Lessons to be learned in doing less harm

It’s wonderful how turning something on ourselves delivers a fresh perspective. Not necessarily a correct or insightful one. But an interesting one. And yeah, this is going to be about Corona. But like all good Sci-Fi films, this isn’t about the core topic that draws the attention. Just as Another Earth isn’t about the creation of an identical earth within our atmosphere. It’s about accountability, guilt and hopes for redemption. Similarly I don’t want to talk about a virus, a global health risk, or what it will ultimately mean for people. I want to talk about accountability, guilt and hopes for redemption. And all from the most familiar of angles – egocentrism.

This situation starts to uncover some very interesting and familiar dynamics. When people ask humanitarians about their career choice, the explanations are often about external rather than internal need; about inequality not privilege; about wanting to feel like they’re working on something meaningful. Something impactful. And how unintentionally closely wed those last two are. How important it is for us to find meaning in our impact. More on that in a minute. But these are all pull factors. What about the pushes. What made it easy to leave homes, friends, families? And why is that relevant right now? Because some people are being forced to consider reengaging with these. And not necessarily out of choice. The tension in going home comes to light, one that is so often overshadowed by proffered purpose and empathy.

What’s interesting is that there are so many dogmatic narratives of what ‘do no harm’ looks like. And they are mostly about what small steps need to be made to reduce damage, for what otherwise is delivered with crusaid level devotion and moral clarity. We find ways to marginalise our perceptions of the damage we ourselves cause. But it’s much harder to do that when carrying viruses. It’s such a tangible and attributable phenomena, that not even our fragile egos of self-reinforcement could convince us otherwise. Well, most of us anyway.

And so you enter an internal clash. How do you do no harm when you could be carrying a biological weapon, albeit one that may well be released anyway? And the consequent question – should I stay or should I go? Inherent in that question are senses of meaning and assumptions of impact. And when job security is threatened by leaving – what types of risk are we really, honestly, willing to indulge in? And how much are we willing to weigh risks to others versus ourselves? And that’s even before we dig into why.

Some people feel personal risk and bolt, their projected values flimsy in a stiff breeze. Some see wider risk, ignore it and charge into it, tornado chasers if you will, to extend the analogy further than it should of have swept. We should treat these two imposters just the same, these Covid cowards and Corona cowboys. Despite wanting to avoid the whole – ‘there are two types of people in this world’, I am tempted to agree and suggest them as binary reductionists and then the infinite complexity in everyone else. But outside of the CCs, there’s the rest in between. Calculating and influenced. Not one, nor the other, nor any better than either.

In deciphering their courses of action, these people say they need more information, assuming that there is enough information, enough valid information, to make a contextually literate decision. There isn’t. And there wont be. Inferences that we’ve been here before, ‘calm down dear’, and ‘let’s all make a nice cuppa tea and wait for this to blow over’ belies the fact that we haven’t been here before. And even if we had, what evidence is there to say that we’d know what to do with that experience?

So how am I going to take this mish-mash of ready, steady, cook items and make a delicious meal of a conclusion? I’ll use my favouritist of words – impact. The whole dynamic becomes about impact:

  • Impact on the people we work with – in our organisations
  • Impact on the people we in principle work for – in terms of beneficiaries, constituents, clients
  • Impact on funding – the people we really work for – and the resultant…
  • Impact on us – our careers, our lifestyles, on where we are and what we do
  • Impact on our families, our friends, our emotional dependents
  • Let alone the long term impact that will undoubtedly remind us how the least privileged are the most punished, for the most prolonged time

And no. This isn’t where Randomised Conceptions of Truth come in, nor ethnoromantic videos. For all of the conversations about the impact of projects, which are still hugely important in all this, for once we actually should be fairly obsessed with our personal impact. And not just navel-gazing to satisfy the bizarrely shaped holes in our personalities. To combine our personal impact with project impact and wider still. And to recognise the negatives and the risks in all that. To view our personal accountability – and to who it should be attributed. To consider what guilt we will feel with each decision taken, and which of them we’re most comfortable with. And to understand that redemption for the honest may well be elusive. And if we can start to do that, we may even get to a point where we become honest with ourselves and start to address the real question. How do we do less harm? As a principle. And a practice.

Lessons to be learned in doing less harm

The bias in learning – and vice versa

If there’s one thing us social constructivists have learned, it’s that learning is not good. Necessarily. We do so love to claim that it is though – both directly and indirectly, explicitly and implicitly. We like to overlook that learning is a function of bias also. And vice versa to be fair. Whilst each of these words has an innate (well, formed but fairly uniform) association of positivity or negativity, they are both, both. You might even say that they are two sides of the same coin.

Jonathan Zerzan, an anarchist philosopher, similarly argues that technology is generally seen as neutral. As a tool. A function. It is therefore impossible for us to see it, as a whole, as a movement, as something that could be good or bad. And so we don’t question it as much as we should. It’s in this attribution of moral value that I wish to paddle.

If your social group influences you to be less lazy, more committed to work or education or to being kinder, that’s a bias. You have been biased. It may even lead to you being reinforcing that bias with others. Exchange bias for learning in those sentences and – grammatical awkwardness aside – they still work.

Manipulation and deceit are similarly attributed. But what is management if not manipulating someone’s behaviour? What is maintaining a positive outlook so as not to affect your colleagues or friends or family other than deceitful? You may well find those concepts difficult to accept, or even offensive. But from the most annoying angle possible, that reflects your (to be fair, learned) interpretations of those words.

So what am I getting at? Put simply it’s the semi-philosophical stance that nothing of this world is all good or all bad. And if it is, it isn’t for long. And so we must be wary when we attribute inherently positive or negative sentiments to words and concepts. If nothing else, we reduce their utility. But also, through this assumption, we limit our ability to see the negative in the oft presumed positive. And we miss the positive in what otherwise would be seen as negative.

