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Agenda for Humanity: getting the language right

August 20, 2018

It’s right to change the way services are devised and offered to people in distress, but in the relentless focus on how the agencies themselves must change, are we losing sight of the people we wish to help?

Yesterday, 19th August , was World Humanitarian Day. A day to remember the tragedy of all those whose lives are being lost and lessened by circumstances few of them called down upon themselves: environmental disaster, famine, drought, communal violence, epidemics, war – or simply the continuous grinding down, felt year on year, of chronic environmental pressure, political instability, threatened or actual violence, bad governance or economic, social and political exclusion. And a day to celebrate and support the many thousands of people, national and international agencies who help them: such as we are now seeing in response to floods in Kerala.

In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, the international community agreed that, despite huge successes in saving lives across the decades and the continents, it had nevertheless failed and was continuing to fail people who needed help. It recognised it was not doing enough to go beyond people’s urgent needs, to address the underlying causes of their distress, and thus reduce the likelihood they’d become distressed again. This was all enshrined in the Agenda for Humanity, which set out five areas of emphasis:

• Prevent and end conflicts
• Respect the rules of war
• Leave no-one behind
• Work differently to end need
• Invest in humanity

The Agenda included really important practically oriented ideas. Such as better systems for early warning, and for converting early warning into early action, the importance of a longer term approach, the need for leaders at every level to take more responsibility for protecting people and people’s lives, and better coordination and cooperation between the humanitarian and development agencies.

Agenda for Humanity

The Agenda for Humanity

People not personally involved in the international aid sector often assume that the “humanitarian aid” covers everything from saving lives to longer-term development assistance: from water, food, shelter and sanitation for displaced people and refugees, to improving slum dwellers’ and small farmers’ livelihoods, and better education in their daughters’ schools. And it’s true that some international development agencies, like Oxfam or CARE, cover all of the above. Some go even further, and cover all of the above and also peacebuilding too.

But the vast network of international public good agencies is actually quite divided, between those with a mandate to help people in acute distress, known within the system as “humanitarian agencies”, and those with a mandate to support longer-term initiatives, often seen as “development agencies”. Indeed, where individual organisations do work on both, the same division often persists internally.

This division is understandable. The provision of different services no doubt requires different mindsets, different organisational competencies and capacities, different sets of personal skills and interests. But unfortunately, the separation means that too often, agencies on either side of the divide fail to collaborate as effectively as they should. This short-changes those they wish to help, whose circumstances don’t neatly fall into ‘humanitarian’ and ‘long term development’ phases. At its worst, this has led to organisations developing a mutual mistrust, with their staff adopting seemingly tribal positions, protecting the narrow interests of their agency – including its funding – rather than the best outcome for people in need.

Working differently to end need
The Agenda for Humanity recognised this problem – as it had been recognised twenty years earlier in Kofi Annan’s UN reforms – hence the agreement to ‘work differently to end need’, which involves, among others, ‘transcending the humanitarian-development divide’. If you visit crisis zones today, you find many examples of agencies working better across this divide: e.g. the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR not just helping feed and house refugees, but also building their resilience for the future, and staff of humanitarian and development agencies collaborating intimately on the design and execution of initiatives.

The UN failed to implement Kofi Annan’s reforms to the full twenty years ago, partly because it was dealing with huge geopolitical crises like Climate Change, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving insufficient bandwidth for internal issues. But it was also partly because its agencies resisted the reforms. This was not only because the powerful heads of powerful UN agencies felt it was right to defend their turf. It was also because the culture and ingrained habits of the UN and its agencies were resilient to change.

Whether the current round of reforms will fall victim to the same fate remains uncertain. Certainly some of the key agencies remain powerful, and their culture and habits remain an obstacle to change. Certainly plenty of real-world crises are likely to distract the current Secretary General from his reforms in the coming years. But factors in favour of ‘working better’ succeeding include the broad support for this change voiced by many of the UN’s donors, who can tie their funding to evidence of change, and the fact that many UN staff seem to have embraced the need for change.

