Not Ready to Make Nice

28 Apr

Oh, I’m sorry… was that too snarky for you?

I’m not trying to offend anyone. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “hooo yeah.. I am sure gonna offend me some nice people today.” But doing so is most definitely an occupational hazard in the humanitarian aid world. Sometimes the hard things have to be said. Sometimes – often, actually – those to whom the hard things need to be said simply do not want to hear them. They just do not want to know. No amount of being nice, of sugar-coating, no amount of actual logic works. Very often just saying the unpopular thing, no matter how nice you are about it, makes you “snarky.”

#1millionshirts is a bad idea. It just is. Don’t like my opinion? Okay, ask another aid professional or aid expert. That’s as dispassionately as I know how to put it.

A bad idea is a bad idea.

Some aid ideas are so bad – so obviously bad – that trying to work through a creative salvage is an utter waste of time. Some aid ideas are just so bad that there is really no point in debating them, and there is nothing constructive to add. Some aid ideas are so painfully bad that they can only have come from someone who fundamentally misunderstands (or doesn’t care) what the issues actually are: issues like whether or not the idea causes more harm than it does good, like whether or not the idea is among the least cost-effective ways possible of helping the poor, or like whether or not the idea in any way even responds to an actual need of someone in the target community. And in my experience (more on that below), there is exactly zero to be gained from anything other than calling those bad ideas exactly what they are, straight up, right from the beginning.

#1millionshirts is one of those bad aid ideas.

It’s not about the donor.

Somebody please tell me exactly when aid became about the donor? Why do we insist on coddling people with bad aid ideas just because they “mean well” or their “heart’s in the right place”? Why is it so hard for everyone to remember that aid is not about the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] donor?

I don’t care what motivates #1millionshirts or some guy named Jason or anyone else. Their motivations are not the issue.

I’m sounding like @bill_easterly. Can we please make aid about the poor?

There’s an app for that

If your toilet is broken, you call a plumber.

If you have an infestation problem, you call an exterminator.

If you want to learn to play a musical instrument, you hire a music teacher.

If you need to have your car repaired, you go to a mechanic.

If you want to bundle your TV, internet and phone, you call the cable company.

If your Windows 7 keeps crashing (happens a lot), you get “The Geek Squad.”

If you want a new digital camera, go to Best Buy or Circuit City.

But… apparently…  if you want to help solve third-world poverty, you rely on the judgement of some guy who wears T-shirts for a living?

Running interference on Bad Aid since 1991.

I’ve been doing this aid thing for a while, now. In that time have come across more than just one or two spectacularly bad aid ideas. In most cases I was able to successfully run interference such that they died before ever being implemented. A few that stand out:

A floating vocational training school… for southern Nigeria… envisioned 100% by white, American CEOs who’d never been to Africa (let alone Nigeria)… to be funded by Texaco.

Mentioned once before on this blog: the “Guns for Work” project in Kosovo.

A project to “rescue” underage sex workers… in the Philippines… by basically collecting them into a center that would have been a lot like an orphanage… The word “penetration” was in the logframe (the project was going to “penetrate” some of the tough, inner-Manila neighborhoods… but still…).

A group of something like 12 American dentists… to orphanages (what is it with the orphanages?)… in Vietnam (a country that now exports medical professionals). I nearly got fired for putting this one under, actually. I escaped with a strong letter of reprimand in my personnel file.

I’m not drinkin’ the #hatorade, man. Just sayin’… as bad aid ideas go, #1millionshirts is right up there with these.

69 Responses to “Not Ready to Make Nice”

  1. joe 28 April, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    Oh yeah, preach it.

    The only person that made this an issue about Jason and his job is Jason. Personally I couldn’t give a toss if he was a bin-man – the idea sucks.

  2. Farzine 28 April, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    I have read your blog a bit over the last two months or so. It is clear you have been around a while in the aid business and you’ve seen the best and worst of humanity blah blah. But what I can’t figure out is; what you actually do in the aid business. You provide a critique of silly programs but I can’t really put my finger on what role you have in the development or humanitarian spheres. It just seems a big waste of time dwelling on the T-shirts. Just give it a break and find a harder target to pick on.

    • J. 28 April, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

      Yes, good as ever to hear from you, Farzine.

      I manage a portfolio of relief and chronic humanitarian response programs throughout Asia and the Middle East. My day-to-day work is a mix of general administration (I supervise a small team of technical and programs people), grant management, strategic engagement (both inside my organization, as well as on behalf of my organization to the broader aid community), and in some cases on-the-ground direct support to field operations. Sometimes I write grants, sometimes lead evaluation or assessment teams, sometimes do grunt work (like in Haiti). It is very often my responsibility to interact with aid donors of all sizes and types, and very often am in the position of having to explain exactly how it is that aid works, why their ideas may not be the best (or in some cases are downright stupid).

      Almost daily, as part of my actual job, I have to deal with bad aid ideas in advanced stages that were unfortunately not nipped in the bud. So, while on one hand ranting on about T-shirts may seem silly, T-shirts in this particular case is both symptomatic and also part and parcel of a larger problem.

      Didn’t catch what it is that you do?

      • Farzine 28 April, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

        Your response is what I expected. You do everything, the generalist aid manager type with no real specific skill. I am sorry to sound harsh, but I have met many people doing the same as yourself in coordination meetings and there seems a lot of hot air and not much action. It is more the system and organisations at fault than the individuals though.

