The War on NGOs

This was first written for the Deseret News.

A controversial bill that critics say is part of a trend of governments restricting the work of foreign charities is awaiting the signature of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni,according to Voice of America.

The Non-Governmental Organizations Act was passed by the country's National Assembly in late November despite heavy criticism from several civil society groups that said the measure could limit non-governmental organizations from helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.

Human Rights Watch has called the bill’s language vague and argued that it could stifle dissent ahead of Uganda's general elections in February.

The most controversial section of the bill prohibits, “any act which is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda.” Another part of the bill criminalizes any activities by organizations that have not been issued a government permit and it provides prison sentences of up to three years for violations.

But supporters of the measure note the bill says its purpose is not to hinder charitable work but rather to streamline the regulation of NGOs and promote transparency. In an attempt to assuage fears, a government spokesperson told Voice of America that no NGO would be dissolved without evidence against it.

But critics aren't convinced such laws are simply attempts to streamline processes.

In an editorial published last week titled “Global War on NGOs,” The Washington Post Editorial Board said “the work of these organizations was never easy, saving lives and protecting rights in the most inhospitable environments, but increasingly, autocrats and their state machinery are erecting permanent barriers to funding, operations and freedoms.”

“The real losers,” The Post editorial board wrote, “are billions of people who will suffer more when NGOs are silenced and shuttered.”

In the 1990s, NGOs flourished around the world, but after uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin “tightened the screws on civil society out of a paranoid and misguided fear that NGOs were plotting an overthrow," The Post editorial said. Since then, autocrats around the world followed Russia’s lead in restricting NGOs. In 2011, the Arab Spring prompted “a new wave of repression.”

The president and chief executive of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Douglas Rutzen, recently wrote that between 2004 and 2010 more than 50 countries considered or enacted measures to repress NGOs, and the situation has gotten worse since then. “Since 2012, more than 90 laws constraining the freedoms of association or assembly have been proposed or enacted. This trend is consistent with a continuing decline in democracy worldwide.”

In a video last year, Thomas Carothers, vice president of research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained the rise in NGO laws. “It has to do with some very broad trends in international politics that are about the relativization of power in the world. … The United States and Europe, the main actors supporting democracy and human rights, don’t have the power that they once had and people on the other side of the equation … are pushing back.”

“At the moment, more than 50 NGO laws are being drafted worldwide,” Barbara Unmüsswig of the Heinrich Böll told the German newspaper, Handelsblatt, this past summer. “The laws are often formulated ambiguously on purpose to leave the door open for security agencies.”

The Handelsblatt article went on to explain that these laws rise in response to NGOs’ promotion of, “liberty, security, prosperity and participation,” which provokes autocrats and nationalists. “What the governments resent most are the NGOs mobilizing citizen protests against economic and development projects.”

Harriet Sherwood recently wrote another cause of “the NGO crackdown” is the anti-terrorism efforts being promoted by the West. She argues that these measures “sweep civil society organizations into their embrace, either inadvertently or deliberately.”


This story was first published for the Deseret News

Struggling to make ends meet, some Indian farmers are illegally selling their own blood to survive.

Desperate times in India are pushing poor farmers to desperate measures. In a country with a chronic shortage of blood in the healthcare system many facilities are turning a blind eye the fact that buying blood is illegal. Some say blood is the new cash crop of India.

"I was working as a labourer in Jhansi for survival," a farmer who goes by the single name, Karna, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "When my son fell ill, I had no other option but to sell my blood for his treatment." The 60 year old farmer from northern India, unable to make a living from his drought stricken land or as a laborer, was paid 1,200 rupees (about $17.50) for two bottles of his blood.

A 1996 case decided by the Supreme Court of India banned paying for blood, along with unlicensed blood banks, but thanks to an unrelenting demand the market still persists, underground.

The unregulated blood market obviously has health officials worried about the spread of disease. "I've seen patients being transfused directly from a donor, without any testing of their blood," Dr. JS Arora, general secretary of the National Thalassemia Welfare Society, told the BBC.

Even more concerning though is the victims whose blood is taken against their will. Scott Carney wrote a book on the subject that documents a case where 17 poor migrants were lured to a house under false pretenses. At first the victims were paid a low rate for their blood but as they grew weaker they were locked inside and forced to give blood three times per week for years at a time. A person should only donate blood once every eight to 12 weeks, says the Red Cross.

