Somewhere along the line we’ve done a basic disservice to our donors, to our “Third Audience”, and to ourselves:
We have allowed them to believe that relief and development work are easy, uncomplicated and inexpensive.
For all of the romantic oooh-aaaah sometimes associated with aid work, the general population continues to basically lack respect for both the nature of the problems being tackled by aid work, and also what it takes to do aid work. And whether it’s, “98 cents of your dollar goes directly to beneficiaries”, “your $100 buys a poor family a cow and gets them out of poverty”, or “feel good about making a difference while on vacation”, we’ve become totally seduced by the belief that solving the basic problems of the world can be done cheaply and easily.
I have news for you: aid is difficult, complicated, expensive work.
The problems that aid tries to address, from chronic poverty to the aftermaths of massive rapid onset disasters are large, complex problems. Solving or setting the stage for solutions, or even just partially alleviating them takes concerted, sustained, substantial effort. While symptoms may at times appear straightforward, the problems that aid work addresses are not simple problems. They are complicated problems that require a great deal of effort and focus to understand. And so it should come as a surprise to no one that they also require complex, difficult, and usually expensive solutions.
It is difficult work that requires skill and expertise to do properly. To be done properly, aid requires practitioners who have a particular knowledge base and possession of particular information. It is work that requires concentrated thought and analysis and understanding. It is time-consuming, precisely because the problems being addressed are ones that have been building over many years (even in the context of large disasters, the core problems were there prior to the disaster…).
On one hand I basically agree with and applaud those voices that in their own ways call out the inefficiency present in the aid industry and in many aid programs. There are certainly plenty of current examples of bad aid being well-funded. However, on the other hand I cannot sit by and let those voice go completely unchallenged: let us be careful to not mistakenly assume because some large, well-funded aid programs with lots of expats and white Landcruisers are not effective that the answer is the opposite. I know from repeated direct, personal experience that small programs with no vehicles and only volunteers or local staff are just as susceptible to failure as the huge ones.
The difference between success and failure of an aid project is not about the size of the budget, but rather about the integrity of need analysis, sound program design, and whether or not the right people are given the right resources and empowered to do the job that needs doing. Aid successes can be elusive… But I promise, you: skimp on any of these things, and projects fail.
Trying to do aid on the cheap does not work. Cutting corners on the right equipment or staff with the right skills ultimately cuts quality and sustainability. If you need a vehicle, you need a vehicle. Not just anyone can do this. If you need a local person with a MA degree, you need a local person with an MA degree. If you need a foreigner, you need a foreigner. There are no fast solutions. There are no shortcuts. There are no magik bullets. There are no miracle cures.
Aid costs what it costs. Aid takes as long as it takes, and requires what it requires.