        If donors of all sizes can influence your programs as I think you are implying. Why are you working for this organisation. Where do these ideas come from that are so bad; and how do they manage to reach a mature stage of development without some oversight through the management line. Particularly in humanitarian and emergency response an organisation that is effective usually has a clear idea of what it can and can’t do.

      • Farzine 28 April, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

        I am a paediatrician.

  3. Martha 28 April, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    We’re listening. Really.

    If someone doesn’t listen it is because their ego is wrapped up in what they decided to do and then it really doesn’t matter what you say. Because it is not about the recipient, but about the donor’s idea of themselves.

    But there’s another aspect to this. People want to DO something. They don’t want to just give money because it is not very satisfying to write a check.

    Frankly, you can have both of these things. DO something locally (there’s so many worthy causes and they’re so easy to find) or organize a fundraiser. Money buys whatever is needed. And that is what this should be about. Whatever is needed.

    • J. 28 April, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

      Martha – I have absolutely no doubt that you are listening.🙂

      I completely get that people want to DO something. Part of the challenge, though, is that as Aid becomes increasingly recognized a professional field in it’s own right, there is increasingly less for people to do. That, in my opinion, is one of the hard things to hear – one of those messages that is rarely meant as snark, but frequently taken that way.

      Organizing fundraisers is an excellent idea. Pick a reputable organization and support it financial. Getting involved locally is another. If more people were active in their own communities, I’m confident that the world would be a better place in less time than we think. And for those who want to be involved in international humanitarian aid as practitioners, get the relevant education and start a career path.

  4. Chris Waluk 28 April, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    I’m sensing some serious snark from Farzine, no?

    • J. 28 April, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

      Nothing gets by you, huh?😉

  5. Alanna 28 April, 2010 at 3:05 pm #


    You sound like a classic technocrat with no respect for the people who make sure there is money to support your work, a clinic to do it in, and staff for you to work with.

    • Frazine 29 April, 2010 at 10:51 am #

      Just in one paragraph you managed to get yourself in knot. Not really sure what you define as a technocrat, however a paediatrician I would have thought is not usually reffered to as a technocrat. Then you go onto to state that actually I do work in a clinical setting which would not involve too much technocracy. Then you infer I have no respect for people who are involved in fundraising. I can’t remember criticising anyone in fundraising. J. from his job description doesn’t do fundraising.

      • Rob 30 April, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

        J. says above that he does grant management. That is fundraising.

  6. John 28 April, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    17 years ago I embarked on what is now called an “encore career”. After leaving the world of high tech consulting, and with check book in hand, I showed up on the Thai-Burma boarder. I had high hopes and grand expectations. Needless to say, my ideas at that time would have certainly fallen into the category of apocalyptically idiotic.

    The difference between myself 17 years ago and Jason is that when it was explained to me why my ideas where unrealistic and possibly destructive, I closed my mouth, opened my ears, and learned. I exist in the “donor world”, and I had to work hard to earn the right to be taken seriously in the field, and even harder to learn when to stay out of the way. I consider myself lucky and privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from some of the most outstanding aid and development professionals around.

    Jason, stop begging to be called a fool, stop embarrassing yourself. Put in the work, earn your stripes.

    • J. 28 April, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

      Johh – that is what it’s about, whether it’s an encore career or your first job out of grad-school. Well said.

      (I will use “apocalyptically idiotic” in the future. Many thanks for adding this great term to my vocabulary!)

      • John 28 April, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

        mai pen rai

      • J. 28 April, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

        choke dee…

  7. lu 28 April, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    why is it that ‘aid worker’ or the more expanded description of your job provided is somehow not sufficient, but ‘paediatrician’ is?

    very few people question what doctors know, but those in aid, whether it be development or humanitarian relief, are constantly encouraged to prove their credentials.

    perhaps we’ve done it to ourselves by having a lot of people who don’t do a lot of anything work in the field (or industry, if you prefer that terminology), but it just seems that those who are doing something are often forced to prove what they know and what they do to the greater populations because everyone who ‘means well,’ including this jason fellow, gets to have a say in it.

    like what was said in the post, if you have a chest infection, you call a doctor. if you want to ‘do good,’ you apparently start your own ngo rather than asking a professional.

    • J. 28 April, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

      Lu – I could just about kiss you right on the lips for that.

      The sooner more people recognize Humanitarian Aid as an actual profession (it is) with accepted standards, codes of conduct and industry-wide best-practices (they do exist), the better.

      Until then, I’m afraid we’re stuck with the paediatricians telling us how it should (or, I guess, shouldn’t) be done, and the professional T-shirt wearers dabbling and getting grumpy when they don’t like the way we tell them they’re doing it wrong.

  8. C-sez 28 April, 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    Shirt guy IS on to something though. Unfortunately he’s still at the South Park “underpants gnomes” stage of analysis:

    Step 1. Get people to give you shit from their closet.
    Step 2. ???
    Step 3. Help Africa!

    Once he works out that the right answer to step 2 is “monetize that stuff as close to the place of donation as possible” he’ll be a force for good. He’ll also have caught up to Oxfam GB circa 1947, for whom this business model now creates a NET contribution to their global programme of GBP20m pa. And they’re just one such NGO doing this.

    It’s not rocket science, it’s hard work by dedicated retail experts, working out year after year how to wring out a few more percentage points of profit. Can’t think he’d be that interested.

    • J. 28 April, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

      Dude – good to see you back in the comments thread at Tales From the Hood. Spot-on as ever. And I agree – he’s not likely interested.

