17 May

Nothing warms an anonymous aid blogger’s heart quite as much as getting quoted in TIME.

For those who may have missed it, here is the article on the by-now-old-news 1millionshirts controversy, by Nicholas Wadhams: The Article.

For those who care to know what else I may have said on the subject, here is the written interview that I gave on April 30 in it’s entirety, posted with the consent of Mr. Wadhams (thanks, man!) – hereafter referred to as “Nick”:

Nick A few questions, some of which you’ve already alluded to. It’s a lot, but bear with me.1. What was it about the 1 million t-shirts idea that struck such a nerve among the aid/development community?

J: I think there two primary issues. First, the original concept of 1 million shirts basically represented a return, paradigmatically, to approximately the mid-1980’s. It represented an inefficient, ineffective, and by some measures objectively harmful way of conceiving and implementing aid. It is/was a type of aid project that many of us have spent the last decade-plus trying to get our our donors, in some cases even our employers, and by and large the general public to abandon. Basically aid projects that are envisioned far from the place where they will be carried out, without little or no knowledge of the place by those doing the envisioning, and with little or no meaningful involvement of those who will be affected by it.

Second, and this is related to the first, it struck at the heart of one of the current “big issues” in the aid industry: getting general recognition of the fact that aid is, in fact, a professional vocation. Although Aid is not currently regulated like, say, medicine, it is actually a bit like medicine in the sense that there are most definitely (and increasingly) international technical standards, norms, associations of practitioners, and – this is the really important part – ways to do aid wrong. If a physician misdiagnoses a patient or prescribes a harmful treatment, the patient could actually die. Regardless of whether or not the physician meant well. It’s the same in aid, except that we’re talking about entire communities, not just a single patient. When we mess up, harm comes to other people. Even it we didn’t mean it. And so we (or at least I) want to push back when non-aid-professionals want to muck around in aid, apparently with the attitude that it’s not really that hard, that pretty much anyone can do it, and that simply intending well is enough.

Some accuse the aid industry of professional arrogance or exclusivity. And of course there are individuals within aid who are arrogant and exclusive. But in my opinion, the larger issue around professionalism comes down to ensuring that good, rather than bad aid happens.

Jason’s seemingly cavalier approach to aid felt to many of us like someone saying, “this is easy. Anyone with a webcam and a twitter account can make the world a better place…” When in fact, we know from repeated, bitter experience, that it’s just nowhere nearly that simple.

Nick: What did you think of Jason’s response?

J.: I thought Jason’s response was actually pretty typical. People get defensive – understandably – when we tell them that their ideas for “helping” Africa (or wherever) won’t work. People do not want to hear that, more than anything else, the best thing they can do is to financially support an organization doing the thing that they approve of. I think perhaps Americans in particular have a difficult time hearing there is nothing for them to actually do to help. We’re used to buying a manual and fixing our own cars (I do it), going to Home Depot, picking up the stuff, and tiling our own bathrooms in a different color or installing our own ceiling fans. It’s fun to figure that stuff out and immensely gratifying, once you do it. And many tend to look at third-world poverty and humanitarian aid in the same way: an interesting challenge to which a perfectly acceptable response is simply a can-do attitude and a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and get to it. Many have said, written, tweeted… “but people just want to DO something…”, and the hard message to hear is that there is just no role for them. As I said before/above, it is definitely possible to do aid wrong and cause real, lasting harm. But we’re (aid workers) very often gotten grumpy with for delivering that message.

I’m reading a bit into it, but that is basically what I saw in Jason’s response at first.

I’ll say as well, that to his credit he came around and heard what actual experts and professionals in the field had to say. Which is not quite as typical – many non-aid-professionals remain on their initially chosen course of action and just keep shopping the idea around, or maybe just starting their own charity and doing it themselves. Jason appears to have not gone this route, which is a good thing in my opinion. Of course the real test will be to see what happens next, what he actually does…

Nick: Tell me how you think Jason ought to have handled the issue.

J.: I think that it would have been better to have simply chosen a reputable international aid organization or charity, pledged a donation to them, and let them work with their own field counterparts, etc. to determine what the project would be, where, and so on. This, rather than deciding first what the intervention or activity would be, and then finding a place to do it.