If I manipulate a friend to be more open minded and forgiving towards a burgeoning romance, under what conditions/motives would that be considered a largely negative thing to do? If I maintain my own doubts about that relationship, but feel it not a situation where additional pessimism is required/balanced/fair, is that good or bad deceitful. See what I mean?

But back to learning and bias. Ultimately it isn’t the word that is good, bad, indifferent or ugly. It is largely the direction in which it travels (e.g. the progress it seeks), and the source it comes from (e.g. the motive that drives it). Much like progress. Progress towards what? And why? To what immediate satisfaction and to what long term end? All fun stuff to consider.

Dare I even try to make this relevant to the real world in any way? I’ll have a pop. When we talk about what people are learning, we refer only to the positives. Of personal growth, technical specialisation, soft skills all leading to a full and bright career. But what are the negative things we’re learning. The bad habits. The toxic cultures. The unreasonable expectations. The destructive behaviours. The things to ignore. The things to prioritise.

So when looking at someone’s behaviour or performance, as disarmingly self-critical as this may get, we have to ask where these less productive behaviours have been learned. And how we, as colleagues, are reinforcing them. With a little power comes a little responsibility. Responsibility to own up to our negative influences. To see both sides. And to see them as made from the same material. More tenuous coin references in case you weren’t following. If you want to understand someone, consider the metal that makes them, from both sides (and all the others). Consider our influence over others. Consider what people shouldn’t be learning from us, but are. To what bias we’re creating, and whether we can steer that towards the more positive side of things. Or at least try to with better odds than a simple toss of a coin.

The bias in learning – and vice versa

Contextualised harmonisation and other paradoxical buzzwords

Harmonisation. The final frontier. A dream of efficiency, economies of scale, standards, consistency, uniformity. Yes. I used the U word. This wont end well.

For once I can see where this one is going before it’s written. So to celebrate, let’s discuss before we discuss. Firstly, a more direct criticism of the lust for harmonisation and the assumptions within it. Secondly, a cognitive short cut we get caught in all the time. Put simply, I refer to forgetting the root, the intention, the principle. It’s the kind of critique that invites being called idealistic, by people who love strategies and fail to see what I would argue is the most important function of a strategy (or theory of change to make it all MEALy). To maintain principle. To reflect and relate the current and the real back to “first principles”, root causes, problem analyses, overarching goals, global objectives – all of that good stuff.

Starting with the first point. Harmonisation presents a fallacy of efficiency. It is the Prius scenario. Once made, formed, forged, the efficiencies seem undeniable. Until you look at production costs (to the environment). Once, and only once, all is harmonised can the efficiencies be realised. Rarely do people appreciate the cost of that process, of harmonisation. Show me a budget line that pays for harmonisation and I will believe. And all this would be less pertinent if funding were not famously fickle and specifically short term.

Then consider what is lost in terms of uniformity versus bespoke. At its simplest it’s a dynamic of efficiency over fit. Over relevance. And arguable economy over effectiveness, in purely outcome-related terms for the people being served. You can argue increased efficiency means that you can reach more people with the money saved. If you can access that money. And also if you can accept lower quality for the sake of larger quantity.

So lastly on the first point, within this idea of efficiency comes a paradox in terms of harmonisation. Internal (to the organisation) efficiencies suffer in the name of external (inter-agency) ones. Harmonisation happens within projects, programmes, countries and organisations usually long before inter-organisational efforts. Harmonising with external actors, if requiring any change, can only realistically occur by de-harmonising internally. Perhaps not for the full gamut, but on some level. And that’s something we rarely admit to.

Stepping back a level comes point two, which revolves dangers in the use of language and – of course – buzzwords and fuzzwords. If we’re not careful, the focus on the packaging becomes all. The initial intentions (originally misspelled as mistensions which – as a word – I have quickly grown to love), rationales and principles are watered down, if not lost altogether. And this very beautifully goes directly Cornwall and Brock’s article. That participatory methods were driven out of trying to enhance political agency (or at least to reduce its inhibition). But by focusing on the methods, the principles of participation have been co-opted to actually reduce political agency by emphasising everything at the ‘community’ level.

I’m second guessing a little here, but I believe the principles of harmonisation to be about creating efficiencies, so that humanitarian response is cheaper (read : goes further), and held to higher common standards (read : enhances the experience and impact on the people being served). It’s about the experience of people affected by or at-risk of experiencing crisis. Serving them more and better. Shifting the narrative to being first and foremost about harmonisation is an immediate dissociation from this because it inherently inhibits contextual adaptation. Something that most agree is the way to make a response the most appropriate and really participatory possible.

It’s pretty impossible not to see roots of harmonisation coming from industrial and commercial processes, whereby creating efficiency without losing much in the way of quality seems to be the real goal. And so this concept is wedged into a different world. It is retrofitted as the solution to entirely different challenges, complexities and potential rewards. And that is as familiar as it is frustrating.

Whilst I’m not going to go into it here, where I see value of harmonisation, is in approach rather than detail. And only in a way whereby the harmonisation itself is not the goal. Where harmonisation makes sense (and it sometimes does) – fill your boots. Where it doesn’t, we have to remember to recognise that, and remember why people bothered to coin it in the first place. But to use it effectively, we need to apply harmonisation in a non-uniform fashion. The benefits don’t outweigh the negatives in every situation. So, in conclusion, I’m advocating for the contextualisation of harmonisation. And we have to wonder whether that’s harmonisation at all. And especially whether that will tickle the taste buds of those with the cash monies.

