This always happens:
I’m off the clock in some informal, social setting and the subject of what I do for a living comes up. There will be someone in the group, very interested and very eager to let me know that they’ve just donated what for them is a sizeable sum to an utterly useless INGO. I know the INGO they’re talking about because I’ve seen their programs in the field, received their promotional material in the mail, and perhaps even interviewed their would-be escapees for open positions on my team. The person will be clearly hoping for my approval and I’ll feel socially obliged to affirm them, even though I know that their donation was, at best, wasted. At worst, they may have helped to actually cause harm.
And I wonder if it’s time for an industry-wide conversation about regulation.
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At the moment NGOs seem to be left to largely self-regulate within the context of some generalized “shame & honor” peer pressure from the community at large. Different large donors can regulate by stipulating the terms of grants and cooperative agreements, but this is only effective to the extent that their grantees are financially dependent on them. The UN cluster system sometimes regulates in relief contexts, but overall the cluster system experience is so vastly different from emergency to emergency that it is hard to see any real patterns emerge. And there are endless documents like the Humanitarian Charter, Sphere standards and The Good Enough Guide; endless sector-specific signatory working agreements, best-practice documents, and coalitions meant to promote this or that. All of which are “good things” in principle.
The problem is, they have no teeth. They only work to the extent that NGOs and other aid actors submit voluntarily to being bound by them, adhere to them, participate in them. But nothing really happens to those NGOs who don’t feel like following best-practices or participating coordination meetings. As I wrote in a previous post, there is currently nothing in the aid world comparable to what we call a malpractice lawsuit in the medical world.
* * * * *
We all know who they are.
They’re those INGOs who don’t coordinate or who incessantly implement bad development… and in some cases are even proud of it. We cringe when we see their advertisements. We roll our eyes when their newsfeed pops up on Alertnet.org. Maybe we even engage our gag reflex when their CEOs get airtime on national television following some high-profile emergency.
They’re there, on the periphery of every big disaster from hurricanes in Central America to wars and accompanying refugee crises inAfrica, Eastern Europe and the Middle East to earthquakes and tidal waves in Asia. The little opportunistic INGOs that almost no one has heard of, often very focused on a very specific sub-sector (e.g. in-kind small livestock loans) or a very specific sub-demographic (e.g. displaced Kurdish youth 12-17 in female-headed households in Eastern Turkey). Their mission statements are frequently internally contradictory, maybe talking about how they emphasize “charity” rather than “development”, but then with some vague language about the importance of building local capacity tacked on at the end. They’re the ones who come to coordination meetings about once per year. They cheerfully implement portfolios of projects modeled after the best-practices of 1975.
We often see evidence of their projects having created dependency in communities where we try to work; sometimes our projects struggle because they insist on working badly in those communities at the same time that we’re working there. We fight the urge to let the air out of the tires on their vehicles when we find them in the carpark of the supermarket or used bookstore.
In Kosovo it seemed that there were INGOs named after every imaginable vocation, translated into French, with the tag “sans frontiers” added. Tsuanmiland was a veritable feeding frenzy in early 2005: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to endure the immigration line in Colombo or Medan listening to a retired high school shop teacher or bright-eyed college drop-out enthusiastically regale me with his or her theory that the real key to “sustainable relief” is to import some specific kind of pre-fabricated, pre-packaged collapsible housing, rather than go with locally available materials, designs and labor. Myanmar was similar – and despite the fact the cluster system actually worked better there than in many responses, and specifically despite the fact that the logistics cluster worked like a dream (once it got up and running), I repeatedly overheard conversations in departure lounges in Bangkok and Singapore where the staff of these INGOs boasted about smuggling in pharmaceuticals, a single suitcase at a time, on the ground from Thailand. Iraq right now seems awash with small-shop INGOs of questionable philosophical virtue, bent on partnering in different high-profile ways with the US military, local militias or perhaps both. Only China seems to have avoided the onslaught of the small, amateur INGOs: it was simply all but impossible to get a visa to China following last year’s earthquake.
And on my most recent international trip, to Pakistan, I made the mistake of sharing my occupation and the name of my employer with the person sitting next to me on the trans-Pacific leg. … Someone who, it turned out, was high up in one of those little never-before-heard-of INGOs consumed with repackaging as their “niche” a particular development practice known for more than a decade to be utterly ineffective. This person talked about bad development for the entire flight. I’ve never been so happy to get to Tokyo.
* * *
Painting with too broad a brush? Maybe. Or not.
Just so that we’re clear, for me it’s not about who’s cool or trendy or even necessarily about who’s doing the very latest thing and who’s not. I long ago subscribed/resigned myself to the “mystics, misfits, missionaries, and mercenaries” description of aid workers. We’re all one or more of those, I think, in some way or another, myself certainly included. I’m not down on anyone for not having the latest technology or wearing out-of-date clothing or using old jargon.
Neither am I talking about size of an organization or project. Over and above the fact that I have personally seen both large and small projects both accomplish amazing things and also totally fail, just in-principle I think there’s a need for both the large do-everything “department store” as well as the small, specialized “boutique” aid organizations.
Nor am I talking about the faith-status, political orientation or philosophical underpinnings of an organization, necessarily. Again, we’ve all seen both the success and failure of programs implemented by organizations of all origins. No worldview has a corner on market of helping the poor, no more than any worldview is immune to the pitfalls of poorly planned and executed aid work.
What I am positively against, though, are those organizations who whether knowingly or in a state of cultivated ignorance intentionally implement bad relief and development.
It makes me cranky to think that such organizations can implement such bad relief and development with apparent impunity. We all know who they are. And while we’re all usually too nice to call them out and say so publicly, in our hearts we know that they should be shut down now. They need to have their tax-exempt donations status revoked immediately (if they’re US-based), and their expats bodily removed from whichever countries they’re in before they do any more damage or waste any more money.
* * *
One of the things that attracted me to aid work as a younger man was the feeling of… well, freedom. And while that freedom may have been somewhat mythical, the fact that there really was (and still is) a degree of room for creative problem-solving is one part of what keeps it interesting for me.
I find myself naturally resisting any suggestion of more bureaucracy, more rules, more process.
But I wonder aloud whether the time is right to have an industry-wide conversation about regulation?
Not “coordination” – there’s already plenty of that. I’m talking about regulation with some weight behind hit. Regulation that carries with it the power to forcibly shut down bad development projects and perhaps even organizations. Regulation that can deliver the equivalent of a malpractice lawsuit against those organizations who repeatedly do it poorly.
Am I full of it? Has that second pint of “Harper’s Brown Ale” totally gone to my head? Am I wishing for the impossible?
Tell me why regulation is a bad idea.