Thursday, August 23, 2012

Leaving a legacy

“There comes a time in your life when your focus shifts from success to significance”
Edward G. Happ (Chairman NetHope, CIO IFRC)
Throughout my close to twenty years of volunteering and working for non-profit organizations, I have had the honor of leading some great teams of people who all shared the common goal of doing something good for others. In my mind, as a leader, your role is not to direct those people or to manage them. In my mind, as a leader, your role is to help them build that shared vision and then do everything you can to eliminate any obstacle they may face in achieving that shared vision.
This is particularly true when you lead a time through a crisis, such as when responding to a large scale natural disaster. During those times, your task as a leader is to keep your team focused on the task at hand and help shield them from all the distractions that are all around such as media, humanitarian politics and other operational issues. Furthermore your task during those difficult times is to ensure that the morale of the team and the individual wellbeing of each team member is high, so that they can deal with the difficult tasks at hand.
To be given an opportunity to lead teams of great people in difficult times that are all focused on helping their fellow human beings is a great honor and privilege. At one point in my life, I was offered to go back into a highly paid job in software development after having worked for a few years in the humanitarian world. The decision to continue working on helping other people in need was a simple one. My life’s focus had shifted from success to significance as Ed so nicely put it.
But what is it that draws people into this world? It is certainly not the complex international and organizational politics that way to often hamper progress. It is certainly not the adrenaline of operating in dangerous environments. For me and many of my colleagues it is that smile on a person’s face once you know you have made a difference in their life. In her beautiful song to the humanitarian community, the singer BeyoncĂ©, put it very nicely. She talked about leaving a footprint on this earth, a mark that said “I Was Here”.
The late author and visionary Stephen Covey also put it very well, when he said “the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution”. His definition on the need to leave a legacy fits very much with my own sense of purpose. For many people, leaving a legacy means having “monuments” rise that they can point towards and say “I did that”. For many people, leaving a legacy means becoming popular, talked about or even famous. For many people, leaving a legacy means achieving certain titles or positions of power.
But for me, leaving a legacy is about knowing that I made a difference in people’s lives. It is about knowing that those that I worked with, felt they were better people because they knew me. It is about knowing that those people that me and my team tried to help, felt they were better off because we helped them. It is about knowing that things may be done better in the future because of some work that I and my team have done.
As a leader, it is also your role to ensure that your team feels that their own legacy is growing when being part of the team. Sadly too often we see conflict arise within teams or organizations because people feel that other team members are “claiming the success” of the team effort. But a true leader knows that nothing is achieved only by an individual. It is the whole of the team that creates the result. A true leader therefore tries to ensure that all team members, no matter how big their role is, understand that their effort was a key part of the integral effort required to achieve the common goal. Together the team leaves a footprint saying “We Were Here”.
As part of being nominated for the Microsoft Alumni Foundation Integral Fellows Award this year, then I was asked what I would want my legacy or major contribution to have been. This was a question I asked myself a few years back, so it became easy for me to provide an answer.
Having been in the field during a number of disasters around the world, I realized that there were many great opportunities for significantly improving the way we prepare for and respond to disasters. Following Gandhi’s advice of “being the change I want to see in the world”, I try to work hard towards bringing those improvements about. But that is not something a single person can do, it takes a group of people from various sectors, various walks of life and various nationality, who all share this same vision.
If my legacy becomes that I was one of those who helped lead the effort of bringing together those people and drive forward improvements that help build disaster resilient communities, help create a move towards community based humanitarian response and enhance the decision making and coordination in the aftermath of a natural disaster, then I will be satisfied with a job well done.
In closing I want to quote one of my favorite authors, Robin Sharma, with the best advice he ever got, which was from his father. This advice was based on the old Indian saying:
“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Community Based Humanitarian Response

In my last blog post I discussed the importance of getting the disaster affected community involved the humanitarian response. I wanted to follow up on that discussion with a more detailed post that would discuss the different levels of Community Based Humanitarian Response.

To do so, I will utilize one of the classical writings about citizen participation, namely Sherry R Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.


Although Arnstein’s field of work was urban planning, then it relatively easy for us to take her ladder and adapt it to humanitarian response. Arnstein’s theories have of course been controversial from their initial publication in 1969, especially because she is very negative about the non-participation and tokenism levels of participation. A strong proponent of citizen power, she felt that the only acceptable level of community involvement was when citizens were in control.

But lets go through the 8 different rungs of the ladder that form the three levels of participation (non-participation, tokenism and citizen power). For each rung we will discuss how it would apply to humanitarian response.


Manipulation along with Therapy make up the non-participation level of the ladder. It is in this rung that affected communities are not being enabled to participate and any communication with the affected community focuses on telling them that appropriate response is being provided or simply that no crisis exists. We unfortunately still see these levels of denial by some governments, especially those that repress their citizens.

