Haiti: five years on…

Haiti Grafitti

Five years ago tomorrow at 4.53pm, I was sitting in my office in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, working on year-end accounts. As most of the staff had already left for the day, I was listening to my favourite collection of Haitian konpa and idly wondering about whether to bring wine or a watermelon for dinner with a friend living in downtown Port-au-Prince that evening. Then suddenly, the office started shaking. And shaking. And shaking. At first I thought it was one of those heavy water trucks passing by or, for a ridiculous moment, an underground train. Then I started hearing the screaming in the streets, and the guards and drivers still in the office compound crying out for Jesus to save them with voices hoarse on desperation. The shaking just got stronger and more violent, and went on and on and on. I froze in absolute terror for what seemed like aeons – staring at the swaying ceiling fans and collapsing filing cabinets around me. And then, just as suddenly, it stopped.

Even while I was living them, the days and weeks that followed had a surreal nightmarish quality, of being trapped in a terrible dream that you cannot wake from – a dream that absolutely cannot, should not, be real. I remember walking around, functioning and working but numbed and dazed – not being able to process both the uncountable personal tragedies that had happened and the fact that the “Ayiti Cherie” that I’d come to know and love had ceased to exist in a few short seconds. Even five years later, I’m still there: still unable and unwilling to confront the full magnitude of what happened, of the implications of those ruined bodies and buildings on the streets, of the pervasive and constant smell of rotting meat, of the woman sitting alone in the rubble staring at me with dead eyes.

I had worked in disaster and complex emergencies before – in places such as Darfur, eastern DRC, Liberia and Lebanon, so it was not the first time I had been confronted with the infinite variety of human misery and pain. What made Haiti so different for me was that I had lived in the country for two years before this catastrophe – long enough to have built a life there and long enough to have come to love the country with all its frustrations and contradictions. This was a country that definitely had a huge number of problems, but also a huge amount of vitality and life – where the vast majority of people live in desperate poverty but still manage to somehow be a hotbed of artistic creativity, be it in music (ah, the music…), painting, metal work, soap stone sculpture, papier mache, bead work. Where their phrases and sayings are the perfect mixture of wisdom, wry humour and cheerful cynicism; and where rum is seen as medicinal, love as life, and where dancing is distilled in the blood.

Mixed in with the grief, exhaustion and adrenaline of those days, I remember a certain purposeful blindness or perhaps madness – a conviction that finally THIS is what would change things in Haiti, that the structural strangleholds that kept the country where it has been practically since its creation would be laid out in rubble alongside the Presidential Palace. This time, we in the “international community” would not make the same mistakes that we do in Every Single Emergency Response. We would do things right. We had to. In the parlance of the times, we would “build back better”, with our bare hands and through sheer force of will, if nothing else. Unfortunately, reality is indifferent to human pain and human needs. Just because we have a desperate craving for meaning or any kind of rhyme or reason that we can attach to broken worlds, does not make it so. Worlds stay broken for a long long time, and then certain parts break again into smaller and smaller pieces. It then becomes so difficult to see anything but those tiny broken pieces after a while, and so easy to stop trying.

After five years, I am in a better position to understand the aftermath of the earthquake – both the amazing good that was achieved and the utter soul-destroying bad – and make my peace with the reasons for both. What Haiti has taught me though is what hope really is: it is not a glib throwaway remark fit for a meme or greeting card, nor is it a desperate blindness to reality born from teetering on the edge of despair. Hope is a choice. It is often a heartbreaking impossibly demanding BITCH of a choice, but a choice nonetheless. And when it comes to Haiti, I choose to hope.

Kenbe fem, Ayiti Cherie. Jou yon fèy tonbe nan dio, se pas jou a li pouri.


The future of the INGO sector? Where do we get off?


Yes, it’s been some time since I last posted.  Blame it on Christmas/New Year/Tet festivities.  Anyway, what do people do at this time of the year apart from nurse their hangovers and contemplate useless gym memberships?  Answer: they think about the future, of course.  Well, it beats venturing out into the bloody freezing cold, y’know…

So, the future of the INGO sector, aside from the obvious continuation of dysfunctional sex?

