From the particular to the general
I have been reading, researching and writing about ‘localization’ of aid and about local aid workers.  I know that many local aid workers -local actors- are frustrated by the situation described above.  As a sociologist looking in on the dynamic, what I see is a chronic and perhaps unavoidable clash between the local organizations that seek immediate concrete actions and external organizations (governments or INGO’s) that are burdened by accountability structures that make them inherently slow and frustrating to deal with.  As Wall and Hedlund put it “….the humanitarian system is in theory already committed to locally-led responses, but this rarely translates into practice. (p. 7)”

More soon.  You can reach me here.

 

 

 

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A sense of humor from a local aid worker in Amman, Jordan

Local aid workers in Amman, Jordan

My recent too-short research trip to Jordan yielded many interviews with local aid workers in Amman and at the refugee camp at Azraq.  The hospitality and openness of all the aid workers I talked with was deeply gratifying and our talks were all extraordinarily productive.

These aid workers and I are now working on a survey instrument that we hope can be widely circulated among local aid workers in and around Amman and perhaps even beyond.

More to come on the content of these interviews, but for now I want to recount an after-hours conversation related to Azraq and refugee camps in general.

Over a couple beers a small group of us traded insights about a range of topics including Trump’s response to the protests and counter protests Charlottesville, the living situation in the various Syrian refugee camps, and the gap between donor interests and real needs ‘on the ground.’  It was agreed that this gap is a constant and pervasive source of frustration in the sector, indeed.

Green space inside kindergarten compound in Azraq.

We talked about the range of ways that one can describe life in a refugee camp.  Many who only do short, controlled visits tend to come away with a
‘glass half full’ image concluding that ‘it really isn’t all that bad’ after seeing cheerful kindergarteners, murals on walls, and football pitches.

A veteran aid worker countered that kind of characterization with the polar opposite, calling Azraq a ‘concentration camp in the middle of a desert’ that serves as a human zoo for voyeuristic donor organization representatives.

The description that you use is matter of perspective and as well your intended audience to be sure. We talked about how to get donors to have a more realistic view of life in the camps, perhaps more along the ‘concentration camp’ lines than the upbeat picture some might paint.

The only way for the donors to really know what life is like living on the ground in a T-shelter with no running water and or proper sanitation, it was offered, would be to have them actually live in the camp for at least 48 hours.

“But what would they do all of that time?” was asked.  “And what about security?”

Hala

In response to the security question a young Jordanian female aid worker at the table quipped,

“Well, at least they [the donors] wouldn’t have to worry about anyone coming after them with tiki torches.”

Mic drop.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

More local aid worker voices coming soon as I sort through my notes and continue work on the survey.

Reach me here or on Twitter @tarcaro.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Off the radar: World Humanitarian Day

Our bandwidth is flooded
As I write this World Humanitarian Day -19 August- is just three days away, but in the minds of most in the US it might as well be, distressingly, never.

The events of the past weekend and reactions thereto in #Charlottesville, Virginia are dominating all social and network media.  And for good reason.  We have a president (lower case appropriate in this case) who, though quite capable of calling out and condemning countless targets, many trivial, has provided at the very least tacit support for neo-Nazis and all manner of white supremacists.

Though the memes have been entertaining, I find all of these events profoundly disturbing and I admit getting caught up in the emotions and feel a need to do something.

As a faculty member at a mid-sized liberal arts university privileged to teach sociology I commit myself to educating young minds about the power of analytical thought using empirical evidence -facts- as a basis from which to understand the world in general and events like #Charlottesville specifically.

I will do so, though, making sure they appreciate the connections between their world and the larger global ‘community.’  The massive, pervasive and utterly cancerous phenomena of ‘othering‘ must be addressed in detail and with historical context, and we will examine and attempt to understand all of the relevant social forces -economic, historical, political, technological and so on- that move our collective lives forward.

Connecting the local to the global
The end goal in my classes always has been to have my students make connections for themselves. At the top of my syllabi are these words:

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

So, yes, for most in the US World Humanitarian Day will be a non-event, but at least for my students there will be discussions putting our current local US events into a broader context.

