Category Archives: Home

What a Cheek! – Making Aid Agencies Work

Making Aid Agencies Work is a book I’m publishing in spring 2019. What right have I to tackle the title’s challenge? My publishers and I finally came up with the title yesterday after months of discussion while the book itself was being written. It’s an audacious claim and there are many better placed to advise than I am, so what do I bring to the feast?

The answer lies partly in the subtitle: ‘Reconnecting INGOs with the people they serve’.  My experience, interest and research are all about how people learn and act. Through a million miles of travel to see aid agencies in action, through working shoulder to shoulder with them and through researching their history and development I’ve shaped my thinking. How can aid agencies unshackle themselves  from the treadmill of providing services, often filling the vacuum left by reduced social spending, and live up to their website front page claims to end poverty and empower people?

Is there really a problem that needs solving? Early this year there was certainly some very bad press about major INGOs. As I was writing this book several people asked whether I was just piling on the pain. Plenty was being written already about problems with INGOs. My answer is that the issues which surfaced this year represent the tip of an iceberg and one has to dig into the history and economics of INGOs and the surrounding political scene to understand what lies below the surface of the water. Once you do that, I argue, you find that there’s a whole structure out there which disconnects INGOs from the people they serve. How can that structure change? The book focuses on the roles of learning, knowledge and power and I’ll outline some of its thinking in further posts. Of course you can read the book when it comes out next spring!

The sweet smell of success

Ben Wisner and I received the ‘outstanding paper of the year’ award from the International Journal of Disaster Prevention and Management for our paper ‘Lets Talk about You’ published 2016 (and available in ideas and stuff ).  You can read about it here:    There’s rather a long list of awards so you might take some time finding it! Encouraging as we’re now working on a whole guest-edited issue for the same journal.

Talking Timbuktu – a book and a journey

Travelogue plus

I’m writing a book which invites readers on a journey to many different cities, towns and villages around the world. It’s a travelogue but it’s more, because in sharing my journey I’m sharing a million miles of air travel and a quarter of a century of field visits  during which I’ve discovered many of the challenges and complexities of what we call ‘development’;  and I aim to share that journey of ideas, too.

Try it out!

I’ve attached here an early draft of a chapter from somewhere in the book (all the chapters are designed to work on their own, as well as adding up to an overall journey) and thought I’d invite some early reaction from anyone prepared to read it.  This chapter centres on a journey taken on the edge of the millennium, to one of the remoter places in the world.

I hope this is interesting for you and I hope for feedback which is enlightening for me. Please comment at the bottom of the blog.  Don’t be polite!

Here it is! talking timbuktu v2 310117pdf

Resilient bouncy people

Resilience is a weasel word; by which I mean it sounds really good and really useful as an idea until you move closer to it when, like approaching the end of a rainbow, it evaporates. Some people try to explain it as ‘bounce-back’, hence this blog’s title. Some say that we don’t just want to get back to where we are, but to move on, so they talk about ‘bounce-forward’. Resilient, or bouncy? Either are quite hard to pin down because they bounce around so much.

The problem with metaphors is that they are seductive. Because we notice that something is like something else we start to think it can be explained in the same way. A term originating in engineering has been applied to biological ecosystems and more recently to human society and human individuals, but it is just that, a metaphor, it doesn’t of itself ‘explain’ though people often fall into that fatal trap.

Metaphors aren’t the answer but they are a great way of starting a conversation. Whilst, working in the field of international development, I’ve been fascinated by the relevance and limitations of the idea of resilience in community development (see for example our work on Frontline) What I’m interested in at the moment is the idea of personal resilience, which is much discussed in the worlds of coaching and self-management (for example of humanitarian field workers facing stressful situations).

How does personal resilience work, or in other words how do people get bouncy? One way of thinking about this is to use different states of resilience. A widely used trio, described well by Pelling, distinguishes between resistance (or ‘coping’) adaptation, and transformation. Let’s take those three states:

Resistance. I remember listening to war reporter Martin Bell in Anthony Clare’s Psychiatrist’s chair (A BBC radio series) twenty years ago. Anthony tried to tease out the impact of Bell’s  harrowing experiences in the course of his work and his response was entirely old-school stiff upper lip, emotionless, ‘ramming it down inside’. He clearly had a coping mechanism, and Anthony tried and largely failed to uncover the emotional effects of Bell’s experiences. More recent work to support those exposed to such traumas has recognised that more than coping is needed . . .

