A Taxonomy of Arguments in Favor of Bad Aid

As promised, what began as a compendium of arguments in favor of bad aid, but is now more of a taxonomy with non-exhaustive illustrative examples and discussion under each category.

Just so there’s no confusion, and because by now I typically know how these arguments go before they’re even fully uttered, by “bad aid” I specifically mean the unqualified volunteers (you may know this as #voluntourism), the #SWEDOW, the pet orphanages, the church/school/other building missions, and all the other (because there are simply too many to list individually) sloppily envisaged and shoddily executed self-serving amateur do-gooding boondoggle somehow packaged as “help” and foisted off onto a comparatively poor recipient community, most probably in another country. This are the main categories of arguments used to justify bad aid, each with potentially endless variations.

Without further ado, a taxonomy of arguments in favor of bad aid:

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Wide-eyed wonder: Wide-eyed wonder is a general cluelessness about the world and how it works . It is unacknowledged, much less reflectively examined assumptions, which then translate in practice as what often look like very fluffy, random, usually non-technical scratch-the-surface kinds of charities and projects. Most people who invoke wide-eyed wonder simply had no idea that it might be possible to cause harm by helping wrong, because they never stopped to think about anything for even one second.

You can recognize wide-eyed wonder by phrases like, “it’s not like I’m hurting anyone…”, or, of course, “OMG, I never thought of that…” Totes.

Wide-eyed wonder is possibly one of the toughest arguments in favor of bad aid to counter inter-personally because those who use it are typically really nice people. You want to like them, you hate to hurt their feelings. In real life Wide-eyed wonder is the bright, friendly college sophomore on the plane next to you who has just spent a year doing unsupervised work with street children in Peru. It is the sweet lady at the supermarket who collected gently used socks for survivors of the Japan tsunami. Be nice, but don’t back down.

When confronted with reality, wide-eyed wonder typically turns in one of three directions:

  • Conversion, a hardcore good aid believer. Obviously, this is the one we want. Also the hardest/least likely.
  • A wounded, It’s all about me! (see below)
  • An angry You suck (see further below).

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Destiny’s Child. This one is somewhat rare these days, but it’s worth mentioning. It’s kind of a vaguely defined “manifest destiny” (thus the name), and a step away from wide-eyed wonder in its unquestioned assumptions, but with a distinctly ethnocentric undertone. “It’s for the better of the general greater good that we bequeath our wisdom and technology to these unfortunate natives.” “It’s the natural order of things that we do so.” Whereas wide-eyed wonder has simply failed to contemplate the issues, Destiny’s Child has most definitely thought about them, and come to the conclusion that not only is the rest of the world categorically in dire need of whatever they have to offer (technology, worldview…), but that they have an obligation, frequently articulated as a moral imperative, to do whatever it is that they’re doing.

A common variant of Destiny’s Child is a kind of know-it-all, “but we just know better” (“we’ve got to show them a better way…”, etc., etc.).

At the end of the day, Destiny’s Child is an “ends justifies the means” argument. It can be hard to recognize in real life because it is very often mixed with the others (It’s all about me! Is the most common), but look for phrases like, “called by God”, “bigger picture”, or “we have to help them…”

On the rare occasions when you encounter Destiny’s Child in real life, it will probably make you angry. This is your crazy, conservative brother-in-law who has one too many and then bangs on about “them muzzlims” at Thanksgiving, but who has sent thousands of dollars to some orphanage in Namibia. This is the mid-ranking military officer who is passionately convicted that his nation’s foreign policy agenda and the well-being of teenaged mothers in [COMMUNITY X in IMPOVERISHED COUNTRY Y] are one in the same. This is the missionary who makes self-assured pronouncements about the immorality of local culture, while at the same time stridently proclaiming to love and live a sacrificial life on behalf of local people.