Here’s specifically how
By coincidence I start travel to Amman, Jordan 19 August -World Humanitarian Day- to further my research on local aid worker voices, this time in Jordan.  I will use this experience to open the eyes of my students by telling small stories and having them read, research, and then write about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq and press themselves to make analytical and critical connects between the ‘othering’  there and that in the US.

My action here is a small and perhaps purely academic act, to be sure, but it allows me to believe that I am doing something.  I will press them as I press myself to do more, but always keeping in mind Mandami’s words.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The future of aid is the end of it

The future of aid is the end of it: the bigger picture of aid localisation

Insights by Arbie Baguios

The World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 called for aid localisation. Although by how this phrase is often used one would think aid is yet to be ‘localised,’ when in fact, according to ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report in 2015, 80% of the 4,278 registered NGOs worldwide are national organisations, and 87% of the 249,000 aid workers are local or national staff.

What the summit actually called for was to increase the share that local humanitarian actors receive out of the global aid budget. Despite local actors being the fastest and most effective aid providers, the Global Humanitarian Assistance report found that in 2016 they directly received a meagre 0.3% out of the USD 27.3bn global spend on aid.

Aid is already ‘localised’ – power within the aid sector is not.

Over the past few months, my colleague and I surveyed local aid workers from the Philippines to get their views on a range of issues including localisation. Responses on this particular question were evenly split: 33% thought aid work in the Philippines was quickly becoming localised, while 30% did not. One comment read: “While staff composition is becoming localized, key power holders are still expats and decision making is still with global HQs.”

Most other comments on that question rightly pointed out the issue about funding (e.g., “[B]ecause of the funding mechanism and availability, international organizations would still dominate…”). But true localisation of aid – that is, the localisation of power within the aid industry – is more than just about who gets the money (although it is a significant part of it). Sometimes it’s also about who gets the job.

All aid workers lives’ matter?
There are a number of issues on and around ‘aid workers’ – not least of which are the ‘local staff vs expat staff’ and ‘Global South aid worker vs Global North aid worker’ debacles.

These have been exhaustively debated in many places, especially online and including on our blog. When these get brought up on the Internet, I notice a predictable reaction: people get defensive. The next time this gets talked about on Facebook or Twitter, play bingo: spot that one guy who always use the most extreme example like Afghanistan or South Sudan; or the aid worker equivalent of, “My best friend is from the Global South!”; and even the outright dismissal of the problem as an insignificant cliché or a non-existent myth.

In our work, when a community member registers a complaint against our programmes, we are compelled to resolve the issue – regardless if it’s real or perceived. If someone said they feel a form of injustice because they were not included in the beneficiary list, a capable BenComms officer would handle this by explaining the beneficiary selection process and then telling them how the programme is helping their neighbourhood, too. We cannot say the injustice they feel is simply not true; instead, we listen, acknowledge, and address.

In the same way, until the ‘local vs expat’/’North vs South’ problem is systemically addressed within the aid sector, there will always be tweets and blogs and Fifty Shades of Aid posts that highlight and criticize the inequalities and injustices (real or perceived) between the two.

It’s time the aid sector acknowledges and addresses the elephant in the expat lounge. We can begin by asking questions and getting the facts.

Perhaps NGOs could publish the statistics on their staff: how many are locals vs expats? Of the expats, how many are from the Global North and how many are from the Global South? If one group is disproportionately (under)represented, why? Between locals and expats, what is the average pay difference and how is their pay calculated? What is the system or criteria used when a role is advertised as expat or local? What development opportunities do they provide to local staff who wish to move on to expat roles?

Maybe we could ask international NGOs headquartered in London or Washington or Brussels: what are they doing about the fact that they are an international NGO but are unable to get visas for international staff, particularly from the Global South? Have they tried to collectively negotiate with the home affairs ministries of their governments? We opine how it is increasingly difficult for expats to get visas in countries like South Sudan or Kenya (and in fact we form government advocacy groups to address this), but accept by default that, outside of the UN, it is virtually impossible to employ non-nationals in the UK, US or EU.

