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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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Now I know: one never knows.

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Once the French actor Jean Gabin made a song “Maintenant je sais”, “Now I know”. He tells a story that when he was young, he always thought he knew everything, and as he grew up, he started to doubt what he really knew, what he really understood of life. He concludes saying as a 60 year old, his life is mostly behind him and “there is only one thing I know for sure: I never know”.

Maybe as you are young and are trying to find your way in life, you need to reassure yourself not to be swept off your feet by everything happening in life. And as years go by, you learn about your own strengths and weaknesses, so you no longer need to hold on to the straws of false assurances… So you can give yourself the liberty or privilege of doubting.

Another way to look at it, is: when you are young, 8 or 10, you look up to adults as if “they know what they are doing”. A job, kids, house, financials, life in general. As you grow into an adult yourself, you start to see the doubts and struggles that also your parents have experienced: they did not know neither, but tried their best.

I will turn 50 this year, believe it or not. When I was young I always said I would die falling of a tree, a cliff, freeze to death on some mountain top, crash in a remote area in Africa before I turned 50… I never believed I could turn 50, me, who was always the youngest and the wildest in the bunch…

But now I do turn 50, I also learned that struggles and doubts continue if you live life intensively and to the fullest. I know these internal battles will never stop. I learned that bit, and came to terms that “I will never Know”… I will continue to doubt whether the choices in life I am making, are the right ones for me, for those around me. Whether the choices I make at work are the right ones, whether I do things right. And somewhere that is the beauty of life. And maybe it is the strength of a person: the strength to dare to doubt. The strength of understanding you will never know.

Written by Peter

April 25th, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Posted in Soapbox

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Being a manager of an emergency team

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For almost 9 years, I headed different emergency response teams while I was based in Uganda (the Great Lakes emergency), Kosovo, Pakistan/Afghanistan and later out of Dubai. Back in 2006, I took a sabbatical and after that worked for three years in Italy, outside of the emergency response scene.

The Haiti operation is my first emergency since four years. Just before leaving Rome, on my way to the Dominican Republic, I wondered by myself, if I still had it in me. If the tools I built for myself over the years were not rusty. But already the first day on the ground in Santo Domingo, it was clear the past experience I was able to build up, did not fade. I felt -once again- as a fish in the water.

In our office, we manage about 80 people, most of them coming from different operations all over the globe. People were picked from other offices, all over the world. From North Korea to Ecuador, from Rome to Indonesia and Malawi. I think they must come from 50 odd different offices. Some are experienced staff, and for some, this was their first emergency response. Some are logisticians, others finance officers or procurement staff, others are administrative assistants, fleet managers, air operations specialist, counsellors, warehouse managers or nutritionists.

How, as a manager, do you make these people fold into one team? I often think about what makes a team work. And the role of a manager in a team. Off the top of my head, let me sum up some points I find crucial.

1. Give direction
Define the team goals from the beginning. It gives people a sense of direction, it helps you face all the different units the same way.

2. Care
As a manager, your staff is your main asset. Your staff will make or break an operation. Be sensitive to the individuals in your team. Debug conflicts right at the start, before they become major issues. Ensure your staff keeps healthy, care for their wellbeing. A fruitbasket a day sometimes makes all the difference. Mind their energy levels. Chase them out of the office when needed, so they don’t burn out.

3. Give feedback
Tell your staff when things are not done well, knowing they do their best, and have the best intentions. Praise when praise is due.

4. Structure
Draw up the team organigram from the start. People need to know who they report to, and what unit they belong to. Put a person in charge of each unit. Ensure the reporting structure is respected, and assist the unit heads where needed.
Brief new staff as they arrive. Explain the team goals, the organigram, the way the office is run.

5. Smile
Everyone has a bad day once in a while. I for one, never hide it when I am in a pissy mood. But I also love to walk around my team and hand out a friendly word and a smile from time to time… Amazing how much difference it sometimes makes.

6. Enable
As a manager, you are an enabler. You have to give the people the tools they need. Be it the budget, connectivity, a decent office space, or equipment. Without their tools, the best team members will not be able to function.

7. Debug
After defining the initial team structures, the basic systems and procedures are put in place, and your team has the tools it needs, one of the main tasks of a manager in emergency operations, is to be a debugger. Ensure people come to you with their issues, and help them on the spot. Don’t let problems ‘breed’ or ‘simmer’… Keep your door open.
Often people ask me what I do, as a manager. Apart from my task in linking the teams to the ‘outside world’, be it the government, the UN system or our HQ, my main day-to-day task is “debugging”. I see myself as the guy who walks around with the stick and the rubber tab, sticking it into the toilets and going ‘Zwonk-Zwonk’, until the garbage is gone, and the water flows again. I am the toilet-declogger.

8. Involve
Teams working in emergencies tend to become very focused, which is good. Well functioning units concentrate on their task at hand. All well, but ensure also they maintain the overall focus and the context of the operation. Even after the first month in this emergency, I still have an all-team meeting once per day. Even if it was to get people from behind their desk, even if, for a few minutes, I can give some info on what is going on beyond our office, within the emergency. Everyone likes to feel part ‘of the big machine’.

9. Delegate
In a fast evolving emergency, it is impossible to micromanage. Ensure you have staff you can entrust with the task at hand. Empower the supervisors within their own team, and delegate the tasks. Pass through the supervisors rather than tasking people directly. Often one of my big challenges, by the way.

10. Spot check
It is impossible to check everything going on. But random spot checks on what’s up, gives you as a manager a good idea what’s going on. Read the signs. Sloppy expense reports might point to a sloppy finance officer. Delayed attendance sheets, might point to a sloppy HR officer…

And now I am thinking “Where did I sin against my own rules, today?” :-)

Picture courtesy Jonathan Thompson

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Written by Peter

March 15th, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Soapbox

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