NB – despite avoiding words such as ‘beneficiaries’ (assumptive), ‘targeted populations’ (aggressive and controlling)’, ‘community’ (condescending along lines of using ‘tribe’), I still fumble and tumble over words to describe people. Calling them ‘people served’ feels crass. People affected by or at-risk of experiencing crisis might work. Or PAAEC for ridiculous. Either way, sorry none of it works.

Contextualised harmonisation and other paradoxical buzzwords

Who represents the representative?

In my posts I usually try to put forward an argument or perspective, and usually a relatively firm one. One that has occupied some time and reflection, albe-they never remotely infallible. This one is an open question because I haven’t been able to get close to an answer. I’m nervous about sharing it because the initial argument to be picked apart gives a false illusion of a political leaning. It’s a symptom of a process I, and many, follow. Find an argument that you want to understand better or that doesn’t ring true. Pick at it. Root around for causes until they form principles. Then see how far and wide they can be applied. Find the boundaries of an argument and test them. So bear with me, please.

The question in hand lies around representation. And, much like who watches the watchmen, I want to know what represents representative? What is representative and who can be one? Yeah, this is likely to get fruity. So let’s start broad and topical. Hipsters.

Whilst hiking a dormant volcano in Mexico, as all good hipsters do, I stumbled over some rubble and into an interesting conversation. The participants? An American of Mexican descent who feel acutely tied to the country. An American of unknown descent, who seems keen on being vegan and travelling. And a Brit whose light links to their Scottish side mainly manifested in love for certain mid-90s films and supporting Scotland in the rugby. It no longer seems spurious to categorise as hipster eh? Don’t worry, it gets more hipsterile.

A conversation about cultural appropriation comes up. You can imagine the relative positions taken. Our world travelling hipster, slowly killing the earth every time she visits a new part of it, is wide-eyed, optimistic that we can all relax a bit more and embrace easy solutions. Our proactively Mexican taking a relatively fierce position, unsurprising given recent, distant and in-between histories. Our Brit – mild-mannered, unaffected but not uninterested, becomes the devil’s advocate / facilitator. A nice abstinence coming from a country rarely, if ever, abstinent from interfering. 

The conversation starts with questions of consent, copying, coopting and bastardising cultural artefacts, including food, music and more broadly too. Consent being a critical word here. If people proactively use food as a means to make a living in a new country. That’s their choice right? Or is a factor of various tranches of racism that other lines of employment were far from porous? What if they felt they had to adapt their food, a central piece piece of social performance and cohesion for centuries, in order to meet the delicate palates in this new place? What if they did so willingly? What if it was begrudging? And what if other people, of their culture, felt it was bastardising it? What if they franchised this out to others, relinquishing the reigns? Does that mean that they relinquish rights to it too?

Unwittingly this becomes exactly the point. Who has the right to decide? Could I sell my mum’s recipe for macaroni cheese? What if my sister didn’t agree with it? What about if Italians didn’t? And which Italians would have the right to? Those related to the early users of macaroni? I’m not even sure where the China-Italy water-softening-starch debate comes in, but as you can see, this is a thread that expands to various cloths.

Back to the conversation. The vegan says that she dressed up as Frida Kahlo for a fancy dress – in a way that indirectly, if not directly, asked the question of whether or not that counts as cultural appropriation. Clearly she wasn’t asking me [tangential but incredible link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l1PMVvfjDM]. So, onto the ‘ask the Mexican’ segment. The response was yes, it’s a problem. I’m not to argue that point. Frankly I don’t know either way, hence the questioning element to this. But it raises thoughts. If an American woman can’t dress up as Frida Kahlo. Can any Mexican man? And one living in Mexico now as opposed to within the specific conditions within which she grew up? What if the American, whilst disconnected and therefore unrepresentative on lines of nationality, was an artist? What if she had suffered from polio? What if she tried to express similar observations and reflections as Frida Kahlo did? 

The ultimate question is, at what point does someone become representative? That’s not to say people need to be individually and culturally identical to claim some form of power or ownership of something. And especially within our neoliberal context (I’m surprised it’s taken so long to use that word too), the call for greater, stronger representation is essential, especially of things that have historically been plundered without consent and usually with force. So, unsurprisingly this seems to be about power. Who gets to hold it? Who gets to share in it? Who decides? And who represents the unrepresented?

Shift to politics and we have clear state-led rules on who qualifies to take part in the processes of choosing representation. But, as recent and distant history shows us, even in open and democratic processes, representatives are not always representative. Large proportions of peoples’ direct votes say otherwise, let alone their experiences, perspectives and cultures. Take it to the sector. Villages leaders are often unrepresentative of those they represent. They are especially unrepresentative (usually) of minorities and the socially marginalised – hence why they haven’t been marginalised. Could we honestly say that INGOs are representative of the people they serve? I guess that’s a trick question, because they more represent those they serve than those they are supposed to. And that’s a whole other topic about how NGOs are fundamentally structured as service providers, mostly for foreign governments. I know, no surprises there, but the more you look at it, the more you see NGOs as simply service providers, but ones who need to justify everything they do and do little apart from what was contracted. Even so, how do they try to become more ‘representative’. Hiring continental staff (which feels strange for reasons of breakfast references), or national staff? Hiring staff that know relevant local languages, or who are from the area themselves (but clearly moved away)? At what point do we say ‘yes, that’s representative’. And who decides? And I guess I’m inadvertently articulating one of the main problems. I, like so many, am looking for hard answers where in fact there may be none. But either way, who gets to decide that too? Yep – full wool brain time.

Consent and representation are not small things to discuss, in either scale or significance, history or future. But that’s why they’re so important to explore. I don’t presume that there’s a hard and fast rule that explains everything I’ve alluded to question above. But I’m stuck on it. I’m baffled by it. And it’s fricking intriguing. So answers on a postcard please. Help me step out of this bath of gross ignorance I’m currently sat in. The water is swiftly moving from tepid to cold.

