1 of 3: “I do not think it means what you think it means…”

15 Dec

I’m reminded of this nearly every time I talk about my work to an aid non-insider:

Despite more Developed World interest in international issues, aid, and philanthropy now than at any time prior, there remains massive, general disparity between what individual citizens who support our work think we do, and what NGOs and aid agencies actually do.

I’ve written before that aid is simple, and while I don’t recant that (at least not just yet), I think it could be said better: aid is based on some very simple, basic concepts. But understanding how the industry works and what that means in terms of what eventually happens specifically to dollars donated by a single individual is complicated and takes time to get a handle on.

It’s not that we think donors are somehow stupid or incapable of “getting it” necessarily (more on this in a future post). But understanding aid, how it works, why it has to be done the way it has to be done takes time and concentration. There is a lot to know – mountains of books and documents to read just as basic context, a great many facts to be in possession of, trends to follow, crosscutting issues to stay abreast of. Whether we call it “study” or not, just staying current as an aid professional for whom this is a full-time job requires an immense amount of more or less constant education… to the point that, depending on one’s actual role, just staying current can be it’s own full-time job.

 Aid is not rocket science. But for as much as the general public really knows about how it all works and what we actually do, it might as well be. Technical MCH assessment results, quarterly financial statements for a large food security program, or even the narrative monitoring report of a visit to a relief zone, to varying degrees, might just as well be NASA ballistics data in the eyes of someone not trained to read it.

And why would we think that it is or even could be any other way? Why would we ever expect random citizens with full-time jobs to have a nuanced understanding of this incredibly complicated machine on the basis of what we tell them? For goodness sake, I have in the past supervised interns with Masters Degrees in international aid or international development. Interns. With Masters Degrees in the subject matter… And then we get frustrated with our fellow citizens for not understanding in the space of maybe a 15-minute conversation what we spend entire careers figuring out.

* * *

I think that as an industry we have basically neglected our “third audience” (the first two being recipients of aid and our institutional donors). We have all fallen down on the side of communicating to our private citizen constituent donors about what we do, and how, and all of the “whys” that invariably follow the “whats” and the “hows.” By default, we seem to be operating on the basis of some very unrealistic expectations about the extent to which the general public in our constituent donor countries can consume and assimilate large quantities of raw information, and grasp concepts and principles in a very short time and with the most cursory of explanations. And we make enormous assumptions – both positive and negative – about how the generally uninformed public will react when and if they do learn the facts about what it is that we actually do.

Of course there are many and varied reasons for and causes of this. Some are internal: in my own personal experience, NGO marketing/communications/fundraising/PR staff typically do not really understand what aid is, what their own employers actually do on the ground in country X, or how the very programs that they promote work in fact. And I’d see this primarily as a failing of NGO program staff who see themselves as too busy to be bothered to explain to their own colleagues what they do, or who roll their eyes and throw up roadblocks when marketing staff want to visit “their” field programs. So, there’s some onus on us, the programs people, the implementers, to be a little more patient and understanding and proactive in talking about aid to our non-programs colleagues.

There’s obviously an external dimension as well. Aid has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, but the way we talk about it externally has not changed nearly as much. The fact that 2010 is upon us and there are still not just people, but whole charity rating websites who use overhead as a key indicator of organizational goodness is a very apt example. Painting with some broad strokes here, I know, but in general we need to move past the “teach a man to fish…” mode of explanation. We need to move past the three-fold pamphlet, the 2-paragraph marketing blurb, the 30-second spot. We need to think beyond fundraising, and take donor and general public education about aid more seriously.

I have real reservations about total and utter transparency. There are limits, in my opinion, to we as aid organizations can be reasonably expected to voluntarily share with the general public about our inner workings, the details of our internal structural and political debates, details of our budgets. But we need to do better.

We need better thinking about to manage the precarious sets of balances between packaging and content, communication for the sake of simply informing the public and communication for the sake of fundraising. For heaven’s sake, in an age where the dead-serious best advice of a respected voice goes against known industry best practice, where a random undergrad can name a “movement” after himself and have a website about helping the poor, or where a few otherwise indigent surfers can become a “development NGO” that will (of course) accept your donations, we need to assert our place as the subject matter experts in the actual delivery of aid. We need to be a little less bashful about calling out those obvious bad ideas, and more savvy about championing the good ones.

More than anything else we need more, new and better ways of telling the public what we do… because right now they don’t know.

8 Responses to “1 of 3: “I do not think it means what you think it means…””

  1. Victoria Luckie 16 December, 2009 at 1:48 am #

    I’m curious about what you feel about relationships between both local and International journalists and NGO’s?

    Do you think a climate of mutual mis-trust exists?

    If so would greater transparency and clearer communicatio help? Or are there deeper issues at work here?

  2. Roving Bandit 16 December, 2009 at 3:36 am #

    “I have real reservations about total and utter transparency. There are limits, in my opinion, to we as aid organizations can be reasonably expected to voluntarily share with the general public about our inner workings, the details of our internal structural and political debates, details of our budgets. But we need to do better.”

    Care to elaborate on those reservations?

  3. Daniela 16 December, 2009 at 4:52 am #

    Gotta love The Princess Bride… I used that quote recently too when writing about “sustainability” http://bit.ly/4YBW1x

    I agree that your average person generally has misconceptions about what “aid” means and how it can/should be done. Those who are in the financial position to donate often see themselves as more similar to those “doing the work”, not receiving the aid, and sometimes think those similarities are enough to make them capable of doing the same things themselves (something they would likely never assume when talking to a brain surgeon or an architect).

