Welcome to Machine

30 Aug

Okay. Call me cynical, but here’s the reality:

The global aid industry is a very large, complicated machine, the purpose of which is primarily to move cumulatively massive amounts of resources from point A to point B. Further, the majority of the moving parts of this machine are in some way about ensuring compliance with donor wishes.

You thought it was all about helping the poor. And it is. Most people in the business, myself included, would insist that the reason they continue to get up every morning and make the commute to their cubicle, wherever that might be, is because they want to be part of “helping the poor.” All good and well. I do continue to fervently believe that the “real” work of aid happens at the grassroots. The proverbial rubber meeting the road happens in communities where programs and projects are implemented, via the interactions between a comparatively very small number of aid workers and actual beneficiaries.

But if you look with any kind of objectivity at the aid industry you see very quickly that the majority of the architecture is around essentially logistics and compliance: leveraging and moving resources – cash, GIK, “technical assistance”, people – from developed countries to developing countries, tracking and analyzing and reporting on that movement, and ensuring compliance and accountability at various steps along the way.

I know that this is probably not what most of you want to hear. I know that some of you will react to this. You’ll wonder how on earth I can say such a thing? You’ll accuse me of having sat in an HQ for too long and for having lost touch with what actually happens in “the field.” You’ll feel offended that I have too-lightly accounted for the hours that you spend slogging it out in hot sweaty places, dealing with slow internet, equally frustrated by the seeming impossibility of finding a good translator and your local counterpart’s inability to understand your version of their language, doing focus groups, grappling with the complexities of local culture, or in some other way actually delivering aid.

But let me ask you: Even if your job is classified as programmatic (rather than administrative), what proportion of your time is spent somehow being accountable up your chain of management? Or ensuring that those below you have been accountable? What proportion of your time is spent ensuring compliance with donor wishes, including documenting that you have (or perhaps have not) been compliant? How much of your job is about raising money/resources? What proportion of your organization’s organizational chart is actually about programming, versus everything else? Even if you’re in a field office, how many of your staff are actually in regular contact with beneficiaries? And for each of them, how many more spend their time primarily in an office, using a computer, meeting reporting requirements, manipulating data or text, ensuring the flow of information from bottom to top? How much time is spent primarily on matters related to the continuity of funding, even if that is making sure that your programs are evaluated well?

I can attest personally that even when I was the country director in a struggling country office, my overwhelming task was to keep the office/national program alive, financially. There were two primary interrelated things that went into that: a) raise funds for programs and spend those funds; b) comply with all donor (and other applicable) requirements to that “my” country program could continue to receive funding.

There’s a residual romantic memory of aid work as being about gaunt foreigners in cargo pants, surrounded by natives, measuring out 1.5 kg. rations of CSB from large bags with the WFP logo stenciled on them. Or maybe sitting cross-leged on the ground, surrounded by the village mothers, notebook in hand, earnestly trying to understand local infant feeding beliefs and practices. And many of us, at times myself included, want not just that memory but also the actual reality to continue.

And so when you think about it like that, it’s not at all surprising that the majority of the expensive, well-advertised international workshops and conferences, complete with consultants, presentations, break-out groups and panel discussions, seem to most frequently be about technical things: health indicators, updating Sphere standards, new microfinance models, impact evaluation and program quality assurance. While by contrast the majority of INGO in-house capacity building seems to focus on things which basically boil down to making sure that the organization, an office or particular programs can pass audits.

Thinking back again to my experience as a country director: when a harm reduction project in my portfolio was able to document direct, causal links between what we were doing in a remote district of northern Vietnam and a statistically significant decline in the rate of new HIV infections in that same district I received a short “well done” email message from my regional vice president. But when my office passed an external financial audit for the first time in several years (my predecessor had left things in a mess), I received a fancy certificate of appreciation and a raise. Donors could now trust us to follow accounting rules, document financial decisions, and get reports in on time.

* * * * *

So, what does this all mean? In my opinion it means several things:

Perhaps our greatest and most important challenge as aid workers is to keep the beneficiaries first. The situation is not lost, and the machine reality is not all bad. But we have our work cut out for us. And as our work becomes increasingly about meetings and deadlines and coordination and, in general, things that we interact with on a computer screen rather than face to face under the mango tree, we absolutely have to be able to articulate tangible links between what we do day-to-day and the effect of that in the lives of those whom we call “our beneficiaries.” We have to be able to articulate these links as a form of check-and-balance against an industry that increasingly wants to move the discussion away from beneficiaries (despite strident claims to the contrary). And we have to do it simply in order to keep our own motivation and, on some days, our own sanity.

