Friday missive from Colombo

I have been in Colombo this week, my last visit here in February coinciding with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations.

As I gear up for returning back to Saigon tonight, I’ve been combing through this morning’s report out from Donald Trump’s July 4th speech about America’s independence, alongside a rash of social media streaming Anne Widdecombe’s inauguration (which, let’s just say “touches” on the topic of independence) as a Member of the European Parliament.

Widdecombe, in case you didn’t seen her performance, compares those duty bearers inside the European Parliament to “feudal barons”, and the United Kingdom to the “peasantry” – a “colony” seeking to escape from the oppressive regime of an “empire”.

Trump, to paraphrase his day in the office, made a speech with lots of “uncharacteristic” words in it (such as “we are one people chasing one dream”) and then stood back as his country’s military arsenal flew overhead.

Some commentators are comparing Trump to presiding like a “Roman Emperor” at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. Others feel his patriotism is perfectly in line with a July 4th event (military parades, many argue, are a common enough occurrence at an Independence Day event).

Widdecombe’s monologue has predictably attracted similarly polarized responses.

None of this is new. None of this should, by now (meaning, since we’ve historically tracked issues of governance in society) shock us.

The topic of independence runs like a jagged seam through our history and will, it would seem, continue to do so long after a thick layer of dust has settled on the archives of each of the world’s current government administrations’ collective legacies.

The act of independence is an awesome one.

It simultaneously super-charges the potential for wide-scale liberation and conflict, for shaping societal norms and culture, and for empowering individuals to both leverage power as well as rage against it.

It’s exhausting even to wrap one’s head around the sheer concept of all these things. Almost as exhausting and exacerbating (I’m happy to show my hand on this one) as watching Widdecombe pontificate in front of her MEP colleagues, with Nigel Farage sat sneering next to her.

Thankfully, for me, traveling around a former tropical colony of the British as I was watching Widdecombe’s display, made the irony of her ranting too rich to allow for the biting embarrassment it evoked in me to really ruin my day. Plus, I’m still recovering from being flawed by the audacity of her fellow Brit MEPs turning their backs, the day before, during the European anthem…just ENOUGH ALREADY people!

Working for an international NGO since 2006, I’ve tracked the topic of independence inside CARE’s worldwide network of organisations which comprise our confederation.

We’ve accelerated, since 2014, a change process that is seeking to diversify those top decision makers inside of CARE.

This means pivoting away from our long standing dynamic of these decision makers being based in countries where we don’t deliver programmes. These are countries which are also known affectionately, and wholly inaccurately, as making up the “global north”.

Regardless of the parlance here, the objective is an exciting one.

To now have CARE representatives from Thailand, Peru, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia, residing over critical governance issues related to how we work, alongside the likes of the UK, USA, Australia, France, Germany and Canada, is a nourishing proposition.

And, moreover, it’s actually happening at CARE and not just being talked about. And, so far, it’s working.

In the miniature socio-political world of CARE organisations, our evolution in this way mirrors changes around independence that have taken place on the world stage.

Predictably and, in many ways, healthily, these changes have sparked debates and discourse at CARE, and opened up a platform for us to share ideas on how we best ensure the impact of our work, on the lives of our beneficiaries, also increases from a more diverse governance model.

We’ve a long way to go, however, on this journey. Turning a big ship like CARE requires time. Critically, what will become the real game changer, if we get it right, will be how we learn from the process of establishing new entities, as we have done in Sri Lanka, and what we then do with that learning.

Truly, I think these next 5-10 years could be some of the most influential and critical in CARE’s 75 year history. We adapt our model for doing business, and increase the impact of our work, or we close up shop, for good.

I don’t see any middle line we can take on this.


Also coming out of this week’s discussions with the Chrysalis team (CARE Sri Lanka, after 50 years of operating, closed their programmes down in 2016 and reincarnated as Chrysalis, a social purpose enterprise that focuses on engaging businesses and markets in Sri Lanka in order to support women and youth) a take-away resonating for me, is linked not simply to getting more to grips with the implications on a country, or on an organization, of seeking any form of independence, but also the need to accurately describe what it is that an organization such as Chrysalis actually does. 

Asking the question: “what do we mean by that?” is possibly one of the sharpest tools we have as development practitioners.

I recall feeling immensely fatigued, though, after joining CARE in 2006, from attending drawn out seminars and workshops in which long serving professionals would routinely ask this question.

Often, on reflection, I think I was right to feel that way, as it can become an addictive and distracting habit.

However, I’ve learnt to respect the art form of curious enquiry (my 8 year old has helped with this) and, when it comes to an organization like Chrysalis establishing itself, breaking free as an independent entity from the mother-ship, it seems to me that an opportunity is there for the taking, in carving out a fresh articulation of just what it is that this new entity is all about.

