Why does this have to be so hard?

14 Jun

The way aid should be done:

1) Understand the need that needs to be addressed, the problem that needs to be solved.

2) Plan a solution based on that need, on that problem.

3) Implement the solution to meet the need, fix the problem.

The way far too many amateurs want to do aid:

1) Have a solution (used clothes, volunteers, bunch of soccer balls, a gadget, etc…)

2) Find a problem that you can, with a little imagination, use the solution identified in Step 1 to partially solve.

* * *

The fact that there are masochists in the world does not mean it’s a okay to go around hitting people…

The fact that you can pound nails in using a screwdriver does not mean that it’s a good idea to use screwdrivers for driving nails…

The fact that you can find someone in Haiti who wants your old clothes does not mean that sending used clothes to Haiti is a good idea.

The fact that your volunteers are not run out of a village with torches and pitchforks in the dead of night is not proof, either that they were effective or that they were appreciated.

The fact that you can spin some wildly unlikely hypothetical situation in which your “activity that I’d like to do” idea might possibly not result in utter harm and chaos, in no way means that it’s a good idea.

The fact that you can spin a somewhat unlikely hypothetical situation in which your idea might result in even partial success, in no way means that it’s a good idea.

It’s basic pythagorean logic. It’s Occam’s Razor.

You start with the actual need. Then you base your solution on the need. Not the other way around.

Why is that so hard?

27 Responses to “Why does this have to be so hard?”

  1. smc 14 June, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    So, at the global level, what are the most pressing needs?

  2. Dea 14 June, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    Just found your blog and I am loving it. I am trying to spread the word to my fellow college students and many seem to be on board that the U.S. Aid system must be regulated.

  3. lhtorres 14 June, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    I think what makes it hard is the conflation of “aid” with “fixing problems.” Aid doesn’t “fix problems.” Its like comparing a tourniquet to stitches. Aid IMHO helps create the conditions under which problems can be fixed.

  4. morealtitude 14 June, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

    @smc: I think you’ll find that J.’s article (and many others he’s written) implies that you can’t ‘globalize’ needs and come up with simple solutions. The world of humanitarian needs is complex, multi-layered and ever-shifting. Needs are context-specific, and if you want to know how best to help a specific group of people in a specific place, you need to invest the time to find out about their context (culture, trends, norms, values), as well as find out what impact your presence has (what impact will your work have on these people, good and bad; what impact do you- as a relatively wealthy outsider- have on what communities ask you for), and balance those realities with what people say they need, what it appears to you they need (based on your training, experience, common-sense and judgement), and out of that, come up with a process which, as best you can surmise, is going to make a positive difference in their lives. And be ready to change it as soon as you discover that you’re actually doing harm, not good.

    Sound complicated? That’s why J. doesn’t endorse sending volunteers, dumping stuff, or coming up with outside-conceived ideas to help people en-masse without first taking the time to critically understand the situation and your presence in it.

    If you want a list of the most critical issues, then pick some interplay between malnutrition, disease (particularly among children), poor water/hygeine, poor public health systems, HIV/AIDS, and poor food production/distribution systems, all of which interact in a vicious cycle to create excess [largely] preventable mortality. How these interact in any given place, and how to counteract them in any given place, will vary. The needs of a nomadic pastoralist group in northern Somalia will differ hugely from a group of mixed farmers in rural Swaziland which in turn will differ hugely again from families squatting on swampland outside Phnom Penh which will once more be different from communities living in the Bolivian highlands. All have very real needs, and all are unique, and require unique solutions.

    @ J.: hope I didn’t put words in your mouth here.

    @ smc: You’ll forgive me if your question was written as an ironic statement, as it doesn’t translate well across the blogosphere.

  5. Paul C 15 June, 2010 at 2:05 am #

    Because a large amount of voluntary activity overseas is not about helping others but about signalling to your peers.

  6. angelica 15 June, 2010 at 4:46 am #

    because the majority of aid is a self fulfilling industry, based on the needs and priorities of the donor countries, not the receiving ones.

    And then there is the fact that we think we can teach things that we haven’t even worked out ourselves (sorry for the plug, but it’s an example http://onmotherhoodandsanity.blogspot.com/2010/05/things-embera-women-taught-me-in-48.html)

  7. katzistan 15 June, 2010 at 5:17 am #

    Thing is, I generally agree with your points. I work in aid as well and have encountered a lot of the same attitudes and initiatives to which you’re responding.

    I just don’t get the absolutism and self-righteousness, I don’t think that helps move the discussion forward in any useful way. The same absolutism and self-righteousness got us huge, environmentally devastating dams in India, single-crop dependence in Africa, and decades of top-down structural adjustment in lots of other places. The thing is, while, yes, you start with needs, there’s no single answer about where you go from there, and generally people tend to assess those needs within their narrow tunnel vision. So yes, it’s also very hard to get good solutions.

    The best answer is that we need more ideas, more engagement, more inclusiveness, not development autocrats telling us they know how to do things right.

  8. Ian 15 June, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    J – this looks like an aid version of the underpants gnomes

    Step 1: collect T-shirts (volunteer, whatever)
    Step 2: ???
    Step 3: Save Africa

    More seriously though, while I more or less agree there are a couple of caveats:
    1. Unfortunately this is not limited to amateurs. Many experienced aidworkers fall into the trap of shopping around solutions looking for problems – or at least “It worked in Costa Rica surely it will also work in Afghanistan”. Donors (individual and institutional) often encourage this because the idea of a simple project or replicable formula is so appealing.
    2. I think there is some room for people with partially formed ideas, and where the exact destination isn’t clear, to go ahead and do aid work at least as pilot projects since a lot of innovation and breakthroughs come this way. However this works better when those doing the innovating have either background in development, or have a good grounding in the country and community context where they are working – and preferably both.