Who represents the representative?

The value of nothing

So, here’s where the idealist hippy in me comes out, as indiscreetly hidden as it has been, lights a flare and with a fierce orange glow of optimism, quickly subsides without reciprocating fuel. Values. Yep, another concept primed for buzzwords and fuzzwords chatter, often articulated as shallow genericisms on a website. ‘What’s so unique about us is: we’re exactly the same as everyone else.’ And there are two problems with this. Identity is a product of differentiation as much as it is commonality. It’s an unpopular notion, for rampant socialists and especially the solidarity over charity faction within it. What makes something unique, by definition, is its difference. Great minds don’t think alike. That’s the point. They don’t think like anyone else – that’s what makes them truly great. And as we know people are capable of responding incredibly differently to individuality. Rarely, if ever, acting with distinction. 

Let’s extend this out as it links to various other points. If everything is a priority, nothing is. Yep, it’s a classic and I feel it’s extremely relevant here. Take NGO’s strategies – they are often so broad that even the invitees of a garden party in a West London private square could, in theory, become beneficiaries. It’s the banality of what was supposed to be an aspirational vision. It’s murderous placidity. And let’s be very clear – this isn’t about finding gaps in markets nor is it about identifying USPs. It’s about maintaining a focus, a distinction, to improve quality and thus integrity. If I played 5 sports growing up instead of 1.5, I’d be perhaps OK at 5, instead of pretty good at one (and pretty terrible at the 0.5). It’s a very simplistic example, but there are principles that underpin this. And it’s about specialism, the value it provides and how it is created. This isn’t to say generalists, as individuals, don’t have a place. It’s to say that NGOs that cite immediate emergencies, prolonged emergencies, poverty, inequality and migration are showing exactly what their priority is. Everything. Nothing [one for the die hard Ridley Scott fans there]. The cynical among us could argue it’s to keep funding options available to all sources. Because nothing is ruled out. Others could argue it’s a lack of imagination or leadership. The optimists could argue that cross-cutting skills are more important than sectoral specificity. I’m yet to see any evidence of that, especially as areas classically defined as cross-cutting usually should become sectors in of themselves. 

If there is something less whelming than a vague and meaningless strategy, it’s values, and the derisory attempt to peddle them. They’re written on websites with all the gusto of an empirical general and all the confidence of a dog that just farted. ‘What we’re really about…what we’re really really about, is accountability. And impartiality. And being apolitical. And independent.’ Wait, so independent you’ve listed exactly the same distinguishing features as 88.2% other NGOs? So apolitical that you don’t accept funding from the most overtly political entity of all time, governments? Values are nothing without integrity, but that’s not excuse to add ‘integrity’ to ever list of organisational values either.

It’s not that I don’t value values. In fact I love them and, if used in certain ways, they can become strategies of their own. I think there’s something honest about values being central to what we do. Whether ultimately self-fulfilling or not, very few end up in the industry or behave in it with overtly self-serving motives. That may change over time, and abuses are prevalent of the trust that this hypothesis extrapolates to. But if they mean so much, values, why are they rarely, if ever, functioning parts of a strategy? If what gets measured, gets done, why are they not measured? If one of our values is accountability, why is it so hard to find out just how well we perform to our values?

At the Start Fund we played with this idea like a resin until it hardened to something more robust. It wasn’t sectoral specificity that was being sought. It wasn’t particular axes of sociological inequality. It was funding. And funding in a way that was different. Not entirely uncommon to anything else, but definitely in the progressive minority. So we tried to strip it all away and find the roots, however idealised or idealistic they were. What was it meant to be all about? And not in complicated sentences that say so little with so much inefficiency. We did it in a word each. Two at a stretch. And once we put a few heads together, it didn’t take long to provide form to what was once a heady yet formless cloud of ambition. 

And what came out? Well, what we were really about. Being timely. Flexible. Decentralised. Informed. Collective. And these are just single words, but from them, we built ways of catching data that could articulate how we were doing. We were specific about what we really wanted to do and we focused in on that. No matter how much our personal values would have liked other elements to be included, we kept to what the Fund was about and what our role was in the sector that we hoped to support. There were better, more focused and more specialised organisations who work on accountability. But there weren’t many funding mechanisms that were faster to make decisions. More flexible with needs to change activities. More collective in their decision-making. That made financing decisions in-country and relied on the insight garnered by 42 potential agencies (plus partners and additional available sources). And it wasn’t perfect. But it provided a framework, ultimately built on 5 words. And it was catching. 

The Network and its central team – for all its diversity of action, found a way to articulate the problems it seeks to solve, the things it does in order to do so and the outcomes it aspires for under three headings amounting to 6 words. Localisation. Collective innovation. New financing mechanisms. Broad topics, yes, but addressing three key problems with the humanitarian sector, and in many ways, it is well placed to do so. And then we built indicators around them. And whilst that’s not ground-breaking, it did mean that, relatively quickly, we have theories of change and results frameworks built around values. We built a system through which we could be accountable to them AND speak to the work. Because they’re not so different, or at least they shouldn’t be. And that’s different. It’s distinct. And it meant that values weren’t cursory glances at integrity on a webpage. They didn’t amount to staff awards or recognition cards. They were how we measured ourselves. How we presented ourselves. How we knew whether we were making progress or not. And, whilst it may be on quite an abstract and incomplete level, that’s a decent slice of accountability to me. And that is sadly often unique.

