It’s a turbulent time in much of the so-called “developed world.” Nativism, nationalism, supremicism of different kinds. Humanitarian aid and development are inherently and increasingly politicized, and under fire. And polarized. You can’t be in favor of small government and also favor refugee-friendly foreign policy, or so we’re being led to believe. You can’t support refugees and also love your own country, or so the politicians tell us. You can’t want to help your own and also help others; it has to be either / or. And at least in the United States, the either/or, ‘us versus them’ narrative has become increasingly entrenched as almost mainstream worldview.

It’s no surprise that right now is a tough time to get people on board with the idea of foreign aid. Every dollar donated toward humanitarian response in the Horn of Africa or the periphery of Syria is one not spent “making America great again.” (Or wherever.) Basic compassion has, in the past decade, become a partisan issue.


I’ve seen the fundraising, marketeering types in the aid industry use all kinds of arguments to (try to) persuade donors (often wealthy individuals) that they ought to part with their mammon to help poor people in other countries. Some try to make the point that helping poor people in other countries is actually good for us. Some brow-furrow and hand-wring about the possibility that the refugee waiting for third country relocation just might be the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs. Some fall back laborious reinterpretation of religious texts (“Jesus was a refugee, too…”), or some such. Among many other tactics.

But I have to say straight out that none of that really works for me. And I often worry that if we are to the place where people have to be persuaded of the basic value of helping others, then things are probably much worse in the world than we previously imagined.

I mean, you can go on YouTube and find videos of elephants looking out for each other, for goodness sake.

I don’t need some novel theology or the concern of potentially lost genius as a prod to be kind to those fellow humans who need it.

Even the ants help each other. So, what is our problem?



“What can I do?”

Every so often I’ll have a conversation with a ‘normal person’ (humanitarian industry non-insider). Maybe it’ll be a celebrity you’ve never heard of or some wealthy “potential donor” sent by my employer to the field where I’m onsite and expected to host. Or maybe it’ll be a friend of a friend that I find myself talking to in a social setting. I dunno – maybe cable news is full of the latest large-scale natural disaster, or maybe they just read one of the famous tomes about humanitarianism. Somehow they’ve just had their moving epiphany about poverty, or for some other reason begun to feel the humanitarian impulse personally.

And the question that comes is, “So, what can I do?”

It’s a good question. It’s the right question. I’ve certainly devoted plenty of time in pubs around the world and words on websites around the Internet carrying on about what those well-intended amateurs should NOT do. So, good – they’ve asked the right question.

For posterity, here’s the answer:

If you are a normal everyday person, not a full-time professional humanitarian, and you’re moved by what you’ve read or see on the news, or have seen with your own eyes somewhere; and now you want to “do something”, great! There are three things that you can do.

1. Donate money to an organization that makes a difference. Cash, not stuff, not time, or some other form of gift in-kind (GIK). Cash. There is lots of opinion around about which organizations and charities do or do not make that difference. I won’t endorse or slam any specific org here. For me, the things to look for are: Actual programmes in-progress now dealing with the issue you’re passionate about, on the ground in the place you’re passionate about. Do your research, know the organization. Don’t base your decision on how nice their website is or how “responsive” their call center is. Don’t pay for startups.

2. Vote for politicians who push poor-friendly agendas. No political party has a corner on the market here. You have to do your research. It’s person by person. National elections are relatively easy. The next level is becoming politically engaged in your own voting district on issues that matter, whether local or global.

3. Make the commitments necessary to become a full-time humanitarian yourself. If this is the life you want, go for it. It’s a good life in many ways. Similarly lots of information around about what the life is like, how to get a job in the aid industry, and all of that. But for me, on this issue, the operative point is make the commitments necessary to become a full-time professional humanitarian. Don’t volunteer for two weeks. Don’t go to Mexico to build a church. Don’t start or work at an orphanage in Uganda or Cambodia. This is a full-time job, a life choice. Make the commitments or don’t make them.

Aid marketing I’d love to see…

Aid marketing I’d love to see in real life:

“Your $20 won’t end hunger. Heck, you know what? You could give even a million dollars and it wouldn’t end hunger. You know why? Because the causes of hunger are systemic and structural, not financial. There is enough food in the world right now for everyone, but unfortunately most of it is owned by people who won’t share with the rest. Will they ever share? No one knows. But your $20 helps us continue to try to take care of those with too little. Until those with too much decide to share (if they ever do).”

