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”

Innovating against the inevitable

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Local street in Calamba City, Philippines

Paula Atun, a young Filipino entrepreneur living in Calamba City, thought she was filling in an online survey, with her idea on how to catch and filter rainwater. She’d seen the idea on the Discovery Channel.

A few weeks later, CARE Philippines had signed her up as one of their local ‘innovators’, tasked with investing over PHp 1,000,000 ($20,000) into this idea, and leading the production and distribution of it to 15 local households, the inhabitants of which are either elderly or living with disabilities.

Paula had, in fact, inadvertently applied to the Philippines TUKLAS Innovation Labs project. And her idea was eventually chosen as one of forty, shortlisted by CARE Philippines and three NGO partners managing this DFID and Start Network initiative.

The Philippines is the second most disaster prone country in the world, and the objective of TUKLAS is to source ideas from local communities for disaster preparedness. It then instigates a process for funding and building the capacities of local creators and entrepreneurs to pilot or scale these.      Continue reading “Innovating against the inevitable”

Power within

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Picture credit: http://www.sassyfitnesschick.com/2016/02/24/the-beauty-of-empowerment/

Back in 2012, I recall discussions at a Bangkok conference with a group of companies keen to lead the charge on ‘women’s economic empowerment’ in Asia.

On the one hand, there was a business case (mainly linked to profitability and staff retention) for these companies to address gender inequalities more systematically and, on the other, many at the time admitted to jumping on a band wagon – the feeling being that women’s economic empowerment was the new thing that people were talking about, but which perhaps had “5 years at best” before the world moved on to the next hot topic.

Fortunately, in 2017 the same companies are still testing the business case and, as we’ve seen in some sparky media pieces on women’s economic empowerment last week, the topic has far from fizzled out.

I enjoy today’s reality of how one op-ed can turn heads, and stimulate an instant planetary debate. Even if such things can also create a battle cry from one school of thinking to the next, with critiques put out more as literary pitch forks plunged into the sides of the opposition, rather than in the more collegiate spirit of pooling our collective energies around an issue – in this case that of gender justice, the world over.

Maybe the space for collaboration is closing, however, and gloves-off conceptual sparring is more useful in garnering attention and bringing issues of women’s empowerment into the mainstream? There have already been multiple “global” conferences over the past 20 years laying down the development challenges of the day, and so an appetite for hosting more such events is, perhaps, understandably waning.

Furthermore, we have a relatively newly re-framed set of UN Development goals, which were met with broad approval. Our stage is set then, and so, within such institutional parameters, conflicting opinions of course need to be aired.

As much as Rafia Zakaria’s NY Times piece instantly struck a chord with many, so too did Linda Scott’s rebuttal. The first article lambasted the array of economic empowerment approaches deployed by organizations, claiming instead that political reforms are the only show in town in terms of actually bringing about change. The second article made the case for why economic empowerment interventions do have a significant role to play and how they can compliment advocacy and political influencing. I found both of value.

Of course, the development sector has much still to learn and we have our idiosyncrasies. As someone who has worked for an international NGO now for over 11 years, I have often buried my head in my hands at our sector’s insistence in dispersing a daily barrage of loaded and contorted rubric, when articulating the everyday realities of people around the world.

However, I am proud to be associated with an entity such as CARE International that is committed to gender justice. In spite of our sector’s insane vocabulary uses, our commitment can – and always should be – first and foremost about influencing change, rather than turning a profit, or trying to win an election.

‘Empowerment’ is, of course, one of the development industry’s most sacred slices of parlance. Crow-barred into panel discussions, funding proposals, office meeting agenda items: it is our holy grail.

Do we know collectively how to prove when empowerment has been achieved? Not quite.

Are we aligned on how to best facilitate or help create empowerment and how it differs contextually? Not always.

Does any of that matter? I really don’t think it should.

That ‘power’ itself is the currency with which we know change can be bought, the notion of empowering those without it seems to me to be a very practical, core mantra for the likes of CARE.

Like Linda Scott, I believe in the work of the many thousands of agencies who pursue empowerment using different approaches. We know, fundamentally know, that re-balancing gender dynamics has a positive impact on poverty reduction, and on social injustices. There is no need to reinvent this theory or replace it with another. CARE’s economic empowerment experiences have also underscored the very need to place emphasis not just on economic gains for women, but on social and political ones, too.