Once the criticism from the aid community started, I suppose it would have been better had Jason not become defensive. But as I said before, this is a pretty common reaction. All things considered, he came around (or seems to have) in less than three days. In my experience, that’s not such a bad timeline, all things considered.

Nick: What would the challenges be of sending a million shirts to Africa? Why is it such a bad idea?

J.: Those are two somewhat separate questions. To the first, the challenges in actually doing, once he got 1 million actual shirts, would be largely logistical. Giving out a million of anything in the context of an aid or development program is a lot of work and takes a lot of time. 1 million shirts would take up a lot of space, cost a lot to ship, be a huge hassle to get through customs (even in tranches), take a lot of time to target (decide who gets them), and a lot of local human power to physically distribute.

To the second – why is it such a bad idea? – It would disrupt local economies, create dependency, put pressure on local entrepreneurs and producers (or possibly put them out of business entirely). The ins and outs of this have been explored in some depth by some bloggers with more detailed knowledge of the countries in question than me. But essentially, one million shirts sent to Africa could potentially cause very real harm.

Further, it seems clear that from the very beginning, the whole 1 million shirts idea was essentially a solution for which a problem needed to be found. Jason more or less confirmed this himself on the open round-table call earlier today. He has, or at least can probably get shirts. A lot of shirts. This is a project that is necessarily somehow about shirts. It’s not primarily about helping to reduce poverty. It’s not about meeting a specific need in a specific place. It’s about shirts. Like so many other specific product-driven “aid” projects, this one was – again – a pre-packaged solution that needed a problem. And this is the classic recipe for bad aid: aid that begins with something other than what the needs of the poor are; aid that is not sustainable; aid that will very likely cause harm in the long run.

Planning a development project based on the availability of a supply of product or service “X”, rather than on the assessed needs of a particular community is backward logic. We know on the basis of decades of experience that it this kind of aid quite simply does not work.

Nick: Why are good intentions not enough? What’s wrong with a guy in Florida with a bunch of t-shirts wanting to help out?

J.: What’s wrong is that quite frankly it’s just not about guys in Florida with a bunch of T-shirts. It is about helping the poor: what are their needs? And what are the most appropriate, most effective, most sustainable ways of meeting those needs?

I personally get very frustrated with this line of logic – the, “yes, but he meant well…” If good intentions were really all it took, there would be no such thing as malpractice in the medical world. In fact, there would probably be no medical field at all. If people were injured or ill, anyone with casual interest could just treat them in whatever way seemed to make sense in the moment, all the while meaning well. Few of us are as interested in the good intentions of our physicians as we are in their competence and capability. At this time there is no professional certification in international humanitarian aid or development, nor is there an equivalent in the aid world to malpractice in the medical world. But that in no way means that the stakes are any lower.

Hopefully aid and development practitioners mean well. But at the end of the day, what matters most is what they actually do.

One on one, man to man, I can cut Jason some slack for meaning well. Yes, he has a good heart. He’s not a bad guy. Let’s work with that. But as a humanitarian aid professional, his intentions are wholly not the issue.

Nick: It seemed that while many of the points expressed in blogs and Twitter were true, there was a certain amount of cynicism and condescension in some of the responses. Why?

J.: I’ve kind of alluded to parts of the answer to this already. As well, Saundra in her post on why Aid Bloggers are Snarky really lays it out well: we’re sick of having this conversation over and over and over and over and over… Aid projects designed around a surplus of product was objectively known to be a bad way of doing aid years ago. We’re tired of misguided (but “well-intended”) aid being dreamed up and implemented by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Years – decades – of calm, reasoned discussion do not seem to have worked. People are still collecting shoes, socks, underwear… T-shirts… somehow under the delusion that it is helpful. Sometimes loud shouting down is the only thing that gets heard.

Nick: Possibly a very leading question, but hell, I’m a journalist, that’s my job: Is there a contradiction in people who work for aid organizations criticizing a guy who wants to deliver aid? I mean, I’ve covered aid from Kenya for four years, and for eight years before that. Needs assessments, project analysis, field assessments — often these are highly subjective and deeply flawed. There’s been much criticism of Jason because the process should not be donor-driven. But Care, Oxfam, and the countless other NGOs out there seem to be guilty of similar transgressions.