Until we have these data and facts which will enable us as a sector to come to an informed analysis on the issue – in short, until we finally systematically address it – I’m afraid most discussions will only be inundated by anecdotal evidence about how one time in Maiduguri this guesthouse was full of Kenyan expats.

But I’d like to believe the aid localisation agenda means something so much more than this. Beyond being about funding or staff, aid localisation is ultimately about the future of our societies.

A world vision?
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire tragedy in London, I volunteered at the designated assistance centre. The programme to support those affected by the tragedy is similar to many international humanitarian operations: the government has taken the lead and coordinates with civil society organisations to provide cash, food and NFIs, and medical and psychosocial support.

In the Global North, most small- to medium-scale emergency responses resemble international humanitarian work (such as cash transfers for fire victims in Canada or NFI distributions after floods in England) sans INGOs flying in and expats getting deployed. And ‘development’ issues like poverty, employment, education or infrastructure are sorted out by their national government, never UN agencies.

At a talk at the LSE, Dr Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, introduced the concept of ‘global convergence of aspiration.’ Through technologies like the Internet, someone from somewhere poor can learn to want the same things from somewhere rich. Think of a rural teenager wanting to enjoy the same nightlife he sees on Facebook from his cousin from the city; or a girl from Southeast Asia desiring to go to that same prestigious university in London her favourite YouTube star went to.

This ‘convergence of aspiration’ can be experienced not just on an individual level but on a societal level, too. Just ask any Filipino standing in line for hours for the train what kind of public transportation system they’d want to see in their country. I bet their answer would be somewhere along the lines of, “Just like America’s!” or “Just like Singapore’s!”

As a Filipino aid worker based in an HQ in London, I feel this way about my country’s humanitarian and development sector. I’m sure I speak on behalf of many Filipino aid workers when I say that my vision is for my own country to be able to address its development issues on its own and respond to its emergencies without requiring international assistance.

Respondents of our survey are under no illusion about the current capacity of Philippine society: “The aid sector proliferates [here] because our own government consistently fails to address the many problems that beset our country,” reads one comment. But they look on to a singular horizon: “The Philippines should also begin to take on most of the leadership roles in development as a middle income country,” states another.

Beyond how INGOs trickle down the funding to their local partners, or whether the expats they employ are from the Global South, I’d like to think that, ultimately, this is what’s at the heart of aid localisation: a reasonable aspiration for countries to have the capacity and resources to solve most of their own problems.

The end of aid?
This concept isn’t new. Not so long ago the phrase du jour for aid workers was to “work our way out of a job.” But this idealistic vision for the future has somehow faded in favour of trying to fix a ‘broken system.’ By its nature, however, a ‘system’ is adaptive (a favourite aid jargon!) and aims to preserve itself.

A report called “The Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030” published in July 2017 by the Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network (IARAN) states that international organisations are at risk of irrelevancy due to, among other things, the rise of local and national aid actors. The Guardian, referencing the report, wrote that aid charities must “change or die.”

I wonder, though: shouldn’t we just, well, let it die?

The report says: “With the growth of national NGOs and the creation of South-South alliances, national NGOs will grow in scale and importance and occupy more of the humanitarian space. The power balance between NGOs and INGOs will shift.” If this is so, why swim against the tide? Shouldn’t the call to action, then, be to ensure that current global attempts to ‘reshape aid’ truly disrupt the status quo and head towards the South’s greater independence from international assistance?

Final thoughts
To be clear: I believe in aid. I believe that as long as poverty or crises ‘somewhere else’ are broadcast to the world, there will always be a need for an international system that can effectively manage the inevitable outpour of public philanthropy. I believe that humanitarian assistance will remain necessary in particular contexts, such as in conflicts or overwhelming large-scale sudden onset disasters.

This transfer of resource is always welcome. But I hope we continue to see the transfer of power, too. I hope to see an aid sector where the most affected people, and the institutions within their own society, are the ones who get to decide and implement the solutions to their own problems. (And, perhaps most importantly, I hope that these solutions lead to such a point where future problems are minimised and more locally manageable.)

