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How to make shit smell good

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aid versus bullshit

Once upon a time, a red box was delivered to a large aid agency. The courier was a bit confused because of the lack of a clear addressee. It only had the street and the city on it. But as it bore the logo from a big donor to the aid community, he delivered it at the agency’s front gate.

After a while, it ended up on the desk of the “Director Donor Relations, Press Relations and other Public Stuff”. He was a bit surprised. “Hmmm.. a big red box, what do we do with this. Can’t throw it away as it apparently came from a donor”, he thought as his trained marketing mind started on a roll. “And red… hmm.. Communism.. Not much I can do with that. But wait. Wait a second…”.

He immediately called in his whole team and presented The Box: “This green box here, will be the center of our new fundraiser and awareness efforts..”, he started. Immediately some eyebrows were raised, but as trained PR professionals, nobody said a thing: If it was to be a green box, green it would be. Even if everyone knew it was red, and wondered “WTF ?”. The trick was to sit, look, but not see. Have your mind wonder off somewhere else. Nod when everyone else is nodding, smile when everyone else was smiling… That is the trick of a PR professional.

The PR team immediately went to work. Took pictures of the box. Photoshopped it until it was green. They pasted their agency’s CEO (who had not been in the office for two years and moved off to the Bahamas, but nobody was to know) standing next to the green box. Several well known actresses and actors, which are always part of their PR conglomerate, were also photoshopped in it.

The “PR content” team had a bigger challenge… “What can we tell about a red, euh, a green box?”, they brainstormed. “It is green. Which is good. Green is good. Green is in. Green is Eco-stuff. It is a box…. represents mystery,… like development is a mystery. No, wrong, like.. Many poor’s needs are a mystery.. Better. Like.. euh, many problems in the developing world are a mystery. Good. Think further. Green. Islam.. Good. Green is Islam, but only Islam knows that… Will not piss of the Americans which will think of Eco stuff. What more..? “Empty the box”… no “Join the box”.. Better… “Join the Box”. “Wrap the world in green paper of change”… Work on that.. Mmm.., “Green Trap, Change Wrap”, no. More.”The Green Wrap” Right… Green, the colour of change. Al will like it. The Iranian people will too. Shit, for all we know, the Taliban might like it!” It went on for hours. It was clear all PR staff, who were seconded for three months from big PR companies, as a collective tax writeoff, knew their marketing stuff.

Then it went to the operations department, the finance department, the risk analysis department (who indicated that green was also the colour of the election protests in Iran, but all wiped it off the table as “nobody cared about that Iran shit anymore”), the IT department (who distributed green mousepads) and even the catering people (who wore green caps for two months). The security department suggested to scan to box as nobody had opened it. And there was an awkward smell coming from it.. But they got orders from “up above” to keep their hands off.

In short, it took less than two months to prepare the campaign, and to present it at the next “General Government Meeting”. They got the nod from the Americans and the Brits, which was good enough to roll out the campaign globally. None of the other donors were important anyway.
Neither the US nor UK knew what it was all about trusted the organisation to know what they were doing. It was also as a trouble-free way to empty their budget before the year’s end. Otherwise questions were asked. And by nodding, they stepped up as a major donor, so they’d see their logo on all PR material. “Donation from the American and British People”. Solid deal, man. Solid deal..
Some rumour that the US and UK representative to the General Government Meeting had been drinking the night before, and were actually dozing off. Which would explain their enthusiastic nodding at the proposal. But that is just a rumour of course.

The Green Box was put in a huge display case, stuck on a massive rotating pole with flickering lights and all, in front of the agencies’ office. It even dwarfed the McDonald’s sign right next to it. McDonald being one of the main private donors to the agency, did protest every so slightly. But they were quickly reminded that Burger King was just around the corner and waiting… Indeed, the main private donors: McDonald’s, Bayer, Shell and Bureau for the Promotion of Tourism in West-Agriculturia (which later turned out to be a tax outlet for the Albanese Mafia, but that is another story), all supported the idea and made small green boxes for change collection in their offices and outlets. “Change for Green”.

