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Empty Nets Syndrome: How young fishing families on Cambodia's Mekong are struggling to survive

For young parents from Cambodia's Cham fishing community, the river-based lifestyle led by their ancestors for 4,000 years is beginning to lose some of its appeal.

Brazil's Black Population Dominates Popular Politics, But Remains Left Out From Government

Brazilian scholar Flávia Rios reflects on achievements and challenges in the struggle for racial and gender equality.

Bangladesh Is the World's ‘Most Vegetarian Country'? Not Quite.

"Low meat consumption does not make one vegetarian even metaphorically!!"

Marvia Malik, Pakistan's First Transgender Newscaster, Wants to Change Societal Attitudes Toward Her Community

"...there’s nothing we can’t do; we’re educated, have degrees, but no opportunities, no encouragement. This is what I want to change."

The Sterilization War In India That Never Stops

In 2015-16, 82% of women who got sterilized did so at a govt-run center. For family planning, 85% of government funds are allocated to sterilization, and 13.5% to equipment, salaries.

Tuberculosis Survivors Advocate To Eradicate The Disease From India

Community mobilization is key to ending Tuberculosis in India. The survivors of this disease are sharing their stories to strengthen the fight to eradicate TB from India.

Lynching of Indigenous Man in India's Kerala Exposes Intolerance Towards Minorities

"People who are trying to find romanticised reasons for the murder, it is only because he was an Adivasi, he was killed."

Can a Court Order and Protests Save Centenary Trees on Bangladesh's Jessore Road?

The trees at Jessore road bear the witness of two historic refugee exodus – one during the partition of the Indian Sub-continent, and the other during the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Laughing in the Face of an Internet Shutdown In Bangladesh

"To stop the leaks, better to cancel the exam rather than shutting the internet down. Then you won't have to worry about leaks anymore."

The Oxfam scandal exposes an industry wide problem – what next?

If you work in the aid and development sector, you’ll have done some soul searching and had a few difficult conversations with friends, donors, and colleagues* about ‘the Oxfam scandal’ this past week. Much has been written about the topic already. Here’s a (growing) compilation of 60+ posts (of varying degrees of quality).

Many in the sector are now scrambling to distance themselves from Oxfam. They want to send a message, rid themselves of stain-by-association, and avoid the fallout. Some seem to want to punish Oxfam for bringing shame upon the aid industry.

These responses, however, compound an existing problem in the sector — a focus on short-term fixes rather than long-term solutions. Actions and statements that treat Oxfam as the problem overlook the fact that it is one part of a broken system in desperate need of fixing.

I’ve worked in the sector for a long time. We all have stories about gender discrimination; sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation; racial discrimination; mistreatment; and mismanagement. We all know ‘that guy’ who got promoted, showed up at a partner or donor organization, or was put out to pasture after a massive screwup, abuse, or generally poor performance that remained an open secret.

The issues go wide and deep, and we talk about them a lot — publicly and privately. Yet the sector never seems able or willing to address them at the core. Instead, we watch the manifestations of these core issues being hushed up — and sometimes we are brave enough to report things. Why do we stay on? Because despite all the warts and all our frustrations with our organizations and our donors, we know that there are parts of this work that really matter.

The UK Charity Commission has launched an investigation into the Oxfam situation. Oxfam itself says it will set up an independent commission to review its practices and culture. It will also create “a global database of accredited referees to end the use of forged, dishonest or unreliable references by past or current Oxfam staff” and invest resources in its safeguarding processes.

These are a good steps for Oxfam. But much more is needed to address the underlying issues across the sector. One systemic fix, for example, might be a global database that is open to all agencies who are hiring, rather than limiting it to Oxfam.

But what next?

We’ll have another big scandal within a day or two, and social media will target its opinions and outrage at something new. In addition to breathing a sigh of relief, leadership across organizations and funders should grapple seriously with the question of how to overhaul the entire sector. We need profound changes that force the industry to live its professed values.

This does not mean dumping more responsibilities on safeguarding, protection, gender, participation, and human resources teams without the corresponding resources and seniority. Staff working in these areas are usually women, and they often do their jobs with little glory or fanfare. This is part of the problem. Rather than handing over clean-up to the ‘feminine’ sectors and walking away, leadership should be placing these thematic areas and functions at the heart of organizations where they have some power. And donors should be funding this in meaningful ways.

