It was only a matter of time before a bunch of journalists decided to get together and let us, aid workers, know how they collectively feel about us. Not that we had no inkling previously, but anyway, here it is in black and white:
It’s a 14-page +/- report, published by the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT). Download your very own copy here. It’s not heavy reading, but for those who are super busy, The Guardian put up a pretty good executive summary, here.
It’s easy to read a paper like this, as an aid worker, and come away feeling picked on and misunderstood. I found myself wanting to challenge Ian Birrell and Sean Ryan to try—just try—to do my job in the context of the complaints and recommendations. I’ll confess that as I read, I felt myself kind of automatically snapping to my, by now, well-rehearsed responses.
First, the methodology: The “researchers”* interviewed fourteen people who agreed to be named, and “several” who preferred anonymity. I have no issue with anonymity, but fourteen plus “several”… for real? Whether this report purports to reflect the views of an entire industry (the media industry) or to make a coherent statement about another entire industry (the aid industry), fourteen plus “several” is a ridiculously small sample size. Especially considering that the sample audience was a group of people who make their livings forming and expressing opinions. If we, in the aid industry, based a relief intervention on data gathered from a sample of fourteen plus “several”, we would be unfunded very quickly.
Second, I had a distinct sense of pot/kettle while reading The Aid Industry… Yes, I do understand that it’s a journalists’ job to “ask the hard questions”, “say the hard things,” and all of that. But if one was to only search/replace “aid worker” with “journalist”, “NGO” with “PICK YOUR NEWS-ISH PUBLICATION”, and “Aid Industry” with “The Media”, the paper would remain almost entirely coherent.
“Media outlets set unrealistic journalistic objectives and make exaggerated claims about what they can achieve.” Or “The media sector should be restructured to achieve more specialization amongst the different outlets and less competition between them.”
See how easy that was?
What I really want to focus on, though, are the recommendations:
There should be greater honesty and transparency—a willingness to tell it how it is.
I actually quite agree with this, overall.
I think we need to be careful when accusing NGOs of being dishonest, as well as when making blanket demands for transparency. Neither of those are as cut-and-dried as they may seem in a soundbite or tweet. I think there are ways of telling the truth which inflame negative sentiments, and ways of telling the truth which do not. Both are honest, but one exhibits more wisdom than the other. Similarly, when it comes to transparency, I think there is wisdom required. There are very good reasons for NGOs to not openly share some of the information that that they possess, say, about beneficiary identification in places like, say, Menbij. I know, for example, that some journalists consider it their solemn duty to splash on social media the faces of victims of [NAME AN ATROCITY] whom they’ve interviewed, in the name of honesty and transparency. But that’s not how we roll in the aid industry. Some facts we don’t share, even with you, dear journalists. You’re going to just have to live with it.
Nevertheless, I basically agree. We have a long way, still, that we can go on the honesty and transparency fronts, before coming close to those no-go areas. Not that I’m the end-all, be-all, but a desire to tell the honest truth (and be heard) is why I write in the first place.
The larger aid agencies in particular should be better at explaining the way they now operate.
Okay, I’m 100% in favor of explaining what we do and how we do it to anyone who wants to know. But as you dig into The Aid Industry—What Journalists Really Think, you understand that the consistent sticking point is our salaries.
For real? Not that I have an issue with aid industry salary structures being widely known, but I just fail to see what value that information will add. Presumably this remains a hot-button issue with the media because there’s a perception that that we’re overpaid, and that our being overpaid is the cause of less life-saving support going to the poorest of the poor who need it most. To which I can only say, “uh, no…”
I also do not understand why this is aimed particularly at large agencies. The onus of being able to justify why you do what you do the way you do it should be equally on everyone. Small NGOs are not exempt.
Agencies should adopt a less patronizing tone when dealing with the media.
Pot/Kettle. Quit pro quo. Pick your cliché…
The aid sector should be restructured to achieve more specialization amongst the different agencies and less competition between them.
I actually find this one funny.
No, seriously, okay guys. Thanks for chiming in with your little opinion about how to fix the aid industry. I’m not personally convinced that aid sector competition is wholly a bad thing. But fine, for the sake of discussion, if the goal is to reduce the amount of competition in the aid sector, the place to being is with how funding decisions are made—the donors.
[Speaking of donors: as you read The Aid Industry—What Journalists Really Think, look at the web site of the home publication of those quoted. Ask yourself: How many times are you seeing the logo of a famous aid sector donor?]
NGOs should rethink their role in society—a choice between taking government money and remaining closer to their roots.
I think this is something of a false dichotomy. I don’t think that having a portion of your overall portfolio be government grant funded necessarily means a loss of one’s roots. It’s important to understand that there is a very wide range of possible experience when one speaks of “government money”—Implementing USAID grants is different from DFID, which is different yet from DFAT. Further, and all of the “it erodes neutrality” arguments having been heard, government grant programs have been instrumental in increasing technical quality and accountability of the aid sector.
They should stop development aid altogether and focus on emergency aid.
Not many people in my immediate professional circle would disagree with this statement. It’s easier to say, though, than it is to do.