Q & A

13 Aug

This is follow-up to a prior post entitled “What do YOU think?” As hoped, “What do YOU think?” generated some excellent, thought-provoking comments and discussion. “Thank you” to those who took the time to share their thoughts.

This doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation, nor is it meant to be an exhaustive response, but I have tried to pull together a few thoughts in response to some of the issues raised.

* * *

What’s ‘Normal’?

@viewfromthecave articulates some of the complexity around defining and getting a handle on ‘normal.’ Joe notes, correctly, that we’d need some sort of pre-disaster baseline as one part of determining what is ‘normal.’ And Jina suggests that perhaps ‘normal’, to quote a UN strategy officer in Sierra Leone, is when “things work unexceptionally.”

My thoughts: In my opinion we just don’t know. No one that I’ve read or spoken to can clearly, convincingly define what ‘normal’ is in the context of a disaster response like Haiti right now, or, say, Louisiana or Tsunamiland before.

A better question in my mind would be, “what does aid success look like?” My sense is that anyone who thinks about it for even two meaningful minutes understands the futility of talking about ‘normal’ (especially to disaster responders). But it think it is absolutely fair to ask what minimums aid workers and aid agencies should be held to, to define in as-objective-as-possible terms the conditions under which they can be declared by the media, the host government, their beneficiaries, or their donors to have “failed”, “performed poorly”, “performed adequately”, or “kicked ass.”

The present reality is that in the early days after a disaster, simply saving some lives, any lives, or getting something, anything out to survivors, making things better even if only incrementally is sufficient. But by the time week four rolls around, after the dust has begun to settle and the fog of war has worn off, just trying to make things “better” is obviously not good enough, yet any concept of “success” remains also untenably vague.

How Long?

Joe asks a good question: Why wouldn’t we spend down what we raise in the year that we raise it?  Blair, Didier, C-sez, and Linda all provide good discussion in response. Much of what they say echoes my own sentiments.

My thoughts: Let me first clarify that the 50-70% in the first year is not based on a hard-and-fast industry standard. It is, rather, a very general guideline than many organizations loosely follow. Further, whether that guideline is even relevant depends to a very large degree on how much funding has come in. Whether you’re following a resource transfer or investment paradigm (see Didier), the amount of effort that it takes to spend $5 billion dollars at all responsibly (even if only from the perspective of good financial management and accountability) is simply immense.

As well, the issue of spend-down is inextricably linked to one’s assumptions about what aid programming looks like beyond the initial emergency response. Most aid practitioners assume the need to adequately plan for some kind of recovery programming that takes place beyond the immediate disaster response. For all of the vagueness around what aid success looks like (see above), we’re all pretty sure – and I include myself here – that 3 months of emergency distribution, followed by a full-scale pull-out, is poor practice. Given the reality of what we see following large disasters, I personally think we’re right to plan for multi-year recovery programs up front, and in my opinion it is appropriate to use funds raised for the emergency response to support those recovery programs.

Good cop/bad cop?

Carla and Stephanie ask some really good questions around accountability. As I read them, both humanitarian accountability and also, I guess, financial accountability.

My thoughts: Didier (again) gives pretty much the same answer to Steph’s question about the financial “float”  that I’d give. I think that holding funds in some sort of interest-bearing account until it’s time to deploy those same funds to the field is simply good stewardship. Further, for as long as I’ve been in the industry, I am not personally aware of an aid agency that has used the earnings on such funds for anything other than the same purpose that the original funds were donated for. This doesn’t mean there is no example out there – only that I’m not aware of one. And at least in the USA the laws which govern not-for-profit organizations are fairly strict: I wouldn’t expect to find too many examples. (And please don’t fill the comments thread here with examples.)

Carla’s comment really gets at the issues of a) no clear and/or more or less universally accepted view of what aid “success” looks like; and b) the fact that the aid industry is, for all practical purposes, self-regulated. And not only self-regulated, but self-regulated on an opt-in basis. Without a clear picture of what “success” looks like, it’s hard to think through what failure looks like as well. It’s hard to know with real certainty which white SUV or which expat were “necessary”, and which were NGOs wasting good money that could be used to help more people. Is lack of food distribution in this camp evidence of incompetence? Is it evidence of NGOs being self-absorbed? Is it evidence of system failure? Or is it that even with all of the resources available the need still outstrips combined capacity to respond? I’m not presuming an answer – and I have no illusions that there is brokenness and waste and sometimes incompetence, and sometimes even outright abuse in the humanitarian aid industry. But once again, without being able to articulate what aid success is, in the end we’re down to a “their word against ours” situation between the media and watchdogs on one hand, and aid providers on the other.

Finally, yes. The aid sector is unregulated. I’ve complained about this before. The only bodies really capable of regulating the actions of aid agencies are host governments, and they are almost always painted in a negative light whenever they do so: “Government obstruction keeps NGOs from delivering aid to those who need it most…” Honestly, I don’t know what a good answer is. I’m not sure that formal, international regulation is the answer (even if feasible). But the current shame/honor, opt-in model is not exactly working either.

One Response to “Q & A”

  1. Joe Turner 16 August, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    I kinda like the thought that you get what you pay for – if you want it fast, it is going to be expensive but if you want it done properly it is going to take a lot longer. You can’t have both.

    It reminds me a bit of botany classes and the main strategies for growing plants as defined by Wilson’s <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R/K_selection_theory"island biogeography theorum.

    Maybe NGOs should just advertise the strategy they’re going to apply: ie: we’re going to hit it hard and fast with everything we can raise vs we’re going to spin it out as long as we can.

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