In one of the roll-out meetings that followed, some staff did question the content of the Green Box. One even opposed the idea, but the cold stares she got, had her sit down and be quiet. After all, nobody wants to be a lone tree. They catch a lot of wind. And she had only a temporary employment contract, so ‘not extended due to funding limitations’ was easy.

Once this initial opposition was dealt with, all went very fast. Everyone was enthusiastic. Directors pitched in their support, as they knew the Green Box campaign had a huge budget. They all wanted a piece of the pie. Staff stepped up to be the “Champion of the Green Box”. There was a competition to collect the most money from family. Kids had a worldwide “Green Box” painting competition, you name it,…

The press had a ball. They pitched everything from “Turning Development Green”, “The Green movement: turning evolution into revolution”. “The Largest Green Aid Campaign Ever”… Millions, Billions, it did not matter, figures were thrown. Everyone loved the hype. I mean apart from Putin having the flu and the Americans invading North Korea, it was a slow news month.
Even Foxnews feature something. “Large Green box, center to Obama Tax Evasion” in which they proved through extensive investigative journalism, that the box was sent straight from Obama’s office, and contained money left over from his election campaign…

Three years later, the Green Box campaign was declared a success. It went in the books as a school example how to to strategize for a good fundraiser, how to motivate staff for your causes, how to rally donor support.
In the next government meeting, the UK and US reps gave an enthusiastic nod on the final evaluation report, and approved funding for the next project.

So, everyone was happy. Loads of money went around. And they even helped some poor along the way. Not many, as their 10% declared overhead cost, did not include 50% staff cost, and 20% transport cost, 10% security cost, plus the agreed 10% miscellaneous cost.

It did not matter. Everyone was happy. With the funding generated, the organisation survived another year. There were no scandals, so donors were happy. And does it not feel good to help the Poor of the World.

Oh and the box? It was delivered to the wrong address. It was supposed to go to the recycling company next door, and contained 300 dead AAA batteries.

Question to be asked:
How many green boxes exist in the aidworld? How many times are we all sitting in a meeting, enthusiastically nodding at eachother, although we all know the proposal is shit, the product is shit, the purpose is shit, but it does not feel right to ask questions or to oppose. How many times are senseless things done, because “donors want it”, because politics want it, simply because the boss wants it? Do we leave enough room for critical thinking and opposition? How many times are we sucked up as part of this massive dynamic which includes all the “wins-wins”, and where it is almost impossible to stand up in the stream and say “Is this really what we should be doing?”. There is no reward in opposition, after all. Loser!

A Wise Friend told me not long ago, that in the Aid World failure, incompetency, “half-half” are much more common and accepted than in the Commercial World. I think I will start to believe that.

Picture slightly modified from a find on Words, Pictures, Humor

Written by Peter

August 18th, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Posted in Ranting,Soapbox

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Pakistan floods – Unpopular thoughts by an aidworker on the sideline

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Pakistan floods

Watching the images on TV, and reading the reports, it is impossible to stay untouched by the misery caused by the massive Pakistani monsoon floods.

As an aidworker watching (for the moment), from the sideline, I have three thoughts that might make me unpopular in the aid community:

  1. Last year’s Pakistani Swat emergency was hugely underfunded, which, according to me, showed a donor fatigue towards South-Central Asia and Pakistan in particular. It also showed a political unwillingness from “the West” to assist Pakistan, other than the “minimum needed”.
    Unless some of the main donors take the lead and come up with big bucks now, the 2010 flooding will go into history as the worst international humanitarian response failure ever. Caused by lack of funding.
    And time is of crucial importance, as it always is for natural disasters: the response needs to be massive and immediate, as three months down the line, the accute need (and the majority of life saving actions) is no longer there.
    …Leaving alone that anyone would still hick up money for a natural disaster three months after the facts.