I read a great book a couple of years ago – Adrian Done’s Global Trends.  It’s not an aid book – far from it – but it gave a good synopsis of the critical global/big picture challenges going into the next ten years or so.  The best thing about it is that it’s a great example of a “nodding” book, by which I mean that you spend most of your time nodding while reading it.  There’s nothing there that’s mind-blowing or startlingly new, and that’s actually a strength: honestly, most of us would be rather suspicious of a “global trend” that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected ad nauseum in the general media…  However, what Done has done [snigger] is join these trends up into an easily digestible summary that both individuals and organisations need to ensure that they are ready for.

His 12 trends (as per the Amazon summary) are:

– repercussions from the financial crisis;
– geopolitical power shifts;
– emerging technological challenges;
– climate change;
– water and food shortages;
– educational problems;
– demographic changes;
– war and terrorism;
– disrupted energy supplies;
– declining ecosystems;
– health concerns;
– increasing natural disasters.

See what I mean when I talk about obvious?

From an INGO perspective, the first thing I take from these trends is that the need for “aid” will increase – no two ways about it.  Climate change, increases in the impact of natural disasters, shortages in food and water and other resources, demographic change and increasing social unrest/conflict are all interlinking trends which will result in increased suffering, particularly in the global South.  However, before those of us in the business of misery start popping out the champagne at the prospect of steady work for the foreseeable future – not only is the work required to respond to those demands becoming ever more complex, but the environment in which INGOs operate is becoming ever more difficult.  This is not only in terms of on-the-ground practicalities and access, but also in terms of plain organisational survival.

So, the future for Northern based INGOs is one of two models:

1. F**cking grow.  As much and as big as you can possibly become.  Big is beautiful.  Hell, big is the new black.  Size matters and anyone who says otherwise are just making excuses for lack of performance.  If you’ve had a history of separate but equal [ahem, yeah] independent affiliates/sections/members – screw that structure and CON-SO-LI-DATE YOUR ARSE.  Get them all under one roof – we’re talking building empires here.  But, you know, more politically correct if rather more dictatorial…

And the reason for that is that there are huge pressures towards growth in the sector.  Economies of scale are increasingly needed to cope with both funding pressures and a more complex environment to navigate.  Challenges are more holistic and interconnected/multi-sectoral in nature needing both greater expertise and over a broader breadth to just understand, let alone design interventions that would hope to have a positive effect.  Working environments are becoming more complex which require more resources to effectively operate.  The move towards greater accountability and regulation also require more resources to implement and review, and the resultant professionalization of the sector based on a more corporate model also favours larger organisations.

Larger organisations also argue that they have more weight with institutional donors in terms of advocacy and also less financial dependence on government agendas, therefore giving them more independence and autonomy to perform their role of global civil society advocates.  The truth of this is somewhat debatable in my opinion, but it is true that the squeeze on unrestricted income does exert huge pressures on INGOs becoming glorified cut-price service providers for government agencies.  And given the increasing politicisation of aid, this is not generally seen as A Good Thing.  And that’s only if they survive [see exhibit 1: Merlin’s takeover by Save]…

2. “So is that it?” I hear you all clamour, “Is that the really the future of the sector?  To join a huge bloated bureaucratic organisation where I will be just a cog in a wheel saving the world one ECHO report at a time?  And without all the dank perks and prestige of a cushy UN job.  Dammit, where’s that application to Goldman Sachs – it might not be too late….”

Well, I can’t really speak to your job prospects, but I do think that there is an alternative model: small, nimble, niche agencies that operate based on their contacts, expertise and flexibility – in some ways a consultancy model of operation.  These currently work either on a very micro level (usually for research purposes), or in collaboration with larger INGOs/local NGOs/directly with governments who can provide the infrastructure that they lack.  Another method of aid/development delivery is rather derogatorily named “DIY development”: INGOs with more of an entrepreneurial approach based on personal and individualised contacts made possible with the rise of new technologies and greater inter-connectivity.  Although the mainstream sector often sneer at these “garden shed” interventions and often for good reason, genuine innovation can still be possible and, more importantly, has the potential of being able to capture public imagination and small scale enough to benefit from that potential funding.

