No Kidding

The list of articles and blog posts related to Three Cups of Tea-gate, as of this writing, is at 110 and counting. I don’t suspect there’s much original content I can add to this conversation.

Actually, you know what?  There was not much original content to add to this conversation before it even got started. Outside of the details of how the Central Asia Institute (CAI) proved itself incompetent to the mission that it set out for itself, in my opinion there is really nothing new here. Certainly nothing really surprising, and certainly nothing that hasn’t already been said many, many, many times before.

Thanks to all those awesomely intuitive peeps in the mass media, what, exactly, are we learning from all of this? Well…

It turns out that doing long-term programming, and doing it properly is hard. It takes commitment. It costs a lot of money. Who would have thought? No Kidding.

Going someplace where there are a lot of brown people and having an epiphany about how simple the needs of the poor are is easy. Doing something about it takes a lot of knowledge and skill and experience. No Kidding.

… And even with a lot of knowledge, skill and experience, there are no guarantees of success. Sometimes programs fail. Even ones that are well-planned, resourced and executed. Sometimes they fizzle or deliver marginal results. No Kidding.

Greg Mortenson is a big, lumbering, completely disorganized (according to a “friend”) oaf who thought this was all nice and easy, but who – as it turns out – was just plain wrong.  No Kidding.

A famous journalist who thought he understood aid better than he does (I know, almost never happens, right?), whose own career has been made by inaccurately portraying the issues (“it’s simple, really”) in the name of “raising awareness”, and who got all misty over Three Cups of Tea… is now heartbroken and covering his own ass. No Kidding.

[But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

Err… well.. 1) Impossible to prove; 2) not an excuse for fraud.]

Oh, wow. It’s all more complicated than we thought. Very few programs, strategies, ideas, or contexts are cut-and-dried. No Kidding.

The happy propaganda (some bloggers insist on calling this “the narrative”) that aid providers of all sizes and colors feed to their constituents bears somewhere between zero and very little resemblance to what they really do and what the issues really are. No Kidding.

Aid workers – even the really really altruistic ones – are not above Botox-ing their own “narratives” for the sake of a good story. No Kidding.

Maybe we shouldn’t put eccentric visionaries in charge of practical things. Like designing and running programs in other countries? No Kidding.

D.I.Y. aid based on larger-than-life, cults-of-personality is almost always bound for total lameness. No Kidding.

OMG. They read books and have the internet in Pakistan. No Kidding.

[Insert your own snarky, cynical wrap-up paragraph here…]


Big Business

You’ll forgive me if I come off as a bit less than inspired by Jonathan Starr’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (online Europe edition, April 11, entitled “The ‘Business’ of International Aid).

Starr is obviously not an idiot. It takes him about 2 paragraphs to hit some of the key issues in aid: The Aid Industrial Complex is self-regulated. As a result of this, accountability is generally a challenge; aid providers frequently do too poor a job of actually listening to aid recipients; aid is frequently implemented not in the most efficient manner possible for reasons that are suspect, and so on… I’ve certainly done my share of ranting on some of those same topics on this blog over the past few years.

If you’ve been reading Tales From the Hood for very long you’ll know, however, that he pushes a few of my own personal righteous indignation buttons as well: He describes himself having entered the aid sector in Somalia “Happily ignorant of the aid industry’s modus operandi.” (Unacceptable. Plain unacceptable. That by itself is enough to earn the “dumbass” distinction from me.) Based on a single (and very obscure) exposure to the aid industry he assumes he knows more about the issues than he does in fact and goes on to prescribe some untenable remedies (only fund agencies whose executives are on the ground, in-country? Dude – spend some time in the real world). The real icing on the cake for me is simply the fact that in 2011 a “former financial executive” has the audacity to accuse any other industry of having messed up priorities and internal incentives not in the best interests of it’s own clients and stakeholders.

Beyond specific rant-worthy details, though, The ‘Business’ of International Aid gets at a larger issue which I think needs closer examination: The notion that the Aid Industry as well as aid organizations should all look and behave and perhaps even structure their values in ways more like the for-profit sector.