The blood was sold to local hospitals and blood banks for $18 a unit which is 15 times the government rate. "Initially, they did it willingly," Neha Dixit, who covered the story for Tehelka magazine, told the BBC. But “after a while, they became too weak to resist and when they had the energy to try and escape, they were beaten and locked up."

Carney writes that the problem is that Indians rarely give blood voluntarily. Citing one expert, he writes that “many local people here are superstitious and believe that losing bodily fluids will make them weak for the rest of their lives.”

With a population of 1.2 billion people, India needs 12 million units of blood annually but only collects 9 million, creating a strong market demand to fill the 25% deficit, according to Reuters. The World Health Organization says every country should have at least a blood reserve of at least one percent. Traditions and superstitions against exchanging blood with people of different castes also contribute to the shortage.

According to the BBC there are no official statistics on India’s illegal blood market. “But if we were to take as a rough calculation the three million units needed in India, multiplied by its street value of $15, that suggests that it could be worth as much as $45 million.”

Years of poor crop yields in India have cause unemployment and poverty to soar and pushed farmers into a state of desperation. A third successive year of drought forced farmer Lakhan Ahirwar to sell his blood when he can’t find other work. "I could not find any work for almost five days," he told Reuters. "What should I do? I had to feed my children."

Poverty among farmers has become so bad that officials are seeing a spike in suicides among the rural poor. One local expert told Reuters that about two farmers per day, on average, are committing suicide in just one region of India. “Crop losses and worries over debt are the main reasons,” wrote Reuters. “For the elderly who cannot find work in the cities, selling blood and begging are perhaps the only choices left.”

Does Poverty Cause Terrorism?

This story was first written for the Deseret News and you can read it there if you'd like.

Following terrorist-linked attacks in France and the United States in less than a month, understanding the motives behind terrorism is as relevant as ever.

Thomas Piketty, whose book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” made him into what the New York Times called an “overnight intellectual sensation," has weighed in on the debate. He published an essay last week arguing that economic inequality causes terrorism and reopened an ongoing debate about the root causes of terrorism.

Many have been quick to criticize Piketty’s essay, pointing out that millions of people live in poverty and in economies with dramatic inequality and yet very few become terrorists. Still others, including many politicians, see merit in Piketty's position.

The French intellectual wrote that “it is obvious that terrorism feeds on the Middle Eastern powder keg of inequality we have largely contributed to create.” He argued the entire political and social system of the Middle East has been weakened by the region being "the most unequal region (on) the planet,” with 60 to 70 percent of regional GDP controlled by “barely 10 percent of the population." He went on to say that the inequality has largely risen out of mismanaged conflicts between the West and the Middle East.

Piketty concludes that to fight terrorism, Western governments should demonstrate that their interest in the “social development and political integration of the region” is greater than their financial and business relationships with the ruling families.

His essay set off a back and forth in a debate that actually goes back decades. Presidents from Bill Clinton to Barrack Obama have linked poverty to terrorism. In a speech six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former President George W. Bush linked poverty and terrorism, saying, “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

Three months after Bush’s statement, Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova released a now frequently cited paper in the New Republic concluding there was little evidence indicating a reduction in poverty would equal a reduction in terrorism. They argued that terrorism is a violent form of political engagement and “people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics.”

Many academic studies have come to similar conclusions. A 2006 study found that poor countries did not produce more terrorists than rich countries. A 2009 report from the RAND Corporation commissioned by the Department of Defense said “terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease.” The RAND report goes on the say that “terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”

Obama was actually more nuanced in making the connection. “There are millions of people — billions of people — in the world who live in abject poverty and are focused on what they can do to build up their own lives, and never embrace violent ideologies” he said earlier this year. “What’s true, though,” he added, is that when people “are impoverished and have no hope for the future the risk of instability and extremism grows.”

Though there is little causal evidence between poverty and terrorism, some studies have found a correlation between the two. One 2011 study found a positive relationship between unemployment and extremist crime in Germany. An older study from the 1970s found exceptions to the idea that terrorists generally come from middle or upper class backgrounds.

Earlier this year in Time magazine, David Sterman, a researcher at New America’s International Security Program, argued that despite the evidence against poverty as a motive for terrorism, it shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.

“One size will never fit all," he wrote. "Searching for single-category, causal explanations for terrorism and dismissing correlated elements like poverty and mental illness as irrelevant is likely to obscure other patterns that could shed light on extremist behavior.”