Adaptation. There’s now a wide body of work on wellness and resilience for people exposed to trauma as humanitarian workers, soldiers, reporters and others. Terms such as PTSD are much  more widely understood than twenty years ago. Such work aims to prepare people for what they will face. It encourages them to be self-aware, it shows how to maintain some personal space for reflection. It uses tools like ‘mindfulness’ to help in this. It places an emphasis on maintaining social and personal relationships to build a support structure, and of course on careful management of personnel. It acknowledges the need to debrief and adjust, rather than  just ‘ramming it all down inside’. This is clearly a more thoughtful approach than just encouraging people to ‘cope’. However just as in Pelling’s discussion of the idea of resilience in international development the question is whether just want to make the status quo more sustainable, or whether we really want to ‘bounce forward’ . . .

Transformation.  Let me say that this is where my heart lies. In my own work I have travelled about a million miles visiting development projects in villages, towns, cities and slums across the world and the sense of a huge investment of effort and yet a persistent sense that nothing much changes has led me to start work on a book ‘Watching the World Standing Still’. the idea of transformation, again discussed in Pelling’s book and in our collaborative paper,  is that we set out to change the things that shape our lives – the system, or the underlying factors. Now this seems to me important at a personal level, and also in organisations. In particular I’ve seen this in development and humanitarian organisations . At worst adaptation can be a psycho-social elastoplast; keeping us on an even keel so we carry on. I have a colleague who’s thinking about this and about how particular people have transformed their lives, realising that they needed to do more than just cope or adapt. Often their transformation results, bluntly, from dramatic personal loss or trauma. This is not inevitable but neither is it surprising as we all, individually and organisationally, resist change – a preoccupation of mine as you’ll find here.  Often it’s an external force that pushes an individual or organisation beyond their ability to resist, creating sufficient disruption for change. But is waiting for the collision really the best we can do? Or should we, as we think about wellness and resilience, be helping people to consider the need for transformation in their lives, asking whether their current values and behaviours really reflect where they might want to bounce forward to? This seems important to me both for the individuals, and for the organisations and enterprises they are part of. If individuals deal with their challenges through resistance and adaptation, in other words ‘business as usual’ then those organisations of which they are a part will also tend towards ‘business as usual’; and as my reflection mentioned earlier argues, business as usual can result in huge amounts of effort being expended without achieving the intended change. Should we be looking for ways to help people achieve transformation, individually and organisationally?

The nebulous term resilience gets harder to define the closer you get to it. But it’s a great discussion starter. What do you think?

If learning is so important why don’t we?

If learning is so important why don’t we?

In the worlds of academia, business and international development there’s a strong emphasis on learning, but does this enable us to change and improve, or just train us in ‘business as usual’?

Whilst setting up my ‘inventing futures’ website my Mac laptop threw error messages and Apple directed me to the ‘Genius bar’ at my local Apple store (how’s that for product placement?).

Oliver, my allocated Genius, plugged my laptop into their mainframe, scratched his fulsome beard, and concluded the error message was an error. Whilst he was doing this he was constantly dealing with quick requests for advice from his fellow Genies, and also seeking bits himself. He also pointed out a manufacturing fault on the laptop screen and so he logged in my contact information to  arrange replacement. Noticing my email address he asked ‘inventing futures – what’s that?.’ I said ‘it’s about creating knowledge which you can use to do things differently and better.’ ‘How do you create knowledge?’ he asked. Looking round me I answered ‘While you checked out my laptop you’ve been constantly sharing information and giving information to each other. It’s not in a manual, it’s stuff you’ve learnt on the job. You and your fellow Genies are creating knowledge.’ Oliver was quite struck by this and said he’d go off and check out the site. It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that they were knowledge creators.

What went on at the Genius bar is a small glimpse of the potential of people to create knowledge. It has the potential to happen in many different worlds, and yet in my work in International Development and my earlier work in Corporate Communications I have been told by many people that teaching and training just reproduce the way it’s been done already, and in doing so tend to make those taught and trained think it’s impossible for them – like Oliver and his colleagues – to create new knowledge and understandings. I’ve started writing a paper ‘If learning is so important, why don’t we?’ influenced by a colleague in Uruguay saying that people facing poverty in her country suffer from ‘Learned helplessness’: in other words the usual style of learning and training specifically leads to  acquiescence to experts and teachers, a resignation to the status quo, and a lack of self belief in the ability to learn how to influence and change their situations. If you can’t wait to read the forthcoming paper try out ‘The importance of critical thought for change agents’. If you disagree, agree, or want to know more I’d love to hear from you.