United Nonsense

Syrian Students wait behind the barbed wire of Azraq Refugee Camp, Jordan

The book is about how a Syrian start-up helping traumatised child refugees, and abused women negotiates the humanitarian aid industry. The story follows the Founder, Tarek Alsaleh, a German-Syrian entrepreneur living in Damascus. With the beginning of the Syrian war, Tarek’s successful businesses in Damascus fall apart and his family became refugees. Even so he is determined to help young people and the wider community through his work.  The story provides the backdrop for the analysis of a culture and system of international aid that continues to belittle, and lock out local people from money and support. This is despite the best of intentions from many well-meaning aid professionals.

The story is told by Ummul Choudhury, a working class, Londoner, who was living in Damascus when the Arab Spring started.  She is an Arabic speaker, of Bangladeshi background, who provides a unique commentary on her experiences as she negotiates the Middle East, co-founding a start-up, and a refugee crisis, but most of all, the system of aid. She lived and worked in Syria, Palestine, and then Jordan, creating successful, award winning, projects using sports to help traumatised refugees. The organisation contracted to multinational aid agencies including the UN, Save the Children, and the European Community.

The story is based on the author’s experiences that took place between 2009 to 2019. The book uses first-hand experience to show how the aid system creates an incredible power imbalance between international and local people. This power balance has a devastating impact on those whose lives are fractured by war and disaster.

The sector itself consists of a core group of around 10 international humanitarian organisations that control over 70 percent of all international aid dollars.  This includes how money is granted to aid recipients. Very little makes it to local people.  In a sector worth over $143 billion,[1] less than 2% of that money goes to local people, and local organisations.

How is it that such a small number of aid organisations have grown massive, controlling more and more of the market for donations?  They are now cartels, in charge of a powerful, global, aid industry. This cartel is not accountable to its beneficiaries, or any outside body, rather, any misconduct by one of its own, is managed internally. 

The aid system itself has been designed in such a way that its members are drawn from an elite group of people. This elite can financially invest in a career in international aid, a sector, that has also seen rapid professionalisation. Over 200 Masters degrees for development degrees exist in the UK alone. The self-selection of who is able to enter and rise in the system begins early. It is (often young) people who have the economic means who are able to take advantage of volunteering and internship routes into a career in development.

Through a shared experience and value set, these same people who enter are able to bond in situations where they are a minority expatriate group, who mostly do not speak the local languages, or are in the process of learning the local cultures. They help one another to find out about potential career opportunities, a place to stay, as well as giving moral support – they are a part of an elite network. They are the Golden Circle.

Local people lack both the technical skills sets and the social nous of members of the Golden Circle to ever be truly allowed into this elite group.

This book brings to life the problems that locals face in trying to enter the development space to help their own communities rise. It reflects on the elite culture of aid, how access to knowledge and skills sits within the sector and cannot be shared with locals, the irony of aid organisations co-opting local talent and creating a rentier type economy, how money is managed, the hypocrisy of partnerships between local and international organisations.  It shows where our money goes.

The majority of the literature in this space is written either by men, academics, or successful development experts reflecting on their experiences in successful careers as humanitarians, and providing analysis. Few have lived through working with people, through war and crises, running their own start-up with no safety net, in the countries and places that they are referring to in their works, as well as having a professional, linguistic, and expert background on the politics and history of those same areas.

This book is a testament to all the people the author worked with in over a decade of living in the Middle East, and living these stories of war. Her multitude of backgrounds provides a one-of a-kind voice and perspective of what it means when a system is not doing what it was designed to do.  She raises moral and ethical questions about the complex world of international aid, and points the way to how we can give, better.


Students play instruments, Syria
  • Networks the author is a part of including the Obama Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Bosch Foundation, the Global Diplomacy Lab, amongst others
  • General public interested in Middle East Politics, the Arab Spring and Syrian refugee crises
  • International development professionals
  • Students studying international development
  • Donor organisations including Foundations, and networks working on development issues. 
  • Government professionals working on policy creation on development and aid issues
  • Academics working on refugee and development issues
  • General Public who give to charity and want to understand better what happens to their money
  • General Public interested in literature by South Asian, female writers

Working Outline

Chapter 1. Assad’s Syria: background on the start-up

Syria is opening up to the world.  It is a time of economic opportunity. Tarek Alsaleh, the Founder of the Syrian sports start-up gets taken away by the secret police, suspected of running a brothel. An international NGO asks Tarek to partner on a project that will be paid for by the European Community.  It seems like a great opportunity until the power struggles and paperwork begin. Tarek and other volunteers, including Ummul Choudhury, register a charity based out of London to avoid the corruption of Assad’s government. The Arab Spring begins and Syria unfolds into war.

