Aid Myths: The Myth of the “Win-Win”

29 Apr

There’s this thing that keeps coming up in discussions between humanitarian NGOs and for-profit sector entities – corporations, businesses, and the like: it’s the myth of the “win-win.”

In it’s most elemental form “win-win” is basically benign. It simply says that something – an idea, a product, a strategy… can be good for everyone. Distributing product “X” can meet the needs of beneficiaries in a disaster zone, and also be great branding, visibility, market penetration, etc. for the company that produces product “X.” Aid recipients,  disaster survivors, IDPs, refugees, the poor get something they genuinely need; A for-profit company makes more money, either directly via increased sales or indirectly via good press, positive publicity, general good will.

It seems straightforward enough.

Everybody gets something they need. No harm, no foul.


What could be wrong with that?

* * *

The problem is that in actual practice “win-win” too often becomes the point –  “We need to find the ‘win-win.’” When in fact what those disaster survivors, those refugees, the poor and their needs are, or at least should be, the real point.

I do not doubt the genuine altruism of some, perhaps many in the for-profit world, people who genuinely care about the situation of their less-fortunate brothers and sisters in other places and who honestly want to help. (Nor am I naïve to the reality that there are truly cut-throat, make-profit-at-any-cost people and companies out there as well.) It’s not my intention to put anyone down or take anyone to task. But I think that maybe we need to remind ourselves that aid is ultimately about helping the poor.

Aid is ultimately about serving the poor in the most effective manner possible. Serving the poor in ways that make sense on their terms. Serving the poor in ways that respond to their actual needs.

By contrast, Aid is not about finding a “win-win” for for-profit companies and entrepreneurs. Maybe it sounds harsh – not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings (although sometimes it’s unavoidable) – but that is the reality.

Sometimes aid is hard and messy and expensive. There are usually no easy solutions. Sometimes you just have to front cash to pay for what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed cannot be branded or photographed. Sometimes supporting the thing that is needed most is not good for business. Sometimes supporting the thing that is needed most will not ever ever increase profit margins or market share.

Aid starts and ends with what the poor need. If our starting point is anything other than what the poor need, then we are already headed down the road to bad aid. Simple as that.

Maybe there is a situation where a for-profit Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) interest aligns perfectly with an assessed need in the field. And maybe those few-and-far-between opportunities are genuine “win-wins.”

But thus far much of the conversation has been largely around trying to find needs that match pre-existing solutions; trying to find a context in which product or service or idea “X” can be made to work. It’s not the greatest thing, but hey – they’ve got nothing, right? We’re not actually causing harm. At least not so far as we know… isn’t that a “win-win”?

(And by the way, this is largely my issue with volunteers as well: they are almost always a pre-packaged solution in need of a problem to solve.)

But the thing is, Aid is about the poor. It’s not about finding what works for corporations and entrepreneurs. It’s not about successfully identifying someplace to ship a container full of “X” or a context in which to implement idea “Y.” Aid is not about marketing or social media or mashable or “buzz” or large numbers of whatever being collected.

Aid is about the poor. It starts and ends with them.

Unless they win, hands-down, there can be no “win-win.”

23 Responses to “Aid Myths: The Myth of the “Win-Win””

  1. Michael Keizer 29 April, 2010 at 10:14 pm #

    Yes and no.

    Organisations don’t do CSR because the are interested in ‘the poor’; they do it to get a good ‘triple bottom line’, which they in turn want to keep their shareholders happy. So without a ‘win-win’, you will not be able to get them to do what we want them to do. Pure Machiavelli perhaps, but the reality. Compare it with our ‘normal’ fund-raising efforts: have you ever seen any that did not play on the audience’s (hidden or overt) personal motivations? Not much aid would flow if we would only say, ‘do it for the poor’ and nothing more.

    It is interesting in this context to read a bit about game theory, which is where the ‘win-win’ meme originates from. Once you grasp the conceptual and logical underpinnings of the idea, things start to look a bit different.

  2. joe 29 April, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    Don’t agree. Entrepreneurship is more effective (in some circumstances) than simply donating. If someone can make money from supplying something to those who need it, the chances are that the systems will be more robust than setting up systems to pass out donations – for example the whole Second Hand Clothing market we’ve been discussing. It works because there is a chain of entrepreneurs who all have an economic interest in making it work (of course, accepting that there are underlying issues with SHC). Handing out clothing just doesn’t work as well.

