Sunday, June 19, 2016

Secret aid worker: 'It's time to talk about the dark side of development comms'

 It’s expected that communications professionals will use their contacts to get their organisation as much coverage as possible, but where do you draw the line? Photograph: Moof/Getty Images/Cultura RF
“Think outside the box,” I was told by my manager back in the US, when I asked them how on earth they expected me to promote a programme that was clearly failing. 
I come from a small country in Asia. I have been working at this development organisation as a communications person for several years. It has not been quite the journey I’d expected but, unlike my other colleagues, I get to write about the community, interact with them and get their stories out – that has been my biggest pleasure so far.
Running a development programme educating citizens about their rights is not easy in a country fraught with political instability but writing about it is even harder when the programme is battling to get off the ground. I struggle for good stories. 
The problem is perhaps me rather than the organisation. Like many communications professionals, I come from a journalistic background, but despite several years of being immersed in the PR world, I can’t quite get beyond the idea that most of the outreach projects we run are essentially propaganda, with little weight to them.
In this job, telling it as it is, writing what you see is not good enough. A capacity-building workshop or a report can’t just be called that, it should have several glorifying adjectives and a social media campaign.
Worse though is the feeling that much of what I’m asked to do by my superiors is ethically questionable. In a previous job with another big aid organisation, I was asked to make up quotes to “enhance” beneficiary case studies. When I refused, the programme officer acted surprised and told me: “It’s fine, I know what that person would say.” 
It’s also expected that communications professionals will use their contacts to get their organisation as much coverage as possible, but where do you draw the line? I don’t think it’s OK to call in personal favours to get out positive stories about a programme that isn’t delivering what it promised the community it would. My boss disagrees.
The international community is too focused on using gimmicks in outreach campaigns rather than considering who their audience is and what they want. I was recently asked to design an outreach campaign to educate the local community we work in about the work we do. So keeping in mind the low literacy rate of our audience and the limited access they have to online and print media, I designed a communcations campaign accordingly. However, that was considered old and outdated.
For my organisation, the use of new technology such as apps and social media held priority over the local regional media, even though I explained much of these were inaccessible to the people we were trying to reach. Too often people think that if a country has access to the internet and mobile phones, every one has access. They don’t consider the cost of mobile data, the literacy rate, or if the locals would even use their devices the same way as in the US and Europe.
Instead, we are told to shape our communication strategy around the coolest buzzwords making the rounds in the US or Europe. All because one person back at headquarters, who has no idea of what goes on in the more rural districts of this country, says so. There is little understanding that projects need to be tailored to each community, rather than just replicated on a grand scale.
While discussing my frustrations with other colleagues, I found out the reality of working in development comms was the same pretty much everywhere in the aid world. If the design of an outreach programme isn’t the problem, the focus of the communication concentrates too much on one person rather than the issue it is meant to be highlighting, or on the gimmicks, drawing attention to meaningless events with celebrities rather than grassroots outreach activities promoting behaviour change vital for the programme’s success. 
Often the programming team don’t think we know how to do our jobs either. With the best intentions, they want to squish each and every detail of their work into one story. They do not understand that the readers don’t care much about the technicalities of the programme. If they did, they would read the project documents and progress reports. 
Ultimately, I’ve learned that in the aid world, the visibility of a project based on its results, its intent and scope of work holds no value compared with the visibility of the department responsible for the project, or for the career progression of the few within a huge organisation.
Do you have a secret aid worker story you’d like to tell? You can contact us confidentially at – please put “Secret aid worker” in the subject line. If you’d like to encrypt your email to us, here are instructions on how to set up a PGP mail client and our public PGP key.
Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow@GuardianGDP on Twitter.

