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Can we put the rhetoric into action?

Profile photo of Alex Ross
Alex Ross
September 1, 2020
February 6, 2023

First published Sept 2020 in the CDA Series: From Where I Stand: Unpacking 'Local' in Aid.

As a mother, a New Zealander, a woman, a white person, a person who has lived on every continent but often as a privileged minority, I am excited that others are ably expressing a frustration and unease I have been sitting with for years now.

Having worked in many emergency responses around the world, I am constantly trying to understand and make sense of a roller coaster of experiences and emotions and to analyse my role in trying to do significantly more than just ‘No Harm’.

My working thesis, in response to a seemingly endless list of questions, is to see if we can use technology to listen to people affected by crisis in an open and transparent way to leverage new systems of power. However, this will only work if organisations and donors’ value the perspectives of people affected by crisis (i.e. those we are here to ‘serve’) as much as other measures of accountability. This is not yet a given.

Tough questions, uncomfortable truths

After 23 years working in the humanitarian sector, I see young fresh millennials coming into the sector with big plans of exotic travel, exciting experiences, and ambitions to help change the world. At the same time, I watch older, tired colleagues leaving with a sense of frustration and anger at how these earlier dreams seem so distant now. I understand their disillusionment, as I have been increasingly wrestling with a barrage of questions.

No matter which organisation I worked for, when I went to learn from and listen to local organisations, I would be asked what we wanted to do in their country. Surprisingly (or, given the power dynamics, not surprisingly), our partners had a need for everything we had interests in. I continued to see local organisations pulled apart by the diverse range of programs and projects they needed to deliver in order to attract sufficient funding from a mixed portfolio of donors. In a system whereby local actors are expected to be mere foot soldiers, this is a sensible fundraising strategy. However, every local organisation and individual I have ever worked with had aspirations well beyond this. ‍

3D model of question mark lying against a wall

So why would local organisations ask me what I want to do in their country?

At regional meetings, as a representative of the British Red Cross, I was usually highly coveted. People went out of their way to find me, build a relationship, and request a partnership. I knew we were not an easy partner, with difficult back donor requirements, and we were far from ideal relationship material. But they would accept that because we represented money, an ability to influence others, and the power to send a strong signal of confidence about their organisation to other potential partners. 

Why should local organisations desperately need to partner with International organisations, particularly those with abusive tendencies?

In my more senior roles, I would often be asked to sign off on different funding proposals, yet I felt like the last person who was qualified to really understand the local priorities: Did the local population in Syria really need more mattresses? Should the Myanmar emergency response plan, which had been written five years ago, need rewriting at a cost of $25,000? Was the best use of funds in Zimbabwe to buy a vehicle? ‍

Why was I being asked to sign off on these funding decisions from a world away?

Why was it that in every organisation I worked with, we had to employ staff, invest, and invent our own due diligence processes for our partner organisations around the world? Why, when we knew other colleagues had just completed their own due diligence processes of the same organisation at great expense, were we required to repeat the process anyway? Everybody shook their heads in frustration about the inefficiencies, but we still sent our expatriates to fact check their books and accounts. Why did I have to sign off on duplication of scarce resources to tick boxes that were already checked when the organisation we were assessing was busy actively saving lives? 

Why is there no urgency to address this condescending waste and agree to use a shared global due diligence system? 

This list of questions became louder and more frequent, and my attempts to fix or answer them fell well short of my expectations. Moreover, one question seemed to stand out above the rest:

Are our deep racial biases, or a fear of giving up power, as a consequence of our colonial past, holding back the structural changes that the aid system so desperately needs?

I  am far from alone in the sector in asking deep and serious questions about my career and wondering if I am contributing to the problem or to the solution. The rallying cry for change in the humanitarian ecosystem is becoming widespread, emotive, and backed by increasing evidence of the inefficiencies, limited sustainable impact, and inequalities within our structures, processes, and behaviours. In the context of growing needs and shrinking funds, finding answers to these questions become even more urgent.

