UnitedNonsense by Ummul Choudhury: What 10 years in the field taught me about the aid sector

There are many academic books written about the aid sector that claim to give a comprehensive overview of the humanitarian world. However, these often offer a predominantly western perspective and lack a fundamental understanding of local realities. UnitedNonsense parts ways with the already existing literature by offering a direct and accessible view of what it means to manage a local NGO in a war zone. The book also stands out for adding a female, non-white voice to the conversation. Ummul Choudhury’s 10 years experience working in multiple countries in the Middle East is a first hand testimony of the obstacles and limitations that one is faced with when working in the field.

Starting from its title, “UnitedNonsense’’, the book wants to nudge large aid organisations, as well as the whole sector, to reflect on their shortcomings when supporting the communities that they pledged to help. It also offers ‘hands on solutions’ to the practical problems that many local NGOs are facing today, as well as exploring the growing potential of technology in empowering local actors.

The book would be of high interest to students from International Development programs that wish to gain real insights into the sector and how they can contribute concretely. UnitedNonsense is also aimed at experienced professionals and philanthropists that wish to reach a deeper understanding of the dynamics within the aid sector and the structures behind the allocation of aid funds.

Ummul’s experience starts in Syria at the beginning of the Arab Spring. She’s working for a start-up, Capoeira for Refugees (C4R), that organises capoeira trainings for displaced people in Damascus. Once the war breaks out in Syria, she relocates to Palestine to work on a number of capoeira projects in the refugee camps, after some time, she also opens an office in Jordan.

Although Capoeira for Refugees’ activities are extremely successful, Ummul has to deal with recurring limitations. For instance, the lack of agency of local organisations in deciding where the funds are allocated.  She explains how she continuously had to adapt projects to fit in prearranged categories of aid support, established by Western donors and high-end humanitarian professionals, what she calls the ‘Golden Circle’.

Another contradiction that Ummul points out in her book is the significant presence of young people from wealthy Western countries. They are the only ones that can afford to volunteer and get a ‘leg up’ in the aid sector towards securing those leading roles in the ‘Golden Circle’. Ummul explains that while the volunteers’ actions are most of the time driven by the best intentions, they were often in contrast with the needs of the communities. Without speaking the language and understanding very little of the refugee’s culture, it was often counterproductive for these volunteers to be present.

The realisation that the NGO in Jordan had come to reflect very closely the same structure and problems that she had criticised throughout her career, pushed Ummul to close the office in Jordan, continuing to support the local capoeira training groups from afar.

Coming to Germany in 2017, Ummul had to face the dilemma of pursuing a career in the humanitarian sector that seeks to act and influence projects from afar, through overarching western organisations. By losing her local standpoint she felt she was losing relevance, following the career trajectory that she had always criticised.  Her search  for a solution pushed her to start writing this very book,  to fill a knowledge gap in the humanitarian sector and suggest ways in which funds can be better allocated by empowering NGOs at local level.

Ummul also co-founded the tech startup FrontlineAid, an online platform that supports local organisations in Syria in improving their workflows, making it easier to attract funds and receive support from online volunteers. In the last chapter of the book, Ummul further details how technology can be harnessed to reverse the power dynamic within the humanitarian sector and build up the agency of local organisations.

At the end of the book, through a series of essays Ummul reflects more in depth on some topics that she mentions in the book, offering her take on a number of issues that are central to discussions in the humanitarian sector.

Ummul Choudhury

UnitedNonsense will be released in the summer of 2021