On Being Authentic…

Sunrise over Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo Credit: Kanvara Suchitta

I read a blogpost yesterday titled ‘Five Tips to make Yourself Unpopular’. The point of view presented was that if you were to be ‘authentic’ or true to yourself it might make you unpopular among those whom you interact with.

The post went on to outline the choices that you would have to make for you to be true to yourself.

I am posting my response here since this is something very important. We are judged by the number of likes, clicks, shares and recommends and how popular we are on social media. We try to manipulate this through various means like SEOs, flooding social media with ‘listicles’, and posting indiscriminately so that quantity is measured over the quality of the thoughtfulness of craft and readership is measured in clicks.

Here’s my response;

I like the theme of authenticity but do not see the connection of having to make a choice to be popular or unpopular. Authenticity is what makes you who you are and defines your character, which you then use to define the world and society with which you interact, and not the other way around where the world and society defines who you ought to be.

If it’s the former, then you are guided by your principles and values in making your choices and the consequences that come with them. If it’s the latter then you let the world and the society with which you interact influence your choices but are still personally responsible for the consequences.

True authenticity allows us to pursue the best in ourselves irrespective of what the world thinks. In your reasoning one is also required to be judgmental between ‘popular’ and ‘unpopular’ and ‘authenticity and inauthenticity’ which are value judgements that are subjective and relative. I would feel very uncomfortable doing that.

To answer your three questions;

  • Five years from now, I would like to say that I was true to myself and my character.
  • Ten years from now I would not really care what others say about me as long as I was true to myself, my values and principles.
  • If I were to die today my last thought would be “I’m at peace with myself for being who I was.”

John Wooden, known as ‘Coach’ who led the UCLA Basketball Team to record wins that are still unmatched sums it up quite appropriately when he said, ‘Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, whilst your reputation is merely what others think of you.’

‘Beneficiaries’? Actually, not….!

People who receive lifesaving and development assistance are categorised as ‘beneficiaries’. Is this correct? Not true.


A child carries his belongings as Syrian refugees arrive at the Turkish border, February 2016 (Photograph by CNN)

The humanitarian and development sector uses the term ‘beneficiary’ or ‘beneficiaries’ to categorise people who receive aid and assistance following a disaster or those who live in marginal circumstances of poverty and deprivation. This aid and assistance is made possible through the provision of financial support by countries that belong to the Organisation for Economic and Development Cooperation (OECD) and specific mechanisms in response to disasters and other humanitarian crises. Sources of this financial support are ultimately tax payers. A significant portion of financial support is also provided by foundations, charitable trusts, philanthropy, corporate social funds, and public giving.

Collectively these arrangements and institutions that support them are commonly referred to as ‘the aid industry’. These institutions include the OECD, national governments, the UN system, international and national non-profits, faith-based organisations, private sector contractors, suppliers of goods and services, consultant firms and many other actors. There is also a perception that ‘beneficiaries’ are people from ‘third world countries’ or under the World Bank categorisation, ‘low income’ countries where most people live below the ‘poverty line’. These are people who survive on less than US$ 1.90 per day.

Within the ‘aid industry’ there is a sincerity, a sense of volunteerism, commitment, and recognition that most of the work they do requires some form of self-sacrifice and a passion to contribute towards the ‘global good’. Within the non-profits, this is mostly true, characterised by measurement of impact in improving the lives of people for the better. There are numerous examples and case studies to support these claims.

Several international non-profits are facing dilemmas related to their roles and relevance in the future.  They are exploring the concept of ‘localisation’ of humanitarian and development assistance seeking to transfer ownership to countries, their institutions, and citizens. Several countries have been successful in ensuring that greater numbers of people are ‘lifted’ out of poverty through local action by their institutions and working more effectively with civil society. If you look at the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) report a green triangle () against a country ranking means improvement. Other challenges for international non-profits are related to cost effectiveness, ‘value for money’ and how they position themselves as best able to meet these criteria.

Within the contracting industry and the private sector who bid through ‘tenders’ for delivery of contractual obligations and quantifiable outputs on behalf of OECD aid institutions this is questionable. There has been an increasing pressure from taxpayers and media for greater transparency and accountability on how ‘aid’ is provided through cost-effective practices. Recent developments have brought these issues under scrutiny with adverse consequences which include an increasing mistrust by the public of both for profit and non-profit institutions.

What are the characteristics of ‘beneficiaries’? The perception among many are they are poor in need of ‘help’ through charitable or philanthropic giving and are  made up of communities, households and people who have been adversely affected by their circumstances. These can be the aftermath of disasters, conflict affected environments or countries where people live at constant risk to their lives in, exclusion of people from GDP and development growth of their countries depriving them of economic and other forms of opportunity and citizens of repressive regimes where dissent is not tolerated. There are also people who are not enumerated through census data and therefore effectively stateless, people who are marginalised due to their identity defined by religion, caste, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, and a myriad of other factors.

The consistent factor or ‘cross cutting’ theme  that unifies all of these people is their inability to realise their basic human rights and entitlements, as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) through the 30 ‘articles’. The 30 articles of the UDHR establish the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of all people. It is a vision for human dignity that transcends political boundaries and authority, committing governments to uphold the fundamental rights of each person.


The visual above is my attempt to highlight the ‘rights gap’ which represents the disconnect between the primary ‘duty bearer’, the national government and the ‘rights holder’, the citizen. The greater the disconnect and the gap, the less people can claim or realise their rights and entitlements. The UN HDI Ranking is indicative of this. The lesser the HDI ranking the greater the interaction between ‘duty bearers and ‘rights holders’. In the 2015 rankings for HDI, Norway ranked 1 and Niger 188 out of 188 countries. In Norway ‘rights holders’ are better able to transact their claims to rights and entitlements more directly with the ‘duty bearers’.

