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Pandemic Politics?

As the world moves on and countries such as the UK attempt to ‘live with COVID-19’ there may be a collective urge to forget. Other priorities emerge and all the talk of recovery and of better preparedness fades into the background. A group of local CSO members discussed their perspectives on what has been learnt, and what has not, a little over a year after they produced the report ‘turning the world upside down‘ in the midst of the crisis. You can read their discussion and conclusions here

Float your Boat?

February 2022

There’s an old saying that a rising tide floats all boats. It’s used as a graphic metaphor to suggest that increasing the prosperity of a country increases it for everybody. Conversely, as we face a dramatic cost-of-living squeeze in the UK, you could say that a retreating tide strands all boats. But we know, or at least suspect strongly that’s not true. Food writer and activist Jack Monroe says that the claimed rate of inflation, though it’s mushroomed to over five percent, isn’t the same for people at the bottom of the pile. It’s based on a basket of goods including things like flat screen televisions and holidays, but if your life doesn’t involve shopping for them but for the cheapest possible basics, you might find your own personal inflation index is 100% or more.

This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket (one of the Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. That’s a 141% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.’ (Jack Monroe,  Twitter, Jan 19, 2022)

The tide doesn’t lift all boats when it rises, and some people are much more quickly stranded when it sinks. Nevertheless catchphrases and metaphors can frame policy at national and even international level. I’ve been involved in various ways with international development for over thirty years and I’ve seen how the boat-floating metaphor has justified liberalising economic policy. If the national economy is boosted then everyone will become better off . . . won’t they? In the nineties the neo-conservative free market push from America and the UK justified pressurising already poor countries to wind back their social provision and de-nationalise their industries based on the doctrine that cutting costs and boosting the economy would float all boats. I saw this play out in many countries but particularly in Zambia, which I visited numerous times over the decade. Over that time I met with ordinary struggling Zambian citizens, with aid and development workers, with business leaders, and even with the then president, Frederick Chiluba, who had completely bought into the free market doctrine. On an early visit I saw the first fruits of boat-floating, as rural dispensaries started charging for drugs as part of the free-market liberalisation, which meant villagers in largely cash-free economies couldn’t get even basic pills like paracetamol. Later on I saw how the country’s economic jewel, the copper belt, was sold off to private investors from abroad who promptly slimmed down or even shut the various mines and processing plants to maximise profits. I visited a slum settlement in that region, Chipakuluska (literally ‘broken’), filled with unemployed ex-employees and their families who had been driven into poverty by the changes. Some boats floated, but not theirs. I even met, virtually, with our then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, during a satellite call to poor Zambian villager Elinata Kasanga, which we engineered. He told her he championed the calls of the ‘Drop the Debt’ campaign to cancel the grinding national debts rather than imposing free-market conditions in return for some reduction.

Whose boats floated? Well, President Chiluba’s for example. After he left office he was charged with raking off over $40 million to fund his lavish lifestyle.

That was then and this is now, as countries such as ours reel from the economic impact of the COVID pandemic and energy price hikes, as well as – in our case –from other pressures resulting from Brexit wranglings.  Whose boats will float and whose will be stranded? Jack Monroe’s pasta comparison signals the likely answer.  The ‘Institute for Global Prosperity’ at University College London (UCL) has taken a more academic approach to the pasta issue. In a recently published study (1) they’ve investigated what is revealed when instead of looking at national and regional indicators of wealth, wellbeing and suchlike – the whole harbour – you zoom in much closer to the boats – the lives of people in different localities. They study ‘Lower local super-output areas’ a term which meant nothing to me. I found out that these areas are a real thing, rather like a council ward but more methodically defined, so that councils can gather data on these areas of around 1500 people.  Apparently your personal lower local super-output area is your postcode. By using data at this level the researchers got much closer to individual boats to find out whether they are all affected similarly by the shifting economic tides, which of course they are not.

