#020: Helping your city through the hardest times | Rabih Omar

“These are things that I can’t forget. It’s very strange that all these memories of work are related to clashes and to sad memories.”

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Episode notes

Rabih Omar is a proud citizen of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, and has worked there on humanitarian and peacebuilding challenges for his whole career.

We talk in depth about his experience working for different international organisations that have come to his city, what foreign “experts” tend to get wrong, and how he keeps his motivation up despite near-constant political destabilisation.

Topics discussed:

[04:45] What it was like growing up in Tripoli, through the end of the Lebanese civil war

[10:30] How Rabih moved on from early traumas, and ended up working in the field of conflict resolution & local development

[16:45] What social cohesion and local development looks like in Tripoli, against a backdrop of inter-communal and inter-sectarian violence

[26:15] Experiences with international organisations misusing “national staff”, and getting some of the basics wrong

[35:55] What people coming into Tripoli tended to get wrong about local politics, Alawite-Shia tensions, and other issues

[48:05] Rabih’s proudest moment over his career, after the mosque bombings in 2013

[59:30] Planning for the long run, despite chronic instability re: Syria, Israel, and national politics

#019: Training social entrepreneurs in emerging markets | Roshan Paul

“Can we build a world where everybody has purpose as a question that they consider for their career? Where it’s not just the province of ‘do-gooders’, but instead everybody thinks about that?”

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Episode notes

Roshan is co-founder of the Amani Institute, which supports talent development for the social sector. Over the last seven years it has graduated some 450 students from its hubs in Nairobi, Bangalore, and Sao Paolo.

We talk about the merits of coming from an emerging market perspective when talking about social innovation, the gaps that Amani sees in the education market, and Roshan’s own journey with a startup.


Topics discussed:

[2:10] Why the co-founders felt there was a gap in the education market for the social sector.

[08:00] Why it’s more interesting and probably more productive to be located in emerging markets, for those interested in social innovation.

[13:30] The Amani Institute’s philosophy and curriculum for developing change-makers, including what kind of profile it attracts

[21:10] Why it was worth the risks to start up a new offering, and a new way of contributing to social entrepreneurship

[27:10] How Roshan’s own experiences with international education played into the design

[39:30] What scale looks like: A world where everyone can both make a living and make an impact.

[47:40] Experience working with social innovation in large organisations, and with private sector organisations

[55:00] The biggest challenges so far, including self-training to manage a growing organisation and an early security scare

#018: Reflections on the podcast after one year | Ian D. Quick

“They know that initiatives often fail but they show up nonetheless — because that’s the best way they have to make the world more humane.”

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Episode notes

A short episode that sounds a bit different to the usual.

That’s because we’re one year in, and it seemed like a good moment to take stock. So instead of the usual interview format it’s a short reflection from me on what guests have said, and what resonated for listeners.

I also talk about some changes that we’re making to lean into what’s working, and to emphasise what’s important. The most obvious of those is the name, with the new website now live at http://onestepforward.fm/

Why the change?

We’ve had a diverse range of practitioners sharing their lived experience and perspectives: human rights defenders, community organisers, clinicians, aid workers.

But what unifies them is that they think differently about tough times and hard situations.

They know that initiatives often fail but they show up nonetheless — because that’s the best way they have to make the world more humane. Maybe a small step, maybe a blind one, but taken with bravery and in a net positive direction.

That’s the spirit in which we want to continue. One step forward. No-bullshit stories of working for social good in tough times, and hard places.

#017: Making humanitarian services more people-centred and respectful | Nick van Praag

“It was something of a leap of faith, because I wasn’t sure how much traction there would be. Or if people would be concerned about what came to the surface.”

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Episode notes

Nick van Praag founded and runs an organisation called Ground Truth Solutions. They work with people affected by crises to get their feedback and perspectives on emergency response.

In practice this means door-to-door surveys, over time, of how people feel about the timeliness, quality and fairness of humanitarian service provision. This is shared with service providers and funding agencies to benchmark what they’re doing, and encourage greater responsiveness.

What is particularly intriguing is that Nick started Ground Truth in 2012 after a long career in the World Bank and other multilateral institutions. So this amounted to a pretty significant career pivot. We talk about:

  • what it was like to jump from a large international bureaucracy to running a start-up;
  • how to market a service that pretty much promises the customer uncomfortable feedback;
  • how the sector can sustainably shift from “value for money” to “value for people”.

#016: Using playback theatre to bridge divides after conflict | Hani al Rstum

“You know, it’s always frightening for me to go to a performance. I always feel like I’m on fire.”

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Episode notes

Hani al Rstum is a Syrian living in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli, and the conductor for the SADA playback theatre troupe. They engage with communities affected by serious conflict, with the goal of recognising and affirming life experiences, and opening dialogue.

Playback draws on psychodrama therapy, and Hani himself is a psychotherapist. He “conducts” events to create a safe space for people to share experiences, and to begin to connect and empathise.