The aid localisation agenda is, as we often fondly say in this sector, complex. Nations’ and communities’ self-sufficiency is inextricably bound to wider social, economic and political realities far outside the remit of our sector. Although if we are to drive localisation’s momentum forward, the self-preserving aid system must be shaken up; and the business-as-usual way of working between donors, INGOs, Global South actors, and local communities needs to be rethought.

As we carry on with our industrial churn of budgets, logframes, gantt charts, and other minutiae of the business of aid, we should try to remember once in a while, and no matter how hazy, the bigger picture of aid localisation: one where all nations and communities – local people – are able to solve their own problems.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Non-local local?

Non-local local?

This is a follow-up to my last post and also a prelude to my next where I’ll examine the qualitative data from the last two questions on our survey of Filipino aid and development workers.  Arbie and I are almost done with the series and are beginning the process of summarizing.

Non-local local
Looked at from afar most phenomena may appear monolithic, but the closer one gets the more diverse and nuanced the object of your observation becomes.

So it is with ‘local’ aid and development workers.

Though I want to think I knew this already, the following comment from a young male Filipino aid worker employed by an INGO made me realize more explicitly something that is now embarrassingly obvious, namely that all ‘local’ aid workers are not, well, local.

“As an aid worker, you can be stationed away from your family and thus you feel lonely and homesick. Your co-workers will become your second family. It will be great if there are more team-building activities, group sessions to stregthen the bond and camaraderie of aid workers. Sometimes, you drown yourself with selfless hardwork and with utmost dedication that you lose yourself unknowingly.”

What he says about co-workers becoming surrogate families, the need for team-building, and working so hard that you “lose yourself unknowingly” are familiar sentiments to most aid and development workers around the world, local or expat. But what I did not see more clearly until I took a closer look was that not all ‘local’ aid workers are indeed local.  To my knowledge there are no country-wide data on what percentage of Filipino ‘local’ aid workers live at (or very close to) home versus those that are many hours (or even days) travel away from their homes.  I have made a note to myself that on all future surveys of local aid and development workers this question will be asked in some form.

In the same way that most HQ-based aid workers in London or New York aren’t necessarily originally from London or New York, the same is so for aid workers in the Global South. Those who work in the capitals may not necessarily be from that city, and those aid workers assigned to remote project areas may be from somewhere else, too.

Arbie has an example from his experience: while visiting a project site in a small, remote rural town in the Philippines, he noticed how a significant number of the staff based there were from elsewhere (and they also couldn’t speak the local language). He also noticed how some staff who were actually from that area were initially skeptical when new colleagues from Manila were deployed to their town.

My collaborator -Arbie- and I offer the guesstimate that as many as 30-40% of Filipino aid and development workers are ‘non-local local’, this figure varying widely depending upon many factors including time frame, industry sector, and the nature of response activities.  Scoping out a bit, I wonder how this compares in other locations around the world.

Image from http://www.wonderroot.org/

Speaking of binaries
On the theme of looking more closely, I’ll offer two additional ‘binary busting’ thoughts.  First, the fact that ‘local’ aid and development workers are at the same time beneficiaries (either directly or indirectly) complicates and makes even more interesting research questions about a range of topics. As for the ‘aid vs. development’ binary, the same can be said.  Here’s one comment from a veteran female development worker employed by an INGO that illustrates this blurring.

“Development work has been of great interests to many Filipino workers since PH have been affected by several large-scale disaster in the last 7 years.”

Aid work becomes development work and the two burr together over the years, especially in the lives and minds of those ‘locals’ working in the sector.

All for now. Contact me with questions or comments.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Addressing the binary illusion of ‘expat vs local’ aid workers

“…today’s expat aid worker can be from anywhere and go to anywhere.”

-J (Evil Genius)

Addressing the binary illusion of ‘expat vs local’ aid workers

False binary
Very simple message here.

Bluntly put, the ‘expat versus local’ narrative perpetuates a sloppy false binary. In order to articulate our understanding of the world we all tend to shorthand toward generalizations that make sense in terms of our lived experience, most of the time unconsciously so.  We see and understand the world around us through the lens of our most recent experiences which most times are in a somewhat fixed in location.  Even the most learned among us default to overreachingly broad comments to make a point.

