Saturday, 24 March 2012

Meaningless jargon and Lessons Learned.

There are many disaster practicioners out there who have been through thick and thin, and are totally committed to Lesson's Learned. But who is charged with following through on Lessons Learned? Do we have Ministers of Lessons Learned?  Do we have Permanent Secretaries of Lessons Learned? Do international organistions have people in charge of Lessons Learned? Having been working in the humanitarian sector for over 40 years I see many mistakes made that could have been avoided if someone had taken time to examine what their organisation, or other organisations or individuals had done in the past on this issue, operation or topic.
My former colleague Michael Stone, an authority on Afghanistan, Cantral Asia and,  a man who knows disaster relief and recovery, gave a lecture recently where he exposes common errors in needs assessment..


1. What I am about to say comes from directing emergency operations with the United Nations, Red Cross and NGOs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, former Yugoslavia, Georgia and Iraq. Also, I have chaired a number of coordination bodies, and reviewed emergency programmes in many parts of the world.

2. In this brief presentation, I want to introduce 5 areas of serious common error in needs assessments. Remember, if we get it wrong, people can die – in extreme cases, we may even kill them. I will then provide solutions for these errors, developed from my own experience, and conclude with something I am working on now which needs to be incorporated in all needs assessments.

3. The most serious errors:

A. Meaningless Language.

B. Failure to Distinguish Means from Ends.

C. Observation Altering Reality.

D. Lessons Not Learned.

E. Coordination Failure.


a. If I could receive a euro for every report I’ve read, every appeal document, and especially every evaluation, I would be rich. English is my first language, and I’m good at it, but document after document contains phrases, indeed whole paragraphs, which are meaningless. Oh yes, there is great pressure on me to pretend I understand, otherwise I may give the impression I am thick. But no, so often the phrases and paragraphs are meaningless.

COLUMN 1          COLUMN 2                   COLUMN 3

The above words are taken from recent reports. Moving right to left, in any combination, they give the appearance of sense, but are meaningless e.g. “responsive logistical alliance”, “functional empowering capacity building”, “strategic visionary benchmark”. They can even be reversed e.g. “benchmark empowering functional”

Meaningless language itself encourages illogical or impractical thinking. The following chart, informally called the Mother of All Charts, relates to the new US surge in Afghanistan. The chart was prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff by a leading international firm of management consultants.

The chart is mind-bogglingly awesome in its complexity and utter uselessness, and demonstrates admirably the problem of meaningless language encouraging illogical and impractical thinking.

 a. The problem, it seems to me, is that some of us don’t know what we are talking about. We think we do, but we don’t. The consequence can be formidable for the vulnerable in emergencies e.g. the failure of internationals to provide enough helicopters for the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir is partly the result of unintelligible needs assessments.

b. Language is important. For example, in recent years we have tended to talk of beneficiaries, rather than the most vulnerable. The two are not necessarily the same. A food distribution in an emergency, reported as reaching all beneficiaries, may have targeted millionaires!


a. In our world, we are here for one thing, to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, often in an emergency. That is the end. The means are the funds from donors, the structured organisation we may be part of, the tents, the medicines, the food and the vehicles for their delivery. But how often are the two confused! Some reports, some evaluations, and more seriously TORs, make no mention whatsoever of the most vulnerable.

b. This happens in development too. Recently I reviewed a counter narcotics programme for which $800m had been pledged. Initially, people said they were too busy to see us, but they had to, we reported directly to the donors. Yes, they were busy. About 300 were involved in various ways, working six days a week, firing endless e mails at each other, meeting all hours of the day. But after two years, only $2m had been spent, and most of this wasted. The mushroom project, for example, most unsuitable anyway, yielded a crop costing $27,000 a kilo! The end – to encourage farmers to turn away from the poppy – had been forgotten. The means dominated everything.


A. Here I would like to introduce my own adaptation of the Heisenberg Principle. Heisenberg, a father of Quantum Mechanics, made a disturbing discovery in the 1920s. That by looking at something, you alter its behaviour. His analogy was an atom under a microscope, the objective being to see the path of electrons around the nucleus. When you turn light on the slide to see the atom, the photons from the light knock the electrons into different orbits. Hence, his law that the act of observation alters what is seen.

