The most crucial issue facing the aid world right now is essentially, “what does excellence look like?”
Not efficiency. Not innovation or accountability or humanitarian space. Sure, you can spin it different ways, or attach different qualifiers before or after. But at its core, our most pressing challenge right now is simply to define excellence (and the degrees leading up to it) for ourselves and for the world.
It was interesting to read commentary on Facebook the other day about this article (the one about the aid worker suing NRC for staff care negligence). I won’t ramble here about the issue of staff care. What I do want to pick up on were several comments in different places to the effect that, “OMG, I’m so surprised. I thought NRC was one of the good ones…”
Not to pick on NRC, but what makes them one of “the good ones?” Not that they’re not, but from where I sit, they seem… you know… kinda the same as all the rest. NRC interventions in the relief responses that I’ve been part of seem, well, pretty much the same thing in pretty much the same way as everyone else. I’m sure some die-hard lifer in a cubicle in Oslo could bang on about the uniqueness of their programmatic approach and why it’s allegedly better.
But my real point, as I wrote here, is that most of us could probably not tell one INGO from another based on actual programs in the field. Take away the logos and the branding and ask yourself: could you distinguish a food distribution run by NRC from one run by IRC or CRS? I’m betting on “no, you couldn’t.” I doubt that I could.
We form opinions about aid organizations based on their marketing, celebrity spokespeople who say/do dumb things, and how “cool” they are in the field. But other than that, how can we tell which are truly excellent?
Right now our systems, our tools, our paradigms and approaches are set up to make things less crappy. We “reduce human suffering.” Just reduce human suffering by one against whatever baseline on whatever indicator, and voila! Success!
Yeah, sure. We can set targets. “Increase the percentage of pregnant women who seek two or more pre-natal visits to 15%…” But I would argue that this is still more about achieving a non-state, than achieving a state of being. We define what we do in terms of an absolute problem, and articulate any progress at all in the opposite direction of that problem as improvement. Reduce human suffering. Check.
We can’t say what real excellence is, but by contrast, we seem very in touch with what terrible is. Spend just one evening with aid workers off the clock, and you get the run-down of everyone in the organization or response who’s incompetent, from the front desk receptionist at HQ all the way up to CEO of the global organization, along with an exhaustive litany of every bad decision made, every dumb thing done, and everything else wrong with those being ranted about.
We know what an idiot, incompetent, aid industry jerk looks like. We meet them all the time. But what about an excellent one? What about one who truly excels, who genuinely performs at above standard? Yes, of course many of us can name industry colleagues who we think are excellent at what they do. But as I mentally go through my short list of those whom I think fit the “excellent” bill, and try to define why they’re on it, I struggle to come up with much more than some combination of “easy to get along with” and “reliable/get reports in on time.” Seriously.
And if you look at NGO employee performance management, you see the pattern replicated. More than anything, aid workers / NGO staff are evaluated and rewarded based on how much or little drama they cause, and how diligent they are about bureaucratic process. It doesn’t matter how many lives you’re personally responsible for saving via your hardcore aid worker skills: Fail to submit your trip reports enough times in a row, and you will find yourself at a non-optional appointment with HR. By contrast, I’ve seen (many) people who by any rational analysis have added to the amount of aid dependency in the world, but who then got promoted to senior leadership in well-known household charities or the UN system. All to say that we can quickly tear apart a colleague who we think doesn’t cut it. But we’re incredibly scattered when it comes to pinning down what constitutes the opposite end of the spectrum.
The problems created by our collective inability (thus far) to articulate what aid world excellence is, juxtaposed against our preoccupation with what sucks reverberate in nearly every arena that we move in. Whether we’re talking about individual performance, whether an organization is “one of the good ones”, or the quality of an interagency relief response, we snap to two basic categories: abject crap, and everything else.
Of course the problem is that you could fit a galaxy inside the wide, vast majority that is “everything else.” And this is a real problem when it comes to knowing how we’ve done. Because knowing how we’ve done requires having a standard against which to measure. And I don’t mean standards like Sphere or CHS—as much as I love both of those, they essentially point us away from piss-poor, rather than towards excellence. They establish a threshold, not raise the bar. Nor do I mean things like the MDGs—they’re much too broad, too all-inclusive, too far into the future (yes, I know they’re supposed to be attained by next year), to be really useful, especially for relief response.
Yes, build back better. But how much better is enough? For the sake of argument, what conditions should have been achieved in (let’s just say) Haiti as a signal that the relief response was over? Everyone is keen to point out where we collectively screwed up (despite some clear successes). But what should have been? We hesitate to say. Maybe we feel ethnocentric doing so. Maybe we get stuck in epistemological inertia—the more we know, the more we know we don’t know—and hesitate to make the call for fear of doing the wrong thing. But then we do something. We make things less crappy. We stop short of aiming with conviction at a target, and focus instead on achieving some kind of nebulous non-state. It’s just another way of saying, “oh, well, it’s better than nothing.”