We need to expend more effort than we currently do towards accountability to beneficiaries. Obviously related to the previous point. The industry architecture around logistics, compliance and accountability seems sort of naturally tuned to ensure the flow up accountability from bottom to top. And while that upward accountability does need to be there, it has to exist in reasonable proportion to accountability that flows the other direction. We absolutely must not let up the pressure on donors, host governments, or even our own employing organizations. We have to use resources like The Good Enough Guide, and also develop new/better ones, not just as one more checklist that must be gone through but increasingly a core part of what we do. Another way, I guess, of saying that we need to keep the beneficiaries first.

Our industry needs to disabuse itself of the desire to see percentage of overhead as an indicator of efficiency. We’d all agree, I hope, that the most important work, qualitatively speaking, is that which happens in the field. Those interactions between aid-workers and beneficiaries. But if we can quantify it, I think we’d find that most of the work in the aid world is about those logistics, compliance and accountability upward; those things that most often happen in offices, not dusty villages, and that typically cannot be tied to specific projects/programs. We need new and better ways to think about and articulate efficiency in the context of aid work.

We need to revisit our calculus about the respective importance and roles of field offices, regional offices, and HQs. Almost the same comments as for the previous point. We’re seeing that increasingly the heavy lifting of aid work, the servicing of the global machine – all those reports that have to be formatted and submitted, all of that engagement with donors and influential actors in the humanitarian capitals of the world, all of that legal compliance of various kinds – now happens in regional and head offices. That reality needs to be understood, appreciated, and also reflected in budgets, plans, strategies.

We need to engage donors as constructively as possible, but not rule out the possibility of confrontation or refusing funding where constructive engagement does not bear fruit. Here I am talking mainly, but certainly not exclusively about smaller, non-institutional, non-bilateral donors. I am talking about smaller family foundations, wealthy individuals, sometimes churchs and sometimes corporations who want to fund projects based on incorrect preconceived notions about what is needed or how aid should be delivered. We need to be more internally coherent about how far we will bend, how fast and loose we are willing to be in order to accommodate misguided donors (even though they may “mean well”) or donors with very specific agendas that diverge from best-practices. We need to hold higher standards and resist the urge to accept easy funding for programs that are just a little bit wrong, telling ourselves that if we keep the relationship good now we’ll have the opportunity for constructive engagement down the road: it never ever ever works out that way. We need to push back on donors who either directly or indirectly make their donations about them.

Yet again, we need to keep it all about the beneficiaries.

9 Responses to “Welcome to Machine”

  1. Wayan 30 August, 2009 at 9:32 am #

    To all of your corrective actions, I whole heartedly agree. But to your dismissal of the infrastructre that makes those field moments happen, I take exception. From the time of the Roman Legions, successful campaigns to change community actions and beliefs have required a significant investment in support systems.

    5-10 support ppl to 1 front line troop is common in millitary actions. A dozen helpers and a choir supports a priest. The Peace Corps has an entire RPCV movement in addition to paid DC and in country staff.

    Why would grassroots or instutional Aid, with it’s long term, intimiate relations with beneficiaries be any different?

    • J. 30 August, 2009 at 9:37 am #

      That’s a great comment. And I agree, whole-heartedly. I didn’t think I was dismissing the infrastructure which supports, but rather saying what you’ve said, albeit in different words. I’m simply adding that we do still need keep the beneficiaries and how our 5-10 support for 1 in the field systems affect them.

      Interested in your use of military history and practice as analogy to aid work…

      • Wayan 30 August, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

        I used the military reference as they are very effective change agents. Not the ones I personally want making change, mind you, but a model where infrastructure empowers front line activity. And I have heard a number of comments recently about the USA military being the front line of both diplomacy and development in post crisis situations because of their infrastructure capacity. A situation that dissapoints me. I would much rather have overcapacity in USAID than USMC.

  2. nadeem haque 30 August, 2009 at 10:30 am #

    Development is a complex phenomenon! It is more than infrastructure TA and pushing money. Aid is focussed on pushing funds and more importantly employing the professional overload from the West.

    If development is to take place we have to think differently on how to plant the seeds of change. This would lead us to very different conclusions, way beyond money, consultants and hurriedly written voluminous reports that no one reads.

  3. Simon 31 August, 2009 at 2:13 am #


    Great blog, good thoughts!

