What To Do II.1: The Donor Edition – Emergency Response

Getting back to blogging about aid work… Tardy by several days, here is a follow-on to a prior post on what to support as a donor, but specifically focused on emergency response.

Emergency response is what pops into the heads of many when they first hear or think about aid work. It’s what most frequently makes the news, and it’s the image of aid work most often in the popular media – movies like “Beyond Borders”, occasional episodes of  “E.R.”, or the just-back-still-dusty-from-Sudan-ex-girlfriend who showed up once on “Grey’s Anatomy” (my wife told me about it). Compared to long-term, local culture-intensive community development, emergency response and relief work can seem simple. In reality, though, it is rarely simple.

Here are my thoughts on what donors ought to consider as they contemplate supporting disaster response agencies and projects.

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The more general your disaster response donation, the more useful. Disaster response operations, like the contexts in which they happen, are often extremely fluid. And not just the actual situation, but also the flow of information and understanding about the extent and nature of need on the ground. Make a donation to an NGO for a particular disaster, but then let them decide whether to use it for shelter or food or the transportation of shelter and food from point A to point B.

Support recovery (not just emergency response). When CNN is flashing images of disaster victims huddled under tarpaulins in the pouring rain (or scorching sun), the automatic reaction of many is to want to donate to help them now. All well and good. Just remember that those same people will very likely still need support a year from now. When you make your donation, specifically say that it can be used for both emergency response and also recovery.

Support refugee work and response to emergencies caused by conflict. These might be far messier in some ways (mainly in terms of the security, political and legal contexts within which response work must be carried out), but in terms of the humanitarian need they are every bit as straightforward as emergencies caused by disasters. I’d also personally implore donors to not allow your own political or religious views to cause you to withhold support. A refugee is a refugee.

Support disaster risk reduction and disaster mitigation work. The very best emergency responses are those where preparation has taken place. Obviously you can’t plan for every disaster. But there is a great deal that NGOs can and do do to help communities be more resilient, to minimize the effects of disasters when they do occur, and to prepare now for a rapid scale-up of operations should a disaster happen. Support disaster risk reduction and disaster mitigation, either as part of long-term community development (i.e. before the disaster strikes), and/or as part of recovery programming following a large disaster.

Must-haves in any good emergency response project.

Focus on basic needs: Emergency response is about ensuring basic survival, physical security and health. You want to support programs that address some combination of the following basic activities: food, water, shelter, sanitation, protection, psycho-social support. Choose to support emergency responses that are primarily focused on one or more of these. Think carefully about why you’d want to support an NGO or organization doing something other than these during the emergency response phase. If the organization you want to support is proposing to do something else, there is a good chance that your donation will go towards something other than what people affected by a particular disaster most need.

(To me these are all obvious and self-explanatory. However, please do not hesitate to comment or send me email directly if you’d like further discussion on any of them.)

Focus on Local. For all of the above emergency response activities, you want to support those organizations and relief projects that emphasize the purchase, use and distribution of locally available goods as much as possible. In cases where need on the ground legitimately outstrips local supply, purchasing and importing from within the region is the next best thing. There are many reasons why you want to go local, two of which are cost and cultural appropriateness.

Respond now, but with a view to the long-term. Choose to support organizations and projects that plan for recovery beyond the initial emergency response. In many ways, this is where your charitably donated dollars make the most difference.

The very best will also include…

Protection. Disaster zones, places where large numbers of displaced people suddenly amass, and even actual refugee camps can be very dangerous. Many non-aid-workers are surprised to learn that abduction for ransom, general human trafficking, murder for revenge, rape, and all forms of exploitation of those most vulnerable (most frequently women and children) are all very real dangers in disaster and post-disaster settings. Ask an NGO or aid agency that you’re thinking of making a donation to what kinds of protection measures they support or may even directly put in place.

Accountability to beneficiaries. Even the most basic, straightforward relief activities need to be designed and carried out in a manner that is transparent. Beneficiaries have the right to know who (which organization/s) is providing assistance in their communities, what exactly is being provided, and what criteria an NGO uses to select who receives assistance. Beneficiaries have (or should have) the right to say whether or not they even want assistance, as well as the right to give feedback to any NGO working in their community and have that feedback heard and responded to. Ask an NGO or aid agency that you’re thinking of making a donation to what their practices are for ensuring their own transparency and accountability to beneficiaries.

You should think twice about supporting…

Agencies or projects that are mainly focused on importing stuff from far away. Sometimes it is necessary to import material (tarpaulins for shelter, basic foodstuffs, etc.) into a disaster context on a limited basis. But “on a limited basis” should be the operative phrase. Be wary of those that only do this.

Agencies or projects that involve active partnership with military or military-like entities. For a range of reasons it is extremely important that humanitarian aid be provided by civilian, non-military organizations and personnel, and that the distinction between these two types of entities be made very clear to everyone in the disaster zone.

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Once again, I hope this is helpful. And as usual, your comments and discussion are most welcome.


Honesty 101: What We Get

It would be a lot easier if I could just stop caring about Sri Lanka.

But I do care, and I can’t quite bring myself to stop (and anyway, don’t really want to), so articles like this one tend to get to me.

The suggestion that I, like mercenaries and “dogs of war”, profit from the suffering and misery of others is one that evokes a strong emotional, visceral response from me.

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Daniela’s posts (here) and here) got me thinking about honesty.