Color me guilty as well.

Badass sociologist C. Wright Mills

One antidote for this tendency was described in the mid-20th century by C. Wright Mills, an American sociologist who coined the phrase “the sociological imagination.”  Using this tool, one habitually takes the broadest appropriate view of issues both temporally and geographically. But the danger here is literally TMI, ‘too much information’ and thus tends to handcuff the thinker with ‘the paralysis of analysis.’

As discussions about the status of all aid and development workers moves forward we can do well to clarify our talking points, definitions, and points of view.  This, and ask some hard questions.

‘Tales of hunting’
That the narrative driving much (most?) discourse in the sector -including the ‘expat v local’ is dominated by
a global north, largely white and relatively privledged population seems apparent.

That said, this is being written by a global north, relatively privileged white male, so it could be argued that my perspective is inherently biased as well. Neither Mills nor I can defend that barb except to say that as much as sociology is a science and scientific knowledge is transcendent then, yes, with effort, objectivity, and clarity our observations can be viewed as useful.  But I digress.

As an aside, if someone responds that “all [aid worker] lives matter” are they are saying, in effect, “all lives matter”, and do we really want to go there?

Clarifying observations?
Of the hundreds of thousands around the globe right now doing what can be called aid and development work (and yes, I know I am driving some readers crazy inferring the two are conflated), there are many who defy easy categorization.  J (Evil Genius), points out that,

“Much of the local (and international) angst about expats seems to be grounded in some outdated (and often also ethnocentric) assumptions about who the expats are and where they’re from. When @TMSruge (low-hanging fruit example) rants on about expats in Africa, he’s not talking about the gazillion Chinese, nor is he talking about all the Filipinos, nor is he talking about all the Kenyans in Uganda, or all the Ugandans in South Africa, or all the South Africans in Mali. He’s talking about the white dudes (and to a lesser extent, white women because they seem to do more selfies)….”

What percentages of all aid and development workers from the global north fall onto one of the following three buckets:

  • Those exclusively doing work in their home country.
  • Those who work mostly outside of their home country.
  • Those who work exclusively outside of their home country.

Same question, but what percentages of those from the global south fall into each of those buckets?

Here is a simple 2×2 table illustrating my views on the perception versus reality regarding aid workers.

As J (quoted above) goes on to point out, any discussion of ‘expats versus locals’  “needs to be nuanced around the fact that today’s expat aid worker can be from anywhere and go to anywhere.” He goes on to say “… it needs to be further nuanced around the motivations and expectations of the various categories and sub-categories within the very broad “expat.” I suspect (this would be an amazing question to study… 😉 😉 ) that the reasons white Western people go into international aid work is different from the reasons all the Kenyans, Congolese, Zimbabweans, and Ugandans do. Which are probably different still from the reasons why Japanese, Singaporeans, and Sri Lankans so…”

I hear that J is working on a non-fiction book tentatively titled “Expat” and I look forward to learning from his well thought out insights that, I suspect, would make C.Wright Mills proud.  As someone who has ‘been there, done that’ more than most, I know he has a wide angle perspective worth a read.

Another false binary
That the convenient ‘global north/global south’ distinction is also a false binary complicates our analysis further.  Certainly the ‘gazillion Chinese’ mentioned above stress this distinction. One consideration is that most nations are not ‘one nation’ in many senses.  Though from the outside China might be painted as a monolithic whole, the differences between the perceptions, actions, and agency of the elites in Shanghai or Beijing and the rural poor in the Xinjiang region are stark and significant.

To even further deepen the discussion one aid worker pointed out that “…in my experience, those that are ‘local aid workers’ don’t necessarily know that they’re working in aid.”  She makes a good point and raises the question as to how all aid workers see themselves in terms of the ‘expat/local’ and ‘North/South’ taxonomy.  My guess is that a massive number would reject such simplistic and narrow pigeon holes.  Perhaps we -yours truly included- should as well.