“You don’t have to like talking about condoms. They’re not really our favorite topic either. But talking about condoms is a whole hell of a lot better than talking about a lot of dead people who died of HIV/AIDS. It’s been proven time and again that the most effective means of preventing HIV transmission is consistent, correct condom use. Nope – promoting abstinence doesn’t work. We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work (seriously, did it work in your high school? No? Didn’t think so. Don’t know why you’d think it would work anywhere else). No, you don’t have to like talking about condoms, but you’d better understand that condoms save lives. Simple as that. What more reason do you need to get behind this program?”

“We seriously messed up. More than once, actually. All the time, actually. Disaster response is impossible to get 100% right 100% of the time. You know how it is from watching TV: it’s a disaster. We go in, the power doesn’t work, we can’t communicate, it’s chaotic, logistics are impossible… Sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes our own people get sick. There’s never enough of the right information for making good decisions. Sometimes we get it wrong. So why should you keep supporting us? Because no matter how bad the situation is, we will still go there and help as many people as we possibly can. And we will always be straight with you about how we’ve messed up. And we will learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them next time.”

“Your donation may go towards helping terrorists. That is a reality that we live with out in the field every single day. How? Maybe they’ll steal it from us. Maybe they’ll steal it from ‘our beneficiaries’. Maybe the host government will confiscate it from us and then give it to them. Or maybe we’ll just give it to them because they might just be legitimate beneficiaries, too. Just because someone thinks they hate you doesn’t mean you can’t help them if you’re able and they need it.”

“No, you won’t get your name on a plaque in the entrance to the clinic. You won’t get a picture of ‘your’ cow or goat or duck or whatever. You won’t get a heart-warming letter from a kid in an impoverished third-world village. Your name won’t be called at a fancy gala. We won’t have a special fundraising rep assigned just to you, who has you on speed-dial and who will scramble to find answers to your random, off-the-wall questions. Sorry. That’s not what we’re about.”

“Three years from now this place is still gonna suck. It sucked before the disaster, and it’s gonna suck even more for a very long time after. Honest-to-god, if we could change that reality we would. But we can’t. It takes a long time to recover from a big disaster. And during that long time that it takes to recover, people are going to need shelter, water, sanitation, health care, food. Yep, we know: it looks really bad. It looks like nothing’s changed in the six months since the disaster. And while we can’t exactly measure the number of people who didn’t die of dysentery or cholera or the number of people who didn’t starve to death or become malnourished, we can tell you that things would be a lot worse had we not been here doing our job with your generous support. Thank you for that. And just so that you know, three years from now it’ll still suck, and we’ll still be here.

“Only about half of your donation goes ‘directly to beneficiaries.’ Maybe even less than that if you only count our cash transfer programs. Why so little? Well, first, just so you know, 50% is a pretty average actual overhead rate. And second, we’d love to give more, but we can’t. Did you donate online? It costs us money to maintain a website and the bank charges us for electronic transactions. Did you send a check? Yep, costs us money to receive those, too. You say you chose us because we provided the best information about our programs? You would not believe how much work it is to put those reports together (we had to pay someone to do it!). Costs a lot to publish them, too. Love those photographs? They cost extra. You say you like us because we work in the most difficult places? Hard to find people to work there (even the locals are dying to leave), and you know the saying, ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys…’ Or you like us because we ‘build local capacity’? Our own local staff need salaries, too.”

“There’s no happy ending here. If we told you otherwise we’d be lying. These people were suffering before we came, and they’ll be suffering long after we’re gone. The causes of their suffering – the real, big picture causes – are beyond most anyone’s control. Certainly beyond our control. All we can do, really, is bring a little humanity into a situation that should never have existed in the first place. We can make things a little better, a little more bearable for a few of them for a short period. Is it enough? No. The need is far beyond what we can address. Will our help last? No. By next week or next month we’ll be back to square one. Or maybe they’ll all be dead by then. We sure hope not. But either way, our relief effort is still worth doing because they are our fellow humans and they’re suffering and we have the ability to do something about it. Even if it’s only a little.”

