In our tenth episode of SocialEx, Humentum’s podcast, Director of Marketing and Communications Caitlin Holland hosts a conversation with Saba Al Mubaslat, Humentum Board Member and CEO of the Asfari Foundation. They dive into Saba’s lengthy career in the humanitarian and development sector, and reflect on pressing inequalities and the need to address the ways we work. What must change as we navigate through these turbulent times, together?
This is an abridged transcript of their conversation, listen to the entire podcast here or watch the video embedded below!
Caitlin: How did you get started in humanitarian and development work, and how did you get to where you are [in your career] today?
Saba: I come from a region that was always troubled with conflict. I’m originally from Jordan, and Jordan was always the safe haven for refugees from around the region; from the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. We were always faced with those challenges day in and day out. For a country that was quite poor when it comes to its natural resources, it was quite a burden to find a way to include refugees in the national responsibility of keeping people living a decent life. How can we co-exist with all the conflict that we have and the limited resources? And how can we make sure that human beings are not victims of their circumstances—particularly when those circumstances are not of their choice? It was then that I decided engineering can be done by others—and I went onto to do this type of work for almost 25 years, and I’m still enjoying it.
Caitlin: Are there any moments or stories that stand out as transformational to you personally and to your career?
Saba: I remember we were trying to convince parents in a particular area of Jordan to send girls past the age of 14 to school to finish their education. I remember the conversations that we had with the parents about the fact that we come in with foreign agendas and just having that conversation where we realized that the jargon that we speak in the sector doesn’t solve the problem. Before we start lecturing people about what they need to do, which we believe is the right thing—be it girls’ education, kids right to protection and play—we have to listen, we have to learn, we have to contextualize the messages that we feel very strongly about. It was an interesting moment in my career, where I realized that we sometimes tend not to listen. When we listen, we do not understand because we’re so saturated with ideas that are all right but not necessarily culturally appropriate—and it took a lot for us to realize that empowering girls does not happen in a vacuum. You have to work with the parents because those girls are surrounded by spheres of influence. You cannot change people’s lives in projects. Any change that you advocate for has to be comprehensive and inclusive—otherwise, it won’t last long.
Before we start lecturing people about what they need to do, which we believe is the right thing—be it girls’ education, kids right to protection and play—we have to listen, we have to learn, we have to contextualize the messages that we feel very strongly about.
Caitlin: Where was the intersection of education and the localization agenda when you worked with HLA?
Saba: The whole idea was democratizing access to quality learning and knowledge. And one of the things that we were quite keen [to focus on] on was that knowledge does not travel only from the global north to the global south because we have a tendency of translating rather than contextualizing knowledge as it’s being formed in Geneva, or London, or DC. The actual learnings happen on the ground. From my experience being deployed to very tough places around the Middle East region, you start realizing that learning happens as a result of necessity. It becomes a survival thing. If you want to survive, you have to learn how to work with the very limited resources—so, there’s a lot of learning that goes undocumented and it just gets forgotten, and that breaks my heart. What can we do to ensure that the local to global is just as valued and recognized as the global to local?
I don’t know who decided who is global and who is local. Each one of us local where he or she is. So, for me that was really the driving force behind the academy; capture learning at the local level between different “locals” around the world, so that south to south connection—and make sure that it gets recognized as it should in conferences and platforms that are labelled as global.
Caitlin: Localization has been at the forefront of the humanitarian agenda conversation for many years, decades, in fact. Are we any closer to a truly localized model than we were 20 years ago?
Saba: I feel we’re more divided than ever before—until we manage to humanize the message, and humanize the act of localization, it will be another operational matrix with some KPIs, and it will be projectized. Localization cannot be projectized. And with that comes my second question to you—are we ready as large global organizations to change our business models? If we are truly supportive of localization, then we cannot continue to work the way we do. We have to do some serious organizational reviews to how we operate, how we partner, how we plan, how we design programs. That cannot be done in London or DC. We have to be working with people on the ground. So many challenges but there’s hope and we’re not giving up on that.
Caitlin: You mentioned engagement and connecting people and resources—that seems to me to be a skill that people struggle with—community engagement and mobilization and connecting organizations. Do you have any tips on how to do that best or how it works for you and the ways you’ve done it?
Saba: I think as much as leaders and workforces within organizations learn from the get-go that it is not about the visibility of the logo, it is about the sustainability of the impact. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit. What matters is the collective act, and its ability to create an impact that lasts beyond the logo in a country. I worked with a partner organization a long time ago, and I remember them celebrating being in a country 30 years in the Middle East, and they were a global organization—I could not hold back. I said, “This isn’t a positive thing. To be there for 30 years means you worked so hard to sustain the dependence of people on you. You sustained your business model, but you did not transfer knowledge. You did not establish a local version of you. You did not sustain your impact.” I think how we view success needs to be challenged and needs to be changed. That’s one. The second is the power of the collective.
Caitlin: You’ve led through many crises; do you have any advice specifically around the best way to maintain your goals and direction and leadership through an unforeseen out of control crisis like this one [the COVID-19 pandemic]?
Saba: In short term emergencies we tend to react as we act and that by itself means that you will have your share of mistakes and lessons learned, but you know that there’s a window of six months to save as many lives as possible. With COVID-19, despite all the pain that comes with it, it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon. I think a collective moment of reflection is needed where we all come together and say, here are the tools that we know of. There are so many tools that need to be deployed from other industries—we need to listen, we need to learn, and we need to unlearn all the old ways of doing business. You can’t approach your five-year strategy or strategic planning or your operational planning or your annual budgeting the traditional way. You have to broaden your margin of contingency and dealing with the unknown because that’s going to be critical.
The second thing is agility—the more agile and responsive to the actual needs you are, the better chances you have to survive.
The third is something Humentum was pioneering for quite a while which is this whole culture of using technology—working from home, connecting with partners—and that’s something that we all need to learn how to do in a better way. COVID-19 showed us that a lot of the money that we used to spend could have been saved and spent on projects and investments in people. We kind of had the tendency of travelling across the globe twice, three times a month to attend a conference or to meet with someone. Why on earth would we do that anymore?
My only fear when it comes to COVID-19 is the digital poverty between those who can have a conversation like the one we’re having—you’re sitting in DC—I’m sitting in Amman, Jordan. What if I don’t have an internet connection? What if I don’t have a laptop? What if I don’t know my way around a laptop? So digital poverty may be another thing that needs to be strongly introduced into the narrative of people who work in development and humanitarian sectors because it cannot be ignored.
Caitlin: Especially with all the challenges that we face in humanitarian and development work, what keeps you motivated—what has kept you really inspired by this work?
It’s the most rewarding line of business you can ever be fortunate enough to join—to know that you fought for a vulnerable girl to be sent to school. If you do nothing but send one girl to school in your twenty years of career, that is rewarding. I’m always driven by the fact that I’m a mother. I genuinely believe that my kids just like all other kids around the world, deserve a better future. I feel a bit embarrassed sometimes because our generation did not leave the world in a good shape. We abused the environment. We were not aware enough of our impact on the climate and we have not engaged in a collaborative way to solve problems that need to be solved. I worry that we’re leaving the coming generation with so many problems to solve.