B. We see this in so many ways in relation to needs assessments:

1. The Questionnaire, with the leading questions, encouraging one answer more than another.

2. The interviewer arriving at a destroyed village in a chauffer driven land cruiser, so obviously rich, powerful, foreign – it is all too likely the vulnerable people will provide the answer they think you want to hear.

3. The fact Finding Mission, so often a mix of relevant and irrelevant organisations for the situation, who strive for a consensus which signifies nothing. A UN response to an emergency I reviewed took three months to assemble 23 senior people from 10 different agencies. The recommendations came far too late for action, and were wrong anyway – they were based on a distorted timetable arranged by a Minister.

You know the sort of thing – with most funds going to a particular organisation for orphans, which just so happens to be run by the Minister’s brother.

In all these instances, and many others, the observer is altering reality, indeed creating a false reality. So many needs assessments are based on false realities as the act of observation altered what was seen.


A. No, they are not. I have seen this time and time again as a Consultant reviewing programmes, in particular on behalf of donors. The reasons are threefold.

1. Most organisations have no mechanism at an appropriate level for considering Report recommendations.

2. On the rare occasions when they do exist, there is no system for implementation of recommendations agreed. Some people don’t even make the distinction between agreement and implementation. To paraphrase Cervantes “It is a far cry from agreement to implementation”.

A third problem, arises from the meaningless language

I have already mentioned. Most recommendations are meaningless themselves. Like a bar of wet soap which slips out of your hand. You know the sort of thing: “It is recommended steps are taken towards increasing advocacy, enhancing synergy, promoting empowerment…” The list goes on. You can do absolutely nothing at all, and no one can prove you haven’t implemented such recommendations.

3. The general failure to learn and implement lessons results in the humanitarian and development world being littered by a repetition of mistakes. The wrong food in an emergency, the wrong medicines, clothes for the wrong season – or projects which destroy livelihoods e.g over supply of boats and nylon fishing nets. In a review I did on the tsunami, the mantra from so many beneficiaries was“First tsunami, then the foreigners”.

For those like me with some grey hair it is so frustrating to see the wheel continuously being reinvented, with the same mistakes being made that we made twenty years ago. A common definition of insanity is repeating the same, and expecting a different result.


1. We talk about it a lot. To outsiders, it looks as if it is happening. Generally, it is not. For two years I chaired the UN NGO coordination body for Afghanistan. So it seems to me, I know what I am talking about!

2. There are 2 key realities preventing real coordination:

a. Factually, the term itself implies some authority external to the organisation. From UN Agencies to the smallest of NGOs, each has its own constitution, its own sovereignty, an independent board to which most ultimately report. They cannot be told what to do by others.

b. Egos. Often, they are enormous. We have all met directors of operations, large and small, who are in love with power, and seek only their own glory. Shakespeare called this “the insolence of office”. They have to be the first into some emergency, they dominate coordination meetings if they attend them at all - often it is some junior. They claim in their reports to provide everything that is needed to all those in need e.g. I once led a major evaluation into the international response to the Kosovo crisis. Kosovo has a population of 2m. Adding reports of key players together, who mostly claimed comprehensive support to all beneficiaries, there had to be a population of about 22 million.

c. Real coordination, and the synergy which follows for the most vulnerable, is far more rare than is presented. Where it does happen, it usually comes down to the sociability, the friendliness and the hearts of key individuals.


1. I have spent some time on the problems of needs evaluation for two reasons:

a. It’s no use coordinating and integrating emergency assessments of different organisations if they are wrong.

b. The solutions are contained within the problems I have outlined.

2. Briefly:

a. With regard to unclear language: Let us be simple and clear. I know this is more difficult than being complex and long winded, but let us never speak or write an unclear sentence again, especially if we don’t understand it ourselves. Remember the old Chinese saying: “The less matter there is, the more substance there will be”.

b. With regard to means becoming more important than ends. Let us always keep in mind that we are here to identify and help the most vulnerable. So often, organisations work from their head offices to the most vulnerable. They should work backwards, from the most vulnerable to the head office. Begin with the end in mind. I always try to remember, that the most senior person in any humanitarian organisation is employed by the poorest, the most vulnerable people on earth. In a perfect world, their jobs would not exist. No one is more important than the most vulnerable.

