From Crisis to Calling: An Interview With Sasha Chanoff

If this election season has manifested anything, it's our nation is divided on many issues. Perhaps no issues inhere more controversy than immigration and refugees.

Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Sasha Chanoff, co-author of From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions. Chanoff is also co-founder and executive director of RefugePoint, an organization that provides lasting solutions for the world's most at-risk refugees.

The following are excerpts of our conversation.

PS: Talk to me about the global refugee crisis facing the world today. How is RefugePoint working to help?

SC: There are more people displaced by war and conflict and violent persecution today then at any time even since World War II--more than 60 million people. The average amount of time someone lives as a refugee is nearing 20 years, longer than at any point in living memory. In 2014, $25 billion was spent on humanitarian aid (up from $2 billion in 2000), and it was not nearly enough. The humanitarian system that has been operational since World War II is no longer fit for purpose. We need new ways of addressing refugee crises, new solutions. The international community has to figure out how to transition from emergency aid year after year. It must enable refugees to live normal lives again so that they are not stuck in dangerous limbo situations.

RefugePoint is focused on finding solutions for the most at risk refugees--those who fall through the cracks of humanitarian aid and often have no options for survival. We do this by enabling refugees to permanently relocate, or resettle, to countries around the world, such as the US, Canada, and Australia, where they can rebuild their lives and eventually attain citizenship. We also enable refugees to become self reliant in the countries to which they have fled, so that they can transition away from dependency on humanitarian aid. We meet refugees face to face, where they are, often in dangerous and remote locations, to do our work. We then use our direct service experience to create best practices and models of operation that we disseminate in our field so that other agencies can adopt our approaches. Our private funding lets us innovate; it allows us to break out of traditional modes of humanitarian aid and explore new and creative approaches to address the plight of refugees.

PS: Does each of us posses the power of ethical intuition?

SC: You might say that "ethical intuition" means an intrinsic sense of what is right. Whether or not each of us posseses such a sense is, at bottom, a sociological rather than psychological question. Doing what's "right" means different things in different cultures. Societies have differing norms of behavior, differing key value concepts that shape members of that society in myriad ways from birth on.

"Moral intuition" is something different. We argue in From Crisis to Calling that morality, in the sense of empathy, compassion, care for our fellow human beings, is universal, that it is hard-wired into the human psyche. That conclusion may seem belied by the greed, selfishness, animosity, and violence we see so much of. Yet a confluence of research in various fields--neuroscience, ethology, business, biology, and others--tells us that moral intuition is an inextricable part of who we are. It is an adaptive trait of our species. The moral sense exists, as the great sociologist James Q. Wilson, put it "among the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology." But it exists. In one way or another it asserts itself in the measure of who we are. Each of us has it.

PS: does being forced to compromise under intense pressure shape our character? How?

SC: The intense pressure of facing hard decisions inevitably shapes character. Whatever our responses are to the difficult dilemmas we face, they always tell us something important about who we are. The accumulated responses to the challenges of life, big and small, are the building blocks of character. It is from them that we create our selves.

Compromise is often essential in our interactions with others. But compromise is never a primary motive. The pressure of having to make decisions can lead us to doing the same things we have always done, taking the path that is expected of us. Or it can, as we argue in From Crisis to Calling, open up a new and deeper understanding of our rock bottom values. How we use that understanding in making decisions is something else. Sensible, careful decisions can be and are made are made on grounds other than essential values. That includes compromise, a tool, not a character trait. We feel strongly, though, that in facing hard decisions we at the very least need to consult our essential moral values. We ignore that necessity at the peril of reinforcing a lesser, shallower sense of our self-worth.

PS: Do businesses fail when they overlook their moral cores?

SC: Not necessarily. But many thinkers on business leadership make the point that businesses which embrace a clearly defined set of values have a competitive advantage over those that don't. Every business is motivated by profit. But if a business instills in its employees a sense that they are not just working for a living but are providing a meaningful service for their customers, that increases the motivation to do a good job. If a business values its employees not just as cogs on a machine, but as individuals whose work has dignity and who themselves have the capacity to develop their potential and grow within the organization, that increases loyalty and commitment. A CEO who infuses his or her organization with humane values creates a more integrated, purposeful business. Companies that incorporate these kinds of meta-values are at an advantage, more likely to succeed in an unforgiving competitive environment.

PS: How can organizations tap into the power of altruism to take advantage of crises?

SC: You would imagine that altruism, the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others, would underpin humanitarian action. But the essence of altruism is doing good in a selfless way, even if you or your organization does not accrue any benefit. In this sense the humanitarian space, and the nonprofit arena more broadly, is severely lacking. Competition is the norm. Funding structures, with governments and UN agencies awarding grants to "implementing partner" NGOs, engender competition and limit opportunities for collaboration. Advancing your own name and your own cause is the norm, even when it's at the expense of sharing in a way that would do more good for more people. There is growing recognition of the need for altruistic behavior in the humanitarian space. The Grand Bargain, an idea that humanitarian actors have to collaborate more, increase efficacy and reduce competition, was highlight at the World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May 2016 in Istanbul, where over 50 heads of state and thousands of other leading thinkers and practitioners gathered to discuss how to address the crises of our time. So at least there is growing recognition of the lack of collaboration. But action must follow statements of intent. Altruism is RefugePoint's DNA. We regularly highlight and support other organizations, those that are both larger and smaller than our own, we share fundraising leads, and we share our best practices. This is all in service of trying to improve and move our field forward, so that more refugees across the world have opportunities to live with dignity and to contribute to the communities in which they live.