Humanitarian Aid 101: #2 – Aid is never simple.

18 Jul

If I was to ever teach an intro-level course in humanitarian principles and action, it would go something like this:

Lesson #2. Aid is never simple. Even if it seems like it is or ought to be. Aid is always more complicated than you think.

So obvious it seems like it should go without saying, and yet this is the most frequently disrespected aid truism of all: Aid is never simple. Even if it seems like it is or ought to be. Aid is always more complicated than you think.

It doesn’t matter who you are, aid is always more complicated than you think. You can hold a Ph.D. from a prestigious institution and be the author of a widely acclaimed and cleverly titled book. You can be a passionate, driven member of the Diaspora with the local language plus all kinds of mad ICT and social media skillz. You can be a famous “mom blogger” with a massive following for your down-to-earth, “common sense” analysis of… pretty much anything. You can be fresh out of grad school with a head full of the latest theories and critical analyses of aid. Or you can be a professional humanitarian aid worker with decades of experience and the logo of a HRI-Affiliate on your name card.

Aid is never simple.

No matter what they may look like, the communities where we work are inherently complex and complicated places with inherently complex and complicated problems. And so the analytical processes and planning, and eventually the programming that we deliver – what we actually do – has to adequately reflect this reality. This is true whether we’re implementing long-term development programs or delivering life-saving emergency relief, yet we very rarely arrive on the scene fully appreciative of or fully prepared to deal with this complexity.

Aid is never simple. Aid is always more complicated than you think.

All this means at least two things:

1) There is no magik bullet. So stop looking for one. Because while the big, basic principles of good aid always apply, (and make no mistake, bad aid is always bad aid) when it comes to implementation at the field level, everything is context-specific. There is no slam-dunk program model o r miracle product that would, if only we could replicate or distribute it globally, permanently eradicate poverty, malnutrition and the subordination of women. The approach that works in this village does not necessarily work in the next one. The strident claims that you make about what is or is not needed here, do not necessarily hold true over there. This is not provincialism. This is the recognition of reality that no matter how well you think you understand the community and no matter how simple the issues appear, there is no substitute for following good aid program process every every every time. Cut corners on good process and aid programs fail, guaranteed.

2) Dealing with complexity requires bandwidth. This is an increasingly unpopular concept in a time (now) when it’s kind of trendy to rant about the large household charities with their expats and their vehicles and their seemingly large overheads. And to be certain, there is plenty of fat that can be cut from the budgets of most, if not all of the established name-brand INGOs. But all of this as may be, it does not release anyone from the reality that dealing with complexity in the context of humanitarian aid and development requires sufficient organizational bandwidth (people, infrastructure, assets, resources…) to analyze and understand it, and then to implement appropriate programs that make an actual difference. Sounds basic. But it’s far harder than it looks. It’s also where D.I.Y. aid typically falls down. This is not elitism (even though I have exactly zero problem embracing elitism). This is recognition of the fact, again, that dealing with aid complexity requires enough organizational strength to “get” that complexity and then make something happen.

* * * * *

Late-breaking update: See also “Simple Kind of Man” from the “American Culture” series.

11 Responses to “Humanitarian Aid 101: #2 – Aid is never simple.”

  1. Humanicontrarian 18 July, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Lots being said about aid these days. Too much of it lumps development and humanitarian relief into one endeavor. Lots of public outcry that we should let people in the Horn of Africa starve because donating to relief efforts won’t solve the problem, thereby condemning emergency aid for not achieving the goals of development aid. On the other side, lots of agencies asking for donations who are not particularly clear on whether they will be providing emergency relief, or continuing with their own less-than-a-whopping-success development programmes. (Yes, that is a veiled call for more transparency).

    So thanks for highlighting the distinction. I would argue that the idea of a “magik bullet” for relief efforts isn’t nearly as much of a delusion as for development, societal transformation, sustainability, etc. It’s pretty easy to cure severe acute malnutrition, isn’t it? Complex and context-specific? Of course. But it’s ultimately a relatively easy game of getting the right stuff and staff to the right place at the right time. As for development – “curing” the causes of severe acute malnutrition – that is an entirely different matter. Is it a simple matter of being highly complex? Or is there something problematic with the very idea of development as conceptualized and implemented by scores of donor governments and NGOs? Because along with drought, war, deforestation corruption, etc, I would certainly add the failure of development aid to the factors at play in the Horn’s crisis.

  2. terence 19 July, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    Thanks J. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. johnrougeux 20 July, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    Poignant thoughts in both this post, and Aid 101 #1. The challenge I find in observing the work of aid and development groups is that it’s very difficult to gauge the output. I hear a lot of talk about “delivering 3000 of this” or “building 28 of these”, but very few comments about how well the underlying issues were addressed. How much did you improve literacy? How effective were you at reducing water-borne diseases? It’s nearly impossible to get numbers like these. Regardless of whether someone is a PhD, a fresh grad student, or a seasoned NGO veteran, why is it so difficult for them to share the actual impact of their work?

    • J. 20 July, 2011 at 7:19 am #

      John, thank you for reading. Great question. Sadly, no one, succinct answer. A few thoughts:

      – Increasingly NGOs do measure and evaluate impact, as opposed to simple outputs. It’s not universal yet, but definitely getting better.
      – Very often impact information is available, at least in-house. My colleagues and I can talk at length about “23.6% community acceptance…” or “… reducing the CMR in community X by 17% over five years…”
      – It can be challenging to get ahold of it as an outsider, but this, too, is getting better. The main reason why it’s hard to get this information as an outsider is that the provision of information externally is almost always (I’m not aware of an exception) managed by media relations/PR peeps who are loathe to provide information to the public other than slam-dunk happy propoganda, and loathe to provide anything other than pithy, over-simplified summaries. Actual impact discussion defies fitting into either of those.
      – As the Humanicontrarian points out (, there are some important differences between relief aid and long-term community development when it comes to discussing impact v. output.

      • johnrougeux 20 July, 2011 at 7:29 am #

        Thanks for the response. I seem to get either the PR “slam-dunk happy propaganda” or an academic manifesto that I don’t have time to read. It would be great if NGOs did a better job of providing something between the two. More than anything else, I’d like to see more NGOs who aren’t afraid to critique themselves, or at least open themselves up for third-party critique that was available to the public.

        I read the post from Humanicontrarian you suggested. He makes a good point that aid shouldn’t be expected to solve larger-scale problems. After reading Jeffery Sach’s ‘End of Poverty’ this week, I’ve come to see more and more that aid is simply a tool that’s part of a larger context. Without macro-economic/political changes to compliment it, it won’t get very far on its own. Would you agree?


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