Virtually every institution in the US is going through a systematic revealing of its deepest and most entrenched issues of racism, classism, and sexism. It’s no secret that the aid and development sectors were built on colonialism. Will the ‘Oxfam scandal’ push us to finally do something to unravel and deal with that at the global level?

Can we get serious and do the deep work required to address our own institutional racism and gender discrimination and unacceptable power dynamics? Will we work actively to shift internal power structures that reward certain ages, genders, races, classes, and cultures? Will this include how we hire? How we promote? How we listen? How we market and fundraise? How we live our lives both in and outside of our workdays? Are we prepared to go further than the superficial?

Will we actually involve and engage the people we work with (our ‘beneficiaries’) as equals? Will we go beyond ‘feedback mechanisms’ to create the safe and trusted environments that are needed in order for someone to actually provide input, feedback, or report wrongdoing? Will we change our structures to become open and responsive to feedback? Will we follow up on feedback and make real changes in how we operate? In how funding is allocated?

Reforming the sector will require focused attention and conviction. We’ll have uncomfortable conversations about power, and then we’ll need to actually do something about those conversations. We’ll need to unpack the whole industry, including donors, and the dynamics inherent in funding and receiving funding. Addressing these issues in practice might mean that our program timelines are longer and our efforts cost more (update: this post gets at many of those logistics issues – recommended read!). It won’t be just another standardized code of conduct to sign or half-hearted yearly training. Openness and accountability will need to be rewarded, not punished and scandalized.

We will need to resist the urge to shout: #notallaidworkers! Now is not the time to tell ourselves that we are different than the rest of the sector or to run individual PR campaigns to fix our image. Rather, it’s time to open up and examine our institutions and organizations and the wider ecosystem and its incentives so that we can make real change happen.

We have an opportunity – #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and other movements have prepared the way. Will we dig in and do the work in an honest way, or will we hold our breath and hope it all goes away so we can go back to business as usual?

 

*Thanks to the friends and colleagues who have had these conversations with me this week and the past two decades, and thanks also to those who reviewed and provided input on this post (Tom, Lina, Wayan and J.)!

Uzbekistan and its Migrants: A Tale of Two Presidents

"People have to look for jobs in other countries because we have not created conditions for them."

UNESCO World Heritage Site at Risk: Bulgarian Government Allows Construction in Pirin, Citizens Protest

Protesters want the controversial decision withdrawn and credible guarantees given that park preservation and the rule of law will be protected -- including the resignation of Environmental Minister Neno Dimov.

Gold Mining Threatens Communities in Macedonia's Agricultural Heartland

"We've given mining concessions on top of water springs to dig out an insignificantly small amount of gold. Someone has decided to poison us with arsenic, sulfuric acid, and cyanide."

Angolans Left Snickering After Post-Launch Glitch in Country's First Satellite

"Launching a satellite into space while on the ground there is no medicine, food, quality education, healthcare worthy of that name...seems to me a terrible irrationality"

Ancient Pond Reconstruction in Kathmandu Stirs Preservation Protests

Kathmandu Valley activists and locals fight to save a revered pond in the heart of Kathmandu which was drained by authorities to allow the reconstruction of an ancient temple.

Africa's Richest Woman Dismissed From Angola’s National Oil Company — Is This the End of Dos Santos’ Power?

Is this the beginning of Africa's richest woman -- and the Dos Santos clans downfall?
Sensory storytelling: what are artists’ responsibilities when creating immersive digital experiences?

Initiatives for Environmental Activism Take Off in Cuba

The Center for Education and Promotion for Sustainable Development is a commitment to participatory environmental management and political ecology in Cuba.
How does film support aid and development work?

Identity Theft Risk Prompts Estonia to Block the Certificates of 760,000 ID Cards

On November 4, 2017 the Estonian authorities disabled the certificates of more than 760,000 national electronic ID cards due to a security vulnerability that could have compromised cards issued between October 16, 2014 and October 26, 2017, and possibly even earlier. More so than most other countries, Estonia relies on...
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