I’m still mulling over a few potential posts, but for now this is where I think it starts: An honest discussion about how we the aid-workers benefit from aid work.

It’s not so much a matter of shattering any myths, as the facts are lying out there in the open plain enough for all to see. What’s missing in my opinion is basically a frank and open admission that we do benefit. An admission, plus some follow-on discussion about what that means. But let’s start with the admission (by the way, in case it’s not clear, I apply all admissions and admonitions to myself as well as others):

If you are somehow involved in aid work and receive any form of compensation, the fact is that you benefit. Whether you’re a one-month contractor, or a lowly staffer, or a technical expert based in the field, or an academic who does evaluation consultancies and/or whose tenure is even a tiny little bit based on your past with some large development agency, or the author of a much-debated or controversial critique of  international aid, or even a donor who lists your donation as a “charitable donation” on your US Federal tax return (or the equivalent in other countries), the fact is that you benefit from someone else’s misfortune.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a stipended intern or a flushly compensated IO director with per diem on top of salary + benefits; it doesn’t matter whether you live in a renovated colonial villa in Yangon or one half of a grotty flat in Bamako; it doesn’t matter whether the source of your income is a large grant from the European Commission or a patch-work assortment of funding from Pentecostal churches in Alabama and Mississippi; it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live or what kind of person you are, whether you get wasted and bed the locals every weekend, or stay in reading your Bible or Amartya Sen books and studying Pashtu: if you are involved in aid and receive anything at all in return, you benefit as the result of someone else’s suffering.

Some days it truly does feel as if the costs associated with a career in aid work outweigh the benefits. But the fact is still that I do benefit. I receive salary and so benefit financially. And every time the person at the airline counter lets me have an extra kilo of check-in weight worth of grace (because I’m on a “humanitarian mission”), or a total stranger, on discovering what my job is, affirms me for “doing such wonderful work”, I benefit socially. Any time that I, by virtue of what my job is or the fact that I have been to a lot of places that my non-aid worker acquaintances cannot even find on the map, can take the upper hand or the moral high ground in a debate, I benefit from – albeit in a way intangible to some – from a life of helping the poor. And so do the rest of you, unless you’re working totally for free and absolutely no one knows about it.

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Why is this important? It is important because there is a psychology at work among aid actors which lead us to sometimes act and perhaps subconsciously believe as if all we do is give without receiving anything in return. And this leads to a feeling of, for lack of a better term, superiority; a feeling that I am a better spokesperson for the poor than someone else; the sense that I more than someone else can legitimately lay claim to a parcel of moral high ground; an attitude, as one online acquaintance put it, of being “more-ethical-than-thou.” It gives us – or so we seem to very often think – latitude to forcefully go after an organization or person whose perspective is different. I hear/read/see a lot of what looks like self-righteous, self-important dressing-down of others over issues that perhaps are not all that cut-and-dried, over offenses that may not necessarily be offenses.

Of course at the outer edges of issues, on the extreme ends of continuums things are clear enough. There are harmful relief and development practices that should be immediately stopped, if not voluntarily, then forcibly. But without recanting that perspective, and previous frustrated spouting off notwithstanding, it seems to me that the vast majority of relief and development work happens in those messy, grey, tangled middle areas.

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The feeling that we give to the poor and take little or nothing in return leads to that visceral, emotional response that I had at the suggestion that I might possibly be in this aid gig for any reason other than helping the poor. It leads to our moral indignation when someone suggests that our organization or program or idea is one that doesn’t work. We think, “I am doing this for the poor! What kind of person would dare criticize me for this?”

I see a mentality which says that “we do this for the poor and expect nothing back” as at least part of what underpins the belief that the poor have nothing, and something is better than nothing, and so no matter what we give, it is still helpful. Too frequently the belief that we get nothing or practically nothing back is used as unspoken justification for not thinking deeply enough, not being critical enough about what we actually do. It clouds our judgment and our ability to think logically.

Our tacit assumption is that because our motives are pure, what we do is still “useful” and “helpful” and “good.” The fact that what we do can and should be better is too often simply not addressed.

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So let’s level out the moral high ground a bit. Better yet, let’s agree that there is no moral high ground. We all get something. In lots of ways development and even flat-out NFI-distribution emergency response are processes of give-and-take between “the poor” (recipients, beneficiaries…) and all of the actors supposedly intervening on their behalf.

And that’s all fine. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be fairly compensated for our work, even if it is for the poor. (Although hard to define precisely, I’d say, though, that principles of modesty and proportion should apply to aid worker compensation.

By the same token, let’s all recognize that while this is far more than just a job for most of us, it still is a job. It’s a job that has to be done, and done well. And even done well is not good enough. We have to constantly be looking for ways to do this better. This is the case, whether we come from a moral-obligation/desire-to-help-the-poor perspective, or from a stay-competitive-in-the-industry perspective. And while I personally am more driven by the former, I don’t see that either one takes precedence necessarily.

No one gets less scrutiny simply for having the right motivation.

No one is immune to mistakes.

The onus of improvement is on all of us.

What To Do II: The Donor Edition

More about what to do (and a little bit about what not to do), from my perspective: My recommendations to those readers who are donors.

These opinions are based on experience in several different positions (including my current one) that have put me regularly in contact with aid donors of all categories (from mega-institutional donors all the way down to private individuals donating $100 at a time). These are my opinions: take them for what they’re worth. See also my usual favorite suspects, but particularly Good Intentions Are Not Enough and some classic Blood and Milk for more practical guidance on good donorship.