The term ‘beneficiary’ indicates that there is a ‘benefactor’ or ‘benefactors’ who are providing benefits. The realisation of rights which are inalienable and inherent is not a ‘benefit’ or ‘benefits’ but entitlements due to every person by virtue of his or her birth. Humanitarian and development non-profits who have adopted a ‘rights based approach’ to their work attempt to create conditions in various situations and contexts (humanitarian, inequality, marginalisation, discrimination etc.) for the realisation of rights by the people whom they seek to assist.

The conditions that non-profits attempt to promote and influence are those where people who are dis-empowered due to their circumstances can ‘realise’ their rights within their situation or contexts as best able. These are rights that range from the right to life and security to basic needs such as clean water and sanitation, the right to food, the right to participate, the right to dissent, the right to mobility, the right to shelter and special rights for women and other disadvantaged groups. Rights and entitlements are not benefits. ‘Beneficiaries’ are not victims who deserve benefits but are rights-holders who have their ability to claim their rights that have been taken away from them or not fulfilled (in most cases by the duty bearers, the government and their institutions) or due to circumstances such as disasters, humanitarian crises and conflict.

Interestingly in the ‘first world’ people who receive assistance following disasters are ‘disaster survivors’ and not ‘beneficiaries’. Those who have been marginalised and discriminated against and are supported by advocacy, campaign and lobbying groups are not ‘beneficiaries’ but people who cannot exercise their rights to the fullest extent. Those who are poor and assisted through welfare schemes and safety nets are not ‘beneficiaries’ but people who are unable to claim their entitlements or who do not have access to economic opportunity.

Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams assisting survivors at Pecan Valley Estates
Bossier City, Shreveport, LA : FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Team (DSAT) members provide disaster information to flood survivor. (Photo: http://www.fema.gov)

So then, who are ‘beneficiaries’? The ‘aid industry’ receives money from the OECD (from taxes) committed as a percentage of the GDP allocated to overseas aid, foundations, trusts and the public. These may be bi-lateral, multi-lateral or conditional grants, or through budget support directly to governments. Contractors deliver against ‘contractual obligations’ in delivering outputs, usually replacing, or substituting for a government’s responsibility for the delivery of basic services. Non-profits who adopt a ‘rights based approach’ support work where ‘pathways’ (strategies) are identified and strengthened so that rights realisation becomes more possible to those who are disenfranchised. There is an increasing trend and an expectation that when assistance schemes are formulated, there needs be an increased level of consultation, participation, consensus, and joint decision-making with the people who will receive the assistance. This contributes to improved transparency and more accountable governance and ownership of decisions.

The actual ‘beneficiary’ is the ‘aid industry’ itself, and those who work within it, participate in and service it.

Beneficiaries include employees and the ministries that work for the OECD aid institutions and ministries. They include the UN System, the International and National non-profits, the agencies of consultants and experts who proliferate around and within the industry and on occasion exploit it. To be fair, most of the consultants with whom I have worked or commissioned have felt that they can make a better contribution and positive differences to causes that they are passionate about rather than be employed by institutions.

Negotiated overheads with ‘donors’ help pay for offices, programme implementation and programme support employees, the suppliers, the contractors, the hotels and conference centres where consultation, decision-making, training or information sharing events take place. They include the airlines that aid employees travel in, the companies from which state of the art equipment, vehicles and technology are purchased from, and service providers and middle men through whom much of administrative work is outsourced. Every agency from the OECD ministries, the UN system through to the smallest non-governmental organisations benefit socially, financially, and materially. Organisational budgets spike when there is a humanitarian crisis and those who provide ‘assistance’ benefit while those who are affected realise their right to life, security, protection, access to basic needs and recovery assistance to the extent possible till they can begin claiming their rights back.

I am also a beneficiary as I too work within the ‘system’.

What is the solution? Till poverty, deprivation, marginalisation and the denial of rights exist the ‘aid industry’ will have a crucial role to play. Till people can anticipate, manage, mitigate, and overcome the effect of disasters there will be a need for ‘response surge capabilities’ both within governments and local organisations, and international non-profits to support them.

International non-profits need to collaborate rather than compete and contribute to strengthening the capabilities of national institutions to adopt more robust processes to identify, define and address the needs of those who are vulnerable, marginalised and are not able to access the most basic needs. There is also a need to facilitate the involvement of  the private sector more in providing affordable financial and non financial services that can lead to economic opportunity.

Opportunities exist for advocacy, targeted campaigning and give ‘voice’ to those who are dis-empowered providing them with opportunities to speak before national policy makers, regional governance institutions and global forums such as the COP events and before the UN.

The quality of assistance can improve, with enhanced transparency and inclusion of people affected and in need of support being included in consultation and decision-making. OECD decision-making processes need reform, especially now in the post Trump and Brexit era. This is happening now. The caveat is that the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) which decides on OECD aid needs to consider equitable, prioritised and unconditional assistance, especially in situations where aid is tied to trade and privatisation.

There also needs to be a greater accountability to people who donate with unstinted generosity in the belief that they can make the world a better place. These are pensioners, taxi drivers, immigrants and those who believe that they are ‘their brother’s keeper’.

Till then let’s not use the word ‘beneficiary’ to categorise the people who require assistance and support in reclaiming their rights, which they are entitled to and own anyway.

The term ‘beneficiary’ is condescending and is a misrepresentation of the people for whom the aid industry is supposed to work for.

To categorise them as ‘beneficiaries’ would also contribute to the perpetuation of social injustice.


I would recommend the book ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’ by P. Sainath whose research won him the Magsaysay Award.

If you feel that this is a relevant discussion, please comment on what your thoughts are and ideas on how the work that the aid sector undertakes to do is more accountable, transparent, and effective. Your opinions are important as we attempt to hold ourselves and those whom we collaborate and partner with to be responsible for upholding the standards enshrined in the UDHR formulated in 1948.