I have not found a good counter to Destiny’s Child. In my experience most people who use this argument to justify bad aid have either not matured to the point that they are physiologically capable of processing cause-effect and so there’s no point in arguing just now; or else are so deeply entrenched that there’s no point in arguing ever. Your best option is to simply change the conversation, go for a run, do another shot, etc.

Destiny’s Child typically reverts to some kind of condescending You suck when confronted.

 

It’s all about me! This one is overwhelmingly the most common, although you sometimes have to get past the initial emotional reaction of clueless Wide-eyed wonder. It’s all about me! is pretty much what it sounds like: the person or organization continues to engage in bad aid because it is somehow good for those doing the bad aid. This is far and away the most common justification for #voluntourism programmes, short-term “missions”, sending high school or university students to build schools or hug orphans, and innumerable variations on those themes.

It’s all about me! is typically invoked with either an air of condescension or with an undertone of accusation. If you detect condescension, it’s probably because the person making the argument is essentially Destiny’s Child (“… what you fail to grasp, you unenlightened professional aid worker, is that this experience is actually very good for me…”). If you detect accusation, it’s probably because the person making the argument is about to transition to You suck (see below).

Of course the fundamental flaw in It’s all about me! is that the “good experience”, “life lesson”, “adventure”, or whatever of the bad aid practitioner comes at the expense of real, living people somewhere. Taken to its logical conclusion, It’s all about me! makes aid workers the real beneficiaries, while local people, “the poor”, “beneficiaries”, etc., all become props in their experience.

A very common variation of It’s all about me! is an argument to the effect that the character of the voluntourist (or PCV, or whomever) is somehow the issue. “But she’s a really, really nice person…” This is a classic “good intentions” argument.

It’s all about me! is typically very easy to spot in real life. Look for phrases like “I just feel called”, “I have a heart for the poor” or “a heart for [ANOTHER COUNTRY, PROBABLY IN AFRICA]. Angry responses which fall back on the sterling character, pure intentions, or awesome resume of the person you’ve suggested shouldn’t be there is another dead giveaway that you’re up against It’s all about me!

The counter to It’s all about me! is just keep driving at some variation of, “yes, but what about the beneficiaries?” (“Dude, we, like, totally volunteered at this women’s shelter in Mumbai.” “Oh? Yes, and how did those women actually benefit from you being there?” “Dude, what?”)

Your likelihood of success in arguing with It’s all about me! is going to vary, depending on the maturity of the person you’re talking to. Be patient. It can help to drive home the point that actual, real, effective aid and development work are usually not super exciting office jobs. My personal favorite response to It’s all about me! is simply, “If you want adventure, sign up for an adventure tour. If you want to save lives, make the spreadsheet cells calculate properly.”

Update, 29 August: An common descendant of It’s all about me! (usually the result of a union with Destiny’s Child) is the win-win. “Everybody gains,” or so the argument goes. Win-win is typically deployed in defense of questionable CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programmes, as well as questionable or useless widgets being promoted by innovators/inventors. In real life win-win looks like thinly veiled drug testing, projects or interventions focused on a very specific product that can only be procured from one source, etc. Win-win is the expensive plastic bags that purify water, the T-shelters that turn into boats, and anything at all where stated objectives somehow include something about market penetration…

 

You suck: This one is basically an attempt to deflect the conversation from bad aid back to you. The basic move is for the person who feels offended that you’ve called out bad aid to make a return accusation of some kind. There are three main types of return accusations:

  • Something about how sometimes professionals make mistakes, too. “Even professional aid workers get it wrong…” Or, “Yeah? Well, [CITE HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLE ABOUT FAMOUS NGO DOING A POOR JOB]…”
  • Something about the sad state of the aid industry. “The aid industry is a joke…” Or, “The UN is a totally bloated and ineffective bureaucracy…”
  • Something about the character of aid workers (this is classic ad hominem, by the way). “Aid workers with big-name charities are just so arrogant.” Or, “Yeah, but professional aid workers are more concerned about big team houses and weekend parties…”