  9. Mona 28 April, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    I’m glad that my physician parents always respected my career as a development professional, and have a good understanding of the years of education, experience and training it took for me to acquire these skills. They would never dream that their training in, say, radiology qualifies them to comment on how I do my job. For that matter, I’m glad that the doctors and other medical staff in our health project have a similar respect for program managers and administrators. Nothing would work if we didn’t pool our skills for a common goal.

  10. denise 29 April, 2010 at 1:07 am #

    You’ve touched upon something here that has been bothering me for some time. When it comes to aid/development, EVERYONE is an expert. There is this sentiment that surely, something is better than nothing, and therefore any aid project will do.

    Part of this is the fault of aid workers, we don’t do a great job explaining what we do. To my parents, who don’t have university-level educations and have never left my hometown, my job is some Sally Struthers fantasy of rescuing fly-covered, belly-distended babies. We (or at least I) reach a point where we allow these incorrect perceptions to persist because the chasm between what we actually do and what people think we do seems too difficult to bridge. I often find myself silent, because the enormity of the task of describing what life and work in an actual East African city is like seems too exhausting .

    Most people in the US know very little of Africa. They “know” it is poor. They “know” it is conflict-strewn. They “know” there is a lot of AIDS. They “know” that everyone is starving. They certainly don’t discuss it as a constellation of unique countries and contexts. It is a monolith. This is perpetuated by a media environment that rarely displays Africa or aid work except in times of emergency. But to their credit, many genuinely want to help. This community (as NGOs, as donor governments, and yes as Africans!) does a poor job of explaining and justifying what kind of help is best. Or that sometimes it isn’t actually needed! And when we do, our credibility is often challenged.

    The low pay, long hours and difficult conditions of aid work have led many of us to have chips on our shoulders. After all, many aid workers have advanced technical degrees and have sacrificed personal relationships and stability for the next trip to Nairobi or Dhaka or Tegucigalpa. Most have started out in unpaid volunteer positions or at very low pay and very slowly worked their way up. And certainly some (if not many) are jaded, disillusioned and even traumatized by their experiences in the field. And then someone comes along with a NEW, EXCITING idea. And maybe it isn’t a very good one. But despite our experience we aren’t perceived to have any credibility to criticize. Because they are TRYING TO HELP. And that is what matters!

    Aid and development professionals aren’t martyrs and they aren’t generally heroes. Some of us are terrible people. And many of us aren’t entirely motivated by humanitarian ideals (though the majority are, at least to a degree). But we are in fact professionals. And we have a body of expertise and experience that is unique and worth listening to.

    • lu 29 April, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

      thank you denise for this comment because i think it is important to realise that a lot of people in aid are not nice people, not great at explaining what they do, and are typically not matyrs. and i have seen enough chips on shoulders to last me a lifetime…

      but they are professionals. just as there are bad doctors, there are bad aid workers.

      your last sentence is the most important one and i wish more people with Great New Ideas to Fix The World were listening.

  11. avam 29 April, 2010 at 3:38 am #

    Great blog & great posts on this issue (shirts/GIK). Have been reading your blog for a while (think this is prob my first comment though?).

    Loved the apocalyptically idiotic comment by Jon! I don’t think there is anyone working in development who hasn’t been there at some point. If you Can’t look back and cringe at early experiences then you certainly haven’t earned the right to start up an Non Profit (let alone one based on a blatantly stupid idea).

    Also wanted to agree with Lu, it is absurd that simply because someone says they are a paediatrician – that is supposed to justify all negative comments about other jobs. There is no way you can work in aid/dev without having to, at times, multitask and take on board a lot of different jobs (grant writing, general admin, logistics etc). I would be more worried Tales from the Hood said he Didn’t do this or felt unable to. Depending on where you are based (and clearly every country/area/situation is different) there may be more or less of a need to take on board various other work – perhaps as farzine is a paediatrician he has (or assumes there will be) staff/stocked clinic etc for their work. If this was the case with aid (great resources, enough staff) then there would be little point for outside aid workers from the outset.

    Also, the assumption is that as a paediatrician, you farzine, are above criticism – sorry, but it doesn’t work like that. Stating your job title doesn’t mean that you are Good at Your job – and the outcome is the important part as I’m sure we all agree. A title is just that – hell, I’m a Dr too (academic) and I certainly wouldn’t assume that what someone else did was not as valid as what I do. If anything, given how broad dev/aid is [incl the requirements of each job and the needs for various areas] – each of us Can only contribute to dev knowledge in a small way. As far as I’m concerned that’s as it should be. Not to get too ‘oprah special’ or anything – but we can all learn off one another. In the case of Jason – this is his cue to take on board the reality of his idea and move on to other alternatives.

    • Frazine 29 April, 2010 at 11:28 am #

      I am also not a he. Some titles do have a set of qualification and practical experience attached to the title such as a hairdresser, plumber etc. This is not the case for an aidworker. My criticism was directed at J. and the lack of clarity in conveying what he does. This is a valid criticism. I have in no way tried to stifle the argument. Please disagree but you last response had a great many words many assumptions and general inability to construct a coherent argument.

      • avam 29 April, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

        Ah Farzine,

        Where to start? Well first off my apologies for assuming you were a man, it occurred to me that you might be female, I simply went on the fact that I knew someone years back called Farzine who happened to be male. For the record I am also female.