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton: Telling African Stories

This post was originally published on Read it there if you'd like.

NGOs are often faced with incentives to tell stories on the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. Some organizations try to make their stories extremely happy and uplifting to excite their audiences into action. Other times, the pressure is to tell stories that are incredibly bleak and dark in the hopes of scaring the audience into action. All of this is despite the fact that the best stories have both dark and light shades in them. 

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an amazing radio journalist for NPR covering stories across Africa and one of my heroes. In this quick interview, taken from part of the Ted Radio Hour Podcast episode: Africa: The Next Generation, she argues that the debate about 'positive stories versus negatives stories' in Africa is important, but it is not the only thing that matters. For her, the quality of a story is far more important than its “mood.”  Whether the story is a comedy, tragedy, or mindlessly happy is second to its quality. 

Like Quist-Arcton says, the most important thing is 'telling a good tale' and then  - if the story is a good one - whether it’s dark, or light - listeners will perk up and get invested in it. Listen for yourself: 

Susan Moeller makes a similar point in her book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. She argues that media coverage of inherently dark subjects need not cause compassion fatigue. Instead, she argues, formulaic and bland journalism is what causes the audience to fatigue.

There are lots of problems with stories focusing solely on the negative or the positive, the first being that these needlessly dark or mindlessly happy stories are boring! Stories that lack emotional variation feel flat and bland. Obviously a boring story will not be very effective at moving an audience to action, regardless of which narrative it conforms to. Another major problem with stories that focus only on the positive or negative is that they are likely to oversimplify and leave out important facts. If a development story only tells the happy and hopeful parts, the audience will probably miss significant elements of the issue that are important. 

I am certainly not the first person to discuss this subject; for more info look no further than the Communications Director here at WhyDev, Rachel Kurzyp, who wrote about this subject here on in her post NGOs need to tell better stories. “I am concerned with the way NGOs are telling stories on behalf of the poor… I worry that NGOs aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining the complexities of development and poverty.“

            There are lots of examples of bad story telling; look no further than Invisible Children’s early videos. But in sake of being constructive, I would like to point out a few examples of good development storytelling that include a range of positive and negative emotions. These stories are not unnecessarily joyful or depressingly dark. Instead, they have a range of emotions that, combined with other good storytelling techniques, create compelling development communication that is likely to move the audience to action. If you are a development communicator - I encourage you to follow the lead of these three examples:

Dr. Hawa Abdi - 2013 Vital Voices – This quick video is an animated story of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s life in Somalia – narrated by her. There are some dark moments in this story for sure, but the mood changes throughout, and at the end, we are left feeling inspired.

Invisible Children They Came at Night – I think this is Invisible Children’s best video. (And they have produced a lot.) This twenty-minute film tells the story of a young man trying to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and how escape is not as simple as it sounds. It is a powerful drama with emotions ranging from hope to fear to anger, to more fear, and back to hope again.

Girl Rising: The Nepal Chapter – Produced in partnership with Room To Read, this short film uses a young girl’s real life experiences to tell a powerful story about the importance of girls’ education. It’s part of the full Girl Rising film, which tells similar stories about girls around the world all of them excellent examples of good story telling. As you might expect, the mood varies between depressing to inspiring. But this film also has a powerful streak of stubborn determination that is sure to leave you ready to fight.

Let me conclude by encouraging you to worry less about creating a particular mood in a story and focus more on telling it well. Whether they’re sad, funny, or happy (and the best stories are usually all of the above), quality stories that inspire the audience to action, can really change the world. As storytellers, our role is to honestly do the story justice: tell it well, and with whatever range of emotion exists in reality.

Complexity, clarity, simplicity: Storytelling in global development

This is a blog post I originally wrote for and you can read it there if you'd like.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein

How do you tell a complex story clearly? What if that story belongs to someone else? This is the very essence of development communications: telling other people’s stories.

I recently talked to three different communications professionals working in the development field (a public relations associate, a videographer and a photojournalist) about how they communicate complex stories about other people without oversimplifying. Their answers illustrated a model of communication in which stories must be simplified, to some extent, in order to make them engaging and clear to the reader or viewer.

I like to think of these three ideas as a gradient, with complexity at one end, simplicity at the other and clarity somewhere in between. The challenge is finding the right place on this gradient for a particular audience. Inevitably, you have to simplify some of the story, usually by leaving things out, to retain the audience’s attention.

But be wary of oversimplifying, which could, among other things, mislead the audience and deny the dignity of the people in the story.