The value of nothing

Lacking the capacity to develop it

Capacity development. Nowt new, albeit a strange term adapted from the private sector. Capability is the one I remember and it makes a hell of a lot more sense to me. We may hear about competencies and competency frameworks, which works too, but the ‘capacity’ part makes no sense to me. It speaks to space available and therefore has a value, especially in sector renowned for doing a lot, quickly, in changing and challenging contexts on sometimes extremely low resource. But it doesn’t speak to skill, for me. Capability is the word I’m used to and it makes a lot more sense also. Whatever you want to call it, we’re talking about knowledge and skill development, usually through a combination of 1:1 coaching, group training and experience. That old magical 70:20:10 thing that, as per any model really, can and has be used to justify stasis and a lack of investment. If 70% of learning is on the job, organisations can just focus on that. And they can tell people just to do their work. Et voilà. Job done. 

Us in the humanitarian sector seem to rely more heavily on either documentation or figuring it out as we go. Occasionally punctuated by big formal workshops like large bricks thrown in to a pond whereby the ripples quickly subside and no waves are made. That’s part of a wider issue we (but not only we) have. We seem only able to muster the energy for large slabs. Unsystematically dumped and disconnected from anything ongoing. As has been made abundantly clear, I subscribe to more connected, ongoing, holistic approaches. That little and often aggregates to greater change. That large slabs’ impact are as abrupt as they are short-lived.

What has become clear is that coaching, the imparting of knowledge between people is a skill we have yet to master. Technical advisor visits are brief. Leaving behind reports on what was done. Bold but broad recommendations. And all within the same dynamics that inhibited development before. Like the storm I’m looking at now. Lighting, thunder, movement and excitement. Then quiet and stillness as the lake concurs.

So as capacity development has found cold convenience, we face a sincere and familiar problem. Just as has been criticised before with regards to gender. Foreigners teaching more progressive gender dynamics give the false impression that these foreign lands have already cracked it. Sorted. Done. Go on, jog on. Similarly, foreign organisations attempting to do capacity development, especially around ‘standards’ and ‘soft skills’ seem overwhelmed by the convenience to ignore their own low standards and lack of soft skills. I am talking specifically about the capacity to do capacity development.

How many times have you heard an exasperated foreigner shout “I’ve told them this before!” or “we’ve been through this before.” – “yeah, once…in college…to you” (that’s an obscure Shaun of the Dead reference – my glad tidings to anyone who got it). But seriously, it’s usually once. And it’s told. Hear anyone wax lyrical about the frailties of education systems and, among others, you’ll find critiques around one-size doesn’t fit anyone approaches. Being taught by rote whereby repetition glances off people’ minds until the minds themselves are eroded by persistence. If you want to get into the other side of the spectrum – what seems to be considered good in Northern practice – it’s participatory, using multiple forms of media and method. It’s to exercise the brain rather than to imprint on it. It’s about stimulation. Beyond the occasional annual workshop (which still has a relatively uniform approach), when do we ever see this in our worlds?

“I’ve shown them how to do it already”…. Once. And it was show. I did it and they watched. And that’s it. If we saw any form of education, training or otherwise, such as this in a different context we’d belittle it as archaic. Especially if we were the recipients. Imagine what we’d be like if we saw our children, nieces and nephews receive that. And by that I aim only to trigger some emotional engagement about education as a broader process, not to infer any child-like attributes of the intended recipients of capacity development. Not that the latter would be novel from what I have seen. And that is another hugely important and expansive topic to come back to another time. But we’d deride such educational methods as short sighted. As instructive, directive, dismissive. As unstimulating, disengaging even. But we do it. Maybe because we don’t know better. Maybe because we learn it from others. Maybe we don’t realise what we’re (not) doing. Maybe nobody taught us how to do it well. Either way, none of that makes it good enough. 

The fact that there’s a lot of people with a leaning towards impatience, direct line of sight and action in humanitarian settings is and should be no surprise. The fact that the sector hasn’t had much investment in management skills training is also unsurprising. And as tempting as it is to say people need some massive crazy workshop, as much as that is our field’s natural response (well, that and nothing) it’s impractical, isolated and as such, limited. Ongoing coaching from senior staff and others. Role modelling. Reinforcing, regaling…yeah, it’s the 5 Rs again. Holding ourselves to higher standards and providing the support to attend to them. These are the starting points. If we – as foreigners – are going to pretend to be bringing technical expertise, the least we could do is to aspire to demonstrate it. The dynamics, and presumptions beneath them, in all of this are frankly harrowing, and I am sure that I have both challenged and perpetuated them both in this article and in real life. I’m not comfortable with that. However the credibility of this critique is not (in my opinion and aspiration) undermined by its level of hypocrisy. I hope it stands inevitably connected to it, and if anything, emboldened by it.

Lacking the capacity to develop it

What becomes clear, at least to me, is how much of what I’m spouting is rooted in a philosophy of sorts. So I’ll try to explore and be up front about it so that you can see whatever is written with some greater perspective. So that you can critique it and connect it to wider influences. And you can reject or accept them as you wish, and change your mind about that as you wish too. This is my current slice of a philosophy. It’s not mine because I designed it through some great reading and introspection. It’s the collection of philosophies whose particular sum has become – or has always been – my perspective. The framework, the lens through which I see and from which I see most of these posts coming from, and a lot else:

  • Negatives are not wholly always negative. They can be necessary. They can be teachers, balances and they can directly lead to positive experiences. Accepting the damage they cause is as important as seeing the opportunities they create.
  • Nothing is permanent. As UG Krishnamurti said: “The demand for permanence in every area of our existence is the cause of human misery. There is no such thing as permanence at all.”
  • Understanding our own ignorances can be our greatest quality. Grasping the already known for fear of ignorance is oxymoronic. And moronic. Understanding only comes from accepting that you don’t.