In order to have some form of involvement by the community, we may create Community Advisory Groups, but instead of listening to what they have to say, officials or responders will educate, persuade or advise the citizens, not the reverse.


In the therapy rung, governments and response organizations try to “educate” or “cure” the affected community by teaching them ways to change their own behavior instead of addressing the issues at hand. Citizen task forces may be created to address issues that are not crucial to the overall well-being of the affected community, but it at least keeps them busy and involved.

Luckily we don’t see this happen to often in humanitarian response, which is good, since this is probably the most dishonest of all the rungs. One may however wonder if some of the work-for-aid/food/money programs created by aid agencies in recent years may have fallen under this rung.


Informing the affected communities of their rights, responsibilities and options is an important first step in citizen participation. We have over the past decade seen an ever increasing focus being put on this aspect of humanitarian response. However, the emphasis is way too often put on one-way flow of information, from the responders to the affected communities. Without a channel for the affected communities to provide feedback, there is little room for “negotiation”. This leads to humanitarian organizations providing programs design for the benefit of the affected population, without giving them any chance to influence the program itself.

Although extremely powerful to improve awareness of the response, we must step beyond this one way communication to others that allow for a more appropriate feedback loop.


Inviting the affected communities to share their opinion, just like informing them is a legitimate step towards community participation. The most common way of doing this is to perform needs assessments and community surveys. By asking community leaders or households to share information about their situation and their need, an expectation is created within the community that their needs will be met.

The results are however aggregated and sometimes not even fully used to make operational decisions about the response, due to lack of information management capacity.

A great example I once heard from a colleague was of when he did a needs assessment in a hospital and was thrown out by the doctor in charge who shouted “You are the 7th organization that comes here and ask me what I need and none of you come and provide anything I ask for. Stop assessing the situation and start providing me with relief”.


In this rung, you see community leaders being bit more involved in the response. Those community leaders are asked for input in the operational planning and even sometimes get involved in local distribution of relief items to some degree. It is however important to note that their input is not always listened to and they are also not always informed of why decisions are being made the way they are being made.

Furthermore it is often the case that although in the initial planning phase those community leaders are involved, then often that involvement does not continue into the implementation phase. This is often because the time period between the planning phase and the implementation phase may be very short and also because external factors may lead to changes to the initial plans, without the community leaders being kept in the loop.


At this rung in the ladder, the power dynamic is being redistributed through negotiation between the affected communities and the response organizations. At this level, they agree to share planning and decision-making responsibility through joint mechanism for resolving impasses.

One could argue that the clusters were an attempt to create a mechanism for bringing together the different parties involved. Sadly however they in most cases only have participation from the response community and the government.

Partnerships are most effective when there is an organized power-base in the affected community. This power-base then has community leaders that accountable to them and respects the wishes of the community.

To enable partnerships, it is essential to involve local community organizations that represent this power-base and get them to actively represent their community within local response “clusters”. The response organizations must then be willing to accept the involvement of the community and issues should be addressed through some form of negotiation (give-and-take) instead of unilateral decisions.

Delegated Power

Negotiations between affected communities and response organization can also result in communities achieving dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program. This would be the case if the local response “clusters” had a clear majority of community representatives. At this level, the ladder has been scaled to the point where affected community holds the significant cards to assure accountability of the program to them. To resolve differences, response organizations need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end.

Another model of delegated power is separate and parallel groups of affected community representatives and response organizations, with provision for affected communities to veto if differences of opinion cannot be resolved through negotiation.

At this level the humanitarian response is becoming much more driven by the community itself and the response organizations act more as providers of services and goods. It is hard for traditional humanitarian organizations to see response evolve to this level, but as communities become more self-resilient we might start to see a few local communities around the world where this level can be achieved.

Citizen Control

In this final rung, humanitarian response organizations and governments have given up all control of the response to the affected communities themselves. Instead of the humanitarian organizations making the plans or implementing the response, the communities themselves become fully responsible for all aspects. The role of the humanitarian response organization may simply become one of providing advise or handling back-end logistics.

Although this model may sound very utopian to humanitarian responders, then this is often the case in smaller disasters that don’t get the attention of the traditional response community. It is also often the case that communities resolve to once the initial relief phase is over and the humanitarian organizations move away.

Some argue that with increased mobile ownership and through the social networking revolution citizens already have the tools they need to start organizing their own response. It is however important to remember that over the last 150 years, relief organizations have learnt many lessons from their mistakes in responding to disasters. If communities are fully self-organized, they may run into some of the same mistakes due to lack of experience in this space. Mistakes in humanitarian response often mean the difference between life and death, so the key to citizen controlled humanitarian response, must be that we can at the same time ensure the knowledge of these lessons gets integrated into their response.


