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.
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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.