What does it mean, for example, to “support women and youth,” how does an organisation “economically empower” local communities, and what does it mean to “increase women’s voice” in public spaces?

This call out for clarity is aimed at all humanitarian and development organisations. Let me be clear on that.

CARE and Chrysalis, were they to describe more simply and accurately, what their work sets out to achieve – jargon free – would not be catching up with other peers but would, instead, be trail-blazing a refreshing type of new narrative.

One that, perhaps, would help gain traction with new audiences and would open up new possibilities for partnerships and collaborations.

Let’s see.

As “duty bearing” goes, it’s not a lot to ask to describe in plain terms what your organization is seeking to achieve, is it?

As a recently appointed member of the Chrysalis Board, I will hold myself accountable for doing just that.

To be continued…







Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling

Children reading Lafaek Community Magazine. Photo Credit Sarah Rippin/CARE

I’ve been working in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor) this week, and it’s been a privilege as always to spend time in new surrounds. More so when stationed one hundred metres from the sea, with spectacular daily sunsets, and some of the tastiest coffee money can buy. 

Timor is an island, just a short hop north of Darwin, Australia, and up until quite recently, following 500 years of Portuguese occupation, was an Indonesian colony (between 1975 and 1999). The western side of the island is still governed by Indonesia. Timor-Leste claimed its independence in 2002.

Like so many other countries in 2016, Timor-Leste is experiencing the effects of the current El Nino droughts, disrupting the country’s wet season and ruining harvesting potential. A topic covered on this site back in March during my time in Ethiopia.

My assignment this week, however, has been to support CARE’s work to engage more with private sector companies in Timor-Leste (banks, retail, media and others) and examine ways in which, together, initiatives and relationships can be forged to tackle some of the social and economic challenges the country faces – poor infrastructure, lack of employment opportunities, issues around food security and nutrition, financial literacy, to name a few. Even without a more severe El Nino year, Timor-Leste is dealing with all of these mini crises combined.     Continue reading “Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling”

Partnership musings at 33,000 ft

Photo credit @saigonsays
Photo credit @saigonsays

Over the last couple of months I’ve spent time at various “partnership” themed events. Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi, even the leafy outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, many thousands of miles away from the hustle bustle of Saigon. Different venues, but similar take-away recommendations about how, if we are truly to tackle social and environment issues and bring about change in the future, for the future, we must join forces with others.

In some cases, forming alliances which might seem oxymoronic: for example, big business in partnership with local communities; municipal governments working with large NGOs.

Previous case studies on this blog site (where CARE is partnering with companies in the region, including GSK and Diageo) are backed up by hundreds more out there, many of which are breaking new ground and offer hope for replicating models which others can adopt, adapt and improve. Continue reading “Partnership musings at 33,000 ft”

Lending: the new giving?

Vietnamese hill tribe handicrafts

I live in Saigon, Vietnam, and it’s hotting up once more as we approach the muggiest time of the year.

Luckily, for me, this week I have been in Hanoi and luckier still, yesterday spent the day visiting local hill tribe communities about 180 kms north west of the capital.

Not only did the mercury drop down lower for the day, as we snaked our bus round the mountains through wispy clouds and potholed roads, but we were privileged to meet incredibly talented individuals, tucked away as they are from the life of urban Hanoians, and cut off from the collective consciousness of the world outside Vietnam.

The objective of the visit was as part of an expansion of an initiative in the UK that CARE International have built over the past four years, called Lendwithcare.

Local hill tribe community
Continue reading “Lending: the new giving?”

Blue pill, red pill

So, engaging graphics and playing-to-the-crowd sentiments aside, the video above is well worth a gander.

The main thrust of its narrative is a warning to all that we risk creating an increasingly lonelier state of self through the persistent use of social media, ironically pitched as social media can be as a way of improving an individual’s ‘connectivity’ in the world.

In the olden days we used to wake up, make tea, brush our teeth and collect our frozen milk bottle off the doorstep. Today, we’re more likely to check our email, Twitter and Facebook accounts before we even dip a toe out of bed, let alone respond diligently to any line of enquiry emanating from other human beings in our house. Continue reading “Blue pill, red pill”



I had coffee with a fellow NGO peer earlier today and, as usual, our chat about work was diverted several times, and we traded amusing anecdotes about life in general.

Van has lived here for 7 years, having been brought up in the USA.  Her Vietnamese is not too bad, but her passion for investing a career and a life in Saigon, where her parents and grandparents lived, like many returning here, is really notable.

This doesn’t mean that some of the quirkiness of living in Vietnam washes over Van: in fact at times it leaves her agog.  Like the occasion when her newly appointed PR assistant (on hearing Van admit to being on a diet, and down the gym each morning) asked her bluntly in front of the team why it was then that Van was wearing “an outfit today which highlights your flabby tummy?” Continue reading “Brit-speak”