Humanitarian Aid 101: #3 – Getting the lowest price is not the same thing as being “efficient.

If I was to ever teach an intro-level course in humanitarian principles and action, it would go something like this:

Lesson #3. Getting the lowest prices or running the least expensive program is not the same thing as being “efficient.”

Be sure to check out my guest post of today over at the Peace Divided Trust blog, “Re-thinking Efficiency.” I could almost have simply re-posted that post here for Lesson #3.

I get where the “less expensive is better” line of thinking comes from. Aid providers of all sizes are strapped for cash (very often swimming in GIK, but strapped for cash). At a very basic level, obviously, having less cash means that you have to make some hard choices about where you’ll put those hard-won donor resources. This is a reality of life.

The problem is that for the past forty-plus years, the stance of far too many NGOs has been to try to do more with less. I’ve written before about how aid costs what it costs. Contrary to the mis-education of the public (and also ourselves) in past decades about what it all costs, aid (relief and development) is in actual fact a very costly endeavor. We have broken down budgets and sometimes inappropriately removed “overhead” in order to indulge ignorant donors (not stupid, ignorant) who wanted their donations to go “directly to beneficiaries”, and we have somehow arrived at the conclusion that fixing poverty is financially cheap. It’s a seductive fiction, meant mainly to appeal to apathetic rich Westerners in the late 1960’s: “See? You can make a difference just by opening up your wallet. The problems of the third-world poor are uncomplicated and inexpensive to remedy. A water well in remote Kenya costs only $50…”

And few things could be farther from the truth. Your $100 does not buy a cow that lifts a family in Sumatra out of poverty. There is no such thing as zero overhead – and any organization who makes such a claim is either lying or internally clueless. It costs money to spend money. And it costs a lot of money to run humanitarian aid operations and development programs properly.

Why? Well, very simply, because quality and sustainability matter. There is just no substitute for doing it properly from the beginning. You need what you need. And that costs money. And spending money requires sometimes hard decisions, getting priorities right. If you need someone with a degree in agronomy who can also speak and write fluently in English, you need someone with a degree in agronomy who can speak and write fluently in English. There is no viable substitute. The cash you saved by going with a retired pastor who speaks only some English will come back to haunt you when the final evaluation rolls around… and if not you, it will haunt the community you thought you were helping in 10 years time when it’s time to undo the damage done by your badly implemented program.

We’ve spent far too many years incorrectly assuming that “good stewardship” and “efficiency” were synonymous “get the lowest price up front.” But it’s time to recognize that we pay now, or we pay later. Or worse and more to the point, we’re gone and those beneficiaries who’d put their trust in us will pay later.

It is important to correctly estimate what we really need to do properly what we say we’ll do for those for whom we say we’ll do it. We’ve spent far, far too long simplistically trying to get the lowest price. Obviously this is not an excuse to live expat aid worker lives of wanton excess. Obviously this is not license to blow donor cash on boondoggle, pet projects and expensive but useless junkets. I’m not talking about always going with the platinum option. There is plenty of needless spending in the humanitarian industry that truly does need to be eliminated. But we need to be consistently investing in the stainless steel option.

When it comes to running programs properly there are no shortcuts, there are no inexpensive strategies. Aid costs what it costs. Try to cut and squeeze below that and things don’t go well for those we claim we’re trying to help. And when our programs don’t actually help because we didn’t resource them adequately, they’re worse than inefficient: they’re failure.


Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: A Book Review

Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland is an edited volume of scholarly, basically social science essays on – you guessed it –  the everyday lives of “development workers.” I’ll give Kumarian Press kudos for getting this out. It’s the first publication of this nature that I’ve seen. As you all know, the vast majority of what’s out there being written by aid workers about aid work is either a) marginal fiction; b) over-the-top shock schlock; c) self-aggrandizing travelogue; d) blogs.

In terms of broad principle it’s nice to see some actual research being done on… us. After all these decades of poking our noses into the business of “the poor” all over the world, there is something both disconcerting and oddly cathartic about becoming “the exotic other.” It’s long overdue, frankly, and so on this basis at least, Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers has the raw material for something the New York Times might call “an important work..”

But from there it’s sort of downhill. For one thing it’s all very social science-y (and I’m writing as someone whose graduate education is in anthropology), which is to say dry, over-written, and too case-specific to really be interesting or all widely applicable. For example, the scintillatingly entitled “Maintaining Independence: The Moral Ambiguities of Personal Relations Among Ghanian Development Workers” (Chapter 3), sadly, leaves the reader with no real insights that can be applied to, say, supervising Argentinean development workers in, say, Mongolia.

