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.)

How to cure your PTSD

The other day I was trying to work on a couple projects I really like, and I just couldn’t focus. I just felt uncontrollably twitchy and weird. I also couldn’t edit documents, reformat resumes or enjoy browsing the archives of xkcd. Not being able to read web comics is a red flag, and at that point I realized my heart rate was up, and every muscle in my body was tense, including my face and my toes.

After I started paying attention, I also realized there was a lot of traffic on the road outside. I was once again experiencing the world’s mildest case of PTSD.

See, when I was in Baghdad, I noticed that the sound of distant explosions sounds just like a truck driving over a metal plate in the ground. (Well, it does if you are me.) So since then, every time I hear a truck driving over such a plate, it scares me to a really disproportionate degree.

Especially here in Tajikistan, it doesn’t happen a whole lot. Not a lot of plates or truck traffic. But that other day, for some reason, bang bang bang on the road by my office. Not exactly life-destroying, but upsetting.

Yesterday, at lunch with some embassy people, I found myself sitting next to a woman getting her PhD in psychology. And naturally I asked for free medical advice.

Here’s what she told me: what I have is basically a strong bad association. What I need to do, is find a way to experience the same frightening sound in a situation where I feel safe and happy. I could record the sound and play it at home, for example.

I plan to take my son, who makes me happy all the time, to watch the construction site near my house. Trucks and banging galore, paired with happy, happy baby who loves trucks and construction. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I really think it will work.

Normally, I try not to make this blog all personal, but I thought this might be a useful cognitive technique for other people.


(photo credit: Titanas)

Chosen because it’s an appropriately discomfiting and scary truck.

Things I believe in #17 – recognizing and learning from failure

There are a whole lot of ways you can screw up a development program. I’ve talked about some of them in the past. You can make bad choices with the best of intentions, you can discover your every choice has unintended consequences, and you can just be flat out stupid. Luckily, we’re not houseflies. We have the capacity for learning. And if we’re willing to genuinely examine our failures, we can avoid making the same mistake twice. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

Determining what went wrong is actually the easy part. There are so many moving parts in any development project that many, or most of them will not turn out how you expected. Making a list of what could have gone better will be distressingly easy.

The hard part comes next. You have to sort through your list to figure out which factors were actually the deal-breakers, and which were annoyances. Then you identify what you can actually avoid or compensate for next time. You have to figure out the right lesson to learn.

For example, if your agriculture program failed because of insufficient rainfall, you need to design a program flexible enough to adapt to multiple weather projections. Knowing that you need rain is not a useful lesson to learn. Knowing you need to have different options for different weather conditions is a useful lesson. Vasco Pyjama has a great entry about learning from something her organization failed at.

Being able to recognize and accept our failures is what makes future success possible.
To take this discussion from the theoretical to the concrete, here are two of my own programmatic failures, and what I learned from them:

1. Nutrition pamphlet for women in Turkmenistan. Literacy is high in Turkmenistan, and people seem to genuinely love brochures and pamphlets. When we focus-group tested health pamphlets, we got responses like “this should be longer.” When a Peace Corps volunteer applied for a small grant to produce a brochure with nutrition information and healthy recipes, it seemed like a good fit.

This is what I learned: Turkmen women don’t cook from recipes. They think the whole idea is weird. They feed their families by buying what’s cheap and in season from the bazaar, and then cooking it using traditional techniques. The nutrition information was useful, but women had no way to act on it. Our next attempt at nutrition education focused on cooking methods to make Turkmen dishes higher in nutritional value. That one was much more successful.

2. Community website for Baghdad. This was a proposal I helped to design and write. We were going to set up a community website for Baghdad, kind of combination between Craigslist and Yelp. It would allow for violence mapping, to help people avoid dangerous areas, and offer ways to discuss things like whether a particular doctor or lawyer would take clients across sectarian lines. We were going to combine that with increased wifi access using repeaters, and providing cheap laptops to large households. In an environment too dangerous for community-building in person, it was meant to help give people a unified identity as Baghdadis once again. Just about everyone who heard about the idea loved it, but I never found a donor that would pay for it.

This is what I learned: no donor will fund a program that gives people to the chance to say anything they want. As one person told me, “The first time the New York Times runs an article about Islamic militants posting to a US/UN/UK (insert donor here)-funded website, we’re all screwed.” I still love the idea of the Baghdad site, but it’s going to take some very innovative funding to make it happen.

