Understanding CARE’s Resilient Market Systems work

In the international development sector, it’s commonplace to read about “systems change”. This is a broad objective. There are many different types of systems in the world, and many ways to change them. There’s a system for how banks distribute money, and how utility companies manage the flow of clean water to households. A system for how to hold your government to account on social welfare measures. A system, more culturally nuanced, for how families inherit assets. A system for addressing global health pandemics. And so on. Millions of systems and ways to both disrupt them and to improve them.

Typically, the INGO industry champions those citizens directly facing marginalisation, vulnerability and injustice.  At CARE International, where I spent thirteen years, the target group supported are women and girls. One particular area of focus that I worked on was how to bring the potential of businesses and markets to bear, for the women and girls CARE sought to assist. Many of you have been subjected to years of my posting here, on related experiences from this starting objective. For which I am most grateful.

Having recently completed a consulting assignment with a very special CARE team, based in Palestine, we’ve published a ‘Compendium‘ for those practitioners in the sector who are looking at systems change in the context of fragility and crisis. Better still, for practitioners who are also advancing their engagement with the private sector and their women’s economic development efforts.

The Compendium is titled “Resilient Market Systems” because its goal is to influence not just the economic opportunities for women and girls (enhancing their resilience to economic fluctuations) who are faced with crisis situations, but to improve the resiliency of the wider market systems, themselves impacted by the same crisis.

2020 has also produced Covid-19, a merciless ‘crisis’ that has touched the lives of everyone, and which calls for organisations to pull together. Enabling more ‘resilient market systems’ is clearly not an overnight project, nor something that CARE can do without collaborating with others. However, as a global confederation with a strong cadre of practitioners working in some of the world’s most complex crisis contexts, just aligning CARE’s own teams can be a challenge in itself.

In many ways, this Compendium is a call to action to us all to think about our own role in the market systems within which we operate.

What is a market system? Well, at the heart a market system (captured in the schematic below) exists goods and services value chains, running from production to consumption, and linking up national, regional and global markets. From essential services (eg banking or health) to the production of a range of consumable goods, the roles of the many stakeholders that participate in this chain, who are affected by each of the various external environmental, political and societal influences, are all inter-related.

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CARE’s work sets out to trigger a range of improvements that make crisis affected market systems more resilient, inclusive, and profitable in such a way that addresses the previous inequalities which prevented women from benefiting from markets on the same footing as men.

The Compendium aims to help practitioners think through how to do this. From the type of analysis at the beginning of planning the work, through to considerations of how the work will transform gender dynamics favourably for women, to the ways in which the private sector can be engaged, through to how to test people’s resiliency to dynamic economic change.

I commend the concepts behind this publication, and the range of experiences and case studies (ten of which are featured in the Annexes) contained inside. Not just for the more technical components to the document, but because of the nature of how the contents and the spirit behind the work was conceived. Drawing from across the Middle East and North Africa region – countries including Palestine, Turkey and the Caucasus featuring prominently – but also wider, this Compendium walks the talk of how a large confederation such as CARE should be working collegiality across its teams, diversifying its thought leadership in the pursuit of the right solutions, for those most in need of them.

2020 Vision

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Sun up, Saigon, 12 May 2020.

Thanks to technology, we have all kinds of information at the click of a button. Whilst huge numbers of population groups can’t access the internet, not long from now everyone will be connected in some shape or form.

Technology is helping us make better sense of our impacts on the environment, and how to resolve the negative aspects of these. Technology has enabled block chain systems to evolve, challenging how existing global market transactions work, and providing alternative methods for citizens to cast votes in elections. Technology is enhancing the way we communicate with each other, how we forge and maintain relationships, both professional and personal.

I’ve been working with The Partnering Initiative (TPI) recently and we’re seeing how technology can also be a positive vehicle for partnership work. In particular, between organisations seeking to solve societal issues, such as poverty, injustice and now, during such comprehensively macabre times, a health pandemic.