        To begin with the point of aid work is it varies a great deal from area to area, from what I can gather the author of tales from the hood wishes to remain anonymous – perfectly fine as far as I can see – and to that end gave you a run down on the basic issues/jobs he deals with. I’m guessing this applies most recently to Haiti. I can’t see what issue you have with it. How about you explain in specific detail Exactly what it is you do? The way in which you dismiss the varied jobs the author takes on would, I assume, mean you have a very strict job that does not vary from the norm from day to day? Does that mean you are unable or unwilling to take on board other tasks – including admin, grant writing etc?

        2) Actually, like any job paediatrics is also open to discussion. What type of paediatrics Exactly? Primary care/general, or more specialised (geneticist, oncologist, neonatologist etc). Indeed, you make vast assumptions about aid work (assuming there are no set skills –“Some titles do have a set of qualification and practical experience attached to the title such as a hairdresser, plumber etc. This is not the case for an aidworker.”) which belies a lack of understanding on your part. I have worked with people from ODI, UN, DFID, USAID, Goal, Merlin, OSCE among others and they have All had pretty much a very similar set of basic qualifications (Bachelor Degree, and the vast majority with Masters and/or Doctorates – generally in the following areas: international relations, development, conflict, development economics, GIS, public health, anthropology, development geography – to those with medical or engineering backgrounds) – which then become more specialised depending on their area of expertise (rapid response mapping, maternal health, conflict repatriation, etc…..!).

        3) “Please disagree but you last response had a great many words many assumptions and general inability to construct a coherent argument.” – come on, seriously? Your entire post (incl your previous ones) was rife with spelling mistakes, poor sentence construction and bad grammar. You cannot, in all seriousness, write a sentence that states: “ please disagree but you last response had a great many words many assumptions and general inability to construct a coherent argument” spelt/constructed that badly! That would be like me saying to someone they can’t add and then announcing that 2+2 = 46.

        4) “This says probable more about Avam’s and Lu’s insecurities with the medical profession than anything else.” Ahh, the old trick of dishing it out but not being able to take it! You want to be able to criticise but when it’s directed at you it’s because people “don’t like the medical profession”. That’s absurd and pretty juvenile, nor is it anything I would expect from a paediatrician – if, as you say, there are certain “qualification and practical experience” (note that would be qualifications) that are needed. To my mind that includes an ability to spell, to take criticism, and to be a bit more professional.

      • avam 29 April, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

        Re above post – I meant Frazine, not Farzine.

  12. avam 29 April, 2010 at 4:07 am #

    Last post! as an aside, what about this lot:

    You point out that “Almost daily, as part of my actual job, I have to deal with bad aid ideas in advanced stages that were unfortunately not nipped in the bud. So, while on one hand ranting on about T-shirts may seem silly, T-shirts in this particular case is both symptomatic and also part and parcel of a larger problem.” I agree – it’s often the small, ‘silly’ ideas that can, in the long term, have the greatest impact. Some ‘small’ ideas turn out great (microfinance) but I think that it is important to deal with ‘small’ issues/ideas in many ways as equally important as more obviously important, large scale schemes. As ‘small’ ideas can often go under the radar they can bypass any accountability – even Though at some point an actual individual/community will feel the impact of such an idea.

    To that end, the ‘Mothersfightingfor Others’ say “our Underwear Drive Project is a small annual drive to fill a very specific request” – but does anyone know if that’s the case etc? Re the online talk it says you will be taking part in with the UNICEF guys, maybe any follow-up could include others doing this (GIK that, specifically, are clothing/shoes for Africa – soul4souls, the underwear drive, Toms, 1million shirts + any others out there). That would broaden the discussion to include those who have already gone ahead with GIK clothing donations – so feedback/information/data about the impact/benefits/negatives could be discussed in a open forum.

  13. FFTF 29 April, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    A poor idea I was unable to stop – an inventor who’d developed a method of taking ground-up garbage and using sulpher to fuse it into inexpensive roofing tiles for developing countries. When he approached me years later, and I asked how the roofing tile idea was doing, in all innocence he told me that unfortunately, they’d discovered that when it rains, the sulpher is dissolved and causes it to rain sulphuric acid into the homes. He then blithely went on to describe his new idea.

  14. berry 29 April, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    i think i really like your blog. keep posting good articel dude..! WINDOWS 7

  15. Frazine 29 April, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    I was asked what I do directly by Mr Talesfromthehood. I simpley stated my profession. It is one word and it does convey information about a set of skills required to do the job and tasks that are undertaken on the job. The same goes for many professions saying one is a plumber, hairdresser, florist etc. instantly conveys a lot of information. As Avam and Lu have stated that my intention to state my profession was to allow me to criticise other professions/jobs is not accurate. This says probable more about Avam’s and Lu’s insecurities with the medical profession than anything else.

    When I asked what the writer of this blog job is, it was actually quite nonsensical the response. This is what I reacted to. Talesfromthehood stated his job was:
    ” I manage a portfolio of relief and chronic humanitarian response programs throughout Asia and the Middle East. My day-to-day work is a mix of general administration (I supervise a small team of technical and programs people), grant management, strategic engagement (both inside my organization, as well as on behalf of my organization to the broader aid community), and in some cases on-the-ground direct support to field operations. Sometimes I write grants, sometimes lead evaluation or assessment teams, sometimes do grunt work (like in Haiti).”