When selecting an NGO to support:

  • Do not base your decision solely or even primarily on the basis of the organization’s overhead ratio or percentage. This number can mean a vast range of different things and is rarely what it appears. Moreover, it is incorrect to believe that the lower the overhead, the more efficient the organization. Any organization that claims less than 10 per cent overhead is suspect in my opinion. Look for language like, “… at least ninety cents of every dollar you donate goes directly to programs that help beneficiaries…”: They’re very likely either playing with the numbers, doing ineffective programming, or both. At a minimum, you’d want to clearly understand what such an organization specifically means by overhead and how the calculation is made.
  • Look at the proportion of GIK (gifts in-kind) in the organization’s global annual budget. At a minimum you cannot understand an organization’s overhead figure without also understanding it’s GIK figure: in general, the higher the proportion of GIK, the higher the actual overhead figure. GIK is a contentious and multi-faceted discussion. For the purposes of this point, I would personally have misgivings about supporting an organization that showed GIK as more than 30 per cent of it’s global annual program budget.
  • Look at actual program documents, not promotional material. Do not assume that an organization’s promotional material accurately reflects what it actually does or accomplishes. In every organization that I have worked for, and in every organization that I have any knowledge of the inner workings of via friends and acquaintances, there is a wide gap between what programs departments actually do and what marketing departments say they do. There are many causes of and reasons for this that I’ll not discuss here. Suffice to say that accurate, effective communication to the public about what NGOs actually do continues to be an industry-wide challenge. Ask to see actual program documents and summary budgets to get a clearer picture of what you’re thinking of supporting. Ask for clarification and explanation of what you do not understand.
  • Support an NGO to do what it does. Either tailor your donation “needs” to the NGO you’re supporting, or support an NGO that does the kind of work that you want to support. I continue to be surprised at how many donors seem incapable of grasping this basic concept. You don’t go to a Ford dealership in hopes of buying a Toyota… If you want to support a women’s health project, don’t try to persuade an NGO that specializes in agriculture to do a women’s health project just for you. Go to an organization that does women’s health work. The same principle applies to geography: If you want to support something in Mozambique, pick an NGO that has presence in Mozambique…
  • Look at an organization’s overall, global track record. Few NGOs are uniformly good or bad, globally. Even the worst have random stellar programs, and even the best have programs they’re ashamed of. Don’t let sensational coverage of an NGO program meltdown in country X persuade you necessarily that they’re bad in country Y. And by the same token, glowing coverage of an NGO here, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re great there.

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When Selecting a PROJECT to Support:

Activities that are usually a safe bet: In general, the basics. The unsexy, tried and true long-term community-based development interventions. Volumes could be written about what to look for/at, what to prioritize as a donor, etc. I’ll try to keep it short:

-Community health. Look for evidence that the project/activity somehow links to the existing health system structure. Personnel should be the largest single budget category. Ask more questions if a lot of emphasis is on technology, equipment, or vehicles.

-Agriculture. Look for evidence that the project links with or builds the capacity of local agricultural extension. Look for evidence that the project somehow takes local market access issues into consideration (unless it’s a purely subsistence farming project, but these are rare…). Be wary of projects that introduce technology which must be imported (like special equipment), or that introduce non-indigenous crops.

-Economic Development. Look for evidence that the implementing org. thoroughly understands the local economic/market environment, and has designed the project accordingly. Look carefully at the sustainability projection and understand it before you agree to support. Be wary of projects that are based solely or primarily on an assumption of new enterprises started around activities not indigenous to the project location.

-Education. Understand the differences between “education”, “literacy”, and “vocational training” – know which one you’re supporting. Look for evidence that the project addresses the needs of those most likely to be excluded either intentionally or by default, usually: girls, children who have to work to support the family, or members of an ethnic or religious minority.

-Advocacy. Avoid supporting advocacy that is only about awareness-raising. Understand that advocacy is expensive, and that it is often difficult to demonstrate the link between dollars spent on advocacy and policy change.

-Emergency Response. I plan to write a separate post specifically for donors interested in supporting emergency response work. Briefly, for the purposes of this post: Understand that any international org you support will almost certainly not be first-on-the-ground (very initial response is done by local community). Look for some combination of the following being addressed in the first three months after the disaster: food, water, shelter, sanitation, protection, psycho-social support. Be wary of organizations whose emergency responses vary significantly from this.

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Activities that you should always question and understand clearly before agreeing to support:

-Projects that will run for less than three years (see the previous post: even this length may be too short) (Also, this does not apply to emergency relief programming).

-Large and/or frequent international shipments of GIK: medical equipment, donated pharmaceuticals, used computers or tech gear, etc. See the point above and also this post on Good Intentions Providing GIK that is appropriate in a manner that is appropriate requires a level of effort beyond what most NGOs are willing to expend.

-Projects whose success depends on the deployment of short-term internationals.

-Projects or organizations whose success is tied to one charismatic individual (very often an expat who “sells” the project/organization very well back home, possibly a celebrity). Look beyond the colorful spokesperson for evidence of general organizational capacity and solid program implementation along the lines of what I articulate above.

-International adoption: Let me be clear right away that I’m not against adoption per se. But I am wary of NGOs who involve themselves in it. You need to realize that adoption is a for-profit enterprise that has arisen in response a demand. You should not think of adoption as a development intervention.