Two-toned graphic showing stick figures of a man and woman holding hands, above a text that says Gender=Equality

Walking the Talk

People who work in this field tend to be passionate and committed to human rights, and the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Many of us understand protection issues deeply, support the Black Lives Matter Movement passionately, and are active advocates of gender equality. Why is it, then, that we are not leading by example in taking action to address the inequalities in our own structures, processes, and behaviours?

Evidence shows that to stop gender-based violence, we need men to be involved, to walk alongside women in solidarity, to teach their sons and to condemn other men’s behaviours. We need laws in place that punish violence and protects and values women who come forward. We need equity in access to education, the decision-making table, and funding. What can I, as a female humanitarian, learn from my experiences of inequity due to my gender do to increase my understanding, empathy, and resulting actions in my professional life as a humanitarian?

How can I model the behaviours I expect to see from my male colleagues, partners, and friends towards myself and other women? I appreciate men with a strong moral compass, who listen, who ask questions, who do not assume or speak for me. I respect men who seek out my views and want to hear my experiences, as equal to their male counterparts, and who actively and openly condemn gender-biased behaviour from other men towards women.

In the same vein, for the Black Lives Matter movement to result in lasting deep-rooted change, everyone needs to walk in solidarity alongside black people and all other people of colour. We need to educate ourselves, to listen to the stories and experiences of our neighbours and colleagues of colour. We need to condemn unequal systems and policies and demand equity in access to education, the decision-making table, and funding.

We as humanitarians and development actors are paid to serve people who are marginalised and silenced, who do not have their basic human rights met. People who have dreams, ideas, agency,  ‘capacity’, and ‘resilience’ well beyond our log frames. People who deserve to be heard and from whom we could learn a lot. ‍

Listening as a form of Justice

I believe that creating a space where people´s voices, stories, and experiences can be shared in a radically transparent and real-time manner will enable one of the many systems changes that are required.

As a displaced person recently noted to me: “I don’t want to be tolerated or counted. I want to be heard, listened, and my rights valued”

For the first time in history, because of technology, we are now able to communicate on a massive scale directly with people who need assistance. We can use technology to move the charitable business model to a more consumer-centric one, in which people affected by crisis are the new customer with agency. By using technology to serve millions of people, the individual ‘customer’ can become the key stakeholder. We can listen, learn, and respond on a person-to-person level by enabling the voices of affected people to be heard in an ongoing manner and also analyse the collective data for patterns and themes consistently.

Do we have the courage to value the perspectives of people affected by crisis, as much as other measures of accountability? And, if not, do I really want to stay in this sector?

Based on my experiences throughout my career, I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing because it didn’t feel right or sit well with me. The higher up the ladder I had climbed, and the more decision-making tables I sat on, the more uncomfortable I felt being part of a global ecosystem where the rhetoric and evidence did not match the structures, decisions, and funding flows. My own personal journey has bought me to a place where I recently gave up my good salary, safe job, and pension and jumped into the unknown to set up a charity called Loop.

Loop will be an accessible, global, digital platform, enabling an independent common service for feedback. Through Loop, people – women, youth, people of colour, LGBTQ+ communities, people with different abilities, and anyone else – can raise their voices and share their stories and experiences in a safe, equitable, open, and transparent manner so that we can all truly listen.

However, the most exciting thing is the way in which we can think and act differently as a result of this broad-based approach to listening and resulting qualitative and quantitative data. Sharing authentic local insights in an open and transparent manner for anyone to engage with, compare, analyse trends within, and respond to, could provide data and evidence for New Power to be used.

We can see some other exciting examples of how New Power  principles are being explored and put into action by change makers, through an increased number of active networkspooled and local fundsopen source activities, the use of crowd wisdom, and many others.

Will these approaches take hold? Can they act to upend the social inequities built into our colonial structures, processes, and behaviours that so many people are aptly calling out? Will we put the rhetoric into action and finally lead by example, based on our principles? Or will we feel threatened and unable to give up the power endowed to us by our colonial past?  

I believe that the answer lies in the simple question: Whose voice do we value?

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Alex Ross
Loop Lead