Although total citizen control may not be achievable soon, improvements in communication technology, especially in the mobile space, provides us, like other fields a great opportunity to improve the involvement of affected communities in our work. Right now we are climbing up this ladder, with some of us in the informative or consultative rung. Only a select few examples can be found of bringing participation up to the partnership level.

Humanitarian organizations must adapt to the changed world we live in and make their humanitarian response community driven. Through improved information sharing and increased community involvement, we can ensure that partnerships can be built on sound information that leads to effective decision making.

In memoriam - World Humanitarian Day 2012

Today, August 19th, is World Humanitarian Day. On this day we remember humanitarian workers who have died while helping others in need. This day was carefully selected, because on this day back in 2003, twenty-two humanitarians died in Bagdad, Iraq during a bombing of the UN compound.

In a fantastic social networking experiment, UN OCHA, humanitarians, their friends and celebrities from around the world broadcasted a single message of hope to over 1.1 billion people. Furthermore, the singer Beyoncé, released a song dedicated to those humanitarian workers called I Was Here. In the beautiful lyrics and video that accompanied, the selfless work of humanitarians around the world is highlighted. Furthermore millions of people around the world committed to doing a good deed for someone else today in a sign of solidarity and helpfulness worldwide.

This social networking experiment, which is an amazing feat, is a great example of how social networks can be utilized to reach large numbers of people over a short period. Considering UN OCHA itself is a newcomer to social media, then it is especially interesting to see how quickly they are adapting to this new world and it is hopefully just the first step in an increased visibility and usage of social media in humanitarian situations.

But in this blog post I wanted to focus on my colleagues who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Since 2011, 109 humanitarian workers have been killed, 143 others were wounded and 132 have been kidnapped. Sadly these statistics are unfortunately part of a growing trend that shows insecurity of humanitarian workers has greatly increased. There are a number of reasons for this increase, such as changes in the geopolitical environment, overall increase in humanitarian workers, less respect for neutrality of humanitarian workers and organizations and more complex environments that humanitarian operations are performed in.

The Red Cross movement is doing a great job worldwide in increasing awareness both in conflict and natural disaster areas. But we must address this issue from multiple angles, not just from the awareness perspective. Don’t get me wrong, awareness is a very important angle and hopefully organizations like the Red Cross movement will embrace new methods and technologies to spread the messages of neutrality and respect for humanitarian workers.

There are other areas we must also address. One is to involve the affected communities more in the humanitarian work we do. Even when dealing with complex emergencies, it is important to get the affected community to become an integrated part of the approach taken. By making them part of the operational planning and execution, then the assistance becomes theirs. A community driven response ensures that those who are helping become better “protected” by the community itself. I often tell people about my many visits to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, which according to UN security rules are off-limits for UN workers due to security threats. I never feel threatened there, because I am accompanied by people who are part of the community and are doing good things for the community and nobody would ever think about hurting. This “shield by association” is amazingly powerful and does not only provide shielding against attacks, but it also enables information about threats to be more readily shared with humanitarians from the community.

Over the last few years we have seen more and more involvement of the affected communities, through programs like Communication with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) and organizations like InterNews. In my mind this is the first step down a path we must follow, a path where community participation increases from the simple informative stage it currently is in to the more citizen power stage that enables full citizen involvement. We need to borrow lessons learnt from the urban planning field and drive for increased community participation. As that field has shown, then technology can play an interesting role in improving that citizen participation. I call on our colleagues in the UN to use their convening power to start a deeper discussion on community based humanitarian response.

At the same time we must also improve how we manage and handle information, both information coming from the affected communities, the national governments and the response organizations. Through better information sharing, we can lead to more effective decision making and more coordinated response. This in turn enables humanitarian workers to focus their efforts where the need is most and at the same time overlay that information with security and safety information that then influences their operational planning. More coordinated response also allows for increased involvement of the community, better planning of humanitarian convoys and more focused delivery of response. This in return can save lives of not only humanitarian workers, but also of those affected.

NetHope along with its partners has started on addressing parts of that big puzzle through its Open Humanitarian Initiative. We welcome additional partners in that effort, especially those who also share our vision that involving local communities and organizations is one of the important keys to better response efforts. For those interested in learning more about the Open Humanitarian Initiative, then we encourage you to attend our Google+ hangout scheduled on August 30th at 8-10am PST, 11am-1pm EST, 3-5pm GMT, 5-7pm CET.

We must all be open to the fact that the world is evolving rapidly and that we in the humanitarian community must be willing to evolve with it. Communication technology has enabled us to reach large part of Earth’s population. We must leverage this communication revolution to increase awareness, better involve affected communities and better share information with each other, so that the trend of humanitarian workers being killed in the line of duty is reversed.

Together we can make a difference, one that someday may even save our own life or the life of someone we know.