And here I think we all know the flaws in this argument. All of the accusations may in fact be true, but this in no way means that wanton bad aid being carried out by amateurs is somehow a good idea. Eroding my credibility does not necessarily improve yours. No one would argue that random well-intended university students should be allowed to fly commercial airliners because some professional pilots have crashed. No one’s trying to promote short-term, volunteer-driven amateur banking, despite how obviously messed up, inefficient, and self-serving the banking sector is. The fact that many lawyers might be arrogant, self-absorbed jerks in real life doesn’t somehow mean that we should instead rely on our well-intended neighbor to represent us in civil court.

I’m not sure I know of a good response to You suck, other than to point out that a You suck arguments is being made and just how irrelevant it really is. Most people who fall back on a You suck argument in favor of bad aid are already angry that you’ve had the audacity to call out bad aid, and so will probably not be won over.  Good luck.

 

Nothing really matters: This one is basically an attempt to argue that aid and development is basically pretty easy, pretty simple, and that even if you really screw up, it’s not like bad things are going to happen. “So we volunteered at an orphanage… what’s the big deal? It’s not like we hurt anybody…” Or, “So yeah, we sent our church group to Haiti… what’s the harm?” This aid thing is not rocket science, so settle down you uptight aid workers.

Nothing really matters can look different, depending on the setting, but pretty much any time the argument in favor of bad aid is essentially that “no harm is being done”, you know this is what you’re dealing with.

A common variation of Nothing really matters is the, “yes, but this is new… this is innovation!” line of defense. In my experience, in the majority of cases where someone makes this particularly argument, the thing or approach being justified is actually not new or innovative. The person just didn’t bother to know the history of aid/dev practice, and is in fact championing something that the rest of us discarded as unhelpful years ago.

It can be hard to know how to respond to Nothing really matters in real life, mostly because those making this kind of argument are typically so profoundly uninformed about the real world (in many cases despite years of travel or living abroad), that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation with them. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that (at least in my experience) very often those making a Nothing really matters point are exceptionally well-educated. Their mistake is in believing that anything not at the level of their own expertise in, say, neurosurgery or nuclear physics or economics, is child’s play by comparison.

Nothing really matters is fundamentally about arrogance (“what do you is not hard—heck, even I can do it”) and ethnocentrism (“Send our youth to volunteer with the orphans… it’s not that big a deal”).

What to say? They’re attempting to demean our profession, which ain’t cool in my book. But at this point in my life and career have mostly lost interest in the debate. Aid is a profession. It just is. It’s possible to hurt people by getting it wrong.

These days my counter to Nothing really matters is just smile and relax. “Wow, mister. You sure are smart. And I have a plane to catch…”

 

Doing anything is better than doing nothing: Last but not least is the Doing anything is better than doing nothing argument. There are two main variations on this one:

  • But they have nothing… The assumption being made here is that since poor people or disaster survivors or refugees have nothing, or at least have very little, anything at all we might do for or give to them is “good” because it’s better than nothing. “But they have nothing” gets used to justify all kinds of bad aid, but you’ll encounter it most commonly in defense of inappropriate GIK. That brain surgery fluid sent to Indonesia after the tsunami? Those silicone breast implants sent to Haiti after the earthquake? Pretty much every BOGO scheme, ever? But those people have nothing—surely something is better than nothing
  • Every little bit helps. Closely related to “but they have nothing…”, this one relies on the assumption that the needs of the poor in whichever country/community is under discussion are so vast and insurmountable that, literally, every little bit helps. Whatever gets done or given, regardless of the quality, is cool because it all somehow chips away at that towering wall of need, and only a really horrible person would ever be against that. “Every little bit helps” can also be used to justify all manner of bad aid, but you’ll see it most commonly in defense of volunteers, volunteer-focused organizations, and startup NGOs with poorly envisioned mandates or niches. The clowns, the surfers, the skateboarders… “Don’t be so arrogant, yo—every little bit helps.”