The opinions in this post are mine and do not reflect the views of any agency, institution, or individuals.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

March 4, 2017

International Non-Profits…The Surge for Relevance


How do international non-profit organisations continue to stay relevant and viable so  they can fulfil their humanitarian and development mandates?

There is increasing competition among international non-profits as well as the private sector for diminishing amounts of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). The organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries are channeling ODA through more tightly controlled and stringent conditions. As increasing numbers of countries continue to be categorised as ‘middle income’, irrespective of poverty or inequality gaps, bi-lateral and multi-lateral resources on which international non-profits depend on to provide assistance and manage their operations, are disappearing.

The Problem

It is becoming increasingly difficult for global organisations, especially international non-profits (International Non-Governmental Organisations – INGOs), to continue to operate based on ‘traditional’ business models. These are (or were) characterised by structures for outreach through global, regional and country specific infrastructure or ‘transaction points’. These ‘transaction points’ were often self-contained offices and staffed by paid employees, with ‘back office functions’ of their own. The purpose of this level of decentralisation was to ensure broad outreach to deliver goods, financial and non-financial services. In the case of international non-profits deliverables were humanitarian assistance in times of crisis, philanthropic or charity-driven activities, capability development and technical support to government institutions, local organisations and ‘beneficiaries’.

The closer the ‘transaction points’ were to the clients or recipients, the better. The result was a significant network of ‘transaction points’ de-centralised through regional, national, provincial/district and even at ward or community level.

For the purposes of this discussion I would like to focus on international non-profit organisations, more familiarly known as international non-governmental organisations or INGOs. It should be noted  for-profits or the private sector face the same constraints, challenges, and changes to the contextual and operating environment as non-profits do. The for-profits and the private sector organisations, being accountable to their boards, market, shareholders, and clients, can respond within tighter timeframes and through decisions that may not be consensus based, where accountabilities are clear.

For international non-profits management of these models depend on various ‘hierarchies’ of authority and responsibility (the ‘organogram’) usually being devolved from a central global ‘headquarters or head office’. Within this model functional areas are structured around the delivery of a global mandate which consists of specific objectives, strategies, and technical capabilities. Responsibilities and authority for decisions on processes and accountability for results depend on a significant volume of communication and discussion up and down the channels within this hierarchy.

This model, or variations of it, are difficult to manage and resource, and hamper or even prevent effective outcomes at the point of delivery. Transaction costs for travel and working from regional and country based ‘brick and mortar’ offices, managing the human resource burden and back offices have increasingly become liabilities. Effective decision making across such hierarchies are expensive (‘opportunity costs’) since highly paid staff need to spend time on face to face meetings There is an increasing need for timeliness and delivery which these structures cannot seem to manage with the agility and flexibility of decision making that is required. The ability to deliver mandated services to improve or change the lives of the ‘poor and marginalised’ within this model was becoming increasingly difficult.

The Drivers

  1. Competition: Less resources and more actors. The competitiveness within the humanitarian and development ‘industry’ in response to diminishing resources and tighter conditions on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is increasing. Nationalism, right wing politics, increased scrutiny by the media and public on how tax money was being spent on ODA, increasing unemployment in ‘donor countries’ and inequality puts pressure on ODA assistance to be more transparent and ‘fair’ within the market while delivering ‘value for money’ outcomes. This has resulted in a shift from ‘Requests for Proposals’ to ‘Public Tendering’ processes and more stringent and competitive conditions. ODA institutions are increasingly focusing on the delivery against results and measurement. An example is UKAID (formerly DfID) which has instituted mechanisms for ‘reimbursement upon delivery of results’.

The private sector has competitive as well as comparative advantages over International non-profits on responding to bidding and tendering and are now making inroads into ‘territory’ that was formerly dominated by International non-profits. The European Refugee Crisis, Brexit, the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Elections and the major humanitarian crises in the Middle East and sub Saharan Africa have impacted the amounts of ODA that is available. Large philanthropies such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and similar institutions and those who contributed to them are interested in data-backed, proven science, evidence-based approaches and technical solutions , simple but could be implemented at scale. Typical areas of focus are health, education, and financial inclusion of the ‘poor’.

Most International non-profits are not positioned to optimise on these opportunities since these large and adequately funded programmes often use country agreements with host governments, use existing government infrastructure which often involved policy reform.

  1. Context: Within countries and regions who are recipients of ODA assistance, changing demographics, negative trends in ‘xenophobic’ sentiment and nationalism have emerged as constraints. Increased restrictions on visas and work permits and regulatory measures aimed at local job creation are becoming challenges which result in expensive, complex, and difficult factors to address.

These have had adverse implications and consequences for global organisations in terms of presence, travel, relocation of their international staff, mobility across regions and countries, the ability to support on-the-ground operations and responsibilities for the delivery of entitlements, goods, and essential services rimplement core business.

  1. Conflict situations within fragile states and those subject to civil strife provide major security concerns for international staff and aid workers. International non-profits are often not provided the protections and conditions that UN organisations operate through. Incidents that result in fatalities, kidnappings and trauma faced by aid workers within these contexts are on the increase.

    1. Categorisation: The World Bank categorisation of an increasing number of countries as ‘middle income’ has also influenced resource mobilisation, irrespective of the ‘poverty gap’ and inequality in these countries. This categorisation relies on indicators related to GDP growth, in most cased fueled by new and restructured extractive industries. Most ODA to these countries are being de-prioritised and governments and the private sector are expected to take on increasing responsibilities to result in  in ‘wealth creation’. Some governments are repressive in that they do not acknowledge inequality, poverty or the realisation of rights and control the functions and decisions of independent media, judiciary, local government, and civil society organisations (‘shrinking space for Civil Society Organisations or CSOs’).

