‘Moving the needle’ trope

Posted on: April 27, 2018 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“How do we weigh the unforeseen and often unforeseeable negative results of our humanitarian interventions?” -James Dawes, That the World May Know, p. 16 “I sing the song because I love the man.” -Neil Young Primum non nocere [first, do no harm], indeed As background preparation for class I am re-reading William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts, and this has lead to re-visiting some fundamental ideas about aid, development, the humanitarian imperative, and, well, what it all means.  This reflection has led me again to the question many of us ask at various stages of our career, namely ‘what difference am I making in the world?’  So, for a bit, I am jumping down that rabbit hole once again, knowing already my destination, but unable to stop myself. The trope ‘move the needle’ has been used in popular discourse for decades now, and has even achieved cliche status in the…

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Trump, Putin, and the Tatmadaw

Posted on: October 23, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

    [Below is a note to a colleague on his way to Bangkok for discussions regarding the Rohingya situation.]   My esteemed colleague, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…” -Lord Acton I am keenly aware that quoting the words of a colonialist -let alone a British colonialist- to begin this message is perhaps the height of irony. Acton’s words, though, are relevant to my observations below. I read the document you sent to me [as background for your high level meeting in Bangkok to discuss the situation in Maynmar regarding the Rohingya]. Thank you. I have been thinking a great deal about the situation in Myanmar and what can be done to create a different political narrative in that country. Enlarging my scope of attention, I see my own country, the United States, being very much influenced by the…

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On World Refugee Day 2022 let us remember that education is a basic human right

Posted on: June 18, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

  On this World Refugee Day 2022 let us not forget that all refugees have a right to an education Listen to a poet As a sociologist I am fully aware of how complex social reality is. In this ever globalizing world where cultural histories are now blending together, the task of capturing all the detailed nuance of one’s life is a daunting undertaking. Poetry is a time honored tool women and men from all over the world have used to artfully articulate observations about their lives and about the culture(s) in which they live and act. Poets are lay sociologists using an alternate language structure to share powerful insights. My goal with this essay is to comment on education as a basic human right and I can think of no better way to start than to use poetry. Below are two poems by Rohingya refugee Roshidullah Kyaw Naing, soon…

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Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector

Posted on: February 21, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector Available now on Amazon and Kindle is my latest book Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector. This is a beta version and I will be deleting, editing, and perhaps adding in the next several months. Please let me know if you’d like to be a beta reader or would like a review copy. This is a compilation of blog posts from the past several years covering a wide range of topics. Here is the the Introduction Since publishing Aid Worker Voices in 2016, I have been blogging frequently about the humanitarian aid world. In addition to interviewing countless humanitarians, reading a constant flow of books, articles, and web pages, I have also taught a global social problems course for the last five years. In this class, I have always focused on the nature of the humanitarian system and have frequently invited into my class…

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Thoughts on witnessing

Posted on: January 20, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope” -Cornel West, American author and activist Thoughts on witnessing   The act of witnessing As a first year grad student in 1975 I served as a teaching assistant to a large lecture section of Introduction to Sociology. Mid way through fall semester the professor covered the topics of race and ethnicity. One bright fall day, without much contextualization, he screened for the class the very powerful 1955 documentary “Night and Fog.” I had not seen this film before nor any like it. I was struck by the stark, brutal, raw, and emotionally wrenching depiction of Nazi death camp atrocities and, frankly, did not know how to react, how to process what I had seen or to deal with what I had witnessed. I had no idea this was just the beginning of a lifetime of intense exposures to…

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Martian thoughts on the humanitarian sector and humanity

Posted on: January 11, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

              Martian thoughts on the humanitarian sector and humanity Nearly a year ago in February 2021 three vehicles launched from Earth visited Mars, and two of them landed on the surface. For some of us, these events served as a small respite from COVID worries, impeachment trials, military coups, and far too many massive humanitarian needs across the globe. Talk of space travel has always excited my imagination and so, in that spirit (and as an homage to Horace Miner) I offer my thoughts on what a Martian might think if they were to visit their neighbor and ask about this idea called the ‘humanitarian imperative’ and other related matters. Martian:  Thank you for allowing me this visit to Earth. Since humans seem to be the apex life form in terms of brain power, may I ask you some questions about ‘humanity’? Sociologist Arcaro: You…