The less case-specific chapters have the look and feel of well-researched, scholarly critique, but on closer inspection give us very little that hasn’t been covered ad nauseum elsewhere. Aid work bears some very uncomfortable resemblances to the colonialism of yesteryear. Some development workers are ethnocentric, and some are even racist. Priorities within the humanitarian sector are sometimes muddled. The non-profit world and the for-profit world have some fundamental differences. All in all, nothing very earth-shattering.

The notion of “Aidland” as a (conceptual) place, inhabited by the “tribe” of development workers is somewhat interesting. We are in many ways like a tribe (tattoos, clan endogamy, and all…). Fair enough. And the anthropologist in me enjoys the mental imagery that goes along with this.

But perhaps the very best part of this book is, ironically, a nagging feeling, from the very first word through to the very last, that the authors don’t really “get” us (or at least me). And for once we (or at least I) get a small taste of what it is like to be studied and analyzed and written about by a bunch of outsiders who don’t really get where we’re coming from. Sobering.

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Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers is edited by Anne-Meike Fechter and Heather Hindman. It is published by Kumarian Press.

Humanitarian Aid 101: #2 – Aid is never simple.

If I was to ever teach an intro-level course in humanitarian principles and action, it would go something like this:

Lesson #2. Aid is never simple. Even if it seems like it is or ought to be. Aid is always more complicated than you think.

So obvious it seems like it should go without saying, and yet this is the most frequently disrespected aid truism of all: Aid is never simple. Even if it seems like it is or ought to be. Aid is always more complicated than you think.

It doesn’t matter who you are, aid is always more complicated than you think. You can hold a Ph.D. from a prestigious institution and be the author of a widely acclaimed and cleverly titled book. You can be a passionate, driven member of the Diaspora with the local language plus all kinds of mad ICT and social media skillz. You can be a famous “mom blogger” with a massive following for your down-to-earth, “common sense” analysis of… pretty much anything. You can be fresh out of grad school with a head full of the latest theories and critical analyses of aid. Or you can be a professional humanitarian aid worker with decades of experience and the logo of a HRI-Affiliate on your name card.

Aid is never simple.

No matter what they may look like, the communities where we work are inherently complex and complicated places with inherently complex and complicated problems. And so the analytical processes and planning, and eventually the programming that we deliver – what we actually do – has to adequately reflect this reality. This is true whether we’re implementing long-term development programs or delivering life-saving emergency relief, yet we very rarely arrive on the scene fully appreciative of or fully prepared to deal with this complexity.

Aid is never simple. Aid is always more complicated than you think.

All this means at least two things:

1) There is no magik bullet. So stop looking for one. Because while the big, basic principles of good aid always apply, (and make no mistake, bad aid is always bad aid) when it comes to implementation at the field level, everything is context-specific. There is no slam-dunk program model o r miracle product that would, if only we could replicate or distribute it globally, permanently eradicate poverty, malnutrition and the subordination of women. The approach that works in this village does not necessarily work in the next one. The strident claims that you make about what is or is not needed here, do not necessarily hold true over there. This is not provincialism. This is the recognition of reality that no matter how well you think you understand the community and no matter how simple the issues appear, there is no substitute for following good aid program process every every every time. Cut corners on good process and aid programs fail, guaranteed.

2) Dealing with complexity requires bandwidth. This is an increasingly unpopular concept in a time (now) when it’s kind of trendy to rant about the large household charities with their expats and their vehicles and their seemingly large overheads. And to be certain, there is plenty of fat that can be cut from the budgets of most, if not all of the established name-brand INGOs. But all of this as may be, it does not release anyone from the reality that dealing with complexity in the context of humanitarian aid and development requires sufficient organizational bandwidth (people, infrastructure, assets, resources…) to analyze and understand it, and then to implement appropriate programs that make an actual difference. Sounds basic. But it’s far harder than it looks. It’s also where D.I.Y. aid typically falls down. This is not elitism (even though I have exactly zero problem embracing elitism). This is recognition of the fact, again, that dealing with aid complexity requires enough organizational strength to “get” that complexity and then make something happen.

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Late-breaking update: See also “Simple Kind of Man” from the “American Culture” series.