However, to me, the most promising global trend for the sector is the rise of Southern civil society fueled by growing social unrest/activism due to greater inequality along with greater available of in-country resources..  Even large INGOs tend to be so institutionally dependent on institutional donor funding to sustain them that it makes it very difficult for them to perform their role as global civil society advocates.  My experience is that they tend to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that politics doesn’t make a difference to poverty.  They are therefore moving away from being a part of the global debate over alternative agendas just when global trends are pushing the other direction.  This will inevitably fuel the questioning of the role and relevance of the current INGO model both taking into account their increasing alienation from civil society and their general assumption of “transfer” from North to South.  Although I don’t believe that demise of the generalist development INGOs is at all imminent, I believe that space is opening up for a new type of INGO built on more equal partnerships between North and South, and cooperation and alliances within a global civil society.

Note: this blog is based on an essay I wrote on the future of INGO sector for my Masters. If you want to read that essay, complete with references and with rather less profanity and bad taste jokes (academia apparently frowns on that unfortunately), then drop me a line.

Hanoi vs Saigon/HCMC

It’s well known that Saigon is the economic capital with all the bright lights, glitz and glamour that that implies.  It’s also well known that Hanoi is the political and cultural capital with all the continuing emphasis on traditional values and history.  It’s basically the City that Never Sleeps vs the City that Never Sleeps In:


But really, I hear you clamour, enough with the blah blah – tell us which city is the best?  Well, my dears, as I’ve now been in HCMC for a few days, I feel fully qualified to finally do the definitive point by point comparison between the two cities and come up THE answer.


– IT’S WARM DOWN HERE!  I’ve missed that wondrous feeling…    Ten points to Saigon.

– Saigon has roads which are wider than 1.5 lanes!  And some which get up to [gasp] FOUR lanes.  Imagine the space.  5 points to Saigon.  Except for…

– The preponderance of huge f**king SUVs on those roads.  For God’s sake, this city has good roads – why the hell do you need SUVs?!  Pretentious sods.  Minus a few million points from Saigon.

– These are these strange raised areas on the sides of the road which are not merely areas for motorcycle parking.  I can actually walk on them and no longer need to walk on the road.  Five points to Saigon.

– Traffic lights exist on intersections.  Point to Saigon.

– People obey traffic lights – even when there are no/very few vehicles ahead of them.  Minus five points from Saigon.

– Pedestrians cross roads at pedestrian crossings.  Minus ten points from Saigon.

– People apparently have (and need) driving licenses in Saigon.  Minus a few hundred points from Saigon.

– My motorbike is not here.  I miss my motorbike…  Minus a few million points from Saigon.

– People down here speak strangely with a kind of drawl, and lots of “y/j” sounds instead of the more aesthetically pleasing “z” sounds.  Minus a hundred points from Saigon.

– Pho and Bun Cha taste weird here…  Minus a few thousand points from Saigon.

– STARBUCKS!!  Does getting a chai tea latte here make me a bad person?  If loving chai is bad, than I don’t wanna be good…  Plus a few hundred points to Saigon.  It would have been more if Starbucks here stocked pain au chocolats.

– I don’t feel quite as fat in Saigon as I do in Hanoi.  A few hundred points to Saigon.

– No lakes in Saigon.  I’m reduced to jogging round the Reunification Palace which is not quite as scenic as sunrise/sunset over the West Lake.  Minus ten points from Saigon.

– No turtles with magical swords in lakes.  Minus a few billion from Saigon.

– Iced tea as opposed to hot tea.  No comment.  Minus the combined US/UK debt from Saigon.



So, after that careful, practically scientific analysis, Hanoi wins hands down.

PS.  If you want another perspective, this is a fun read, and a really interesting blog as well http://flyicarusfly.com/saigon-or-hanoi/.  It’s also where I stole the images…

Tieng Viet rat kho…

[Warning: Bear in mind in this post that I have been learning Vietnamese for a mere two months.  And am a great believer in idleness as a philosophy of life (which translates to only doing my homework half an hour before class, if at all).  So this post is inevitably going to be riddled with inaccuracies and ought to be taken with a few pinches of MSG.]

The title of this post is rather misleading – Vietnamese is not actually a difficult language as languages go.  I had to laugh when a fellow student ̣̣̣(French no less) asserted that Vietnamese was known as one of the five most difficult languages in the world.  Ummmn – how about Arabic?  This is a language that, according to a Lebanese joke, is the language God decreed to be spoken in heaven precisely because it takes an eternity to learn.  Or Russian, with its fiendish grammar – I mean, why does it take three genders, five tenses and six cases to complain about the weather with your fellow beings?  Regarding Russian literature, I suspect having to learn as a child how to conjugate verbs, adjectives and nouns would inculcate in anyone a bone-deep philosophy on the futility of life.