    Maybe some of the reason people listen to what the “experts” are yelling, rather than asking the “professionals”, is that the professionals are often put in a position to defend what they are doing while the experts have the luxury of books (sometimes rather than experience) to back up their ideas of how it “in theory” could be done better.

    What I would love to hear is professionals, like yourself, tell us where the status quo IS wrong. You said people don’t understand “why it has to be done the way it has to be done”. What parts of the “way it has to be done”, or at least the current general theory behind this do you NOT agree with? What “best practices” out there do you think, from your professional experience, are wrong? What processes which you are forced to do by working in a system full of people who think this is “how it has to be done” would you change if you were running the show?

    I know you agree that it can be done better. So let’s take the professionals from the defensive of why they have to do things a certain way, and put your ideas for how it can be BETTER out there. Heck, you’re the one doing it, right? So you must know what mistakes you are making and where your work (and your collective work) can drastically be improved. If the professionals think “this is the way it has to be, we’re doing it the best we can” then people will continue to look to the experts because, clearly, it can always be done better.

    How do you think your work could be improved?

  4. cynan_sez 16 December, 2009 at 11:09 am #

    “We need to move past the three-fold pamphlet, the 2-paragraph marketing blurb, the 30-second spot.”

    OK, but when that’s all that Joe & Jane Public have got the time or attention to think about aid & development issues, in their own more-than-full-time lives, we nevertheless need those elevator pitches that reach them where they are, and give them something. I’d also say that if you compare 2009 with 1989 let alone 1969, its *never been easier* for those members of the public to dig deeper and access information from aid agencies (eg their websites, youtube clips, you name it) and from people in the sector speaking and writing more generally (eg: your blog). If there’s a gap or a gulf in understanding now, its not because people can’t hear from the field, or that there aren’t enough aid workers blogging,

    “We need to think beyond fundraising, and take donor and general public education about aid more seriously.”

    OK, but with whose money? Some NGOs have had lovely decadal development-education projects or whole departments which did concrete things like design and distribute teaching resources for use by developed-coutnry school teachers etc, top notch stuff, taking just the long view you’re talking about. But…. in the context of a swingeing recession, these may have been some of the first areas to face the axe, as their ROI is kinda ephemeral, and attribution of impact very difficult. Same old story…!

  5. Sterling 16 December, 2009 at 3:29 pm #

    i always love your posts. i especially appreciate the part about the changes in aid versus the changes in talking about aid. i think it’s also evident in how some NGOs write their mission statements. many seem to have vague terms, such as “accessibility,” “education,” “social change and empowerment,” “sustainability,” etc, without really explaining what they do.

    all in all, it’s complicated, like everyone who has commented seems to point out. i’m looking forward to your follow-up posts!

  6. J. 16 December, 2009 at 5:23 pm #

    Thanks, all, for your comments thus far.

    @Victoria – I think you may have intended to comment on a previous post, rather than this one? At any rate, I see the relationship between aid workers/NGOs and journalists as, well, complicated. I wouldn’t say that there exists a climate of mutual distrust. But both sides in the relationship have been burned by the other, in different ways.

    @Roving Bandit – if you look back at the post you’ll see that I’ve inserted the link to a previous post where I specifically discuss my reservations about total, utter transparency. I will most likely write additional post(s) on this in the future, as well (but can’t say exactly when). Most people discussing transparency tend to do so in an “all or nothing” sort of way. I don’t see it as all or nothing issue: total transparency to everyone all the time is not really an option (in my view); total opacity is not an option. That much seems clear. The challenge is sorting out, then, the extent to which NGOs can and should be transparent about what and to whom.

    @Daniela – Although of course I agree that the way we all implement development programs in the field can and should be improved. But that was not really the point of this post. Marilyn Manson once said something like, “Parents, you’d better raise your children… ’cause if you don’t, then I will!” Well, the same thing applies to aid: if we – the practicitioners – don’t get better at telling the general public about what good aid is and how to do it right and how they can get involved… then Nicholas and Joey and the surfers will. (P.S. Glad you caught the “The Princess Bride” reference!)

    @cynan_sez – there you go again, asking the tough questions… questions for which there are no easy or succinct answers. One response, though, is to say that for those aid practitioners who feel they MUST INNOVATE, then this is a good place to start.

    @Sterling – hey, thanks for that! I have thought for a long time that Mission Statements for NGOs were generally unhelpful for exactly the reasons you mention. Working on those follow-up posts now….

  7. no 15 December, 2010 at 1:29 am #

    “For heaven’s sake, in an age where the dead-serious best advice of a respected voice goes against known industry best practice”

    What is “industry best practice”? As a member of the public just starting to read these blogs, I find that article (Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World) an interesting read correlating with a rising interest in “social psychology” or “behavioral economics” and I don’t immediately see what’s wrong. If you’ve explained this somewhere, do point me in the right direction.

    • J. 15 December, 2010 at 2:44 am #

      NO –

      One very specific example from the article: “Many of you readers travel to developing countries, and you’re the ideal marketers for humanitarian causes. But if you’re trekking in the Himalayas, come back not with stories of impoverished villages but rather ones about a particular 12-year-old girl who, if she received just $10 a month, could stay in school. Come back with photos of her—or, better, video that you put on a blog or Web site…

      This goes directly against widely known aid industry best-practices on child protection which very carefully control the use of images children to the general public, such that they should not be locateable or contactable from the information given. While of course I’m not accusing Kristof of intentionally doing this, his extremely naive recommendation is for readers to adopt a practice that can place children at increased risk.

      More generally, my issue with Kristof is that he very consistently promotes a very self-centered, amateurish form of aid. I’ve written many, many times on this blog that aid is a professional field (https://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/professional/ , https://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/professional-2/). It is possible to do aid wrong, and the stakes are very high. This work needs to be done by professionals.

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