  3. Maya Forstater 30 April, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    Yes and no, as Michael said – because with win-win solutions you get to leverage more resources into solving a problem than by just relying on win-loose solutions. You get investors, not just donors. And you don’t just get more in, you get more out, because the whole point of win-win solutions is that you are finding more efficient ways to use resources to solve problems.

    Win-win models include waste-to-value, reputation uplift, cost saving and just finding ways to make a profit meeting unmet needs (so called ‘base of the pyramid’ business models). There are real opportunities to ‘doing well and doing good’ here.

    But you are right that orgs that work for and on behalf of beneficiaries, need to be accountable not for maximising win-wins but for the impacts on those they seek to help. That bottom-line does not always align with the  potential wins on the side of for-profit partners or business models – If meeting desperate unmet need profitably were that simple it would already be happening, and  wouldnt be called CSR, it would be called business – But finding that sweet spot is the social entrepreneur’s art.

    The wins have to be real and balanced on both sides. Trouble comes when (a) the reputation benefits are out of kilter with the actual difference made (”cause washing’), (b) the profits are based on exploitation (c)  the impacts aren’t real or arent good (they are not responsive to the needs of benificiaries) or (d) you just haven’t done your homework and the logistics/transaction costs cancel out the apparent win-win, or what you thought was an unused resource was actually already valuable to someone.

    1 million shirts failed on a,c and d. And it did it with such an open, clear single idea that it was obvious to anyone with a bit of development nouse. Perhaps the fault lies not so much with Jason, his good intentions and his pile of shirts but with the missionary organisations that told him it was a good idea. That said, if you are going to go looking for win-win opportunities in an area you know nothing about, better to partner with an organisation that has sound expertise, a track record or accountability to beneficiaries on it’s side. Pure good intentions on both sides of the deal are a recipe for failure.

    I think that one of the problems is that while finding and reslising win-win silutions takes hard work, difficult decisionmaking and professionalism, none of that is understood by the average punter. Serious organisations like Kiva and Oxfam make it seem easy to change someones life by buying a goat or making a loan.  1million shirts is going to be a hugely valuable teaching case to counter that belief.

    Finally, I do think you need to distinguish between humanitarian  aid and aid for development. In a disaster situation people’s human rights and basic needs are the only priority. It would be wrong ( too slow, inefficient, not to say tacky) to try to negotiate win-win deals, beyond basic recognition to donors. But when you are talking about poverty reduction and development, the search has to be for win-win solutions that mean investment, jobs and economic growth. 

    The ultimate win-win is not based on distributing a particular resource or gadget, but building businesses that contribute ( and suceed better in) societies where people can thrive.    


    • Michael Keizer 30 April, 2010 at 10:42 am #

      “In a disaster situation people’s human rights and basic needs are the only priority. It would be wrong ( too slow, inefficient, not to say tacky) to try to negotiate win-win deals, beyond basic recognition to donors.”

      I agree that it would be ridiculous to start searching for a win-win solution the moment the disaster strikes. However, this sort of thinking does have a place in disaster relief too: when preparing for the next disaster. For-profit partners can be hugely helpful there; and even during the disaster response itself if the modus operandi and cooperation models are well worked out and adhered to in advance.

  4. Phil 30 April, 2010 at 3:28 am #

    “Aid is not about finding a “win-win” for for-profit companies and entrepreneurs.”
    Well said. Nuff said.

  5. wseitz 30 April, 2010 at 6:05 am #

    I like your point a lot. One way I think about it is in welfare terms. The point of aid is to increase welfare where such increases will be felt most profoundly. Marginal increases in welfare for wealthy aid donors are not exactly the same thing as welfare increases among poor people. So, it is nice when we strike on some really creative solution to doing both at the same time, but like you say, constantly focusing on making it nice for everyone misses the point.