J.: Yeah, that’s a common question. As a bit of side reference I’ll refer you as well to Alanna’s UN Dispatch post on Five Criticsms of Aid.

First, there is absolutely no denying that sometimes even professional aid practitioners, famous, well-funded aid organizations make mistakes. And you’re right – every single aid project is donor-driven to some extent: aid has to be paid for by someone, and that someone always has an agenda. No getting around that.

But I don’t really see it as a contradiction. Let’s compare aid to medicine again – the facts that there are horribly unscrupulous physicians who engage in terribly unethical practices, or that many people have died or suffered unnecessarily due to medical advances that just hadn’t happened in time for them, in no way undermine the field and profession as a whole. And if anything, this would make it all the more important that people who practice medicine actually be physicians.

I’d see humanitarian aid and development in the same way. The fact that the NGOs you mention (along with a great many others) have, in the past made mistakes and done it all badly, in no way makes it okay for random well-intended non-professionals to muck around, trying to solve problem in poor countries.

Nick: Does it change your view at all that the two NGOs Jason is working with say they are responding to a demand expressed directly to them by Kenyans, Ugandans, Congolese and others? And that they say they are not going to dump a million shirts on Africa but release the shirts slowly, a few thousand here and there, to specific communities that have asked for them?

J.: 1) Bad aid is bad aid, no matter who thought of it. Kenyans, Ugandans, Congoles, American NGOs, are just as capable of coming up with bad aid ideas as anyone else.

2) No matter what you have to give away, no matter how inappropriate, no matter how bad the idea is… you can always find someone who wants the stuff, a community who wants the project. This in no way releases an aid agency or practitioner from the responsibility to do appropriate, effective work.

Nick: Last question: Much has been written about how wonderful blogs and Twitter have been in delivering feedback to Jason very quickly so the idea can morph into something more useful. But is there a dark side to that? I mean, most of the critics have not talked to him or bothered to learn much beyond the web site. Could they be quashing an idea that they don’t know much about and which might actually have some merit?

J.: One one hand I agree with you that there is a dark-side potential in all of this. The web and various social media forms that exist on it could just as easily be mobilized to quash good ideas as bad ones, be a force for evil as well as good, if you will. There is both good and bad potential here.

On the other hand, it seems very clear that the 1,000,000 Shirts to Africa thing was a marketing gimmic more than anything else. It wasn’t that deep. There wasn’t that much to know.

The valuable thing in all of this – and we did discover it – is the power of someone like Jason to generate a buzz and create a stir and get people interested and talking. I sincerely hope that Jason continues to promote the humanitarian cause, but that he also makes sure to get good advice from people who know what they’re talking about and that he promotes/supports real good aid programs.

If more aid actors and practitioners would learn from the Jasons out there and use social media to promote and educate the public about what good aid is and how it is done and what they can do to be a part of it, I’m convinced that the world could very possibly end up being a better place for everyone than it currently is.

5 Responses to “TIME”

  1. Marianne 18 May, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    Fantastic interview. And yes, we do care. Well, I do.

  2. avam 18 May, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    Thanks for posting your full response – I thought you probably gave a more detailed and nuanced response than that which they actually published. Congrats as well – it’s not a small feat for anyone to get their name mentioned in TIME.

    Thought you and any other posters might also find this interesting (although it’s more related to your other post on CNN/Celebrity)….a friend fwd’ed to me. It was in today’s UK Guardian. Warning – it’s pretty depressing.


    From the looks of things, it’s less a worry that Sean Penn is given undue attention by CNN, than that he might yet be allowed to produce/write and star in each show. And there goes any attempt at the general public being able to expect at least some level of objective, intelligent journalism/reporting. How have we come to the point where Bono/Geldof can edit an Entire edition of Canada’s ‘Globe & Mail’ (above link), Ms Jolie is nominated to the Council for Foreign Relations and has had an article she wrote in the Washington Post – and of course they all fancy themselves as quite the international diplomats/refugee crisis coordinators/world experts on every possible topic and general superheroes self-elected to represent us all?

  3. avam 18 May, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    (fyi – here is the actual story about their visit in the ‘Globe and Mail’ itself:


    As a canadian/brit – I’ve got to say, I’m so ashamed of my fellow canadians for thinking this would, somehow, be a good idea ?!)


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