Evaluating humanitarianism

I came to Dara because I wanted to experience the humanitarian sector and see what it really represents in practical terms. Collectively, the classes I took at Dickinson over the past few months forced me to think about global justice as an opposition to humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is nice – it’s nice branding, the packaging includes good intentions and alleges to correct the world’s ills; the word appeals and the institutions exist to legitimize it. But in many ways it comprises blanket solutions through feel-good institutions that are part of the very establishment that causes some of the world’s gravest violations of human rights and human dignity. Global justice, on the other hand, is less palatable. It’s more abstract, it lacks the same amount of legitimacy through institutions and it can be dismissed far too easily as nothing more than a regulative ideal. Global justice, theoretically, aims for the root of the problems humanitarianism tries to fix after their happening. Global justice comprises a belief in the need to address the structural factors that perpetuate those inequalities, injustices, violations, disasters that humanitarianism looks at as a field for its work. Global justice is about stopping occurrences that give humanitarian organizations a reason for their existence in the first place – it’s sustainable, it’s long-term and it’s just.

I do not want to speak on this assuming too much authority. I have had a little bit of exposure to the theory, giving me just the right amount of confidence and privilege to criticize and preach from an academic point of view. That’s all I can do, however. I don’t have an elaborate solution in mind and do not have an implementable agenda for global justice. The primary role of these reflections is to provide context for my skepticism of the sector I am part of during my two months at Dara.

What Dara – and many other similar organizations all around the world – do is evaluate the humanitarian programs of UN agencies and other humanitarian agencies, whether national or non-governmental. Through evaluations reports, we strive to promote accountability and impact in those programs. A laudable goal, but to what effect? Again, I do not have an answer, but reflection-level skepticism. The evaluation sector is not well known outside the humanitarian sector, so the role of civil society in upholding accountability does not seem relevant. Moreover, the evaluations we conduct, albeit with independent experts, are commissioned by the very humanitarian agencies we evaluate. No need to expand on that, but, of course, no need for ungrounded assumptions either. As I’ve expressed in previous posts as well, I think it is worth questioning what sort of impact lengthy formal reports have on the actions of humanitarian agencies and what power for change they carry. Large amounts of money flow throughout the evaluation sector and while its existence is necessary, more public awareness about the specifics it might uncover is vital to its usefulness.

It is important to note here that this skepticism is not a reflection of the work Dara does. Rather, it comprises more general thoughts on the entirety of the sector we occupy. Without assuming a spokesperson role for Dara, I can say that I believe in the integrity of the work that we do as one organization within the confines of the establishment we belong to.

My agenda is not to bring humanitarian institutions down to the ground. The world is a better place for their work. Even with the tiny scope of its work, the world is a better place for Dara’s work. The peculiar reality of the UN, as one example, is that it exists if we believe in it; if we pretend we believe in it, it might progressively acquire the integrity, recognition, and validity through which it could achieve its mission. Many facets of the idea of state sovereignty are an intangible construction. It is years over years of leaders attempting to legitimize their higher authority. Time, tradition, and enduring legitimacy are as important as the material forces that maintain state sovereignty nowadays. The prospects for some kind of enduring UN legitimacy are based upon similar factors. Conviction to this agenda, however, does not exempt the UN and similar organizations from criticism. I do not want to blindly criticize the work of those institutions, but too little criticism is harmful. It’s tricky work to simultaneously denigrate and champion the sole institutional players of global significance who rely on a belief in the abstract and the prospective.

A day in the life

by Alexander Bossakov

Every morning, I press the buzzer on Calle Meson de Paredes as I sprint down the stairs of my building. I swoosh past Plaza Agustín Lara, in a hurry, and walk up and down and up and down the windy hilly streets of Madrid. I start work at 10, so I am not supposed to ever be in a rush, but somehow, every single morning I find myself lingering on my breakfast table for a tad bit too long.

I live in Lavapiés, a humble and breezy historic neighborhood in Madrid, that is made what it is thanks to its dense immigrant population. Shops and restaurants are owned mostly by individuals from Asia, Africa, and South America. Streets are steep and plazas stay populated whenever the sun is not at its peak. By now, I am well in the habit of falling asleep to loud conversations and music seeping in through my open window until well after midnight. In my close vicinity are a beautifully low-key Senegalese restaurant called Baobab, the unquenchably spirited plazas of Agustín Lara and Nelson Mandela, and a placid mercado hidden under the ruins of what used to be a religious school burned down almost a century ago by a radical leftist, anti-religious group.