  2. As of yesterday, I see press reports popping up with cries like affected people may outnumber the tsunami, 2005 Pakistan and 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. And the worst disaster in the UN’s history. Both phrases were uttered by aid agencies, and not invented but eagerly picked up by the paparazzi… Reporters have been waiting for some exciting news stories in these slow summer months now that the Gulf oil spill is over.
    I would urge caution in using tabloid catch phrases like “the biggest ever”… Love is a drug. So are disaster figures, and crying foul. Like a drug, it is addictive, and numbs your senses on the longer term.
    Soon we won’t raise a penny’s donation anymore unless if the affected population is over the 20 million, and unless we make appeals over 1 billion (to get 100 million)…
    There has been a clear tendency to exaggerate figures in the past years. And the donors have happily played the PR game: Just as the aid community, donors have come out with billions and billions worth of pledges. Remember the billions promised for the Afghanistan rebuild? And the multi billions pledged as a response to the global food crisis. All pledges which never materialized, but were pitched at the press at the time. A press which eagerly took it over as “shock and awe”-reporting. A PR win-win for all those involved, but unfortunately as they sing in Italian: “Parole, parole!”
    This is what happens when aidwork reporting is taken over by tabloids.

  3. And most importantly. A subject very close to my heart. Staff security…
    A wise man once told me: “You can no longer reduce the threat, so reduce the risk”: we have gone beyond the point where we can reduce the external threat of terrorist attacks on aidworkers, so we should confine to reducing the risk. And the more aidworkers sent into a high risk environment, the higher the risk. Simple as that.
    Now that every single self respecting NGO, UN agency, nonprofit organisation will be scrambling to show its face and “plant the flag” in Pakistan, we should not forget: In the past year, the aid community has been directly targeted by bold terrorist acts several times: In March 2009, seven WorldVision staff died in an attack on their office. Mercy Corps had their staff abducted and in June 9 2009, the bombing of the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, destroyed the hotel where most aidworkers stayed. The bombing of WFP’s office in Islamabad, on October 5 2009, left five dead and several wounded.
    The Taliban has made no secret in targeting aidworkers in the whole region. A point made clear in this weekend’s killing of 10 aidworkers in Afghanistan.
    Every single relief agency should hold back on the impulse to “pump in as many people as they can” to respond to the emergency.
    As a matter of fact, many support functions (finance, administration, procurement, reporting, mapping, etc etc) can be done in a remote support base, keeping the strict minimum of people in harm’s way. In an emergency, more than half of the people needed on the ground can work remotely. And probably they would work more effectively too!
    I suggest for every single person any organisation sends in, the question is asked: “Do we really need this person to be there, on the ground?”.

I think it is appropriate at this point to repeat the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog: “This blog expresses my personal opinions, and not those of my current or past employers.”

Picture courtesy Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, discovered via The Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” series on the floods

Written by Peter

August 10th, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Ranting,Soapbox

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Letter to the owner of the Italian Trash Company

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Italian trash on the streets

Italian trash on the streets

When I landed in Rome, finally home after five months, there were three things I noticed on the way back from the airport:

  1. A beautiful sunset, the kind you only see in Italy;
  2. I had no mobile phone signal most of the way;
  3. Trash piled up everywhere next to the waste bins.

Sunsets, we always cover extensively here on The Road. The paleolithic Italian mobile phone coverage, is a subject I will bitch about later. But the garbage problem, I have to revisit now. After all, it was the UN World Environment Day yesterday.

First, let me get this clear: I love living in Italy. But I never got my head around the fact why garbage is such a problem here. I mean, I don’t live in a slum area, but in a village close to the capital, known as a weekend resort for the rich and famous – how much I fall out of that category. Still, trash piles up as if we lived in a slum…

And it is not as if people don’t mind: People stopped I was walking around to take pictures of the three trash bins around my house. They looked at me, and at the rubble, only to sigh “A disgrace, isn’t it?”. One elder woman says: “Yes, young man, take pictures, document it, and do something about this scandal!”.
So I will.