Ultimately, Doing anything is better than doing nothing is an argument that volume of need is the biggest concern in all of this. For it to work, though, it must go hand-in-hand with Nothing really matters (although it typically devolves first into It’s all about me! when first confronted). Volume and energy of response are what make aid effective, not quality, understanding context, or good technical management, or so the logic goes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the sweet little old lady who stockpiles shoes to send to Kenya, the soccer dad down the block who sets up a “charity” so his kids can learn about poverty, or the dentist who volunteers every summer. Make no mistake: when you get the indulgent smile or defensive head-shake and some line about, “at least we’re doing something…” you’re being told this is all so easy and uncomplicated that anyone can do it.

In my experience, people making the Doing anything is better than doing nothing argument are the most likely to be won over by logic and reason. I know it can feel as if we endless have the same arguments about bad aid over and over again, but when you’re confronted with Doing anything is better than doing nothing, it’s often worth taking a deep breath, putting your patient face, and leading off with something like, “One of the things we struggle with is measuring impact… I’m curious to know how you judge the impact of [YOUR ILL-CONSIDERED AID ACTIVITY]..?”

 

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We Don’t Need Another Hero

Happy World Humanitarian Day.

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Several weeks ago I set out to write a rant post about some uninformed person who collects “pre-loved” bras, sends them to other countries, and then tries to link it all to reduced human trafficking. The post didn’t really come together. It’s all been said before. The 1,000,000 t-shirts/bras-sans-frontieres/#SWEDOW-dumping slactivist train has left the station, and does not show any sign of slowing down any time soon.

Then this weekend there was the bit about the two amateurs who started their own charity for Syria and then managed to get themselves kidnapped and sorta lauded in the press for their heroism (my words), despite the fact that the actual help they provided is negligible, and the circumstances surrounding their abduction completely avoidable. In common parlance, they took stupid risks in order to accomplish nothing of lasting consequence. (Bless their hearts, I sincerely hope they get home safely. But seriously, Aleppo?)

There again, though, this is hardly news-worthy. The Levant is only the latest playground for globally-minded self-starters. We’ve seen this in every interagency response of note in recent memory. The main difference seems to be that in, say, Haiti or the Philippines the worst that would happen is that someone would get giardia or suffer from the heat. Whereas in Syria you can get kidnapped by ISIS, thus the allure and Facebook potential are all the greater.

And then the other day, as the world, by whom I mean mostly UNOCHA, began the social media final approach to World Humanitarian Day, I can’t help but notice that part of the theme this years is about how the world needs more #humanitarianheroes.

I like where OCHA is going with this theme overall. I like the presumable focus on local aid workers, rather than expats who in years past seemed to take all the limelight. Yes, the world is becoming more and more dangerous for aid workers, again, particularly those “from there.” I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many were aware that in August 2006, some seventeen local aid workers were executed in their offices during working hours near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka? Or that in 2010 six local aid workers suffered a similar fate in Pakistan? For every 20-something foreigner brash (or just dumb) enough to go to Aleppo, there are tens of Syrian NGO staff who brave airstrikes, snipers, hostile, checkpoints, detention, all over and above their own personal losses. They slog it out day after day, with little or no recognition, while the adventure-seekers and the bra collectors get their pictures in the paper. And so, yes, I agree that part of OCHA’s focus on humanitarian security and the recognition of the positively massive contributions by local aid workers is spot on.

But something about the term “humanitarian heroes” bothers me.

Hero

  • a :  a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability

  • b :  an illustrious warrior

  • c :  a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities

  • d :  one who shows great courage

 

In common, everyday culture, heroes are larger-than-life, enigmatic, super-human. They perform great deeds of over-the-top, obvious value. They single-handedly save Planet Earth from aliens, and then ride off into the sunset with the breathless maiden sidesaddle behind them on the horse or Harley. I get what the authors of headlines and social media campaigns are going for when they describe some aid workers as heros or some things that aid workers do as heroic, but when I actually look at the aid workers—that is, those actually in the thick of it, making aid happen—they are decidedly un-heroic in the classical as well as the everyday sense.