Language matters
If I have a lingering doubt, however, it is partly because of how people – donors, UN staffers, and others – are framing this, and other associated changes. The main headings of the Agenda for Humanity are shown in the graphic above, copied from They cover a range of important factors, all of which matter. But the “agenda for humanity” is framed not in terms of humanity, but in terms of the service providers. Its headings are all exhortations for service providers to ‘do better’. This seems too narrow, and not as helpful as it might be. It surely misses the crucial ‘why?’.

By this I do not mean to imply that the framers of the reform agenda are crass, unfeeling bureaucrats. They are not. Nor do I mean to imply they lack a genuine desire to do better. They know very well from their own experience, how important it is to do better. They have crafted the agenda using language directed at the agencies because this is how international aid works: it’s in keeping with the culture of the aid sector to focus on explaining, justifying, marketing – and indeed reforming – itself.

‘So what?’, you may say, ‘it’s just words, and it’s obvious what they mean’. But language does matter, since the language through which we express our intent is the language others hear and act upon.

By framing the Agenda in terms of “what we must do better”, we convey the responsibility of international agencies to find better ways to respond, and that’s important. But at the same time, we fail to convey – and perhaps obscure – a simple and essential truth. Poor and vulnerable people needing help really don’t care if those providing it decide that it’s “humanitarian”, “development”, “peacebuilding”, or whatever. What they want, and what they deserve, is to be helped to respond to their needs and aspirations as they see them, and in a way which treats them with dignity and respects their right to have a voice and agency in what happens.

Now, it’s probably not unreasonable to assume that a person’s aspirations in an emergency are for the kinds of life-saving assistance normally seen as “humanitarian”: food, shelter, protection, water… But longer-term aspirations are seldom far away, and they kick in pretty soon, once immediate needs are met. It’s the most natural thing to start wondering how to avoid getting into another mess, once the current mess starts to seem a bit less distressing. People want to plan and prepare for their future and their children’s future almost immediately: they don’t wait until the ‘humanitarian phase’ is over, and the ‘recovery’ – much less the ‘development’ – phase begins.

So it’s really important for agencies operating in crisis and crisis-prone situations to keep in mind, as they implement the agenda for humanity, that it’s just not about them recognising the need to ‘work across the humanitarian-development divide’, but rather to recognise that for the people they wish to help, there is no divide. We must do all we can to design and execute assistance for people in ways that recognise they can simultaneously have short-term needs and longer-term aspirations; and above all, respect their need and aspiration to decide what matters most, when.

It surely follows therefore, that the best way to bridge the divide is to put it to one side, and adopt an approach that’s based on the fullest possible appreciation of people’s needs and aspirations, in the knowledge that these change, as their circumstances do. Perhaps this means moving from an Agency-based or delivery-based approach to a more human-centred, empathetic one, highlighting the agency of the beneficiaries, rather than our own.

The sop

August 13, 2018

Jesus answered, he it is, to whom I shall give a sop,
when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop,
He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
And after the sop Satan entered into him.
Then said Jesus unto him,
That thou doest, do quickly. – John, 14: 26-27


You liked to walk alone in the warm dark wind
and slow your heart to beat in measured time.
‘Come too’, you said that night. ‘We’ll take the wine.
I’d like your views on how the movement’s grown,
and what the coming days will bring.’

We passed the dogs and left the homes
and murmured dialogues behind; and paced
the quiet lanes where branches interlaced
but failed to shield us from the frailty
and ache, and weight, of night’s vast dome.

‘It’s only you I trust, to help me free
them from the steady drip of alkali
which calcifies compassion in a lie,’
you said, ‘because, alone among them all,
your love of truth exceeds your love for me.’

I felt the breeze abruptly fall,
and then your fingertips upon my hand
as, with taut tenderness, you shared your plan
to leave us violently; what I would do.
Above us in the trees, an owl called.

The day we met, my soul was damned.
The thing you tasked me with, I carried through.
At once, I fell; leaves fell; night fell; I’m lost,
with no horizons nor relief. Because
my love of truth exceeds my love for you?