It’s a seductive idea. It feels like “common sense.” And it’s gaining momentum and currency in Western culture (and maybe others, too) more generally (Donald Trump considering a run for the US presidency in 2012, for example). The basic assumption seems to be that aid is messed up because aid workers are not astute business people. If only we were better at managing our budgets, drove harder bargains, or could boil all that supposed complexity down to a few pithy PowerPoint slides, we’d all be making a bigger dent in world hunger than we are.

And maybe there’s some truth in there. There are many legitimate ways in which the Aid sector can and should behave more like the for-profit world (I’d prefer to say ‘professionally’) than it does. From where I sit there is a lot of room for standardizing and streamlining different processes, both internally within NGOs and across the sector overall, both technically and managerially. As individuals, as agencies and as a global community of practice, we do seem to spend an awful lot of time on things that are difficult to link to life somehow getting better for “the poor.” Certainly there are many transferable skills between the non-profit and the for-profit worlds.

But I think it’s time to remind ourselves of the obvious: Aid is not a for-profit enterprise and NGOs are not businesses.

We may spend our days doing tasks which look and feel an awful lot like those being done by our peers in the for-profit world – sitting in meetings, writing strategy documents… – but let’s not make the mistake of believing that the two worlds are the same. Again, from where I sit, in a cubicle of an NGO, watching new colleagues arrive from the for-profit sector (many of whom I like and respect very much), there seems to be an overarching assumption that the primary difference between our two worlds, managerially and operationally speaking, is simply that NGO salaries are lower. And this is plain incorrect. (And it also leads to a “sacrifice” mentality.)

In his article Starr latches onto the idea of a customer-service approach as if it’s something new. It’s not. Calling “our beneficiaries” (the poor, etc.) our “clients” in an attempt to psyche ourselves into being more responsive to their needs has been around for at least fifteen years.

And you know what? It doesn’t work.

As Shotgun Shack and I (once or twice) and plenty of others have already pointed out, so long as the recipients of aid and those footing the bill for aid are different groups, the recipients of aid will never ever really be “clients” in the for-profit world sense. The donors are the ones with the real power in the aid relationship, and aid recipients (whatever we may call them) have power in the aid relationship, essentially to the extent that it is granted to them by those donors. So while we may from time to time be fortunate enough to have competent donors, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that it’s any other way.

There is a role for the for-profit sector in International Aid. And there is room for for-profit ways of doing things in the Aid Industry. But let’s remain very clear:

The goals and purposes of Aid and of Business are fundamentally different.

We can’t fix Aid by running it like a business.

Aid blogging matters (?)

A question that has troubled me for some time, now, is whether or not blogging about humanitarian work even matters.

For aid workers, often obsessed with data collection and analysis, rigorous process, and results-based approaches, the idea that this may not matter at all – or, if it does, may matter in ways we cannot predict or evaluate – is not an easy thought to have. Some days it feels like this is all rather like tossing a bottle with a message in it from the shore of a remote island.

And yet I cannot help but believe that it does matter.

* * *

From where I sit it doesn’t seem that there is any real shortage of technical information. All of the cutting edge technical conversations in aid – the real ones – are happening elsewhere. In real life, mostly. While we’re a long ways from individual NGOs publishing their assessment and evaluation data or in-house standards and best-practices documents online as a standard practice, we are seeing it already to some degree.

Moreover, orgs and projects like Sphere, HAP, ALNAP, among many others make their materials available mostly available mostly for free online. There’s no real centrally organized system as of yet, and it can take patience to find what you want. But if you know how and where to look it is possible to find most everything you could ever want in the way of existing industry standards, best practices, and so on. I’ve yet to see an aid blog that fills any real void in the technical conversation, let alone really pushes the envelope. We don’t need blogs to tell us the objective facts so much, or to educate us about techniques.

The real value of aid blogs, very simply put, is that they provide a space to say that things that almost never get said in formal settings inside the aid world.

There are the pubs and the well-stocked teamhouses, where the ranting happens, off the record. Where aid workers analyze with incisive, stunning accuracy exactly where they and their humanitarian aid knowledge resides on the organizational hierarchy of what gets decided and why. Where every statement is prefaced with, “okay, what’s said in the field stays in the field, right?” Or, “dude – we are so fired if HR ever hears of this conversation…”

Then there are the on-the-record WebEx calls and meetings in plate-glass conference rooms where one or maybe two actual implementers get called in to hold the line against a roomful of colleagues – maybe marketers or fundraisers or for-profit execs turned humanitarian. They get called in, ostensibly to provide “rigor” or to “educate”, when in reality their role is to ratify decisions that, for all practical purposes, have already been made.

