I spent quite a while working on a Christmas post, and finally decided I’m not going to write anything better than last year’s. Last year’s post:

The Christmas story is one of the defining stories of American culture. The fact that I’m Muslim didn’t keep this story from shaping me. On Christmas, I think about the story and what it means for my own life.

Sometimes I think the story is about being just good enough. The innkeeper didn’t throw out an important customer to give Mary and Joseph a room – he wasn’t a hero. But he didn’t send them back outside, either. Instead, he offered them something small. A warm place to sleep. The best he could do without trying too hard, and that was all it took. Jesus was born out of the cold, somewhere safe and friendly. Somewhere good enough.

But the story could be about the animals, whose friendly presence makes the barn a warm and loving place instead of cold and frightening. About the way that ordinary beings, be they people or livestock, can offer extraordinary help to others when they get the chance to do so.

Maybe the story is about the wise men, and the shepherds. The ones with the perception to recognize a miracle when it occurred. How many of us are actually recognize the important things right when they happen?

Mary and Joseph might be the heart of the story – poor, struggling parents just trying to do their best for their child.

I’m not really sure who the most important character in the Christmas story is (beyond the obvious), and I’m not sure there is just one. All great stories have multiple meanings.

I wonder, though, which character I am. I suspect I’m the innkeeper, just trudging along at good enough. Or the parents, since I’m a mother. Or both; I can be more than one character. But most importantly, who do I want to be?

–Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it–

Finding Funding


One question I get asked very often by readers of this blog is how I got funding for my first overseas internship. It was an unpaid position with a multilateral organization in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and it pretty much launched my global health career. It led to the job that led to my next job and so on and so forth until here I am now with enough experience that I believe myself capable of blogging about it.

My answer generally depresses people: I didn’t get funding. I estimated how much it would cost me every month to live in Tashkent. I figured out how long I wanted to stay – six months. Then I got a job, saved up my money, deferred my student loans, and got on the plane to Tashkent.

There is funding for overseas internships, but most of it seems to be for graduate students. I actually ended staying at my internship for a full year, funding the extra six months with a US government fellowship that no longer seems to exist.

But I got to Tashkent on my own, and I don’t think I could have gotten that fellowship if I wasn’t already there.

I was lucky, I know. I had student loans that could be deferred, and I was able to find work that let me save money. But I don’t have a trust fund and my parents haven’t helped me financially since I was 18. (Yes, Mom, I know you would have. But it didn’t feel right.) (What, no one else’s mom reads their blog?)

I can happily recommend the place I worked to earn the money to go to Tashkent. I was a faculty member at NYLF, the national youth leadership forum. They teach specialized week-long programs to high school students on topics like medicine and international affairs. I had a ball teaching high school kids, and learned a surprising amount from the site visits. Plus, you stay in the program hotel with the kids so I had no living expenses to contend with. NYLF is pretty much always hiring faculty instructors, since that much time with teenagers will burn you out fast.


photo credit: penguincakes

A story about donated shoes

brown high heel boots
There is a woman who works for a friend of mine. I’ll call her Gulia since half the women in this country go by Gulia, so it’s safely anonymous. Every winter, all winter long, Gulia wears the same pair of battered brown ankle boots. They are too small for her, and they have no insulation. We know this because Gulia complains about her boots every day, all winter long. Her feet get cold, and her toes hurt.

My friend is a good person and a caring employer. She pays Gulia well enough that she could buy herself a pair of boots, but Gulia never does. She also gives Gulia boots.

She has given Gulia knee-high black boots to go with a dress. She has given her insulated fuzzy boots to fight the cold. She has given her cheery yellow rain boots to splash through the puddles that cover the roads here. Gulia does not wear these boots. When my friend asks about these boots, Gulia thanks her warmly for her generosity and insists that she wears the boots all the time, just not to work. We are quite sure that Gulia is lying about this.

Now, Gulia likes me. She is supporting her parents on her salary, and she likes that I am doing the same for my parents. She is ethnically Uzbek, and I speak Uzbek, so we can chat in her mother tongue. We get along. My friend asked me to try and find out what exactly was going on with the boots.