Secret aid worker: buzzwords are killing development

International development professionals love their buzzwords. Empowerment. Agency. Community-based. Human-centred. Equal partnership. Grassroots.
I work for an NGO in sub-Saharan Africa that uses all of these words on its beautifully designed website, full of high-resolution photos of smiling African babies. We are all about “empowering the community” with a battle cry of “Healthcare for everyone!” We take every chance we can find to let you know that we, like apparently no other humans on earth, believe that health is a human right.
When I was offered the chance to work here, all I knew about the organisation was what was written on its website. I was impressed. A small NGO with high quality graphics? Smiling babies? Empowerment? Sold. They spouted all the words I had learned about community-based development in class, so they had to be doing things correctly, right?
Wrong. Oh, so so wrong. Here’s what I have found.
We talk about empowerment, yet our patients and our staff members, many of whom are beneficiaries of the organisation themselves, have zero input into how decisions are made. In fact, many of our lowest-paid employees are expected to use their own salaries to pay for work-related costs, leaving them effectively with no salary at the end of the month.
We talk about agency, and yet our board of directors is 100% white. Not one person of colour or from the beneficiary country.
We talk about grassroots development, and yet many of our programmes are defined by the whims of American “experts” thousands of miles away.
We talk about equal partnership, yet the local government offers few to no resources to our health programmes. What motivation will they ever have to provide these necessary services to their own population when foreigners are continuing to provide it for them?
As a person of colour, I cannot help but see how my parents must have felt in the post-colonial country they grew up in. People who do not look like you, who do not come from your socioeconomic background, who do not share any of your life experiences are the same ones who are making decisions for your people. And it’s difficult to question these practices when you know you are receiving services that would otherwise be unavailable. I know I am part of the problem.
We Americans continue to make decisions, citing positive feedback and eternal gratefulness from African beneficiaries as justification for not involving them in the decision-making process. They’re happy having access to the healthcare we gave them, so why take the time to involve them in decisions that directly concern their lives?
Empowerment and agency and human-centricity have come to seem like euphemistic ways to get donors to feel like they are not engaging in neo-colonial practices by defining and determining the presence of healthcare for populations worlds away from their own.
To address this issue, we know we should be actively searching out local leaders in the community, hiring should be more diverse, and foreigners should be taking the role of support staff, not local. So why don’t foreign NGOs make these changes, when they know that they should? Crude pragmatism is the most often used excuse. “We’ll have an American in this role now, but eventually, we’ll hire local staff.” Or perhaps, “We’re doing our best, and it was just too difficult to find anyone else who could do this job.” Or, as all NGOs state, “We did not have enough funding.”
However, practices such as seeking out diversity and being intentional about the role of foreign staff often does not require additional resources. It does, however, require a commitment to critical reflection and to a constant, rigorous analysis of whether practice is truly reflecting the intention of the buzzword. And “doing our best” cannot be good enough when the future of communities and countries are at stake. Yes, perhaps it will take longer to train local staff to do the jobs young Americans can do with their fancy university degrees, but it is the responsibility of organisations who have taken on this work to do it correctly, or at the very least, in the way they say they are doing.
Sure, formalised colonialism is over. But now we have to make sure we aren’t implementing an even more insidious, neo-colonial system that gives white, rich people around the world the power to make decisions for countries that are not their own.
Do you have a secret aid worker story you’d like to tell? You can contact us confidentially at – please put “Secret aid worker” in the subject line. If you’d like to encrypt your email to us, here’s instructions on how to set up a PGP mail client and our public PGP key.
Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow@GuardianGDP on Twitter.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

For Pictures, Go to this Link

Mum's Final Journey-Thank You All

April 20
Mum, last Sunday marked the 3rd Sunday that I panicked @21.00 for not calling you for our weekly Sunday chat only to remember you are in a better place where there is no pain or sorrow...As we reminisced with my brother Paul Njugunaearlier this week, we realised how we both had gotten our lives tuned to reporting to you on weekly basis, sometimes more than once, about one thing or the other – not because you asked us to, but because we felt it was necessary that you were aware about our goings on to get your motherly blessings...We pray that you will continue to watch over us from on high..

Thank You All

My brother Paul Njuguna and I and our families wish to express our heartfelt appreciation for the emotional, material and other support we received from our dear relatives, friends and colleagues in ways we would never have imagined. For those who attended mum’s burial at All Saints Church, Tigoni next to her best half and which, as I said in my tribute, the Kikuyu proverb: ‘We Bury Ourselves While We Are Alive’ was evident in the process leading to resting mum in her little earthly home away from us. Those who visited our homes in Thika and Naivasha, called, sent messages in cash and kind from Kenya and abroad, members of funeral committees and many others, you gestures were very humbling.

Those who attended, thank you. I will mention just a few…..Despite the fact that my brother Paul has not resumed duties after his mission in Somalia, his entire office including his boss Col Obonyo and other colleagues graced mum’s final journey and he was greatly humbled by the gesture.