Absolutely, the international NGO industry needs to operate with transparency – we must be accountable for how we invest our resources into “empowering” initiatives and goals. Largely due to the countless examples of how the world’s governments and multi-national companies regularly get caught up in headline grabbing scandals, watch-dog attention on humanitarian and environmental organisations has been low level. Let’s encourage more: there is always room for improvement and, as an industry, we can’t exist in a complacent vacuum.

However, when approached holistically, comprehensively, and in step with others, the pursuit of women’s economic empowerment outcomes, for the many millions of women currently cut off the grid, made vulnerable and marginalised due to their gender, should be not only encouraged and supported, but should be recognised in terms of a set of human rights which everyone in the world has a role to better understand, shape and nurture.

One born every two seconds

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Dawn in Patna

Her first four children each died of asphyxiation during delivery. The 30 year old’s fifth – a baby girl – was born safely at home, and against all odds. However, when the same expectant mother entered Bihar’s district hospital last Friday, to deliver her sixth baby, she was praying for a boy. She entered the hospital carrying the hopes and dreams of the many family members waiting outside for the news and, as I bore witness to, her prayers were answered.

Through CARE International’s influence within the health sector of Bihar (one of India’s most populated states with 110 million citizens) this mother had been encouraged to deliver her sixth baby in hospital, rather than at home. A decision which instantly improved her and her baby’s chance of survival.

I was visiting the hospital with the local CARE team at the time, to learn more about how CARE is helping transform the state’s healthcare system, and improve the quality of the services available.
Continue reading “One born every two seconds”

Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling

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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”

Resilient Markets in Ethiopia

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At home with Sindayo, a GRAD beneficiary in Tigray. Photo credit @ CARE Ethiopia.

Last month I visited Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, to interview farmers and livestock traders faced with the drought effects of one of the most devastating El Niños in 50 years, to learn about their coping strategies in the face of extreme weather patterns.

We wanted to find out how these coping strategies were linked to national and international market systems and how, through these systems, it might be possible to bring about a better deal for those in the supply chain typically made more vulnerable by drought: women.

CARE International, the global NGO and my employer for the last decade, has been operating in Ethiopia since 1984, and works alongside other international and national organisations to bring solutions to those whose livelihoods are invested in agriculture, and who by default are affected by regular market “shocks”.

After 70 years of operations around the world, CARE’s focus within any country programme is to bring about positive changes for women and girls. We do this because of the myriad of existing social and economic injustices faced by women and girls, all over the world, many of which have been described on this blog. At CARE, we talk a lot about “empowering” women and girls, and this encompasses many aspects, including improving access to economic resources for women and, crucially, increasing their control over those resources.       Continue reading “Resilient Markets in Ethiopia”

Lend Me Your Ears

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Hoa Binh Province, rural Vietnam

Christmas is coming and there’s no stopping it. Even here in Saigon the Vietnamese have started to embrace what has become an indulgent festival of consumption, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

And, at this time every year, people like me pen blogs like this one, instigated to push a perspective your way. People like me who (you’ll soon enough not be surprised to read) have just spent half my week up in rural Vietnam, meeting local communities.

So, what’s the perspective I’m peddling ? Well, no doubt by the end of this post I will have worked it out…    Continue reading “Lend Me Your Ears”

“Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor

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Cartoon credit – http://www.stillwaterhistorians.com

I’m back on the regional conference circuit at the moment, and it’s awash with talk about “scale” and “impact”.

Sound-bite central, indeed, with events I’ve attended recently also still obsessing with how to achieve scale and impact by working in “partnerships”. As suggested in my last post we need to look beyond semantics in the sustainability arena, and instead get real about what some of these terms actually mean as, all too often, our preoccupation with the vernacular distracts us from action.

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have included “global partnerships” as their 17th Goal. The proof of authenticity around what the UN thinks can be achieved with this Goal will be revealed over time. However, right now, it seems to me that if you are not talking about “scaling your programmes”, or “measuring the impact” of your efforts (in terms of playing a positive role in society) then you are not “on message” – and that, for many, is a public relations cardinal sin.      Continue reading ““Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor”

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”