    I am sure he is busy. But really the above paragraph says absoloutely nothing. This is just jargon; strategic engagement, gruntwork, direct support etc. Sorry but this really fails to convey any meaningful information the way the job is presented above.

    • lu 29 April, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

      but i live in canada and i actually do love the medical profession and many medical professionals!

    • John 29 April, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

      Grinding an axe is a funny thing. Do it a little and you get a sharp axe. Do it too much and you end up with nothing.

      • avam 29 April, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

        yes, well put!

    • Rose 29 April, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

      No offence but just because you don’t understand what he does doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. It means you need to bone up on what the technical terms mean.

    • joe 30 April, 2010 at 12:26 am #

      I’m not speaking for him/her, but would you have been happier with a single word – say ‘logistician’ or ‘administrator’? I think the paragraph you illustrate says quite a lot about the job – he/she writes grants and makes things happen. What is so hard to understand about that?

      It is like saying a paediatrician works in a primary care setting, conducts examinations, administers medication, attends meetings and makes recommendations. Shorthand, for sure, but surely gives some idea of the job?

  16. John 29 April, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    It is all to common that the “because I care” argument is trotted out in defense of some behavior. The ‘bignumber[shirt|shoes|underpants]dotorg’ situations are the most trivially obvious examples. I will assert that this cuts both ways. The processes of critiquing such things can also be said to be done “because I care”. I think that is a fair statement.

    A group of people that engage in critiquing some behavior may not be from within some community of professionals. Caring is not something that by nature excludes any set of individuals.

    The main point I want to make is that this does not diminish the importance of the “profession” in anyway.

    I’ll but my conclusion first, so you can just skip all the additional mental masturbation if you want to.

    In the case of 1millionshirts I’ll go out on a limb and say that all Humanitarian Aid Professionals, regardless of their specific area of competence, is an authoritative evaluator. Using the same logic I’ll say, with a healthy dose of snark, that any reasonably intelligent sixth grader who is in possession of a small number of relative facts from an authoritative source would declare 1millionshirts to be [insert you favorite adjective(s)] ridiculous.

    The conclusion is that there does exist a set of ideas/proposals/”active programs” that are so bad that you need be only smarter than a fifth grader to blow them out of the water.

    What is really important is that the “Humanitarian Aid and Development Professions”, with it rich diversity of specialists and generalists, has the capacity to evaluate very complex programs and identify the potential problem areas and make the needed adjustments BEFORE bad things happen. This is progress and better yet it is measurable progress.

    Some individual after graduating from a technical school or having completed some certificate program in plumbing can rightfully make the claim to be a professional plumber based on being in possession of some credential(s). (this is NOT what I claimed in my earlier comment, which would have been better said as having earned the right to be evaluated as competent)

    That person then comes into your home; and shortly thereafter your waist deep in grey water.

    So professional, in this specific case, does not imply competence.

    This also cuts both ways. I’m claiming now that I am competent to evaluate the performance (or even predict the future performance) of the plumber and declare him/her as (in)competent.

    By PRESENTING (the presentation is often done to give an impression of authority that is not actually present) some evaluation it naturally follows that there should (but often doesn’t) exist some basis for the claimed competence (authority) to do so. That is a non-trivial statement, it is really hard to defend a claim of being an authoritative evaluator (so, yea, what I am saying is the long way around to defending a claim of being an expert).

    You can see where this is going, it is possible to engage is some reasonably intelligent logical progression (and this is often done in grad school) and come to some analytic conclusion as to who is competent to evaluate a “program” such as we have been discussing. There would by nature be a range of conclusions as to who is an authority based on the complexities of the “program” to be evaluated.

  17. Rose 29 April, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Thank you so much for adding your sane and intelligent voice to the dialogue. I’ve thought from the start that the 1 million shirts was a terrible sounding idea. Nowhere I’ve worked in Africa has a chronic shortage of shirts, and even if they did, why would this be the best solution rather than looking into subsidising or mobilising local solutions and economy?

  18. Farzine 29 April, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    You are correct my spelling and grammar construction is poor when I am tired. English is also not my first language. My criticism of John’s post followed on from the attacks that John was making on our hapless T-Shirt man. There were valid criticisms by John but there was also something I found disturbing about the attitude of John and many bloggers. Much of the criticism was actually personal and cruel. There was almost a mob mentality at work. He tried to defend his idea and with every attempt he made another round of ridicule would start.

    This blog also provided ammunition for the ridicule. Once you open up this type of discussion you should be willing to also to be scrutinised in the same way. Asking John what he does was basically saying give it a break and you don’t have all the answers. The guy with the T-shirts is an easy target. You Avam also seem comfortable in dishing out a personal attack. Playing with semantics and numbering your paragraphs can be useful the whole discussion on what my or your profession is was always irrelevant. You made it an issue and made assumptions about my character. I just stated what mine was and that I didn’t get what John actually does and I have worked with humanitarian organisations on and off for 15 years in the field.

    • avam 30 April, 2010 at 2:18 am #


      As far as I can see (pls go over all original posts) You had an issue with the criticisms about 1 million shirts, and to that end wanted to have the author of the post justify himself to you. You decided that the job spec he provided did not tell You enough information (it seemed to do fine for most other people on here – who work in this field) and you were pretty dismissive. I brought you up on that – if you live by the sword, you have to be prepared to die by the sword as the saying goes.

