Why We Dev with J. (part 1): Getting aid right

Last month (in honour of our 500th blog post!), we launched a new feature called Why We Dev, which gives you a chance to ask all your questions to a special guest.

J.'s avatar picture, a skeleton with a joker hat.
The best picture we have of J.

Our first guest is J. (aka, Tales from the Hood), veteran aid worker, well-known pseudonymous blogger and indie author. His answers to your questions will appear over the next three days, and part 1 focuses on questions related to volunteering and effective aid. Check back tomorrow for his answers to questions on a host of other topics.

We all know there’s lots of bad development (like voluntourism) out there. What’s something you think even the “best” in the aid sector are messing up these days?

Let me put it this way: I think transparency, primarily (but not just) by the big-name, household charities is the issue of the future. Within that, I think the issues of total versus selective transparency, and the issue of packaging whatever information is shared as the result of transparency, will be the ones that cause heartburn. I’ve not seen anyone get this right.

The tendencies, of course, are the three opposing tensions of 1) total stonewall—we don’t tell you anything, and you get re-directed to the automated voicemail of a staffer in the PR department; 2) information overload—here’s the URL to a website where you can download, individually, every report we’ve ever submitted to USAID in the last 15 years, no context, no explanation. Have fun; and 3) the Executive Marketing Pack—here’s a folder filled with pretty brochures with lots of factoid bullet-points and a 3-hour DVD, narrated by someone with a British accent, explaining aid 101 and recapping the factoids from the brochures as voiceover while grinning African children dance around a well.

We really struggle to get this transparency bit right. We have to find a way of talking about what we do—the good, the bad and the ugly—that finds the right balances between filtering and info-dumping, sugar-coating and pleading for public flogging, technicalese and dumbing down.

In your opinion, what is the best (whatever that means to you) large INGO, and why?

Best at what? And for whom? I’d be willing to bet that, in a hypothetical world where beneficiaries got to choose which large INGO served their disaster-stricken community or refugee camp, they’d be at a loss because from their perspective, we’re almost entirely indistinguishable from each other.

This issue is part of what I was getting at in this post on AidSpeak. Even industry veterans are mostly only able to tell one household charity from another by their marketing and branding. But I think the even more important point is that we’re probably virtually the same to beneficiaries. Of course, we’ll probably never know for certain, because beneficiaries don’t exactly get to choose or necessarily even have input on which NGO or INGO helps them. They’re pretty much at the mercy of host government coordination bureaus or maybe OCHA.

Otherwise, yeah… hard to say. Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders has one of the strongest brands (it’s been measured). There have been a few attempts to sort of rank big INGOs based on how good they are to work for, but so far as I’m aware, these have all fizzled. The best INGO for me personally is typically the one paying my salary at a given time.

There are times I feel like in every response we do, every evaluation I read, we’re having the same problems we were having five years ago when I first started. It’s hard to see improvement. With your longer view, do you think the humanitarian system has improved over the last 20 years? Has it improved enough for all the effort seemingly put in?

Yes, absolutely, things have improved in the industry over the last 20 years, and even in the last five. In the broadest sense, the profession of humanitarianism is now a specific, identifiable thing. You can go to school for it and be formally educated in a wide range of things that I had to learn on the job. Young aid workers entering the humanitarian space now have a huge advantage compared to when I was starting out. Just the existence of standards like Sphere, the more recent Common Humanitarian Standard (CHS), the establishment of a cluster coordination system (all the frustrations with it notwithstanding) are massive improvements on the past. None of these existed when I started.

Just in the last five years, the explosion of open data, crowdsourcing, the increased mainstreaming of humanitarian accountability, the addition of child protection standards to Sphere… all improvements on the past, and things that didn’t exist in 2009.