Failure feels really, really bad. It’s a blow to your ego and you feel like you’ve let down the people who rely on your organization. If you can get past that, though, it’s the best teacher you’ll find.

(photo credit: Quod)
Chosen because I think that tiny apple on the right represents hope.


Just to be absolutely clear, I was only in Baghdad for a week, more than a year ago. A cushy week, at that, where I stayed in our compound, ate freshly-baked pastries, and asked the Iraq team a lot of questions about their work. I left the compound once to go to the green zone. We went directly back afterward. I had no close calls, no kidnap attempts, and no experience with live fire of any kind. I saw Baghdad through the window of our battered Mercedes and briefly from the roof of our apartment building.

I know an awful lot of people who’ve been to Iraq. Just about everyone at IMC, for one thing. My friend Kerry, for another. A monitoring and evacuation specialist who got sent home because it was too dangerous for non-permanent staff. My cousin, a Kuwaiti, who translated for UPI. A contractor who carried a secret gun so that “he wouldn’t end up in a video in CNN.” I am not trying to say I have anything in common with them.

I’ve just got me, and my experience. I went to Baghdad, I ate a lot of carbs, I listened to a lot of music on my laptop to drown out the explosions I could always hear in the distance. I was there the week the surge started and the Iranian ambassador was taken. I heard two bazaar bombings. I discovered mortar fire sounds just exactly like it does on M*A*S*H (the mortar fire is much louder near the green zone).

I remember every tiny detail of that trip. What the detergent in the sheets smelled like. The flavor and texture of the little cookies the cook made. And the music I played. One song in particular, I listened to many, many times. Love is the Movement. I’ve got it on my iPod. I still love the song, but it gives me nightmares. I flinch when I see it on my playlist, and I always listen to it anyway.

Iraq was real. We were doing work that really, really mattered there, and it was some of the best work that can be done in Iraq. If we hadn’t been doing it, no one else could have. (You don’t, honestly, feel that way all that often. Usually you know that if you don’t do it, World Vision or CARE probably will.) I talked to my colleagues in that office – who were, to a person, traumatized and shell-shocked – and they were utterly committed to what they did. They knew their work had damaged them and they thought it was worth the trade-off.

If I didn’t have my son, I’d still be in that office today.

I heard Love is the Movement on my bus ride home. I donated some money to my former employer this evening, and I did the thing I hate and designated it for Iraq programs. I’m going to wake up crying tonight.

(image credit: GlobalCop)

Trauma, kidnap and death (Iraq)

Trauma, kidnap and death: all in a day’s work for journalists in Iraq. I spent a week in Baghdad last year. It was minor, really – from the airport to our compound, from our compound to the green zone, from our compound to the airport again and put. I ate amazing meals prepared by the live-in cook (an IDP) and talked to the Iraq country team. It was the scariest thing I ever did, and it was nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to what the US military and the Iraqi people go through.

This article really resonated with me; the author struggled with the same feelings I did. Like you’re not allowed to be traumatized because your risk was so minor. Which it was. But…

I would, I think, have stayed in Iraq if I wasn’t a mother. We were doing good relief work there, and there was a vivid and immediate sense of why the work mattered. Time magazine has a nice article about the need for more humanitarian work in Iraq. Agron Ferati, who is quoted, is brave and brilliant and I worry about him all the time.

Two on Tuesday – Meaty arguments

Two on Tuesday is a new feature where I find a couple examples of a phenomenon or issue that I find interesting, and try to learn something useful from them.

What I’ve found for you today is two blog postings that were hotly contested by their commenters. In other words, two interesting arguments. The real-time community knowledge aspect of blogs is one of my favorite things about this form, and a blog with passionate commenters is its epitome. There aren’t just two sides two every story, there are more like nine, and commentary from intelligent, passionate people is a great way to sort it out.

I therefore bring you:

1) Joshua Foust and Ann Marlowe continuing their ongoing feud on Registan.

2) Abu Aardvark and a bunch of commenters on the Anbar Awakening in Iraq.

A nice pair of postings that cast some light on the two major wars our country is fighting. (Some commenters are more worth reading than others, I admit.)