The current implications of Covid-19 are reverberating through every country of the world. We rely on technology to support our response to this virus, as well as to develop its vaccine.

However, there is one damning chasm that technology has failed to fill in: inequality.

American author, William Gibson, once said: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. 

Inequality, on a global scale, rages on.

Recently, the stark extent to which our planet’s wealth is unevenly distributed has been shared wider and wider.

Oxfam’s Inequality Campaign helps put the data into perspective – 1% of the world’s population own more than the rest combined. Other agencies have provided tools to help us determine how our own wealth fares, when compared to global median levels. If you are curious about your ranking, then The Giving What We Can platform calculates this for you here: How Rich Are You?

Covid-19 has exposed the pervasive extent to which social inequalities direct so much of what and how societies function.

Capitalist market-based models and patriarchal and cultural norms clearly also contribute heavily. Too many men in positions of power. Too many assumed entitlements, personified daily by too many people used to getting what they want, when they want it.

Which is, of course, where the remedial qualities of partnership working can play a critical role.

As TPI and others have experienced, on the topic of partnership working, it is not sustainable to broker a meaningful partnership with another organization if both parties refuse to embrace new methods, new approaches and new behaviours. Partnerships also won’t sustain if individuals don’t cede elements of control and influence to which they might intuitively feel they are entitled.

Instead, long-term, impactful partnerships will only succeed in their objectives if any aspects of inequality within them are not re-balanced.

Covid-19 should be seen as an overdue warning shot across a country’s bows, but specifically the world’s wealthiest ones.

The US and the UK are floundering with their responses to the pandemic. Caught up in political points scoring, unwilling to learn from the experiences of other nations, blinkered in their pursuit of populist messages.

There was a time when these countries took pride in their international development investments, a time when being a “global citizen” was worn as a badge of some honour by political ambassadors.

A time when signing up to the doctrine of partnership, that the Sustainable Development Goals got close to evangelizing (as part of the United Nation’s second round of fifteen year commitments to the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens) was taken ‘as a given’.

These times have changed. Those sentiments shelved.

And, one scenario perhaps, is that we won’t now see a return to that previous status quo. It’s plausible that the seismic nature of the shifts caused by Covid-19 are too severe to be fully repairable.

Gibson’s statement asks us to consider if our new normal will see more people living comfortably with wealth, or more people living uncomfortably with poverty?

Will our human condition – when so flagrantly put under the microscope and tested, as it could be argued is happening in 2020 – regenerate more altruistically as a result of Covid-19? Or, will the opposite scenario unfold, and a more self-centered and individualistic norm rise from the ashes of the pandemic?

That partnerships can solve complex social and environmental challenges is undisputed.

But partnerships, we also know concretely, won’t survive long, if those leading them choose not to believe in the power of the many, and in the spectacular innovation that comes from collaboration.

To hope for a future where collective action and shared goals are espoused by all (by organisations who traditionally function to benefit only their shareholders, or by governments who only crave election votes) is, of course, a version of a utopia state. And that hope itself carries with it many complications and flaws.

And yet, no amount of technological advances will ever truly make a difference in the pursuit of a more just and equal society.

Real change only ever comes from hearts and minds. Not from algorithms.

Put more women in charge

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Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey http://www.nomadicsamuel.com

Last Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. The day the “American war” officially ended. Evacuations from Saigon continued for some time after 30th April 1975, but Reunification Day is the day that residents here hoist up their flags and commemorate the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

I remember talking to a friend a few year’s back, she was born in Saigon, and her family fled later in the ’70s, bound for Melbourne, Australia. She recalls the memory of being in a boat, aged 5, and can picture still the anguish plastered across her parents’ brows, and their clipped, firm instructions to her.

The plight of a family on the run isn’t something anyone would choose to put themselves through.

Just as no parent would want their loved ones to be victims of war over peace, violent conflict over dialogue.

