15 Jun

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.

31 Responses to “Cost”

  1. Elizabethc 17 June, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    Well, I’d comment but you’d probably just erase it. Whether it made sense or not. Excellent Khmer Rouge tactics!

    • J. 17 June, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

      I have met Khmer Rouge. Real ones. And I have interviewed survivors of Toul Sleng. I have very direct and detailed knowledge of how the Khmer Rouge carried out their business and what their tactics were.

      You may certainly disagree with my views on how best to implement humanitarian aid. The fact that you own/run your very own voluntourism organization means that you must oppose my views, or at least partially recant your own – something I don’t anticipate. Fair enough.

      As a humanitarian professional it is my obligation to promote what I believe to be sound practice, and call out what I believe to be poor practice. But I am nothing at all like the Khmer Rouge.

      This is the last time that I will knowingly allow a comment from you on my blog.

  2. ex-Red R volunteer 18 June, 2010 at 3:42 am #

    what’s a “third audience”?

    MSF’s whole business model is based around volunteers – experienced doctors who make their skills available, for a limited time (1 year), for little or no pay. I know that because i have been a Red R volunteer in a refugee camp where MSF doctors were providing surgery in facilities built from scratch and kept running by Red R engineers, plumbers and logisticians, deployed in less than two weeks from a volunteer roster.

    in that particular camp UN well paid professionals were best avoided.

    closer to home, in my small australian town, firefighters are all volunteers – they do a good job – don’t take my word for it, just watch Australian news during bushfire season.

    Are you saying MSF, Red R and my small town community are all cutting corners and should not be funded?

  3. Balanced Melting Pot 18 June, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    Wow, who knew humanitarian work could be so political😉 I have this discussion often with non-aid workers. People confuse humanitarian with FREE all the time. What they don’t realize is that not paying for adequate human resources, equipment, etc. means that the quality of the work decreases a great deal. It happens all the time, but rarely gets talked about. I am all for putting the money required to get the job done in the humanitarian field – if that is the method chosen by the country/government. Hope that makes sense.

  4. didier 18 June, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    In many cases, volunteers are overmatched by the circumstances in which they are placed; but I can’t help but think of all the downstream impacts that volunteer experiences can also create. Just looking at a place lie Haiti, would there be a Partners in Health without the early volunteer expriences of Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl in the Central Plateau or would Fonkoze be as good as it is without the San Carlos Foundation placing Anne Hastings there initially as a volunteer? I’m sure there are countless more of these types of examples as there are of ones where opportunities and placements were wasted or ineffectual. So once again, maybe it’s not so much about favoring one way over another as learning to understand how to use a resource in the right context (which also means knowing when not to use it).

    • J. 18 June, 2010 at 8:41 am #

      In any other professional field we would not be having this conversation. Some patients may have responded favorably to blood-letting in the 1800’s, but in 2010 no serious medical practitioner or researcher thinks the practice is worth continuing. Some great books were written on computers that ran Windows 95, but to argue that because of that we should keep those old machines around is plain ludicrous.

      By the same token, the western-volunteers-to-the-third-world conversation was basically over by 1996: at that time no serious NGO, aid worker, or aid critic/thinker/philosopher thought that sending untrained, unsupported, unequipped, random well-intended people off someplace to “help.” We’d seen it melt down in the field to the direct detriment of those they’d wanted to help too many times.

      I understand the emotional need of many to acknowlege for the sake of argument the potential benefit of using international volunteers in international development and relief contexts. But I think we need to be realistic as well: it is time to leave behind practices that we know are very likely to not work.

  5. Carla 18 June, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    Wow. What’s it about, this resistance to heeding the advice of professional aid workers who’ve spent a decade or more in the field? I can’t imagine Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Jobs getting a similar reaction from others working in their field… particularly those with less experience. Maybe I’m wrong and most aid workers with decades of global experience *do not* think like J? I don’t know. But I find the push-back fascinating… really interested in exploring the emotion behind it. J, you always have the most fascinating threads!!😉

    • didier 18 June, 2010 at 11:25 am #

      What makes you think experienced aid workers aren’t replying?

      • Carla 18 June, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

        “Maybe I’m wrong and most aid workers with decades of global experience *do not* think like J? I don’t know.”

        I’m open to being wrong about my assumption. As I said, above, I don’t know. Best, C.

  6. Greg Robie 20 June, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    While reading this I found myself wanting to substitute the term “justice” for “aid” . . . and found the switch insightful.

    • J. 20 June, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

      I’m thinking I agree with you…

      • Greg Robie 21 June, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

        King had a relevant insight concerning justice: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Isn’t the global reserve currency systemically unjust? If so, for me this begs the question whether any aid facilitated via the economy so created can facilitate justice rather than being a threat to the systemic change that is needed to redress global poverty . . . and why “aid is difficult, complicated, expensive* work.” [*An understatement—if justice requires the end of debt-based wealth as a social perception of economic security.]

        My bias is that aid which is not strategically part of dumping debt-based fiat currencies is, at best, a Band-Aid®. From your experience does that, at some level, feel about right?

  7. aly 30 June, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    A lyrical look at the way charities seduce us into believing that aid is easy, uncomplicated and inexpensive:

    Oops They (insert offending charity of choice) Did it Again

    I think they did it again
    They made us believe there’s no overhead
    So easy
    It might seem like a steal
    But it doesn’t mean that those costs are real
    Cause to say they send every penny
    That is just really really sneaky
    So easy, baby

    Oops!…They did it again
    They played with our hearts, got lost in the game
    So easy, baby
    Oops!…We think we’re in love
    NGOs sent from above
    They’re not that innocent

    You see our problem is this
    We’re dreaming away
    Wishing quick fixes they truly exist
    I cry, watching the craze
    Can’t you see we’ve been fooled in so many ways
    But to say they send every penny
    That is just really really sneaky
    Baby, oh

    [Repeat CHORUS]

    Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
    Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

    “All who want to help abroad”
    “Donor, before you give, there’s something I want you to know”
    “Oh, it sounds too good to be true, but wait a minute, isn’t it…?”
    “Yeah, yes it is”
    “But I thought the world’s problems were complicated, ”
    “Well, with your $20, we’ll solve it for you.”
    “Oh, you shouldn’t have”

    Oops!…They did it again to our hearts
    Got lost in this game, so easy
    Oops!…You think that they’re a cut above
    They’re not that innocent

    • J. 30 June, 2010 at 12:59 pm #


  8. May 5 July, 2010 at 3:36 am #

    I can’t get this post out of my head. I was an intl volunteer a few years back and am now an aid worker. I got to say, you are 100% right.

  9. T 23 November, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    …made me think of Donors who don’t want to pay enforced taxes in the country they want to fund projects and expect the government to cooperate…


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