How many times have we seen this: a complex emergency with a decade or two of heavy humanitarian intervention (maybe some development organisations and peacekeeping forces as well), scores or even hundreds of millions of dollars spent by aid agencies, legions of expats trafficked through–and yet close to zero planned impact on local economic development or resilience? Sound like Eastern DRC? Haiti? South Sudan? Continue reading Making development work for humanitarian response–and vice versa→
Having just returned from a research trip to Nigeria, I’ve been struck (not for the first time) by just how difficult it is to make economic growth a force for development. It’s tempting to think that just having a slightly bigger public sector budget would really help, but Nigeria is a clear reminder that wealth alone does not guarantee better services, less poverty or more security.
Nigeria is known internationally as an economic powerhouse, a leading African economy attracting foreign investment and exporting natural resources. It’s also known to have a volatile political situation, extreme poverty and stark inequality. Despite its wealth, Nigeria rates poorly on human development indicators: it ranked 152 in the 2013 Human Development Report, just above Yemen. Compared to other, much poorer, African countries, Nigeria’s investment in public services is low and inequality in accessing services is very high. Why is this?
Why is economic growth failing to address poverty, and what can development organisations do about it?
First, it’s important not to think of Nigeria as one economy and one government. Nigeria is enormous, with a national population similar to that of Bangladesh or Brazil, and a federal system composed of 36 states and a federal capital. When taken as a whole, Nigeria has every challenge and opportunity going: natural resources, divided ethnic groups, nomadic populations, burgeoning cities, etc. Only by delving into the complexity of each state can you begin to understand what’s stopping Nigeria from transforming into a more stable country.
Looking at government and politics at the state level, it becomes clearer why Nigeria’s economic growth does not guarantee better living standards. Nigerian state governments each have their own priorities, and these are often not poverty reduction but rather income generation. For example, while the governors of Northern states tend to prioritise agricultural productivity, transport is a political issue in Lagos, as the city’s congestion is a brake on the state economy. Nigerian politicians’ priorities are also swayed by those who financed their election victory. Public funds are often diverted to creating jobs for chosen individuals and awarding government contracts to particular companies. It’s only when a leader’s supporters have been sufficiently rewarded that broader development goals can be considered.
So, taking this as a starting point, how can development organisations, calling for more accountable governments and better services for the poor, persuade Nigerian state governments to change the way they work? Quite simply, development organisations need to learn to work politically. They need to understand the interests of leaders and the constraints of the political system, and find ways to encourage reform without directly threatening a leader’s source of control. Negotiation, brokering, persuasion, peer pressure and incentives are all tools in engaging in the politics of development. This is about taking a politically smart approach to development.
But what could this look like? How about the work the DFID-funded State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) is doing? SAVI works in a number of Nigerian states to support State Houses of Assembly, mass media and civil society organisations to take action on public problems. Rather than encouraging a battle between government and non-government groups, SAVI looks for ways they can cooperate, finding convergent interests in resolving shared problems, such as corruption in contractors’ building of public infrastructure.
Another inspiring approach to problem solving in Nigeria is Reboot’s work on public financial management. Financial management reforms are often found to be technically heavy, transplanted by international consultants and inappropriate to a country’s own context. Reboot, however, is taking a different approach, which they call “fiscal ethnography.” In this, a team of Nigerian and international staff are embedded in a state government for 18 months to observe how the government systems work, learn about the culture of the organisation and people working in it, and earn their partners’ trust. The knowledge they gain and the relationships they build then enable the Reboot team to tailor their tools and training to the specific needs and priorities of the state government.
Nigeria is certainly not unique in the challenges facing its public sector, and examples like these show that development organisations are beginning to learn that development is not about authority and money, but rather about brokering and negotiating change. Improving the practices of the development community may be just as difficult as improving the practices of state governments, but a movement for change has begun. Academics, practitioners, donors, and researchers are coming together to push for a new, politically savvy way of doing development: development that works.