Chapter 2.  Arriving in Palestine and working in refugee camps

Ummul Choudhury arrives in Palestine to manage a new project working with youth who experience the violence of conflict daily. She goes to refugee camps and learns what traumatized children means outside of the paperwork.  She sees how difficult it is to work in a new area, with a team whose relationship with this space is temporary. The Project run for four months and the UN say there will be no more money to continue. 

Chapter three: Managing the Money

The sports charity has to negotiate sending money into Islamic State (ISIS) Territory. The team run into problems as they cannot use banks or a money transfer system.  They have to find a ‘mule’ or someone to carry the money in.  The trainers working in Al Raqqa, find it increasingly difficult to work there as ISIS is getting stronger. The main trainer, Amr, finds it harder to leave his house incase ISIS notices him.  Amr moves the classes into a basement storage space.

Chapter four: Chasing the numbers

Ummul has to find a way of meeting the target numbers that the sports charity is contracted to deliver.  This should be easy, except the team takes the numbers the one true goal of the project, and find novel ways to meet the targets such as offering money to people to attend classes. The weather, violent clashes, and a trainer getting arrested by Israeli secret police all lead to more problems with getting in the numbers.

Chapter five: Do-gooding volunteers

The Charity sets up a new office in Jordan.  Lots of foreigners are desperate to get a step into the aid world. The Charity cannot compete with the larger charities that are also setting up in Jordan, and who have the money to spend on skills and talent. Tarek relies on volunteers and paid staff to set up the new office. A volunteer’s behavior leads to the shut down of a project in a conservative refugee community.

Chapter six: Mental health

The lack of physical security, including terrorist attacks in Jordan, as well as mental insecurity puts the team on edge.   Capoeira trainers jeopardise security clearance to the Camps. Ummul is forced to remove one of the trainer from working on the Projects.

Chapter seven: Elite World

Tarek gets upset at a dinner party. He is surrounded by international aid workers talking about their benefits, and how to access more. Tarek has been working non-stop, without any holidays, or weekends, since the war started five years ago. Ummul finds that the Jordan office is turning into a replica of a Golden Circle structure. The organisation is chasing money and has less time to think about developing communities, and investing in key local trainers. Tarek is flown to Geneva to accept an award. Ummul questions the path that the organisation is now on.

Chapter eight: Changing the world

Ummul and Tarek close down the Jordan office. They support a number of local organisations started up by former trainers. Tarek organises a sale of office equipment on Facebook. Capoeira equipment is stolen. The organisation moves to Berlin and starts a network to help local people access the Golden Circle world.

Chapter nine: Essay on decentralisation of aid

This essay covers how the aid sector is moving towards sharing power with local people and organisations. The status or outcome of those initiatives are analysed.

Chapter ten: Conclusions and seven ways we can give: better.

This chapter goes through why technology can provide solutions to transforming old structures. Ummul reflects on ethical questions around giving, and how we as givers can give better.

Publishing Details

Photographs                                                    12

Book size                                                         75,000 words

Style                                                                TBC   

Format                                                             TBC

Amount of time to complete manuscript        2020 (TBC)

Names, and organisations referred to may have to be changed.

Sample chapters

Capoeira in Syria, Al Raqqa 2014

The start of war

(Section 1 Chapter 11)

Damascus was a city that was used to covering its tracks.  Neighbours could easily report one another to the secret police.  The bureaucracy of the police state was massive and unending.  To travel from Damascus to the beach town of Latakia, IDs were checked at least three times. Random police checkpoints would stop vehicles, public and private and spot check travellers.  Young men who should be doing military service, were often caught out this way.  I watched from the bus as a young man was taken away.  We were on the Tamimi bus, one of two bus companies in Syria, on our way to the beach.