* * * * * * * * *

See also: #epicFail

No strings attached

“The book’s popularity stems from its forceful, uncomplicated theme—terrorism can be eradicated by educating children in impoverished societies…”

–Jon Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit (writing about Three Cups of Tea)

I get that probably two-thirds (rough guesstimate) of the humanitarian aid endeavor is about persuading those with power and/or wealth, to care more about those without power or wealth. “The poor”, if you will.

I also get that those with power and/or wealth, got where they are by being shrewd. They got where they are by making smart choices, by being calculated, skeptical, maybe even manipulative. They got their power and their wealth by having a vision and a plan, by knowing exactly what they wanted and by not settling for less and certainly by not throwing money or effort at useless stuff. I understand the in-principle value of “return on investment” (ROI). And in the context of humanitarian funding I understand the thinking that goes into deciding which relief and development initiatives to fund, where.

But, see, the point that everyone seems to continue missing is this:

Humanitarian relief and development are not good investments. At least not in the traditional return-on-investment sense.

It is absolutely critical that we stop valuating aid on the basis of for-profit sector values and priorities. It is absolutely critical that we stop using for-profit sector ROI calculus to determine what to support and implement, and what to leave by the wayside. It is beyond critical that we stop trying articulate what we will get back in order to justify a priori what we will do.

I understand very well the mentality of wanting to find something that is somehow mutually beneficial, something that is somehow the holy grail of multi-stakeholder synergy, the elusive “win-win.” I understand very well that many donors have many priorities, and I understand that they may have those many priorities for many reasons. And I understand that at some level everyone involved in the humanitarian enterprise gains something.

But that reality as may be, I still cannot shake the feeling that the poor need what they need. They need it on their terms. They need it on their schedule. And it is our job, whether as humanitarian workers or as donors truly committed to doing good, to provide that. Not more, not less, not something else. That. Whatever it is that the poor need.

It’s easy and even kinda fun to jump on Greg Mortensen lately. Idiot amateur should have known better. Changing the world is a lot harder than it looks. But as much as I applaud Jon Krakauer for his exceptionally well-researched take-down, when you get down to it my real issue with Three Cups of Tea is not just or maybe not even mainly the fact that Mortensen fudged the facts about when and where and whether or not he was kidnapped or the number of schools the Central Asia Institute really built. We all Botox our own narratives to make a point now and again.

No. When you get down to it, my real issue with Three Cups of Tea and the associated pop-culture fervor that surrounds the concept is that it is not really about helping the poor. Three Cups of Tea is not about building schools or educating little Pakistani girls. It is about eradicating terrorism. And that’s why I suspect it resonates in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming. And that is also what’s wrong with it – that ROI thinking. “If we build schools in Pakistan, we eradicate terrorism…”

We should want to build schools and educate little Pakistani girls simply because little Pakistani girls deserve to be educated just like everyone else. Or Nigerian girls. Or Guatemalan children. Or whomever, or whatever.

The poor need what they need. And it is our job, whether as humanitarian workers or as donors truly committed to doing good, to provide that.

Honest-to-god, I struggle to see why that is such a difficult concept to grasp. It is also where I see for-profit sector thinking being both the most different from and also the most damaging to humanitarian aid.

If we are looking for a return on investment, whether that means “eradicating terrorism” or market penetration or just “treasure in Heaven”, we are already distracted from what should be the central concern of the humanitarian endeavor. The poor need what they need. And if we base decisions about what organizations, programs, initiatives or campaigns to fund on return-on-investment thinking, we will consistently plan and implement and fund the wrong things. We will consistently plan and implement the wrong things because we will consistently plan and implement based on what we want to do rather than what is really needed. Our supposed right to help will trump the reality that the poor, very simply, need what they need.

This is not the for-profit sector. In the humanitarian world we should do something because it is the right thing to do. Not because we advance a cause of ours or get something back. In the humanitarian world we often get nothing – at least nothing that would resonate in the for-profit world – in return for our investment. Nor should we expect anything in return.

Call me a purist, and I’ll thank you for it. But humanitarian aid and development should be gifts given with no strings attached.