Look here and here to learn more and join the debate!
Clare Cummings is a Research Officer for Politics and Governance at the Overseas Development Institute, where she works on public service delivery, justice, security and democratisation. She has previously conducted field research on the governance of slum resettlement in South India and worked as a researcher for a consortium of NGOs in Burundi. Claire holds a Masters of International Development from the University of Amsterdam. You can follow her on Twitter.
Did you know October was Fair Trade Month in the U.S.? You might have easily missed it if you’re not working within a fair trade-related field. In any case, how much social impact fair trade creates has been in question since the movement took root. So, let’s try to figure out if you should feel bad for missing the Fair Trade Month hype.
As I mentioned in my previous post, fair trade is “an organised social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability.” Imagine my surprise when a quick Google search revealed that some fair trade farmers receive a lower wage than their counterparts working for private farms! We’re not even talking about bridging the poverty gap (I gotta use the development lingo here, don’t I?) or sending one’s kids to school. One farmer whose story I found (appropriately named Prosper) works for the fair trade-certified Kuapa-Kokoo cooperative in Ghana, and every month he earns $10 less than his peers. So, I asked myself, what is the point?
The “point” can be found in the fair trade premiums paid by fair trade-certified companies to be spent on local projects voted on and chosen by a local community. These projects can take the form of re-investment into businesses or socio-economic undertakings, such as building wells or schools. Don’t we all just LOVE local initiatives, especially those “democratically decided” by the community in question? It must be a development fairy tale!
Unfortunately, it is not. First, the fair trade model itself is partly to blame: Fairtrade International charges a fee for its certification, which strains the already tight budgets of the farms, leaving less cash flow to spend on wages (and lowering their competitive advantage). Point goes to private farms. Second, the prices Fair Trade International offers to farmers are only marginally higher than minimum (not even median!) market wages. Essentially, what the FairTrade Labelling Organization (FLO) does is set up price floors (minimums) to protect farmers from negative price fluctuations. Generally, FLO pays 44 cents/kilogram above market minimum prices and 11 cents/kilogram in premiums. These statistics are for coffee prices only. From them, it is fairly easy to extrapolate the magnitude (or lack thereof) of the fair trade price difference. The point is that guaranteed fair trade prices are, more often than not, lower than market prices, and when they are actually higher, it is NOT enough to create impact. (You can find the full updated list of Fairtrade product prices here.)
What about the premiums and community projects? The Fair Trade, Employment and Poverty Reduction Project at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has a rather unequivocal answer: they don’t make a difference. The four-year research project funded by the U.K.’s Department for International Development had a primary goal of finding out whether the presence of fair trade employment opportunities had any effect on the wellbeing of people living in poverty in rural areas. The resulting comparative and longitudinal assessment of the benefits and disadvantages created by fair trade and non-fair trade schemes concluded: “This research was unable to find any evidence that Fairtrade has made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those employed in the production of the commodities produced for Fairtrade certified export in the areas where the research has been conducted.”
In other words, wage-employees working with fair trade-certified organisations are not paid any more than workers working with non-fairtrade certified companies, and their working conditions are no better (and sometimes worse and sometimes involve child labour!).
Yet another troubling finding stated that, in some cases, the structure of fair trade cooperatives was aggravating rural inequality.
These latest (April 2014) findings seem to confirm something that has long been known but has only been whispered about in academic circles. Perhaps this is why Fairtrade International so publicly displayed its disappointment with the research in its statement. While Fairtrade International has a right to challenge the research findings, the company’s status quo should have been challenged long ago. Fair trade is a great idea, and at least some consumers are buying it (no pun intended!). But, it seems ludicrous to me to continue buying fair trade products now that I know the farmers working with fair trade companies are no better off than those working with regular companies! Essentially, what this means is that fair trade’s social impact is zero. That’s disheartening, and calls not only for more research, but for systemic changes within the Fair Trade Movement.
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.
