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.


WTF, Psychology?!

Yo, you, psychologist! Yes, I’m talking to you! When did you start not giving a rat’s ass about people? Or rather: when did you start treating humanity like a petri dish?

I rahahaheally don’t like how my field presents itself in public at the moment. Every newspaper I open, every blog I read, every show I watch on TV has some sort of psychological pseudo-scientific stuff in it and the common thread of that stuff seems to be: being normal isn’t normal. And normal is good, so most people are not good. Don’t ask for tips how to be good, though. We won’t give them to you, because they’re not as sexy as pointing out humanity’s abnormalities.

Let me start a little earlier in my train of thought to make myself clear: My wonderful mom regularly sends me newspaper articles and chocolate to New Zealand. This is how I came to read a long reportage on psychological disorders and professional success in one of the biggest German newspapers, Die Zeit. The article opens with the questions

“Does one have to be exceptional to achieve exceptional things? And does exceptional simply mean peculiar, or does it mean disordered?”

The answer is given on several pages by many expert voices, who barf up sweet, sweet evidence from their MRTs, diagnostic catalogues and questionnaires: “Yup. Most people who are exceptionally successful, are also totally cray cray! Coocoo! Bonkers! Nuts! Some are psychopaths, some are narcissists, some have ADHD or autism, and even some of the depressive bring something special to the table. But they are all well-functioning psychopaths, narcissists, obsessives, depressives, maniacs, lunatics, frenetics, anals, benals, cenals and mammals! At least compared to those loser weirdos in the psychiatry wards and prisons.”

While all those expert opinions may be super-duper valid in the paradigm that dominates contemporary psychological research – which is a paradigm of bell curves, numbers, pixels, voxels and Null-Hypothesis-Testing – I still have to ask you, dear fellow psychologists:


And by mind, I don’t mean the part that those incredibly clever researchers have been using when coming to their conclusions. Because, you know, mind doesn’t only mean the rational. There’s a lot more to being human than what we understand rationally and that part of my mind felt deep discomfort and angst when reading this article.

This is why: psychology wants to be a natural science. Since we figured out that dreaming of cigars doesn’t always mean that you want to smoke your daddy’s penis (that’s what Freud said, right?), psychology is trying desperately to be objective in order to be rigorous and logical. These two latter words are often used as synonymous with the word ‘objective’.

Yet, they are not! There are rigorous and logical approaches to knowledge that aren’t objective at all. In fact, there are quite a few respectable people who’d argue that there is no such thing as objectivity, most famously my favourite Frenchies Bourdieu and Foucault. Western science assumes that there is one single truth to reality and tries to capture it with measurement after measurement. Yet, we never quite get there, eh?  Never!

So what is the merit of stuffing people into drawers of anomaly using ill-defined categories which predict people’s behaviour just a tad more accurately than horoscopes?

In order to answer that question I have to go a bit over the top with the sharing. Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder? Well, I have. Apparently, I’m an impulsive borderline-helper’s syndrome-depressive-maniac with several different eating disorders, a deficient attention span, daddy issues and no idea how to tell left from right.psycho

Giving me all those labels made sense at some point. They gave me comfort and stability, because they told me exactly in which way I didn’t fit in with what was normal and desirable in the system I grew up in. They seemed to make so much sense compared to what I had come up with on my own. I had been confused and frustrated about myself for long enough to embrace those labels gratefully. Plus, the labels on my patient folder obviously gave my therapists indications which coping strategies to teach me, so that I would get along with the world and myself better. So: all good. Only for a little while, though.

Now that I’ve been feeling healthy as a horse for quite some time, those labels piss me off. Fortunately, I studied that shit and know what ‘personality’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘identity’ mean: NOT THAT MUCH TO NOTHING AT ALL. But what about all the people who’ve been given similar labels and don’t have an insight behind the public façade of Freud’s angels aka psychotherapists?

The “knowledge” psychologists communicate to the world based on their findings is simplified beyond recognition. To give a few examples:

1)   Identity lies within the individual!

2)   We can measure your personality!

3)   Intelligence is a thing!

This is all bullshit. All of it, and not just a little bit:

1)   More than half of the world defines identity as something that lies between people, not within individuals.

2)   Psychometric tests simply ignore any aspect of personality that can’t be described with words.

3)   Ugh, don’t even get me started on the publicly proclaimed concept of intelligence! We psychologists have to deal with the ambivalence (multivalence!) of that term on a daily basis, yet when we talk to the public, we make it sound as if we could predict an entire life span by simple looking at your IQ. Argh! This is sooo wrong!

Though most lay people might not tackle psychology’s assumptions, I think they still feel that something’s wrong with them and that’s why they distrust us. Whenever I’m forced to identify as a psychologist, I get reactions like “Oooh, not gonna talk to you anymore now!” or “Phew, gotta watch what I’m saying around you…” My favourite one was the guy who pointed his finger at me and cried “Witch!” when he found out I studied psychology.

So, we have already hurt our discipline by communicating our findings in a matter-of-factly way. ‘Normal’ people don’t want to talk to us anymore, because they fear what we might tell them about themselves! That’s just nifty, isn’t it?

So, everybody admit it from now on and forever: Psychology is not physics and it never will be!

Understanding human nature is as reliant on statistics as it is on listening to music, holding each other by the hand from time to time, and taking a walk in the forest. 

Every individual fits only one drawer and that drawer says “Person”. God damnit, if anybody should know that, then we as psychologists. No wait, anybody knows that, because we are all human! So stop handing out self-tests that are called “Am I a psychopath?”, stop pointing out what’s wrong with people (because you’re probably not right), and start giving out advice from the amazingly broad spectrum of knowledge you have on how to make things easier, better, more peaceful and less biased  in the world! If you’re wrong on those grounds, you’re at least not hurting anybody…

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,