Here are two supremely unsexy, completely non-innovative things which, if they can ever be gotten right, will revolutionize humanitarian aid:
Human Resources. Considering how much humanitarians – and when I say “humanitarians”, I mean everyone from the evangelical self-supporting mission Nurse-Assistant who after three years in the field allows the Congolese to call her “Doctor”, all the way up to senior leaders of wide swaths within the UN system with $100k financial authority – bang on about “valuing people”, most organizations in the industry are appallingly bad at actually managing people well.
Yes, I’m talking about HR, but not just. Despite the numbers of budding graduates from prestigious schools who are positively dying to be thrown into the aid meat grinder, important technical positions go months without being filled. Recruiting and retaining competent veterans to occupy a senior leadership positions in major, career-making disaster responses is all but impossible. Large INGOs with massive global reach and impressive in-house capacity can’t seem to find someone who can step up when the Tsunamis and the Haitis happen. And small NGOs, hungry for growth (and relevance) bog down with internal debate about whether it will be worth it to go outside the wage scale to hire that one person who really can take things to the next level. We try to do too much with too little, despite a glut of talent in the market and frequently in-house.
We forget or ignore, too, that many of the qualities that make good aid workers good aid workers do not necessarily make them good managers and leaders. We have lagged behind the for-profit sector in understanding what it means to manage for results, or that technical competence is very different from managerial competence, which is different yet from leadership skill. Managers who don’t know how to manage fail to achieve minimum standards, miss deadlines, and regardless of personal convictions make their employing organizations appear un-transparent and unaccountable. Leaders who don’t know how to lead de-motivate their teams, feel threatened when their staff do well, and allow programs to go totally sideways.
We need to sort out our people management and leadership quality issues. Fix these, and aid looks very different in all kinds of better ways when the next one hits.
Financial Management. Considering how much attention is focused in the press and popular opinion on the financial lives of NGOs – how much we make, how fast we spend, what we spend it on… – it is truly shocking how bad we are at financial management. And to be clear, I’m not talking about one project or one NGO. I’m talking about the entire industry.
I once wrote that failure to sufficiently invest in assessments and monitoring and evaluation is one of the key downfalls of small start-up NGOs. But poor money management practice (financial management, accounting, governance…) is, in my own experience, the leading cause of programs failing in the field. Getting consistently timely, accurate financial information related to my portfolio has been a challenge and a frustration in every job that I have ever had in humanitarian aid, ever.
I remember a tweet by (I think it was) @Scott_Gilmore asking for an accountant willing to work in war zones. That’s pretty much what’s needed. Everyone wants to go assess something, be an accountability or program quality officer, run relief distributions, or have those life-saving, heart-wrenching be-one-with-the-people conversations with disaster survivors. Hardly anyone, it seems, wants to spend 18 hours a day in the sweltering heat, sifting through boxes of handwritten vouchers in another language. Everyone wants to be in the room with the UN heads, the cluster leads, and the host government officials when the relocation strategy is decided. But by contrast hardly anyone wants to have it be their job to set up and then roll out and then enforce an unpopular but necessary operating budget revision process.
Get the finances right and you can devote the time necessary to ensure program quality, transparency and accountability. When finances are a mess things grind to a halt. Good, reliable, up-to-date financial information is every bit as important for the success of a relief response as is assessment data or security updates or progress reports. Yet in my personal observation where NGOs of all sizes and colors struggle the most.
Not cool or sexy. But we don’t need another shelter design or water purification technology or another new NGO dedicated to “cutting through the red tape” and “getting it done.” if you really want to revolutionize aid, fix NGO financial and people management at the field level.