Entries tagged with “humanitarian assistance”.


Raj Shah has announced his departure from USAID. Honestly, this surprises nobody at the Agency, or anyone in the development world who’s been paying attention. If anything, folks are surprised he is still around – it is well-known (or at least well-gossiped) that he was looking for the door, and at any number of opportunities, at least since the spring of 2012. There are plenty of reviews of Shah’s tenure posted around the web, and I will not rehash them. While I have plenty of opinions of the various initiatives that Shah oversaw/claims credit for (and these are not always the same, by the way), gauging what did and did not work under a particular administrator is usually a question for history, and it will take a bit of space and time before anyone should feel comfortable offering a full review of this administrator’s work.

I will say that I hope much of what Shah pushed for under USAID Forward, especially the rebuilding of the technical capacity of USAID staff, the emphasis on local procurement, and the strengthening of evaluation, becomes entrenched at the agency. Technical capacity is critical – not because USAID is ever going to implement its own work. That would require staffing the Agency at something like three or four times current levels, and nobody is ever going to approve that. Instead, it is critical for better monitoring and evaluating the work of the Agency’s implementing partners. In my time at USAID, I saw implementer work and reports that ran the gamut from “truly outstanding” to “dumpster fire”. The problem is that there are many cases where work that falls on the dumpster fire end of the spectrum is accepted because Agency staff lack the technical expertise to recognize the hot mess they’ve been handed. This is going to be less of a problem going forward, as long as the Agency continues to staff up on the technical side.

Local procurement is huge for both the humanitarian assistance and development missions of USAID. For example, there is plenty of evidence supporting the cost/time effectiveness of procuring emergency food aid in or near regions of food crisis. Further, mandates that push more USAID funding to local organizations and implementers will create incentives to truly build local capacity to manage these funds and design/implement projects, as it will be difficult for prime contractors to meet target indicators and other goals without high-capacity local partners.

A strong evaluation policy will be huge for the Agency…if it ever really comes to pass. While I have seen real signs of Agency staff struggling with how to meaningfully evaluate the impact of their programs, the overall state of evaluation at the Agency remains in flux. The Evaluation Policy was never really implementable, for example because it seems nobody actually considered who would do the evaluations. USAID staff generally lack the time and/or expertise to conduct these evaluations, and the usual implementing partners suffer from a material conflict of interest – very often, they would have to evaluate programs and projects implemented by their competitors…even projects where they had lost the bid to a competitor. Further, the organizations I have seen/interacted with that focus on evaluation remain preoccupied with quantitative approaches to evaluation that, while perhaps drawing on Shah’s interest in the now-fading RCT craze in development, really cannot identify or measure the sorts of causal processes that connect development interventions and outcomes. Finally, despite the nice words to the contrary, the culture at USAID remains intolerant of project failure, and the leadership of the Agency never mounted the strong defense of this culture change to the White House or Congress needed to create the space for a new understanding of evaluation, nor did it ever really convey a message of culture change that the staff of USAID found convincing across the board. There are some groups/offices at USAID (for example, in the ever-growing Global Development Lab) where this culture is fully in bloom, but these are small offices with small budgets. Most everyone else remains mired in very old thinking on evaluation.

At least from an incrementalist perspective, entrenching and building on these aspects of USAID Forward would be a major accomplishment for Shah’s successor. Whoever comes next will not simply run out the clock of the Obama Administration – there are two years left. I therefore expect the administration to appoint an administrator (rather than promote a career USAID staff caretaker with no political mandate) to the position. In a perfect world, this would be a person who understands development as a discipline, but also has the government and implementing experience to understand how development thought intersects with development practice in the real world. Someone with a real understanding of development and humanitarian assistance as a body of thought and practice with a long history that can be learned from and built upon would be able to parse the critical parts of USAID Forward from the fluff, could prevent the design and implementation of projects that merely repeat the efforts (and often failures) of decades ago, and could perhaps reverse the disturbing trend at USAID to view development challenges as technical challenges akin to those informed by X-Prizes – a trend that has shoved the social aspects of development to the back seat at the Agency. At the same time, someone with implementing and government experience would understand what is possible within the current structure, thus understanding where incremental victories might push the Agency in important and productive directions that move toward the achievement of more ideal, long-term goals

