Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Slaying the humanitarian hydra

Hotel California

Mirrors on the ceiling,
Pink champagne on ice,
And she said, "We're all just prisoners here, of our own device", 
And in the master's chambers, 
They gathered for the feast, 
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast.

Last thing I remember, 
I was running for the door,
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before, 
"Relax", said the night man, 
"We are programmed to receive, 
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave."

- Eagles.

Hello readers!

I'm back on the blog again....just when you thought it was safe to open your laptop and boldly venture into your virtual life. 

Into the jungle

Today, we will take a foray into the wilds of the bureaucratic jungle. Mind where you step, its a dangerous place and often resembles the hazardous, yet somewhat magical ecosystem found in 'Lost', in which creatures seem out of place or terrifying monsters tap into the psyche of crash survivors to create 'cages of fear' that they cannot seemingly escape.

Perhaps you are one, two or even three steps or more away from front line field action, and like Alice, you are following the white rabbit down too many twisty-turny rabbit holes into the Wonderland of Kafka-esque futility. The further you are from walking in solidarity with disaster affected people the worse it gets. You might be in a capital city trying to 'remote manage' multiple teams in field locations or you might be even a few more steps up or down the food chain depending on how you look at it. You might be doing back office work (groan). (Looks good on the CV though doesn't it?) You might be a desk officer, a programme funding officer, or seconded as a technical adviser into an enormous NGO or donor organisation (for your transgressions in a past life). 

The insatiable beast

There, we know, it can be even more frenetic in some ways but on a completely different level. Not only are you trying to make a success of your emergency response by meeting those humanitarian needs as quickly as you can, mobilising resources, keeping your public supporters happy, delivering the best value for money to keep the donors happy, (i.e. upstream and downstream accountability), but you happen to be feeding the humanitarian hydra - that insatiable beast that has many heads. 

Perhaps your organisation is an NGO that keeps getting bigger and bigger in a bid for world domination (you know who you are). If so, a whole culture and subculture has grown out of its own desire for survival, so there are lots of processes and policies to follow, fundraising and communication to do and the ever decreasing circles of accountability mechanisms. The layers of bureaucracy resemble the layers of an onion (each time you peel back one layer you find another and it brings tears to your eyes in the process!). Yes and on top of that you have a whole cottage industry of coordination mechanisms, policies, processes, tools and resources that have been churned out by that old chestnut 'humanitarian reform'

The humanitarian hydra with many heads has a voracious appetite and  goes into full throttle in emergency response. There are multiple needs assessments, cluster coordination meetings at national and international levels, teleconferences, project proposals, logframes, cluster coordination forms and sitreps to name but a few. You have to spend more and more time writing information products to satisfy multiple audiences, including briefing papers and endless updates for the people, who don’t know much about humanitarian aid or how to do it well and effectively and are very far removed from front line field action. You end up having to feed more answers to yet more questions, conduct more media interviews or enable those to give interviews on subjects they no very little about so they can have a seemingly intelligent conversation in public. The hamster wheel spins ever faster as you spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with this than tackling the front line urgent field questions that shape what you do to serve the very people you are there to assist.  You are in for an indefinite stay at the Hotel California of hellish, humanitarian hegemony. 

Welcome people, we are programmed to receive, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave...

A Herculean task

So while trapped in a Hotel Californian style wonderland, humanitarians are faced with the enormous task of fulfilling the twelve labours of Hercules, one of which is to kill the hydra. As many of you may well know, if you try to cut the head off the hydra two more heads grow back in its place! Just like Hercules you are faced with a multiple headed monster that doesn't want to die! 

You may know the story, if not you can read it here. Hercules faced the apparent impossible task with bravery and remained unbowed. He put on some protective gear, wielded a large, heavy weapon and brought in some help in the form of his nephew IolausThere are a few lessons we can learn from this myth. 

  • We must be brave
  • Collaboration and cooperation is key
  • Use a sharp implement, metaphorically speaking of course, (so get your leatherman or Swiss Army knife out at the ready - it's listed in the top ten aidworker essentials)
  • Cauterise the wounds of the severed hydra necks to seal off the blood vessels and prevent the heads from growing back again.

Building trust

Oh, if only it were that easy! Don't you find it odd, how the move towards greater humanitarian accountability, transparency and the transformative agenda has increased suspicion and eroded trust? This is ironic considering the business model approach to humanitarian assistance was purported to do the very opposite. Meanwhile, it is interesting to notice that in the business world itself there is a greater move towards building circles of trust to add value. Trust is currency today! If you don't believe me watch this interesting video about trust in business by Roger James Hamilton, below. 

I wonder what the humanitarian system would look like if we followed a similar approach. Surely, we would then have a licence to lop off the numerous hydra heads at will, strip out superfluous layers of bureaucracy and cease the perpetual navel-gazing that goes on? Instead we would focus on the tasks of preventing and responding to humanitarian disasters and crises and saving lives, no? This reminds me of a tale similar to Hercules and the Hydra that seems somewhat apt. Like a brave Alice in Wonderland we would go forth to face the Jabberwocky. According to Lewis Carroll the Jabberwock is the "offspring of much excited and voluble discussion", which sounds about right.


Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

- Lewis Carroll

And on that note, good luck in slaying the many-headed hydra and Jabberwockies, wherever you may find them.

I'd like to hear from you so feel free to comment below or on the Blondebombshell in Crises Facebook page here or Twitter here.

For now, thanks for reading and if you liked this, pass it on....

I wish you all a frabjous day!

Peace, love and light,

Bravo, Bravo, Charlie....out 


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