ACADEMICS: Please stop making pronouncements (btw, thanks for nothing…)

I try. I really do try to not go negative and make things personal. But lately my patience is wearing rather thin.


Despite a few random comments in support of it, Chris Blattman’s opinion as shared in this incredibly unhelpful and – frankly – offensive post is a classic example of what often feels wrong to me with the international relief and development industry.

Out of all of it, out of all the well-intentioned but utterly clueless mom-n-pop charities who run amuck, of all the containers of donated used clothing and old computers, of all of the NGO culture that makes it hard to call lame ideas just that, of all the faffing strategies around ethereal and nearly impossible to measure concepts, of all the dumb-ass ideas from individual donors (ideas that usually somehow involve their own personal involvement in the field), the thing that drives me around the bend about the fastest is this:

Professional evaluators, often academics, frequently with CVs showing a glut of UN or WB or for-profit sector experience and a dearth of NGO experience, pitching up to spend exactly five minutes (alriiiight… maybe an exaggeration) evaluating a program run by an NGO. This person, with the coat-of-arms of some bastion of higher learning on her or his business card (and/or perhaps also a book with a catchy title to her or his name) will conduct a few cursory “focus group interviews”, review a few documents, and then retreat to the white Landcruiser to tweet a few pithy/ironic/in-joke-humorous comments from her or his iPhone.

Don’t misunderstand: I am absolutely not against the rigorous external evaluation of aid and development programs. Properly done evaluations are needed on a number of levels. Nor am I saying that “training” is by definition a good thing. Any intervention or activity can be planned and/or carried out poorly.

What I am against is some guy from Yale (ooohhh aaaahhh) bouncing into town for a quick look-see and then pronouncing for the world to hear that training is a bad thing and that NGOs should just stop doing it. Because anyone in the industry and who is also half awake knows that this is an absolutely ridiculous conclusion. Maybe the program that Chris is evaluating is horrible and should be shut down immediately. Maybe his implication is correct: perhaps in the instance that he’s looking at all that effort should be put into infrastructure instead (are you suggesting cash-for-work, Chris?). Or maybe he’s just being a smart-ass and in the process and falling for what Andrew Brody, host of my favorite podcast from… Princeton would call a “part-to-whole comparison flaw.”

There is another dimension as well that I’ll go ahead and be vulnerable and share. It particularly irks me to hear this kind of pronouncement from someone who, as far as I can tell, has never had to actually manage a development program or project. There are always multiple facets to every development or relief project, regardless of the overall conclusion of the evaluation. Someone who has never been faced with the task of writing a logframe that both met donor requirements and also meaningfully reflected reality on the ground; who has never had to personally implement and report on the outcomes of a program planned by someone else; someone who has never worked for an NGO; someone who has never her or himself had her or his program evaluated by some interloper with the coat-of-arms of some bastion of higher learning on his business card… is necessarily blind to huge pieces of the overall picture.

(And by the way, I see the “has never worked for an NGO” part to be particularly important. Many who have never worked for NGOs seem to assume that UN and WB staff as well as people who just happen to have read a lot of books about aid work and get consultancies to evaluate programs are “aid workers” in the same sense that NGO staff are. In fact they are worlds apart. The fact this post was ever written underscores that point.)

Maybe I totally misjudge Chris Blattman. It would be easy enough for him to prove me wrong by sharing on his blog exactly how many years he’s spent with an NGO in some kind of program implementation role.

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I guess what bothers me the most, though, is not just a particular post on a particular blog.

What bothers me is that so many supposedly credible voices seem to put so much effort into sharing with the world what, in their opinion, does not work. Unfortunately, for most of us actually in the aid industry (as opposed to commenting on it from the outside) such analysis is largely redundant. Speaking personally and for those within my own circle of aid-worker friends and close colleagues, I can say that we’re crystal clear on what doesn’t work and in many cases even why it doesn’t work. More blanket criticism, even criticism that tries to be witty, is just plain not helpful.

Can somebody, preferably somebody who has actually implemented something, preferably a practitioner rather than a professional evaluator or skeptic, talk about what does work?

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Rules to live by

Continuing to churn out those partial back posts…

If you work in a HQ or regional office, but are fortunate enough to have it be your job to visit the field on a regular basis, here are some rules to live by:

  1. Clarify financial arrangements for your support in-country before you leave home. This will vary some, depending on your organization’s policies. But make sure you and your host have a common understanding about which organizational entity will pay for what, and how (cash, credit card, internal transfers…).
  2. Cut the Country Director some slack. Country Director (or whatever your organization calls the CEO of it’s national programs) is  often the hardest and most thankless job in the aid industry. This position is responsible for a huge range of things, from high-level strategy, to representation, to day-to-day operational. Make it your default stance to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Be slow to judge him or her.
  3. Don’t get involved in local office drama. As you work with a field team just assume that things are not what they seem, at least in terms of politics and social dynamics. If you come to have direct knowlege of fraud or misconduct or criminal activity, that obviously has to be addressed. But short of those things, stay focused on your TOR and steer clear of partisanship.
  4. Know your technical limitations. If the program needs support that you’re not able to give, say so. And begin working with the field team to get the support that they need.
  5. Know your organizational limitations. Know when to use the phrase, “this conversation is over my pay-grade…” This one is kind of related to #3…

Any other sage advice out there?