It’s a Crappy World

This started out as one post. Then it became three. Then four. Now it’s one, again. Late-night riffing that may inadvertently be the outline of a book someday. Or at least a sweet PowerPoint presentation.

Five aid worker-centric things that keep a crappy world crappy.

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I. The inequality dilemma

It’s an inequitable world. Crappiness is not evenly distributed. Some places in the world are crappier than others; some people have more than others.

Helping others is good. It is good, appropriate for those in less crappy places to help those in more crappy places. It is good, appropriate for those who have more to help those who have less.

  • Helping others reduces the amount of inequity in the world.
  • Helping others erodes the distinction between those who help and those who receive.
  • There is a point beyond which eroding the distinction between those who help and those who receive is no longer in the best interests of those who help.

 Helping others may feel good, but it is ultimately against the self-interest of those who do the helping because they directly benefit from inequality in the world. This is a major part of why we have such a difficult time articulating what the end result of aid should be.

At its core, the inequality dilemma comes back to why you think the poor are poor, the oppressed oppressed, victims victims. Which, in turn, colors your views on why aid is necessary, why you think that helping others is good, and what you think aid can or should accomplish. And this, then, colors every single other thought you will ever have about the “why” or the “how” of aid.


II. The ‘donor’ / ‘doer’ mystery

Helping others takes effort. Some has to do it. It doesn’t just happen by itself. Someone has to physically go somewhere (even if it’s just across the room) to do the helping.

Helping others costs. Helping requires resources. Helping others always involves a resource transaction.

Some prefer to help others directly through physical activity; some prefer to help others by providing resources necessary for the transaction.

  • At some point the Aid Industry solidified distinction between providers (donors) and doers (NGOs, aid workers…).
  • One party pays for aid; another party implements it.
  • Donor sacrifices are laudable and bring real world benefits (a picture of a goat, a tax write-off); aid worker sacrifices are inconsequential.

The donor / doer mystery is the basis for The Menage e Trois and lies at the root of humanitarian accountability and aid effectiveness concerns. Donors, from The Gates Foundation, to USAID and DFID, and all the way down to church members in Missouri who send $20 are are never accountable to anyone but themselves.

The notion that one entity pays for aid while another implements it is at the heart of the widespread belief (although not necessarily said in as many words) of aid NGO/ aid worker culpability for all that’s wrong with aid…

The donor / doer mystery underlies aid worker angst with CSR, and CSR and GIK, and it also underlies amateur do-gooder frustration with aid worker snark.


III. The understanding/persuasion disconnect

Those who receive help have the right to say what they need. Allegedly.

Those who do the paying are entitled to say what they’ll pay for. It’s their money – they can spend it as they please.

Those who do the helping directly are obligated to make sure that help given matches what’s truly needed. There is a crucial implicit dual responsibility: understand actual needs, which in turn requires judgment, data and analysis; and persuade those paying to be willing to pay for the right things.

  • The understanding / persuasion disconnect = the programs/ marketing divide.
  • A huge amount of the success of aid depends on the doers correctly understanding the needs.
  • A huge amount of the success of aid depend on providers being willing to pay for actual needs.

The understanding /persuasion disconnect is the actualization of humanitarian accountability and aid effectiveness. It pits aid NGOs and aid workers irretrievably against both donors and beneficiaries, and it puts the responsibility for good aid happening solely on the shoulders of aid workers.


IV. The transparency / impact non-sequitur

Those who receive help have to right to know what’s been paid in order to help them, and for what.

Those who do the paying are entitled to know what has been done with what they paid. They’re essentially the customers, and as such they’re ‘always right.’

Those who do the helping are obligated to be transparent about how resources have been used, and to explain to either side why use might have fallen short of expectations.

  • We commonly assume a direct linkage between transparency and impact or effectiveness. In fact, there is no such linkage.
Photo by J., at a famous and widely celebrated refugee camp, somewhere in the Middle East...
Photo by J., at a famous and widely celebrated refugee camp, somewhere in the Middle East…

V. The paradox of portrayal

 Those who receive help have the right to be part of the process and also the right to dignity – the right to not be perceived or portrayed as “helpless victims” or “passive recipients.”

Those who do the paying are entitled to be recognized for having done so, including being identified to those who receive help made possible by their paying. Everything from sponsors corresponding with “their” sponsored children, up to USAID stickers on vehicles.

Those who do the helping are obligated to ensure the rights of both sides.

  •  We increasingly struggle to find concise, precise language to describe beneficiaries, and at the same time increasingly devote more time and attention to donor branding.
  • Aid providers (NGOs, aid workers) increasingly either assume the negative aspects of the identity of a ‘donor’, or else intentionally self-identify as “local” and become more or less invisible.

Those who receive help have the right for that help to actually be effective: It has to make their world less crappy.

Those who do the paying are entitled to receive confirmation that what they paid for was effective.


Not every post gets a neat, tidy, wrap-up ending.