There are very, very few people out there who meet these criteria. Steve Radelet does, and he served as the Chief Economist at USAID while I was there, but I have no idea if he is interested or, more importantly, if anyone is interested in him. Much the pity if not. More likely, the administration is going to go with the relatively new Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt. Looking at his background, he’s already been vetted by the Senate for his current position, has foreign service experience, time in various implementer-oriented positions, and he is well-positioned to avoid a long confirmation process as a former lobbyist and from his time as House Sergeant-at-Arms, which likely give him deep networks on both sides of the aisle. In his background, I see no evidence of a long engagement with development as a discipline, and I wonder how reform-minded a former Senior Vice President for Government Relations at an implementer can be. I do not know Deputy Administrator Lenhardt at all, and so I cannot speak to where he might fall on any or all of the issues above. According to Devex, he says his goal is to “improve management processes and institutionalize the reforms and initiatives that Shah’s administration has put in place.” I have no objection to either of these goals – they are both important. But what this means in practice, should Lenhardt be promoted, is an open question that will have great impact on the future direction of the Agency.

A very long time ago, J asked me to review his book Letters Left Unsent. I’ve long been a fan of J’s writing on his blog Tales from the Hood, and have had the fortune to meet him, hang out, and develop what passes for a friendship in an era where people living on different coasts, and constantly on the move, can stay in touch through various electronic means. All this by way of saying that this will hardly be an impartial review.

So, here is my one sentence review: If you are interested in going into development/humanitarian work, or know someone who is, you need to get a copy of this book and read it/give it to them.

This is not to say that you will enjoy every message in the book – actually, you or your prospective aidworker will likely hate whole chunks of it. The reason for this is simple: the book is hard – really hard. It’s not the prose, which is actually quite fluid. It is the content. The book contains some of J’s most unvarnished stories and writing, work that strips away the romance of the job, exposing it as just that: a job. In chapter after chapter, J demonstrates that development and relief work is a very important, rewarding job, but sometimes a job where the biggest impacts come not from handing some poor soul food, but in getting a spreadsheet right or from attending the right meeting. Further, these lessons are not delivered in a detached, objective manner that can be easily forgotten, but through personal stories that emerge as J points the keyboard at himself and his own experiences. This is no casting of stones at unnamed, straw-man others (something the world could use much less of). It is, at times, a brutal first-person account of the compromises, decisions, crises, frustrations, and rewards that this career brings.

To be fair, there are personal reasons why this book challenged me. First, I know J personally. This means that I know how seriously he takes this job, how hard he works, and how much he believes in what he does. This means I cannot dismiss this book as the work of a cynic or an anti-aid crank, and therefore when the stories and their lessons hurt, there is no easy escape route. Second, some of these stories hit pretty close to home. J and I live in pretty different parts of the aid world. I’ve spent the bulk of my career as an academic, with a brief stint as the employee of a donor. I don’t live for or between deployments, and I never really have. But I’ve been in donor coordination meetings for a major crisis (the 2011 Horn of Africa famine), and in reading this book, I was transported to days of watching terribly difficult decisions get made, measuring the toll the crisis took on people around me – and I still consider those experiences to be some of the tougher ones in my career. At the same time, I’ve spent an awful lot of time conducting fieldwork. In my early days as an academic, I would disappear into villages for months on end. In the pre-cellphone era, this tended to have a deleterious effect on my personal life. Some of the collateral damage from such travel that J describes marks my own personal history. In this book, I heard the echoes of some my own decisions, and my own consequences…

So, I am not J. But I know J, both in the sense that I know the author, and I know many of those in this field for whom he writes. From my perspective, his stories ring true, and the lessons they present are real. And I have my own reasons for feeling challenged by this book, but I suspect most aidworkers would experience similar feelings as they recognize themselves in this book. In the end, my personal biases and feelings don’t change what I think is the value of this book. It is an important illustration of the development/aid worker’s life that does not resort to pieties or broad brushes. Instead, it wrestles with the ambiguities of live in this career. Development work is hard. Humanitarian assistance is hard. It is thrilling and appallingly mundane. It’s malaria and spreadsheets. Mostly spreadsheets. We succeed. We fail. We keep going, trying to learn from both. But if you are headed into this field, into this career, you are headed where J has been. Only fools ignore history, even if it is not their own. Only a very foolish prospective aidworker will ignore this book.