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To know the world as a humanitarian

Posted on: May 20, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“We must make public health decisions based on science, on fact.” -humanitarian worker with a major INGO To know the world as a humanitarian Some general thoughts on epistemology “How do you know that?” is one of the most common questions we ask each other. Stated in its simplest terms epistemology is the study of how we know what we know and how we know we know what we know. Recently I was fortunate enough to get my second Covid-19 vaccine shot; I am now fully vaccinated. When someone asks me how I know that the vaccine works they are asking essentially an epistemological question. My answer is that I know based on the science behind the vaccine and the testing that was done in numerous and ongoing studies to amplify, clarify, and extend the information we have on the efficacy of the vaccine. That is to say, I am…

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Hydra Theory 101

Posted on: April 3, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry, Hydra "privileging forces"

Significantly updated 4-26-21   “My intent has been, is, and will continue to be, that those who read my works shall think and meditate upon fundamental problems, and has never been to hand them completed thoughts. I have always sought to agitate and, even better, to stimulate, rather than to instruct. Neither do I sell bread, nor is it bread, but yeast or ferment.” —Miguel de Unamuno More thoughts on the Hydra: Hydra Theory 101 Preface Humanitarians in all contexts need to be mindful of how privileging forces come in to play in virtually every interaction, person to person or organization to organization; within one’s organization or between the home organization and the affected populations. Awareness of cultural context is paramount, and understanding the Hydra is a useful tool. Standard training for any humanitarian includes defining and identifying examples of ethnocentrism. ‘Ethno’ means group and thus ethnocentrism is seeing everything…

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Humanitarian response to the March 22nd fire in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp

Posted on: March 23, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry, Refugee humanitarians

This post updated 9:00AM Wednesday EST. Humanitarian refugees gut punched by fire In the last couple years I have been honored to work with many Rohingya refugees. Countless interviews, text chats, and discussions have led to writing a series of blog posts, having one (Pan Thar) as a guest in my sociology class, and even co-authoring a poem with another (Ro Anamal Hasan). We have spent the last year trading stories and fears about the Covid-19 pandemic. These (mostly) young women and men have inspired me and challenged my understanding of what it means to witness. I heard about the fire by reading their many feverish updates on Facebook and Twitter; my heart sank. As a 12 year old I was awoken by my father in the middle of the night, our apartment aflame. We made it out, but the trauma of that night lives with me. Even with that…

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A discussion with Ziaur Rahman, Rohingya activist and humanitarian

Posted on: March 6, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry, Refugee humanitarians

A discussion with Ziaur Rahman, Rohingya activist and humanitarian                 Humanitarian action As defined by Maxwell and Gelsdorf1 humanitarian action, broadly speaking, is the protection of life and dignity. Inherently multifaceted, humanitarian action includes eight overlapping realms including security, stabilization, development, sustainability, governance, and rights. Where humanitarian action overlaps with both governance and rights lies humanitarian advocacy. They argue, “Humanitarian action is is always situated in a context of global agendas, and it is often unclear where humanitarian action ends and some other kind of action begins–whether this action is more explicitly political, developmental, economic, or human rights oriented. This question also tugs at the very meaning of ‘humanitarian’- and is by no means resolved.”  (p.7) I cannot agree more, and am constantly challenged by my own shifting views on the meaning of humanitarianism. I’ll readily admit to erring on the side of conflating…

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A conversation with MSF worker Muhammed Hannan in Bangladesh

Posted on: February 14, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

  Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is active in Cox’s Bazar and in the US Covid-19 continues to impact all our lives, unevenly so, with those historically on the margins being hit the worse. Many who live in poverty are often forced to make a choice between working wherever they are able and thus risking infection or isolating, staying safe from the virus only to face starvation. MSF, active in nations around the world, has been responding to the coronavirus health needs of millions, including those affected in the United States. Talking with Hannan in Bangladesh Muhammed Hannan and I have talked many times over the last year or so, mostly about the MSF response to COVID-19 in Bangladesh where he works as a Personnel Administration Manager for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).1 Based in the capital city of Dhaka, Hannan lives with his family. Thankfully, he and his family have remained free of the…

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