The researchers looked at more and less prosperous areas of four different regions in the country, and started to show not only that the boats floated differently, but that the ‘Life Outcomes’, ‘Life Opportunities’ and ‘Life together’ experiences for these different localities (their ‘LOOT’ framework) were affected by many interconnected factors which were different between localities, not by just overarching economic policy.

Their message was in essence that the boat floating analogy doesn’t work for peoples’ lives. More importantly they suggested that economic policies based on that view, in other words policies that are measured against national and regional indicators of prosperity, health, wellbeing, happiness and so on don’t equally enhance peoples’ lives.  Some boats float better than others. Many are left behind. Their work implies that instead of working from the large scale downwards policy needs to be shaped by that messy, complex, local data coming upwards.

I’ve been here before. I got involved in trying to measure the impacts of disasters around the world, based on the experiences of people exposed to them. Again, as with the UCL researcher’s proposals, this went against the grain. Governments and international bodies depend on large scale databases, satellite mapping and other technical approaches to understand disasters and they shape their policy based on those. The trouble is that even they acknowledge that the greatest cost overall comes from the many, widespread, small scale ‘everyday disasters’ which are ‘under the radar’ of these large scale databases and policies. In the case of disasters, too, not all boats are lifted or stranded equally by the tide.

So we created a monitoring approach, ‘Frontline’, based on many members of our large NGO network going and consulting individuals in villages, towns and cities (2). Not only that, but rather than asking them to tick boxes which we’d defined, we asked them to give their own views on the threats they faced, the consequences of them, the actions they could take and the barriers they faced to taking action. We used statistical methods to analyse what people said and highlight their priorities for change in different localities. I watched a pilot of one of these conversations taking place in a slum settlement in Honduras. We asked the interviewee, Julyssa Reyes, what she thought of it and she said that though many UN and NGO staff came and interviewed them it was the first time she’d been asked what she thought. What would float her boat?

Returning again to the UK, at the time of writing the energy price cap has just been dramatically increased, leading to households facing a hike of £693 on average in their annual bill. The government responded with a £150 rebate for people in lower value houses, and a universal £200 rebate which will be repaid over the following years – a loan in effect. The outcry has been instant. Why isn’t financial help targeted to those already close to the breadline for which this hike will be devastating? Will people even in the modest middle classes really feel a fraction of their pain? All boats don’t rise or sink equally, I hope that message has come through clearly. The UCL work hints at what might be done differently and I described the Frontline experiment trying to provide information on what actually affects people’s lives in different localities. At the heart of all this is what the UCL researchers call an ‘Economy of Belonging’ or what the ‘Small is Beautiful’ author E.F. Schumacher described as ‘Economics as if People Mattered’.  How would that work? I don’t know, but I think it’s clear it has to be built up from people’s experience, rather than downwards from grand theory and policy based on large scale data. At least that’s what’s needed if you really want to float everybody’s boat.



What key roles can CSOs play in recovery from the Pandemic?

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is still sweeping the globe it is hard to look forward. Nevertheless as with other major disasters it is the aftermath, often spanning years or decades, which takes a huge toll on lives and livelihoods. Almost always it is the poor and vulnerable who pay the highest price. What changes could be made, locally, nationally and globally to transform prospects for these communities. Local level CSOs are particularly well placed to understand local needs and priorities and to build bridges to government, agencies and others. A small group of such organisations have been discussing this and their findings and recommendations are being drawn together. You can find out more here

Better collaboration through breaking down language barriers

We have learnt from our colleagues working locally on community development across the world that language creates a significant barrier to sharing learning and expertise.

To address this, breaking down barriers of geography and language, we’ve created an experimental discussion platform to test out tools to allow free-flowing multi-lingual communication. It allows participants to post in their own language, and to read posts from all other contributors in their own language too.

If you’d like to participate and try it out simply go to our companion site at which will guide you in joining this multi-lingual discussion platform.

Aid agency staff face huge challenges in the field, but at Amnesty International the greatest pressures come from the organisation itself.