You can see how they overlap. How, to understand your own ignorance, you need to get more comfortable with your lack of perfection and with life’s lack of permanence (what as once known, has since changed for example). To see change, unknowns and unexpecteds as the opportunity to develop as well as to freak the funk out. To love both those imposters just the same. That’s the goal.

But why are these points the ones that float to the top given how immensely complex any complete perspective must be? Because we are naturally and culturally biased to see things differently. We’re repeatedly slapped with instagram-grade wisdom and it tells us the following:

  • Reject negativity in its entirety: “you’re great, the world’s beautiful, everything will be fine.” To get all Bob Dylan, you probably are great, most of the time. The world is beautiful, some of the time. Everything wont be fine, but some things’ll work out grand. This is linked to it being someone else’s fault / responsibility / job and other reflections of self attribution theory as a whole.
  • “Some things never change”: we clutch at permanence because it makes us feel like we understand and that we’re in control – and we do so because we’re terrified (and on some level recognise) that we don’t know and we can’t control most things.
  • “You can think too much”: keep things simple, it makes them much more manageable – even if that’s by definition, a self-fulfilling prophecy, as opposed to being open to the full gamut of reality.

So it becomes clear that my articulated philosophy is not absolute. It is reactionary, as am I generally. If I’m feeling kind, it’s knowingly and unknowingly relational. It is the perspective that I need to counterbalance what I feel are short-sighted and potentially destructive perspectives. So maintaining my ‘principles’ is really an act of maintaining a balance that I have deemed appropriate. It may well not be for you, but that’s the beauty of it. My experience – and luckily my bias – is not your own. No should my perspective be. That’s variation. That’s uniqueness. It’s utterly beautiful. What starts to become clear is that, for me, it is the unflinching and unquestioning grasp on positivity, limited knowledge and permanence that concerns me. And so it appears my attempts in this blog are to leverage away the fingers from their fierce grip, to loosen the hold, and to get people excited about what a more complex, confusing but complete, view of the world can do. And no, I don’t have anything like a complete view of the world. But I’m trying to come to terms with its possibility.

Casting a shadow on complexity

Chemistry lessons. Apart from the explosions, fire, smells and my secondary school teacher’s classic lines and asbestos hands, one thing stick with me. The greater the insight the greater the ambiguity. First we learned about molecules. What? Tiny things that make up everything? Sounds far fetched but I’m heavily incentivised to concur. Tiny bloody things. But not the smallest. Because then, perhaps a year later, we learn that they’re not the smallest things. They’re in fact made up of atoms. Eh? Smaller still? Well, again, far fetched, more so even, but OK. We continue. Then we learn that not only are atoms not the smallest, but they’re made up of 3 types of standard equipment – neutrons, positrons and negatrons, I mean electrons. And they’re all the same. And they’re tiny. And the core of an atom, the nucleus is crazy wicked heavy even though it’s tiiinyyy. And the electrons move in circles…pause…no, ellipses. What the actual hoopla is this jiggery pokery, this bally hoo, this sorcery of the mind. Well, it’s complexity at work. It’s as close to a parable as I’ll ever write. And now some cheeky jokesters wanna talk about quantum mechanics where particles’ locations relate to probability. It’s totally beyond me if you hadn’t already guessed by that pitiful attempt at a description.

But why am I spouting all of this tom foolery. Well. Because I’ve written a lot about complexity. A lot about how I see everything as part of an effectively infinite connected web of movement and interaction. And then I talk about simplistic models. And that juxtaposition needs addressing. I think they can sit together, and I’ll try to explain how I hope they can, and how I see them becoming effectively mutually exclusive also.

As I hope I’ve clearly inferred or explicitly discussed, the need for models essentially stems from our limitations as computational devices. We can’t hold that much complexity at once. We need it sorting, packaging, labeling. Then we can figure out where that information should go, as a grouping. We resultantly make inforred but mildly homogenising decisions every time this is done. When moving house, the most organised of us will sort items perhaps by theme, perhaps by room. Because moving everything individually is hugely laborious, so, out of pragmatism, we organise, group, label. We categorise. And that means that each box, as a grouping, arrives at the best destination. Knives end up in the kitchen. Books in the living room. Lovely. Here’s where I’m gonna get fruity. 

The problem I have is that conceptually, unlike moving house, we keep things firmly in their boxes, their labels and their categories. To continue the analogy: the great thing about moving house is then you unpack these items into their specific places. They can move freely from room to room, temporarily or more permanently. Their packaging was for a purpose. Once that purpose is served, they are no longer just a part of the kitchen box. They are only temporarily a target of homogenisation. They are only temporarily a member of a reductionistic categorisation. They are then freed from that paradigm and as such, treated with respect as individual items. 

When it comes to analysis, both formal and informal, I think this unpacking is rare. There is a justification for the categories, and they are held dear, allowing temporary pragmatism to bleed into longer term reductionism. And that’s just not fit for purpose and, for me, it’s not good enough. I hope that any model or method I provide is only temporary in its pragmatism, and specifically that they are seen as categories that operate as a layer on top of complexity, and not a replacement for it. Consider scattering rice on a table and placing cookie cutters over them. Those cookie cutters act as groupings, as categories. What I see most doing is to scatter the rice, place the cookie cutters and then wipe away the rice, keeping only the cookie cutters in place. A more helpful approach is trying to hold them both in parallel and seeing categories for what they really are. They are artificial tools of simplification so that we compute large amounts of information. 

Let me give another example. Mental health. Categorisations, specifically diagnoses, operate similar to the cookie cutter / rice approach.  They are human-made – and therefore artificial – groupings of symptoms as we can perceive them. Everyone’s mental health is a complex myriad of factors, and, like everything, is complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. But to ease analysis, to provide more focused research, to be more prescriptive about treatment, we use these categories. Again, it’s pragmatic. But if we focus too much on the cookie cutters, the categories, we start to blur out the rice. See individuals as individuals, and understanding their relation to categories, that makes sense to me. See them as merely shapes to be placed within singular categories. That’s a concern.

