I’ll be vulnerable and confess up front that I really, really dislike professional sports.

I won’t belabor the point, except to say that I see as plain immoral the amount of money being paid to someone for something no more meaningful than being really good a tossing a ball through a basket while people in the same city go hungry and queue up to apply for minimum wage jobs.

Or the amount of money being paid to someone for riding a bicycle really well.

It was pretty hard to miss the drama around Lance Armstrong’s fall from public grace last week. In the end it was precipitous and sweeping. Stripped of past trophies, all but forced to resign from a cancer charity that he started, loss of title. Even the very real possibility that he’ll have to pay back actual cash earned through winnings and endorsements. Not to mention an internet full of emotive angst and moral outrage from faithful fans who expected better of him.

I find very curious the lengths to which particularly American audiences will go to insist on “purity” in professional sports. If find it curious that this supposed purity matters in the context of an industry so full of insider backstabbing, egoism, scandal, abuses of all kinds and just plain drama. But that notion of purity is important.

We allow our impression of an athlete or a sport or a team to be tainted by irrelevant things, while at the same time constructing for ourselves illogical narratives which reinforce the messaging coming out of sports industry PR machines. We believe in this notion of purity in professional sport in the face of repeated evidence to the contrary quite simply because we want it to be true. We need to cling to the belief that professional baseball or hockey remain pure – that athletes really do what they do without performance enhancing substances.

For rock ‘n’ roll stars, drug use is de rigueur. Maybe if Lance had been a guitarist instead of a cyclist…

He should have been a rock and roll star.

I think there’s a wake up call in here for humanitarian NGOs. We need to see this as a wake-up call about what happens when public perception goes up in flames.

There is no point in denying that there are competing narratives about what is “real” in the world of international relief and development and philanthropy. Without banging on about which parts of which narratives I personally think are really real, I’ll simply say that we will someday come to the point beyond which it will be no longer possible to separate those competing narratives. There will come a time when our constituents will collectively demand an explanation for why we said one thing and did something else. And if we’re to really learn the lesson of Lance Armstrong, we need to understand that it will be very public and very much into the weeds of detail. We’ve seen what happens when someone the public thought was “pure” turns out not to be.

And in the end it will not matter whether so-called “purity” makes any sense in the real world or not. In the end we’ll be stripped of our awards and our credentials, perhaps forced to pay back donors, not because we didn’t do good work, not because we can’t show impact. Remember, Lance won a lot of races; the drugs very clearly worked for him. No, this will all happen because we allowed and in some cases enabled people to create a narrative about who we are and what we do that does not align with reality.

Possibly related:


Rethinking Efficiency

This post originally appeared on the Building Markets blog on 27 July, 2011. Read the original here.

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One of the most trendy critiques of the Humanitarian Aid Industry right now coming from cynical insiders and angry self-appointed pundits alike is that aid is not efficient.

There really is no getting around the fact that there is an awful lot that looks really, really damning to industry outsiders and even industry insiders when it comes to the subject of aid efficiency. Those gaggles of expatriate aid workers dominating coordination meetings, for example. Or the fleets of white SUVs in relief zones. Or cushy-looking HQs in cities like Washington D.C., Ottawa, and Geneva. It’s easy to compare the financial value of a relief item with the cost of getting that relief item into the hands of a disaster survivor and draw the conclusion that international relief and development are very expensive, ergo, inefficient.

As a long-term industry insider I can confirm many of the worst fears of many of the critics. There are aspects of the aid industry that make me cringe, and there are secrets I hope no journalist ever discovers. Aid industry beliefs and traditions around efficiency are particularly among those things that I personally believe need to change sooner rather than later.

This confession having been made, I think that it is very important to challenge some of the prevailing opinions about what constitutes efficiency (or inefficiency) in a non-profit relief and/or development context, and by extension the remedies to those supposed and sometimes real instances of inefficiency. One of the most common suggestions for making aid “better” is to make it all more like a for-profit sector business. And sure enough, I along with many others have said that of course there are aspects of the for-profit world that the humanitarian world would do well to emulate.

However, I feel strongly that we need to challenge the prevailing for-profit-sector-centric notion that simply reducing cost will make aid more efficient. I think it is important that we resist being pulled down the path of thinking, for example, that if we could only cut back the budget by X per cent, without a corresponding reduction in outputs and outcome we’d be more efficient. Being good stewards with the donor resources entrusted to us as humanitarians does not necessarily mean doing everything for the lowest possible cost up front.

Proof that aid is inefficient? Or just a way for aid workers to get to work? [photo by author]
Before we all begin wantonly excising the white Land cruisers and expats from our field operations budgets, or before we all go start our own new NGOs dedicated to “cutting through the red tape”, all in the name increasing efficiency, let’s at least consider the following:

1) Re-educate the public about overhead. I am by no means the first person to say this, nor is this the first time that I am saying it. But as long as charity rating websites, institutional donors, and the general public look at calculated overhead as an indication of organizational efficiency, we are and will remain in deep trouble. We’ve spent the past thirty years mis-educating the public (and sometimes ourselves, too) to believe that this is all inexpensive. But now we must un-mis-educate them. As long as individual donors are allowed to believe via NGO marketing that NGO X is efficient and reliable because 95 cents of their donated dollar goes directly to beneficiaries we will never be able to have a rational conversation externally about efficiency.