    To discuss the issue of ‘aid efficiency’, I suggest to also look at the life cycle of a project or program. I think it is easy to agree that if you start a new venture, it takes more office time (planning, partnering, rewriting concepts, etc.). Such administration, instead of just start running the project, which may turn up doing more harm than good, is maybe even a key success factor for a first-in-kind venture to achieve long-term impact. However, in an ideal world organizations may learn to ride the learning curve, repeat such projects, reuse knowledge, calculations and reports with small adjustments only, and therewith increase efficiency. This might even take the form of organizations reporting on how a program has leveraged and multiplied learning, decreased administration, handed tasks over to local people, and shifted funding to alternative sources over time or for later projects. Discussing efficiency in such a lifecycle way may contribute to a discussion balancing out managing maximal impact and putting the beneficiaries first

    A second sought is around fundraising: what is the job of aid workers from developed countries? Maybe it is fundraising, incl. writing reports to the donors! Maybe sitting under a mango tree and organizing community work should be done by local people, having the opportunity to experiment leadership, take responsibility, and learn to implement the necessary activities themselves. To develop developing countries has something to do with empowering local people, i.e. aid workers from developed countries manage providing sufficient financial resources – and to ensure that other sources of financing can be found in the later stages of the project.

    In my opinion, life cycle and learning curve are two essential concepts to understand how development projects develop. Judging development projects or the work of aid workers should not be limited to a specific picture at one point in time. And using the military analogy: the ratio of 5-10 supporters is correct for fighting activities, but not for the following peace keeping activities where troops rely on local supply, train local police to take over some activities, and hopefully disengage rather sooner than later.

    • J. 31 August, 2009 at 6:40 am #

      Simon, thanks for reading and commenting. To your first paragraph: I nearly included something about this in the post, but then it got too long. Perhaps a future one will focus on what I see as essentially an economy of scale in aid work. There is an argument to be made that larger organizations/projects are (or at least have the potential to be) more efficient. … In my own experience the number of emails needing to be sent is about the same for a $10,000 project as for a $1,000,000…

      To your second paragraph: also the subject of a partially-written post on my computer. Basically, the case for internationals/expats in aid/development work is shrinking. Alanna has suggested a ratio of 1-10 expats to locals, that feels about right to me.

      To your third… intuitively wanting to agree with you… but mulling further..

  4. Jon Custer 31 August, 2009 at 7:36 am #

    I think that the obsession with passing audits points more to an organizational weakness of NGOs (and the inherent difficulty of keeping good accounts in a developing country environment) than a failure to put beneficiaries first. The whole reason that donors attach conditions — misguided as some may be — is to ensure that their money is efficiently helping those it is meant to help, which I agree is certainly worth pointing out if their restrictions are based on incorrect notions. But not being able to pass an audit is a basic sort of organizational failure that would not be tolerated in any other developed-world private or public sector organization.

    If resources were unlimited, then a statistically significant reduction in HIV rates would be enough. But since resources are in fact quite limited, it is important to also know what that reduction *cost.* If your program only spent $500,000 while a similarly effective program in a similar-sized region cost $5 million, that would be useful data to know! Likewise, a detailed breakdown of how funds were spent can also deliver real benefits to the people the program serves. What if your audit showed a very high level of overhead expenses? Since the program did achieve its goals, you could then either try to reduce overhead (if it is a result of waste or duplication), or expand program activities with more funding (if the overhead reflects unused capacity — e.g., upkeep on a vehicle that is only used a couple days a week). Either way the people in that district ultimately benefit. If we don’t know *what the program accomplished* AND *what it spent to get there*, then even the most earnest attempt to “put beneficiaries first” is just guesswork.

    Granted, things don’t usually work just like this, but that doesn’t mean that the necessity of collecting data or being accountable to donors is the main problem…


  1. Taxonomy of Aid « Tales From the Hood - 26 October, 2009

    […] Looking closely at this kind of aid can be incredibly jading, mainly because it is so hard to draw clear, straight lines between budgets and material capacity, on one hand, and community-level change in the field on the other hand. Despite the mind-boggling numbers talked about in the context of this kind of aid, it can be tough to get a firm grasp on what this kind of aid actually does in tangible terms. By and large, this is the kind of aid I was thinking of when I wrote Welcome to Machine. […]

  2. Lost in the Middle « Tales From the Hood - 7 October, 2010

    […] once wrote that the aid industry “is a very large, complicated machine…”  And it is. No matter what my job description reads, the reality is that I spend at least two thirds […]

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