      The fact that English is not your first language is neither here nor there. I specialise in south Asia, and a great many colleagues I work with speak and write English as a second language – and it would be impossible to tell. I personally could care less how well a post is spelled or constructed as long as the point is there. God knows I often am tired or lazy (!) and don’t bother to take much care when writing a blog comment – however, given your remark to me, and given you seem to feel happy to dish it out, you have to be able to take it. You cannot expect someone with such badly constructed sentences/spelling as in your posts, to not be called out on it. Indeed, if you are not that proficient in English you would hardly be able to tell if an argument was constructed coherently or not. You have to be able to construct a clear sentence yourself first “Please disagree but you last response had a great many words many assumptions and general inability to construct a coherent argument” before criticizing others.

      I didn’t make assumptions about your character that you didn’t already imply yourself. You state, with a startling amount of certainty, that “Your response is what I expected. You do everything, the generalist aid manager type with no real specific skill. I am sorry to sound harsh, but I have met many people doing the same as yourself in coordination meetings and there seems a lot of hot air and not much action.”

      You do not seem to take on board a number of factors, including the following: 1) perhaps the people You are engaging with are less qualified and might reflect on the organisations (NGOs?) that you deal with 2) country/area/context is incredibly important – if all your dealings have been with, say, economic development in a Bangladesh, that is not in any way going to mirror rapid response mapping in a disaster area or agrarian reform in, say, southern India. 3) you cannot possibly say to someone that they have “no real specific skill”. As stated before, the outcome is the important thing – are you a good paediatrician? I don’t think anyone here would assume you have “no real specific skill” simply because your skills in paediatrics would be little use when dealing with, for example, issues of aid fungibility or the logistics of delivering aid in a disaster area.

      Then you go on to say “I simpley stated my profession. It is one word and it does convey information about a set of skills required to do the job and tasks that are undertaken on the job. The same goes for many professions saying one is a plumber, hairdresser, florist etc. instantly conveys a lot of information.”. Yet, as already stated anyone working in Aid will most definitely have a specific set of skills and qualifications. You not realising what these are simply underlines your lack of knowledge in this area – it is not up to others to justify their jobs or education background to you.

      I don’t know the author of this blog. But I take issue, on behalf of all of us who work in this ext broad field – that you would be so dismissive. You might have 15 years experience, but many of us on here also have many years experience (I began in 1996) – and I have had quite different experiences to what you seem to have had with regard to development. My issue is that you are imposing your experience as the water mark to which other people have to justify themselves, their skills and their usefulness to development.

      Final point – the guy behind 1million shirts is anything but “hapless” (look it up – he is most certainly not luckless, unfortunate, wretched or deserving of pity). He has made himself pretty comfortable through a quite impressive and innovative idea (marketing online) which utilise social media. He seems very capable – and indeed, even if he was not, the point is not his feelings but the outcome of what aid (large or small) can deliver. Isn’t this in a sense (delivery rather than hot air) your whole point??? I have followed the blogs on this and I have yet to find anything that attacks him as a person – the idea, yes. But if you get out there then you have to be able to take criticism.

      • Farzine 1 May, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

        Your argument seems to be that working in aid does denote a certain set of skills and qualifications. Then you state because the field is so broad you can only define what these skills and qualifications very very generally. However you take offence for all people in this extensively broad field, which is really difficult to define because it is so broad.

        You make a point that people are apparently not useful when working outside there area of expertise. I for instance if working in logistics would not be very useful. However you applaud John(the author of the blog) when you assume he is willing to do anything to get job done. You make a point that a job title doesn’t tell you whether you are good at your job or not. True, but was this ever the argument. We never find out what John really does. The discussion as to whether he was good or bad at his job was never the argument.

        You then state aidworkers do have specific skills or qualifications and will work in quite specific fields. You name a few areas of work but the field of paediatrics is a mystery to you and does not contain enough information to determine what the job would be because it can be broken down extensively(yes, true). This is not the case however for you in the area of “conflict repatriation???”.

        The author of this blog did not choose to reply to my latter comments except on twitter where he can trade a few snide remarks about our discussion with his peer group. You surprisingly have responded for him and taken offence for him. I still don’t get what he does, where you apparently do. So tell what things do you do when one is performing the tasks of: “grunt work” and “strategic engagement”.

      • J. 1 May, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

        At this point I confess that I’m at a bit of a loss for understanding what your real point or question is.

        Do you have a comment to make that is somehow relevant to this post?

        My name’s not “John.”

  19. rob 29 April, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    There are many programs being run by agencies out there already that are doing their fare share of harm and destroying economies and communities around the globe. Ideas that are good or bad and never quite accomplish what they set out to do. It would be wonderful if the level of attention and criticism given to #1millionshirts was also directed at everybody else.

  20. Rob 30 April, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    I agree absolutely. This is the best blog post I’ve seen on the 1 Million Shirts business. A lot of people have been rushing to engage with Jason and (mostly) trying not to hurt his feelings – but I think it’s important to be clear that the idea was just plain stupid.

  21. Brigid 30 April, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    J – love this post, and the others on GIK. Surely annoying for you to feel like a broken record, but in this 1milliontshirts case, it feels like a lot more folks are hearing what you have to say.

    @FFTN – my god that story about the sulfur roofing is heartbreaking.

  22. John 1 May, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

    Anyone notice this piece of tripe?

    An excerpt from my comment;

    “As a bonus, you may win the prize for dumbest blog statement of the week. Who pays attention to a million mosquito nets? The people who get to stay alive, that’s who smart guy.”

