You’ll forgive me if I come off as a bit less than inspired by Jonathan Starr’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (online Europe edition, April 11, entitled “The ‘Business’ of International Aid”).
Starr is obviously not an idiot. It takes him about 2 paragraphs to hit some of the key issues in aid: The Aid Industrial Complex is self-regulated. As a result of this, accountability is generally a challenge; aid providers frequently do too poor a job of actually listening to aid recipients; aid is frequently implemented not in the most efficient manner possible for reasons that are suspect, and so on… I’ve certainly done my share of ranting on some of those same topics on this blog over the past few years.
If you’ve been reading Tales From the Hood for very long you’ll know, however, that he pushes a few of my own personal righteous indignation buttons as well: He describes himself having entered the aid sector in Somalia “Happily ignorant of the aid industry’s modus operandi.” (Unacceptable. Plain unacceptable. That by itself is enough to earn the “dumbass” distinction from me.) Based on a single (and very obscure) exposure to the aid industry he assumes he knows more about the issues than he does in fact and goes on to prescribe some untenable remedies (only fund agencies whose executives are on the ground, in-country? Dude – spend some time in the real world). The real icing on the cake for me is simply the fact that in 2011 a “former financial executive” has the audacity to accuse any other industry of having messed up priorities and internal incentives not in the best interests of it’s own clients and stakeholders.
Beyond specific rant-worthy details, though, The ‘Business’ of International Aid gets at a larger issue which I think needs closer examination: The notion that the Aid Industry as well as aid organizations should all look and behave and perhaps even structure their values in ways more like the for-profit sector.
It’s a seductive idea. It feels like “common sense.” And it’s gaining momentum and currency in Western culture (and maybe others, too) more generally (Donald Trump considering a run for the US presidency in 2012, for example). The basic assumption seems to be that aid is messed up because aid workers are not astute business people. If only we were better at managing our budgets, drove harder bargains, or could boil all that supposed complexity down to a few pithy PowerPoint slides, we’d all be making a bigger dent in world hunger than we are.
And maybe there’s some truth in there. There are many legitimate ways in which the Aid sector can and should behave more like the for-profit world (I’d prefer to say ‘professionally’) than it does. From where I sit there is a lot of room for standardizing and streamlining different processes, both internally within NGOs and across the sector overall, both technically and managerially. As individuals, as agencies and as a global community of practice, we do seem to spend an awful lot of time on things that are difficult to link to life somehow getting better for “the poor.” Certainly there are many transferable skills between the non-profit and the for-profit worlds.
But I think it’s time to remind ourselves of the obvious: Aid is not a for-profit enterprise and NGOs are not businesses.
We may spend our days doing tasks which look and feel an awful lot like those being done by our peers in the for-profit world – sitting in meetings, writing strategy documents… – but let’s not make the mistake of believing that the two worlds are the same. Again, from where I sit, in a cubicle of an NGO, watching new colleagues arrive from the for-profit sector (many of whom I like and respect very much), there seems to be an overarching assumption that the primary difference between our two worlds, managerially and operationally speaking, is simply that NGO salaries are lower. And this is plain incorrect. (And it also leads to a “sacrifice” mentality.)
In his article Starr latches onto the idea of a customer-service approach as if it’s something new. It’s not. Calling “our beneficiaries” (the poor, etc.) our “clients” in an attempt to psyche ourselves into being more responsive to their needs has been around for at least fifteen years.
And you know what? It doesn’t work.
As Shotgun Shack and I (once or twice) and plenty of others have already pointed out, so long as the recipients of aid and those footing the bill for aid are different groups, the recipients of aid will never ever really be “clients” in the for-profit world sense. The donors are the ones with the real power in the aid relationship, and aid recipients (whatever we may call them) have power in the aid relationship, essentially to the extent that it is granted to them by those donors. So while we may from time to time be fortunate enough to have competent donors, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that it’s any other way.
There is a role for the for-profit sector in International Aid. And there is room for for-profit ways of doing things in the Aid Industry. But let’s remain very clear:
The goals and purposes of Aid and of Business are fundamentally different.
We can’t fix Aid by running it like a business.