Mustafa was with me, he was my sometime Arabic tutor, colleague and friend. He was travelling on a fake ID and had been remarkably calm as his ID was checked by a soldier. In Syria all youth between the ages of 17 and 22 were required to do military conscription for 2.5 years.  Training was often living in mud, in the middle of nowhere, with sticks in place of weapons for target practice.

Wasta or money could buy one out of conscription.  The rich had both. It was the middle and the poor in society who filled the ranks of cannon fodder.  Wasta was a principle that governed societies across the Middle East. Those without Wasta could not get credit, open legitimate businesses, or get jobs.

It was this lack of wasta that lead the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, to burn himself to death. It was his public outcry against a system that would never give him a chance. Young Syrians especially understood what was happening in Tunisia. They also lived under a dictatorship that took away choices.

By the time Bouazizi’s anger spread to Egypt the phrase Arab Spring was everywhere.  It was an odd phrase. People were being beaten up, killed and arrested. There was no new life, only violence. The demonstrators were mostly the young.  Desperate enough for change to gamble with their lives. Even so this Egyptian ‘Spring’ was not so unexpected. The country heaved with an underbelly of have-nots.

It was different with Libya. Gaddafi’s position as supreme leader of Africa seemed less immovable than King Arthur’s Excalibur. He was meant to die as leader.  He also had oil wealth on tap, money he used to pay off dissent. The ‘Spring’ reaching Libya was a shock. It meant that even Damascus could fall.

Palestine the dystopia

(Section 2 Chapter 2)

As we enter Arroub, I see that like the other Camps, this is a place where poor is on show.  Dust and concrete mix to make everything appear sand coloured. I can see no green. Poverty is here in the way jagged bites of concrete are missing from the buildings, the way electric wires hang down uncovered, and all knotted up. The children are scruffy looking, dirt smudged onto their cheeks and foreheads. It is a scene out of a TV documentary.

The refugee Camps are run by the UN. They provide basic services, such as health, and education.  They also run the schools.  The kids here go to school in two shifts because there is not enough classroom space for all the kids to go during the day at the same time. Western money funds these schools but they do not feel international. The school buildings look run down. The classes are sex segregated by secondary school level. In Arab culture girls and boys are not allowed to be seen to be mixing.  If they are seen with boys, then the girls are stigmatised. The entire family’s reputation can rest on girls being invisible outside the home. Nothing happens to the boys. I think whatever money is being sent to fund this place, it is nowhere near enough. Then I remember we are in the Middle East, in a war zone, and the cynic in me says, maybe the money is being eaten up by the wrong people.

 Skinny, teenage boys come running when they spot our car.  ‘Capoeira, capoeira, capoeira’ they call as we get there. Arami a skinny Mexican, with straight lank hair, leans out of the car window with an open palm, and the kids high five him. He is the trainer for this class. He gets out of the car, a whirlwind of energy, dancing into the chaos around him. Two teenagers grab the instruments for him, another one picks up the gym bag, another five run ahead to clean up the venue space. 

 The boys who surround us have bodies that seem coke-fuelled, their eyes a little too dilated, their voices a constant high-pitched whine shouting for Arami’s attention. This is a world of males. There are no teenage girls running up, or even to be seen in the surrounding area. There are never any teenage girls hanging around in public spaces in the Camps, only boys and men. The women that we do meet are those who run the centres, or are invisible, fully covered, going about their daily work.

 There are two women here.  We shake hands. They wear hijab, and long flowing gowns, the bottoms of which sometimes catch the dust of the floor. They work with the Community Centre. They help, moving the boys inside the class, making sure the room is ready. This room is on two levels, and the chairs and tables have been moved to the top level.  We go down four steps to the empty space where the class is held.

I stand in the corner next to a wall pasted with pictures. It is a display of paintings by school children. I stare for a long time at their drawn lives: red slashed breasts of cartoon like characters, guns wielded by stick men, rockets rushing through green trees. These pictures are caricatures of war, with a too-bright yellow sun, too-green trees, out of proportion stories stuck on A3 pages.