Madrid is still cool in the morning, when the sun has just begun infiltrating  street corners, so my 20 minute walk to work is a very pleasant start of the day. Dara is on the third floor of an elegant building a few steps away from El Prado, one of the world’s finest collections of European art. We share the same address with the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, FRIDE, a European think tank on foreign relations, a few other NGOs and multiple private apartments. Every morning, I avoid the classic elevator that extends through the middle of the building to climb up the red-carpeted stairs till the third floor. Ring the bell, buenos días, and seconds later find myself on my desk.

Dara’s office is a bright common space where everybody faces each other as we work and work-related conversation frequently interrupts our tasks. Tall, wide windows with wooden blinds occupy the southern wall of the office and stay open until we’ve had enough of the heat a little past midday.

Throughout the day, I work on proposals, evaluation reports, occasionally get pulled in for an update on the Refugee Response Index and often listen up during conversations on the difficulties of getting a particular evaluation team to access a particular part of Syria.

My commute back home presents the difficult reality of 33°C Madrid. That’s when I usually get a bike from Madrid’s bike share system and enjoy the privilege of its electric assist motor as I breeze past the most shadowy streets I find on my way back home or to a café.

This is it. A brief snapshot into (part of) my life here.

Cold croissant-induced reflections

by Alexander Bossakov

My internship has been flying by. Two months in Madrid seemed like a lot of time on the day I arrived, suitcase in hand, trying to load directions to where I would be staying on my phone. I am currently on an early morning flight back to Madrid, after having spent a three-day weekend just south of Paris for a large family gathering, arriving just in time to get to the office for work at 10am. I just realized I have not much more than 2 weeks left [less at the time of posting] at Dara and got down to writing this blog post, only to be interrupted by a flight attendant waking up les mesdames et les messieurs with a charming basket of croissants. With all due respect, that is what I prioritized over this blog post, but now that I’ve finished my breakfast, here are some reflections from me from over the clouds.

My last internship was not the greatest of experiences. In fact, it was incredibly helpful in showing me what I did not want to do with my life. My internship at Dara has been far more positive on many levels, not excluding the great people I work with, the pleasant work environment I inhabit every day, the nature of the work that we do and, last but not least, Madrid itself. Several weeks in, I feel part of the team in a way that leaves me committed to every step of the process of our proposals and evaluations, feeling the pressure of deadlines like those around me, and working to achieve what needs to be achieved in the best possible way. I work with everybody around me, get pulled in for meetings, lament our failures and celebrate our achievements.

At the same time, I still have certain reservations. I question how removed I sometimes feel from the ultimate purpose of the evaluations. I question the evaluation sector within the larger sphere of humanitarian work and how it sometimes seems like a self-fulfilling cycle that keeps itself alive for the wrong reasons. We evaluate the programs of, primarily, UN agencies, and by doing that we become part of the UN structures, for better or for worse. What I need to find more about, however, is how much of an impact the 100-page reports have in promoting accountability, effectiveness and impact. Are these evaluations a check on a checklist for UN agencies or true accountability mechanisms that have an impact on the quality of the programs designed to help those most in need? This is not something I necessarily have the perspective to find out from here in Madrid and that is why all we can resort to is making sure our proposals, teams and evaluations are the best that they can be. This, however, leads to an obliteration of our awareness of the human impact, cost and consequence that is purportedly at the center of the work of the UN agencies we evaluate. I find myself focusing on format, presentation, wording, design, team structure; my direct goal is to have our proposal accepted by the UN and turned into a commissioned evaluation on long-term refugee camps in Algeria. My direct goal is not to improve the conditions of Sahrawis living in camps in Algeria. That is the UN’s works and it is another part of the process that I cannot afford to be part of.

This is not at all Dara-specific. In so many circumstances, one has to reconcile with the reality of being part of a complex process made up of multiple agencies, groups of people, sub procedures and vast timelines. We are an essential component of the humanitarian aid process but there is no way I can attach myself to its every single component. Nevertheless, I believe there is a lot of value in tightly grasping the ultimate aim of the work we do instead of blindly and intensely focusing on the technicalities of proposal- and evaluation-writing from the capital of Spain. I still struggle with the extent to which I lack this awareness as I discover my position at this step of the process.

I cannot skip mentioning that despite my own thought processes, which happen from my own very specific perspective, I deeply appreciate the work done by my coworkers. They work hard every day committed to produce high-quality evaluations of humanitarian programs. I help around with all that I can, but my knowledge and experience is shadowed by theirs and my thoughts and reservations are young and undeveloped.