Give somebody a fish…

… and that person will eat for a day. Give people fishing equipment and they’ll eat a bit longer. But still only until their lake is overfished, the gear breaks, or some capitalists realize that they can make a profit out of exploiting those great fishermen you’ve trained.Give people an opportunity to find their own solutions based on the natural resources of their environment and they might- still just might- be able to live of those solutions even after you went back to your comfy home country.


Participatory approaches have been implemented in the global West[1] and South[2][3]. One of the guiding principles of participatory community projects is, that action is only initiated after collaborative planning and then continues to alternate with feedback and evaluation. There are many examples for projects in industrialized countries where this principle was respected and lead to an empowering experience for both the community members and the initiators of the project, because the learning process in the project was truly reciprocal, with sometimes surprising outcomes for everybody involved.

In contrast, guarding this principle in marginalized communities with members who have to cope with the harsh restraints of living below the absolute level of poverty (less than 1,25 US $ per day) and where human rights violations are part of everyday life becomes a challenge to a foreign project manager.

I’d like to illustrate this with my personal experience in participatory community work: In 2011, I was involved in a participatory water resource management project in Southwest Madagascar. In this part of Madagascar, women are usually not allowed to take part in meetings; They can’t talk without the permission of a man; Even though they provide most of the family income, they are left with nothing when their husband dies and all his belongings are burned to assure his wealth in the afterlife; Women who gave birth to disabled children are exiled; Once someone claims that a woman is a witch, she can expect to be ostracised by her community and her own family; Girls are sometimes married at the age of 12, which makes them extremely vulnerable to suffer from a vaginal fistula after giving birth. This condition means that they are constantly in pain, incontinent, and smell badly. If that happens, they are usually chased away by their husband to live the poorest of lives in the vicinity of, but not in their village.

All these examples show that the position women hold in the traditional south-western Malagasy community can be hard to understand and accept by a Westerner. Working with Malagasy at eye level meant for me to break with some of my most fundamental beliefs in gender equality. Yet, in my opinion, participation doesn’t just mean compromise; it means full project ownership by the community. For my work, this meant having to accept degrees of gender discrimination that felt very wrong to me.

My example is not as extreme as it may seem: homosexuality, ethnicity, mental illness, age, religion- all these ways of identification have a place in traditional societies that one may or may not agree with. Violence, child abuse and homicide might also be treated in a way that would be unacceptable in Western societies. I’m in no way suggesting that Western societies are morally superior (to name just some of the large-scale moral failures of Western society: colonization, consumerism and environmental degradation). However, I believe that describing community participation without mentioning any of its moral dilemmas is not as “transparent” as we ought to be. Many articles on community participation in Third World countries make it sound as if their non-interference was unambiguous. However, in reality it is the moments where one has to hold back his or her own beliefs that make or break the trust and feeling of self-sufficiency of the community. While I agree with everything that is usually described as ‘community owned solutions’ and ‘participation’, I’m concerned about what is usually left out in those descriptions. Participation will not gain acceptance and become the new standard in development cooperation, if it’s not understood holistically with all its merits and drawbacks.

[1] For many examples of successful participatory projects in countries like the USA, Spain, Sweden, etc. see Stephens, C. (2008). Health Promotion: A Psychosocial Approach (1st ed.). Open University Press.

[2] An example for taking a participatory approach to an extremely marginalized and challenged Third World community can be found in Campbell, C. (2003). Letting them die : why HIV/AIDS intervention programmes fail. Oxford : International African Institute.

[3] Please excuse the use of these terribly euro-centric terms.


Wind in my sails

Okayyy, here we go again: I’m back to sitting in the library until my bum gets so flat you could turn me upside down and use me as a nightstand. And what does that mean for you, my dear readers and friends? It means that you will profit from the excellent education I’m receiving at this wonderfully mainstream-critical university. You up for it? You better be, because I had to read like A MILLION pages to come up with the following couple of paragraphs…

When I read this article  the other day, I sat at my desk looking like this for about half an hour:


So, the deal is that the salaries of CEOs of NGOs in the UK have apparently risen by up to 60% over the last three years and are now somewhere in the lower 6 digits. This revelation has provoked heated debates around several pay related topics that have been simmering under the surface of development cooperation:

– entry level payments in the sector are extremely low in relation to the levels of education and work experience that are required to be one of those annoying do-gooders for a living

– local staff from low-income countries often receives far less mon-ay than expatriate staff for the same type and amount of work;

– and finally, since the budgets of these organizations usually consist of donations from private people and foundations, spending transparency holds a moral dimension for NGOs that ‘normal’ businesses don’t have to worry about- but NGOs certainly do.