And, yet, war and conflict riddle our generation, as they have every other one before us, and peace and dialogue so often resolve far less than seems possible.

‘Change’ in our society, as required by the human condition, thrives off of a combination of war and peace, reinforced and shaped, as these forces are, by various forms of dialogue and iterations of conflict.

There is a predictability around the cycles of these dynamics and conditions, and humans seem stuck in the cadence and inevitability of the ebb and flow of these things.

But we needn’t be stuck, dear reader.

I put it to you that we’ve gathered plenty of recent and favourable lessons about how to tackle societal issues (including addressing conflict and war) and one thing is certain: we don’t have enough women in charge.

It’s not necessarily that a Head of State (there are currently 29 female Heads of State out of 195 countries) always single-handedly makes the key decisions. Nor every corporate CEO the same. It takes many voices and influences to ultimately persuade a country to go “to war” in the first place.

However, with power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and men simply don’t care enough about the impacts of their decisions, when compared to women.

Forgive the sweeping generalisations but, for too long – forever – men have sat smug and uncontested, their creativity and compassion rendered, more often than not, lethargic and complacent when compared, in the cold and searching light of day, to that of women.

The Mars vs. Venus analogies neatly document the critical differences between men and women. We have this data. Men don’t care as much as women do. They don’t care as much.

The alarm bells have been ringing loud and clear on this point for a long while now. But nothing changes.

Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckeberg, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Pope Francis. A plethora of male power brokers. Angela Merkel the one female counter-part over the last ten years whose influence is comparable.

More recently, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has captured the attention of many. Because she cares. Because she is self-aware and because her ego, unlike the inflated zeppelins of her male peers, doesn’t take over how she makes decisions.

In the archives of these posts you will find attempts to describe CARE’s solutions to poverty and social injustice. The #1 proof of concept that CARE has? Put more women in charge. Put gender equality at the centre of all poverty programmes, of all campaigns to tackle social injustice. Done. It’s that simple.

Put more women in charge of balancing a low-income household budget and we know they will think more about healthcare and education, than they will about spending that budget on consumption. They will care more about the welfare of their children. There will be less violence and conflict.

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Picture credit: http://www.wunc.org

Putting more women in charge of everything can only reap dividends for everyone in the longer term. The stock market, the military, the media, the respective governance structures of every country in the world, the political systems, which toxically cause pain and suffering for so many people. Hell, we’ve even the evidence now that investing more in girls’ education is one of the most important counters to the effects of climate change.

Women make up 51% of the world’s population and yet we are leaving seismic decision-making about the planet’s extractive industry, the planet’s nuclear capacities, the planet’s healthcare and financial systems, dis-proportionality to men. Who we know care less about issues of humanity and welfare than women do.

Patriarchal social norms, everywhere, dictate this status quo. Capitalism only worsens the effects of inequality, and of gender bias.

The world, we are told, is constantly changing. Covid-19 our latest gruesome illustration of this. And yet nothing has meaningfully changed in terms the gender inequality. It rages on.

The #MeToo movement, and the wave of awareness which followed about domestic violence, workplace harassment, and gender-based violence more generally, was long overdue.

But it didn’t stop the election of Donald Trump. It hasn’t resulted in root and branch changes to how some of the world’s most powerful nations staff their top tier of power holders. It hasn’t influenced the accepted norm, the world over, that men can use violence against women as a weapon.

In Vietnam, as this week’s commemorative anniversary of the end of a brutal and protracted war draws to a close, the government continues to flagrantly lead from the front in terms of the male-female ratios of its leaders. And they are not alone in doing that. It’s the same everywhere.

Everyday, unchallenged, predictable and disastrous decisions are made by men.

Put more women in charge of everything.

Eyes on the prize

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Coco Gauff. Wimbledon, 2019.

I sat up and watched the first half of last night’s Women’s World Cup Final between USA and Netherlands, and it made great viewing. I’m no soccer pundit but I have immense respect for the idea of the game as a platform for many things. Exercise, competition, entertainment – it’s been called the most popular sport in the world.