-Construction, infrastructure: Support projects where construction of infrastructure (buildings, bridges, roads…) is but one part of the means towards a larger project goal of bring sustainable change for people. Be wary of projects that are all or mostly about construction. Be very wary of projects that are all or mostly about construction and that rely on international short-time staff (church groups, volunteers…) to do the building.

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Activities that I cannot recommend at all.

-Orphanages. I’m sure I’ll provoke a firestorm of moral indignation from some for putting orphanages into this category. But I have to do it. Industry best-practices related to orphan care overwhelmingly focus on keeping orphaned and abandoned children in their home communities. Taking orphaned or abandoned children and putting them into an institutional setting, apart from the rest of their community, and usually with no clear primary care-provider is a bad idea any way you want to look at it. I’m not saying don’t care about and don’t help orphans. But I am fully against projects that build, run, maintain, or in some other way perpetuate orphanages.

Instead, support programs address the deeper issues which often lead to abandonment or children being orphaned: programs that keep orphans in their home communities, either by placing them with extended families or through local and culturally appropriate foster care; programs that increase viable livelihood options to families (including extended families) so that abandonment is not necessary; reunification of families separated through mass displacement (mainly in relief contexts); peace-building and reconciliation; anti-trafficking…


What To Do

I confess that I was taken by surprise at both the volume and tone of responses to those contentious and by now somewhat famous-in-cyberspace posts on development tourism, volunteering and regulation of aid. While I did publish most reader comments, for the first time I moderated out a few that can only be described as direct hate mail. Interesting…

One result of this, though, is that I feel compelled to share a post or two with my opinions about what does work, what should be replicated.

So, here goes: a first post meant mainly for practitioners, with what I think are the obvious caveats – these are my opinions based on what I have personally seen and experienced in nearly two decades of continuous aid work. For the sake of this post, I assume that readers are on board with the value of community-led programming and community-based approaches. None of this is particularly new or earth-shattering, and much reflects or is somehow corroborated by my usual practitioner favorites: Saundra, Alanna and Michael (although they’re certainly not the only ones). I’d recommend that you read their back posts for additional concrete, practical advice about what to do:

Do real assessments: This is the foundation of good programming, whether you’re talking about relief or development. Do not skimp or cut corners when it comes to assessments. Bad assessments, whether because they were cursory, poorly planned, under-budgeted or just not done at all, is by a very wide margin the single most common mistake that I see in NGO work. While no organization is immune to doing lame (or no) assessments, in my personal experience, the tighter an organization’s discretionary budget, the less likely it is to do proper assessments. The reason for this is that most donors will not pay for an assessment for a project that they are also funding.

  • Pick a methodology and follow it through. Which methodology? Your choice should be based on the kind of program that you’re assessing for. The point is, if you pick “Appreciative Inquiry”, do all the steps for A.I. from start to finish. If you’re doing HEARTH, same.
  • Don’t faff around with assessment language. A casual conversation with three women in the market is not a “focus group.” Follow basic and well-known ethnographic and survey techniques. (These techniques are very well-documented and all over the web. You don’t need me to give you links.)
  • Budget the assessment adequately. This has to be a priority at every level in the organization.
  • Take the necessary time. One or two weeks is simply not enough for a development project or program. Schedule around Ramadan or Songkhran if you have to.
  • Have a qualified person lead the assessment. Doesn’t have to be a high-priced external consultant. But it needs to be led by someone who has done it before. Leading an assessment is not the right context for individual learning.

Do evidence-based programming: Base your project and program design, and also you selection of interventions and activities on what your assessment tells you the problems are. This is easily the second most prevalent mistake that I see in NGO work: the tendency, basically, to define the problem in terms of a project that the organization wants to implement. I’ve seen this more often among organizations that defined their niche as a particular activity. And from the outside it’s easy to see why: an organization that does mainly GIK shipments (for example) is likely to come to every situation assuming a need for GIK. Moreover, there are inevitably those situations where it feels innocuous enough to implement some activity that is essentially peripheral to actual need, perhaps because it offers opportunity for organizational growth or expansion into a new area or because there is what looks like low-hanging fruit from a particular donor. Resist the temptation to do this kind of project. It takes intellectual honesty and strong organizational commitment from top to bottom to do evidence-based programming.

  • Let a properly implemented assessment tell you what the problems, issues are (evidence).
  • Design your program based on that evidence (evidence based).
  • Perhaps most important of all: if the evidence indicates a problem the your organization does not have the technical capacity to address or requires core activities that your organization is somehow specialized away from, don’t do any project.
  • Resist the temptation to use backward logic. Don’t define the problem in a way that justifies what you decide a priori that you want to do.

Commit to the long-term: This one seems exceptionally basic to me, but I am repeatedly surprised by how many organizations and programs I come across that are but tentative flags in the sand in country or district X. Doing this requires substantial top-to-bottom organizational commitment. It can be all but impossible to resist the temptation to take an easy, short-term grant for a new thing or a new place. In my opinion, though, while geographic and/or sectoral expansion for an organization are all good and well, moves that are tentative from the get-go are very often doomed to eventual failure, usual with the recipient community bearing the brunt.