The troupe is based in a social innovation hub on the frontline of one of Lebanon’s most notorious neighbourhood conflicts. It has also performed on-site in buildings with special connections to the war.

We talk about:

  • Hani’s experience as a Syrian in Lebanon, and what the future might hold for him as the situation in Syria evolves;
  • What’s it like to hold the space for people to open up about conflict and trauma;
  • When it makes sense to do that, and what kind of outcomes can be expected.

#015: Community reconciliation after “Tripoli’s 9-11” | Bilal Al Ayoubi

“This was the peak, and this was the shock. I always compare this to 9-11 in the city of Tripoli, this twin explosion that took place.”

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Episode notes

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, has experienced considerable violence ever since the end of the national civil war in 1990.

But this escalated dramatically with the onset of the Syrian civil war. Pitched neighbourhood-level fighting  led up to the shock car-bombing of the al-Taqwa and al-Salam mosques in 2013.

The central government responded with an army-imposed security plan which tamped down violence, but there’s been little progress since on the underlying conflict dynamics.

Stepping into this gap, Bilal co-founded a series of community dialogues that ended up as the Roadmap for Reconciliation in Tripoli. The idea was a sort of open-source diagnostic that could be the basis for citizen action.

We get into the ways and means and ends, including:

  • how a city with so much historical significance and economic potential can get left behind in national politics;
  • the limitations of a “negative peace” against a background of decades of social trauma; and
  • what makes a bottom-up process succeed or fail in a charged political environment.

#014: Better and safer work environments in the aid sector | Christine Williamson

“90% of the time it didn’t go how I wanted it to. But 10% of the time it did, and often I look back and think, ‘Actually, those were the key moments’.”

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Episode notes

Christine Williamson runs a consultancy firm called Duty of Care International, and has spent twenty years in human resources management in the aid world.

It’s well-known that this is a very difficult area. The sector puts large numbers of people into tough operating environments, with a tiny fraction of the support that’s available for diplomatic or military personnel. It’s built on short-term funding contracts which interfere with efforts to professionalise and plan the workforce.

Perhaps most difficult of all, there are a range of equity and oversight issues that come with shipping expatriate staff into places with weak regulatory systems.

Against this background we talk about:

  • the importance of a principles-based approach to so-called back-office functions
  • the duty of care to protect staff physical and psychological health, and how longevity in the sector can be achieved;
  • safeguarding and abuse, and the efficacy of current initiatives in the sector.

#013: A start-up to facilitate society’s most difficult conversations | Jean-Paul Chami

“I can always travel the world, and try to save the world. But it’s my own space that I need to learn to save first, and to work on.”

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Episode notes

Jean-Paul is part of the generation that was fundamentally shaped by the Lebanese civil war, but had no responsibility for it. In his words, when he left the country in 2006 after the brief and calamitous war with Israel, he never wanted to come back.

While abroad, however, he found a sense of agency and possibility. He did come back, and founded an organisation called Peace Labs, which aims to facilitate the difficult conversations that need to happen if the country is to move forward.

We unpack that complicated personal journey, asking:

  • Why he went abroad to focus on international relations and peace studies, but then came back to focus on where he started;
  • What it takes at a personal level to engage directly with some of the toughest issues, in your own communities;
  • Why he undertook the risks and difficulties of starting a new organisation, and a different way of doing things.

#012: From militia commander to peacebuilder | Assaad Chaftari

“This would be enough for me. A second of hesitation when the drums of war start playing. One second of hesitation.”

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Episode notes

Assaad is best-known in Lebanon for an open letter in 2000, in which he apologised for what he’d done with the Lebanese Forces, a prominent Christian militia responsible for its share of atrocities.

This has been followed by nearly twenty years of philanthropic work. Much of it has been in partnership with other former combatants, through the organisation Fighters for Peace. He has also been involved with a range of initiatives seeking to unblock social dialogue more broadly.

We look back at his experience and ask:

  • What prompted that radical change in perspective, while atrocities were still ongoing?
  • How did he keep moving forward despite the reactions of most of his former comrades?
  • Looking back thirty years, what does change look like in Lebanon? What are his realistic expectations for how younger generations will come to see the world?

#011: Women in violent extremist organisations in Indonesia | Siti Darojatul Aliah

“She spent seven years of savings to travel to Syria. You can imagine the propaganda of ISIS people, bringing Syria into her house. Bringing it into her mind.”

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Episode notes

Dete is a researcher and activist whose work revolves around in-depth, interview-based research with people detained for terrorism offences, and their families. This includes special focus on women as both partners and protagonists.

The results are used to inform dialogue with the Indonesian government and its international partners, along with targeted work to increase resilience to recruitment into vulnerable groups, and re-recruitment of former detainees.

We discuss the ins and outs of how she approaches this work. Amongst other issues:

  • How do you get access to these people, and build trust with both government and detainees?
  • What do they actually say? What do they say when we take them seriously and listen to what is really going on for them?
  • What brings women into these groups? And why has this become much more prominent in recent years?