Published in Anima issue 5

The tension between values and interests in overseas aid

July 22, 2018

This is the text of my contribution to the OECD-DAC’s valuable States of Fragility 2018 report, published 17th July.

Aid budgets are never secure, as voters’ perceived interests always weigh more heavily in the balance than those of voiceless people far away. This is particularly true today, as governments are under increased pressure to justify aid budgets in an increasingly populist world. At the same time, embodied in development cooperation has always been the concept that it is right to help people improve their circumstances, reduce suffering and flourish as individuals, communities and societies. The onus is therefore on governments to demonstrate that aid is effective, is spent carefully and without waste, and that it is in voters’ own interests to help people elsewhere in the world. This inherent tension between interests and values is analogous to the tensions in medical practice. Hence the admonition to “do no harm” – drawn from medical ethics – has become familiar in development discourse (as in Mary Anderson’s work).

Development in fragile contexts is especially fraught with such tension because its outcomes are more uncertain than in other contexts. Political institutions in such places also do not readily allow international actors to obtain the equivalent of the medical patient’s consent or be held accountable by citizens there. As a result, the ethics of international development place a high value on the need for responsible and informed practice.

The tyranny of ‘what works?’ and value for money

This phenomenon has contributed to simplistic notions of effectiveness. The emphasis on finding “what works” in fragile contexts, implies that the only methods to be tried should be those that are already known to succeed. Yet the outcome of development engagements in fragile contexts is by nature uncertain. Although lessons learned over the past decade have indicated they should use long-term, adaptive and holistic approaches tailored to the specificities of each context and in which local people and institutions are in the lead.

These approaches, however, tend to sit uncomfortably with over-simplified notions of causality and effectiveness. A truism of aid – as Andrew Natsios famously wrote – is that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. This is especially true in fragile situations, where structural change is essential. Development actors may know the right goals to aim for, but that does not mean it is easy to achieve them. There are no algorithms or simple linear pathways for reducing fragility.

Indeed, no-one can be certain of how to achieve success in fragile contexts. History suggests that progress will happen differently in different contexts. Good aid programmes are those that encourage and accompany this evolution, applying resources and knowledge intelligently, responsively, carefully and collaboratively to maximise positive, if uncertain, outcomes. Achieving these will take many years and many donor country electoral cycles. Such uncertain, context- and time-specific programming lends itself poorly to the idea of sticking to what is already known to work.

The focus on “what works?” feeds into mechanisms designed to demonstrate value for money. Given the scarcity of funds, it is essential to show voters and beneficiaries that money is being well spent. But value for money analysis is often done a priori as part of decision making before the impact (i.e. value) of a programme is known. This puts programmes that are appropriate for fragile contexts at a disadvantage compared with simpler and more predictable approaches elsewhere. The twin lenses of value for money and the what-works question thus can contribute to poor decisions, leading to funds being allocated to places where operations are cheaper and easier, and to shorter-term, simpler, less transformational programmes, rather than those which address the complex causes of fragility.

Fear can distort the framing of aid

Fear has also become more audible in the discourse around aid to fragile contexts. Politicians can benefit by framing aid as a way to keep citizens at home safe from uncontrolled migration or terrorism. This helps reassure voters their governments are keeping them safe and also helps to justify aid in the public mind.

But this framing can also distort development programming. An example is the use of aid to keep potential migrants where they are. Much aid to Syrian refugees is tied to preventing them from leaving Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which may not be the best solution for them as some of them may never be able to return home, whatever the outcome of the war. Nor is it necessarily the best policy for these host countries, where the rapid influx of large numbers of refugees has resulted in citizens that are as concerned about the impact of refugees as their counterparts in wealthier nations.

Ambitions that aid will somehow solve the migration issue in the short term are misplaced. Research shows that development progress tends at first to stimulate migration rather than deter it, and remittances from migrants are often critical to the resilience of people back home. Funds that seek to reduce migration can therefore risk undermining both development progress and coping strategies. Besides, experience and common sense suggest that surge funding of this sort in fragile places with under-developed institutions and limited absorption capacity is unlikely to succeed.