Semantics
Above I have addressed both the ‘expat vs. local’ and the ‘Global North vs. Global South’ issues in a way that I hope will raise even more questions and offer a small ray of light.  Clarifying what we are talking about -and then talking about the same thing with each other- is productive, and perhaps some of the above moves us in that direction.  For my part I will continue researching and reporting aid worker voices in general and more specifically on the whole topic of ‘ localization’, whatever that means.

Have a link you recommend that I look at, a reading suggestion, or comments in general?  Contact me.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

‘Localization’ and brain-drain in the Philippines (and elsewhere)

 ‘Localization’ and brain-drain in the Philippines (and elsewhere)

This is a followup post to one I wrote several weeks ago about what ‘localization’ means in the Filipino context.

Sobering to say, recent events in Manila and in Marawi are now testing the resiliency of Filipino culture and the mettle of the civil sector, including humanitarians. An even closer look at the response seems ever more urgent.  In the meantime, here are some further thoughts on ‘localization.’

The UK based Start Network defines the term ‘localization’ here as “a series of measures which different constituent parts of the international humanitarian system should adopt in order to re-balance the system more in favour of national actors, so that a re-calibrated system works to the relevant strengths of its constituent parts and enhances partnership approaches to humanitarian action.”  Their mission, in part, is to foster, “…a system that reduces the power of centralised institutions and bureaucrats and gives more control to communities and individuals on the front line of every crisis.” A ‘Grand Bargain‘ indeed.

I offer that perhaps the term should be not ‘localization’ but rather ‘re-localization’ or even ‘de-paternalizing’.  My point regarding ‘re-localization’ is that historically the Filipino culture -like all viable cultures- have many systems in place to insure appropriate response in times of crisis:  people pull together during disasters.  I discuss the sociological groundings for this observation here.  As for ‘de-paternalization’ I point to 400+ years of colonial and neocolonial influences that remain an integral part of the Filipino historical, sociocultural, political and economic landscape.

Getting into the weeds with regards to the Grand Bargain
Localization means building the capacity of local and national humanitarian aid and development entities, but these efforts are sometimes hampered by the fairly common phenomena of ‘cherry-picking’ the best and brightest local staff to work for INGO’s.  The Start Network looked at this phenomena and used the Philippines as a case study, arguing that recruitment and hiring practices of some INGO’s were undermining local capacity.

In the end their report makes sound recommendations.  In broad strokes I do think that ‘localization’ in the Philippines is (1) going in a positive and progressive direction and (2) can and should continue to proceed with all deliberate urgency.  Our survey data support these views (see the whole series of posts on this blog reviewing our data from Filipino aid and development workers).

But is there a negative side to ‘localization’?

A down side to ‘localization’?
In this hyper-globalizing world with fluid or non-existent economic boundaries, ‘brain drain’ is a significant issue.  This is true for all manner of sociopolitical entities, all the way from small villages to nations.  Any list of entities impacted by brain drain certainly includes local aid and development CBO’s and NGO’s in the Philippines and elsewhere.  Brain drain in the Philippines is significant, with 10% of the population living abroad (the highest percentage living in the US).  In looking at this issue much emphasis has been placed on the medical field for good reason.

Brains and talent may leave the Philippines but all is not lost, far from it.

Looking at data from the World Bank, we can see that globally remittances have almost doubled in the last decade going from US$330 billion in 2006 to US$601 billion in 2015.

“Of that amount, developing countries are estimated to receive about $441 billion, nearly three times the amount of official development assistance. The true size of remittances, including unrecorded flows through formal and informal channels, is believed to be significantly larger.” [emphasis added]

The Philippines is the world’s third top remittance receiving nation with nearly US$30 billion in 2015, behind only India and China.  This sum represents 10% of their total national GDP.

Though the Philippine Development Plan hopes to curb brain drain the fact remains that impact of Filipinos moving abroad to work is significant.  No one knows with certainty the amount of money flowing into the Philippines every year from remittances, but if indeed this figure dwarfs that of all development funds coming in (see above), one has to wonder if, in the end, brain drain may be a good thing after all.

