The Aardvark in the Room

4 May

Linda (@meowtree) has a fabulous line in her excellent post entitled “The Elephant in The Room”: Speaking of those voices not on The Great T-Shirt Conference Call, actual potential recipients of aid, she writes: “I would bet money that some of those voices would have said “I want a shirt.”

And she’s absolutely right. We don’t like to discuss it, but sometimes beneficiaries and aid-recipients want, or at least will accept, bad aid.

After nearly twenty years in this business, I can say with confidence that no matter how parochial, no matter how ethnocentric, no matter how culturally inappropriate, no matter how sexist or racist or just plain lame, no matter how likely to create dependency or even cause actual harm a bad aid idea is, there can still always be found a country, province, district, or community that wants it. No matter how ineffective, inefficient or just plain bad your idea is, you will still always be able to find someone who wants to be your beneficiary.

This all means a number of things:

1) The fact that you can convince a partner or community or beneficiary to accept your bad idea does not mean that it’s a good idea. People have many reasons for accepting aid, and for agreeing to “partner” with NGOs. Don’t be naïve: manipulation does happen.

Local support for your project is not proof that it’s a good project.

2) Just because the idea comes from or is endorsed by a local person or local partner or the local government or a vociferous person from the place where you want to do the project but who now lives in Europe or Australia or the USA doesn’t make it a good idea.

People from every country and community on the planet are equally capable of dreaming up bad aid ideas.

3) Beware the “dark cloud of local context”: While, of course, knowledge of the local context is immensely important when it comes to the design and implementation of an aid program, local context does not override basic common sense. Too many aid amateurs (and even a few seasoned professionals) give in to pressure to accept totally illogical restrictions or conditions, or to do positively idiotic projects because they are “what the local partner said.” “They said they wanted it…” just plain doesn’t fly with me.

Context is no excuse for bad aid.

* * *

I already know that some of you will read this and get grumpy.  What. Ever.

This is not ethnocentrism. This is not me saying that aid workers always know best. This is in no way license to skimp on good participatory process, nor license to cut corners on good data collections or assessments. This is not permission to disrespect local values either in program design or implementation. We cannot discount local context or blow off what local counterparts say. To shout-out another @meowtree post, it’s not about one side running roughshod over the other, but rather it’s about meeting in the middle.

This is a reminder to aid workers of all ethnicities and backgrounds: use your brains; don’t be held hostage by idiocy or bald-faced manipulation that far too often passes for “local wisdom.”

Good aid principles apply in every context.

19 Responses to “The Aardvark in the Room”

  1. Jim 4 May, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    You said “1) The fact that you can convince a partner or community or beneficiary to accept your bad idea does mean that it’s a good idea.”
    but I think you meant

    1) The fact that you can convince a partner or community or beneficiary to accept your bad idea does NOT mean that it’s a good idea.

    • J. 4 May, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

      Arrrgh. Hate it when I do that. Repaired just now….

  2. Michael Keizer 4 May, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    No, it;s not about “meeting in the middle”; although Linda’s post title is unfortunate, the post itself makes it clear that it is actually about a shared voyage. You meet at the start, stay together, and see where you end up — which is not necessarily in the middle.

  3. Alanna 4 May, 2010 at 10:03 pm #

    I wrote about something similar – not everyone is a sociologist:

  4. joe 4 May, 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    I think you could excuse someone who wants to do something for throwing up their hands in disgust at the complexity and doing what they were going to do anyway.

    OK maybe not excuse… understand on some level maybe?

  5. Daniel O'Neil 5 May, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    I think the basic problem is that bad aid is easier to do than good aid. Following the earthquake in Haiti, we were given 50 containers of donations from a wide variety of sources. Most it was food, but we did receive thousands of t shirts and other low priority items. It was far easier to pass out t-shirts than to convince people that they can’t rebuild their house because it is in area vulnerable to floods or landslides. It is easier to pass out money than to work closely with someone to help them succeed.

  6. Ian 5 May, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Another great post!

    Yes, bad aid ideas can come from anywhere, and just because they are bad doesn’t mean that beneficiaries won’t like them (or won’t come up with bad ideas thmselves).

    Thinking back on my response to Linda’s post, I think there are three important things that can be used to help mitigate against the acceptance of bad ideas, which we should use more:

    Experience – we need to draw on and connect to past exerience with similar projects that have failed. We know T-shirts for Africa are a bad idea because we’ve seen what has happened when similar projects were tried before.

    Evidence – Whenever we try something new we need to be sure to collect evidence of whethe ror not it works. I was very inspired by Esther Duflo’s TED talk on randomized trials – although I know there is a lot of discussion on this approach, I think it’s worth thinking about this and other means of collecting evidence and better understanding what works.

    Education – of donors, benficiaries etc. both on what we know about what works and what doesn’t – but beyond that empowering beneficiaries with knowledge, as impartially as possible, to give them the possiility of providing informed feedback on an idea and to participate meaningfully in its consideration (even if we “experts” don’t like what they have to say).

    Although for the reasons you cite, I don’t think direct use of technology to get quickfeedback from beneficiaries will get the result we want, I think ICTs have great potential to help out with all three of these.

  7. Marianne 5 May, 2010 at 3:53 am #

    I like Michael’s analogy better – a journey together rather than a meeting in the middle.