More often than not, real aid workers are antiheroes. And so I fear that by setting us up as heroes communicates an incorrect message about what we are capable of doing, whether individually or collectively. To describe us as heroic sets inappropriate expectations of what we and our organizations and industry can realistically accomplish. To call us heroes, or to suggest that we should be, sets unrealistic and in my opinion inappropriate expectations around who we are or should be in our real lives.

To call aid workers heroes and to call what we do heroic is to perpetuate a wide range of supremely unhelpful stereotypes and assumptions, from: “this is so simple and easy, even an undergrad can do it”; to “all you need to be able to do this is have a good attitude and have a heart for the poor”; to “if you’re not a good person, then you’re not a good aid worker.” To call aid work heroic belies the truth of what the vast majority of those in the aid industry, including those on the so-called “front lines” actually spend their days doing. To suggest that we should be heroes, and that the world needs more aid worker heroes is to call for more style, packaging, and messaging, and less substance.

And simply at a more mundane level of reality (reality in the hero metaphor context), heroes live exciting lives of adventure and mayhem. But it’s the sidekicks and faithful servants who hang in there day-to-day keeping Superman honest (Lois Lane), The Lone Ranger on his horse (Tonto), getting Batman out of jams (Robin), keeping Sherlock on task (Dr. Watson), and making sure that James Bond is forever flush with awesome gadgets (Q.).

The vast majority of us live more like sidekicks in the hero myths and legends. Why? Because sidekick jobs are the jobs which need doing. I frequently find myself saying to the interns and new hires who ask me for informational interviews (as well as my own full-time team from time to time): “If you want adventure, sign up for an adventure tour. If you want to save lives, get the Flash Appeal proposal done by tomorrow.” (or “make sure the report is in the proper format,” “make sure all the formulas in the spreadsheet are correct,” or “be on time for the NFI cluster meeting,” or… or…)

And maybe for me, this is the real point. Any random idealist with not much more than a working internet connection can create the vibe of being a hero. Collecting bras or shoes, setting up a new charity and nice website, even schlepping to a war-torn city and doing a bunch of Facebook updates is pretty easy, actually. But real aid work is hard and frequently not exciting. Real aid work requires focus and teamwork, not flamboyance and rugged individualism.

I’m betting that those aid workers featured in OCHA’s World Humanitarian Day promotions would agree. I’m thinking we don’t need yet another hero.

Somebody crank up Tina Turner.

Is any harm being done?

I’ve learned the hard way over the years that anyone who dares to speak up against amateur do-gooder, voluntourism in any significant way can expect a flood of response, usually emotional, often angry, sometimes even downright vitriolic and personal. It’s not too surprising, really. No one wants to be told that they shouldn’t have collected the shoes for orphans in Haiti, that they shouldn’t have gone to build the school in Zambia, or that their three weeks or three months in Cambodia probably didn’t help anyone very much. For every example of clear and obvious bad aid, there are tens of hypothetical examples in the comments thread of situations where the volunteers could make a contribution, where the shoes would really help, or where three months in Cambodia just might make poverty history.

The amount of cultural and probably psychological packaging around this issue—the notion that just anyone can and should go elsewhere to “help” or “make a difference”—is truly immense. Many, including me in the past, have written about some of this cultural packaging before in different ways, what drives it, what makes it so hard to get past. I won’t try to rehash those arguments here, because when you filter out the angry, reactive noise, the essential question which remains is, “is any harm really being done?”