I’m not sure how much that needs to be brought back to any industry-specific context or category, however if nothing else it provides some of the underpinning thinking behind a few of these rants. Such as Vulnerability Criteria and other such categories that perhaps were once designed to illuminate topics, but now seem to mainly cast shadows. As Virginia Woolf wrote: “A light shone here required a shadow there”. Whether it is intentionally required is another conversation, but the simplest interpretation has the most expansive application. It’s a lesson of consequence and causality. So yes, this comes back to Newton’s third law of humanitarianism – of Taoist proverbs – of the need to consider the practically negative impacts of principally positive intentions. It’s all starting to come together. And I do love it when a plan comes together.

Casting a shadow on complexity

Into the Furnace, Fueling the Fire: the Luxury of Insight

So here’s another superficial hypocrisy. A neat model to harness all this infinite complexity I like talking about. That said, if there were ever any model that I thought had value, it is this one. I like the models I’ve shared, hence why I’ve shared them. It’s a lot easier to do so safe in the knowledge that they aren’t ‘mine’ – they didn’t come into existence in some vacuum inside my heed. This one is no different and leans heavily on work done by Dan McClure and Thoughtworks. I’ve translated it to more resonant language, tweaked it, assessed it in a different light and added some applications and detail, but the inspiration, the root of it all, definitely comes from them.

A part of me would like to call it the AKALA model – in honour of one of my heroes, or AKILI cos Swahili words of aspiration have long been all the rage and, well, why not disappoint? So unnamed it shall remain. Let’s see if à lack of a bodged acronym will lead to its inevitable downfall.

If you, like me, have a brain that can’t hold huge amounts of information, this model might just help you package it in a way that becomes more useful. Effectively that’s all any model does, but let’s hope it does so here too. This one is the basis of the last two M&E strategies I’ve developed and I think the opportunity of its use is much further reaching. I know – it’s not usual to have this level of opinion nestling with positivity. Full o surprises, me. 

All of the various interpretations of M&E, MEL, MEAL, PMEAL, DMEAL, CRM, CEA, Accountability, Programme Quality, Evidence, Learning Impact, Management Information, Performance etc. etc. etc. they all should subscribe to this. And no, that’s not one of those opinion things. It’s fact. There are (guess how many) 3 objectives within that medley of aspirationally analytical specialisms listed above:

  • Accountability – of the programme to various stakeholders (including donors, beneficiaries, non-beneficiary community members and partnees) to ensure that we are transparent, that they are informed and more importantly, involved
  • Adaptation – of programme (including M&E) activities to ensure that they achieve and maintain relevance, are responsive, and – ultimately – impactful
  • Knowledge – of programme context, performance, progress and change to provide learning for existing and future programmes, be that in your claNGO or another

What fuels them? Well, insight. Yep, a novelish term to add to the long list of others that long lost their specificity and utility. Insight is the central tenet that drives the other three. You could easily call it Learning should you so wish, but either way it involves the proactive pursuit of insightfulness. Perhaps we could call it both – gathering and garnering learning/insight that fuels accountability by proactively seeking participation and listening to feedback. That fuels adaptation by informing programmatic decisions. That fuels knowledge by collecting information in a systematic way that can thusly be analysed and shared.

That’s M&E&A&L&P&D. That’s all it is. If you can create ways in which you generate insight/learning that fuels those three elements, then, yours is the specialism and everything that’s in it. The focus, for me, is not on the outputs, but the fuel, the fire in the middle. How do you feed this furnace? It’s pretty convenient to be honest. The same principles can be used to categorise incoming information – the insight itself: 

  • Accountability: beneficiary / community / stakeholder feedback – what are our key stakeholders (those we should be accountable to) telling us about our programme?
  • Adaptation: programme teams’ experiences / colleagues’ feedback / specialists’ insight / programme data – what are our teams and data telling us? What has been their experience? Their opinion of influences and causality on the programme?
  • Knowledge: external sources / reports / evaluations / alerts / coordination groups – what other sources of information can we look at and into that can help improve our programme?

As a framework, it’s genuinely not a terrible way to start. Ensuring that quarterly review meetings, for example, you have those types of data, those insights available. That they rely on hard data as well as opinion and experience. That you have quant and qual together, ideally filling the gaps the other leaves. And if you want to get super fancy, cross reference those against Context, Performance, Progress, Change to create an analytical framework of sorts:

Information / Insight




And if you’re at that level of complexity, why not add another layer and frame the outcomes, actions and learnings around such things as well:





So now you have a framework for what information to bring to this table. Plus a framework for how to shape the actions. For once, I’ll even give you a specific example of how I’ve used this as this is a special case. You can see how various lenses are applied and populated in alignment. Because that’s the kind of strategy I like. An accordion. On a level, simple, resonant, guiding. On another, layered, deep, detailed. It means that you can describe what you’re doing in a sentence or a book. For me, I aim to build M&E&A&L&etc. teams, functions and systems that develop the insight necessary to fuel accountability, adaptation and knowledge. It feels right to me.