    To Keizer: I agree with you as well! With for-profit organizations, that seems right. But that makes sense with companies and those with profit motives. And while companies are certainly a powerful force in development, they are not the sole players to consider in these situations. For aid projects that are financed by tax-payers, there seem to be fewer measures of the direct benefits to the stakeholders on the donor side. While USAID or the World Bank don’t want to be seen as hand-out centers, they are not looking to quarterly earnings and pissed off investment funds for guidance in the same way that, say, Proctor and Gamble might. That is both a bug and a feature I guess.

    My point is that I think the CSR stuff is generally for corporate image and motivated by immediate win-win situations. The public or donation-funded projects of the world are able, in some cases at least, to look at the long-term a bit more, and are more willing to lose compared to companies. Maybe I should say that they do not have to try and ‘win’ as much.

  6. Ian 30 April, 2010 at 6:17 am #


    I’m with Michael on this one. While I 100% agree that the governing principle for all aid ought to be the needs and desires of the poor and the marginalized, I think reality is and needs to be much more messy than that.

    Lots of powerful people whose own primary interests are not those of the poor need to do things for development to happen. Private sector organizations have a huge impact on development (or lack of it) and can exert considerable influence whether it is through making medicines designed for children, developing vaccines for developing country diseases, not employing child labour, not undermining local markets, provide opportunities to earn a decent living, encouraging their staff to donate money and/or time or donating themselves (etc. etc.).

    While it would be great if enterprises and corporations could be convinced to do this soley because of their concern for the poor, and without any strings attached, I think this is highly unlikely to happen, or at least to be sufficiently widespread to have any real impact.

    I think it is better to find common ground with corporations where doing good can also serve their own more selfish interests. For this to work though, we need to have no illusions about the nature of the relationship, and need to be careful not to make unacceptable trade-offs, and to choose our partners carefully. We also need to keep the pressure on to praise and reward the good and to make lifer difficult for the bad.

    The whole t-shirts thing has shown that aidworkers as a group might now have more opportunities than ever to make this work.

  7. Sam Gardner 30 April, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    There used to be other names for public-private partnerships: collusion, conflict of interest, corruption.

    Of course, it would be gross to say all is bad, but I support the general view of the economist on this: a company that works ethically, is already fulfilling a social function. If they really want to do more, why don’t they just give the money without any strings attached, and let the rest be handled by due process.

  8. lraftree 30 April, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    I think the thing that is frustrating is when initiatives start with a corporation, and come from the side of the corporation, and those working on the ground are left informed at the last minute that they should find or create something that fits with what a corporation needs or wants to do. Sometimes the suggestions that a corporation makes, the things a corporation wants to ‘do’ are either known bad development or their ideas force an organization to take human or financial resources away from initiatives that are already agreed on and planned for and spend them to do something else that enables them to engage with whatever the corporation is suggesting. If an organization doesn’t have clear policies around this to protect them from being donor led, it can be a real problem.

    If a corporation really wants to do something deeper, I feel they should look internally at their policies and practices and change how they do business. But then you are talking about power and money, which gets a little uncomfortable…. and it’s a lot harder that giving away some stuff and taking some pictures.

  9. J. 30 April, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    First, thank you all for commenting, and as part of that, staying on message (if you’ve read the comments thread below the previous post, you know what I’m talking about). This is certainly a large and complicated subject, one probably worthy of a great many more blog posts, hopefully not just by me.🙂

    Let me respond to a few:

    Michael, Joe, Maya, Ian – Unless I’ve misunderstood you, I think I can honestly agree with everything you’ve written in your comments without having to recant any of what I say in the original post. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, though. I’m not saying that “win-wins” don’t exists, that they’re impossible to achieve, or that the aims of the for-profit sector are by definition contrary to the needs of the poor. Clearly there are examples out there of actual, real-life “win-win” scenaries, including a large number from my own direct professional experience. Nor am I blind to the reality that Michael mentions – that, “without a ‘win-win’, you will not be able to get them to do what we want them to do. Pure Machiavelli perhaps, but the reality.”