A source of extreme sponsorship deals and extortionate salaries, soccer’s unique blend of controversy and celebrity continue to guarantee it a levitated brand status amongst millions of young wannabe players or ageing supporters.

In the UK, football is more important to some people than religion, family, work, or any truly higher plain or life calling. Without soccer, for these disciples, life would fundamentally cease to have meaning.

Where you fall on the side of loving or despising the “Great Game” itself, 2019 will surely go down as the year that the world woke up and recognized just how wholly discriminatory the world of soccer has been towards women. That will simply now never be the same again.     Continue reading “Eyes on the prize”

Innovations in Resilience

 

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Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.     Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”

A short story of self

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Uganda.

I remember the moment I started really thinking about inequality. I was 22 years old and part way through a year of teaching in Uganda. As cliched as that year has the potential to be (for the privileged expat that I am) and as eye-glazingly pathetic as this anecdote might come across, I’ve thought it through a fair few times over the two decades since, and it was out there, halfway down the main orange dustbowl of a road outside of the room I rented behind a local bar, that things changed for me.

It took only one minute – and it will forever raise the hairs on my arms.

It was Sunday, and I was walking into the local town – Kiboga – with Julius, the headmaster of one of the schools at which I was employed as an English (and football!) teacher.

As was customary, a walk into Kiboga, on any given day, would involve multiple greeting stops, and smiles and gestures to my neighbours. Students on bicycles might swing past me shouting “yes, Master!” or a group of half dressed toddlers would canter several metres towards me from out of their houses yelling “Mazungu! Mazungu! how are you Mazungu?”     Continue reading “A short story of self”

Drawing Down

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Running in the forests of Siam Reap this weekend

Over the weekend I was in Siam Reap and, for whatever reason, found myself enchanted by the trees and the colours and the red earth. Not in any particular novel way, but in a way that connected to something I may have simply been ignoring for my entire adult life: that simple truth about the fragility of life and changing our own lives whilst we are fortunate enough to be here.

It’s not as if I haven’t been listening to the scientists and the campaigners. Even on these pages I’ve been known to write poetry about nature, have routinely made calls to action on various related themes, and posted pictures of me and my daughter 9 years ago taking part in a climate change march (the same daughter who now, aged 10, just returned from a school camp fully signed up as a pescatarian.)

So, you know, I talk a good game and encourage others to do lots (plus I now have one daughter doing her thing to contribute towards lowering the demand for meat) versus I fly 1,000s of miles every year, like a bit of air conditioning in the Saigon heat and probably, on most other climate friendly criteria, would likely score pretty poorly.

And yet, the science on climate change has been public for years now. As much as a decade ago, I remember seeing a campaign in the UK to highlight the effects of climate change on the poorest communities the world over. The strapline’s call to action being: “turn down the thermostat – it’s getting hot over here.” The accompanying picture was of a pastoralist with his herd of livestock, sweltering in the heat of an African savannah.

Wind forward to the most recent round of climate change headlines (momentarily competing on the front pages with the familiar and depressing daily churn and circus) and the news about our warming planet remains bleak.     Continue reading “Drawing Down”

Back in This

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CARE’s Innovation Team working the camera at Goodlight Studio, Birmingham, AL.

This time last week I returned from the USA – a giddy eight flights and two weeks of work and immersion into some of the country’s civil rights history, as CARE contemplates setting up programmes in America.