This is the final post in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s piece on cognitive dissonance in the aid industry. Check out the other responses here and here, and share your own in the comments.
A few bullet-points, first, then narrative.
The opening scene of the barbershop in Jonathan’s article resonates: I had approximately the same experience in a small town in southern Michigan in about 1991.
Jonathan describes well the cognitive dissonance of being an aid/development worker, but struggles to convey the gaps between what we actually do, what everyone thinks we do and who we are. Hell, I struggle to convey them after more than a decade of writing specifically dedicated to that end. It’s mostly the point of my recent book, Letters Left Unsent (see especially the chapter entitled “Noble Savages”).
In this way, I think aid workers and the aid industry are actually analogous to porn actors and the adult film industry. Powerful, common perceptions about who we are and what we do seldom reflect reality… But since everyone thinks they know, no one bothers actually asking. Which leads to massive misperceptions by those entering or attempting to enter the sector. Which leads to people like Jonathan having cognitive dissonance straight out of the gate, before he’s got much more than entry-level experience under his belt.
How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity?
In pretty much the same way a physician integrates recognition of the healthcare industry’s flaws. Which is to say that I acknowledge them openly, and then assertively use my own (current) influence to correct them or start to correct them where I can.
I recognize the faults and challenges, and take on as a part of my personal responsibility and ethics to do what I can to make it better. In this area, though, I don’t really see that aid and development is any different from most any other industry–the automotive industry, perhaps, or the food industry. I think there’s always a disconnect between, for lack of a better term, the business-end or “industrial” side of any industry and the thing the industry is meant to provide.
For example, the automotive industry is beset with drama and intrigue around what gets decided, how, where and by whom. Then consumers–people like you and me–certainly have opinions about what cars we like, would like to have (whether real and current or imaginary), all to come around to the realities of what we can actually afford.
And so, I suppose, in my professional life, like an engineer or a factory worker at Toyota, I have no problem acknowledging the limitations of what my chosen industry has to offer.
I may even be candid and open about my employer’s comparative and competitive advantages and disadvantages vis-a-vis other providers. I think we can safely assume that in 20 years’ time, the cars we drive will look and work and be quite different from those we have now.
And in the same way, with the aid industry, whether we’re talking about the technical specifications of the actual products we deliver or the industry’s nature and structure, the acquisitions, the shifts in power at the “top” of the industry itself (far from the factory floor, if you will), I think we can freely acknowledge flaws without ever abandoning belief in the value of the product itself or in our own individual and collective roles in making that product happen.
How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to do work in the field or advocating for its expansion?
I think there’s a tendency to make this issue seem more black and white than it is, in fact. It’s partially to do with basic human nature–we gravitate toward explanations that feel simple. It’s partially to do, I think, with the way the discussion about aid has evolved, particularly on social media, in the past few years. And I think it also has to do with the fact that the major (which is to say, widely-read) critiques almost all come from industry outsiders who have a vested interest in articulating extreme critique. And here I’m talking specifically about William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo and Linda Polman (among others). “Dead aid” grabs attention, whereas “Aid with a serious, but ultimately curable illness” lacks punch.
Too much of the conversation, in my opinion, is polarized between “aid is dead,” and “OMG, we’re making poverty history!” The truth is that the vast majority is somewhere in the middle.
I think there’s perhaps a generational thing at play, too. Myself at 25, a year or two into my own aid career, I had all the answers. I could give the entire litany of everything wrong with the sector, every decision my boss and my bosses’ boss made was wrong, and so on. Now, 20+ years later, I’m not so sure.
Jonathan asks some tough questions, but lately I’m not so sure they’re the most relevant ones. The question, “Did I ‘make a lasting difference’ during my time as a PCV in Senegal?” is a very, very different question from, “Does aid work or not? And if not, how do we fix it?” And those of us who stick around come to understand that the things that make aid work or not, the problems in real need of redress, have nothing at all to do with whether the white guys and women in rural West Africa are “learning the language and finding a place in Senegalese society.” I think many of us had our equivalent of a barbershop crisis early on. Stay on for a while, though, and see how things actually work, and you begin to understand that the issues are different.