Two days ago, World Vision USA announced its willingness to hire LGBT employees who were married. To insiders in the aid and development world, this was a stunning reversal, as World Vision USA’s (legal but problematic) resistance to hiring LGBT employees is well-known in the aid world. Therefore, the decision to openly hire married LGBT staff seemed to signal an important new direction for World Vision…and then today, they reversed themselves.

Jim Beré, Chairman of the World Vision Board, wrote a letter on the reversal.

Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its recent decision to change our employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

I have no doubt this change of course is technically legal. World Vision has lawyers, and I’m sure those lawyers were consulted on this reversal. But this public reversal lays bare World Vision USA’s view of the LGBT community, and its hiring practices with regard to that community. Sure, Beré offered the usual, pro-forma support for the LGBT community in his letter:

While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.

However, it is difficult to overlook the fact that this dignity and respect should be extended to everyone except those qualified LGBT individuals who might seek employment at World Vision.

This country was founded on the idea that people are entitled to their religious beliefs. However, it is not OK (morally or legally) to use federal dollars to push one’s religious beliefs on others, or to discriminate against anyone on the basis of that faith. World Vision is one of USAID’s largest cooperators – in simple terms, they implement a hell of a lot of federal money in the context of humanitarian assistance and development programs. Shadrock Roberts, using data from foreignassistance.gov, managed to identify nearly $145 million in money obligated to World Vision in fiscal year 2013. This should be read as an absolute minimum measure of federal money going through World Vision – there are other flows of US dollars that reach World Vision projects indirectly, and I seriously doubt that foreignassistance.gov captures all of the money directly obligated to them.

Let me be clear: in fiscal year 2013, there were at least $145 million taxpayer dollars going to an organization that just openly told the world it will not hire LGBT staff.

While I personally believe that World Vision USA is on the wrong side of history with regard to the issue of LGBT hiring and staff, my (or indeed anyone’s) personal politics are not the big issue here. The Government of the United States implements development projects and delivers humanitarian assistance through “implementers” like World Vision. USAID, USDA, the State Department, etc., do not have enough staff to actually build bridges, dig boreholes, or deliver food aid themselves. Instead, they pay others to do the work. In most places where American development aid and humanitarian assistance is delivered, these actors are effectively the face of the United States.

In the face of this decision on LGBT staff, World Vision USA may no longer be able to credibly act in this capacity. In 2011, the White House issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the subject of “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons.” In that memorandum, President Obama directed “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

How, exactly, is World Vision to credibly support this memorandum after this particular statement about its own hiring?

The short answer: It cannot. The actions of the World Vision USA board speak much, much louder than the very weak claim that the organization feels that the LGBT community should be treated with dignity and respect.

This has real-world implications right now. For example, World Vision has a project, “SPEAR-Incremental funding using FY2012 PEPFAR $2,383,490” (just check Shadrock Roberts’ “USAID Spending on World Vision & World Vision Inc: Fiscal Year 2013” fusion table here). Let’s all remember that Uganda is a country that just last month criminalized homosexuality (those convicted face life in prison), an act that the Obama Administration has punished through shifts in foreign aid away from the Ugandan government and organizations that pushed for this law. Yet we have World Vision, with its clear stance on LGBT hiring, spending $4.8 million federal dollars (some from FY 12, some from FY 13) on an HIV/AIDS project in this country? It seems to me that this muddies the message that the Obama Administration was trying to send.

