For most of my life I’ve worked in the aid industry as an independent consultant. I’ve avoided institutional affiliations because it enables me to speak freely about the problems facing humanitarian aid. The only thing I like doing more than speaking about those problems is trying to find solutions to them.
This page is a narrative of some of the work that I’ve been involved with. It’s not a full resume, and because I worked on a lot of short contracts, I’ve left a lot of those out of the record. There are also gaps in the record because when I’m not doing aid work, I’m doing other things that you won’t be able to guess.
My work in the sector goes back to 1995, after I graduated with a degree in History and African Studies from the University of Birmingham, and went to the Benaco refugee camp in Tanzania. However my professional track started in 1999, when I worked in North Macedonia and Kosovo during and after the NATO bombing.
Kosovo was where I began developing and working in Humanitarian Information Centres. I occupied a range of roles in Kosovo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia – NGO liaison, Deputy Manager and Manager – and in between positions I developed policy and training material to support humanitarian coordination.
I’ve always been looking for leverage points to transform the humanitarian system, and it seemed to me that better data – better evidence for decision-making – was one such leverage point. With the benefit of hindsight I was wrong, but it was still worth doing, and this was a major focus of my work for a decade.
A lot of HIC work was around introducing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to humanitarian response. I tried to get agreement on a standardised icon set for humanitarian GIS; I failed, but was later an advisor on the development of the Humanitarian eXchange Language (HXL), which was better.
The other area of expertise which I developed was in developing and implementing joint needs assessments, which brought together multiple agencies with a common approach. I later wrote a few guides to needs assessment, working with ACAPS and the Sphere Project to get these basic tools into the hands of more people.
Unfortunately the UN was allergic to me. I moved away from the HICs after 2004, but continued to work on information management; first with WFP in the Indian Ocean Tsunami response, and then with UNICEF to support coordination for the WASH Cluster, notably in Georgia, Panama and Bangladesh.
During the tsunami response, I was lucky enough to meet some great developers in Sri Lanka who were proposing an Open Source disaster management platform. I was very enthusiastic and was happy when they invited me to give my domain expertise as part of the team developing Sahana over the next few years.
Coming out of the tsunami response, I was asked by the Swiss government to contribute to the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, co-writing The Role of ICT in Preventing, Responding to and Recovering from Conflict. This made me realise that I wasn’t comfortable working on such large institutional processes.
Between 2007-09 I was Manager of the Information and Technology Requirements Initiative of the Emergency Capacity Building Project, a consortium of seven large NGOs. I spent time in Darfur and Pakistan to understand how international NGOs could better leverage technology in their work, and handed the work over to NetHope.
I also ate consultants’ bread-and-butter – evaluations, workshop facilitation, training delivery, strategy development – in places as diverse as Guatemala, South Sudan and Azerbaijan. I also worked on more esoteric projects, such as Aid Workers Network – a social network created years before Facebook.
In 2011 I was surprised to be asked to join the first iteration of the Grants Advisory Panel of the newly-formed Humanitarian Innovation Fund. It was at this point I discovered that I was seen as an innovator within the sector, although all I had been doing was trying to solve problems. I served on the Panel until 2014.
Although I’ve worked alongside military forces in different countries, I’m a little allergic to them. Despite this I helped NATO ARRC on their annual Combined Joint Exercise for a number of years, during which time I was able to shift doctrine around humanitarian support from thinking about “battle space” to “problem space”.
Between 2014-16 I worked mainly with the Start Network to lay the foundation for their innovation strategy, and worked with the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College London to hold a series of Futures Roundtables. This type of foresight work remains under-utilised in the humanitarian aid industry.
In 2016 I co-founded Disberse with Ben Joakim, a fintech start-up with the ambition to develop a new type of blockchain-based financial institution for the aid industry. We saw finance as the leverage point for changing the aid industry, not just to make it more efficient and transparent, but more accountable and decentralised.
We had a good run with Disberse, but the Covid-19 pandemic came at the worst possible time for us. Although we were ideally positioned to deliver during the pandemic, our investment round collapsed and we had to close out the company. We left a complete record of our experience on our website.
My most recent work as a humanitarian consultant has been around digital issues. I worked with an inter-agency NGO group to develop a basic concept for portable digital ID for refugees, did research with Caribou Digital on refugee identity in digital practice, and I’m now working with ICRC to develop a digital risk framework.
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of variety in my work. I worked on projects with non-governmental organisations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, UN agencies, governments, universities, military forces , and advising companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google on their strategies for supporting disaster response.
By this point you may have noticed that there is no real career path here. I am work-oriented rather than career-oriented, and project-oriented rather than organisation-oriented; and I regularly take breaks to work on other things. My experience is therefore not as extensive as many of my peers, but probably more varied.
Okay, fine; these mysterious “other things” I work on: I have a MSc in Architecture, specialising in Environmental and Energy studies, and I’ve worked on housing issues; I explore financial alternatives, including designing a Universal Basic Income pilot for Serbia; and I write short stories, non-fiction and screenplays.
A big weakness in the aid industry is a lack of practitioner reflection, leading to weak institutional memory. I write to record my experiences, develop a coherent framework, and critique some of our assumptions. If you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned above, just get in touch.