I stay on because I see the potential for good. I’ve seen the good actually happen myself. I stay on because I see the real possibility of changing the industry for the better and at the level at which it truly needs to change. I stay on because I still believe.
How do you motivate yourself on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?
Let me start somewhere else, because I don’t really think this is the best question to ask here. I think it is absolutely critical to understand that this aid or development thing is a job, like any other (even if Peace Corps marketing says otherwise). Maybe you work some long hours. Maybe, in the course of this “ordinary job,” you go to some cool places and have some wild moments. But at the end of the day, it is a job. You go to work, you collect your salary or stipend, you pay your bills, and eventually you retire.
It is critical to understand that liking your job, that feeling as if what you do for work contributes to some greater good–“job satisfaction”–is a luxury and a privilege that many (perhaps most?) people simply do not have. I think too many people enter the aid sector because they anticipate a constant rush of, “I JUST SAVED A LIFE!!”
I see these people day in and day out in my real job: they’re the ones who very easily get bored or disillusioned and leave, or perhaps run off to start their own NGO, before they’ve really understood the reality. I think the sooner we understand that, like with any other job in any other industry, some days are going to be awesome and some days are going to suck, the sooner we’ll get past the stage of existential barbershop crises.
I don’t mean we should become apathetic. Rather, I mean we must understand that this job, this career, carries with it both positive and negative. And further, that just because we have a tough day at the office or in the village, doesn’t mean aid is broken.
I’ve been sitting on a number of career panels recently. Melbourne is the Australian capital for NGO HQs, social enterprise, development students and cafes. These events are popular. Students are thirsty for the holy grail of career advice. I’m far from the best person to offer advice for a number of reasons. I like to take a different tack.
Ask not how do you get a job in development, but how can you best contribute to justice, human rights and people’s well being.
I’ve considered a number of times asking attendees to “Sell me this pen,” or screaming, “Don’t start an NGO!!” Thankfully, I’m more reserved and promote a reflexive approach to my pitch.
Although Tim Minchin isn’t my favourite comedian (Aamer Rahman), his address to students at the University of Western Australia was poignant, unapologetic and irreverent. Just what I needed to inspire a click-bait friendly post about what he can teach you about working in global development.
1. You don’t have to have a dream
Recently, there has been a trend of blog posts and research advocating for a focus on short-term, discrete goals, particularly when it comes your own life. A range of PhD advice centres on chunks. Don’t get caught up on the whole. It is overwhelming. Break it down into discrete, manageable and achievable tasks.
A dream can be overwhelming, particularly when others speak of having or obtaining one. Ending extreme poverty comes to mind.
Minchin says to be “micro-ambitious” and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re editing a boring mid-term report for a disinterested donor or yet another grant application with a 0.01% chance of success. “You never know where you might end up.”
Working in global development is by no means linear, stable or secure. Yes, there are those who’ve wanted to work for “the UN” since they were the under-secretary of the Model UN at Parkville High School. But, shit happens.
2. Don’t seek happiness
“Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away.”
If you want to be happy, make someone else happy. This taps into the notion of mindfulness and awareness about being less selfish, less egotistical. It is difficult. Working in global development sometimes feels like a circle jerk. It can feel really good, and everyone in the circle is feeling good, but it is also wrong. The ethical, philosophical and very practical dilemmas of the industry are hard to reconcile and find happiness within. Can you work in a flawed industry and still do good? Let me put that another way. Can you work in a flawed industry and find happiness?
3. It is all luck
This is about privilege. You can always acknowledge it, and it is important to do so, but you can never outrun it. If you work in global development, you are lucky. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to be educated. Lucky to be healthy. You are privileged. Yes, you worked hard for it (some of you didn’t), but as Minchin says, “I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard”.