    I’m quite concerned, though, as The For-Profit Sector (painting with a broad brush, I know) increasingly focuses on CSR (not a bad thing necessarily) and begins to act like more traditional aid actors (the UN, NGOs, more traditional donors…) that the conversation increasingly shifts towards “what is good for business” rather than “what is good for the poor.” Maybe the answer is better donor education. Maybe it’s around better NGO policies and procedures for engaging with the For-Profit Sector, accepting support, etc (like Linda suggests). Almost certainly it should include NGOs get better at saying “no” to support that comes with unreasonable strings attached, regardless of the source of that support. In my experience, we’ve actually become quite good at pushing back on more traditional donors – e.g. USAID – when their ideas are bad. In fact, it’s frequently been my job to do the pushing back on USAID, et al. But for reasons I do not totally understand, we seem oddly reticent to do the same thing when it comes to for-profit corporations who want to support relief or development work.

    Overall, For-Profit Sector support to aid work offers the potential to diversify support – something we’ve all known to be a need for some time. But we need to get better at managing those relationships.

    One point in particular that I’m afraid I just cannot back down on is the one about aid being, first and foremost, about the poor.

    If we can find ways to do appropriate, effective aid, and by happy coincidence third parties also benefit, then fabulous. I’m not the least bit against that. But I am absolutely against having the starting point of the conversation be what is good for business (just as I am against it being what is good for the NGO or aid actor).

    (Linda, Phil, Sam, wseitz… of course thank you for your comments, too. I love it when people seem to agree with me!)

    • Maya Forstater 30 April, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

      There is quite a lot of violent agreement going on here. But at least a bit of saying the same thing and meaning something slightly different…

      When you say win-win, J i think you are talking about fairly small wins on both sides: Corporation donates money to an NGO gets nice picture to put on the very last page of annual report, maybe some cause marketing benefit. NGO gets some money, hopefully without having to jump through too many hoops or sell soul. NGO is well managed, spends money well, delivers aid. Everyone wins, but nothing changes.

      The next year NGO is still chasing funding, the corporation still has the same ammount of money in it’s foundation budget. The poor are still poor.

      But there is another version of win-win that is more ambitious. 

      A business thinks it’s spotted a gap in the market for selling something new/in a new way/sourcing something differently/ using a new technology/ doing something more effiently/ using an asset no one else has figured out how to make money with etc… And its going to make something poor people need cheaper, employ poor people, source from them etc…

      Next year x number of jobs have been created, y amount of tax paid, z amount of profit made. Business assesses, thinks this is going to be a growth driver and doubles its investment.

      Its a fairy tale I know, and a lot of things can go wrong along the way, but it’s the kind of Win-Win that changes things.

      Its not an argument that NGOs are bad and the market is good. But it does entail different ways of working together than the basic donor model e.g.not  for profits innovate a solution and for profits scale it (microfinance), business source natural resources and NGOs act as watchdogs for public revenues (Publish What You Pay, Kimberly Proces, Forest Stwardship etc..), not for profits build capacity to enable poor to trade into global supply chains (ag co-ops), NGOs advise, challenge, partner (eg oxfam and unilever, GAVI)

      Finding these kind of deals means going up the hierarchy, beyond the foundation ppl and making smart bets about which businesses are worth working with. And as iraftree said, this stuff, involving power and profits is harder than getting money out of the people whose job it is to give money away.

      It also means taking seriously the aid claim to be in the business of putting itself out of business. 

      J and. Phil said “Aid is not about finding a “win-win” for for-profit companies and entrepreneurs.”

      Well maybe not, but development is. And isn’t that the aim – not perpetuating aid?


  10. joe 30 April, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    Doesn’t it depend on the kind of business you mean though? Profit to a small entrepreneur might mean earning enough to very basically live on. Profit to a multinational means keeping a small number of rich people in smart cars.

    The former you want to promote, the latter you want to avoid.

    • J. 30 April, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

      Joe – that is a compelling question. One that, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes wrestle with in my own mind. Earlier today @keithkall re-tweeted this post with the question, “If suffering is relieved and poverty reduced, who cares how it happened”?

      Although I can’t quite articulate exactly where, I suspect the best answer is somewhere between your respective points of view: motivations do matter. But it seems to me that there is certainly more to the calculus than motivations…

      Interesting conversation………

      • joe 30 April, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

        In answer to keith, if someone relived suffering whilst working out of their million dollar mansion, mentioning no names, *ahembillgatesahem* one can always lay at his door that he could have done more if he had a less profligate lifestyle. If I’ve a billion dollar and highly profitable business making mosquito nets then a reasonable person might ask whether my morals really extend beyond my own pocket.