  • A three-year horizon is the utter minimum in my opinion. Some readers might even take me to task for making it so low. If your organization cannot commit up front to three years of solid programming in a new place or a new activity sector, don’t go for it.
  • This applies to people as well as programs. Obviously some positions, by their very nature, are exceptions to this. But your core team on any new initiative should be committed for this same minimum time-frame. This is the case regardless of where they’re based. Continuity is key, whether the person is grant support at HQ, tech support in a regional office, or direct program implementation in the field. Less than three years of continued involvement from the core team and the best you can hope for are lukewarm results. Even at three years, lukewarm is asking for a lot…

Put resources as close as possible to the beneficiaries: Again, the logic of this seems incontrovertible to me. But when it comes time to write a new program budget, there is always a battle. And yet again, organizational commitment is required. I won’t recommend any specific ratios or percentages here, but will simply say: The point of development work is to actually do things in the field – don’t look at grants as an opportunity to build up HQ or regional office capacity.

Participate in the Community of Practice: Many see participation in coordination meetings, attendance at InterAction forums (or other equivalent for non-US NGOs), sector working groups, etc. as huge hassles and wastes of time. I see these as very important on several levels: It keeps clear who the NGO actors are in a given place, time or sector; for technical working groups it keeps key issues on the table and moves technical discussion forward. If properly attended these reduce the possibility of overlap. If properly attended these can improve transparency and accountability among NGOs (basically via peer pressure). I am repeatedly surprised at the number of NGOs large and small who blow these off either because they’re inconvenient or because the organization feels it’s mandate doesn’t require it to know what anybody else is doing.

  • Make participation in coordination and technical working groups a priority, particularly at the field level.
  • Don’t just attend; actually participate. The value of working groups and coordination meetings is in direct proportion to the level of actual participation. Speak up – talk about your organization’s experience, challenges as well as success in sector X or district Y. Keep it professional, but don’t hesitate to speak up if your organization’s experience contrasts with that of a colleague organization.
  • Send the right person to the meeting. Too many times it’s an intern or underling who gets sent to represent the agency. To technical working groups, send someone who can speak to your organization’s technical approach in that sector; to coordination meetings, send someone who can speak for your organization on the spot. If there is simply not a person available who can adequately represent your organization at a particular meeting, send your apologies to the chair and participants as a courtesy.

Discontinue practices or interventions that do not yield results: Everyone in the industry, from the largest institutional and governmental donors, right on down tiniest little fly-by-night NGOs struggles with this one. Although I don’t know why for certain, I suspect that it’s ultimately an issue of intellectual honesty and probably closely related to where the organization is on the issue of evidence-based programming. Particularly if an organization specializes in a particular activity it can be very difficult to admit that that activity doesn’t work. I think as well, there is a strong tendency in some corners of the aid industry to define success simply as the absence of failure, one result of which is that many ineffective interventions and practices sort of slip beneath the radar.

  • Do solid evidence-based programming. Make sure that your initial and follow-up assessment are designed in a way that gets at the causality between your intervention and the changes in whatever indicators you are measuring. Simple positive correlations are usually not enough. Even if through qualitative means, make sure you have some way see the link (or absence of it) between what you’re actually doing and the effects you’re seeing in the community.
  • Organizational (and also personal) intellectual honesty. Much harder than it sounds, especially when budgets are tight, donors like a particular activity and want to fund it, or your organization’s raison d’etre is in question.


Regulation? Anyone?

This always happens:

I’m off the clock in some informal, social setting and the subject of what I do for a living comes up. There will be someone in the group, very interested and very eager to let me know that they’ve just donated what for them is a sizeable sum to an utterly useless INGO. I know the INGO they’re talking about because I’ve seen their programs in the field, received their promotional material in the mail, and perhaps even interviewed their would-be escapees for open positions on my team. The person will be clearly hoping for my approval and I’ll feel socially obliged to affirm them, even though I know that their donation was, at best, wasted. At worst, they may have helped to actually cause harm.

And I wonder if it’s time for an industry-wide conversation about regulation.

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At the moment NGOs seem to be left to largely self-regulate within the context of some generalized “shame & honor” peer pressure from the community at large. Different large donors can regulate by stipulating the terms of grants and cooperative agreements, but this is only effective to the extent that their grantees are financially dependent on them. The UN cluster system sometimes regulates in relief contexts, but overall the cluster system experience is so vastly different from emergency to emergency that it is hard to see any real patterns emerge. And there are endless documents like the Humanitarian Charter, Sphere standards and The Good Enough Guide; endless sector-specific signatory working agreements, best-practice documents, and coalitions meant to promote this or that. All of which are “good things” in principle.

The problem is, they have no teeth. They only work to the extent that NGOs and other aid actors submit voluntarily to being bound by them, adhere to them, participate in them. But nothing really happens to those NGOs who don’t feel like following best-practices or participating coordination meetings. As I wrote in a previous post, there is currently nothing in the aid world comparable to what we call a malpractice lawsuit in the medical world.

* * * * *

We all know who they are.

They’re those INGOs who don’t coordinate or who incessantly implement bad development… and in some cases are even proud of it. We cringe when we see their advertisements. We roll our eyes when their newsfeed pops up on Alertnet.org. Maybe we even engage our gag reflex when their CEOs get airtime on national television following some high-profile emergency.