    I had so much more to say that it began to look more like a blog post than a comment, so I deleted it and decided to give it a few more words soon.

    Thanks for getting my brain ticking over!

  8. lraftree 5 May, 2010 at 4:46 am #

    Once more, great post, and great comments and discussion.

    @michael in my ‘meeting in the middle’ post I was seeing the ‘middle’ as the starting point where different ‘stakeholders’ (I kind of hate that word but there’s no other one that really fits) meet to begin the journey you mention. @alanna I like your post a lot. @joe unfortunately there’s no way around the fact that it’s complex… when I think about starting my own business it looks unbearably complex, but probably because I don’t have any real idea how I would even get started since my experience lies elsewhere…. @daniel you’re so right @ian i wish you would start blogging as a way to pull all your solid comments/thoughts in one place!

    …And now I just treated your comment space as my own Mr. T.F. Hood. Sorry but I couldn’t help but respond to all!

    • Michael Keizer 5 May, 2010 at 5:12 am #

      @Ian: can I second Linda’s suggestion? You consistently come up with great comments and tweets, and it would be great to see some of your ideas consolidated in a blog.

  9. J. 5 May, 2010 at 5:19 am #

    Hmmm… okay. I think we’re getting a bit bogged down in the semantics around a figure of speech – “meeting in the middle” – and losing the actual point of the post. There are many metaphors and analogies that can be used to help explain how aid and development happen. “Journey” is certainly one. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I sometimes use “Conversation.”

    I am certainly not suggesting that there be a literal physical or conceptual precise halfway point between aid programs and aid recipients at which the two converge. Aid recipients are in one place, conceptually; Aid providers are in another. In order for anything to happen – for a journey or conversation to commence – both need to first somehow step into the intermediate space in order to encounter the other = meeting in the middle.

  10. Ian 5 May, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    J – I agree we are getting a little tied up in semantic knots – although this misunderstanding actually illustrates your point very well (If I’ve understood it that is😉

    I *think* we are talking about finding some common ground and common language between donors, aid workers, beneficiaries which we can then build from. It might be small, and hard to find at the beginning but if it’s there it can be expanded on and is where we should start. On the other hand if it’s not there then perhaps the best thing is to walk away.

    @linda @michael many thanks for the compliments😉 If only I had an extra hour or two in the day…

  11. FFTF 5 May, 2010 at 8:30 am #

    One other thing – even though the donor may pay all costs, from shipment to the country and then to the point of delivery, there are still costs in terms of time and other resources by the organization and the community that are thus taken away from better and more developmental aid.

  12. Jane Reitsma 5 May, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    There are two main reasons for this as far as I have observed. 1) You go into a community and offer them something for free, chances are they will agree with the idea and want it. Why? Because they probably rightly assume if they tell you the idea isn’t that great, then you will simply head to the next community and offer it to them instead. 2) Very few people actually ask and listen what the community needs and want. We come in with a plan or at least an idea of what we believe the best solution is, rather than actually listening to what the community needs.

  13. Alanna 5 May, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    Yes, this “I think the basic problem is that bad aid is easier to do than good aid. ” That is the problem, at core.

  14. John 5 May, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    I have a recurring nightmare. A big rental SUV containing a half dozen well intended people sporting brand new micro-fiber outfits rolls in. The camp leader or village headman unlocks the gate, the windows are lowered … and aid happens. It’s my “Safari Park” nightmare.

    It’s not hard to see how “local” + “keys to the gate” can come to mean “something”.

    Substitute the local field director from some three letter acronym’d organization, fresh from the quarterly budget meeting and in possession of the keys to the gate, and aid happens.

    Substitute a local stakeholder (it is an awkward term, like saying “I have skin in the game”, lacking in necessary detail) having invested considerable resources to unseat an entrenched iNGO. The names and faces change, but the entrenched desire to remain relevant remains. And, again, aid happens.

    Honestly, there are probably few among us that have not been “there” at one time or another. Felt marginalized or ignored, backed into a corner. Once clear objectives become clouded.

    This is just as likely to happen in London, San Francisco, or New York as it is in the hinterlands.

    Hard questions beg to be answered. When does “stakeholder” mean asset or liability? At what point (in the middle???) during this hypothetical conversation/journey are the warning signs apparent and to whom? And then what?

    For me this often happens in the local bar, red-flags get raised and valuable advice is shared. There is certain comfort and familiarity to that environment; organizational constraints get left at the door or are washed away by the beer. Transparency happens. Toes get stomped on and there are no hard feelings as a result.

    How does “that” translate to to a broader audience of donors, aid workers, and aid recipients? It’s a big ask to have your dirty laundry aired out in public.

  15. nandan b 6 May, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    During the tsunami relief, communities did reject bad aid – alien food, old clothes that did not fit, appliances they never used were abandoned on the highways – refusing to accept bad aid – so comunities to can be very discerning –

  16. Rachel 7 May, 2010 at 5:29 am #

    If someone offered me a free tee-shirt, I would probably take it. I like tee-shirts.


  1. Humourless links for May 8, 2010 - A Humourless Lot - 8 May, 2010

    […] Texas In Africa writes an excellent post on how to go from saviourism to empowerment (but seriously, Laura: Barbra Streisand lyrics for a title?). On a related note, Linda Raftree writes about community dialogue, which in turn leads to some interesting discussion over at Tales From the Hood. […]

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