In March 2017, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) decided on how to include what are known as private sector instruments in aid. The DAC is OECD’s body in charge of determining what can and cannot be counted as “aid” to poor countries, or official development assistance This could mean a dramatic increase in the use of aid to invest in or give loans to private companies, or to agree to bail out failed private sector projects through guarantees. This will put development assistance to the poor at risk.

  1. Mistrust: Added to all of this, there is a decrease in the trust and integrity of International non-profits, NGOs and UN organisations by tabloid media and the public which undermines organisational credibility, which is the main ‘unique selling point’ of these organisations. Violations of Codes of Conduct by staff of some International non-profits, their partners and even the UN has exacerbated this perception.

The Solutions

The reactions to this challenge are classified as a category of ‘organisational evolution’. The expectation is that successful adaptation to the context and operating environment is possible through deliberate and thoughtful actions that are undertaken by organisations in a timely and pro-active manner.

The conclusions from a recent article in Devex titled 6 organizations to watch among NGO Advisor’s top-ranked 500’ surprised me  since none of the big, well known  international non-profits were mentioned.

  1. The ‘Knee Jerk’: Improving Cost Efficiencies. A flurry of activity around ‘context based strategic planning’ informed by ‘contextual analysis’, ‘the operating environment’ ‘donor mapping’ and, internal ‘process flow analysis’ to determine how best the organisational mandate could be delivered more cost-efficiently than in the past.

This exercise was undertaken primarily at the country and regional level. The main outcome was primarily a ‘budget proposition’ and often resulted in ‘re-structuring’, cutting costs and ‘improved partnerships’, (which usually meant that services world be delivered through contractual arrangements with more local organisations).

While effective in the short term, streamlining, consolidating, and reducing the number of transactions and their costs helped to some extent in delivering against operational requirements. But this was not a viable or sustainable option. Restructuring meant that jobs would be cut, very often at the lower levels of the organisation while managerial positions were still in place, but with different titles and with the same people in place. Hierarchies were still maintained as were operational models and business practices. Very soon services of those who were laid off were outsourced, new hires under different titles to do the same jobs and it was soon ‘back to business as usual’ and the next ‘strategic plan’.

However, it should be noted that improving cost efficiencies is an approach that is relevant for organisations whose products are unique, have a track record and brand identity, and work within specific sets of circumstances in meeting very specific needs. Within industry the brand names Lego and  Victorinox come  to mind.


  1. ‘The Shotgun Wedding’ – Symbiosis? While this is very common within the private sector, of late there have been noteworthy ‘mergers’ of large, international non-profits. Save the Children Fund merged its operations with Merlin, Grameen Foundation with Freedom From Hunger and currently GOAL is in talks with Oxfam in Ireland on combing their organisations into a new entity. These ‘mergers’ have the expectation that ‘brand heritage’ and the ‘unique skills and capabilities’ of each other will come together in a synergistic way to be more agile and responsive to emerging needs and humanitarian crises.

As to whether these mergers are successful or not is yet to be tested. The primary challenges are focusing and building on shared values and similarities than in trying to manage and get bogged down in attempting to reconcile differences within ‘organisational cultures’.

Since these mergers are often implemented due to one or both organisations undergoing financial difficulties, initially there will be some level of cross subsidisation till a level of viability is achieved. If this does not happen within anticipated timeframes the arrangement becomes fragile. There is some skepticism that these are not strategic and deliberately thought out organisational actions but rather those that ensure these organisations remain viable and afloat.

  1. ‘Reading the Tea Leaves’: Positioning for the Future. More organisations are (especially those that are confederated) undertaking ‘scenario’ based strategic planning’ which looks to the future, being informed by trends, patterns, and changes within global, regional and country contexts, especially the demographics of their service recipients. Various scenarios are identified and the main outcomes are characteristics of models or options, and how they would operate and function within these different scenarios.

The planning also as best able defines products and services that would be relevant and appropriate for each scenario. The primary outcome is a ‘strategic proposition’ as opposed to a ‘budget proposition’. The three areas of relevance are brand recognition, product definition and capabilities to deliver within each scenario.

This approach is having some degree of success in that organisations are better able to explain and mobilise resources around scenarios where they have a strong constituency, brand recognition, capabilities to deliver and known for their product. More challenging is communicating the future positioning and proving the ‘hypothesis’ of success of the options within the scenario through evidence.

This means that investments must be made in testing out and innovating solutions and surfacing evidence that is objective and has support of key stakeholders. This also means working more closely with governments in alignment with their policies, and with the private sector.

Some examples are the UN Strategic Development Goals (SDGs), the increase in the number of ‘social enterprises’, harnessing technologies to better deliver services (cash transfers through mobile phones, delivery of agricultural insurance) and innovation in delivering humanitarian assistance (access to Water and Sanitation, establishing core standards and principles, and being objectively able to measure results).

The nature of partnerships also change which become more mutually agreed upon strategic relationships. They move from sub-contracting and implementation mechanisms governed by compliance, financial monitoring and audit to relationships built on shared values, trust and mutual learning and capability development.

The challenges are that new capabilities are needed, leadership and management skills are more valued than technical expertise (which is often outsourced and expensive) and some level of serious restructuring takes place throughout the organisation. Relationship skills are important in interacting with other organisations and in promoting active participation within relevant networks.

On the people front there could be considerable resistance from the ‘old guard’ often in senior positions, the danger of patronage and cronyism in staffing of new structures and ineffective communication strategies that confuse and send mixed messaging to staff.


  1. ‘Now You See Me…’: Transformation: This represents a complete ‘change in basic assumptions’ in how organisations transform themselves into different entities. While the brand is retained, the vision and purpose are more deliberately revisited, the anticipated impact of the work more thoroughly defined and characterised and the pathways leading from aspiration to impact are identified. Affiliated and confederated organisations are increasingly recognising this as the best-case option, if they can get it to work.