They’re there, on the periphery of every big disaster from hurricanes in Central America to wars and accompanying refugee crises inAfrica, Eastern Europe and the Middle East to earthquakes and tidal waves in Asia. The little opportunistic INGOs that almost no one has heard of, often very focused on a very specific sub-sector (e.g. in-kind small livestock loans) or a very specific sub-demographic (e.g. displaced Kurdish youth 12-17 in female-headed households in Eastern Turkey). Their mission statements are frequently internally contradictory, maybe talking about how they emphasize “charity” rather than “development”, but then with some vague language about the importance of building local capacity tacked on at the end. They’re the ones who come to coordination meetings about once per year. They cheerfully implement portfolios of projects modeled after the best-practices of 1975.

We often see evidence of their projects having created dependency in communities where we try to work; sometimes our projects struggle because they insist on working badly in those communities at the same time that we’re working there. We fight the urge to let the air out of the tires on their vehicles when we find them in the carpark of the supermarket or used bookstore.

In Kosovo it seemed that there were INGOs named after every imaginable vocation, translated into French, with the tag “sans frontiers” added. Tsuanmiland was a veritable feeding frenzy in early 2005: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to endure the immigration line in Colombo or Medan listening to a retired high school shop teacher or bright-eyed college drop-out enthusiastically regale me with his or her theory that the real key to “sustainable relief” is to import some specific kind of pre-fabricated, pre-packaged collapsible housing, rather than go with locally available materials, designs and labor. Myanmar was similar – and despite the fact the cluster system actually worked better there than in many responses, and specifically despite the fact that the logistics cluster worked like a dream (once it got up and running), I repeatedly overheard conversations in departure lounges in Bangkok and Singapore where the staff of these INGOs boasted about smuggling in pharmaceuticals, a single suitcase at a time, on the ground from Thailand. Iraq right now seems awash with small-shop INGOs of questionable philosophical virtue, bent on partnering in different high-profile ways with the US military, local militias or perhaps both. Only China seems to have avoided the onslaught of the small, amateur INGOs: it was simply all but impossible to get a visa to China following last year’s earthquake.

And on my most recent international trip, to Pakistan, I made the mistake of sharing my occupation and the name of my employer with the person sitting next to me on the trans-Pacific leg. … Someone who, it turned out, was high up in one of those little never-before-heard-of INGOs consumed with repackaging as their “niche” a particular development practice known for more than a decade to be utterly ineffective.  This person talked about bad development for the entire flight. I’ve never been so happy to get to Tokyo.

* * *

Painting with too broad a brush? Maybe. Or not.

Just so that we’re clear, for me it’s not about who’s cool or trendy or even necessarily about who’s doing the very latest thing and who’s not. I long ago subscribed/resigned myself to the “mystics, misfits, missionaries, and mercenaries” description of aid workers. We’re all one or more of those, I think, in some way or another, myself certainly included. I’m not down on anyone for not having the latest technology or wearing out-of-date clothing or using old jargon.

Neither am I talking about size of an organization or project. Over and above the fact that I have personally seen both large and small projects both accomplish amazing things and also totally fail, just in-principle I think there’s a need for both the large do-everything “department store” as well as the small, specialized “boutique” aid organizations.

Nor am I talking about the faith-status, political orientation or philosophical underpinnings of an organization, necessarily. Again, we’ve all seen both the success and failure of programs implemented by organizations of all origins. No worldview has a corner on market of helping the poor, no more than any worldview is immune to the pitfalls of poorly planned and executed aid work.

What I am positively against, though, are those organizations who whether knowingly or in a state of cultivated ignorance intentionally implement bad relief and development.

It makes me cranky to think that such organizations can implement such bad relief and development with apparent impunity. We all know who they are. And while we’re all usually too nice to call them out and say so publicly, in our hearts we know that they should be shut down now. They need to have their tax-exempt donations status revoked immediately (if they’re US-based), and their expats bodily removed from whichever countries they’re in before they do any more damage or waste any more money.

* * *

One of the things that attracted me to aid work as a younger man was the feeling of… well, freedom. And while that freedom may have been somewhat mythical, the fact that there really was (and still is) a degree of room for creative problem-solving is one part of what keeps it interesting for me.

I find myself naturally resisting any suggestion of more bureaucracy, more rules, more process.

But I wonder aloud whether the time is right to have an industry-wide conversation about regulation?

Not “coordination” – there’s already plenty of that. I’m talking about regulation with some weight behind hit. Regulation that carries with it the power to forcibly shut down bad development projects and perhaps even organizations. Regulation that can deliver the equivalent of a malpractice lawsuit against those organizations who repeatedly do it poorly.


Am I full of it? Has that second pint of “Harper’s Brown Ale” totally gone to my head? Am I wishing for the impossible?

Tell me why regulation is a bad idea.

More thoughts on volunteers… ‘cause apparently I touched a nerve somewhere…

I drafted and then re-drafted and then re-re-drafted a very lengthy follow-up post about volunteers and volunteering, following many of the really great comments that came in last week. But after a point it seemed that I was simply re-writing the previous post, which I thought at the time of writing could pretty much stand on it’s own.

Apparently not. The whole idea of the “volunteer” still reasonates.

And then it was the comment from Daniela that helped my get my head around where (I think) we need to go with all of this. Her very first point – she calls it a digression – is what did it: for heaven’s sake, we need to lose the term “volunteer.” It’s completely misleading, and anyway, this is not 1973. It seems we (all) can mean a great many things when we use the term “volunteer.” One agency’s “volunteer” is another agency’s “intern”, or yet another agency’s “pro bono consultant”… and I’m sure the list could go on. The point is, “volunteer” or any other title for that matter, really tells us very little in the broader context about a person’s ability or background or even her or his actual job.