Legal or not, World Vision’s actions with regard to the hiring of those in the LGBT community have damaged their credibility as an implementer for the government of the United States in any context where the rights of the LGBT community are in question (basically most of the world where development aid and humanitarian assistance is delivered). Further, for USAID and the State Department to continue working with World Vision under these circumstances sends the message that implementers can tap dance around White House directives they might not like or agree with. While World Vision has the right to choose to ignore such directives on the basis of the organization’s religious beliefs, it should not have the right to do so and continue to work with federal dollars.

If the Obama administration is serious about maintaining order among those who work for it, and are serious about furthering the rights of the LGBT community globally, the recent actions of World Vision cannot pass without comment or action. And they do not have to. It’s simple, really:  make World Vision choose between the $145 million dollars of taxpayer money that fund its work each year and the individual and organizational donations of those who cannot tolerate or accept the LGBT community.

I’ve been off the blog for a while now. OK, about two months, which is too long. The new semester, and a really large number of projects, has landed on me like an avalanche. I have a small lab that I now manage (the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab, HURDL), and while I am fortunate to have a bunch of really good students in that lab, I’ve never run a lab before (nor have I ever worked in someone else’s lab before). So figuring out how best to manage projects and personnel is a new challenge that eats up time. As I told my students, this is not a fully operational, efficient program that they have joined. It’s more like a car that has stalled, and every day I am pushing it along screaming “pop the clutch” at whoever is in the driver’s seat.  To follow the metaphor, there are a lot of fits and starts right now, but things are coming together.  Among them:

  • A report on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings for USAID’s Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the Office of Global Climate Change which, through both literature review and empirical example, is a first step toward thinking about and implementing much more complex ideas about gender in project design and evaluation. This report will spawn several related journal articles. Watch this space for both activities and publications.
  • A long-awaited report offering a detailed, if preliminary, assessment of the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program. I started this project before I left USAID, but it is finally coming together. Again, a set of journal articles will come from this – our empirical basis alone is absurd (720 interviews, 144 focus groups, 36 villages covering most of Southern Mali).  There are going to be a lot of interesting lessons for those interested in providing weather and climate information to farmers in this report…
  • A white paper/refereed article laying out how to implement the Livelihoods as Governmentality (LAG) approach that I presented in this article earlier this year. It is one thing to present a reframing of livelihoods decision-making and the livelihoods approach, and another to make it implementable. One of my students and I piloted this approach over the summer in Senegal, and we are pulling it together for publication now.  This will become the core of some trainings that we are likely to be doing in 2014 as we start building capacity in various countries to conduct detailed livelihoods analyses that might inform project design.

Then there is work in Zambia with the Red Cross on anticipatory humanitarian assistance (focused on hydrometeorological hazards), and a new project as part of a rather huge consortium looking at migration as an adaptation strategy in deltas in several parts of the world.

Did I mention that it’s a small lab – me and three other students working on all of this? Yeah, we’re a little short-staffed. I’m supposed to have a postdoc/research associate on board to help as well, but there have been some contract challenges that have prevented me from advertising the position. I hope to have that out some time in the next month or two, ideally to bring someone on for a year, extendable if the funding comes through.  So if you are interested in gender and some combination of development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction/humanitarian assistance, and want to join a really outstanding group of people wired in to a lot of donors and partners, and working on projects that bring critical scholarship to the ground, let me know…

So that’s where I’ve been hiding. I am crawling out from under the rock, and hope to rejoin the blogosphere in a more active capacity in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience…

There has mixed response to my posts on disaster awareness among college students (well, the Horn of Africa drought among my current students) – see posts here and here.  Some see something hopeful and interesting in the idea that the students want more complex explanations for the problems they see.  Others are significantly more negative, suggesting that people such as my students are just symptomatic of a larger societal, if not species-level, lack of empathy for distant others.  I fall on the optimistic side of things, perhaps because I am a geographer.  Let me explain…