In my opinion, all these examples represent that damned misfit of capitalist principles and principles of altruism and equality: help as a business remains a paradox, everybody.

(Why do I want to be part of this again? Oh yea, right. Because people are dying of poverty. Ahahaha. Sometimes I almost forget about that…)

Soooo, to dive into the first topic: of course the idea to do good for a living is so attractive to young idealists that the market for entry level jobs in NGOs is flooded with highly qualified, motivated and internationally experienced applicants (COUGH LIKE ME COUGH SO HUMBLE). Consequently, these jobs are usually very demanding, yet underpaid. I have worked and volunteered in a governmental development agency, a large international NGO and a grass-root local NGO, and everywhere I encountered the same atmosphere among my (btw: mostly female) colleagues:

If you’re not heading towards or just recovering from a burnout syndrome, you’re not worthy of your job.

Work-life balance – Schmork-wife-balance.  In development cooperation, the lines between work and life are not only blurred, but completely dissolved by the enthusiasm for your project, the notion of responsibility for other people’s lives, and the emotional content of one’s work. Try planting a tree without smiling. Can’t do it? Fine, try A MILLION and then let’s see if your still smiling.

I’m a psycho psychologist, so I see this as a direct consequence of cognitive dissonance in young employees (EVERYthing is due to cognitive dissonance in the eyes of a psychologist). People go like “I hardly get paid enough to afford my favorite fairtrade coffee, yet I work so hard that I get bitter when I look at my friends Facebook pages.” One way to dissolve this paradox is to align your work attitude with your efforts, so that you think of your job as the  o n l y  means of personal fulfillment. Which looks something like this:


That’s always a great idea. Very healthy. Nooot.

Awareness for this vicious circle is high. Indeed, all of my former colleagues warned me about entering the sector. They mentioned family issues, alcoholism, alienation from friends, depression…

(Again: why do I want to do this?!? Right. I’m an overprivileged white girl and the world’s a shitty place so I gotta try and fix that a wee bit. Where was I?)

Yet, those colleagues, too, expected the new employees and interns to stay at their desks until late at night and to answer e-mails from home. Apparently personal experience and reflection don’t seem to break the habit of exploiting young work force. So, maybe a standardized payment in aid agencies and other NGOs would help with this problem.

The second argument for standardized payments in NGOs is the gap between local and expatriate salaries in internationally active NGOs. Again- tons of psychological implications: what do you think it does to local identities, power relationships and people’s understanding of justice when white people naturally get more money than their local co-workers? It’s damn obvious, isn’t it? Un faaa haaair!!!

And because it’s so damn obvious, the terms pay transparency and alignment have made it into the Paris declaration on aid effectiveness and into most NGO agendas. Yet, an established theory of best practice doesn’t translate into actual practice. The gap still exists. I could name several unfortunate incidents and misunderstandings during my work in Madagascar in 2011 that were direct results of a power hierarchy created by unfair pay. So what to do, what to do? You think the ones in charge, the people from Western countries who are working in development cooperation will be like “Meh.” about their privileges, and initiate pay alignment? That’s right. Noooot gonna happen. Standardization from far up above across NGOs seems to be a valid solution.

And finally, the moral obligation of accountability towards donors would be guarded by standardized pay. Many people are frustrated by the outcome of the last 40 years of aid. Only very high levels of transparency can decrease the growing distrust in the effectiveness of development cooperation. Globally standardized pay would be a reason to trust all those annoying do-gooders again, don’t you think?

So, back to explaining my initial reaction to the article. I still look like this


because the whole scandal – though as ALWAYS totally misreported by the stupid mass media to the stupid masses (to quote one of my favorite internet gurrls: You are stupid, I am stupid, we are all stupid.) – is still publicity for academia’s struggle to understand why making the world a better place is so damn difficult.  Let’s hope some big fat capitalist cat will pay attention to this debate (and I mean the real fat cats, not some mediocre NGO not-even-Millionaire). What development cooperation needs, is more research on the individual, organizational and societal dynamics that are triggered  by non-profit work.  So, please, fat cat, fund some psycho research on those dynamics, so that I will find a job at some point.

Oh, and of course so that people stop dying unnecessarily. Ahahaha.


Giving a shit makes you look good!

Me and my favorite partner in crime, Tali the unicorn woman, went to the TEDx talk in Auckland on Saturday and to the Generation Zero conference on New Zealand’s role in climate change tonight. It. Was. Amazeballs.