Don’t take full credit for your successes and don’t blame others fully for their failings. It will make you humble, compassionate and empathetic. Although it sounds like something the Dalai Lama would say with an enlightened smile, they are wise words from a man who wears a lot of black eye-liner.
Take care of your body. Run, jog, practice yoga, do aerobics, try heyrobics, eat well, sleep enough, don’t smoke, drink moderately. Working in global development will pit your emotional, mental and physical energies against the world, against violence, cruelty and hardship.
If you are lucky enough to work overseas, you will most likely experience stress, depression, isolation, compassion fatigue and perhaps even show symptoms of PTSD. You’ve got a long life ahead of you. Get active.
5. Be hard on your opinions
This is my favourite one. Global development is rife with entrenched positions, program inertia and anecdotal evidence. Change does start within. We’re always bashing other people’s theories of change, opinions about development minutiae and where to get the best coffee (Melbourne).
But, what about our own hard-won beliefs, biases and prejudices? “Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat”. (A cricket bat.) You know nothing, aid worker. Many of our failings in global development are found in a failure to communicate because we are too wrapped up in our own beliefs.
6. Be a teacher*
Okay, so this is my new favourite one. “Even if you are not a teacher, be a teacher.” But, this comes with a caveat. This does not mean go and volunteer to teach English in Ghana during summer break. No. And I’m speaking to you, the 22-year old white female from [Australia, Europe, North America], studying business but wanting an adventure in Africa over the holidays.
If you want to teach, even just to give it a go – and will commit to it for a period of time – go and get a degree. Read John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Maria Montessori and Michelle Rhee, and get pumped about being a professional educator. You want to change the world and make a difference? Be a teacher.
7. Define yourself by what you love
It is not about what you are in opposition to; express your love for things, places, people and ideas you are passionate about. “Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.”
Yes, yes, yes, we know voluntourism is the embarrassing, slightly perverted uncle of volunteering, but what are the alternatives? What should people who are willing to give their time, and pay for it, be doing?
You are anti-voluntourism, anti-TOMS, anti-IMF SAPs, anti-religion, anti-capitalism. But what are you pro?
8. Respect people with less power than you
How do you treat your interns? How do you treat the community members your organisation works with? Do you show friendliness or friendship?
Friendliness is benign. It is that demeanour you adopt when visiting communities. You arrive in a community and go through the customs of greeting its senior members, with a kind smile on your face, aware of your status and the blessings you bring. You soak up the exoticness of it, aware of your, and the community’s, otherness. You are a Big Man/Big Woman. The magical symbols and capital letters that represent your tribe give you power. At the back of your mind, you hear the faint whisper of Kanye. “I am a god / So hurry up with my damn massage.”
And there is friendship that is powerful, humble and respectful. It takes a step back, relinquishes power and empowers. You are small in the company of others, aware of your privilege but not consumed by it. R E S P E C T. Find out what it means to you.
9. Don’t rush
Relax. You don’t need to know what your career in global development or elsewhere will be. No one knows. It ain’t that simple. Take time to figure shit out. What are you good at? What do you love? Who do you love? What will people pay you to do?
Think carefully before entering global development. We need critical, reflexive, humble people; not just do-gooders. Hell, global development may not even need you. In the wise words of Tina Turner, we don’t need another hero.
This post is the second in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s recent piece on cognitive dissonance. Stay tuned as the conversation continues, and share your own thoughts in the comments.
By Erol Yayboke
Jonathan’s post on the “cognitive dissonance” required to work in development aid concludes with a series of broad questions that can loosely be translated into: how do you (i.e. “older, wiser” development practitioners) sleep at night? Though not an entirely fair translation, his broader aim to question the “development industry” is well taken. Most of us have had similarly awkward encounters with our barbers, taxi drivers and cousins that left us wondering whether we deserved such praise.