Behaviours:Quality -> ListeningResponsiveness -> ActingInsight -> Critiquing
Outcomes:Enhanced community engagement and accountability practices that enable more informed programmingEnhanced evidence-based adaptation and review that fuel programme reflection and responsivenessDeepened and formalised insights into focus quality areas, sectors and sub-sectors that lead to better quality programming
WHAT WE DOSeek to generate feedback loops
Feedback to communities / closing the loop
Develop more qualitative insights
Work with CRM to bolster feedback as well as complaints
Use data to inform decision making
Inform quarterly review meetings
Provide prompt data and insights to act upon
Develop more analytical insights in reports
Develop longitudinal comparisons
Make knowledge accessible through style/format and proactive sharing
HOW WE DO ITCuriosity, listening, voice
Providing opportunities for opinions to be voiced
Ensuring that we respond with clear communication
Pace, responsiveness, flexibility
Delivering rapid and usable data and insights
Reflective, thoughtful, collegiate
Providing angles, well caveated and evidenced insights
Thought provoking and action oriented (the ‘so what?’)
Skills / People Qualitative data collection and analysis
FGD Facilitation
KII Interviewing
Identifying what is interesting / usefulDeeper analysis
Processes / ToolsQuote (& consent) collection
Focus Group
Quarterly M&E reporting
Priority planning / work plan (as a team)
Qualitative analysis
Reflection / analysis tools (prompts of angles / checks)

Into the Furnace, Fueling the Fire: the Luxury of Insight

Newton’s 3rd law of humanitarianism

This is mentioned in the university careers rant, but I do love it so. Having worked in development and humanitarian networks, I’ve been privy to sector-wide conversations and perspectives. And once you see a few of these topics come up, two things become clear:

1.”What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (a rare and unintentionally religious quote there for you)

Whether you want to see it as futile rehashing and relabelling to give a false sense of progress, or you see it as further attempts at moving the needle on a worthy ideal, there is little that comes across as new. Which is why technology seems so innovative. Because it didn’t exist before. The ideas behind it, the functions it may serve, well, that’s different matter. For more on the lack of newness, check out Tania Li’s book: The Will to Improve and you’ll get the idea.

2.To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

There is a huge push for beneficiary feedback mechanisms at a senior level. Amazing. The political, the powerful and financially enabling subscribe to this wonderful principle of participation, of locally owned and driven projects. Transformative participation, designed in Northern cities. That come with specific parameters and metrics and ones that, if missed, lead to funding going away. Issues. But this generally positive drive is also counterbalanced by a huge boost in Value for Money requirements. Seeing people as agents of their own change, we immediately want to quantify the immediate efficiency of that. You know what looks good on the most popularised interpretations of value for money (VfM)? Rigid, unchanging, simplistic activities (like basic distributions) that are swiftly and cost effectively delivered. Ahhhh. So about that transformative thing. Well, that’s hardly VfM tingling is it? The value it generates can only be robustly proven over longer periods of time, and regardless, prove difficult to conveniently quantify. And so transformative participation becomes extremely hard to make VfM arguments about, especially in the predominant language of evidence of our time. The statistic.

Interested in another example? No? Och well, it’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to:

Finally great weight accumulates at a political level for localisation. Possibly as part of a continuing drive to reduce responsibility and the associated resource required by key Northern actors. The pragmatic driving the principled – the tail wagging the dog, but it’s progress (at least in principle). But along with this comes a hugely diminished risk tolerance. And that’s damaging for localisation because of how risk is perceived, assessed and managed by the powers that be. Strict, Northern-defined requirements are applied to Southern organisations without the resource to meet them. And that resource won’t be provided because large contracts that include centralised costs won’t arrive without being able to meet those requirements. It’s a little chicken and egg – which inhibited localisation first? Thusly, the action towards increasingly local response quickly finds its more than equal and opposing reaction.

So where does this leave us? Hardly inspired, but somewhere not far from the Taoist parable. In saying that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that’s not to say that change can’t occur. It just usually has to occur with various forces of influence superseding the forces of resistance. If something stays still, we assume it is through a lack of force, rather than a balance of forces. It’s very linked to everything being complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. A complex, moving, pushing, pulling bending web of forces. What I’m trying to say is that if something stays in place, that’s because of complex number of forces holding it there. Maintaining the status quo requires energy and influence. We’re about 2 sentences away from bringing Foucauldian, so let’s bring it back. To films. Weirdly I’ve seen the best visualisation of that in the Bond film, Skyfall – the algorithm designed to move and adapt. A 3D web of interconnected dots and lines. A system of multiple, moving, interactions and influences. That’s how my bizarre swede pictures it as best as it can. 

And honestly, I don’t know how to make any of that practical. Other that to hold on to your altruistic horses when you see ‘new’ movements towards a future sector you’d like more to be a part of. First consider the counteracting forces and, if possible, try to preempt them and mitigate them. Removing barriers is a significant part of what we can and should do. Being able to see them, especially those internal to organisations and even people, that is often the hard part. For the rest, it’s sometimes relates to motivation.

Added since first publishing:

Being additional appears to be the most attractive form of action. Why? Maybe it’s old evidential considerations – such as being able to establish our own contribution or causality. Which speaks to our individual egos and echoes into how we manage our role as humanitarians and results frameworks too. We measure what we do, what we add to a situation, not what we remove. We try to assess what we improve far more than what we reduce and especially more than what damage we cause. And yes, tugging at this thread brings a few other familiar concerns into play. But let’s Moloko it for a second and bring it back. A friend of mine once asked why, for example in Somalia (where remittances famously out weigh humanitarian financing) we don’t work on ensuring that people have greater access to remittances? Through providing charging points, mobile data points or wifi for example. Why don’t we work on removing barriers as opposed to adding new, often detached, layers? That’s a whole other story and an extremely important question. But if we’re to talk about opposing forces, the value in understanding and removing inhibition is nothing short of necessary, and is something I don’t often see done well. If it something that any of us try to change, well, I wonder what opposing forces it will meet.

*Cornwall and Brock (back on about the fuzzwords again) do a lovely job of examining the consequential causality of misinterpreted (some may say purposefully reduced) principles and ideals.

Newton’s 3rd law of humanitarianism