Great Success

18 May

A few weeks ago I tweeted up the link to a post on Carla Murphy’s personal blog that I found particularly thought-provoking.  The idea of humanitarianism as the extension of religion in modern consciousness (my paraphrase of her writing), and as such, humanitarians as those who in the eyes of many can do no wrong, is at once scathing and troubling on multiple levels. Which is to say that I agree with her analysis. Among many, one particular line that I like: “Do something, anything is like USDA grade D meat. It’s the lowest standard of human intervention in the plight of another.”

* * * * *

Articles like this one from CBS really get to me.  Reading them is frustrating because it seems to me painfully obvious that writers like Sharyl Attkisson fundamentally misunderstand how Aid actually works, and as a result ask the wrong questions and harp on the wrong issues. The argument that aid is slow in reaching earthquake-affected Haitians, based on the value of what has been raised for the overall response effort implies that the rate of response and recovery is linked primarily to how much money is available for it. And again, the fundamental fallacy of this line of logic seems so obvious as to be almost incontrovertible. (More of my opinion on this article elsewhere ).

And yet, I cannot help but ask myself, “what is a reasonable rate of recovery for Haiti?” I ask it rhetorically of Sharyl and Dr. Gupta and all of the angry Haitian Diaspora on twitter: If MSF’s or CRS’s respective spend-downs to-date against their respective overall incomes for the Haiti earthquake response are unacceptably low, that what would be acceptable? I ask this rhetorically and also sincerely: knowing full-well that a best-case scenario for any kind of “meaningful” recovery is at least five years out, now at four months and one week past the earthquake, what would be a reasonable expectation? What proportion of whole or raw dollar amount (if you prefer) would represent a sufficient stewardship, sufficient attention to the immediate needs of earthquake survivors?

Do tell.

Because honestly, I don’t know.

* * * * *

I’ll just say it: There is no baseline for Success in Aid. When we talk about “success” we really mean “improvement.”

I’ve asked it before, but think about it again: at what point do we consider our job “finished” in a given community? We start up and end projects. We initiate multi-year strategies that later get revised or updated. We plan and implement integrated programs. Disasters happen and we respond and then transition those disaster responses into early recovery and then into rehabilitation and then into long-term development programs. Grants and phases end, but thus far I have not seen any serious discussion around how we know when the need for relief or development ends. The closest that I know of would be the decisions to pull out of country or place X because there is no longer grant funding available, or a similar decision based on having spun off a locally incorporated version of ourselves to whom we essentially pass the torch. But these are proxies only.

We have thus far not been able to define success for ourselves, let alone those we’re supposed to be serving, whether in Haiti or elsewhere.

We can only talk about improvement. We can speak with great confidence, not only in the abstract about what it takes to reduce infant mortality, but also about concrete examples where we have done so. We can track improvements in food security and even claim some of the credit for those improvements having happened. We can do advocacy and see incremental changes for the better at national policy levels. And those are all important and worth doing. I suppose they are even “good” in their own ways. But they are improvements only – not Success. We cannot say with conviction at what point, based on measurable changes, we will declare our work complete in this community or that.

We have not thought development through to the end. What is the end? Every Haitian home has a satellite dish and a hybrid car sitting in a garage with a Black & Decker automatic garage door opener? We can look now at horrible conditions in the displacement camps in and around Port-au-Prince and know what we need to do to improve those conditions. We can foresee with a reasonable amount of accuracy based on past experience what the challenges are almost certain to be in Haiti one year, two years, three years… from now, and we know what we will need to do in order to bring improvements to the conditions created by these challenges. But we do not know what Success will look like.

And so neither do we know what absolute failure looks like. Or even only incremental failure. When articles like the one in CBS come out they feel horribly wrong. It feels like we’re all – the humanitarian aid community – being blamed for failing to achieve a standard that simply does not yet exist.

I completely agree with Carla, that, “Do something, anything is like USDA grade D meat. It’s the lowest standard of human intervention in the plight of another.” And because of this it is not much comfort, really, that Sharyl has not asked a hard question, but rather that she has just not asked the real question: What is Success in Haiti? For the relief effort, for Haiti, for individual Haitians?

One Response to “Great Success”

  1. joe 19 May, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    Interesting – I was talking about this with @viewfromthecave yesterday. Misquoting the arch-critic Chomsky –

    “International development? I don’t know what it is, but I suspect it is a device to keep aid professionals employed…”

    As an outsider, the intention of all programmes (sponsorship etc perhaps in particular) is to get people to the point where they no longer need your services. But without some goal in mind, as you mention above, you never actually reach it and therefore can always find further things you could/should be doing – if only to keep the programme running and you employed (you in general not you in particular..). As I said elsewhere, there is a widespread belief in the heresy of ‘better than nothing’ implying that whatever you are doing is better than was there before and therefore is justified. Few stop to ask not whether it is better than nothing, but whether it is all that could have been achieved with the same investment of time and money etc.

    Finally a joke: which is better – a sausage sandwich or complete happiness? Answer – sausage sandwich. Because nothing is better than complete happiness and a sausage sandwich is better than nothing. sandwich -nothing-complete happiness.

    Thus proving that ‘better than nothing’ is a rubbish measure.

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