Fear of terrorism has also become influential over development programmes, more of which are now expected to address the risk of violent extremism in some way. This is worrying because there is still much to learn about both drivers of and effective responses to violent extremism, yet many projects are already operational. From lessons learned thus far, reducing extremism calls for nuanced, long-term programming approaches designed to build social cohesion, based on a detailed understanding of local conditions. These also need to operate in partnerships of trust with communities and especially with the people most likely to be at risk, and who are not always easy to identify. The right programmes can take many years to develop and succeed. Their impact, though, can be undermined by the heavy-handed approaches of security actors, found to be a major source of grievance, some of whom have been trained and supported by the same donors who are providing development aid.

Fear and narrow definitions of value are just some of the ways in which development assistance is being pushed into uncomfortable territory, where the balance between short-term perceived interests and altruism is becoming harder to find. The distortion of aid by extraneous factors will always occur, as Tony Klouda has written, especially as the proportion of international aid programmed in fragile states continues to increase. The foregoing analysis suggests that for international interventions to be effective in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, they must be clearly and consistently framed above all to reduce fragility and foster resilience. Making this a central pillar means that other factors can be clearly judged by whether they will contribute to or undermine this goal.

This also would allow value for money analysis to factor in the need for programmes to be intentionally adaptable, long-term, holistic, and tailored to local specificities within a non-linear view of change, and to take into account both the higher cost of operating and the higher risk of failure in such contexts. Because aid in fragile contexts will remain particularly prone to ethical dilemmas, more transparency about the challenges of working in these environments would help move the debate about development and aid onto a more stable footing. Finally, it would be timely to provide more nuanced ethics guidance to officials often struggling with the tension between values and interests to help them navigate this difficult terrain. Finding a balance between these matters, because if aid fails in the fragile contexts where need is greatest, then it could undermine the case for providing aid at all.

My other self regrets

July 20, 2018

Apart from the first and final stanza, this poem can be read in any order, meaning there are a staggering 39,916,800 poems here. (Isn’t maths wonderful?).  You are invited to draw a zig-zag line at random between them, to create a reading pathway. And then try again.


My other self graphic


Published in Hedgehog Press 2018’s: Little Book of Inspiration

Wickedness in fragile contexts

July 17, 2018

Today, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) publishes its annual States of Fragility report. It’s a mammoth, 250+ page document setting out current fragility trends as well as some current responses.

More than 80% of the world’s poorest will be living in fragile contexts – places with inadequate governance and the presence or a high risk of violence – by 2030 on current trends. The report makes a strong case for more, better and more widely distributed funding and support for them, and to strengthen their institutions.

The report says ‘there is no straightforward way to describe the state of fragility in 2018’, not least because fragility is by nature a multi-dimensional problem. Of course, and I’d go further and say it’s a classic “wicked problem” – i.e. a problem so complicated that it can’t be adequately defined or described in order to prescribe a solution. Wicked problems were first defined in respect of social planning, half a century ago. The way to approach wicked problems is, first and foremost – recognise their “wickedness” and accept there are no simple solutions. Having done so, it’s then important to work collaboratively in diverse teams, in a participatory and iterative manner, taking stock frequently of what one has learned and achieved – and revising the approach as required as new opportunities present themselves or apparent opening close down. One can’t ‘solve’ them, but one can make and recognise progress towards “better”.

Recognising the wickedness of fragility is – perhaps counter-intuitively – empowering, as it allows one to accept that it’s beyond our ken to fully grasp, and thus work on specific, narrower aspects of an issue – while of course keeping the wider complexity in mind. I’m currently involved in a project examining how to respond to the complex situation in the Lake Chad Basin, where Islamic extremist violence, state neglect and repression, climate fluctuations, climate change, rapid population increase and a host of other factors are interacting to make most people’s lives a misery, and where the search for ‘a solution’ is a fool’s errand. A veritably wicked set of problems.

Recognising wickedness also means it’s OK not to be able to fit your programme into a classic cause-and-effect log-frame. In fact, it’s often better not to try and know the outcomes in advance, but set up systems to monitor what occurs and take it from there.