Arami tells the boys to form a circle, some of the boys take up instruments, others sing.  It is loud but after the havoc of setting up it now feels almost quiet. I am out of place, with my faked straight hair, and kitten heels.   Here, I am an unnecessary item pushed back against the wall like the furniture.[1] 

As we leave the kids run alongside again. But this time they sing, ‘para na eee para naa ee. One of the songs they practiced in the class. They high five Arami’s hand reaching out to them through the open window, they run alongside until they can’t. Then they jog, still singing.  We can hear them as they become small behind us and then disappear altogether.

The Golden Circle

(Section 2 Chapter 3)

A number of international development organisations seem to be involved in every

humanitarian effort in connection to Syria or to Palestine. If we were to finance our projects

then we had to be a known organisation amongst this golden circle.  They consisted of the

UN ones such as, UNRWA, UNHCR, UNICEF; then the European Community institutions

that collectively “is the most generous donor in the world.”[2]  There are the government

organisations such as the UK’s department for international development, or USAID, the

American equivalent. 

Next come the global charities that have become household names such as Oxfam. My father

and I would go to one of their stores on the weekends. Save the Children is another big one. I

will forever see the face of an African child, a tear running down a cheek when I think of

them.  The European ones are new to me, such as Action Aid, Danish Refugee Council and

Norwegian Aid.

 The wealthiest of these organisations secure one third of all international aid money.[3] The

top 10 receive 70% of global aid money available. The rest of the money is split between

other Western organisations. These aid agencies are multi-million dollar organisations

operating all over the world in some of the harshest environments, trying to save people from

poverty, war, and environmental disaster.

Over the years the Golden Circle has become more powerful, allowing it to control more and

more of the development space. The Golden Circle controls the market for resources.  This

includes mind space from the general public through marketing their brands as the most well

known, and the ones to be trusted; and tax payer money from governments that need a trusted

brand to give money too and meet their nations development targets.[4] The Save the Children

brand alone operates in over 120 countries. UNHCR is found in 130 countries.  Unlike

corporations there are no anti-competition laws to stop these elite aid organisations achieving

cartel status on the international stage. 

With every new conflict new people are needed, those who speak the local language, and

who can help negotiate a pathway through a new culture. Most often, the bulk of

humanitarian aid work must be done by local people. This results in much work being sub-

contracted to local organisations and people. Senior ranking jobs are held by Westerners who

understand how to manage the system of money that is filtered through various entities (this

could look like government to UN to Save the Children to local sub-contractors; or

general public to Oxfam to local sub-contractors) and in accordance with the details of

international law.

Most international development work requires an excellent level of English. Where disasters

and war happens there are usually few amongst the people who have been affected to have

the level of English needed to take on senior roles. The West also decide what the priorities

are for money donated.  This includes being based on visionary ideas like the development

goals.  There are currently 17 sustainable development goals, each one with sub-targets.

Those not initiated into the world of humanitarian aid at a professional level often do not

know about the existence of these goals.

For those who are part of a new crises, or even the expansion of an old one, they most often

will not have the language of international development at their fingertips.[5]  This is a

problem. Formal applications for money are designed to be written by someone who has a

professional understanding of development.  Organisations, such as Oxfam, hire grant writers

whose specific role it is to deal with EU proposals. Such luxuries are not available to smaller,

local organisations, or start-ups trying to do something new. In fact, many donors, prohibit

their sub-contractors from asking for money for grant-writers or for marketing.

Local, grassroots start-ups need money for their own organisational development. This

includes for human resources, for project planning, for strategy and thinking, for team

building, for hiring in international lawyers or finance people. It is laughable to try to build

an organisation without such essential infrastructure, even so, this is not part of the Golden

Circle culture of giving.

UNHCR has such infrastructure. It provides subsidised housing for its international staff, rest

and relaxation breaks on top of normal holidays, access to counselling services. The

argument goes that skilled internationals are needed, and without them the system could not

function. This is true. This then points directly to needing to change the system.  Efforts have

been made here, such as the Grand Bargain initiative, which over 30 international donors signed up to.[6]

These initiatives are self-regulated, the Golden Circle sign-up because they want to. Failure

does not lead to any concrete repercussions. The CEO does not lose her job, government grants

keep coming.  This industry is not accountable to those people who it exists to help.