Being in a room full of people that agree with you on a lot of things is always exhilarating. As a very mass-critical German I don’t let myself give in to the sweet feeling of belonging to a crowd too much, but really- if I wanted to belong with a mass of people, then it would definitely be the kind I met there. Funny, energetic, tech-savvy hipsters that really give a shit and walk their talk. Yes, thank you, more please.


So, apart from drawing funny pictures, I will obviously share some of the important, inspiring, thought provoking, well presented, funny, and deeply touching content from those two events. I’ll only give you teasers, though. You really have to go yourself, if you want to be fully blown away 🙂

Everything I love about Kiwis is represented by this guy. Full points on humor, full points on being practical, no ego involved. I simply   c a n ‘ t    b e l i e v e    he’s a successful politician. There’s HOPE after all.

And this a quote by one of the Generation Zero people (that I’m totally going to get involved with! If you live in NZ you should, too!!!

She says that her motivations have since changed, but I have it noted that her original drive to act on climate change was that she felt that it was always the most vulnerable who were affected and how this provoked strong feelings of injustice. I think young activist stereotypes have changed. I feel like I hear words like ‘clever’ and ‘savvy’ thrown around as often as ‘idealistic’ – but (luckily) I don’t think empathy has been rooted out just yet.

(Rachel Evans on Maddy Foreman,

This is me ranting big time

World Health Organization who art in Geneva,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy best practice come.

Thy will be done

on the Southern hemisphere as it is in the North.

Give us Westerners a good conscience,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forget about those who suffer from them,

and lead the poor not into consciousness,

so we can keep on delivering evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever.


I’m sick of reading papers by the World Health Organization. Could you be any more full of yourself??? Admitting to mistakes made is NOT a particular strength of people who consider themselves on the ‘right’ side of ethics.

But guess what? Even if you mean really really well, you might still make mistakes. Let me rephrase that: you probably will make mistakes. So many interventions in the Third World fail (OH SO MANY), because Westerners keep on parachuting their idea of development onto communities they don’t understand.

Meaning well isn’t enough! Even if your intervention team consisted of Mother Theresa, Albert Schweizer and T. A. Dooley III- they still won’t necessarily understand what it’s like to be a substance abusing sex worker or a illiterate polygamist chief or a mother of thirteen children.

We keep on applying our theories, edging people on to do it, like we did. Yes, it’s great that we all wash our hands in the West (more or less. Don’t eat peanuts in a bar.). Yes, I gladly let a nice doctor put a needle in my arm once in a while to protect me from hepatitis. And penicillin is definitely the shit!

BUT the invention of hygiene, vaccination and antibiotics only seem sudden in hindsight. Really, they were the endpoints of an organic evolution of technology and scientific paradigms and could NOT have happened much earlier. They spread, because the entire population was ready for them. How many times per day would you wash your hands, if you had to walk a mile for every liter you use?

Now, please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not (NOT!) saying we shouldn’t share our knowledge, wealth and technology to create better living conditions in less developed countries. I’m just saying that we should be doing it with a lot more humility.

Every life saved is invaluably precious. But what about the ones that we don’t save?  What gives us the right to swoop into a community with our fancy four-wheel-drive Jeeps, tell everybody they’re doing stuff the wrong way and then leave them, if they don’t manage to do things right after a certain amount of time?

Development projects that don’t build upon local knowledge- and that means more than doing a little epidemiology here and a few interviews there- usually fail. By failing, they weaken people’s belief in their self-efficacy . Who would you intuitively blame for the failure of a project: the foreign, clean and shiny people that have lots of money, or the dirty, drunken sex workers that were supposed to use more condoms, but didn’t? Well, even though I don’t like the word blame here, let’s just say, sex workers are usually not exactly in control of their every day decisions, so you certainly shouldn’t blame them. They will probably blame themselves, though, and that’s the saddest outcome of failed development cooperation. People believe in themselves less than before.

Also, failed projects reinforce unequal power relations, because the ones in power (usually fat old men with many wives and girlfriends) say: “Told you so, people! You can’t do it on your own, you need me to survive, even if you get help from rich people.” And with the above described freshly acquired sense of being worthless, people will probably totally believe them.