In comparison, Vietnamese seems remarkably efficient and logical.  Why would you need 10 words to say what 5 words could convey just as effectively?  Why would you need to conjugate verbs or even use tenses?  If you stick in words like “last week”, it’s understood that you’re talking about the past so a tense marker is actually rather redundant to be honest.   And why would you need the verb “to be” when describing people/things, or distinguish between “she” and “her” when each describe a female in the third person?  I find it remarkable during class that every time I translate a phrase that I’ve been taught, I find myself constantly using a lot more words and complicated syntax in English as opposed to the Vietnamese phrase.  I keep thinking about how nonsensical and illogical English probably seems to be to all those poor Vietnamese students struggling to get a grip on it.  And let’s not start on French – any language that requires a ten word sentence simply to say “Yours sincerely” is obviously operating on pure perversity.

However, when people say that Vietnamese is difficult, they’re really talking about tones – about how one word can mean up to six different things depending on how you pronounce it.  And yep, for Westerners, it IS bloody difficult to both pronounce it and hear it.  So even saying a comparatively basic sentence can be an exercise in frustration on both your side and your listeners/speakers.  The result being that you can be comparatively advanced without being able to get a taxi driver to drive you home or order coffee in a restaurant.  Which can be a mite frustrating.  I’ve had what I can laughingly call “conversations” where I could literally see my poor listeners running through all the tones of what I just said to find something that makes sense in context.  But then when you actually say something that the other person understands without needing to repeat – wow, that’s a great feeling.  Even if it’s as simple as telling a taxi driver “I want to go to the train station”.

But what is interesting about tones is that we DO speak in tones all the time but we use it primarily to express emotion/word stress/questions rather than meaning per se.  That’s why when Vietnamese people try to speak English – they often sound quite robotic because they are not used to using tones for that purpose and have difficulty forming/understanding questions.  Instead, they express emotion with “emotional words” (words whose only function is akin to smileys but in spoken language rather than drunken text messages), or facial expressions or even (unfortunately) volume.  In some ways, that difference in the use of tones says a huge amount about what language is used for – especially creatively.  It’s fascinating to speculate about the process that goes into songwriting for example – given that the choice of words you use influences the tune to a large extent and therefore it makes writing lyrics intrinsic to the composition of the music.  And linked to that is the hugely rich field for poetry given the allusions and multiple meanings of words.  I suspect, however, that that speculation on this is as far as I’m getting for the time being – I’ll get to it once I master the art of asking (and understanding) directions.

But then there are other fascinating little titbits about the culture that the language gives you an insight into. The most obvious is the very idea of self.  Unlike in European languages, there isn’t really an objective “I” or “you” – who “you” or “I” are is determined by whom we are speaking to and the sort of relationship we have with that person.  So if I talk to someone who is slightly older than me, I could call that person “older sister” (or “chi”) and also call myself “younger sister” (or “em”) – and I would use those terms in both the first and second person.  So a simple request for a slightly older female friend to come to the cinema with you would sound something like: “younger sister wants older sister to see a film with younger sister”.

A related point is that most of the words used for you/I are familial ie older/younger brother/sister/uncle/aunt/grandmother/grandfather.  How and when you use them can be pretty complex, and I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but the main point is that they point to the notion of all Vietnamese/people belonging to a family, even if you are complete strangers.  I’ve had “Chi Oi!” or “Em Oi!” yelled out at me a ridiculous number of times by parking attendants/shopkeepers due to my lamentable habit of parking my motorbike somewhere I shouldn’t have, and they weren’t behaving like older/younger brothers, I can tell you that.  And respect for those older than you is not just an abstract concept but something that is reinforced every time you open your mouth.

So to all those younger than me who are reading this – mind how you address me in future as you owe me bloody respect, bitches.

A torrid ménage à trois…

One of my favourite aid blogs is J’s now defunct “Tales from the Hood”.  He’s a bit of a grumpy old sod and does tend to harp on about the same things again and again [yes, we get the need for professionalism in the aid sector].  As what he says tends to be Important Stuff That I Generally Agree With (With Some Exceptions), I can live with that.  To me however, his most important post was what about he called the “torrid ménage à trois” of aid (http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/11/08/menage-a-trois/).  Sadly, this is not about the latest erotica masterpiece starring two kinky billionaires and a trembling virgin, it’s the foundation upon which the aid/development industry is built.

