What we REALLY need

21 Jun

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.

6 Responses to “What we REALLY need”

  1. Devt Setter 21 June, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    I think you may have just been inside my head/office.

  2. maria 22 June, 2011 at 3:59 am #

    It is truly amazing how you put in words what I think and have experienced, and how right you are every time, in every post. I have suffered first hand the HR aspects you mention. When asking for financial transparency, I have been put apart form emails and later forced to resign, as the person coming after me. When I have done right in the midst of chaos, being thus a threat to an inadequate and immature boss (a 28 yrs old inexperieced head of mission in a country such as Haiti reveals the frequent absurdity of the aid industry) I have been simply fired, the system allowing one person to have supreme power to fire here and there without reasons given or protocol followed.
    While I am on the proces of divorcing completely the sick aid industry itself (after 15 years of studying and believing and making uselss efforts to be inside and change it) and trying to go towards the human rights brotherhood (easier said than done) , I continue to read you because you seem so LUCID about it all, it warms my heart. Thanks a lot! reading you is like a therapy…

  3. Cynan 22 June, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Yep. If HR managers were transparently measured on their performance to metrics of (a) total number of days per year that posts in their responsibility remained vacant and (b) annual % of unneccesary/involuntary turnover, the situation might begin to change.

    And then there’s core Project Management. Massively overgeneralising: we’re great at design. Or at least, we invest a lot of time and effort in it. We suck at implementing, monitoring, and transparent project progress overviews that exist outside a PMs head. Heads which tend to be out in the field, stuck in a meeting, on R&R, jacked off and left, on to the next emergency, or all of the above. PMDPro has the potential to be a useful sector standard, or at least help people talk the same language around project managing implementation. And its so cheap that more orgs need to hurling people at it. I recently had a PM say to me “what does anyone need a project management qualification for? It’s just being on the ball.” That PM had a 40% activity underachievement & underspend at the time…

    Finance. I think its both a supply and demand problem. Have seen finance who can’t cut reports down to brass tacks for timely and actionable info on commitments + spend for PMs. But also PMs and Country Reps not asking for, or not really knowing how to interpret, or indeed act upon that advice when they do get it, until its all fireworks and drama and too late.

  4. Steven 27 June, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    I agree with your analysis of the problem, but not your solution. Nor with those commented above. The solution is not more, less or different management or any of the tools, metrics or whatsoever mentioned. It’s much simpler than that. It’s getting back to the essence of humanitarian aid. The more we try to “manage” what in itself is so genuine and simple — a moral response to human suffering — the more we drift away from it. Humanitarian aid did not start with containers full of policies and reports. It started b/c some people were outraged about what was happening on the other side from where they stood. If you think I am oversimplifying things, I say, with all due respect, BS. I’m happy to confront anyone who thinks that management is a solution, whether it is people management, financial management or whatever management.

    • Cynan 1 July, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

      I’m really sorry Steven… but.. I think that’s total crap. Reaching a million people week in week out at the end of a complex and sketchy supply chain, is not about the moral purity of the people getting it done. OK, confront away.


  1. Development Digest – 24/06/11 « What am I doing here? - 24 June, 2011

    […] Should we pay less for vaccines? – http://www.owen.org/blog/4649 What we REALLY need – http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/06/21/what-we-really-need/ Sudan: A Beginner’s Guide – […]

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