The tension between values and interests in aid

Fragility is correlated with conflict. Indeed, fragility is practically a synonym for conflict-prone. Yet, according to the report, only 2% of aid funding to fragile contexts in 2016 was classified as supporting conflict-prevention, and a further 10% as supporting peacebuilding (though I’m unsure of the difference). While this is no doubt partly a product of blunt aid classification systems, it’s surely also a sign that much aid in fragile contexts is deployed without being properly tailored to the context. After all, it’s hard to argue that practically all aid in fragile contexts should not have the goal of reducing fragility, and thus violence, as a matter of pragmatism and ethics. And any programmes designed with that in mind surely entail either conflict prevention or peacebuilding…

With that in mind, I contributed a short piece to the OECD’s report: section 1.4 on page 35. This explores aspects of the ever present tension between the altruistic values supposedly inherent in aid, and the political interests of donor governments. There is much to be said on this subject, much of it unfortunately unlikely to be acceptable in a document published by the major aid donors’ own think tank. Nevertheless it’s commendable they wanted to commission such a piece.

In the article, I question the way ‘Value for Money’ is deployed in fragile contexts, where value (in terms of reduced risk and fragility) is hard to evaluate a priori, and may in fact take many years to accrue – and may never, in some cases. I also challenge the insidious ‘what works?’ agenda, which assumes that only methodologies which have already shown their worth should be deployed and funded. This risks side-lining some of the innovative, iterative, process-oriented programmes required to address “wicked problems”. If the goal is reducing fragility, surely it will take many years before we know if a particular methodology has ‘worked’?

I also point out how rich country voters’ fears of terrorism and immigrants are being exploited in perverse ways to distort programming – and ignoring evidence which does not fit donors’ political claims. For example, the evidence that development progress increases, rather than decreases emigration from poor countries, at least initially.

Ethics in aid

As I have said in earlier blog posts, aid in fragile contexts needs to be held to a very high ethical standard, in part because of these kinds of tensions between values and interests. In some respects the conflict between donors’ interests and virtue is akin to the conflict of interests known to the medical profession, which gave rise to the concept of do no harm. But the political institutions typically available in fragile contexts don’t readily allow international actors to obtain the equivalent of the medical patient’s consent, nor to be held accountable by citizens. As a result, the ethics of international development aid must place a high value on the need for responsible and informed practice, and we need to be more explicit about this.

A renewed emphasis on ethics becomes all the more important as aid is increasingly concentrated in fragile contexts, and especially in situations where donors are also trying to achieve other goals than human development, and which may be in tension with them, such as reducing terror threats within, and immigration towards their own borders.

Ragged lawn

July 10, 2018

                                            ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

– Hamlet act 1 sc. 2


A man came in, from time to time,
to mow and weed and hoe and trim
the ordered world you left behind.

He worked with diligence and speed,
but it was only work to him,
and then he stopped – I don’t know why.

And now, my cat stalks wrens among
your ragged grass and giant weeds,
and straggling dogwood overhung

with thorns – she holds her hunter’s pose
amidst damp shade and rotting leaves
where phlox once bloomed in open sun.

The perfect geometry which framed
your realm has all but decomposed –
its squares and pentagrams decayed.

This wilding hunter’s paradise
where any seed or rootlet grows
is fine for birds and butterflies,
but not the garden that you made.


Published in Pennine Platform No. 83



July 4, 2018

You ask why that man sleeps so late
in a winter doorway, cold, alone,
as we step round him, wide awake.
I do not know.

You ask why girls your age are chased
by men with knives and guns, from home,
while you stay warmly loved, and safe.
I do not know.

You ask, why we live high and well
while others fade and sink so low,
and not give half we have to them.
I do not know.

You’ve asked if it’s we lack the will
to act – or perhaps it’s not our role?
For fifty years, I’ve asked, and still
I do not know.

But should you ask: by not doing more,
do we not hurt ourselves, and show
we’ve made a world that’s deeply flawed?
Now that, I know.

Published by The Poetry Shed, as part of a series in support of The Nourish Community Food Bank