I’m still absorbing all that I saw and heard…

From talking to activists outside The White House the day after I arrived; to discussions with colleagues in D.C. about CARE’s future presence in Nigeria, where we are aiming to build the resilience of those affected by ongoing humanitarian issues there; through to time in Atlanta with my incredible team, exploring ways to lift up the opportunities for innovation across CARE’s network; before pausing for a weekend’s moment of Southern Decadence in New Orleans, a city whose authenticity and openness (in more senses of the word during that particular weekend, and which requires it’s own discreet blog post) to diversity and to humanity really are as creative and appealing as one imagines they could be; followed by road tripping up and into the State of Alabama, for more planning sessions at the fabulous Goodlight Studio in Birmingham, and a whistle-stop dive into some of the iconic civil rights moments of the 1960s, which unfolded in this infamous part of the country (from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, to visiting Joe Mintor’s garden displaying thirty years of work in bringing to life historical events in his garden, through the medium of scrap metal and every day objects); all of which culminated in a final leg in Montgomery, meeting the team at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) and hearing from Lecia Brooks and Richard Cohen at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, privileged encounters (amongst others had that week with lawyers, journalists, pastors and advocates for change) offering up precious, honest and heart wrenching insights into the social justice journeys that so many generations across the “Deep South” have been experiencing, each story a momentary platform to quench the individual (and increasingly collective) thirst for action which pulsates through the corridors of these justice-focused institutions, and through the determination of those who inhabit them on a daily basis; until, with my last 24 hours to spare, I flew up to Connecticut, to spend time with one of my oldest and dearest of friends, whose son, my godson, Sam, and I played pool whilst, trading insights about the speeches of Martin Luther King, taught at Sam’s high school, and equipping him and his peers with knowledge, in a way that left me more inspired about how this next generation of power holders and decision makers, of mothers and fathers, of politicians and business executives, might be gifted the intuitive sense of how their fingerprints and footprints can have positive meaning and a place in future history books, as they embark on their own life missions to become their best selves…     Continue reading “Back in This”

Value judgements

 

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CARE staffer Ana Mazen at Azraq camp, in Jordon. Picture credit Sarah Rashdan/CARE.

I’m flying to Singapore on Thursday for work. For those more acquainted with my blogs on definitelymaybe (or on the sister site http://www.saigonsays.com) you’ll have picked up on the fact that I go through spells of heavy travel because of my job.

Every time a work assignment involving being out of Saigon (where I live) is conceived – by me, or by someone I work with, or work for – there are formal criteria for finalizing a decision about going, or not going.

For example, is the assignment in response to a need in that country from a CARE team, an invitation from a partner organization, or the mandate of a higher authority in the system? Who is paying for the costs? What is the detailed scope of work, the objectives? And so on.

I wonder, though, about the less formal criteria that come into play? Those that emanate from individual persuasions and from hierarchies?

Does CARE, and do other entities, in situations of deploying staff overseas to conduct their work, have open and accountable ways of prioritizing who goes where, and for what ends?

Furthermore, how should a not-for-profit agency such as CARE, working to empower marginalized and vulnerable women and girls, decide whether it is more impactful for its mission to send someone in a more “senior” role to a networking conference vs. sending a more “junior” level person on a training course?

In this example, the networking assignment might yield an opportunity to bring valuable new investments into CARE. The training course example might, instead, not only increase the quality of a specific piece of programme design but might also inspire that staff member to be retained for a longer period of time (which, as we know, tends to save organisations money, given the cost of recruiting new people.)

Is one of these examples more directly related to CARE being impactful in our work than the other?

This connundrum, perhaps, doesn’t require public consultation via my blog, and these are issues which are persuasive across sectors and institutions.

However, as carbon emissions are a dominant root cause that exacerbate poverty and social injustice around the world, it does feel incumbent upon those of us working to support those people most impacted on by poverty and social injustices, to be held to account around our standards and decision making.

The issue of how CARE goes about bringing investments into our organisation, how we build quality programmes, and how we reduce our carbon emissions must be inter-connected.

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It occurs to me, too, that this use of ‘informal’ criteria is pervasive in all walks of life, and how we make decisions on many things, and speaks to our individual, collective and societal values.

