Three things humanitarian aid workers can learn from Queer Eye
Queer Eye is a Netflix reality TV show where five gay guys (the ‘Fab Five,’ as they are known) make-over someone’s life. The show has amassed some kind of a cult following, and for good reason: it’s critically acclaimed, and has been called, among other things, the “antidote to toxic masculinity,” and “the best show of the year.”
The premise of the show has plenty of surprising parallels with humanitarian aid: five experts in different ‘sectors’ (fashion, food, culture, grooming and interior design) are requested to come and provide their technical assistance; then they conduct a needs assessment on their ‘beneficiary’; and finally they design and implement their make-over intervention.
But in many ways, the Fab Five might just be better than many aid workers in providing help and truly making an impact in someone’s life. Here’s why:
1. They go where they can really make a change
Many aid agencies claim they are “strategic” in terms of where they work and what they work on. But this usually means a number of problematic things: they’re only there because donor funding is there or because the context or the issue they’re trying to address is popular with the public; or, perhaps worse, their HQ is based in a country with colonial ties to where they work.
If aid agencies were genuinely “strategic” in the sense that they’re trying to prevent suffering and death, perhaps we’d have seen them launch appeals to curb the epidemic of road traffic accidents — one of the top 10 killers in low-income countries.
Some aid agencies also have the habit of simply rocking up to a place, even when they’re not needed — sadly, an enduring legacy of cowboy humanitarianism.
Unlike them, the Fab Five only show up where their assistance is specifically requested — someone nominates a friend/loved one to be made-over. At the same time, QE could have simply followed their early 2000s predecessors, the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which the make-overs happened mostly in New York City, aiming to help those who could be categorised under the caricature of a straight guy slob. Easy context and easy wins.
But instead the first two seasons of this version of QE are set mostly along the US’s Bible Belt — in Georgia, Kansas, and Missouri — all of which are relatively conservative Republican states. Hardly the friendliest places for five flamboyant gay men.
Many of their beneficiaries also held conservative views or come from a conservative background. They’ve made-over a prominent local church leader; a farmer who has “never met a gay man”; and even a police officer who voted for Trump — whose touching car ride scene with Karamo, the culture expert who is a black man, became one of the show’s most defining moments.
This speaks to a moral conundrum we often encounter in aid. The outcomes we pursue may involve shifting power relations and promoting ‘liberal’ norms in relatively ‘conservative’ contexts. But how can we do that as outsiders without imposing the dominance of our own worldview, and with respect to the individuals we help?
The boldness of QE’s writers and producers in setting their show in tricky contexts, and the finesse with which the Fab Five engage the communities where they work on difficult issues — from racism, to homophobia, to mental health — should be the envy of the aid world.
2. Their interventions are coherent and comprehensive
It is, unfortunately, not uncommon in humanitarian aid to implement a response that isn’t based on a thorough needs assessment. I, for one, have witnessed first-hand how an aid agency has accepted donor funding to distribute food supposedly for cyclone victims…in a community that was not affected by the cyclone at all!
Humanitarian needs assessment also has blind spots because it is constrained by how we have always done things: for example, by always looking at it per sector (health, WASH, food, etc); or by always offering pre-determined assistance (e.g., distributing jerry cans; providing seeds and tools; etc).
According to ALNAP: “Are humanitarians understanding the full range of people’s greatest needs, rather than only those that they are conditioned to see? No, they are not.”
This has led to, at the very least, inappropriate aid (most strikingly illustrated by the proliferation of UN-branded goods being sold for money in local markets by dissatisfied recipients), and at worst, even harmful unintended consequences.
The Fab Five, on the other hand, assess their beneficiary’s needs in a coordinated and comprehensive way. They visit their beneficiary all together; then they each take their turn in conducting thorough, in-depth interviews; they even ask the community — their beneficiary’s friends and loved ones — for input.
They also go beyond the needs they can immediately identify: the culture expert Karamo in particular often digs deeper to get to the core of their beneficiary’s problems. It’s often uncovered that someone’s messy wardrobe or dilapidated home are merely symptoms of long-term issues, like bad habits or past trauma.
The Fab Five’s interventions also reflect the aspirational humanitarian buzzwords we often hear but rarely see: coherent, multi-sectoral and mainstreamed.
Unlike in aid where we often provide ‘pre-packaged’ assistance regardless of context, QE beneficiaries get thoroughly tailored support — and not just in their fashion. Whether it’s to refurbish a community centre or start a farm-to-table restaurant; or if they’re interested in cooking avocados or organising an arts festival — they get what they want, and more importantly what they need.
Timeframe isn’t made an excuse either. QE’s interventions happen roughly over the same duration as very first phase of disaster — within a week or so.
For full impact, they always come in five — fashion, food, culture, grooming and home design. What’s more, mainstreaming is done in a way Gender and Inclusion experts can only dream of: a wheelchair user gets customised clothes and a house that is more accessible; a woman who is lonely gets taught joy in all things — from picking outfits to baking apple pies.
And they are able to do this because they prioritise impact over scale. They target on person at a time, but aim to provide a lasting change.
It’s then worth considering: can aid implemented in the same way — for example, offering scholarships to 10 refugee kids instead of distributing school kits to 10,000 children — be more effective?
3. They respect and promote the local
There is a laundry list of issues around ‘local’ that haunts the humanitarian sector.
Sometimes, we are criticised as neocolonial, undermining local systems and capacities; we don’t often acknowledge, let alone build on, existing local strengths; we prefer to employ international staff for something locals could do, and we don’t treat locals equally; we don’t give enough funding directly to local organisations; we dismiss local people and ideas; we don’t care about the local environment; and we don’t even procure from local markets or use local materials!
QE couldn’t be more different in their approach — and this shows even in the smallest of things. In the latest season, the Fab Five travel to Japan, where they try to learn the language, make use of a professional translator (it’s shocking how this is rarely planned or budgeted for in the aid sector), and respect local customs (“You guys have to take off your shoes!”).
They also have the humility to recognise that, as outsiders, there are some things they’ll ultimately never get. For instance, one of their Japanese beneficiary says she’s “given up on being a woman” — a concept that is specific to Japanese culture. The fashion guru, Tan, says, “I’ll never understand it” — and so he enlists the help of a local expert.
Practically speaking, the Fab Five also use local materials, shop from local stores, and utilise local services everywhere they go.
In a more profound sense, QE draws out existing strengths within people, or what aid practitioners call “power within.” The same Japanese woman thought she was not beautiful enough — “I have no waist!”, “My nose is too big!” The grooming expert — and perhaps the most iconic member of the group — Jonathan says he wishes she could see what he sees in her, in that trademark positive encouragement he employs with others. “There is a diva in there,” he says, “but all she needs is a little bit of a bold lip.”
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