22 Feb

I’m sure that someone at Microsoft can articulate a very convincing case for why the Zune is a “better” device than the iPod.

Maybe it has some awesome obscure feature or function. Maybe its’ battery lasts longer, or maybe it has more hard-drive space. But the sales tell the story (and no, I don’t believe that it’s just slick Apple marketing. If the Zune was truly a better product, the word would be out by now). It’s not that there isn’t one single person anywhere on the planet who prefers the Zune. But the majority of the worlds’ consumers of have voted with their wallets and essentially declared the Zune as #SWEDOW.

* * *

A number of things have been slowly crystallizing for me over the past several months. This comment (here) on my blog not long ago, plus the whole #100kshirts / invigorated GIK discussion (too many places to link individually) helped it gel for me. I’ve written about elements of it before (here, here…) – it’s nothing particularly new or earth-shattering. It is simply this:

We’re incredibly distracted.

For as much as we say we want to “help the poor” – and I believe that we’re at least mostly sincere – we spend an awful lot of time on things that don’t further that aim.

I’ve written before repeatedly that aid work is complicated. We take on complicated problems, very often in highly complicated contexts. The work itself is often very difficult. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to some of the most basic concepts there are. The basic concepts of aid work are not rocket science. Not just not rocket science, but not even remotely close:

  • Ask people what they need –>Listen to the answer.
  • Understand the issue or the problem –> Use basic logic to come up with the most reasonable response.
  • If the need is X –> Provide X (not Y)

And yet it often feels as if we’re making it all more difficult than it really has to be. Many days it feels as if we spend increasing amounts of time in discussions about issues that – even once they’re resolved – will not move us collectively in the direction of better aid. The amount of time and emotional energy behind the GIK or volunteers discussions, for example. No one is saying that as a matter of principle all GIK is bad all the time, regardless of what it is or the context in which it is being delivered. Nor is anyone saying that in no circumstance whatsoever is it ever ever ever appropriate for an unpaid (or marginally paid) foreigner – a “volunteer” – to perform some function which contributes to the aid endeavor. But the amount of time spent and the lengths gone to to justify those two particular activities as a matter of principle, you must admit, is rather astounding. Not to mention annoying.

If as much energy was put into just doing plain old good aid – whatever that means – as into explaining the whys and wherefores of how and under what circumstances GIK might work or volunteers might be effective, I’m thinking we’d be better at this aid thing than we are. And while this is nothing even close to scientific evidence, I can’t quite shake the feeling that if volunteers and GIK were all that effective as interventions, it would be a bit more obvious. It feels, to paraphrase Shakespeare, as if the lady doth protest too much.

I’ll say it again: This stuff is a huge distraction. We’re going through lengthy logical contortions to come up with a statement about what “might” or “might not” work. We’re endlessly intellectualizing about the differences between “always” and “usually” and “sometimes”, and then putting all of our chips on “sometimes.” We’re conflating “help” with “doesn’t harm”, and “doesn’t harm” with “doesn’t harm too much.” We’re trying to give someone a great deal on a Zune, when the iPod is straight up a better product.

Sadly, the worlds’ poor don’t have the same say in what kind of aid they get from us as do Western consumers when selecting MP3 players…

13 Responses to “iPod”

  1. Roxanne 23 February, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    Wonderful post. Thank you for giving me a lot to think about. I have a question along the lines of distraction: To what extent do you think the discourse about what always/usually/sometimes works is a part of the distraction? Do you think there is such a thing as spending too much time debating the theories amongst ourselves, rather than assessing need and trying to meet it?

  2. Daniel O'Neil 23 February, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    I’ve often wished that development work had as good an acid test as profit. It doesn’t really matter if the Zune is better than the Ipod to Microsoft. What matters is how much profit they can make from the Zune. If they are losing money, they can dump it and try something different or they can tweak it and try to squeeze out more profit. They don’t have to hit a home run on each product (as Apple seems to), they just need to show a profit. I would guess that the Zune is profitable, just not wildly profitable like the ipod.

    None of us pretend that our project will end poverty. In Haiti, we have developed the building repair manual and fixed a bunch of houses. This is great for those families that are back in their house or those masons and contractors that use the new manual. However, we are not educating the kids in the families nor providing healthcare nor even providing jobs. We are certainly not solving all of Haiti’s housing problems.

    But we are making a difference. This work will not be a home run that turns my organization around and suddenly makes it a world leader in development, but I believe that it makes a difference.

    Perhaps part of our problem is that we keep hoping to find a magic bullet–a product that will revolutionize our work (like the ipod did for Apple). We distract ourselves in the hope of finding an easy solution rather than to trudge out each day slogging through the hard, uncertain work of building Zunes each day.