I’m intrigued by what feels like a recent upsurge in calls for aid organizations, aid providers to admit failure. Two very quick examples (there are many others): Daniela Papi calling for NGOs to show her their failures; and a whole organization Admit Failure (@admitfailure), dedicated specifically to – you guessed it – admitting failure.

The overall tenor of these calls for aid organizations to admit failure seems to imply that, in fact, aid organizations have something to hide, that they’ve been dishonest, that they’re trying to somehow dress up botched programming as success. And fair enough: whether organizationally or personally, we’re as self-interested as anyone else.

I get it. Aid failure is the trendy issue du jour in the aid-watching world. But I think that before NGOs admitting failure becomes the trendy PR scheme du jour, it’s important to remember a couple of things about aid failure:

Not everyone agrees on what failure is. I and others have written before about the great divide between marketing and programs in NGOs. And it is hard to overstate the importance of that divide when it comes to understanding the differences between what NGOs typically tell the public and what they actually do. As @shotgunshack put it (in reference to the World Vision 100k T-shirts controversy):

“People forget that the gap between program and fundraising teams is huge and very contentious. I bet some people are secretly cracking up (over secretly consumed alcohol) at all the blogger heat World Vision USA’s marketing and PR teams are probably under for those 100,000 loser shirts. And secretly dreading the shaming they will face at the next INGO meeting with their program peers.”

It’s safe to assume that for every questionable aid program an NGO touts on it’s website which incurs a blogosphere dogpile, there is a wide range of internal opinion – not publicly expressed. I don’t just mean between marketing and programs, but within programs, too. There is often wide divergence of opinion about what works and what doesn’t among practitioners. NGOs are rarely unified internally (and I say “rarely” in order to give the benefit of the doubt, although I’ve never met one that was internally unified). And so whether NGO A is publicly admitting failure or publicly claiming credit for having made the world a better place, either way you can assume there are people working there who feel that the real truth is, in fact, the opposite.

Most aid programs are neither full successes nor total failures. This one is equally difficult for critics and cheerleaders alike. Despite many, many PR and advertising campaigns which convey the message that “your donation changes a life”, the reality is that most of the time aid gains are incremental: reducing malnutrition or improving maternal mortality rates in district X by a few per cent over a number of years. And while those kinds of gains are incredibly important, they represent slow, visually almost imperceptible change to the outsider. To the untrained eye, a village with a U5MR of 15% does not look that much different from one in the next province where five years of Child Survival have lowered the U5MR down to 9%.

And by the same token, very few of those programs that get slammed on the aid pundit blogsites can truly be linked to measurable harm. Sure, there are those famously harmful, spectacular aid failures that everyone knows about. The whole mess than ensued following the Rwanda genocides, for example. But my honest opinion is that more often than not those programs we all like to rant about – all the BOGO, GIK “win-win”, celebrity aid worker, church volunteer groups, shoe-and-bra-collecting, losers-without-borders dumbassery – are just lame, inefficient, distractions. More often than not, the real harm they cause is simply that they perpetuate incorrect thinking about poverty and the remedies to it, rather than that they directly contribute to some kind of local system failure.

* * *

I’m not going to try to defend NGOs.

We do need to be more transparent in general and open about the non-uniform and too-often marginal success of our programs specifically. We can do far better than we do. And while what we do does matter, it is also a reality that most of the time what we actually accomplish is far more bland than what our glossy propaganda makes it all out to be.

On the other hand, I’m also not going to go totally cynical (for a change) and make it seem like it’s all bottom-line driven, money-grubbing marketing. Although there’s certainly some evidence to support that perspective, too, most of the marketers who I know and work with personally are (I believe) honest people who genuinely want to be part of making the world better. Unfortunately they mostly do not really understand in any real depth the product that they’re selling. They don’t know what they don’t know.

And to me, that is the real failure. How in the world can we ever hope to educate our donors (as Saundra is so valiantly trying to do), if our own colleagues do not even really get it?

Those of us who know programs and who implement stuff in the field need to share what we know with our colleagues in marketing, comms, and PR – colleagues who, in many, many instances are eager to learn and are even more excited by the reality of what we do than they were at their previous beliefs in the happy propaganda (and why wouldn’t they be? Good aid, properly implemented, makes good sense and, more importantly, works).

