It Starts with You (or Me)

by Ghazal Keshavarzian and Mark Canavera

Personal reflections on the need for radical reform 


The beginning: getting involved in humanitarian and development work

Ghazal: Growing up as an immigrant moving across three different continents, I was reminded at a very early age that the world is vast but also unjust.   Political violence and upheaval were introduced to me at a very early age.   As a result, I wanted to try to work towards creating a more equitable and just world.   My family did give me a healthy dose of skepticism and questioned why “outsiders” need to go in.   And, I guess you can say I entered the work questioning but also thinking about my family and where I come from and why people who “look like me” are not making the decisions.   There is a fine line between me and a “beneficiary.”  

Mark: In retrospect, one remarkable facet of my choice to become a humanitarian aid and development worker was that nobody questioned the ethics or the morality of the decision—not my teachers, not my friends, not my family. There was a default understanding, rooted in white saviorism or perhaps even supremacy, that this work was noble and beneficial to society.  This conceit continues right through to today, when people thank me for my “wonderful work in Africa.”  This lack of questioning, which starts small but balloons as one moves up the ladder, creates an atmosphere in which those who can access power in humanitarian and development work face little genuine accountability.

Asking questions

Mark: The signs that international development work is undermined by classism, racism, sexism, and inequity are everywhere if you want to see them.  This reality stared me in the face one day as I looked at the travel policy for an iNGO I would later work for: “national” and “international” staff stayed in different hotels and received different amounts of per diem to eat in the same restaurants in the same town.  Literal, intentional segregation, the policy for which was taped to the wall, broadcast for all to see.  Once you get used to these ways of operating, it can be hard to hear the inner voice that resists, that recognizes that all humans are inherently equal.  Hearing that voice is crucial for understanding how to recognize and un-do forms of superiority that we may intrinsically be holding onto and benefiting from.

Ghazal:  Critically analyzing your career is not easy, and even when you see a wrong, it may take years to acknowledge fully that something is not working.   I had begun to see how international development is undermined by power imbalances early in my career, but I quietly filed it away in the back of mind.   When I graduated from university, I worked in Georgia.  One afternoon I was conducting a focus group discussion with a group of internally displaced women on their reproductive health needs; they were an animated group sharing all sorts of concerns.  A young man quietly entered the room and sat in the corner listening and then started speaking directly at me. He was angry, and he had every right to be.  He told me that I was one of hundreds of foreigners who had come asking lots of questions, but then we would all get in our white SUVs and drive off to the nice part of town while they were left unsettled but also filled with hope that maybe things will change but nothing changes.   We were deemed the “experts,” he said, but had no idea what it was like for them.  I was left unsettled not because I was upset by what he said but because deep down I knew he was right.   In the end, those women did not receive the services they so badly needed.    The young man’s anger and that group of women have stayed with me fifteen years later as I moved from maternal health to child protection, working with iNGOs, UN agencies, and donors.  Why don’t we listen to what the community wants and believes?  Why am I or the organization or donor deemed the “expert” and not those living in the communities?   Why are we so uncomfortable with asking ourselves difficult questions?  

The need for radical transformation

Through the Reconstructing Children’s Rights Institute, we’ve been trying to understand from people who have dedicated their careers to social justice how to transform the humanitarian and development industries to be in better service to children and families.  We all agree that international aid can be necessary, but there needs to be a reset button to interrogate our assumptions and to redress power to ensure a more accountable system.  As noted by one of the speakers, “we need to sit in the discomfort of our failures and in the harms that we have produced.”  But the more we tug at each strand – how  humanitarian aid has become an “industry” with all the attendant flaws of one;  how neocolonialism and whiteness continue to show up in funding patterns, policies, and programming; how patriarchy sidelines women in programs that purport to serve families; and so on; and so on—the more the quilt unravels.  Will we try to stitch the same threadbare quilt together again?  Why can’t we try to make something new, drawing on the best parts within ourselves—the hope and the care, the recognition of the other in ourselves?  For that, we will need a new system, not the old scraps and the patches we currently hold.   

Ghazal Keshavarzian is an independent consultant.  She has experience working in the field of child protection, women’s health, conflict resolution, and human rights in the United States, Africa, Asia, Middle East, and the CEE/CIS. Prior to consulting, she was the Director of Elevate Children Funders Group. She was a Senior Associate with Maestral International and independent consultant, where she supported the mapping and assessment of child protection systems, conducted evaluations of NGOs, conducted alternative care assessments, developed national alternative care guidelines for the governments of Kenya, Liberia and Nepal. She managed the Better Care Network (BCN), a global information exchange platform on the issue of children without adequate family care. Previous to BCN, Ghazal managed child protection and maternal health programmes with a number of NGOs in Georgia and Azerbaijan as well as worked as a researcher with a human rights organization. She holds a B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology from Carleton College (United States) and Masters in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (United States).


Mark Canavera is the co-director of the Care and Protection of Children (CPC) Learning Network, an entity housed at the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health that convenes academics, policymakers, and practitioners to promote innovative research, nurture communities of learning, and build the next generation of researchers and advocates for children and families worldwide. In this role, he coordinates research and advocacy efforts on children’s protection, care, health, and development in settings around the world. Mark came to the CPC Learning Network after many years working as a humanitarian aid and development worker in West Africa. He holds Master’s degrees in Peace Studies from Notre Dame and Public Policy from Harvard.

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