The tragedy of the commons:  everyone is making rational decisions
But whether or not brain drain is good or bad may be a moot question.  Both people and organizations tend to make decisions based on their own self interest, and, to put a fine point on this, if I am a young, mobile, highly trained and skilled aid or development worker the most rational thing I can do is to seek out -or respond positively to- job offers from INGO’s, especially if they pay more.  For their part the INGO’s are responding to the very positive and progressive goal of having a diverse team employed that, well, are not all from the global north.  Making policy and practice suggestions like the Start Network has done is useful and necessary, but may not hit at the fundamental reality that the humanitarian sector is part of the larger global employment/economic system.

Final thought
Allowing for the open labor market to control the flow of workers -labor commodities- by an ‘invisible hand’ implicitly supports a neoliberal agenda.  The brain draining, capacity sucking, cherrypicking of skilled ‘local aid workers’ will continue, hampering the ‘localization’ of the aid and development sector in the Philippines and the rest of the global south.  This is so because most of us fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room that is the global economy which inexorably responds to the largely unquestioned system of free market capitalism.

Comments and questions?  Yes, reach me here.

 

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What is corruption?

“One man’s corruption is another man’s wealth redistribution system. I find it hard to judge others on this.”

What is corruption?

This is pretty much low hanging fruit, I know, and way past due.

Impacting how the aid sector responds to corruption
My simple thesis in this post is that as the entire humanitarian sector deals with corruption of various kinds, the Trump administration, a perfect example of what some might call nepotism, is providing a model -justification?- for other leaders around the world thus making it ever more difficult for aid workers at all levels to confront these behaviors.

The negative, unintended consequence of this US example is that it gives great support to arguments -at all levels, from the village to the Presidency-  that hiring family and friends despite lack of qualifications is acceptable. This NY Times story puts Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the middle of the Russia investigation, and provides an example of how nepotism can play out.

Why OK there and not here?
How does a country director anywhere in the world deal with the very simple and compelling question, “if is is OK in the US why isn’t it OK here?” Laws in the US regarding the legality of this apparent favoritism and nepotism in the current US administration are not clear, at least to some, but at the very least the past 6 months in the US seen behaviors modeled at the highest levels that lie in direct opposition to how, for example, the global north would have governments in the global south to function.

In the survey the J (Evil Genius) and I completed in 2014 we asked about corruption and many aid workers had some very astute observations. Here’s one:

This respondent, a thirty-something female, further critiques the development sector and waxes poetic about the nature of the human condition, imperialism and the fine semantic distinctions that arise when talking about corruption:

“In the organisation, it is bloated with money and many people simply gorge at the trough of development aid. I am thankfully removed from this in my field, I have little reason to interact with others in my organisation. I do see the old boys network everywhere, the British upper middle classes in particular seem to have taken over other organisations, such as parts of the UN for example. Corruption is endemic to the human condition however. Regarding the region (mostly Africa) – there is a fine line between helping ones friends and families and corruption, in some cultural contexts this line is not where we expect. It is imperialism to impose our values on others like this when we have so much ‘acceptable’ corruption in our own private and public sector. We should get our own house in order (for me, the UK) before we judge others.” [emphasis added]

Positive direction
This issue is complicated at best.  Perhaps what we need are policies -both internationally and in the US- which articulate specific qualification rubrics for making appointments of influence by Presidents and other leaders.  These rubrics would not necessarily disqualify friends and family, but would move in a direction where they would have to at least meet basic qualifications.  Simply having them go through any transparent vetting process at all would serve a very positive function.  Indeed, we need to ‘get our own house in order’ so as to better model for others.

Going one step further, perhaps there should be basic numeracy and literacy tests for leaders in general, but I digress.

Back to our regular programming soon.  In the meantime, contact me with comment or feedback.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University and founder of the Elon's Periclean Scholars program. He has been researching and studying aid and development issues for nearly two decades and most recently published 'Aid Worker Voices' (2016) and is currently working on a second book tentatively titled 'Local Aid Worker Voices.' Currently he is working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

More Posts

Follow Me:
Twitter

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
2014