I believe the day is coming when it will be standard practice for NGOs to publish unedited program evaluation and financial data on their websites, open for review by anyone who might be interested. Ms. Papi along with everyone else will see our failures, as well as our success, and everything else in between laid out in plain text and numerical data with a few mouse clicks. But if we don’t get our own non-practitioner colleagues on the same good aid page as us, if they don’t understand what we do and why so that they can represent that on to Our constituents, we will be in for a world of hurt…

That would be an #epicFail.

American Culture 104: “Simple Kind of Man”

We don’t normally describe as “simple” those people whom we wish to compliment. In common language, “simple” has a distinctly negative overtone to it when we apply it to people.

“He’s a bit simple…”

And still, at least in mainstream American culture, simplicity remains a point of pride to be embraced, a virtue to be nurtured. It is easy to want to assign the culture of simplicity to rural Americans: people in the south or the heartland, farmers, hillbillys… And it’s true there are more movies than I can specifically recall offhand in which the return to simplicity is the dominant message, typically set in rural and/or southern contexts. Certainly a great deal of country music has been sung extolling the virtues of simplicity, and there are the obvious linguistic conventions – “I’m just a simple farmer…” (and innumerable variations thereof).

After “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird”, “Simple Man” is probably Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most successful single.

But as I said above, the virtue of simplicity is by no means constrained to rural or southern or “country” culture in America. It is mainstream. We talk about slowing down to enjoy the simple pleasures or to keep something simple. Colleagues who can “translate” dense technical prose into “simple English” are applauded. In some contexts – engineering or design or fashion, for example – simplicity is even almost synonymous with “elegance.”

It is also  important to understand that this value of simplicity in American culture is very closely tied to the idea of nostalgia: that habit of remembering the past through rose colored glasses, and in many instances today, remembering a past that one did not even personally experience. A past when things were supposedly better, more simple.

The basic premise of the American “Tea Party” movement is grounded in this dual notion of simplicity and nostalgia. Or, if you will, nostalgia for simpler, more straightforward times. Every time I see the Tea Partiers, I can’t help but think of the lyrics to “Garden of Allah” by Don Henley: “… I remember a time when things were a lot more fun around here… when good was good, and evil was evil…before things got so………fuzzy.”

At the end of the day simplicity in our culture connotes genuineness, honesty. A simple person is honest and good, someone trustworthy. By contrast, complexity very often is instinctively seen as the opposite. Complex people are less genuine, less honest, ultimate less trustworthy. Complicated things, complicated situations are best avoided; complicated answers more difficult to believe.

As the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynyrd go: “So be a simple kind of man. Be someone you’ll love and understand..”

* * *

The thing, though, is that the supposed simplicity of yesteryear and of American culture is completely mythical. The America portrayed by Normal Rockwell was no simpler and no better than the one we have now. In fact, one could easily make the argument that today’s American, even with all of it’s issues, is far better in many ways.

And yet, the desire to be simple and to see things as simple and to make things simple – even artificially – remains a dominant value in American culture. Whether the issue is “radical” vs. “moderate” Islam, ethnic pluralism in the United States, or why teenagers should not be deployed as volunteers in disaster zones, we want to default to simple analyses and simple explanations.

“It’s complicated” may be an amusingly smarty-pants relationship status to choose on Facebook. But when that’s the answer coming from a politician, religious leader, or aid agency representative in response to a hard question, “it’s complicated” sounds to an American audience an awful lot like someone being slippery or evasive or talking down to the simple, genuine, honest people who just want a straight answer. Even when it really is complicated.  In this context, the difference between “simple” and “simplistic” frequently becomes an unmanageably narrow space.

Because for better or worse, the real world is complicated. It always has been. Politics are complicated, as are issues of race and ethnicity and culture and religion. As is humanitarian aid work.

Right now we’re dealing with an increasingly aware and engaged general public (the “Third Audience”). An engaged general public whose default setting is to assume that both the challenges we face as aid workers as well as the solutions are simple ones. Their perceptions of what we do and how shape how they give, who they give to, in some cases even how they vote.

We have got to tell them the truth about what we do. We have got to stop selling simplistic versions of aid to the public.