Amnesty International fell below the radar while well-publicised failings of big agencies including Oxfam, Save the Children and Medecins Frontieres erupted into bad behaviour and abuse. Smaller than some of these mega-charities, and proud of its lack of ties to particular donor goals, Amnesty’s vital work is sharply focused on evidence gathering and advocacy against a bleak catalogue of human rights abuses. When one of its staff tragically took his own life, citing the pressures of the work, it seemed sad but unsurprising that its nature might lead someone to this. However the investigation triggered by Gaëtan Mootoo’s death found that the greatest pressures suffered by staff were, according to them, from the organisation itself[i]. Amnesty’s working environment was described as ‘toxic’ and 39% of staff said they suffered mental and physical health issues as a result of this. Whilst the nature of the work itself, handling harrowing stories of torture, imprisonment and abuse, certainly led to a degree of stress and anxiety this took second place to pressures resulting from organisational demands and management style. One staff member quoted being told ‘You should go! If you stay in this position, your life will be misery.’

Change at any cost?

Pressures appeared to be compounded by wholesale organisational change driven through at high speed.  Amnesty’s ‘Global Transition Programme’ pursued the logic of moving its staff closer to the situations they worked with, decentralising staff to regional bases. The pace at which it was done over a two year period demanded, as the then Secretary General Salil Shetty said ‘Struggle with our staff expressed directly, as teams, in letters and through their union’[ii]. The report found staff largely supportive of the transition but not of the pace of change or the lack of consultation and engagement.

Tip of an iceberg?

The incoming secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, entirely embraced the findings and recommendations of the report, which focus on staff wellbeing. Because it was not their remit the report’s authors didn’t look more widely into the organisational structure and drivers which led to these failures. ‘Making Aid Agencies Work’[iii] argues strongly that organisational failures represent the tip of an iceberg and unless the underlying structure and methods of the organisation are addressed these problems will recur.

Amnesty is braced for further disruptive change as Naidoo pushes through a new transition for the organisation, broadening focus to issues such as climate change (he was previously at Greenpeace) and shifting the organisational focus from evidence-based advocacy – its unique brand – towards campaigning. In the wake of these changes almost 100  redundancies are expected[iv]. The workplace seems set to remain challenging . . .

Be the change you want to make

Amnesty proudly proclaim ‘We campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all’.  Their own report suggests that the human rights of their own staff have been a low priority. ‘Making Aid Agencies Work’ argues that unless agencies’ organisational values and behaviour mirror the social changes they campaign and work for they will continue to reveal dramatic disjunctions between ‘Rhetoric and Reality’ (another headline on the Amnesty website). It concludes that only when they’re prepared to ‘be the change you want to make’ will these disjunctions disappear.

Terry Gibson


‘Making Aid Agencies Work: Reconnecting INGOs with the People They Serve’ by Terry Gibson is published by Emerald Publishing on 1st July 2019.


[i] Amnesty International Wellbeing Report: Konterra. 31 January 2019.

[ii] Salil Shetty: ‘Globalising Amnesty International’ 23rd February 2016.

[iii] Making Aid Agencies Work: Reconnecting INGOs with the People They Serve’ by Terry Gibson is published by Emerald Publishing on 1st July 2019.

[iv] Amnesty International to make almost 100 staff redundant’ Guardian 6 June 2019



Leave No-One Behind?

‘Leave no-one behind’ is the deceptively simple goal used to sum up the UN ‘Sustainable Development Goals’– a grand plan for a better world for everyone – signed off by member countries in 2015.  It’s a hugely ambitious framework aiming to make the planet and its people prosperous into a secure future. With seventeen goals and 169 targets to be achieved by 2030 it seems likely to launch a whole industry of monitors and evaluators trying to figure out what progress is being achieved.

But how about looking a that one overarching goal? I’m doing some work on how this global framework reaches down to national, regional and local level, making a difference to peoples’ lives. Last week that took me to Manila, capital of the Philippine islands. While I was there I was fascinated to see what it means to leave no-one behind.

Manila is a good place to ask the question, as cities like this are taking over the world. More than 50% of the world’s population live in them, 68% projected by 2050.