“So I volunteered in Burma for a year, during which I was mostly ineffective, but I learned a lot and surely that’s worth something… so seriously, was there any actual harm there?” Or, “Yeah, we send our youth group to Mexico every year to build community centers… sure, maybe we’re not reducing the rate of malnutrition or incidence of TB… but it’s a great experience for our youth. What’s the harm?” Or, “Okay, people needed clothing, we sent used clothing… what’s the real harm?”

When doctors mess up, patients die. When pilots mess up, planes crash. When athletes mess up, they lose the competition. When soldiers mess up, they destroy the wrong targets. But when aid workers mess up, is any harm really being done?

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Volunteers in Haiti, earthquake + 10 days. Any harm being done? (photo by J.)

One’s tolerance for bad aid, and by extension one’s level of pushback on the notion that aid is in fact a profession which should be practiced only by qualified professionals, ultimately comes down to how much harm one believes possible should things go wrong. It comes back to how we answer in our own minds this question, “is any harm really being done?” If you see the stakes in all of this as very low—that is, say you get it totally wrong, and still nothing bad really happens; no harm, no foul—then you’re more likely to bristle at the suggestion that all the volunteers should just stay home, that the #socent innovators should not start another charity, or that the men’s prayer group should not collect shoes for orphans in Bangladesh.

Obviously this question is made all the more difficult to answer by the fact that changes within communities happen more slowly. Planes crash in minutes. Patients die, perhaps instantaneously. But when aid programmes go wrong it could take years for the effects to be evident in the target population. Attribution is similarly tough to pin down. Autopsies and flight recorders very often help narrow down what went wrong on the operating table or flight deck, but even in the obvious, highly visible aid debacles of recent memory (Rwanda/Goma in the mid-1990s, for example) it is almost impossible to link what went wrong back to a specific action taken by a specific organization, let alone an individual aid worker. So, for example, some white girl goes to Tanzania and fails to build a library… Lame? For sure. Any real harm done? Feels inconclusive…

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For me, the key to clarity on this issue—the question of, “is any harm really being done?”—is in understanding that if properly planned, well-implemented aid can help, then the opposite is also true: poorly planned, badly executed aid can cause actual, lasting harm. Despite some very marked contrasts between medicine and aid, the ethical imperatives involved are nearly identical between the two. And if it is possible to cause harm to those we say we’re all about helping, then the obvious follow-on is that we have a direct and specific ethical obligation to do aid in ways which do not cause harm.

Everyone wants to believe that what they do under the banner of “aid” or “helping” or “giving back” or a hundred other variations of these themes does actually make a difference, a real difference. But if we want to boast that what we do does affect people’s lives for real in the real world, for the better, then we have no option but to also accept the possibility of affecting their lives for real, in the real world, for the worse. And then we must further accept the responsibility—call it ethical, call it moral, if you like—of being as certain as we can possibly be that what we do does in fact affect lives for the better, not worse.

And finally, that being certain requires that one know what one is doing in the first place. Being as certain as possible requires that one understand the difference between good aid and bad aid. I don’t care who you are, what your title is, what your salary is, whether you’re in your role of helping for one day or twenty years; it doesn’t matter that aid is not formally regulated and that no matter how badly you might screw up almost certainly no beneficiary will ever sue you. It is absolutely not enough to simply want to help. You have to know how. You have to know how whether you aspire to the personal title of humanitarian; whether you’re an entire organization, supposedly established and respected, still tied to a 20-year old paradigm which doesn’t work; whether you’re a donor who sends $20. No one gets off the ethical hook, here.

 

One last point. Many have asked why I bang on about this. Aren’t I just overblowing it all to a ridiculous degree? (Again, these questions essentially ask, “Is any harm really being done?”).  Consider that the American Medical Association describes reporting impaired, incompetent, or unethical colleagues as part of the code of ethics for physicians. Assuming for the sake of argument a similar set of ethics for those whose actions affect entire communities and demographics (aid and development workers), my question: why aren’t more professional aid workers banging on about it?

Just saying.

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