I won’t get into lengthy analysis of bloated NGO bureaucracy, wack decision-making priorities, and the increasingly dis-empowered role of actual aid workers in an industry that at some level at least is supposed to be about enabling them to do what they do. Those facts are all out there in the open for anyone who wants to look.

I will say that some days the only place we have to say what needs to be said is online. Some days you just have to get “it” out there in the hopes that someone will hear it.

Maybe it’s entertaining. Maybe it’s education. This is where we get to have the conversations that matter to us. Call us cynical. Call it ranting. Complain that we’re negative. Don’t read if you don’t like it.

But this is what real aid workers think. For real.

We just never get the chance to say it for real.

A Day Without Annoyance

I’ve been conducting a very non-random, not-even-the-least-little-bit clinical trial over the past week. I’ve been Skyping my aid-worker friends. Actual aid-workers. People in the trenches (although in some cases those trenches are cubicles), churning out the proposals and spreadsheets and reports, meeting with community leaders, leading assessments, working out supply-chains, running distributions… in short, people actually getting it done. People whose day job is about taking a very close up and personal look what works and what doesn’t, what is effective and what isn’t.

Want to know the result of my non-R non-C T?

Not one of them – not one – had even the faintest clue what “A Day Without Shoes” is.

* * *

I keep having the same conversation with my marketing and media colleagues.

I’m like, “why do we always have to market this way?” And they’re like, “Okay, so what do you want us to market?” And I’m like, Well, why don’t we tell people the truth about what we do? Why don’t we tell them that we sometimes fail? Or tell them how complicated things really are? Why don’t we just be really transparent?” And they’re like, “We’ve done the research. Complexity and failure don’t sell. And anyway, people don’t want to hear that. If we told them the unvarnished truth, they’d ditch us – not so much because we’ve failed, but because they just don’t really want to deal. People have, like, a 10-second attention span and if we can’t tell the story in that length of time, they’re tuning us out.” And I’m like, “Seriously? That’s L A M E.” And they’re like, “so, what do you even want, anyway?”

What do I want? Good question. Thanks for asking.


* * *

I want people to support humanitarian aid and development, not because of a tax break or because doing so will increase brand visibility or enable market penetration… but because helping other people is the right thing to do.

I want to those ordinary citizen donors out there who care to know the whole story – I know they’re out there – to have the chance to hear it. To see the complete picture, imperfections and all. Why? Because I believe that they would still support what we’re trying to do.

I want there to be someone, somewhere in the Donor – NGO relationship to be wholly and unequivocally on the side of those we claim we’re trying to help – “the poor”, “our beneficiaries”… I have yet to meet a donor or organization up to this task.

I want to not have to run interference on ideas for bad aid hatched in the name of a “win-win” for some high-profile corporate “partner.” This has been a part of every single aid job I’ve had in the past 20 years, save the very first one.

I want more professionals in this field and fewer amateurs who think they know better.

I want journalists to criticize us for the right reasons.

I want “aid” and “help” and “do something” and a million variations on those themes to stop being used as brands. Because using aid as a brand erases its’ actual meaning and value (and makes the actual aid workers among us feel like hos).

I want aid to not be marketed. Once we resort to pandering to the emotional (or tax-break) needs of someone in order to persuade them to support what we we’re doing, we’ve already prostituted our own cause.

I want to spend more of my day on tasks that will contribute towards making an actual difference in an impoverished community somewhere, and less on tasks that simply service the machine.

I want my fellow citizens to act brighter than they currently do. Going a day without shoes is a logically bankrupt distraction which creates the illusion of “caring” and “doing something” while simultaneously accomplishing precisely zero except to further entrench a dangerous misperception about what will “help” “the poor” .. oh, and it also doesn’t hurt the bottom line of a for-profit company whose entire schtick is the cultivated appearance of social consciousness.

Call me a dreamer. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one.

I want A Day Without Annoyance.