The architecture of the organisation is then structured to support these pathways, often working backward. More thorough ‘risk analysis’ is undertaken and risks are sometimes deliberately built in and mitigating factors are integrated (e.g. organisational reserves, capability rosters, agreements with governments, MoUs with strategic partners). Conventional wisdom is often deferred to ‘out of the box’ thinking. At each stage of decision making effective communications keep the staff and the organisation informed. Key words become ‘doing more with less’, leverage, influencing change and relevance.

The danger of this process is that it’s comparable to nuclear fission. Once a critical mass is reached there are no control rods to manage the chain reaction. Similarly, with the transformation process, beyond a certain point there is no turning back. It is very important for the decision makers to agree on what this point is and what characteristics define it. This will help in knowing and recognising this benchmark when they reach it; the point of no return.

The other risk is that while you are involved in a transformative process you also tend to dabble in and bring in elements of Solution 1 and 3 to address certain issues which makes this process very frustrating. It becomes drawn out, the focus is more on process management than the aspiration and essentially delivery against the core business almost grinds to a halt. The critical alignments of aspiration, capabilities and resources that are so important for this model to work are ‘thrown out of whack’.

Physical offices as a workplace are on their way out. These are increasingly being replaced by cross-functional and diverse teams working together virtually from geographically dispersed locations. Tasks and outcomes are completed and delivered through thoughtful and negotiated discussion, assertive and informed risk-taking and innovation.

Individual team members are encouraged to proactively take on work that promote efficiencies, co-create solutions and evolve delivery against ‘core business’ ambitions more effectively and for the better. Results based management practices are replacing process supervision and oversight. Cross-functional team members rarely meet with each other for physical interaction unless through planned regional or global events once or twice a year. ‘Working from home’ is becoming a norm rather than an exception


There are many more arrangements and adaptive changes that take place at all these levels. I have highlighted the most common. Almost all the above solutions have capitalised on the exponential growth of affordable information and communication technologies, customisation and adapting platforms for virtual and matrixed ways of working to address some of these challenges.

The ability to access cost effective outsourced technical support, outsource services and maintain localised back office functions has helped overcome most obstacles. Virtual recruitment has been made easier through social media platforms, and recruitment and talent spotting agencies, where a recruiting manager has little or no physical interaction with applicants.

Whichever solutions that International non-profits opt for, a recent Korn/Ferry Report Highlights some of the Key Factors of utmost importance for organisations that make strategic decisions in their search for relevance and positioning.

Commitment to ‘Organisation Enablers’

  1. Purpose and vision: the organisation’s raison d’être – what it exists to do.
  2. Choice and focus: the strategy, operating model, and structure to achieve the purpose and vision.
  3. Accountability and fairness: a high-performance work environment, where people own their responsibilities and are fairly rewarded for carrying them out.

People Drivers

  1. Clarity: Employees’ understanding of their role, and of their part in achieving the organisation’s strategy.
  2. Capability: Talent with the right knowledge, competencies, and attributes, in the right places, at the right time.
  3. Commitment: People who are motivated and enabled to play their part in the organisation’s success.

Note: This article originally started as a post through which I wanted to share experiences on how cross-functional teams can be extremely successful and productive. However, in writing the background this post took on a life of its own and practically wrote itself. In the end, I had more than 2500 words on the background which when tweaked stood on its own as an article which I decided to post on LinkedIn.

Daniel Sinnathamby

Colombo, Sri Lanka

February 18, 2017

Title Photo Credit: Blair Fraser – www.unsplash.com

Illustration and text from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, illustrated by John Tenniel.

Why I am taking ‘posting’ on LinkedIn Seriously


I  published three posts on LinkedIn during three consecutive weeks as a commitment that I had made to myself.

I was extremely surprised by and gratified at the number of LinkedIn members who had viewed or read these posts. This might seem a bit puzzling to you but I was ‘gobsmacked’, for want of a better word. I never expected that so many members would show interest in my posts and check them out.

I would like to say a sincere ‘thank you’ to those of you who took the time to view them or read them, liked and left comments.

It might help if I explained why I decided to take LinkedIn seriously and use it as a platform for communication. It’s a bit of a ramble but I feel that I owe an explanation.

In May of 2016 I finished my contract with the organisation that I was working for and came home to Sri Lanka from six+ years in southern Africa. I had decided that I was not going to seek institutional employment but wanted to work from home. I wanted to spend more time with my family and doing the things that I had always wanted to do…. a ‘bucket list’ of sorts.

To read, write, take things easy, and among other things explore if my ‘doodles’ were an art form and had any currency. I decided that I would consult and pick up pieces of work if they were about managing complexity and problem solving related to how organisations and ‘start ups’ position themselves within a context that is undergoing rapid and significant change.  The key words here were ‘relevance’, ‘purposeful’ and ‘fit for the future’.

There was also a book inside me that was for a long time endlessly nagging me, that was wanting to get out and be written, and I thought that this was a good opportunity to try.

The first two weeks were fine. I read a lot, binge watched TV series, debates on You Tube, the start of the GOP primaries and catching up with old friends and contacts. I also started studying social media platforms in case I needed to opt for more consulting work. I had more time with my family than before. I enjoyed the serious conversations with my daughters on contemporary issues and challenges. The maturity in their understanding of issues, concerns, views, and opinions were representative of the times and the age of the ‘millennials’ and the struggles that they would face in the coming years.

I was also very interested in the drivers of change in Asia. The consistency among the trends and patterns that were driving Asia and Sri Lanka into the future were remarkable. There was tremendous growth in services and manufacturing. 12 years ago, Sri Lanka’s agriculture constituted more than 8% of the GDP and was now 3%, with more than 70% consisting of the service industry and the rest in manufacturing.

In Sri Lanka, economic and development growth were predominantly due to the end of the conflict and the opening up of the north and the east. This was a huge boost to the hospitality industry. Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka as the best travel destination for 2013. Exponential growth in communication technology, a vibrant private sector and an investor friendly climate have also been major contributors.

Some local non-governmental organisations had the agility to foresee and position themselves and were successful to use emerging possibilities and opportunities through ‘social ventures’. These reduced ‘transaction costs ‘of consumer goods and services so that they were more competitive and affordable.

The government has also taken on more responsibility, adopting increasing sophistication, and use of technology to improve service delivery. The private sector has diversified and local non-governmental organisations are becoming more effective in representing their constituents driven by economic incentives.

Yet not all was not right. Corruption continues to be a major challenge as is political patronage and cronyism. Poor infrastructure, the high cost of utilities and limited mobility due to congestion has had a negative impact on productivity. This has resulted in high ‘opportunity costs’. Inequality, the disparity in wealth distribution and the marginalisation of women and girls remain high on the list of priorities, with much to be done.

These are the characteristics of ‘middle income countries’ and is broadly representative of Asia.

Within these contexts of growing economies and development is there a role for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs)? Many have become redundant and irrelevant.  They have ceased operations or have transformed themselves (in most cases, too late) into ‘fee for service’ entities. Those that remain are driving too fast towards too sharp a bend. This appears to be the paradox of working in ‘middle income’ countries.

INGOs contribute significantly to emergency response and the provision of humanitarian assistance. This is a key priority for the region. UN/OCHA and ECHO in the region believe there is inadequate capability within the region to respond to large scale disasters. Disaster preparedness, mobilising an adequate ‘surge’ of responders and mass casualty management rank as the most important. INGOs can and continue to add significant value which could be improved through more effective coordination and collaboration. The lack of adequate resources will continue to be a major challenge.

INGOs can add value through their local partners in increasing scale and outreach for services. If local partner organisations can market, process and manage transactions this helps in lowering costs of services. This involves capability development through partnerships that are very different to traditional models. Subcontracting, grant management, compliance and audits will take on lesser importance. Working through shared vision and values, relationship management and joint risk taking will be new norm. Effective advocacy, targeted and effective campaigns will also take on greater relevance. Issues that need prioritisation are women’s rights, inequality, poverty, urbanisation, rights of migrants and refugees and good governance.  This seem to be the ‘niche’s for INGOs.

The new metrics of impact will be the degree to which rights are realised, the numbers of people who benef from economic and development growth of their economies. The reduction in inequality and affordable access to water and sanitation, and other basic services that contribute to overall wellbeing are also important indicators. The key challenges are being able to quantify the value that is added and being able to define the characteristics of the ‘product’ that INGOs will deliver.

So, what has all of this got to do with my taking LinkedIn more seriously?

By week four I was impatient. I knew that I had the knowledge that could address and contribute to solving some of the issues that I had learned about. I had also discussed these issues with a variety of individuals within the private sector, INGOs, NGOs and consultants.

I felt a sense of responsibility that I need in some way to contribute meaningfully in addressing these issues.

I had learned so much from the institutions that I had worked for and that had invested in me. I also had the good fortune to work with some of the best people I have ever met and learned from …Dr. Marc Lindenberg, Steve Hollingworth (‘simple things done well at scale’), Vipin Sharma www.accessdev.org , Dr. Geeta Menon (epitome of ‘humility of self but pride in profession’), Raj Srinivasan, Lee Moncaster, Veena Padia, Basant Mohanty….so many of them.

The challenges for me were:

  1. How could I be an ‘influencer’?
  2. How could I use my capabilities and knowledge to the best possible extent? How could I communicate innovation, new ways of working, resource mobilisation, help establish and facilitate public-private sector collaboration?
  3. How could I help position individuals, organisations and institutions to anticipate, keep up with and adapt to the rapid change in contexts, transform their organisations and operating models and stay relevant? How could I help address complexity and help develop solutions around these transformations.?
  4. What were the opportunities for me to help coach and mentor the young and idealistic who wanted to make a difference? I wrote a concept paper on this and shared it with people respected within the industry with the anticipation that this might be one way of communicating.
  5. How could I use ‘social media’ to share what I knew from practice, implementation, and results so that those who were facing the challenges that I have highlighted above might find useful?

The best way I thought was to write for myself…. twenty years ago, what would have been useful for me to know? How could I have benefitted from what I know now and have experienced and learned? Are there others who would find at least some parts of what I post useful?

These were the incentives for me to write and share. There was also a sense of urgency that time was not kind, or on our side and was passing by on the fast lane.

I also felt that if I did not do this, it would be irresponsible of me.

  • That’s why I take LinkedIn seriously now. I have committed to posting one piece of writing per week on what I have learned.
  • I’m not on Facebook because it’s for people you know. They will find you anyway and communicate with you, as I’m doing now in tracking down my old contacts. I’m on Google+ because of people whom I wish I knew.
  • I’m on Medium and a member of ‘The Writing Cooperative’ and I participate since it allows other members to critique your writing and comment on your drafts. This is an experience which I enjoy very much.
  • I’m on Patreon which is home to 300,000+ creators (Photographers, Musicians and Singers, Artists etc.) making a living from their work through subscription payments from their fans. I will start posting my ‘artwork’ soon and if I have enough fans who make pledges I would like to commit this to young entrepreneurs who could use some contribution towards their ‘start up’s
  • I’m on Instagram, initially because my phone would not let me take a picture without Instagram opening and asking me if I wanted to post my shot. But I’m glad I did because some truly inspiring and amazing work is posted there.
  • I’m on Twitter. I have no idea why. I see one follower and I think that it’s me.

I trust this helps in explaining why I feel a sense of responsibility to share, do something relevant and contribute to solving todays problems. LinkedIn provides me with a suitable platform for doing that.

If you would like to comment, please leave them it on the LinkedIn post. If you would like to make contact, or share some of the challenges and issues that you would like to communicate please provide your contact details in on the contact sheet on www.danielsinnathamby.com’  and I will get back to you.

Thanks to all of you, once again.

Suceed at Managing your Circumstances

cristian-newman unsplash.com.jpg

This article is the result of a  post I read in ‘The Writer’s Cooperative’ on Medium titled ‘What Disney’s Inside Out tells us about locus of control’ by Erica Rothman.

There are times when we feel we are the victims of circumstance and are helpless, unable to determine how we  extricate ourselves from these situations. Everything looks bleak and hopeless, and there do not seem to be avenues or ‘paths of clarity’ that we need to choose and to proceed. Our emotions are at low ebb, it’s ‘doom and gloom’….and as a recourse we retreat, hug our ‘safety blankets’ and the familiar and hope the situation will pass and somehow we will weather the storm or at worst, resign ourselves to succumb.

This is true of both our personal and professional lives.

In my profession managing circumstances is of utmost importance as the consequences affect large numbers of people, have implications for the ‘brand’ and organisational resources. This is also  an important personal consideration as my competence, credibility, integrity, and emotional wellbeing rests on this.

What I share are the lessons from 24+ years of experience learned through success, but mostly through mistakes, failure, and an incomplete understanding of the circumstances.

The context of ‘circumstances’ are complex, and we often see them as ‘obstacles’.  Since the theme of this post is on managing and not on determining the context, underlying causes or details I have linked an informative and fun post here which contains relevant and thoughtful guidance on determining the causes of and the means of overcoming obstacles.

Let’s break down ‘circumstances’ into its component parts;

  1. The ‘circumstances’ themselves, within which we find ourselves in the moment and context specific, which may or may not change now or the near future. These are driven by past events which may be individual or contextual and by changes and trends which drive them into future scenarios.
  2. The first variable, ‘control’. Are you able to maintain and manage control over the circumstances? Or are they beyond your control and you are individually unable to manage or change them on your own.
  3. The second variable, ‘the ability to decide’. Do you have the ability and the power to make decisions within the current circumstances, or not?
  4. The ‘consequences’ or outcomes that result from actions within these variables of control and the ability to decide and their ‘sphere of influence’.

If we represent these ‘variables’ as a visual it would look like this:


There are four scenarios or ‘quadrants’, which we will call A, B, C, and D with titles I’ve made up. You probably can come up with more descriptive and colorful titles for them.

  1. Quadrant A: ‘I ‘ve got this…’ You are in ‘control’ of your circumstances, understand them and have the power to make ‘decisions’. Everything is well; you seem to be ‘on top of things’ and can manage your circumstances and determine the consequences or outcomes of your decisions to a significant extent. Within this you are both responsible and accountable for the outcomes and consequences.
  1. Quadrant B: ‘I’ve got your back…’ You are in control but the decision lies with someone else. This may be a board room setting where you are in control but decisions are made by voting, meetings where decision making is by consensus, ‘conflict of interest’ situations if you potentially stand to benefit or organisational policy. You might be in control but you cannot decide. Parenting is also a good example within this since you maintain control but would like your son or daughter to make the decision about certain issues or choices.

You might be able to override the decision-making process and move yourself into Quadrant A but this would probably result in compromising agreements, rules, or guidelines.  You might also be able to ‘influence’ the decision-making process by working with or convincing the decision makers on your point of view. In marketing, you may be in control of goods and services but the customer is the decision maker whom you try to influence through advertising and media.

Here  you are accountable for the consequences or outcome of the decision.

  1. Quadrant C: ‘I’ve got to see someone…”. You’ve made the decision but the circumstances are not within your control. You’ve decided to travel to China but you may need to get a visa, which is not within your control. You’ve decided that your son should drive and teach him to but whether he gets his license or not is up to the DMV. This is also an area where you might want an outcome by influencing individuals or agencies in control through convincing reasoning, advocacy, or campaigning for a cause. Or you work with someone who can influence the level of control.

Within such a situation you are not accountable for the outcome or consequences unless you try to manipulate the ‘system’ of norms, rules, and regulations.

  1. Quadrant D:‘WTF?’:. An asteroid is heading towards earth and unless you have Bruce Willis backed by Aerosmith all is gone. Flippancy aside, this can be a very negative physical and emotional space. A sudden tragedy or a death in the family or of a loved one, living under a very repressive regime, a financial meltdown where your life savings just disappeared or the nosedive and crash of your ‘start up’. You feel helpless, despondent, alone in the world, and, “why me?”.

Here the paradox is while you may not be accountable or responsible for consequences or outcomes, your position here could also result from not fully understanding (or being blind to) the circumstances and implications. This may also result from violating the agreements, commitments, rules and regulations within B and C or being inadequately self-aware or irresponsible within A.

Where does this leave us?

  1. Try as best able to understand be aware of the origin of the circumstances as well as the ‘drivers’ and trends or changes in context that can transform them into different scenarios. The four principle sources from where you get your information are: i. Secondary sources such as the media and the internet; ii. Your primary contacts, networks, and relationships, both personal and professional; iii. Trends and patterns in the external context that impact on your brand or industry; and, iv. From key informants who have authoritative and responsible knowledge.
  2. Within A be deliberate and thoughtful in making decisions and be aware of the outcomes and consequences, not only for yourself but for your immediate circle of relationships and contexts and for the broader sphere of your influence which may impact on your organisation, your work and the larger operating environment.
  3. Within B,  respect and honor agreements, commitments and guidelines that have been established, very often with your participation. Also, ensure that when you delegate decision making that you also provide adequate authority. The danger here is ‘pay for play’ and relationships that are governed by patronage. A good example is the post-election drama in the US that’s playing itself out now.
  4. Within C, do not try to manipulate the system. If the system does not work for you try to understand why and address the causes. Your paperwork may not meet the requirements, your personal habits may have negatively influenced your effectiveness in ensuring that you have done your part and, follow the rules.
  5. Within D; this is a difficult one…if you are not responsible or accountable as to why you are in this position, seek solace and inspiration from those who have gone through the same experience. Build a constituency of the like-minded to help you move into A, B, or C. In times of grief you will find that you are not alone. Manage emotional burdens and stress by seeking positive contact and help from family, friends, your networks or a coach or mentor whom you trust. If it’s a larger cause that you want to address, join a movement or campaign to bring about change in the circumstances.

If you are here because of making the wrong call or have misjudged a situation, learn from it. If you are here because of your patterns of behavior or habits, try changing them.

This approach has helped me personally and professionally to manage myself and work while enhancing self-awareness, professionalism, emotional resilience and being looked up to as a coach and mentor. It has also helped reduce the emotional burden of managing relationships through objectively differentiating between challenges and issues and the self, including myself.

I hope you find this post useful.

January 5, 2017 Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Photograph: Cristian Newman, www.unsplash.com

SEA Junction


“We had no time for ourselves, for our needs…. not even for coffee. We would put granules of instant coffee into our mouths and wash it down with water so that we could go on working. If the captain or any of the supervisors felt that we were not working hard enough we were whipped or beaten with sting ray tails or rope ends.”

This was a part of the testimony given by Samat, a Cambodian who was trafficked by a ‘broker’ and worked on a Thai fishing trawler, more or less a slave, for more than five years without setting foot on land before he escaped.

The occasion was an exhibition of photographs at the SEA Junction (‘South East Asia’ Junction) by Mahmud Rahman, a Bangladeshi professional photographer, and I had the privilege of being invited to the opening event. Through these photographs, Mahmud sought to document, highlight and create awareness of the plight of migrant laborers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to Thailand and Indonesia. Mostly males, these migrants were trafficked into working under conditions of near slavery within the Thai and Indonesian fishing industry. The main markets for the processed seafood from this industry are in Europe and the USA.


Mahmud spent almost two years studying the Thai fishing industry, working his way south along the coast from Bangkok, mostly on his bicycle and spending time, sometimes days, living in these with fisher communities in the various ‘piers’, the coastal enclaves that the fishing boats departed from. He was able to make it all the way to Pattani in the ‘deep south’.

Mahmud is passionate about understanding and through his photography documenting the socio-cultural aspects of indigenous peoples and those who survive on marginal livelihoods and physical labour. This passion often led to the commissioning of work as a professional photographer by institutions and their causes. For me what stood out and was special about Mahmud’s photography was the ability of his work to invoke empathy and the creation of an emotional link with his subjects.


While Mahmud was not able to spend time on the boats on fishing runs he was able to spend time in the fishing villages and interact with the families and women folk of the Thai fishermen.

The SEA Junction, located within the very impressive and modernistic Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre (BACC) in Bangkok, Thailand functions as resource centre whose stated aspiration is to ‘foster understanding and appreciation of south east Asia in all its realities and socio-cultural dimensions’. It primarily serves as a documentary resource centre and a reading area but also actively promotes discussion and dialogue on issues related to south east Asia.


Mahmud’s curated exhibition included a discussion led by a panel add up of the CEO of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) which is a nonprofit organisation committed to ensuring the right of migrant labourers, the Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Asia and Mahmud.

The discussion was followed by testimony from two migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) who had managed to escape, which were heart breaking to listen to.


“Most of the work was to cast the nets and draw them in which took about four hours, and we did this around five to six times a day. Sometimes we went two to three days without sleep and time to eat or rest. We were constantly beaten and abused by our overseers. We could not see properly due to exhaustion and our eyes were blurry. Very often we injured ourselves. The worst work was packing the fish into 25 — 30 kg. blocks and stacking them manually in the freezer holds. The cold and the stench were unbearable ”.

The migrant from Myanmar raised up his hand which was missing four fingers and consisted only of the thumb and a part of the palm when he injured himself while working. I was not taken ashore or given any medical treatment for more than a month and constantly kept my hand on ice to staunch the bleeding and reduce the pain. There was an instance when a Burmese migrant jumped over the side of the boat in desperation thinking that he could swim his way to the shore, but he got entangled in the net and drowned. His corpse was thrown into the sea”.


When the fishing boats and trawlers returned to land after three to four weeks of fishing they transferred the migrant workers to boats that were outbound on their way out at mid-sea. These transfers ensured that the migrants would not be able to set foot on land, resulting in their time on these boats measured in years.

The situation of these migrants working under conditions of near slavery within the industry was not new but came into prominence as serious violations of human rights following exposes by prominent news agencies such as the Associated Press, The Guardian and the New York Times. These ‘specials’ in editorials and supplements of these newspapers paint a picture of such stark misery, deprivation and sadistic abuse that is almost impossible to imagine and comprehend that such conditions could actually exist in these times.


Following these exposes and the work of organisations such as LPN, HRW supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and regulatory measures put in place by the governments of Indonesia and Thailand the industry, described as a ‘a lawless country of its own within our world’, the industry and practices have improved. The EU has also cooperated by ‘yellow carding’ supermarket chains in Europe that did not have adequate measures of due diligence in place to monitor compliances with regard to sourcing and processing.


But the industry has adapted by moving further across the oceans to places like Madagascar and the African coast where poverty and misery can still be exploited without consequences.

So, the next time you pick up a tin of seafood on your supermarket chain that says ‘Processed in xxxxx’, give a thought to the amount of misery and the corrosive exploitation that could have gone into producing its contents.


January 29, 2017, Bangkok, Thailand

For more of Mahmud’s photography check out his posts on Instagram (Profile: mahmudphotodhaka) and Facebook.

Note: The photographs in this post are the intellectual property of Mahmud Rahman. The photographs may be used for non-commercial purposes with attribution to source.