Aid blogging matters (?)

14 Apr

A question that has troubled me for some time, now, is whether or not blogging about humanitarian work even matters.

For aid workers, often obsessed with data collection and analysis, rigorous process, and results-based approaches, the idea that this may not matter at all – or, if it does, may matter in ways we cannot predict or evaluate – is not an easy thought to have. Some days it feels like this is all rather like tossing a bottle with a message in it from the shore of a remote island.

And yet I cannot help but believe that it does matter.

* * *

From where I sit it doesn’t seem that there is any real shortage of technical information. All of the cutting edge technical conversations in aid – the real ones – are happening elsewhere. In real life, mostly. While we’re a long ways from individual NGOs publishing their assessment and evaluation data or in-house standards and best-practices documents online as a standard practice, we are seeing it already to some degree.

Moreover, orgs and projects like Sphere, HAP, ALNAP, among many others make their materials available mostly available mostly for free online. There’s no real centrally organized system as of yet, and it can take patience to find what you want. But if you know how and where to look it is possible to find most everything you could ever want in the way of existing industry standards, best practices, and so on. I’ve yet to see an aid blog that fills any real void in the technical conversation, let alone really pushes the envelope. We don’t need blogs to tell us the objective facts so much, or to educate us about techniques.

The real value of aid blogs, very simply put, is that they provide a space to say that things that almost never get said in formal settings inside the aid world.

There are the pubs and the well-stocked teamhouses, where the ranting happens, off the record. Where aid workers analyze with incisive, stunning accuracy exactly where they and their humanitarian aid knowledge resides on the organizational hierarchy of what gets decided and why. Where every statement is prefaced with, “okay, what’s said in the field stays in the field, right?” Or, “dude – we are so fired if HR ever hears of this conversation…”

Then there are the on-the-record WebEx calls and meetings in plate-glass conference rooms where one or maybe two actual implementers get called in to hold the line against a roomful of colleagues – maybe marketers or fundraisers or for-profit execs turned humanitarian. They get called in, ostensibly to provide “rigor” or to “educate”, when in reality their role is to ratify decisions that, for all practical purposes, have already been made.

I won’t get into lengthy analysis of bloated NGO bureaucracy, wack decision-making priorities, and the increasingly dis-empowered role of actual aid workers in an industry that at some level at least is supposed to be about enabling them to do what they do. Those facts are all out there in the open for anyone who wants to look.

I will say that some days the only place we have to say what needs to be said is online. Some days you just have to get “it” out there in the hopes that someone will hear it.

Maybe it’s entertaining. Maybe it’s education. This is where we get to have the conversations that matter to us. Call us cynical. Call it ranting. Complain that we’re negative. Don’t read if you don’t like it.

But this is what real aid workers think. For real.

We just never get the chance to say it for real.

20 Responses to “Aid blogging matters (?)”

  1. ethnicsupplies 14 April, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    Interesting read- reminds me of a chapter in Bill Easterley’s book WHITE MAN’S BURDEN to do with the those that plan International development and those that implement it- two different people trying to achieve the same goals- One see what happens in the field and therefore what works, the other works with the ideal -who knows best.
    Back to this topic I would say there is definitely agree that Aid Blogging matters. It is a way to share with others one’s experiences on how things work in the real world and most folk would find a blog post easier to read and comprehend than some of the formal material out there.

  2. Tim France 14 April, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    Good question to ask. I’ve also been pondering the same lately, and wish more would do the same.

    The critical factor for me in blogs, tweets and all kinds of communication about aid/development is the moment between listening and speaking/blogging/tweeting. If all that people do is regurgitate information they hear elsewhere, or repeat their own well-worn ideas/priorities, then it’s all bloody pointless at best, and a huge distraction at worst.

    You appear to read/listen/absorb and then…



    before you post.

    That matters. The pause I mean. Otherwise how can you hope to identify the obscured patterns, or unspoken truth in what everyone else is saying.

    I wish more people who blog, tweet and speak would do more active pausing.