In an emergency, the whole point of our work is to meet a vulnerable person’s request. This may be
typified as “I need X goods in this quantity now” and “I will need X + Y + possibly z in this quantity for this period”. Remember the words of the philosopher Diderot: “It is not enough to do good. Good must be done well”.

c. In relation to our observation altering reality. Be conscious of the Heisenberg Principle in all we do. Watch those questionnaires to ensure each question is entirely objective, culturally sensitive and retains human dignity. Park your land cruisers on the edge of the village, walk in, be informal, go individually, listen – they know what they need far better than we do.

d. With regard to lessons not being learned. Let us not continue the mistake identified by the writer G.B. Shaw “Man learns from history that he learns nothing from history” For emergency needs assessments, appoint staff who have experience of running operations themselves, and who are capable of producing, with speed, clear and practical recommendations. Appoint consultants for evaluations with the same qualities. In relation to evaluations, take them seriously.

Establish a standing committee at director level for consideration of all evaluation recommendations. Clearly accept, perhaps with modification, or reject specific recommendations. Task mangers to implement recommendations with instructions to report to the standing committee on specific progress in three month’s time.

e. With regard to coordination, appreciate that agencies, organisations, NGOS have their own sovereignties. Get rid of the word coordination. Use cooperation instead. You will find this word emphasises the voluntary nature of working together, and works so much better.

In relation to egos. Remember Dostoyevsky’s immortal words: “Everybody is responsible to everyone for everything”. Appoint directors and mangers who are friendly, open, intelligent and with hearts. Those who realise they are there to help the most vulnerable and not themselves – who understand the enormous synergy, increasing significantly the impact of all we do, which arises from cooperation.


1. I would like to conclude with a few words on something I am currently working on. It attempts to correct a serious failure in emergency needs assessments. I call it the Compound Crisis.

2. We respond usually to emergencies on an individual basis, as if they are one off. We are mistaken. Very often one disaster causes another, the second and third disasters often being more devastating than the first. Mathematics best illustrates the power of compounding.


 If offered a million Euros now, or one Euro which doubles every day for only a month, most of us would choose the former. We are wrong. One Euro doubling for a month is worth far, far more than Euro one million. The figure amounts to over one billion!

3. I saw the impact of compounding most recently in Tajikistan where I was UN Emergency Coordinator. An unprecedented cold winter with record snow falls caused a food and heating emergency. This was followed, in the spring, by a second emergency, sizeable floods and landslides. By the time summer came, agricultural output was at its lowest because of substantial seed destruction and high livestock mortality in winter. Unprecedented low rainfalls then encouraged an explosion of locusts. Record high locust storms destroyed record low agricultural production.

4. It is the poor who are hit by disaster, not the rich. With the compound effect of one disaster leading to another, the same people are being hit each time. It is like being a boxer, winning one fight, and then another opponent enters the ring – you survive, but then another and another enters the ring. The ability to survive each disaster diminishes. In the end, many will die.

5. As donations for humanitarian assistance are nearly always linked to newsworthy visibility, a Compound Crisis will be unnoticed internationally, and receive little or no funding. Yet, it may be compared to a silent tsunami. In the context of global warming, the Compound Crisis will need to receive significant attention.

Thank you.

Michael Stone


John LaPointe said...

Outstanding and so long overdue.

John LaPointe said...

I hope you don't mind if I share this, Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

We have had to deal with the ever increasing jargon and confusion it throws up. Instead of enabling, new jargon serves to fog, rather than clarify. Our work is simple, our words and startegies should be simple and clear.

Anjana Dayal de Prewitt (Gudia) said...

Wow… very well written article!!!

On Friday, as were discussing FEMA planning for catastrophic event, I mentioned to a colleague that there is no need to reinvent the wheel because we have resources like Bob (you) and others who have been doing this for years and we should be able to consult them on some these questions rather than relying on the new documents with hundreds of pages which do not reflect the ground reality.

This is a timely document for us here, although I agree with John this is long overdue! Thanks for sharing!!!

I am going to share it with others too.

Joe Lowry said...

I remember Michael playing Bullshit Bingo with the same columns of words in Baku in 1995!!!!

Marja said...

"Compound Crisis will need to receive significant attention."
Clear to the point message. I am not good with language but start to understand that clear language and subsequent action is far more important. Arohanui

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