2) Focus on achieving critical mass, rather than minimum cost. The difference here may be subtle at times, but as we develop strategies, program plans, and budgets our focus should be on what it takes to get the job done and done properly. This, rather than the prevailing practice of trying to do as much as possible for the smallest amount possible. Even our for-profit colleagues comprehend that the least expensive product is typically not the best quality product. In the humanitarian relief and development world, program quality, including durable results (sometimes called “sustainability”) are not or should not be in any way negotiable. Invest in what you really need – people, equipment, maybe even white Landcruisers – to get it done and get it done right. There are no shortcuts. Aid costs what it costs. Get this part right and we’ll have fewer expensive fiascoes down the road. Ergo, efficiency.

3) Organizational discipline in maintaining mission focus. Over the course of my own career, those financial decisions made by my NGO employers which have left me the most disenchanted were those made to expend resources towards things that didn’t really help us achieve the organizations’ mission. I’m not talking about the kind of gross misuse of donor resources that (along with a healthy dose of incompetence) brought us all “Three Cups of Tea-gate.” I’m talking about far more mundane, sometimes difficult to recognize in the moment distractions that cost us. Those in-house pet projects no one quite understands the purpose of, but that get funded every year; those boondoggle junkets to take “major donors” to visit field initiatives you already know they’ll never ever fund; truly worthwhile meetings held at expensive resorts in Bali when they could be held just as easily and far more cheaply in Medan; those scrambles to do one-off projects in places where your employer has no prior presence in a sector your employer has no institutional expertise in. As an industry we spend a lot of time and money on activities that are not bad per se, but that do not really correspond to our core purpose(s) or clearly advance our cause(s). Simply put, we struggle to become and stay focused.

Will these three things save aid and make it immune to criticisms that “aid is not efficient”? No. And of course we are all, as professional humanitarians, behooved to use the resources with which we’re entrusted in a manner that maximizes the benefit to those we try to serve. Where accusations of inefficiency are rightly earned, it is our responsibility to address them and perhaps make changes. However, as we move into a time when the humanitarian world is increasingly under the scrutiny of a general public whose tendency is to impose for-profit sector “business case” thinking around efficiency on us, it is important to be able to respond coherently to that.

Despite some superficial appearances, the non-profit and for-profit worlds have some fundamental differences. It is incumbent on us as humanitarians to know what efficiency means for us and to be able to articulate that to industry outsiders.

Under Oath

I applaud the work of organizations like ELHRA, ALNAP, HAP, projects like Sphere.  They raise the bar. They guide and sometimes push the Aid Industry and engaged individuals inside it towards greater excellence. If you’ve been reading my stuff for very long you know that I see relief and development as a profession – one that people should be certified in before they’re allowed to practice.

But I think it’s time as well to recognize that standards and certification and regulation can only take us so far. They’re necessary, of course, but in focusing on trying to build a better system we’re overlooking the importance of individuals within that system.

I wonder if it’s time to adopt a version of the Hippocratic Oath for humanitarians.

HIPPOCRATIC OATH: A Humanitarian Version

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains and lessons learned of those relief and development workers in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of those affected by conflict, disaster and extreme poverty, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment – aid programmes for their own sakes – and humanitarian nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to aid and development as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding are often as important relief and development activities themselves.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed in order to properly implement an intervention.

I will respect the privacy of beneficiaries and aid recipients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life or to improve well-being, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to affect – perhaps adversely – the livelihoods and well-being of individuals, of families, perhaps of entire communities; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not deal with abstract numbers, statistics, or concepts, but human beings suffering as the result of disaster, conflict, or poverty. My responsibility includes understanding context, culture, and root causes if I am to claim the title and status of “humanitarian.” This holds regardless of whether I am based in a “field” context and interact directly with beneficiaries, or based far from the “field” and serve in a support or administrative role, and regardless of whether I am expatriate or national staff.

I will implement programs to strengthen resilience and build local capacity whenever I can, for resilient communities are better able to withstand the effects of disaster, conflict and economic stress.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of responding appropriately and adequately to those who seek my help.

[Adapted from Hippocratic Oath: A modern version. The one written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University.  I’ve attempted to retain as much of the original language as possible, although obviously some portions needed revising.]

I don’t naively believe that taking an oath will immediately resolve the problems of the aid world or make every mercenary pseudo-humanitarian out there suddenly all ethical and everything. We certainly have enough examples of malpractice and abuse in the field that gave us the Hippocratic Oath in the first place. But in the scramble to make aid more professional, to innovate more, do more, to fix a flagging system or build a fail-safe system (depending on your perspective), I’ll say again that we have left out an important element. Maybe the most important element:

Simply a moment of personal commitment for everyone who claims or aspires to the title of humanitarian.

Take that moment now. Put yourself under oath.