Cities experience growing pains, and one evidence of that is over a billion people across the world living outside the regular systems and formal economy, unregistered, bartering, unable to vote, lacking basic services, in the ‘informal sector’, many in the slum areas of cities. Shanties and shacks are jammed into the pockets of land no-one else wants, next to swamps, rivers, dumps and other low-value sites, scraping a living as more and more migrate to the cities from poverty-stricken rural areas in search of work.

Manila is capital of a country sometimes referred to as the world’s ‘disaster laboratory’, striken by regular typhoons and straddling a fault which threatens ‘the big one’ – a predicted devastating earthquake above the ‘West Valley Fault’. Its government are well aware of the need to protect their people. Most recently Typhoon Haiyan devastated huge areas of the country,  concentrating minds even more on keeping its people safe. The city’s investing huge amounts in Disaster Risk Reduction to protect people from these oncoming disasters.

Take the lift up one of the city government’s high rise offices to a disaster control  centre and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked onto the set of a Tom Cruise sci-fi film. A huge wall of monitors beams data into the control room. Staff dressed in black and orange emergency gear scurry around. We’re shown a battery of films shot from swooping cameras and drones depicting emergency vehicles, equipment and drills. There’s a lot of machinery here. The music is fast and techno.


(picture courtesy of Rouf Abdour)

What’s the answer to our question? Is no-one being left behind? The city is clearly spending big money on protecting its citizens . . . But which citizens? As we drive through the city we see clusters of skyscrapers. Business buildings, condominiums. The pressure on the land is tremendous. There are cranes everywhere, new blocks rising into the sky. In between this slick high-rise development is a very different kind of city. Cramped clusters of shambling buildings filling in spaces and straggling along the rivers, jammed together, clad in wood and tin. This is the informal sector. This is where many people are in danger of being left behind. Do the sophisticated systems and control centres take these people into account? It’s an important question as it’s estimated that a million people live in these areas of Manila Bay, and it’s well known that – lacking proper buildings and services – they are the most vulnerable to disasters both large and small.

The answer we are given is simple. These people are being moved out. Relocated. That’s not surprising in simple economic terms as they are squatting on land which has now become valuable, where the next high-rises could be built. Relocation solves a problem for the city, but does it solve the problem for them? Even the people explaining this policy say no. Plucking people out of their established homes doesn’t only take them away from what they know, it takes them away from their income. Whatever work they have is where they live and when they are moved out of the city, maybe to the mountains, they are not only emotionally but economically dislocated. The people who explain this policy recognise this problem. But they didn’t have any suggestion about how to address it.

A whole industry of consultants and accountants may be making good money from sophisticated evaluations of progress on the 169 targets of the sustainable development goals, but a much simpler evaluation of the overarching goal – leave no-one behind – suggests that this may not be high on this city’s agenda. I’ve seen and heard similar stories in other megacities: Delhi, Cairo, Ho Chi Minh City.  ‘Leave no-one behind’ is a wonderful aspiration. The reality in many countries is ‘Leave them out’ or in my own home country, the UK, ‘Keep them out’. Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience are taken seriously, but shaped towards the wealthy middle classes and the business sector, whereas those most vulnerable to disasters are the poor.

How will the UN square this circle? My own experience from years working on  alternative community assessments of progress is that by making the targets,  indicators and evaluations sufficiently complex not only can you finance an industry of well-paid consultants and economists but you can throw up a smokescreen of complex reports and metrics so no-one notices the lack of progress towards the underlying goal.

To end on a positive note we went to another Philippines city and talked to a member of the city council’s housing committee about their approach to those living in the shacks and slums of their city.Their solution? They’d bought up a disused cemetery and were in the process of building 600 houses on it to accommodate many of the slum dwellers, within reach of their old homes. Leaving no-one behind is possible. Leaving people out is easy.

Terry Gibson is a writer and researcher focusing specifically on community development and the role of non-governmental organisations. His book ‘Making Aid Agencies Work: Reconnecting INGOs With the People They Serve’ is published in July: Pre-order and save 30% with code INGO



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