        The problem with this way of thinking is obviously that all of us who have the facilities, education and disposable income to engage in the debate are the same, albeit at a lesser extent. We all make a living out to some extent of the suffering of others.

        The problem is knowing what to do about it. Personally, I’d prefer to find ways to encourage entrepreneurial people to make the changes that their society demands rather than relying on large inflexible institutions to do it. But YMMV.

      • Michael Keizer 30 April, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

        Perhaps time for a new blog: “Good Intentions Are Not Enough, But Neither Are Results”. Interested, Saundra?😉

      • Michael Keizer 30 April, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

        I am squarely in the utilitarian camp on this, BTW. I honestly couldn’t care less what a partner’s motivations are, as long as they do what needs be done.

        That doesn’t mean that one should be blind to those motivations; being aware of them can go a long way to avoid being manipulated — basically avoiding Maya’s scenarios a and b, and possibly c.

    • Maya Forstater 30 April, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

      Why do you want to promote entrepreneurs working hard but only being able to scrape by with a basic living?

      Why do you want to avoid corporations making a profit, which enables them to pay tax, stay in business, invest in R&D and new opportunities, pay dividends to shareholders and pay pensions?

      • joe 1 May, 2010 at 5:59 am #

        Because I think all institutions are dangerous. Corporations have no place in interacting with the world’s most vulnerable people. Taxes and all that other stuff is phoey if the benefits are mainly gained outwith of the country where they are working.

      • Maya Forstater 3 May, 2010 at 4:25 am #


        you’re chucking the baby out with the bath water here.  Abuses of power between the worlds most poweful institutions and vulnerable people can’t be dealt with through a ‘no interaction policy’. How would that even work? 

        Are you suggesting that poor people don’t need or want access to motorised transport, modern energy supplies, telecommunication, vaccines and medicines, financial services, building materials, formal sector jobs, linkages to global markets.

        Or that businesses don’t need to worry about such things as human rights, free, prior and informed consent for developments, whether the revenues they pay govts for mineral concessions are spent on public services? Is the principled thing for companies to do in situations where these are troubling issues to say ‘we have no business here’ and disinvest?

        The poor don’t need our tired old fantasies of self sufficient village edens any more than they need our old tshirts.

  11. c-sez 2 May, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    “Aid is ultimately about serving the poor in the most effective manner possible. Serving the poor in ways that make sense on their terms. Serving the poor in ways that respond to their actual needs. By contrast, Aid is not about finding a “win-win” for for-profit companies and entrepreneurs. Maybe it sounds harsh – not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings (although sometimes it’s unavoidable) – but that is the reality.”

    Agreed that *aid* isn’t about finding win-wins for both forprofits/entrepreneurs and poor people. I’d counter though that *development* can be. The example I’m thinking of is the development of agricultural value chains, which link grassroots smallholder farmer collectives, often through the coord actions of a trusted intermediary INGO, to national or international buyers operating at a large scale. The win-win comes in the form of better ‘farm-gate’ prices for the producers, and lower cost of purchase for the buyers. The challenge is ensuring that the buyers aren’t the ones who accrue all the added value, but the model is there.

  12. joe 3 May, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Maya, in short, I believe with Schumacher that Small is Beautiful. Large corporations tend towards groupthink and tend to ignore all ethical barriers in pursuit of their goals. The bigger the institution, the more likely it is to be institutionalised.

    It is true that large infrastructure projects are needed, but is there evidence that large corporations can deliver these for the benefit of the people? I’d say that the majority of the evidence is that they cannot – viz privatisation of water in many countries.

    In truth it is down to people like us to create structures which meet the needs of people but are both more efficient than simply ‘giving people stuff’ and doing more than just lining the pockets of the rich. It can be done, it just isn’t very often.

  13. Chris Waluk 5 May, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    Shouldn’t the goal of long term sustainable economics always be win-win? I’m glad to hear the frustrations you point out, but words like “partnership”, “sustainability” and “accountability” don’t really mean anything unless you find solutions that are mutually beneficial. Granted, I know there are circumstances where you just can’t find a “win-win”, but why throw the baby out with the bath water?


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