Should aid workers fly less? Yes, but it’s a bit more complicated

Over at From Poverty to Power my dear colleague Thea Hilhorst shared some reflections on why aid workers should fly less and how the industry needs to address air travel in its efforts to lead climate and social change work by example.

I generally agree with her sentiment to fly less, have tougher discussions within aid organizations about (air) travel and be the change they want to see from other actors. But as basically everything else in #globaldev, things are a bit more complicated...

Getting a sense of the scope of the problem
How much of an issue is aid worker air travel?
Most of us will probably agree that time-sensitive humanitarian work will always require air travel. There is probably also some ‘essential’ travel to get safely into countries and to avoid long road trips. And then there are trade-offs, for example whether stressed staff should be allowed to fly from their duty station to a relaxing R&R break or how often they should be allowed to fly ‘home’ to their families.
Less air travel could push the localization agenda as some commentators already pointed out, but it would be interesting to have some case studies of how local aid workers travel in big countries and what domestic travel movements generally look like. With rapidly growing markets for air travel in the global South we are not just looking at flights from London to Geneva or Brussels.

What about the infamous ‘taxpayer’?
More rail travel in Europe for example will likely increase travel cost and more time on the road will carry indirect cost of staff travel days as well as their health and well-being when they get stranded and need a hotel for the night. Any organization can always aim for fewer meetings or more online meetings (see below), but working in development also means maintaining a network, visiting stakeholders and showing solidarity-so travel will happen and making it more tiresome and expensive may not be a short-term solution.

Who shouldn’t attend a UN summit in person? Rich countries or poor countries?
I am always a bit hesitant about UN-bashing. It is often easy, but at the same time some UN principles deserve a more nuanced debate. I am all for reducing the numbers of global conferences and summits, but the UN is founded on the principle that each of the about 200 members is an equal stakeholder. Some summits are an important venue for representatives from the global South to get their voices heard on an international stage. They are also important for bilateral meetings and other side events. Even if international diplomats or politicians are not ‘aid workers’ in the narrower sense of the term I think that there is enough value in face-to-face meetings to justify some air travel.

Mediation beyond ‘Skype meetings’
Working in a great team of dedicated colleagues in our online blended learning Communication for Development program has sensitized me about ‘just use Skype’ approaches to facilitate digital meetings. It may sound a bit pedantic, but we are actually no longer using Skype, but have changed to Zoom.
The point is that organizations need to invest in infrastructure and training to create engaging group calls, properly mediated meetings and seminars as well as innovative forms of bringing online and onsite participants together in workshops and discussions.
If replacing air travel is the imperative than you may need to hire a videographer or technical assistant, upgrade meetings rooms-but also think about relatively low-tech and open solutions to connect ‘the field’ as much as possible.

I agree that publicly funded organizations in general and our sector in particular should lead by example when it comes to innovations to reduce emissions and reduce the stressful experience of air travel judging by the many photos of ‘airport purgatory’ by my colleagues in the aid industry I regularly see popping up in my social networks.

But we need to look beyond the traditional North-South direction of travel, of parachuting consultants and eager headquarters field visitors and think about the benefits of South-North travel or South-South connections as well.
Unfortunately, development still requires ‘show and tell’ moments of field visits to monitor and evaluate how public funds have been spent, signals of global unity at big conferences or personal global connections that need to be maintained through face-to-face interactions.
Many UN organizations could surely do with a regional coordination meeting or two less, taking trains in Europe is not such a big ordeal and properly used technology can challenge the lazy routines of organizing meetings offline and on site.

But should aid workers ‘stop’ flying?
At least there is now a debate about how to minimize carbon footprints and think about doing development differently.


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