Problem is, where to start? Luckily, one of the trash skips had a man’s picture on it:

Italian trash

With my limited Italian, I understand this Mister Armeni must be the proud owner of the trash company called “Forza Italia”.

I guess the mother company is called “Il Popolo della Liberta – Berlusconi”. Probably “Berlusconi” must be the overall umbrella of all Italian trash companies, then. At least that was the old lady’s claim: “Berlusconi: Rifiuti! Rigiuti!”

As this Mister Armeni kindly displayed his picture on his company’s trash cans, I gather he was asking for feedback. So I wrote him a letter:

To: Mister Armeni
Owner Regional Trash company
“Forze Ragione Regione”
Member of National Trash company “Forza Italia”

Dear Mister Armeni,

Thank you for soliciting feedback on the services of your trash company. I would like to tell you how much I appreciate you must be owning a lot of wastage, and as part of the national trash conglomerate “Forza Italia”, I am sure it must be a real challenge to daily hide garbage from the public eye.

Still, I would like to tell you that despite your best efforts, garbage seems to pile up more and more since you took over the company. I hope you will soon deal with the situation, or speed up selling out your company to the well-known South Italian alliance specializing in the disposal of (radio active) trash (in the Mediterranean). I heard that company is already part of the National Trash company “Forza Italia” anyways…

Looking forward to see progress in your national programme “Trash Italy Fast”!


Written by Peter

June 8th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Funny,Ranting,Soapbox

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Kicking people until they have a conscience

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Louis Paul Boon

When I was seventeen, as part of the tests to graduate secondary school, we had to read three books from one author, and make short summary. I choose Louis-Paul (“Lowie”) Boon, a Flemish writer, columnist, socialist and anarchist. He was not really educated. He was a house painter. But he was a born artist and story teller.

He lived in poverty while he wrote his first book. After 400 pages of it, he discarded the relevance, and hung it from a string on his bathroom wall, so he could save on toilet paper. His wife took the manuscript, read it, took the last page and wrote on it: “Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera”. She wrapped everything together in brown paper and sent it off to a publisher. It won the Leo J. Krijn Prize for literature.

I did not read three books from Louis-Paul Boon. I got fascinated by him and read all of his books, about 30 or 40 by then. Some of the books had the size of an encyclopedia. And I did not write a summary, I wrote a 100 page thesis. My teachers collectively declared me a nut case and I graduated (almost failing my maths exam, though, but that is a different story).

No surprise Louis-Paul Boon left a lasting impression on the teenager I was, and still am. Not only in his writing style and approach to life, but also in some of his basic principles. One of them was “You have to kick people until they have a conscience”: You have to repeat ethical values to people, slam their face with it, until they understand. Head-on. That sentence remained within me, lingering.

Being young, you want to prove yourself, so I got into the commercial world, into the business. And not just any business. After some adventures at a hitech research company, I joined a company -at that time- at the heart of the world’s financial world. I worked at their headquarters, in a building designed by Ricardo Bofill and set on an old castle estate near Brussels.

If you thought banks were the summon of “prestige”, think again. This was a step beyond that… Everything, even the cafeteria furniture was custom designed. You can imagine what was at the center of the business. Money.

Gradually, Louis-Paul Boon started to creep back into my mind. My commercial instincts got into a battle with my ethic values, which had remained dormant during the first years in my career. Then came the evening that changed the rest of my life. I could no longer work for a commercial company. The lust for life, for adventure, for the horizon, but mainly the drive to ‘make a positive change in this world’, got stronger.

My conscience won the battle. I gave up my management career, went to the Antarctic, wrote a book, and started my professional life from scratch as a technician for the Red Cross.

Gradually, once more, my commercial and competitive instincts got the upper hand. While I continued to work in the humanitarian world, I gradually got sucked into the hard core “business” aspect of it: concentrating on my core work, I would do the stuff I did well, and do it head-on. I would not always put it all in a humanitarian context.