Before offering my “sage” responses to the valid questions every development aid worker should ask of him/herself and others, there are a couple points I’d like to make about the arguments that led up to Jonathan’s questions.
First, the “development industry” is a totally theoretical construct that includes countless non-profit, public, private and multi-lateral players, all with competing resources and agendas. We (including yours truly) overuse and abuse it regularly. Also, “development” as presented in the article is heavily skewed towards how “we in the West” have an impact on “those in the rest.” It’s important to note that part of the complexity of development is the fact that this West-centric viewpoint is simultaneously paternalistic and not entirely accurate.
Employees at India’s Ministry of Environment don’t see themselves as working in “development” per se; much like my friend at the U.S. Department of Energy, they’re working within the bureaucracy to improve their country. In other words, there is simply no utopian singular entity called “development” – it is a complex web that doesn’t even begin to understand itself (just ask any UN OCHA employee).
In spite of this, some groups have shown remarkable successes in health, food security and generally getting people to care about things outside their own communities (which I posit is better than the isolationist alternative).
I recommend focusing on criticising and offering improvements to specific sectors and programs based on concrete evidence, as opposed to chastising “development” as a whole.
Second, some of Jonathan’s article relies on one unfortunate tacit assumption: that the Peace Corps is a “development” organisation. Despite claiming that it “[sends] Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world” and work towards “sustainable change,” at best, the Peace Corps is a diplomatic ideal; it was arguably set up as such by Kennedy during the Cold War.
An admirable service organization that has undoubtedly “helped people build better lives,” Peace Corps is nonetheless one whereby, in practice, (mostly) young, energetic, bright Americans who often lack relevant technical skills (how many of us have met a health volunteer who didn’t know First Aid?) ingratiate themselves to communities that would otherwise probably never meet such aliens (double entendre intended).
More realistically (and acknowledged by the organisation itself), Peace Corps service is a time for self-discovery – as was the case for the volunteers Jonathan knew in Senegal – a time for Americans themselves to grow in compassion, worldliness and resilience. All noble outcomes, none of which have anything to do with “development.”
Now to the “sage wisdom.”
On reconciling the “industry’s flaws” with my own professional identity, I’d say that we live in a flawed world where nothing is ever perfect. Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us. As professionals, we should constantly be in pursuit of more efficiency, effectiveness and impact. It’s important to establish meaningful metrics for your project (NGO, sector, industry, etc.) and for yourself, referring to – and learning from – them often.
I’m a believer in having opinions based on evidence and in the value of real, long-term, first-hand experience topped with healthy doses of skepticism (of which Jonathan lacks not). Ultimately though, we all must strive to first, do no harm – even the best of intentions have the potential for unintended consequences.
On recognising problems while continuing to work in this field, I’d challenge Jonathan to find a profession that does not toil with this (somewhat existential) question.
To most (in our “industry” at least) who look hard enough, the systemic flaws are readily apparent and littered with political, financial and sometimes even nefarious roadblocks. The challenge (and great reward if you succeed) is to find solutions that are politically supportable, administratively feasible and technically correct. If you can manage to do that, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and scale up!
As for motivation on those ever-present tough days where doubt creeps in? This is a very personal struggle that we all face at points, even while working on the most impactful of projects. Am I truly doing no harm? Am I actually “making a difference?” Alas, there is usually no black and white answer; there rarely is in life. However, the pursuit of impact should drive us to better understand and continually refine our efforts.
This desire for more evidence has even spawned a research-based “industry within an industry” (J-PAL, IPA, EPoD, Evidence Action, etc.) whereby some of the smartest people on the planet (full disclosure: though I work for one of these organisations, I am not one of said geniuses) study the most intransigent development issues. We’re learning more about our impact than ever before.
So, for an inquisitive mind like Jonathan’s, never was there a better time to lace on the boots and head to Busia. Along the way, try not to get overwhelmed with the scope and magnitude of the problems, but to break them into smaller, much more manageable (and ideally measurable) pieces.