So let me be a little clearer. “Volunteers” is just a word. I am specifically against the following:

1) People with no training and/or no relevant experience for any reason being placed in to positions of decision-making authority in relief or development programs. This is a professional field. The work needs to be carried out by professionals. I am completely against any program or organization that communicates otherwise. I am against any organization or program that places unqualified people in the field with either the direct or indirect message that, “this is really not all that hard. Anyone can do it. You just have to be committed.” On this point the length of deployment is not so much of an issue for me. An unqualified person in the field is unqualified whether they’re there for 12 days or 12 months.

2) Placing or sending people to relief and development programs in the field on a short-term experimental basis to see if they like it, for them to try it out. As ithorpe aptly points out, we need some way to sort of test and career-track aspiring newbies. But short-term placement (“volunteering”) to see if they like it, in my opinion, is the wrong way to do it. We don’t let aspiring dentists “just try out dentistry” for a week or month or even a whole year so that they can make up their minds before committing to career path. We shouldn’t do so in aid work either. The fact that there is as yet no equivalent in the aid world to malpractice in the medical world should not be an excuse for us to be any less rigorous in principle when it comes to fielding international staff.

3) Similarly, I am against using untrained, unqualified internationals on a short-term or casual basis as part of their education about international development. I know that this is going to sound very hard-line to some, but so be it. I completely agree, again, with ithorpe and others, that we need more and betters ways of educating the public about international development, third-world poverty, etc. But sending Americans to build houses in Ghana (for example) is the wrong way to accomplish this. It sends completely the wrong messages to all parties. It tells those “volunteers”, “See? In just two weeks you can fix a problem in another country.” It leads to a shallow and incorrect understanding of the root causes of poverty, and it belies the complex understanding needed to come up with sustainable solutions. On the beneficiary side, it communicates that they are passive recipients. “Here. Let us send 12 Americans to build you a community center.”

Other thoughts:

In my view, both unqualified staff headed for the field and also the organizations that see fit to send them are equally culpable.

In some comments to the previous post examples were proffered of situations where volunteers might be appropriate. I guess my response to these goes back to honesty and clarity about motivation and purpose: is the point to help the poor in the most effective and efficient manner possible? Or is it to find ways to accommodate the participation of non-professionals? Is there really a specific short-term technical need in an otherwise well-planned and well-executed development program? Or is there simply a desire to accommodate the schedule of an otherwise gainfully employed professional who wants to “serve” for three weeks?

In general the questions I’d ask when trying to think through whether this program or that, or this “volunteer” position or that one is “okay” would be: Why is a volunteer a better choice than a qualified local? Why is a volunteer a better choice than a formally hired expat?

I’m not against English language teaching programs that rely on volunteer expats to do the teaching. If they’re well-run (and that’s a very big “if”), they can provide a much-desired service at an affordable local cost and also provide an excellent context for rich cultural exchange. It’s important to note, though, that I see English language teaching as wholly different from professional relief and development work (despite the fact that some English language programs are run by INGOs).

* * *

I’m very well aware of the innumerable shades of grey that can be articulated around everything I say above. In every sentence where I think I’m being clear, I’m sure someone can come back with a hypothetical exception to the rule. Relief and development work frequently defies generalization. So, fully aware of that there are more frequently shades of grey than there are clear blacks and whites, I respond to Ourmanincameroon that for me it’s not so much a tarring of many with one brush as it is a situation of “if the shoe fits…” And about that shoe, here’s where I come down:

I don’t really care what your title is. If you are unqualified and you know it, but you’re in a position of power in some field-based relief and development program; if it is your job day and day out to make decisions that affect the current and future livelihoods of entire communities, but you’re seriously making it up as you go along; if you are in more than occasional contact with local people who could do your job better than you; if your reason for being wherever you are and your specific contribution is anything other than crystal clear (I mean overall… not talking about occasional self-doubt)… you know who you are… get the hell out of the field now before you do some real damage.  

On the other hand, if your title is “volunteer” but you’re one of those rare individuals who has committed for long enough to not just get out of jet-lag but actually have a sense for what is going on; who has a specific skill relevant to relief and development work; for whom this is but one phase of a many-years-long career in aid work stretching out before you, but through those twists of fate that sometimes happen you have an un-sexy title and low salary to match…

…then sit back, sip your chai, puff your hookah, order another Red Stripe, or pop in a pirated DVD in peace. It’s all good. I’m not dissin’ you.

Development Tourism III: Volunteers

Unless something changes, this will probably be the last installment from me in the development tourism discussion.

I realize that this may place me immediately into the “he whose name shall not be spoken” category for some, perhaps many, but I have to get it out there: I have very serious concerns about volunteers.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about local volunteerism – people volunteering their own communities: this is the essence of community mobilization and the driver of sustainable development worldwide. I am talking about international volunteerism in the context of relief and development work. I do not think that it is a good idea for untrained, unpaid foreigners to be sent to work in another country as part of a development or relief program. 