Our unwillingness to tackle head-on the vexing questions of what should be mean that, while six T-shelters feels like a ridiculously too-low number of T-shelters to have built with half a billion USD, those of us inside the system still struggle to find words to either condemn or defend the Red Cross. I mean, other than to say something like, “dang—they should have handled the media better.” Yes, six is obviously too few in the extreme. But what should the number have been? No, I’m serious. How many T-shelters should the Red Cross have built with half a billion? Seven? Five hundred? One thousand, two hundred, and eighty-four? At exactly what number of T-shelters would Pro Publica have concluded its investigation with a “there’s nothing here” determination and shifted their attention elsewhere? (I will bet beer that no one at Pro Publica can answer this question.)
Which, of course, leads to one of my professional pet peeves—critique of aid in the media.
Just to be clear, I don’t mind critique of aid. And I don’t particularly mind the fact that critique comes from this thing called The Media. But what drives me right around the bend is when (usually) some journalist gets passionately in our faces about something that clearly sucked, but who when pressed can’t say what non-sucky state of being should have been brought into existence instead.
- “Too many expats going to meetings in White Land Cruisers.” Okay, what’s the right number of expats, and what color should the Land Cruisers be?
- “It took too long to get life-saving assistance into Aceh.” Fair enough. How long should it have taken?
- “INGOs wasted millions on expensive staff salary & benefits packages.” Alright, what should the salary structure look like?
- “The aid system is a complete joke.” So… what’s the remedy?
- “Azraq looks like a bloody concentration camp in the middle of the desert.” Agreed. I’d love to hear of other options…
For all of these, and a thousand more, we (and apparently journalists, academics, and amateur pundits, too) get that there’s something wrong. But if not the current state, what should it be? We can call out a piss-poor relief response. That’s a treasured pastime. But what does an excellent one look like? I genuinely want to know.
Having great conviction about what shouldn’t be, while at the same time unable to say with any certainty what should be is no way to live. Nor is it basis for humanitarian action, nor for rational critique of humanitarian action either. If we cannot say what should be, the end result, the desired state, then the aid system is nothing more than a better funded, more technologically sophisticated (and probably more self-righteous) version of the cruise line tourists who take a break from shopping to “help the poor” in Tegucigalpa or wherever. Without a clear picture of what should eventually be in the places that we work in under the broad mantel of helping, our response to criticism whether internal or external amounts to dabbling around the edges of issues: we nickle-and-dime travel budgets, hire more media relations staff, and take taxis to coordination meetings even though we have vehicles.
I can’t say what the answers all are. I think we have to be willing to envision specific future conditions in the places where we respond. We need to get better at articulating when our work is actually done, based on things other than when the grants run out or when our registration expires. We have to make peace with the reality that at some point our work in (PICK A COUNTRY/DISASTER ZONE) will be done. And not as in, “we worked ourselves out of our jobs.” But as in, “We came here and did what we said we would do, and whatever comes next is simply not up to us.”
I think we have to get better, too, at not overstating (as we have done for as long as the aid industry has existed) the depth and breadth of our contribution toward the big picture. We have to stop talking about what we do and what we’re capable of as if we’re everything to everyone. We have to stop making it seem that if you don’t send us your $20 right now children will die. We have to stop fronting like we’re ending human trafficking, reversing climate change, systematically eradicating extreme poverty, all while buying sustainable clothing made by hand by people who used to work in sweatshops but now don’t. All before breakfast. By Facebook and Snapchat.
It’s time to own the reality that the aid system is one small part of a much larger picture, and individual organizations but pixels in that picture. It’s time to start acting like we’re part of a bigger picture, rather than the current norm which is to act like we are The Picture.
It’s time to be honest about limitations. We chip at the stone. It’s time to make the message about sharing insight and explaining possible solutions, and our respective contributions to those possible solutions. This, rather than constantly making the message about brand awareness and donor acceptance.
Maybe if we get these bits right, we’ll find the space for an equally honest conversation about what true excellence is in our world. Maybe we’ll actually do excellent work (that’s what I signed up for). Maybe then the places we go will really be better off for us having been there. And maybe then the journalists and the bloggers will stop riding our asses about what kind of vehicle we ride to work in, or what color our staff are. And maybe donors will support us because we know what we’re doing, where we’re headed, and we very clearly know and can explain to anyone who wants to hear it, when we get there (rather than the current norm which is to support us because we send them nice pictures or because we get the reports in on time and in the proper format)…
Maybe then we’ll be closer to actually earning the title of “one of the good ones.”