At a more, I suppose, mundane level, in the summer of 2008 I was literally banging my Blackberry on the floor in Afghanistan, trying to make it work. In 2015, in Niamey, I can (mostly) just assume the ambient 3G will be sufficient to support a GPS app on my iPhone. When I started in the early 90s, latrines in refugee camps were novel. We took pictures of them and made a lot of noise about it. By contrast, last summer the aid community installed several thousand basically permanent latrines in Azraq, for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and it hardly seemed worthy of mention on Facebook.

All to say, yeah—it’s easy to lose sight of progress in the course of the day-to-day grind, but it is absolutely there.

As for the last part of your question—has it been worth the effort? You know, I’m not sure that’s a question that can really be answered. I think aid, and the various initiatives that go into improving aid (whatever one takes that to mean), all cost what they cost. Say someone spends three years’ worth of salary treating brain cancer, and then goes on to live a completely mundane life. Was it worth it?

In my experience, when people ask the “Has it been worth it?” questions, they’re usually trying to set the stage for an argument about the evils of the aid system, particularly the costs associated with maintaining the architecture of that system. Which, in turn, is very often a precursor to hang-wringing about aid worker salaries and maybe something about white Land Cruisers or time spent in meetings.

Honestly, I think the deeper and more pertinent questions cluster around issues like, “What is our role, as humanitarians, in the first place?” And closely related, “Within the context of our role, what can we actually deliver, and what can we legitimately claim as the impact?” Get those right, and scale our expectations and rhetoric to match reality, and I’ll wager beer that answers to the cost-benefit benefit questions become quickly obvious.

I have a lot of friends and family members who engage in what I think are harmful short-term volunteer trips. Trying to talk to them about it leaves them upset or dismissive. How should I approach the subject? Is it even worth trying to bring these ideas up?

No easy answers here. You have to approach this as you would similar debates about religion or politics. Pick your battles. It may feel like a cop-out, but mostly I try to let that kind of thing slide. You know, go along to get along, short of actual affirmation or endorsement. And then look for opportunities to discuss what good aid is. Overall, whether I’m dealing with the rogue marketeer who thinks he knows everything or the impassioned college sophomore who’s started her own orphanage in Uganda (seems like it’s always Uganda), the best option is to steer the conversation toward what good aid is and what is needed. It’s more direct and logically cleaner to argue for something than to argue against something (and this issue specifically is one of the key sub-themes in my latest novel, Honor Among Thievesbe sure to read it!).

The ranting and being dismissive is a service I’ve already provided for free. I understand that many others have pointed their voluntourist family and friends toward my blog. Here’s a list of easy go-to links. Just say, “Here’s what one aid worker has to say…” and lay that blame on me:

And, of course, this book, which everyone should buy and read.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about how to distinguish good volunteer vacations from bad ones?

I’ve learned that it’s really pointless to try to make any distinction at all. Smoking is bad for you, regardless of whether you smoke Marlboro Lights or Camel filterless. There are no good volunteer vacations, only some that are incrementally less harmful than others. Be a tourist, or be an aid worker. Don’t try to do both.

Can self-funding volunteer travellers have a positive impact on development?

First, self-funded or not makes no difference.

So, I suppose it’s possible to find examples. It’s probably possible to dream up hypothetical settings in which volunteers would make sense. If what you want to do is justify volunteers, then yeah, you can play around with the logic and semantics until you’ve come up with something that appears to work.

But overall, I don’t buy it. Development should be about identifying what needs to be done, and then taking the obvious logical path to getting there. And I have to say that in more than two decades of doing this, I have yet to come across a situation where short-term international volunteers were the clear solution of choice. Hell, I have yet to see a situation where short-term international volunteers were in the top five obvious choices.

Sure, it’s possible to pound in nails with a screwdriver, and I’m sure that makes the screwdriver feel very valued and useful, and it’s surely great marketing for the company that makes screwdrivers. But if driving in nails is what you’re about, then you need to invest in a hammer.

Featured image shows a woman transporting firewood at the Bubukwanga refugee camp in Western Uganda. Photo from Oxfam International.

Committed to getting aid and development right