The system of sub-contracting is designed to be paternalistic. This may have been the result of

unconscious bias on the part of those who designed this elaborate contract system. The

contracts are set up so the sub-contractor can only ask for a certain amount of money for different types of activities.  The sub-contractor is not trusted to decide how the money should be spent, in order to get the job done. To get the job done, assumes these contracts, the sub-contractor has to be told how to spend ‘their’ money. For small organisations, who can still be dealing personally with the fall out of disaster, or conflict, this can be humiliating as well as financially impossible.[7]

Receipts can kill

(Section 3 Chapter 3)

Amr told us he could not provide receipts for the things that he paid for. This could be snacks

for the kids in his classes.  The snacks were important.  I buy biscuits, he told us, over a Skype call.  They like them. They don’t have so many treats here. Food is expensive.  Before the war most transactions happened in cash, and receipts were uncommon. After the war started asking

for receipts could make someone stand out. Shaadi did not want to ask for a receipt because people would start wondering why he needed it. Perhaps he was linked to a foreign organisation, and was a spy?  They could report him to the Mukhabarat.  In al Raqqa, a receipt could get Amr noticed by ISIS.

By autumn 2013 Amr was barely leaving his house at all.  He went to the internet cafe, taught his classes, met with parents, otherwise he mostly stayed at home.  ISIS were getting stronger, and would declare Al Raqqa the capital of the Caliphate within a few months.[8]

The basement space that Amr had found for the classes was filthy, and the floor was concrete. We need to paint it, clean it, make it a space that the children could feel safe and comfortable in. This changed situation meant that we had to update our donor, and ask them for a budget change. This meant if we could spend the money that we had already been given on items that we had not previously told Save about. This included spending on the renovation of the basement.

 I wrote out an email asking for a budget change from our Syria donor, and I told them about our problems with getting receipts. I sent the request to a person who was using the pseudonym Sir Parceval. Save the Children had sent us an email to tell us that due to the security situation in Syria that they would no longer be using Save emails. They were working in Syria in both Assad held territory, and in territory controlled by other militant groups.  This made them vulnerable. Any faction could say they were spies for someone else. Their staff could be killed at the worst. Or, they could be stopped from entering Syria at the least. These were suspicious times. We were requested to delete all our correspondence using the Save emails.  Some people took the request more seriously than others, indulging in creative pseudonyms, such as Johnny Ocean, or Sir Parceval.

Save were also struggling to change their own donor requirements to deliver receipts.   They wanted to support their ‘partners’ they said.  ‘Partners’ was a euphemism. We were a service provider, contracted in to deliver a particular function.  As we were told in another email the donor’s role was ‘not to fund the structural development of a civil society organisation.” Even the negotiation of receipts, of budget changes, needed any organisation to have infrastructure in place. Without support for our ‘structural development’ we had a death sentence hanging over our heads.

We negotiated on receipts at the same time as trying to get a budget change. On one evening call, I was told by one of the donor team members based in Beirut, that she was responsible for millions. Our budget of a few thousand dollars was not worth her time. I bit my tongue. We were the beggars and we needed them more than they needed us.

Tarek had had an earlier call with Amr who was getting more and more stressed out. He was not sleeping well, he had lost weight. He was smoking a lot. He thought he would have to leave soon.  The kids were doing well he said. They had around 50 kids in the classes every week. He did not need to take a register in his classes because he knew everyone. Parents as well as children. There were often planes overhead he said. When they heard them, some of the kids would start shaking. They knew the sound of a falling bomb.

[2]. https://euaidexplorer.ec.europa.eu

[3]. Doctors without Borders,Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision, International Rescue Committee

[4].The UK gives xx percentage of the budget to international aid,

[5]. Bangladeshi’s dealing with the Rohingya crises face the same issues when attempting to access or work with/within the Golden Circle. See <example article>

[6] https://www.agendaforhumanity.org/initiatives/3861

[7] Our small charity which is mostly voluntary lead experienced an EU audit five years after the Project was closed. There is no support for the time these activities take, whereas the larger organisations have fully paid staff whose work it is to do the paperwork. This further stresses small and local organisations who are systematically not allowed a level playing field.

[8] ISIS declared Al Raqqa the capital of the new Caliphate and called on Muslims the world over to come join them as their religious obligation.

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