And anyways, who are we to select the information indigenous people are receiving from us? I spent some time working with a big NGO in Madagascar to help communities adapt to climate change without putting too much strain on the environment. What do you think: did they ever tell people what was causing climate change? Did anyone of us ever start a meeting with “Hi, as you can see, we’re really, really rich. You’re clearly not and that is partly our fault. So, we’re actually not helping you out, because we’re some kind of saints, but because our society has fucked things up for you big time and we need to make up for it. We need to, not because we feel oh so bad, but because we actually managed to put our shared environment at risk of collapsing. And nobody want’s that, right?”

Naw, we never said that. We accepted people’s gratitude and let them call us “heaven sent angels”. It makes you want to puke.

From my experience with personal relationships I know that telling the truth is not only a moral obligation, but it has positive externalities. People get along better on the long term, the more they understand each other. So even if honesty might cause acute conflict, the painful truth still better comes out earlier, then later. Denying it or leaving it out doesn’t make it less true. So why don’t we treat people in Third World countries with the ethical principles we expect our children to apply at the age of 5? Are we so knowledgeable about everything that we get to decide for others what they should know? I don’t think so.

I’m pretty sure Paul Farmer, one of my personal heroes, wouldn’t think so, either. He is probably the most successful philanthropists of our time. He is also a famous ethnographer, meaning he actually knows his shit from personal experience (excuse the language, I’m just really upset). Tracy Kidder, his biographer ascribed this quote to him and I’ll steal it to end this rant  with what should be the basic motto of anyone who wants to work in development cooperation:

“And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”

(Kidder, 2009)

Kidder, T. (2009). Mountains beyond mountains. New York : Random House.

Addiction, Sex, Dirt and Death- things we all have in common

I’m reading a lot about heroin addiction in Third World countries right now. It’s a sad and dark topic, yet a good example for something really important:

Under any circumstances, people are people. You might think that you’re very different from a Tanzanian sex worker that has been raped by her stepfather throughout her entire childhood and just recently started injecting heroin after being tricked into the addiction by her current boyfriend, who also regularly beats her up. But you’re really, really not.


“They [people who do not use drugs] despise us so much; they see us as a certain insect. Yes we, who are heroin users, we perceive our fellows who are not using as better than us, because for us to take bath is a problem, for us to wash is a problem.” (McCurdy et al., 2005)


This isn’t incomprehensible to us, is it? These are so obviously not the words of aliens that act and react totally differently to our world than me and you. Nevertheless, they’re treated like aliens, or worse, insects by their neighbours, by their government and by global health policies.

I grew up in the most protected area of one of the cities with the lowest unemployment in the most conservative state of one of the richest countries in the world. “Heroin junkie” was a single story told to me solely by the media, because there were no real life examples around. The term linked in my head to “poor, dirty, dangerous, homeless, crazy, alone”. So when I was working with injecting drug users in Berlin, the experience of hanging out with patients in the waiting room struck me as most surprising. I was surprised to find people polite, easy to talk to and funny. They might have been raped in their early childhood by their parents, or were forced to work in the sex industry, or they might have killed someone with a bread knife when they were only nine years old, but that hadn’t changed the fact that they were living, breathing, feeling people with a whole bunch of traits that had nothing to do with their severely damaging socialization. On one of my first days I interviewed the bread knife murderer. Obviously, we had an extremely interesting conversation. Afterwards, I thanked him for his openness about his incredible life story and stretched out my hand to shake his. He looked at my hand for a few seconds in bewilderment, before he took it. He had the saddest smile on his face, when he looked back up at me to say goodbye. I didn’t understand what had happened for a while. It felt like I had done something wrong, but was too insecure to ask him about it. Only after meeting a whole lot of other patients with similar life stories, some of them coming right from the street, looking a lot more ripped and dirty than my first patient, I understood his hesitation in taking my hand: They were all not used to being treated with respect and kindness. They were used to people changing their seats on the underground because of them. They were used to being judged and distrusted.

Realizing this pained me and it still does. During my time in Berlin, it became so glaringly obvious to me that not only do we actively hurt minorities by stigmatizing them; we also have the power of bending what they believe about themselves, so they eventually start hurting themselves. Heroin addicts might be a quite extreme example and surly, no one is going to solve their problems by shaking their hands without hesitation. But think of all the other people that you might be treating with prejudice and contempt. Maybe, if you approached them with an open smile from now on, you’ll find a few really cool new friends and broaden your horizon. Just sayin’- I have friends in Berlin now that could probably kill you.

McCurdy, S. A., Williams, M. L., Kilonzo, G. P., Ross, M. W., & Leshabari, M. T. (2005). Heroin and HIV risk in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Youth hangouts, mageto and injecting practices. AIDS Care, 17(sup1), 65–76. doi:10.1080/09540120500120930