As an illustration, here is Carine Umuhumuza, a former communications associate at the Enough Project, describing how she communicates about conflict, mass violence and genocide in East Africa without oversimplifying.

“We work really closely with the policy analysts to make sure none of the substance is lost, and really focus on making sure jargon is eliminated. We also work hard to make sure we link the threads for our audiences and connect the ideas and points of our work to things they can relate to.

At the base of our work is telling the stories of families, women, men and children whose lives have been severely impacted by a series of events – bad governance, evil rulers, etc. That is something we can all relate to: we all understand loss, fear and the desire for basic human rights.”

Umuhumuza’s comments illustrate the Complexity-Clarity-Simplicity Model nicely. First, jargon is often unneeded and even detrimental. It creates unnecessary complexity, and removing it can clarify the story without oversimplifying.

Another easy way to add depth to a simple story is by hyperlinking. For online communications, linking to articles with more information is a great way to let the audience decide how much complexity they want. Given this possibility, the actual communication can serve as an entry point into a topic, rather than attempting to explain a story in depth.

I wanted to get some other perspectives on this question, so I also asked Charity:Water’s in-house filmmaker, Jamie Pent, about how she tells other people’s stories in a clear way:

“The audience that watch our videos are anywhere from five- to ninety-year-olds, so we have to make sure anyone can understand the message. Thankfully, the very basic concept we need to get across is that 800 million people don’t have access to clean water and you, the viewer, can make a difference. It really is that simple.

Obviously, things are far more complicated than that when you dig deeper. Internally, we have teams that work with the local partners to decide what water source is best for this region, where we can dig a well, how many water points in an area, the cost of the water point, etc. But for the purposes of the video, all we need to explain is that people need water and here’s how you can help.

The challenge for me is how to tell this story in a new way that will engage new viewers and loyal fans alike. Every place I’ve travelled to so far has been incredibly unique with as diverse stories as there are people, so it hasn’t been too difficult to find inspiration for how to tell the stories.”

It seems that, for Pent and Charity:Water, the clarity sweet spot is much simpler than it is for the Enough Project. Obviously their audiences and the stories they tell are quite different.

Knowing the specific sweet spot for your audience, and the goal of the communication, is key. Are you trying to raise awareness about specific conflicts and policies, like the Enough Project? Are you trying to raise money for a certain program? Are you trying to explain what your organisation does as a whole?

Phil Moore, a Nairobi-based photojournalist, offers a unique perspective on the question of simplicity. I asked him about how he tells a complex story with just an image:

“One of the advantages of living in the region where I work is that I am often afforded more time to spend on stories, rather than simply “dropping in” when a story is big in the news. For example in eastern Congo in 2012, I had spent months covering the M23 rebellion before it really made it big in the international news.

Being primarily a photographer, I often have little control on exactly how reductionist the associated article is, but by working for publications that tend to do quality coverage, one can predict how one’s work will be presented.

I would also argue that at times my work can be presented in a “simplified” manner, but depending on audience type. If I feel I have done in-depth work on a subject—and the reportage is there—then I don’t necessarily have a problem with a “simpler version” of that work being presented in a publication that is not going to dedicate the space to a full story. Whilst I lament the general superficial nature of many publications’ coverage of the region, I also recognize that many people simply are not interested in these issues.

So if I can present a basic version of the issue and it inspires someone to read more about it elsewhere, and get engaged in a subject that they were previously uninterested in or simply did not know about, then that is fantastic. At times, it’s also possible to focus on a particular microcosm of a story and present its complexities through a narrower angle that people who do not have in-depth knowledge of a subject can understand and engage with.”

Like Moore says, simplifying a story is not always a bad thing – in fact, it’s often necessary. However, the ways in which the story is simplified are not insignificant. When news outlets aren’t willing to dedicate a huge amount of space to a story, the best development communicators can do may be to simplify very carefully. The backlash against a poorly-told or overly-simplified story can be tremendous.

The communicator’s job is to find the balance between complexity and simplicity that allows them to accurately tell the story in a manner the audience can clearly understand.

A few important and practical lessons emerge from these interviews: remove unnecessary jargon, hyperlink to contextual information and know your purpose and audience. Finally, accept some level of simplification as the price of getting the information out there.

Daniel Lombardi is a writer, photographer and filmmaker who produces creative media for humanitarian organisations. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

All content created by Daniel Lombardi. Copyright 2017.