    • Michael Keizer 2 May, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

      Did you post that as a comment on the blog? Because it isn’t there, which says something about how the blog owner deals (or doesn’t) with critique.

      • John 2 May, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

        I did, I’ll give him the benefit of the weekend, we’ll see monday.

  23. avam 2 May, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    Farzine (or Frazine? You spell it differently each time it would seem)

    This is my absolute final post on this. Apologies to the author of this blog for so many posts on this. Yes, It is difficult to define Aid into one neat package – and as explained it is a broad field taking on board a variety of different areas (e.g. issues ranging from conflict, governance, livelihoods, logistics, health etc.). Within each of these separate areas there are (obviously) specific skills set. However, for All of them, most people start with degrees in the areas I detailed before (which I am not going to repeat here – you can reread the original post for that).

    As far as I can see, you take umbrage with the fact that you don’t understand the job (requirements or outcomes) and to that end keep repeating the same argument (a) what is it that Aid workers do and b) because Your past experience has been poor that this somehow must be the similar for all areas of aid.

    I do not know the author of this blog, and as said before, No I’m not defending him . I am quite sure he would not want or need a complete stranger on a blog to come to his defence – he does not need to defend anything as far as I can see. I have taken offense at your dismissive remarks and your inability to take on board what anybody has chosen to say to you about aid work/the skills needed or what the type of skills needed at various times. I am not a defender of any of these blogs – there are thousands of people worldwide – with varying levels of expertise and experience – working in the field of aid and development. I’m sure no one considers the main development blogs (or authors of the blogs), such as this one, wronging rights, blood and milk, aid watch etc. – as the “last word” on the subject of aid. Obviously an inherent bias exists – those writing these blogs have the time and intent to do so – it does not mean they are necessarily the leading experts, although clearly they Do have a relevant and much needed voice on the subject. In my case, I was not taken aback with the fact that you wanted to have some clarity on what the author did, but that you felt so sure that based on your own experiences, that the response you received meant that 1) it was a not relevant job and that 2) all those working in aid have “no specific skill set”. It was both an absurd comment and assumption.

    In any case, at this point as I’m sure you will agree, these posts between us both have gone from being useful to time consuming. I am not going to respond to any more simply because I have not got the time, and do not want to ‘highjack’ the original point that the author was making with repetitive posts about aid work. However, in the spirit of open communication, I wish you well.

  24. c-sez 2 May, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    Farzine, there’s a simple test we can do to determine whether J (and others in roles like his) have any skills. Go and do his job for a month. If you’re right you’ll be able to walk in and do it all from 9:00 on day 1. Pack your bags J, you’re going on holiday.

    The statement “generalist aid manager type with no real specific skill” is oxymoronic. It is also symptomatic of a perception that has existed within much of the aid sector as well, for a long time. The sector puts a great deal of weight on academic/thematic technical knowledge of its staff. But often Program/Project management is not a discipline taken seriously enough in its own right. Hopefully the new sectoral approach to a PM certification (PM4NGOs) will go some way to addressing this.

    If you’ve had enough of GIK J, interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  25. John 2 May, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    At first I thought that the hubbub surrounding the #1millionshirts train wreck would just die a merciful death. It’s a bad idea and it looks to be all but dead. I thought as sure as the sun will rise in the morning, that would be that. Didn’t happen. What I have seen instead is:

    1) Jason Sadler is a social media genius.

    No. He is T-Shirt Guy. He created a wildfire by going public with a harebrained idea, and got slammed for it. That’s it. There are accounts from some folks who spoke with him on the phone saying he is a nice guy. That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. He still screwed up and then took offense when called on it, a nice guy didn’t make those videos and then act like he was somehow the victim during the conference call. The best light I can shine on his behavior over the course of the past few days is immature and self-serving. Jason needs to go away, permanently, taking with him. Box up what shirts he has, run them down to the Denver Rescue Mission (or some place like that, I looked for a non faith based group that would take clothing, didn’t find one), apologize to those who sent them in, and call it a day.

    2) The events and experiences in the wake of the 1millionshirts is the greatest thing to happen in the history of ever.

    No. It looks like 1millionshirts has been stopped (fingers crossed, and this is not the first example of a misguided GIK scheme and an attempted intervention). Credit should go to the bloggers who took the time to kill the thing. No matter how you look at this, it was a bad thing and it cost something to clean it up.

    If by some happenstance Jason, his T-Shirt marketing scheme and the T-Shirt business in Africa (don’t remember exactly were it is based, a detail that’s not important in this context) have come together in some mutually beneficial way, well that is a nice bonus and all the credit goes to those who took the time to arrange that phone conference and to bring these people together. I hope Jason has the humility to recognize the service that has been done on his behalf, it’s more than he deserves and certainly more than he earned.

    3) Social Media/Viral Marketing and the example of the 1millionshirts controversy is the be all and end all.

    No. The initial tweets and the fire storm that followed *did* reach beyond the traditional audience that would have paid attention to some aid scheme (and reached Jason’s target market, which I strongly suspect isn’t old enough to own a credit card). Sadly, people like a train wreck. I don’t see anything more going on than that.

    Change the message from train wreck to sustainable aid or development and the audience dries up. Mary and John Doe are not talking about micro-finance programs around the breakfast table. Wallets are not popping open. To talk about the tools is to miss the point; sustainable aid, development, or investment has about the same interest to the general public as watching paint dry. Again, people like a train wreck: earthquake, tsunami, typhoon or genocide put blood in the water and people react to that. Otherwise, the day to day work goes on in obscurity and tweeting, blogging, or youtube isn’t going to change that.