So, the other day I asked. And Gulia actually told me what was going on with the boots.

The answer? She’s short, and she’s a mom. Because she’s a mom, when she has cash she can spare, she doesn’t spend it on boots for herself. She spends it on her kids. Because she’s short, she only wears shoes with heels. And since my friend has been trying to give her practical, durable boots, she’s been buying flats. The ankle boots may hurt, but they have heels. Gulia can’t face life without the extra two inches. She’d rather have pinched toes and cold feet.

My friend’s gift boots are sitting at home in Gulia’s closet, waiting for Gulia to get so old she can’t wear heels any more, except for the fuzzy pair, which her mother now wears in cold weather.

The moral? There are several, I think. 1) Gulia wants other things, like school supplies for her kids, more than she wants new boots, so maybe we should stop giving her boots. 2) People want what they want, whether or not it makes sense to me. 3) And donated shoes need to actually meet people’s needs, as people themselves see them.

(This story is mostly true. I have changed some elements to make it totally anonymous.)

(photo credit: KayVee.Inc)
Chosen because I suspect those are Gulia’s dream boots.

May 2008 – What’s the difference between relief and development?

Palestinian Refugees

Note: August is looking like a crazy and stressful month for me, with no time to blog here. To make sure no one gets bored and abandons me, I am going to re-run some of my favorite posts from the past.

May 2008 – What’s the difference between relief and development?

The simplest breakdown goes like this:

Humanitarian relief programs are focused on rapid start-up, and rapid impact. Implementers of humanitarian programs need to gear up as fast as possible, and start providing necessary assistance as fast as possible. Their primary focus is not building local capacity, sustainability, or monitoring and evaluation. Their primary focus is getting help to people in need. They end when the emergency ends. Relief can come from the outside, and it is a response to some kind of breakdown or disaster.

Development programs are focused on achieving long-term change of some kind, with the intent of improving people’s lives and the lives of their descendants. They involve rigorous planning and ongoing operational research. They are rooted in local capacity building, because they are aimed at change which continues after the project ends. Even if it has outside support, development in the end has to come from inside.

In practice, however, it’s not that simple. (it never is, is it?) Sometimes the emergency doesn’t end. Situations that look like short-term humanitarian emergencies can go on for years, or even decades. Somalia, for example, Afghanistan, or Sudan. Programs designed to provide immediate assistance become a way of life for people in crisis. It would be nice if those programs could be converted into development programs, but it’s very hard to turn a relief program into a development program. The skill sets for the staff are different, for one thing. Building latrines and building community capacity can be a long, long way apart. You can hire new staff, though, or retrain your people. The other hurdle – usually the big one – is that relief programs and development programs have different donors.

Relief programs are generally funded by private donations and specific government donors. The US government, for example, funds emergency relief through the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Relief. Development programs are far less popular with private donors, and they’re funded by a different set of government agencies. If you want to change the focus of your program, you have to get different different donors. Which mostly you can’t do. Donors don’t like to take over each other’s programs, you won’t be familiar with the new donor’s procedures and evaluation requirements, and development donors plan their financial priorities a long time in advance. They often won’t have money to pick up your newly transformed relief project.

Everyone’s perfect ideal for relief is to give aid that empowers the communities who receive it. Immediate assistance that also builds skills and improves quality of life for the long term. You could, for example, truck in water to a community struck by drought. Then you could dig wells and turn the wells over to local management. You could train a local engineering association or the Ministry of Water on well-digging and irrigation management and safe drinking water. We just need a funding structure that makes it happen.

Photo Credit: Castielli
Chosen because the Palestinian refugee camps are a classic example of emergency relief that has been going on far, far too long.

What is social media, anyway?

A nice white paper on social media. From smashLAB, this paper starts with the very basics, like defining content communities, blogs, and virtual worlds. It then goes all the way into some basic case studies and a discussion of how companies can use social media. It’s a good introduction for anyone new to the concept of social media, and the ideas apply equally well to nonprofits.