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…







Just Keep Going


Last sunrise of 2018 in Saigon, complete with my favourite ferry crossing.

Happy New Year from Saigon!

There’s nothing like the arrival of January to spark action. Resolutions, I’ve had a few. The most plausible so far being a commitment to eat and drink more slowly, rather than inhaling meals and bottles of wine as if food rationing and prohibition laws were about to be imposed.

Less plausible resolutions include: writing more; drinking less; reading more; and looking at my phone less.

I say ‘less plausible’ in that I’m fairly confident of being able to strike a balance with objectives like these – it’s just a fear of setting myself up to fail by insisting on rigid, self-imposed restrictions. Moderation, it’s often touted, is key, but then so, too, is our ability to feel in control of what we are doing.

More’s the pity that, in many ways, I simply enjoy so many of these pursuits (including my job, and the ebb and flow of travel and time it requires) that I feel more practice is still required to find a useful daily cadence to accommodate all the ‘things’.     Continue reading “Just Keep Going”

Innovations in Resilience


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


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”

Back in This

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”

Defining our paradise

The aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Picture credit:

It’s the weekend, and I am up the coast of Vietnam, on An Bang beach, enjoying ocean scenes, blue skies and the lazy movement of palm.

A paradise of sorts.

I brought with me Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell – a fantastic read: with its insightful and brilliantly constructed chapters, many of which seek to dispel long held preconceptions about what ‘makes us all tick’. And, in particular, how people cope with, are affected by, and grow from the impact of natural and man-made disasters.

I’ll want to quote some of Solnit’s beautiful prose at the end of this blog – for the posterity of one day re-reading this – and I am sure to post again about many of the perspectives her narrative offers up: indeed, my own organization, CARE International, like many of our peers, is heavily invested in learning from our experiences of intervening before, during and after crises.

For now, poolside, and warming my feet on the scorched tiles, this is merely a momentary toe in the water of something I am sure will consume me time and again.

Solnit makes a variety of thought provoking points in her novel.

Some of the most compelling centre around our own philosophizing about what we want to get out of life, how we want to live it, and who we want to live it with?      Continue reading “Defining our paradise”

Harmonizing “Aid Industry” approaches

Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey

The genesis for CARE’s emergence into the world begun in the United States of America, in response to the ravages of the Second World War.

CARE brought relief to many countries affected by WW2 through the medium of our infamous “CARE package” – an intervention providing food, water, shelter, and protection to people in need.

Wind forward 73 years, and a high percentage of CARE’s interventions around the world today rely on the same modality, when it comes to getting aid and assistance to those in crisis. We still bring things (hardware, skills, cash) to people who lack the access themselves. Sometimes these can be locally sourced things, but the fact remains that, in many situations, agencies such as CARE are still needed to broker, facilitate and connect.

CARE is not alone in this endeavor. Like many others working in the industry of “aid” we strive to be “first responders” when an emergency breaks. However, CARE also invests in providing sustained support to the increasing number of people affected by protracted crises. In that way, we play both immediate and longer term roles.

I’ve written here about our work in Gaza, by way of an example of this. In Gaza, CARE has experience of assisting communities during times of conflict, and, we simply could not deliver the more ongoing support and assistance to Gazans that we do, were our teams not, themselves, Gazan citizens – living day by day in solidarity alongside those whom CARE is seeking to serve.

When I visited our work there last year, my Gazan colleagues spoke about the 55 day war of 2014, and turning in for bed each evening covering their faces, so as to preserve their dignity if a missile hit their house during the night. In the morning, they would covertly meet with other aid agencies, rocket fire ringing in the air, in order to design how to best support their neighbours.

Like any great pairing, humanitarian relief and longer term development bring out the best in each other. In the Gaza example, CARE is much more knowledgeable and agile in our emergency response because of the nature of our longer term status and operations there.

And so, increasingly, it is being recognized by many INGOs and institutions that there is a space of overlap between these two realms of relief and development, and this overlap has become known as the “Nexus”.

Now, a “Double Nexus” situation describes where relief and development come together. An example of this being a “disaster risk reduction” project which might seek to reduce the impact on a community affected by a cyclone, by establishing upfront an affordable micro-insurance scheme, offering property insurance to small dwellings and poorer communities.

A “Triple Nexus” takes on the third element of ‘conflict’ into this mix, and devises practical ways of intervening in such a way that positively affects not just the resilience of a community, but also the political dynamics in that same context.

All well and good, but what are some of the other frameworks into which we can deploy Double and Triple Nexus work?

Well, The Sustainable Development Goals offer us 17 specific themes that, collectively, frame an answer to addressing societal problems.

Implicit in these, and affirmed by the UN this year, is the reality that the growing number of humanitarian crises in the world today (and highlighted on these pages, too) mean that a higher percentage of the world’s most vulnerable are living in contexts of fragility, conflict, insecurity and grave uncertainty.

We cannot ignore this reality and we cannot continue to deliver aid in the same fashion as we have been doing since 1945.

Secondly, the current push behind the Grand Bargain principles (taken on by donors and NGOs) to invest higher amounts of funding into humanitarian assistance that is locally owned and implemented, is a step forward in how, from a systems perspective, the dial needs to move. Away from cyclical, transactional donor funding and away from siloed programming between emergency relief and longer term development, and towards, instead, a more harmonized way of working across these areas.

These frameworks offer up some core institutional hooks for the likes of CARE, and the good news is that we also have a “proof of concept” – the evidence – that combining approaches and harmonizing our efforts and experiences not only creates opportunities for wider impact, but it saves money.

Early warning systems, micro-insurance schemes, social protection measures – each of these upfront initiatives cost less than those initiatives deployed after an emergency.

CARE’s previous calculations from 2007 were that it cost 7 times more to respond after an emergency stuck, than it did to help prepare communities in advance of events unfolding.

What CARE is committed to is working for generational change and outcomes that go way beyond a single emergency response, but which are informed, qualified and made more robust because of the experience gained from that response.

Ultimately, we want to help create a sustained and enabling environment for marginalized and vulnerable population groups to leverage.

Put another way, we demand a levelled playing ground for all communities, in all contexts, to enjoy the social and economic freedoms and opportunities that many around the world take for granted.