As the years went on, my team grew. I hired hundreds of people over the years. Many left a trace in my mind and heart. It was not until the midst of the 2003 Iraq crisis, we hired Larisa.

Larisa asking questions

Larisa started the Pink Revolution in our team. She would question all and everything. She was a pain. She would be the one saying “you can not kill to feed the hungry”. Not meant literally (thank God!), but rather: “you can not run over your ethics while doing your humanitarian work”.

She triggered my conscience back into a ferocious battle with my competitive instincts. And this time, the conscience would get the upper hand. It has ever since, I’d love to believe.

My conscience is a big as a 30 story flat now. It dominates everything I do. Every time I raise my voice (a lot), piss off people (a lot), hurt someone (luckily rarely I would think), I can not sleep at night. I am trying to lead a life where my ethics determine what and how I do it. It dominates.

That makes me a pain to work with. That makes it impossible to manage me. Many see me as a loose canon. I simply can not keep quiet. I feel guilty if I have something on my mind, and do not speak up, or question. I fight battles, often loosing battles. I bang my head against the wall continuously. But I do not give up. This blog, The Road, is part of that dynamic, by the way.

The “conscience” is one of the reasons I continue to work in the humanitarian world. Not only because it is “humanitarian”, but maybe, maybe, I can work on “change from within”. The UN is criticised a lot. But it is easy doing that from the sidelines. I want to do it while being in the midst of it. Trying to make a change from within.

And maybe, maybe, I can instill a change in people. Even if it was in a small part, I want to change the world. And remind people of their conscience. Every day is a battle to continue doing that. It is so easy to get sucked into your daily job, without loosing sight of the wider, the humanitarian, the human context.

Every day, I have to remind myself. Every day, I have to weigh the conscience part, with the work I have to deliver. Not loosing sight of either. Every day. Every day, I want to kick people until they have a conscience. “Lowie” in me has not died. Is he still alive within you?

Pictures courtesy Ricardo Bofill, Klara

Written by Peter

October 10th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Posted in Ranting

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Humanitarian aid and the power of the media

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During major humanitarian crises, 13 British charities often raise money jointly under an umbrella organisation called the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), with appeals shown on all the major television networks.

But the DEC had its fingers burned when the BBC and Sky decline to cooperate on its last appeal for the Gaza conflict, fearing the media’s involvement would compromise their political neutrality as news organisations, a story we reported previously on The Road.

The consequence of the BBC’s Gaza decision seems to have a deeper impact then we anticipated: it was a precedent of how the media could “make or break” a humanitarian appeal effort. The Gaza media incident spilled over into the current humanitarian catastrophes in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as now DEC is still contemplating whether or not to launch appeals for Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

“The issue is whether the broadcasters will support an appeal and my impression is that they won’t, for perceived reasons of (aid) access in either case, and for perceived reasons of political complexity in either case.” (Full)

So, let me get this straight: because the media decide not to provide coverage for an appeal, a humanitarian organisation decides NOT to launch an appeal? Eh? Would that make DEC’s decision not to appeal for Sri Lanka and Pakistan as revolting as the BBC’s decision not to provide media coverage for the appeal? Are soon humanitarian organisations ‘picking and choosing’ which operations to support, based on ‘the possible support by the media’?

Current balance: Humanitarian organisations’ resources already stretched because of the current economic crisis, are left close to depleted. Not because the need was not there – Pakistan’s war in Swat Valley uprooted close to 3 million people – but because of lack of support and attention from the media.

The phenomenon is known amongst aidworkers as “The CNN Effect”: If an emergency gets the spotlight on CNN, humanitarian wheels start rolling. If it is not featured on CNN, the emergency is forgotten and hushed in a corner. You might just as well not start an emergency operation if you feel you won’t be able to fundraise for it, right?

Which turns the Rupert Murdochs and Ted Turners of this world the Gods deciding between life and death for thousands.

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Written by Peter

May 29th, 2009 at 5:13 am

Posted in Ranting

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