    The US Campaign for Burma, and their “30 Days for a Million Voices” campaign is a representative example. They had lots of star power, put some blood in the water, and they made good use of the social medias. They didn’t get a million anything, and they were not asking for money, only messages on a blog.

    So, look, trying to find value in this looks to me to be a waste of time. I hope that the main stream media doesn’t pick this up, it’s not worthy.

    I fear some savvy person will turn these events into a nice consultancy and turn a tidy profit. I will just say Karma is a wicked task master.

    Note: If anyone thinks this is just haterade, fine. Belly up to the bar, will that be a double?

    • avam 3 May, 2010 at 10:28 am #

      Good comment. I agree, esp, with this ” If by some happenstance Jason, his T-Shirt marketing scheme and the T-Shirt business in Africa (don’t remember exactly were it is based, a detail that’s not important in this context) have come together in some mutually beneficial way, well that is a nice bonus and all the credit goes to those who took the time to arrange that phone conference and to bring these people together. I hope Jason has the humility to recognize the service that has been done on his behalf, it’s more than he deserves and certainly more than he earned.”

      Frankly, I just hope that his main priority for the foreseeable future is to use some of the money he made on his original t-shirt idea to buy a plane ticket and actually Go to a country (or, better yet, more than one!) in Africa (especially those that he had originally planned to ship his shirts to).

      Although, I think good can come out of this. If this has reached people just starting out in development etc, (as well as interested individuals that donate to charity) this whole episode might just give them pause.

      • John 3 May, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

        As an alternative to Jason traveling to Africa I would suggest that the “magical” power of social networks be leveraged to identify some “entrepreneur” who does not have a demonstrated track record of being dangerously ignorant and recklessly arrogant.

        I have every reason the believe that motivated individuals do appear on the aid/development scene all the time and they are warmly welcomed and provide much needed support. There are legions of individuals that provide tech support, office space, conference facilities, and financial support to small and medium sized “Humanitarian” organizations with hardly a notice outside of those organizations. The best way to minimize the risk of scaring those people away is for Jason and those who may try to emulate his shenanigans, is for Jason and all the rubbish surrounding him to just fade away.

    • c-sez 3 May, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

      for that post, John, let me get this round.

  26. avam 3 May, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    Does anyone know what happened with the whole GIK thing? Wasn’t there going to be an online conference call/chat on friday (or something like that?) with a few people on the aid side as well as the man himself – jason?

    How did it go, if at all?

  27. avam 3 May, 2010 at 2:13 am # worries – found it (or at least one version)

  28. avamm 4 May, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Fully agree – but I don’t think he will fade away..and stupid ideas like this will just keep coming. Education is the key to everything, and, yeah, he might be “dangerously ignorant and recklessly arrogant” in some respects, but clearly he isn’t a total dolt in all areas.

    So, as he has said he’s going to persevere – I think he needs to get on a plane and visit the areas (people etc) in question first. Yeah, I think he comes across as bombastic and dangerously stubborn but, I also think to disregard him (person/idea etc) completely out of hand assumes that some perfect entrepreneur will take his place. Most ideas have to be worked at (granted, ususally Before they are taken into the world at large!), yeah there are loads of people working on ideas/iniatives all the time (I used to be involved with rapid response disaster mapping and new ideas were floated all the time, only a very few of which made it past the desk stage). Yes his Was stupid from the outset, that’s obvious and we all agree in spades! – but I think there’s hope yet (maybe I’m on my own in that regard…?)…… And yes, totally agree about him benefiting from the expertise of others – but that’s done now – so it’s the future that is important. There have been a raft of ideas floated – he could also use social media to get shirts & sell them to second hand shops in the US and use the money to donate to a charity (not necessarily one even working in Africa – god knows the US has a homeless problem). Good can still come out of it. Sure the money is a drop in the ocean in some respects, but any act of good – anywhere – is going to be better than none at all.

    I’m hopeful anyway😉

    “Ring your bells that can still ring,
    Forget your perfect offering,
    There is a crack in everything,
    That’s how the light gets in”
    (L Cohen)

    ….. initially anyway!

  29. Amelia 4 May, 2010 at 2:57 am #

    Hi J,
    I just wanted to say how I happy I was to see you defending the world against unwanted and ill thought out orphanages and other forms of aid… but then I see your comments list went a bit crazy.
    Just to say on the topic of your JD, that, to be fair it does involve lots of technical words. But then I assume every job has a lot of technical words which take ages to explain. Like grant management in my current job title (which for the sake of Farzine’s desire for some more accessible language means… managing the donor rules and regulations and making sure that a) we respect them and b) they don’t stop us actually running the project and helping poor people. Or as I like to call it, getting the money and then keeping it (or spending it!) for the poor. ). It’s a valid question to ask what we do, and some of it does seem quite barmy (Brit expression) but then, lots of my non aid friends do pretty strange tasks as parts of their jobs.

    Anyway, the pointless T-shirts for Africa thingy is ridiculous and we should reserve the right to mock. Wanting to do good is not the same as actually doing it… and whilst the aid worker industry might not do it perfectly either at least we are trying to learn… and you Mr Million T-Shirts????

  30. avamm 4 May, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    “Listening, Learning & Shifting Focus” –

    New post up at 1millionshirts. Clearly he Was listening. Personally, I think he’s on the right track now – and kudos to that.


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