Geography, as a discipline, spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about how places are created and maintained.  Places are not locations (folks get this mixed up all the time) – places are our experiences of particular locations – at least this is how I choose to think about it.  And when you think of it that way, it becomes impossible to see life in a particular place as independent from events in other places.  The experience of living in Columbia, South Carolina is shaped by the weather, the cost of living, the infrastructure, the schools (I am a parent), etc.  But each of these is in turn shaped by other factors that transcend Columbia.  The cost of living and state of the infrastructure are intimately tied to the history of the state of South Carolina within the United States (where the South has historically been the underdeveloped agrarian other of the industrialized Northeast), but are also tied to the global economy. South Carolina is now the last stopping point for large-scale manufacturing before it heads out of the US to find the most favorable conditions of production possible.  The overseas shift of the textile industry wrought devastation on the state’s economy…and relatively few in the state seem able to come to grips with the fact they were ground up in the jaws of a new global economy that has already spit them out.  Even the weather is being reshaped by global factors that drive climate change, as a new regime of reduced rainfall seems to be settling in.  At what point do you stop calling a prolonged rainfall deficit a drought and start calling it the new normal?  Turns out about three decades. We are about 20 years into a significant decline in precipitation, so we are getting there.  Thus, the policy decisions (regarding industrial policy and emissions policy) of actors in China and India drive shifts in the economy and environment of the State of South Carolina.  We are thoroughly tied up in larger global forces here.  To understand South Carolina today, we have to understand the larger world today – there is simply no way around this.

As soon as this lesson settles in (and it can take a while), it becomes obvious that these forces flow both ways – that is, as Columbia, SC is constituted by global forces, so too what we do here in Columbia contributes to global forces that play out in other places.  Thus, when we vote for federal lawmakers who keep absurd ethanol subsidies in place no matter what the price/maize production conditions, we create a driver of food price increases that can radiate around the world.  And while we in Columbia feel those increases, when the price of a loaf of bread goes up by a dollar, most of us are inconvenienced and annoyed.  For someone who was already living on less than $2/day, this same price increase blows up their capacity to feed themselves.

All of this then goes back to my earlier point about what the students wanted – complex explanations.  The kids already get it, folks – they already understand an interconnected world (to some extent), and they mistrust oversimplified explanations.  When you feed them simple explanations, you often have to root out the interconnections that connect us to events in other parts of the world – the very things that students would grab on to.  In short, by oversimplifying things, we are making it harder for people to feel connected to the places in which things like famine happen.

The lesson: find yourself a geographer, work with them to tell the damn story in all its complex glory, and get out of the way.  The kids are waiting…

As of 10am Nairobi time today, the United States Government, along with the UN, is acknowledging the presence of famine in southern Somalia.  This is the first declaration of famine in twenty-odd years, reflecting the fairly high bar for human suffering that has to be crossed before an official declaration can be made.

The declaration is complex.  The full text of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) statement is here.  But to summarize:

  • a famine is currently ongoing in two areas of southern Somalia: the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle
  • A humanitarian emergency currently exists across all other regions of the south, and current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. As a result, famine is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming 1‐2 months
  • FEWS-NET estimates 3.7 million people are in crisis nationwide; among these 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance (2.8 million in the south).
  • FEWS-NET projections suggest that assistance needs will remain extremely high through at least December 2011

I think it is important to review what the currently understood conditions on the ground are right now:

  • The crude death rate (simple measure of the number of deaths) has surpassed 2/10,000/day in two areas (Bakool agropastoral, and all of Lower Shabelle).
  • The under 5 death rate has surpassed 4/10,000/day in all areas of the south where data is available, peaking at 20/10,000/day in Riverine areas of Lower Shabelle.  These numbers are horrific.
  • The prevalence of global acute malnutrition (GAM) exceeds 38 percent in 9 of the 11 areas where recent survey data is available – we consider 15% to be an emergency threshold.  Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) exceeds 14 percent in these areas – and the emergency threshold here is 2-4%.

The projections going forward are not pretty.  If, as FEWS-NET projects, we have famine conditions in play across all of Southern Somalia, historical death rates suggest we could be talking about mortality rates somewhere in the range of 2500 deaths a day at some point in August (though this is a high estimate, and a minimum number would be more in line with 700 deaths a day).  I have no idea what percentage of these deaths will be children, but given the extremely elevated under-5 death rates (2X to 10X the global crude death rate), we can assume that the answer is “a hell of a lot.”