The three participants of the aid ménage are the donors (either governments or individuals), the service provider (including NGOs) and the recipients or beneficiaries.  Whether it is bilateral or multi-lateral aid, the fundamental issue is that those who give the money are the not the same people/entities as those who receive the aid.  That’s the main difference between service provision in the aid/development sector and, theoretically at least, service provision in the public sector.  Those of us who work as service providers are directly accountable to those who fund us and not to those who receive our services – and this is the case whether you are a local or international NGO/CSO, recipient government or any other type of organisation in this industry.

This is painfully obvious for anyone working in or spending any time observing the industry – it’s “the Pope is Catholic” type of obvious, and it comes up whenever people talk about accountability of aid, aid effectiveness, governance, impact measurement and all those other Big Portentous Words.  Because this basic foundation of the industry results in a framework that perversely encourages dysfunctional sex.  Ahem – I meant aid.  Although it probably does its fair share in contributing to dysfunctional sex as well for those involved in it [ah, those proposals and reports, the logframes and spreadsheets – sexy times]…

I’m not Dambiso Moyo or Linda Polman going on about how the aid industry will be up there with Corrupt Southern Governments, Evil Multinational Corporations, and Zombies in contributing to the upcoming Apocalypse.  I believe, when done well, that aid can and does work.  But if/when it does, it does so despite and in spite of its central dysfunction – it works because people on all sides of the triangle on the ground make it work.

There is certainly a lot of awareness about the problem.  Although this awareness hasn’t always contributed to much beyond the token in practice, it has become part of mainstream discourse.  You have initiatives such as HAP (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership) set up ten years ago which aims to increase accountability of service providers (principally NGOs) to beneficiaries.  There’s some (IMO largely tokenistic) efforts towards participatory and beneficiary based accountability frameworks alluded to in the strategies of both NGOs and donors.  However, my fear is that increasingly, pressures are going the other direction with the mainstream donors and NGOs which makes it more and more difficult to navigate this ménage à trois.

So dysfunctional sex/aid, and not of the good kind, is set to continue…

So, is this the life?

Well, it’s been almost three months since I’ve moved here to Hanoi, Vietnam so this is a somewhat belated start on this blog.

So, to recap the last few months, these are the main things I’ve achieved:

– learnt how to drive my scooter like a maniac ie a true Hanoivian.  This includes but is not limited to going up the wrong way on one way streets because I can’t be arsed to go all the way around, treating red lights as mere suggestions with slightly less force than a stop sign, and window shopping on a busy road during rush hour while on my scooter.  Note that, sadly, I’m still one of the more defensive/rule abiding drivers on Hanoi’s roads…

– Completed two modules of my Masters which included TWO exams on the same day.  Yes, that translates to SIX hours of handwriting.  My right hand was whining at the luddite ridiculousness of it all 15 minutes in and was almost at the point of staging a full scale uprising by the end of that day.  My left hand was smug.

– Attended enough Vietnamese lessons that, if I actually got round to consolidating and practicing what I learnt, I could theoretically be able to hold a 5 minute conversation with someone.  Remember that “If”…

– Established once and for all that everyone has been lying to me and that I was actually born without the ability to produce endorphins.  Especially when getting up at 6am to go “running”.  However, I still do it just because the West Lake in Hanoi is something very special…

– Established close and productive relationships with my local Pho and Bun Cha food stalls.  I’m particularly proud of this one – so much sacrifice was involved to achieve this.

– Became an aunt (or whatever it is if my cousin has a child).  I don’t think this was really down to any special effort on my part though.

Things I have yet to achieve:

– Blogging on Big Issues.

– Anything resembling family research aside from a haphazard family tree.  Although I have managed to discover very juicy bits of family gossip which may or may not be true…

– Being able to hold a five minute conversation in Vietnamese without provoking a pained, concentrated expression on the face of my unlucky victim as they mentally run through all the possible tones and combinations to try to figure out what I’m trying to say.

– Watching the second (or third) season of Game of Thrones.

– Eating dog meat.

– Getting a cat.

Not bad three months in…