There is a lot of caveat-ing and semantic hair-splitting discussion that can go around that statement, but perhaps let me start here: There are many good reasons for people to want to volunteer internationally. And perhaps there are also good reasons for NGOs to want to use international volunteers. I’ve seen a lot of volunteer programs in action and I’ve met a lot of individual volunteers doing different things out in the field. In many cases these programs and people accomplished some good, and so I suppose were not utter failures. But in spite of all that good that supposedly got accomplished, my issues with volunteers come down to professionalism (“quality”) and efficiency. And when you consider those two things it seems very clear to me if the motivation is an honest and informed desire to offer the very best programming to beneficiaries in the most efficient manner possible, it is all but impossible to justify international volunteers.

I’m very close friends with a number of paramedics. At different times they’ve invited me to ride with them for a shift in the ambulance. It’s interesting, it’s exciting, and observing these guys in action has totally changed my perspective on and appreciation for the Emergency Medical System (EMS) in North America. But when the call comes and they’re bending over a bleeding trauma victim, they make it very clear that I am to stay (the hell) out of the way. There is absolutely no participative role for me in that situation, and if I attempt to intervene in any way – that is, if I do anything at all other than stand off to the side and quietly observe – I am removed bodily from the scene.

I’d see relief and development work in much the same way. This is a professional field. There is a body of theory and a body of best-pracitices and a global community of practice. The stakes are very high, and although relief and development work is not algorithm checklist-driven, just like in EMS work, lives are on the line. Make a mis-calculation as an EMT and a patient dies. Make a mis-calculation as an aid worker and entire communities are adversely affected.

I think that many organizations and individuals take far too lightly the long-term and very far-reaching effects of seemingly mundane decisions that get made daily at the ground level in a relief or development setting. We’re too quick to judge our own programs as “successful” before it’s been long enough to really know. And here I am specifically critical of international volunteer organizations and programs: they are too quick to define success as simply the lack of a meltdown; to believe since their short-term foreigners were not run out of town with pitchforks in the middle of the night that the community likes and agrees with whatever the program is/was; to assume since local counterparts smile and offer hospitality that they’re not offended.

It becomes an issue of honesty. Honesty about motivations and expectations. If the motivation is really (really) to offer the best possible service to beneficiaries in the most efficient manner possible, then I just cannot think offhand of even a hypothetical setting where international volunteerism is appropriate as a general strategy. But frequently the motivation is something else, and in my experience organizations and programs that promote or rely on international volunteers are completely internally conflicted about why they’re doing what they’re doing. And most frequently it comes back to some combination of providing a good experience for the volunteers themselves and something about cost-effectiveness.

I discount the cost-effectiveness argument out of hand. It’s just plain untrue. When you consider the amount of support before, during and sometimes after deployment; when you consider the learning curve compared with the length of deployment; and when you consider the costs to your program and reputation when things go wrong (as they frequently do), it becomes obvious that international volunteers are an incredibly inefficient way to help poor people. And if you buy recent discussions about how overhead is not a valid indicator of organizational efficiency, the rationale for international volunteers becomes even less: spend the money you need to spend in order to hire the staff you need to run your program. Simple.

Further, while I am not against volunteers or anyone else having a “good experience” (aid work is incredibly rewarding), their good experience is not really the point, is it? What about the experience of those in the communities where those volunteers bounce in for perhaps a few weeks?

It’s all good and well to ride along with the ambulance. It’s exciting and interesting. That experience might be the thing that opens a world of possibility to someone who hadn’t considered it previously. Development tourism – if properly run – can be a good thing. But international volunteerism? I’m not so sure. Just like I don’t want some untrained bystander treating me if I was to fall off my motorcycle, so I think relief and development work should be done by those trained to do it.

* * *

It’s easy to read books like Three Cups of Tea and feel inspired and heart-warmed (I was) by the thought of an ordinary citizen making a difference. I wouldn’t diminish even one iota the importance or value of little girls in Khobe having access to education. But I’ll just point out that it took at least two years and three trips to Pakistan for Mortenson (the person telling the story) to figure out what I consider to be the single most elemental concept in development work: listen to the people; let them describe what they want and need. Moreover, that project was undertaken in the late 1990’s, by which time industry best-practices around community assessment and need identification had existed for more than a decade. It was surely a wonderful, learning experience for the author. The first school that he built might have only cost $15,000 on paper, but the circuitous route taken to get there was hardly necessary and certainly not efficient.

We must not let ourselves see occasional one-off successes and anecdotal feel-good stories as evidence that the paradigm of short-term international and often unprofessional volunteers is an effective and efficient means of helping the poor overall.

* * *

Like Saundra over at Good Intentions Are Not Enough, I got my start as a volunteer (coincidently, also in Thailand, but not with the Peace Corps.). That initial year as an English teacher in Bangkok changed my life on multiple levels. It exposed me to life outside North America. It opened a world of possibility. And it led to formal employment with an INGO… but in a low-level position that was directly related to my skillset at the time and where I was very closely supervised by real development professionals. The years since then have been ones of constant education and increasing professionalization for me, both formally and informally. Yes, I got my first job in aid work as a result of being a volunteer, but since starting down the aid work path it has been a journey of constant further professionalization.

I’m still willing to hear other discussion. I still believe that cultural exchange is a good thing. I believe that we need more and better structured ways of introducing non-aid workers to aid work in the field. Finally, I am very unsatisfied with the existing array of career-path options open to aspiring aid workers, and for that reason will expend political capital and go to extra lengths to help out those who I see as having great promise.

But international volunteerism in the context of relief and development work? Sorry… hard for me to get behind that one.