The causes of the famine are complex, and FEWS NET reviews them in the link above.

We are trying – and we are all frustrated at how slowly our response is moving.  FEWS-NET’s efforts have been herculean, from data collection (see the picture below) to the organization of reports and data – I am seeing emails from these guys at 3am.  I was impressed with them before I got here.  I am even more impressed with them now.  FEWS is just one part of the equation, though. There are a lot of people who are not sleeping right now, and even more who have dropped everything else they are doing to support this effort. We are trying.

Measuring arm circumference for a nutrition survey in Southern Somalia, July 2011

Please follow developments at FEWS-NET’s site for this emergency here.  There is no better resource on this anywhere.



I spend a lot of time thinking about the divide between humanitarian assistance (HA) and development – and contrary to what some would tell you, there is a significant divide there.  I am, by training, a development person – at least, that is how I tend to think.  I’ve no experience in the HA world – I have not done academic work on disasters and emergencies, nor do I have field experience addressing either.  Yet I find myself serving a fellowship in the HA Bureau of the world’s largest development agency, trying to find ways to better connect our HA efforts and our development efforts – like everyone else in this world, we have all kinds of problems fitting these two worlds together: delayed handoffs, no handoff at all, programs that have no bearing on one another, making planned handoffs impossible, etc.

Working specifically in the area of climate change, the gulf between HA and development work has become really striking.  I’ve been trying to find ways to bridge the HA/development divide via adaptation – thinking about how things like disaster risk reduction and our best practices for relief and recovery might be aligned with adaptation programming to create at least one threat that pulls us coherently from emergency intervention to long-term transformation.  What I have come to realize, in this process, is that the issue of climate change highlights the different cultures of HA and development, at least in this organization.

Simply put, it is not clear to me that the HA side of things has asked or answered the most basic of all questions: what problem are we trying to solve by addressing GCC issues?  Right now the only thing that seems to resonate with the HA side of the house is the idea that we work on climate change to reduce the need for future humanitarian intervention.  While important, that is not a development goal – that is the outcome of achieving other development goals that might lead to more resilient societies with lower sensitivity to and greater adaptive capacity for addressing climate change impacts.  To pull HA and development together around the climate change issue requires thinking about HA programming as furthering development goals – and this, quite simply, is not how most HA folks with which I interact see themselves or their work.  Instead, these folks seem to view the task of humanitarian intervention and crisis management as a goal unto itself.  If you think I am off-base, take the explanation I got from a (ranking) member of an HA office when he was asked about his office’s limited office’s participation in the planning phase of country development strategies: “That’s DA (development assistance) money. We program HA (humanitarian assistance) money.”  Really.  That was the response.  Welcome to my world.  Oh, and the world of a hell of a lot of people in this field, given how many implementing partners we fund.

So you can see the challenge here in linking things via adaptation.  Let’s look at disaster risk reduction (DRR), programming typically handled by HA organizations and specialists.  To link hydrometeorological DRR efforts (think floods and droughts) to adaptation planning requires seeing DRR as more than an end unto itself – DRR would have to fit into larger programs that contribute to development goals which have the overall effect of lowering vulnerability and therefore the need for future humanitarian intervention.  This is not how the HA community I interact with approaches DRR.  Instead, DRR is programmed in the context of specific HA assessments, and with HA-specific goals that may or may not align in any meaningful way with the much broader, longer-term project that is adaptation.

The gulf between HA and development is, therefore, probably only close-able if those on the HA side of the house are willing to reorient themselves toward larger development goals . . . and at least where I sit, that is not going to happen for both cultural reasons and reasons of mandate.  This is a serious problem – we need to close this gap, or we will prolong the programming of HA in places where a decent, coherent program of HA-development planning might get us out of a spiral of disasters.  I see HA as a foundation of development – something that could be built on to create robust change – but this will only be true when the HA side of the house decides it wants to be that foundation.