  9. Katherine 15 June, 2010 at 6:02 am #

    I believe that the amateurs you describe in your post could meet your argument by describing the “problem” as, the acknowledgment of their own wealth and indulgence while many in the rest of the world suffer. The obvious solution to this problem is to share, isn’t it?

  10. Greg Robie 15 June, 2010 at 6:31 am #

    It is hard because motivated reasoning makes this simple framing a challenge to make sense of in real life. And trusting the attitude expressed by morealtitude above—that one-size-does-not-fit-all—is a cop out (at least in the area of broad systemic analysis). The term “startup world” used in the Tweets that got me to check out this blog post, is an example of bias & prejudice—at least in my experience (my iteration of motivated reasoning?). Implied by this label’s choice is that such a “starting” has a known finish—which I assume is a fixing of the dynamics that effect involuntary poverty. Unless the finish is leaning to feel poverty and hardship as wealth, this term for the globally exploited is an example of hubris.

    Anyway, here is what I have discerned as an answer to SMC’s query; here is the way aid should be done within the framing posted:

    1) Systemically, global capitalism—based on fractional reserve banking and transacted with fiat currencies coined in debt—requires poverty and, consequently, as an economic system, does not serve humanity well. It requires and increases environmental, social and economic injustice. It needs to be thrown under the bus because, as a corollary to Einstein’s insight about thinking and solving problems, feelings that create a problem cannot be trusted to recognize a solution to that problem.

    2) While the devil is in the details:

    3) Statements like the following are part of what the ‘fix’ is—i.e. consciously pissing off 2nd wave feminists until they can see themselves for what they are (a dominate—if hidden—part of the problem: Thanks to 2nd wave feminism’s influence in the cultural meme of the United States, “fixing” a problem is an oxymoron. Problems can best be lived with; adapted to; talked about. It has been women’s way of knowing and supportive feminist males who have frustrated my efforts to live the fix of the problem referenced in #1. Such resistance, born of motivated reasoning and liberal moral piety (as per Jonathan Haidt’s modeling), is a socio-psychoneuroimmunoendocrinological* addiction system that affects imperviousness relative to efforts to change it through a rational processes—hence why confronting and insulting it is loving; leads to change that can non-violently (in the physical sense) lead to justice.

    *a word I think I have coined

    Editing the second points to relate to the above:

    The way far too many professionals want to do aid:

    1) Have a orientation toward their profession as articulated by morealtitude.

    2) See problems as a means of rationalizing one’s profession (ones means of being in—and feeding—the economic meme of global capitalism).

    . . . or at least I think this helps explain why getting problem solving for others right is so hard.

  11. Greg Robie 15 June, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    Dang, left out the link I intended to include with #2: http://home.roadrunner.com/~robie/opento/klimakatastrophe/DiscoveringMetanoia.html#ConstitutionCrises

  12. lhtorres 15 June, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    A few additional thoughts: http://mitpsc.mit.edu/globalchallenge/?p=335

  13. didier 15 June, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    In the best of circumstances, aid organizations are mediating institutions reconciling needs and demands made of them by the people they are seeking to support with the resources made available to them by well intentioned people with surplus resources and an ethic that moves them to share what they do not need. The good organizations are good at screening, matching and even educating about what is utltimately demanded and needed. Sometimes there are judgement calls when the best resource is not available and an inferior good needs to be substituted but ultimately those calls are based on the extent and urgency of the need. The bad ones just become supply driven.

  14. Carla 15 June, 2010 at 11:25 am #

    So funny. How did you know that I was recently introduced to a program in Haiti that falls under this complaint? Mind reader.

  15. Emanuel Rubin 15 June, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    If only more than 83 people would hear about this.

  16. Sam Gardner 15 June, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    Is this really so that the guy with the bright solution looking for a problem is a serious issue in development?

    I feel that the freakish ones of this kind have been in the margins of development now for a long time. A lot of organisations might do it, but are they relevant? Who remembers the five other candidates for President of the US? Only the top two get remembered.

    If somebody has a real skill, it might be wise if he is looking at the best place to apply it.

    What I see as a bigger problem is what Easterly calls the planners: arguing for an holistic approach they do not try to solve the main problems of a community, but rather the whole caboodle of problems they can identify at one go. And this based on general principles.

  17. Virtual Economics 16 June, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    Good one! look like a check list for aid activists! At Virtual Economics, we are also spreading ideas about aid and development for development professionals.

  18. Adam Hooper 16 June, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    I think the reasoning goes more like this:

    1) *I* want to help, and I am an asset with an inventory of skills (say, I can fish/gamble/teach English/fix computers/eat ten hot-dogs in one sitting/collect used t-shirts)

    2) I must be able to help *somebody*

    Nobody expects hypothetical graphic designer with no other talents to teach a starving Maasai warrior how to herd more cows so his children eat properly, but … it’s not a particular *solution* that can’t help the Maasai warrior’s children, it’s a *person*. That poor graphic designer really wants to do something and might not realize that there is absolutely nothing he/she can do on the ground to help.

    In other words: the reasoning isn’t “how can t-shirts help?”, it’s “how can *I* help?”. Which is why, when you tell somebody t-shirts aren’t helping, the real message is that *he*’s not helping.

    I think the emotion is naive, of course (the graphic designer can help by being part of a larger team which he/she does not lead), but I think it explains the disconnect between people who understand aid and people who don’t.


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