    Thanks for your blog, and for your pauses.

  3. Viv McWaters 14 April, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    “But this is what real aid workers think. For real. We just never get the chance to say it for real.”

    Which is exactly why we all need blogs like yours – and sums up the frustrations I have of working with aid workers, knowing (and even sometimes hearing, in informal chats) what they really think, yet seeing them conform to some ridiculous practices or organisational norms. Arggghhhhhh…..

    Thanks for the ranting🙂 and the education

  4. Sam Gardner 14 April, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    For me, your blogs do matter. Just to be able to ruminate all the information in the pub, after work.

    And try to use this insight the day after, at work.

  5. Steve 15 April, 2011 at 5:40 am #

    From the point of view of a student reader, I think this type of aid blogging is both entertainment and education… I get some of this from conversations with aid workers in pubs, but having much more via RSS is very valuable and appreciated.

  6. K 15 April, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    +1 @Tim. As an avid fan of aid blogs, the ‘regurgitated’ two cents makes me insane and multiple violations result in a drop from my RSS.

    Thanks for keeping the conversation fresh, J. Your insight and truth has kept me reading. For now🙂

  7. Mark Harris 16 April, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    …and for those of us who dabble in the fringes of aid work, your experiences make for fascinating and useful reading.

    Thank you.

  8. Paul 16 April, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    I find that aid blogs are *very much* helpful giving depth to a lot of discussions that otherwise make little sense to a non-expert like me. I’ve only begun to dip my toes into the aid blogosphere, but the discussions about aid — why people do it individually, how to make it more effective collectively, how to market it, what it means to all involved — are very illuminating. Please keep blogging, as your blog is an invaluable resource.

  9. emilyrtanner 17 April, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    As a student, I find aid blogs instructive as they shed light on some aspects of aid that you do not get in a classroom. For example:

    -The tension between the fundraising side of aid and the field work side of aid (presenting the single story of poverty, showing people as beneficiaries who are poor and helpless, etc)
    -The impact of being an aid worker on an aid worker (emotionally, physically, spiritually)
    -The gap between theory and practice (yeah, okay, “governance” and “institution-building” sounds good, but how do you actually DO it?)
    -The importance of good needs assessment and treating people as partners rather than beneficiaries (and how so often this is lacking)

    Graduate school can provide a platform for debating theories. It can also provide useful skills (learning about how to do a logframe and evaluations and designing good indicators). But it ignores a lot of issues in foreign aid. I personally think all students should have a blogroll of good aid blogs to keep up to date on the debates and issues of the day, as well as gain insight into the actual types of jobs they will be doing.

    Aid bloggers are like a collection of mentors. You’re giving us the dirt of what its really like. Instead of having to discover for ourselves many of these lessons, you are teaching the next generation of aid workers whats been tried and whats failed and what they’re going to be up against.

  10. Ian Thorpe 18 April, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    J – great post on why aid blogs matter.
    Fully agree on the argument you make here about hearing the real voice from the field, but I’m going to take issue with your statement that there are no cutting edge technical debates or new technical information getting shared on aid blogs.

    You mention that much of the technical information is out there although hard to find. I’d agree that it is hard to find (and sometimes not published at all), and that’s exactly why blogging is important.

    Basically blogging on technical issues can:
    1. Help highlight important but obscure development knowledge and bring it to a broader attention both among aid workers and development experts and potentially broader audiences such as journalists, people thinking of setting up their own NGOs, potential donors/funders etc.
    2. (In some areas) connect people working in similar areas on similar topics who might not already be connected and is allowing them to share knowledge and also publicly debate approaches in ways that don’t happen behind closed doors in programming or cluster meetings. It doesn’t work equally well in all areas of development, and hasn’t reached its potential, but some areas where technical exchange and debate does happen online are ICT4D and development economics (and to a lesser extent evaluation and research techniques).

    Aid blogs are also a form of personal advocacy for those issues that bloggers care about whether they be the need for a reality check in aid from the front lines, or some obscure corner of methodology used in Knowledge Management😉 I think many aid bloggers blog because they believe have some insight, knowledge or opinion that they feel ought to be taken into account by others in to improve aid work, but for which there isn’t an existing channel or means to get out.

    Of course whether anyone is listening, and whether it has any impact on others depends on the quality and relevance of what the blogger has to say, as well as how well they can make their case. And here we look to you for our inspiration!

  11. Steven E. 18 April, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    As a student, I never really had looked in to any of these blogs on humanitarian aid, much less had much knowledge on the subject, prior to my professor requiring us to read and write on some of these topics. After following multiple blogs for several months now over the course of the semester I’m very glad and feel much more informed now that I have. I feel as if I wouldn’t have had nearly as much knowledge on the subject of what’s actually going on in humanitarian work in foreign countries if I hadn’t read people, who actually work in aid discussing the subject. Therefore, I’d completely agree with most of the points in this blog. It provides a different perspective, a real perspective, as compared to what you’d get reading the news or information being released by NGO’s and similar groups. Although the semester is winding to an end now, and I don’t know if i’ll be taking any more classes dealing with these issues, I absolutely plan to continue reading these blogs and informing myself on these issues.

  12. Jim 19 April, 2011 at 3:48 am #

    This was a great post. I saw it not about blogging, but about the vacuum of critical reflection, as Tim France and K said.

    I’d encourage you to reflect on the relationship of toxic anger and the ability of those new in the field to reflect. Stodgy NGOs suck, the HR ready to fire sucks, but oldhands filled with rage suck, too.

    How can create a space where people can reflect?
    If you think that change isn’t possible, this doesn’t matter. But if you don’t think change is possible, why do this work?

    And how can we get folks involved in aid, to get out of their bubble and think about climate, and vice versa?

    And maybe think about the 2.7% of GDP spent on global military spending [it DID fall from 4% after the fall of the Berlin wall] and how it might be surpassed someday by the % of global GDP of aid, for instance.

  13. Cynan 19 April, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    It matters: someone mentioned that seawl in its short life to date, had its hit counter strike 100,000 recently. Er, yup, that matters. Think of it as sesame street: the kids think they’re getting entertainment while they’re getting some A-B-C’s. Or perhaps in this case some W-T-F’s.

    It matters, part deux: turns out turning out the occasional rant and the occasional piece of prose is fun. And clarifying. Even if the number of readers were zero, still a win for the bloggers in question. Whoda thunk?

  14. Tanya Cothran 21 April, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    As a independent contractor doing development work, aid blogging creates an important professional community. It makes me feel connected to others going through similar situations and issues – and I can join the network for free! Thanks.

  15. explodingsoul 25 April, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    I am grateful for the time you take to share insights and opinions on your blog. College only introduced me to these topics, it has only been the past few years working for a nonprofit and then finding you and the group you know/interact with regularly that speaks up in response to relevant events [1 Million Shirts, World Vision, 3 Cups of Tea, TOMS] with your experience and critique. It has been schooling continued! And I share your posts and responses with anyone who will listen. Please know what a value this is to not only me, but so many others. Learning that these conversations aren’t “new”, that there is so much involved to good work, that we just need to think and challenge the sectors to be better – this what I’ve been so grateful for over the past year. Keep up the great work!! And thank you so very much. – Erin

  16. Katie 3 May, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    While I agree that most aid blogs do not fill the technical void, I agree that they function effectively as more of a forum. People working in a politically hostile field such as that of determining how to administer aid, you are going to be forced to repress your true sentiments at times in order to remain “polite” or “acceptable.” Blogs serve as a place where, behind the safety of one’s individual computer, they are free to debate and discuss their ideas and ambitions openly and get off their chest and out into the world their frustrations with the process or their innovations for improving efficiency. Blogs also serve as a birthplace of intellectual creation. Great ideas can come from the most remote places, and the flow of ideas and conversation on one solidified issue can only encourage people to continue being creative in their approach to aid and to not be afraid to share those ideas with people.


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