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.