Tag Archives: Aid work

The reality (and absurdity) of the aid sector

This post originally appeared on AidBits and is re-printed here with permission.

By Michael Keller

“Are you joking?” That was the written response I got from my boss when I suggested moving our cumbersome reporting process to the cloud a few years ago.

Before I bolted for the relative tranquility of the private sector, like most aid workers, the question of efficiency was on my mind at least once a day. Not the effectiveness of the programs I managed, but my own organization’s efficiency, or lack thereof.

Echoing countless colleagues in the field, I often wondered things like, “Why are we doing things this way when the rest of the world uses a cheaper, faster method to achieve the same result?” and “How is it possible that no one in the chain of command has developed a system to keep track of reporting?”

From just a few years in the field, I amassed enough stories of bureaucratic absurdities to fill a book.

In fact, I realized that the majority of my co-workers had similar complaints. Worse, no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. Organizational momentum was always geared towards implementation or fundraising, while fleeting yearly workshops tended to focus on strategy and capacity building. Systems to improve the quality of our work always seemed to slip through the cracks, replaced by ad hoc approaches developed in spite of the bureaucracy rather than as a part of it.

Here are just a few anecdotes to highlight an institutional weakness familiar to most aid workers:

  • One respected, well-funded organization I worked for had many small projects going on in various parts of the country, and a motivated boss developed the mother of all Excel files to track them. The solution was great, but contained obvious drawbacks. Staff adoption was almost zero because no one intuitively understood the system and training time was limited. The file was offline, and so large that new data had to be regularly copied and pasted into a new file, then e-mailed up the chain of command to be pasted back into a master file. Updates required my boss to drive around to 7 offices with a flash drive and new set of operating instructions. Aggregating data input by different people on different projects, with no clear standardization of data values, became a nightmare. And, unfortunately, the macro-heavy file became increasingly buggy; once the boss rotated out to a new mission, no one had the time and knowledge to fix it, and it was abandoned.
  • Arriving in a remote part of Africa to assess refugee needs after my predecessor was prematurely evacuated, I was lost. No handover. Just 3 short reports from my predecessor, found by chance. Hundreds of reports by others concerning my region, but saved to mysterious locations with inconsistent file names. And for orientation, a scan of a hand-drawn map. I spent my first week skimming the reports, furiously copy/pasting paragraphs relating to similar topics into a 180-page searchable document, just to get a basic idea of what had been done where. In the field, I made diligent use of my GPS unit so I could create maps back at the office. I quickly realized we were providing “one-time emergency” assistance for the fourth year in a row to the same population. By the end of my mission, I had the most detailed maps ever made of my region and a well-organized stash of reports for my successor. But the combination of high turnover and lack of institutional backing for these systems meant the maps faded from memory and the reports got lost in the jumble of colleague’s personal filing systems.
  • In another job, I was overseeing multiple local implementing partners. They had to submit their project plans via e-mail in Word documents. I would modify and comment, and send them back for revision. Once I was satisfied with the proposals, I would repeat the e-mail exchange with my own boss. Her revisions and comments would then get e-mailed through me back to the local partners. Throughout this process, entire sections of the document would get accidentally deleted, and information I had intentionally deleted in one version would sneak back in the next. As a direct result of this document daisy chain, projects often did not start until half-way through the fiscal year.

I regularly discussed these frustrations over drinks with a good friend. Despite our years of experience in the sector, we just could not believe that these simple bottlenecks had not yet been addressed. We realized that, though individual demand for innovations was extremely high, the institutional momentum had failed to materialize, despite decades of talk about accountability, transparency and the Big Foot of aid, Results-Based Management (universally recognized but rarely seen).

To overcome the inertia – and the tendency to develop proprietary software that quickly morphs into an outdated legacy platform – a private-sector solution was needed, one tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the industry. My friend jumped on the opportunity and founded AidBits with almost no hesitation; the idea was that obvious. He had his first eager client before even coming close to finishing the beta product.

Moving many of the daily chores of project and program management into browser-based software was an idea way overdue by the early 2010s.  Perhaps no one in the private sector saw the profitability in addressing the problems of the non-profit world. But Feras and Ibrahim knew that with their solution, they could not only turn a profit, they could do so while greatly improving the quality and timeliness of aid work.

Imagine a field office in which data reporting is standardized, with easy-to-understand online tutorials to remind staff of the need for and meaning of key terms like “goal” and “S.M.A.R.T.” Picture a donor institution using a platform to aggregate relevant information with a simple click and chart program progress automatically. Envision a work environment in which past reporting is archived and searchable, maps can be generated by non-GIS specialists, and workflow shifts from MS Office and e-mail to the browser.

AidBits won’t solve all the problems facing development and humanitarian work. But it will make errors easier to catch, reports faster to file and time harder to waste. The drudgery avoided and money saved will allow for a greater focus on the quality results that beneficiaries deserve. AidBits is forging ahead to enhance a multi-billion dollar industry currently stuck in the 20th century. And no, these guys are not kidding around.

Michael Keller is an international development expert, having worked in Africa and the greater Middle East for a number of international aid organisations. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image from Robert Francis.