  3. Amelia 23 February, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Well, I felt it might be interesting if aid was in the hands of the communities or local organsiations, and providing the support services had to be competitively bid for by all the big bad boys of development…
    Sort of a capitalist view of development. Amusingly all the most capitalist, free market donors don’t seem to buy this idea… I wonder why?
    Actually I can think of lots of reasons why this approach would also be problematic but I do agree with you J that it might concentrate the mind beautifully of the donor driving community and would surely bring about some entertaining conversations in the field…🙂

  4. Joe Turner 24 February, 2011 at 5:41 am #

    It seems to me that there is no real need for these emotional arguments. You need to be able to justify your program and you need to be able to show that your GIK is the most cost-effective solution – given that most businesses require several different quotations for large procurement options, it isn’t unreasonable to ask that the NGOs compare the costs with other options.

    As to the issue of ‘profit’ wrt charitable aims, apparently in France there is no such thing as voluntary unpaid jobs. If it is a job, it is at least minimum wage. And in some ways that makes a lot of sense – if your charity cannot afford to pay staff to work in the shop, then essentially it is a worthless enterprise.

    If NGOs had to justify themselves beyond the ridiculous backwards arithmetic advocated by WV, I think there would be a lot less shitty aid.

  5. Lauren 24 February, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    I have to agree with this post. A lot of people spend more time on other decisions that will distract them from the smaller picture. People spend to much time on the bigger picture that they choose a type of aid that isnt exactly what is needed or isnt the best option because it looks better pr wise or fits bettter in their concept of the bigger picture instead of staying focused on the littler pictures and working toward that smaller goal. I feel as if we take a step back breathe and then take it one goal, one project, or one step at a time we will be able to focu more on the aid and follow the concepts laid out.

  6. Katy 25 February, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    I find this emotional argument intriguing. It’s common knowledge that 10% of helping others is ideas, the other 90% is implementing these schemes. It’s easy and comfortable to sit around aimlessly discussing plans. But just think, even if the project isn’t the most encompassing at least you’re helping someone in some way. And that’s a better quality life than they had beforehand. There are always going to be complexities associated with development, it’s inevitable. There are just too many people, organizations, and societal factors involved, but it’s always going to come down to the same basic principles, which seems to get lost in the complexity of the big picture. Alleviating the developing world of poverty and injustice is an overwhelming issue that will ultimately harden and end in a loss of hope, but it’s futile to get wrapped up in these complications in your head and attempting to account for every possible variable when people are starving. Mother Theresa says it best when she says “if you can’t feed 100 people than just feed one.” Don’t get lost in the debating of theories and best possible approaches, but do what’s in front of you and help those you can. Thinking and scheming doesn’t save lives (yes, there’s a time and place), rather simplicity in your approach to good old fashioned aid work does.

    • Katie 25 February, 2011 at 9:48 am #

      I completely agree with this. What it all really boils down to is providing the resources that people need. On more than one occasion, aid work is a drug, and the gratification it produces to those extending it, is comparable to a “high”, a sense that what you’re doing is having a resounding impact. Yet far too often, this high can make people too drunk with power, that they begin distributing that which they BELIEVE is necessary, but perhaps are overlooking the most basic, minute details. This article puts it simply, to be effective, you have to ask the question and not just hear the answer, but listen and respond to it. Just because giving feels good shouldn’t be someone’s primary motivation for getting involved and trying to help. This should come from an innate desire to help others and make a change, and the only way to do that effectively and accomplish anything is by doing what is asked, and not just doing what you want.

  7. Laura 20 March, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    I think this is a great article and really beats down at a center problem of aid. All too often programs, in particular those ones for aid, take incredibly long to implement. And in turn they may not even have that big of an impact. Things are analyzed over and over again and really there is probable just too much thought going into it. What if aid programs were super simplified? There was a “top man” who was in charge of getting funds and resources. There was an “inside man” who was in charge of simply asking communities what they really needed. And there were “middle men” who used those resources to get what was needed to the communities. There would be no comparing this to that to this community with that one. There would be no looking at figures and numbers to try and decide what someone else needed. Aid programs could be so much more effective if run like this. Really listening to the people in need, and giving them what they need. If we could transform the processes of many of these programs I think everyone would be shocked at just how much more effective they could be.


  1. iPod « Tales From the Hood - 23 February, 2011

    […] the rest here: iPod « Tales From the Hood If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! […]

  2. Tweets that mention iPod « Tales From the Hood -- Topsy.com - 23 February, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Emily Tanner, Roxanne Krystalli. Roxanne Krystalli said: Insightful, thought-provoking post on aid worker mentalities from @TalesFromthHood : "We are distracted." http://bit.ly/hNR832 […]

  3. Compounding complications: why aid is shit and RCTs won’t save it « la vidaid loca - 23 February, 2011

    […] J gets this. His latest post, which frankly scoops this one that I’ve been meaning to get around to writing for weeks while […]

  4. Is any harm being done? | AidSpeak - 1 August, 2014

    […] iPod […]

  5. Weekend Update! | AidSpeak - 14 March, 2015

    […] notice served. I’m done writing about, or answering questions about volunteers, voluntourism, short-term missions, starting your own NGO, or a myriad other variations on the general theme of […]

Pearls of wisdom

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: