Why do local people never get humanitarian aid money?

New book United Nonsense shows why local organisations cannot make it in the professional aid world. Even though they are the experts desperate to help their own communities.

Localisation of aid is failing.  We give around $143 billion dollars in international aid. Almost none of it makes to local people.  The grand promise of 25% of Western aid making it to directly to local organizations, up from an astonishing 1%, by 2020 is about to be broken. Why is this?

I’ve worked in the charity sector for a decade. The thing is, I never actually worked for anyone else. I started-up my own charity. In Syria. Then later in Palestine, and Jordan. I had the double whammy of working on a start-up, and working in war zones.

I’m a Bengali, of working class background, Londoner, Muslim, the labels could go on!  Of course it mattered, the colour of my skin and the fact I don’t have a penis. The Middle East has a problem when it comes to women; sexual harassment, from touching to abuse is common. The international aid world has a problem with colour. The aid sector is full of so much ‘unconscious bias’ it shows up like its taken Viagra and is trying to keep it hidden in its skinny jeans.

I’m now in Berlin, with two toddlers, and a stability that has me looking over my shoulder in surprise that no man is trying to put his hands between my legs. Or on my thigh. Or trying to buy me. Or……

It felt like the right time to stop and think about all those experiences. It’s a story that is crying out to be shared. After all how many woman end up running a sports charity in a misogynistic racist, universe that happens to be at war with itself?

So, 2019, is the year of writing this story. And at the same time trying to find answers to why local people get basically, none of the aid money.

I’ll be blogging about my writing journey here. Have fun following me.


Was David Lammy right in ‘outing’ Stacey Dooley as a white saviour?

In the year 2000, the BBC and other British media were filled with stories and images of Prince William, future King of Great Britain, of his 10-week charity visit to Patagonia. Prince William had gone out to ‘help’.  He was pictured cleaning a toilet, doing construction work, and teaching English.


At 18 years old, this young man who had no experience of poverty, and had gone to one of the most elite schools in the world, was applauded internationally for his ‘humility’ and his ‘mucking-in’. He is pictured teaching English, was he even qualified? Other Western volunteers are interviewed, and they talk about how ’normal’ William is. The people these volunteers have gone in to ‘help’ are referred to as ‘locals’.[1]  Everything in this reportage feels like paternalism. The locals just a backdrop to the 18 year old saviour.


More recently, a 2017 fundraising campaign created for Comic Relief and the Disasters Emergency Committee won the Radi-Aid awards; an award that aims to out media that reinforce a culture of viewing recipients of aid as passive victims, and a ‘Western’ person as the saviour.[2]This time is was Ed Sheeran who was highlighted as the white saviour.


To be fair these White Saviour campaigns are happening less and less. Radi-Aid did not give out awards in 2018 as it was getting harder to source such footage. Does that mean that the attitudes underlying such media changing? Or are editors and experts simply getting better at knowing what is politically correct?


What happens when the right editor does not oversee an image or video?


Then perhaps we get videos like this UNHCR one.

We see a white woman, working for UNHCR, talking about the great need of an old man and an old woman, both refugees.  We see their total vulnerability. We see that they have no agency. We assume that it is with only our money that these brutalised people can survive.

This video was published in 2018.

Its hard to see the people behind these videos. They are one-sided caricatures.

I can see why David Lammy is frustrated. Stacy Dooley didn’t mean anything by her pictures. But neither, I am sure, did Ed Sheeran in his videos, and was William really setting out to assert his white supremacy? I am absolutely certain UNHCR had donations in mind when they made this video. Because they want to help.

Regardless if David or Stacey was in the right, the problem is that we are still forced to have these conversations. David’s post generated over 10k responses.

Conversations that show that paternalism, racism, white saviours, mistrust of ‘locals’ are still alive and well in the humanitarian aid world.



[1] See  BBC article http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1064991.stmor the Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1377745/Hard-work-and-high-adventure-for-William-in-Chile.html

[2]The Radi-Aid campaign aims to “challenge the perceptions around issues of poverty and development, to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate, and to break down dominating stereotypeshttps://www.radiaid.comhttps://youtu.be/KOF1vczQDeY

What’s weird in the Professional Humanitarian Sector?

Entering a new profession when you don’t know the jargon, the particular culture that defines it, the structures of how things work, can be shocking.  That shock quickly wears off as pretty quickly everything starts to appear ‘normal’.


Here are five things that totally shocked me when I first started out.


  1. Fundraising Fundraising or sales is something that is not recognised as a valid way of spending charity money. Yes, that’s right. For a charity to survive it needs to fundraise, but it is not acceptable for charities to spend money on fundraising, marketing, social media, relationship management. As a result a lot of charities try to hide these costs in the way they show their accounts. See Dan Pallotta, a former CEO of a successful charity give his take in his TED talk.
  2. Interns and volunteers Most are privileged, middle class, and with parental financial backing. They are the ones who can afford to formally volunteer and work for free for a while. The UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations also found this to be something of an issue. Here is an overview of a report they published about lack of diversity amongst those who formally volunteer in the sector.
  3. Career Humanitarianists live like Kings The career humanitarian professional leads a life that includes eating out at top restaurants, living in elite accommodation, having access to the British or other clubs, hanging out with diplomats, has a cleaning lady and a nanny, and send their kids to elite international schools. See this article about living the life of an expat development professionaland this one which argues that it all comes with the terrain. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is definitely a tempting, luscious and addictive lifestyle.
  4. Old Boys Club? Western humanitarian professionals are usually at the top of the tree and don’t speak native languages. They work through translators, and local hires. Senior types tend to be men. This creates a situation of group think, an in-tribe, and echo chamber culture.  Dangerous when a few foreign people hold so much visible power. See the recent Oxfam article about the ‘boys club’culture British charities have. Oxfam also published its own internal investigation about an Oxfam sexual scandal in Haiti which you can find here.
  5. Cynicism A lot of international development workers get cynical about their roles in the whole international aid cycle. Where does all the money go they ask? Are we really making a difference? Are we part of the problem? These questions are often dinner tabled, and at times spill over into things like the World Humanitarian Summit. At bottom we do want to make the world a better place, but are we willing to give something up so someone else can have more? Anand Giridharadas has an interesting take on this in his bestselling book  Winners Take All.


These are just a few of the things that I found weird.  At some point I started using all the local jargon and parroting the group think when I was in group situations.  In the early days I’d often throw in an alternative thought, but I got accused of being racist or having a chip on my shoulder. So, I did that less and less.


Happy Saving the World People.


Merry Xmas and Ho!Ho!Ho!



Blockchain: how can it revolutionise the development sector?

What if we could transfer money directly to a cause we care about – and take out the cartel like monopolies who eat up the money in the middle? Whilst having full control and transparency over the entire life cycle of those funds? Thats what blockchain could give the development sector.

Currently the international development sector is highly centralised, accountability of action is minimal, and most money goes back in Western donor nations through preferential contracts and the fact that senior staffers eat up most of the money through salaries.

Currently, donations, although accounted for, leaves the donor in the magic position of essentially being unaccountable. For example when projects go wrong, who is responsible and what redress is there? In a situation where any bad press can heavily diminish donations we, the general public, don’t hear much about donations going wrong for a reason. But what can blockchain do about all this?

You can find examples of recent hiccups in how money is spent here, here and here.

You can find explanations of what blockchain is here and some innovation examples here.


  1. We can track money all the way to where its supposed to be going.
  2. Transaction costs (money transfer services which can be plus £70 a pop, physical labour of someone setting up each transfer and filling in lots of detailed documents about payments, physical costs of someone answering queries, exchange rate loss, payments being held….) gone in a flash.
  3. Fraud and terrorism severely undermined as every transaction is traceable. We can’t wash the code.
  4. And of course smart contracts so that we cut time and middle men.


See a previous blog I wrote about money transfers here.

7 tips for getting on with white aid workers

  1. DO, smile and say yes. Most white aid workers are entitled and have no idea they have no clue. They already believe they know everything. So, just keep agreeing and advance the groupthink mindset.
  2. DON’T talk about colour. White aid workers don’t like to have to encounter their own whiteness. If you point out your own non-white colour you force the white aid worker to see that yes, they really are a white aid worker helping brown people based on a history of colonialism, and power disparity.
  3. DO talk about benefits. Aid workers love talking about benefits and complaining about them.  Engage in a talk about benefits and the white aid worker will most certainly feel like you are one of them.
  4. DO sympathise with the traumatic experiences that white aid workers encounter as they go about their mission of doing good. Many will be in therapy,  and/or have access to a counsellor paid for by their NGO employer. R&R *rest and relaxation, on top of their generous holiday allowances help keep them sane as they deal with their sacrifices of being humanitarians.
  5. DON’T mention your diverse cultural heritage. White aid workers like to see themselves as citizens of the world. Your ability to skip between languages  that are not all latin based, as well as be from a different class background, and possibly a female to boot does not fit the white aid workers ‘dominant narrative’ of being the coolest third world kid in the room.
  6. DON’T mistake a desire to do good as an actual desire to understand and respect the cultures and perspectives of the global south. The money for international development is an industry built around white, rich people who want to feel better about being white and rich. White aid workers need to feel that are doing something meaningful don’t mistake this for actually doing something meaningful.
  7. IF you find a brown aid worker look out for their white partner.  The white partner means the brown aid worker is probably a coconut, oreo, malteser, or whatever politically incorrect term is doing the rounds these days.

What happens when a bank shuts down your account? Foreign ‘terrorist’ payments and HSBC apology on the BBC

What happens when a bank shuts down your account?

We started getting requests from our bank to double-check all our details. We are based in countries where infrastructure is poor, and we are running a charity by boot-strapping.  Any extra administration becomes a crises.  We have to report to our seven different donors, whilst trying to deal with military security changing and access to some of the refugee populations suddenly denied, and a staff member has been detained at the border.  Again.

So, a request to obtain hand-signed documentation from every board member is a crises. (No, an e-signature will not do).

Our board members are based across four different countries and travel frequently.  The logistics of getting signatures is a grand exercise.  I remember when I was finally able to send those signatures off – just as our accounts were shut down.  We had not been able to make it in the time period given, even though we had informed our bank and been told in return that the deadline had been extended.

So began the next grand exercise. Explanations to all staff about payment delays.  And for staff who were living on their salaries month by month a delay meaning: they would not meet their rent obligations;  pay their mobile phone bill; afford the fare to get to work and that was only the start of it.  The emotional stress in the workplace was exacerbated by the stress of living in an area where tensions were high, there was, after all, a  war on the border.

Death and pain all around us and our much needed bubble popped(!) by an admin issue.

Radio 4 ran this programme about why HSBC had started shutting down charitable accounts that were sending money abroad. The nature of a lot of development and chartable work is that money is sent to areas where governance is poor, where infrastructure is lacking, where it really really hard to get the right paperwork in.  Doable, but takes time. The stories on the show reminded me of our own situation last year.

We resolved everything.  We managed to get the account up and running. The stress involved was a high cost to pay.

To manage the risk of suddenly not having access to our account we’ve set up another payment method and hold a minimum of funds there.  For a small charity its not ideal.  But it does mean we can meet our obligations.


Era of Islamism and self-censorship

I wrote the below Ramadan message just over a week ago.  It was before the London attacks, and after the Manchester bombing.  I wrote that Ramadan can actually be a time of heightened violence, and then it happened on my home turf.

I’ve become increasingly aware that as a Muslim-Brit, we are all under microscopes; expected to disavow the ‘extremists’ amongst ‘us’.  The thing is, I feel no ‘us’, with these people who I am being boxed in with.  Who are they? What drives them to kill? I’ve as much perspective as a well-read white male.

The expectation remains however, that I should be raising a voice.  I feel the need to show that I am a positive example of Muslim-ness.  Positive in the sense that I speak the right words, in the right way, and I’m brown female to boot.

Except of course, I do not particularly want to succumb to an imposition of a ‘positive’ Muslim identity that I do not recognise. I want to simply be. Unfortunately, in such histrionic time, such freedoms are luxuries.  I do want to give into self-censorship and keep my head down.

I am scared for my friends and family.  Will the dog poop show up on my mums doorstep again, or stones get thrown at my auntie who doesn’t speak English but can recognise racism and swear words. That coffee that got thrown at a hijab wearing colleague, will it become the new norm, or is it already?

A lot of ‘us’ will be keeping our heads down, and we will be called on it for not saying we are ‘liberal’ and shouting from the tree tops about our democratic, Western values.

I am keeping my head away, not down. I have a busy bee job, jobs even. I am looking though, and I am fearful.  My home is London before its affluence rent it, when the Irish were the terrorists, and when political correctness wasn’t a thing, became a thing and is now way way beyond a thing.



CEO Ramadan Message

I was in Syria in 2009, and celebrated my first Middle Eastern Ramadan there, and my last, most probably, in the Damascus that I knew.  My next Middle Eastern Ramadan was in Palestine, where we were working in refugee camps across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.  I saw people dressed in their smartest clothes herded together and watched over by soldiers bearing guns.  I then went on to my third Middle East Ramadan, in Jordan, where we were working with Syrian refugees living inside and outside of the refugee Camps.  People hospitable as we entered their Camp with our special security passes; sharing their food, their tea, their water. Whether they were eating or not.


For the refugees we work with Ramadan is many times a time of violence, heightened tensions, increased security measures.  A time of desperate sadness for the brother, father, sister, mother, friend, who has been killed by war.  A time of urgent frustration at the lack of choice, and sense of emasculation at living in a world where one’s status is ‘refugee’.


For this Ramadan it is humanity that I hope for; compassion for all of our fellow souls.


Ramadan Kareem to my brothers and sisters everywhere.


Ummul Choudhury





I’m being told I have to enter the debate.  Muslims from Britain are dashing of to join the Jihad, and the silent moderates need to get their voices out.  It has recently hit me; I’m expected to voice up as a moderate Muslim.  I fit the moderate Muslim ‘profile’, educated, speaks English (bet Cameron is well grateful for that!) and I identify as Muslim.


It might be laughable that it took me a while to get it.  But I’ve never looked at myself as less than the sum of who I am.  I am my father’s daughter, a man who grew up in occupied India, and saved many of his Hindu friends from slaughter when communal violence broke out; I am a woman living in cultures that make sure we get paid less than men, that tell us off for breastfeeding in public, I am a mother, a sports enthusiast, a CEO, a bookworm, a friend and yes, I am Muslim.


So, as I enter the debate I’ll aim not to be limited by somebody else’s limitations.  Thanks @davidcameron for inspiring so many people to show the world that they cannot be put in your Muslim box.

Transferring money to staff working in war zones


One of the biggest challenges for charities is the safe transfer of money to your staff working in areas of conflict.  A number of issues arise when trying to transfer funds: including the fact that many people will not have bank accounts, that the infrastructure may have broken down so banks are no longer functioning, or that international safe guards against money going to blacklisted countries/areas block those transfers en route.


The issues of staff or contractors not having bank accounts is a particularly difficult challenge, and one that is common amongst the populations that charities tend to work with in the global south.  Without a bank account people receive money in cash.  Cash is notoriously difficult to track, with paper trails vanishing quickly. Also, carrying large amounts of cash around is dangerous to the bearer – especially if she becomes known as the person who will be accessing that cash.  Other issues include difficulty in really knowing if the person the money was meant for actually receives that money.


This is not a new issue and solutions using technology are particularly useful in todays world.  For example, the UN is getting money to refugees using biometric data. Registered refugees have a profile which includes capturing of biometric data; when they go to participating banks they can access cash through using iris recognition technology.


Western Union also facilitates transfers of money, with individuals who are to receive that money being pre authorised to do so.  Money transfer facilitators such as Western Union, who transfer money without the need of a bank account are incredibly useful for the unbanked, and this is why they have such a monopoly in the global money transfer market.  Fees to transfer monies can be £50 or more depending on where you want the money to go.  Conversely, the more underdeveloped the location – or high risk for example if there is a current conflict – then the fees are higher.


Trust, based on community networks becomes essential when trying to transfer money, and the hawala system is one product of communities leveraging their own networks to transfer funds.  It works based on people, with a trusted individual in the country giving the money to the recipient, and the sender giving the sum + fees to a trusted individual in their own country.  Again, we find the problem of having no paperwork to trace, and it’s a system for understandable reasons that governments in particular do not like.


Alternative currency models are also answering the need for accessing money minus having a bank account, with the M-Pesa model being particularly well-known.  This model uses mobile credit, as a form of currency.  Bit coins are another model of transferring monies, but such digital currency models are so new that regulation has yet to catch up.


The issue of money transfer, and the costs associated, is set to continue for a while yet.  Technology is paving the way for novel solutions but in the meanwhile we have to go through painful alternative routes.  In a world where global transfers of money are blacklisted to certain countries, in particular, to war zones, as there a high threat of those funds being used for criminal activity its actually even more difficult currently for organisations to send money.


Achieving as a mother!

I took this picture the day I turned 35.


Its been a crazy year.  I’ve on-demand breast-fed, I’m consistently sleep deprived, I’ve moved house four times, been on a plane on average every 8 weeks, won two international awards for my work and kept running an international charity that’s working in places where people get blown up.

So: I took this picture when I turned 35.  Reminding myself of one of the greatest loves of my life: sport.

I hope more mother’s, women, Asian women (Bengali women in the UK are the least likely to do any kind of physical activity), any type of woman, females especially, find the self-belief, meditative space, and down right endorphin highs that sport has always guaranteed me.


2016 is going to be a kick-ass year!