A snapshot of how sector insiders communicate

Posted on: December 3, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry


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 (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/173574)

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 is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022.

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