They’re looking right back

When I worked for IMC, we used to take our Iraq country director around to meetings in DC and NY whenever he was in the US. It wasn’t just for fundraising or to raise awareness about Iraq. People didn’t tend to believe that you could actually do relief and development work in Iraq, because of the danger and the complexity. We’d take our guy to them and he’d explain how you could do it. His meetings were a powerful tool, much more effective than a report could have been.

One question he fielded over and over was “Do your partners in Iraq know that you’re funded by the US government?”

His answer was always the same. “We have Google in Iraq, too.”

In our interconnected world, you can’t hide from the communities you work with. That’s a good thing. It’s much easier to treat people with respect when you know that they’re watching you. Transparency is part of accountability, whether or not that transparency is voluntary. I think that’s part of development 2.0. We’re not just going somewhere and learning the local situation so we can do our work; they are looking right back at us, and they’ve got the tools to disseminate their views.

On a related note: Development work is slow and frustrating. Community partners can drive you completely nuts. There are cultural barriers you can’t get past, easily-solved problems that never find resolution anyway. It’s easy to get bitter and angry. Whatever you do, don’t blog about it. How would the people in this guy’s town feel if they learned just how much he despises them?


(photo credit: Onno B.)

A story I’m not proud of

When I first started at IMC, I was senior desk officer for East Africa and the Middle East. I had a solid Middle East background, but I had to do a lot of reading on East Africa. I’d been there a few weeks and was starting to realize I’d somehow become an aid worker and I loved it.

I was reading an article about a young mother in Mogadishu. She had a baby and wouldn’t leave her house during the fighting (this was the 2006 fighting, FYI). Finally she ran out of all food and had to leave the house. She took her 3-month old baby with her. She was killed in the cross-fire and NGO workers found her baby frantically trying to nuzzle at his mother’s dead breast.

My son was three months old when I read that. I was a breast-feeding mother. I sat at my desk and cried, for quite a while. And then I thought, “If I had a picture of that, I could fundraise a million dollars, easy.”

Your work saves lives. You can’t do the work without money. It’s very, very hard to keep chasing the money you need to do good, and stay good yourself.

I don’t want to be Kevin Carter.

(image credit: Fiore S. Barbato)
Chosen because I am still too human to be able to search flickr for dead children

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

Everything that matters in international development comes back to poverty. Poverty saps your ability to affect the path of your life, stay (or start out) healthy, find a job, or invest in education or a small business.

Information on global poverty:

Dani Rodrik talks about international poverty.

A nice Foreign Affairs article on reducing global poverty.

The World Bank’s most recent numbers on global poverty.

Oxfam’s take on reducing global poverty.

You will notice that not all of the sources I have listed agree with each other. Poverty is a complex topic, and there are no obvious answers on what to do. If you want to get involved in fighting global poverty, I suggest the ONE campaign. If you’d like to donate money to help alleviate global poverty, give to an NGO you already know and trust. Poverty is part of all our major problems, and fighting it is part of every solution. Donate to a food pantry in your home town, to Feeding America, International Medical Corps, or the Treatment Action Campaign or Oxfam. Every NGO trying to make the world a better place is fighting poverty one way or another; choose one that is credible and give what you can.

Blog Posts I’ve written that touch on poverty:

Briefing: Tuberculosis

Suffering does not make you special

Your money does not make you special

Keep your banana to yourself

Why health matters (if you only read one of my posts, read this one)

Reader Question – International Social Work

Dear Alanna,

I have one main question: from your experience, what would you say the need for international social workers is in NGOs?

Background info: I have an MA in international and I work for a NGO in the US, in their Africa dept – as a program associate, so I don’t go to Africa. I am going to go to (redacted) for a bit more than 3 months in September and will volunteer in a hospital that treats raped women. I know 3 months is not nearly enough to give me credibility, but that’s all I can do.

Now I’m thinking about going back to school. I am leaning towards a MSW that would allow me to focus on mental health and trauma. Do you think this would be valued in the NGO world?




Dear Katherine,

International social workers in NGOs – it’s a tricky question. There is a tremendous need for psychosocial help for survivors of disasters, and NGOs are paying more and more attention to those needs. International Medical Corps has some useful links: A social work background would fit in nicely and meet a need.

That being said, everyone I actually know with an MSW who works in international development is doing something unrelated. It ends up being treated as just another master’s degree – a credential for a job that requires that level of education, but not a set of technical skills that are actually used in daily practice. Since you already have a master’s degree, I am not sure what the value added would be for you.

Your best bet might be to spend a year or two doing other things to build your skills and background on trauma and mental health. Your volunteering is a great start. Maybe you could also volunteer with trauma victims when you come back to the US? I know the DC Rape Crisis Center will train people to be advocates and answer their hotline. There must be other opportunities as well. You can put that kind of thing on your resume and frame yourself as having the right background and then start applying for the jobs that you feel passionate about.

Here’s an obvious thing, but just in case you have not thought of it – have you searched or a similar site to see what jobs require an MSW, and if they interest you?



A love letter to my last job

(you don’t have to be crazy to work there but it helps)

I love that we are first in and last out, that we’re boots on the ground when the bullets are still in the air and we stay until we’re genuinely no longer needed. I love our unruly and brilliant country directors. I love that this is the smartest group of people with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working. I love always having someone to talk to on skype. I love that everyone here has field experience and is mysteriously lacking in any sense of self-preservation.

I love being part of a team, a team that does something that matters and does it well. I love the way this job combines competition and idealism, that we set out to help people and we set out to win. I love winning. I love that my job is difficult but I can do it anyway. I love that most of us would be completely helpless when trying to do our work if it wasn’t for all the other people who fill in the gaps. I love the way everyone here has a useful background, be it child survival, sociology, engineering, or the marine corps. I love working in an office that is highly tolerant of eccentricity. I love being judged on results and not how well I know my place in the hierarchy. I love having keys to the office.

I love the way people’s eyes light up when I tell them what I do for a living, once they finally understand. I love that the list of the places we work sounds like a travel guide from hell. I love hearing the taser crackle in the middle of slow afternoons, and that one day we had to send Amy up to the roof because of the tear gas. I love watching Al-Jazeera (and occasionally the world cup) scroll across the TV, and the PR guy sprint down the hall for some urgent media reason.

I love that even though we need the money to do what we do, it’s not actually about the money. I love having MSF hand over their hospitals to us because they leave at arbitrary points and we struggle and suffer and scream to stay, as long as there is need. I love that everyone I’ve met is still an idealist at heart. I love the thousand layers of bitter cynicism that covers the idealism. I love watching the news and knowing that I can do something about it, even if it is only a tiny bit.

I love sitting at my desk at seven pm and knowing I am not the only one there. I love writing a good proposal. I love seeing our logo on the news. I love how completely surreal our field problems tend to be, I love that we put our field programs first, and I love that our field programs are good.