Though my colleagues and members of Kenya Welfare Association in Namibia could not be there, they were ably represented by Purity Koko and their material and emotional contribution made so much difference towards a beautiful send off for mum. Thank you Namibia friends Jane Wambui,Rebecca EkuamRosemary Watu, Andrew Omollo, colleaguesLydiah WambuiEmmy WabombaJulius MtemahanjiHygeia ElvaNelly NghifimuleUnomengi Kauapirura, Emily Brown, Josephine Ola-Busari & Kenyans in Namibia that I am yet to know about, for your immediate emotional and material support during those first days when confusion reigned in my mind as I planned to travel home. The Kenya Diaspora Association led by Dr Shem Ochuodho’s material support from people I have only met in our Whatsapp group brought tears to my eyes and made me appreciate the groupings we are involved in. My cousins whatsapp group Mbari ya Edithi humbled us greatly – thanks to Jane Mburu and your siblings and uncle, Wanja Ngichu Waweru and Joe Irungu, uncle Eliud Ngichu and auntie Esther Wambui & sons, Mahinda Kariuki,George MuiruJoyce Mwangi, Sussie Mwangi, Serah Mwangi-Okeh for your material support all the way from where you live. My costi cuzos Naomi Kimuyu & Dan MweroEssie Nthusi &Nthusi NthulaGrace OngetiTim Muinga & auntie Lucy Wambui – very humbled by your presence and contributions.Sam Gathigi, let your parents know we were blessed to see them and uncle Hannington ChokweMuhia Karianjahii, seeing your mum and brother Sam brought such lovely memories from long time ago of friends who have stuck with us in happiness and in pain – thank you. Pauline Muthoni Githara, you were ably represented by your brother Muchai and little sister Wambui though your mum, a friend who has remained true in sickness and health was unwell and could not attend. My Bots buddy Hellen Kunyiha - a lovely surprise from you. Timothy Wambui, let your granddad Numa know we will always cherish him. Caroline Versaik, let your dad whom we will always call Bodyguard as he was exactly that to dad even in times of great danger means more to us than he knows and it was great to see him after a long time.
Surprise attendance of former media colleagues Kwamboka OyaroPriscah Kimani & Roseleen Nzioka at the funeral and your kind donations former colleagues Lilian Nduta andPauline Msalame humbled me while my inlaws Muthoni Githua and Esther Ngige were a blessing to see. Former school mates in primary school and secondary schools brought suprises! Peter Mwaurah, you and your family will remain special to us and thank you for convincing your cousin to trust me enough to get me a ticket before paying even when I had never met her – you taught me something about trust that will remain etched in me for ever and I pray that one day, I will be there for you too. Friends Maj Rtd David KarauNicholas MugweruSam Mwangi and your family, David Mutonga & Timothy Migwi Migwi Timothy and your parents, Joel Emisiko, and many others I do not know were there – I can’t thank you enough, Muranga Njihia – your family has been close to us and we appreciate them being among the first to be at home when mum was attacked by thugs last October and when she passed on April 12th – we do not take that relationship for granted – we appreciate them. My dear sister in law, Victorina MatsaliaDidi MatsaliaYvonne Meicy Mats - ever so thoughtful and ready – that lovely meal after the burial will remain etched in my mind for years to come – thank you. My niece Cathy Odhiambo and hubby and kids – your prayers, messages and presence....made so much difference...

From this whole experience, I personally learnt a number of things: people you interact with along the way can mean so much more than you imagine later, that social media friends can also be real friends – thank you Njambi Omondi and hubby - Facebook friend I had never met until mum passed on and sorry for your loss Njambi of your mother in law soon after. I learnt that Whatsapp group members can also be real friends in need – be there for them when they need you as you never know when you might need them – Dr Shem Ochuodho – that was a major lesson learnt from Kenya Diaspora Association Whatsapp group – most of whom I have never met. I also learnt that friends, colleagues we meet along the way, can also be friends in need when you least expect them and some you think are friends are just mates – nothing more – lets strive to be there for others when they need us.

We may not be able to mention all who attended and are on FB or not but be assured that we appreciated every little or major thing that they/you did for us during these past two weeks. Your prayers especially, have moved mountains before and thereafter and we will forever be grateful to you all. God Bless and Richly Expand your Boundaries (as a wise Kikuyu saying goes).

These few pictures from the more than 3000 taken are by Tijara Githinji, Arthur Muiru, Paul Njuguna, Wanja Njuguna and Jimmy Karish.

These songs meant so much during all this time and still do...