My last bit of advice for Jonathan is to accept his barber’s praise. He chose to work in development in order to make a difference, something at which he will undoubtedly get better over the course of his career, as the “dual tides” of experience and healthy scepticism drive him towards greater impact. Jonathan – feel good about what you’ve done, and use the praise as motivation to improve the aid world, or whatever small corner of it you decide to call home.
Erol Yayboke is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can check our his blog and follow him on Twitter. (Erol’s views are his own and do not represent the opinions of these or any other organisations.)
This time, Weh wants to know why there are so many egotistical arseholes working in development (it’s not law, after all!). Plus, Carly responds to a bureaucrat who doubts the effectiveness of aid, and Brendan asks about aid workers’ reading lists.
Join the conversation! Let us know how you deal with the arseholes you encounter, and send us your book recommendations. Leave a comment here or on Facebook, e-mail us at info[AT]whydev.org, and use the hashtag #MissionCreepDev on Twitter. We’ll respond online or on the next episode of the podcast.
You can also listen to the podcast here or download it on iTunes.
Book recommendations from the podcast: Thinking Fast and Slow, Made to Stick, Rohinton Mistry, The Power of Now, A New Earth, Daring Greatly, The Big Leap, Emergency Sex, Zen under Fire, You Are Not So Smart, Development as Freedom, The Bottom Billion and War, Guns & Votes.
Jonathan Favini’s recent WhyDev post on cognitive dissonance in development raised issues that are near and dear to many in the sector, from recognising aid failures to working in a flawed industry to receiving praise from outsiders. A recent college grad, Jonathan ended his piece with some thoughtful questions to more experienced aid workers.
How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?
We’ve compiled several interesting and insightful responses from people with varied experience in development (and blogging!). This post is the first in a short series of reflections on these topics.
“These types of doubts and questions help me to remain humble in my work. I try to present myself as a facilitator or enabler, one who helps people to achieve their own goals but whose own role is minimal. Most people I work with, especially at local levels in developing countries, appreciate this stance, as they can see the problems in development work all too clearly.
Indeed, I am quite aware of the many problems in this industry, and sometimes the doubts Jonathan described, and other challenges, can be overwhelming. To motivate myself in this work, I try to do the following: learn from mistakes and errors (both mine and others’) to avoid repeating them and to improve other work; make special note of success stories when I do find them and remember them for future reference; and never take myself too seriously, especially in interactions with people offering praise for ‘doing good work’ or ‘helping people.’ They may mean well, but they do not fully understand the work I do (and that’s not really their fault, either).”
“I couldn’t incorporate the industry’s flaws into my identity, so I decided to start my own organisation. That way, I decided I could work within the field, but as ‘outside the industry’ as possible.
Like most in the field, I am constantly observing and analysing the flaws of the industry, and using my conclusions about them to form the approach we use at Roots of Development. Since most of our budget comes from individual donors, we have even greater flexibility to do it differently. Most individual donors trust us enough and believe in our approach enough to allow us to do it the way we feel we need to do it. They let us mold, form and change our programming based on the direction of the communities with whom we work and the lessons we learn from working with them.
I think the days you find yourself doubting the impact of your efforts are very important. I have learned to take those days and use them to analyse two things: 1) Look at the effort to try and see where we may have gone astray or strayed from our core principles. 2) Make sure I am not solely evaluating the impact through my culturally-biased understanding of it and of standards of success.
I believe that when you doubt the impact of your effort, it’s either because the effort is actually flawed or because you’re judging it from your cultural context. In the first case, it’s important to identify where you went astray and get back on track. In the second, it’s likely you need to remind yourself whom the effort is actually for, and find out how they are feeling about the impact.
It is once again a reminder to me of how important local ownership is in every aspect of international development and how important it is for me (us) to remain in a supportive role instead of a managerial one.”
Check back next week for thoughts from more of your favourite aid workers and bloggers – and share your own responses in the comments.