When I ride my motorbike around Saigon (itself an often complex past-time, and one of the topics of an early blog) I’ll make judgements at every corner, and with every mirror check along the way. Split second decisions are calculated based on a.) what I perceive should be the (formal) rules – although it’s never 100% clear over here – and b.) what I might then decide are more intuitive (informal) reasons.

Spread over this recipe for decision making a splattering of social and cultural norms (we got into this last week, too) and sometimes the results are pain free, and other times they leave me hand-gesturing and losing face in front of a road full of people and vehicles.

The values based judgements I and others might be drawing from in such scenarios are often buried deep. And so do we always even know that we are drawing from them, particularly in situations where we find ourselves in arguments or in discussions with conflicting view-points?

I rarely quote the bible on this blog, but how often do we stop and follow the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” mantra (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for anyone who, like me, just needed to google the line itself)? If I were to create for myself a strong grouping of values to lead my life by, then I think this one is a great contender.

Yet, is it possible to follow this particular biblical ethic in everything one does in life? Who knows. But I do think a small helping of it everyday would be a valuable beginning.

Just as we are taught (rightly so) not to judge a person by their appearance, I think a good deal of inspiration for me comes when you combine various valuex based sentiments together, and ‘walk their talk’.

As someone initially might take up daily meditation, repeatedly over time they might then develop the ability to use what, eventually, becomes a more ingrained technique and state of mind into how they think, speak, and behave, and how they move from each day-to-day activity and past-time.

Perhaps there is a way for those of us operating from positions of power (from wealth, health, security) to genuinely connect with those values which we often speak about, but less often act upon? Better still, can we be consistently true to these values and be honest with ourselves when we are not?

This morning, I watched a video that actress Shay Mitchell hosted for CARE, documenting a visit she made to a refugee camp in Azraq, Jordon. There, she spent time on a CARE project set up to teach young people how to make films, and give them a channel to express themselves (which I’m pleased to say is an initiative that will now continue through past 2018).

Celebrity promotions of international development work have always been ‘a thing’ and some will be critiqued positively, and some negatively. Carbon emissions were expended, and other investments were made, to make this particular visit, project and resulting video happen. It moved and inspired me (caveating that I do have a certain bias). Maybe for others it will illicit different reactions.

Click on many newspaper front pages this morning, and articles underscoring the desperate plights of hundreds of thousands of other refugees, across the globe, are waiting to be read. They demand, and also deserve, our attention.

This, in part, is our dilemma. I’m sharing the Azraq video to (even slightly) help its promotion to even more then the one million or so watches it has already well deserved. In writing about CARE’s other work from time to time, I hope to do the same. To trigger some reflection. To percolate, for any reader who stops by, a thought or a feeling.

I’ll never actually be able to conclude if this creates impact in itself, but I will continue to experiment with that.

One thing that I do know, specifically related to this video, is that I met Jameel (CARE’s Project Manager for the work in Azraq) recently, and it would be impossible to meet someone whose strong values based approach, to his work and to his life, was more profound.

Money is Power

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CARE colleague at a project visit to a Women’s Centre in the West Bank

What do you think of when you read the words ‘money is power‘?

Rich tycoons? Celebrity spenders? Men?

Maybe, maybe not. However, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume (and I believe there are solid grounds for such an assumption) that rich, powerful men represent a compelling ‘logo’ for the concept of money being powerful.

This post is about reframing that.

Now, CARE’s work is mainly couched in the language of poverty and injustice. These are far reaching and often misused words. I’ve written before about the way in which the international development sector overuses jargon, and we are still at it.

Within the wide parameters that ‘poverty’ and ‘injustice’ house, CARE delivers humanitarian relief, and we pride ourselves on our long term development interventions. More recently, we have been describing how we build resilience for communities.

There are then a bunch of derivatives used about each of these terms, which I’ll let you research yourself (as I’ve no doubt you now will).

This latest trend towards resilience is, in some ways, an attempt to combine the two historically distinct and typically separate areas of our work – namely, humanitarian relief and longer-term development.      Continue reading “Money is Power”