“The book’s popularity stems from its forceful, uncomplicated theme—terrorism can be eradicated by educating children in impoverished societies…”
–Jon Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit (writing about Three Cups of Tea)
I get that probably two-thirds (rough guesstimate) of the humanitarian aid endeavor is about persuading those with power and/or wealth, to care more about those without power or wealth. “The poor”, if you will.
I also get that those with power and/or wealth, got where they are by being shrewd. They got where they are by making smart choices, by being calculated, skeptical, maybe even manipulative. They got their power and their wealth by having a vision and a plan, by knowing exactly what they wanted and by not settling for less and certainly by not throwing money or effort at useless stuff. I understand the in-principle value of “return on investment” (ROI). And in the context of humanitarian funding I understand the thinking that goes into deciding which relief and development initiatives to fund, where.
But, see, the point that everyone seems to continue missing is this:
Humanitarian relief and development are not good investments. At least not in the traditional return-on-investment sense.
It is absolutely critical that we stop valuating aid on the basis of for-profit sector values and priorities. It is absolutely critical that we stop using for-profit sector ROI calculus to determine what to support and implement, and what to leave by the wayside. It is beyond critical that we stop trying articulate what we will get back in order to justify a priori what we will do.
I understand very well the mentality of wanting to find something that is somehow mutually beneficial, something that is somehow the holy grail of multi-stakeholder synergy, the elusive “win-win.” I understand very well that many donors have many priorities, and I understand that they may have those many priorities for many reasons. And I understand that at some level everyone involved in the humanitarian enterprise gains something.
But that reality as may be, I still cannot shake the feeling that the poor need what they need. They need it on their terms. They need it on their schedule. And it is our job, whether as humanitarian workers or as donors truly committed to doing good, to provide that. Not more, not less, not something else. That. Whatever it is that the poor need.
It’s easy and even kinda fun to jump on Greg Mortensen lately. Idiot amateur should have known better. Changing the world is a lot harder than it looks. But as much as I applaud Jon Krakauer for his exceptionally well-researched take-down, when you get down to it my real issue with Three Cups of Tea is not just or maybe not even mainly the fact that Mortensen fudged the facts about when and where and whether or not he was kidnapped or the number of schools the Central Asia Institute really built. We all Botox our own narratives to make a point now and again.
No. When you get down to it, my real issue with Three Cups of Tea and the associated pop-culture fervor that surrounds the concept is that it is not really about helping the poor. Three Cups of Tea is not about building schools or educating little Pakistani girls. It is about eradicating terrorism. And that’s why I suspect it resonates in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming. And that is also what’s wrong with it – that ROI thinking. “If we build schools in Pakistan, we eradicate terrorism…”
We should want to build schools and educate little Pakistani girls simply because little Pakistani girls deserve to be educated just like everyone else. Or Nigerian girls. Or Guatemalan children. Or whomever, or whatever.
The poor need what they need. And it is our job, whether as humanitarian workers or as donors truly committed to doing good, to provide that.
Honest-to-god, I struggle to see why that is such a difficult concept to grasp. It is also where I see for-profit sector thinking being both the most different from and also the most damaging to humanitarian aid.
If we are looking for a return on investment, whether that means “eradicating terrorism” or market penetration or just “treasure in Heaven”, we are already distracted from what should be the central concern of the humanitarian endeavor. The poor need what they need. And if we base decisions about what organizations, programs, initiatives or campaigns to fund on return-on-investment thinking, we will consistently plan and implement and fund the wrong things. We will consistently plan and implement the wrong things because we will consistently plan and implement based on what we want to do rather than what is really needed. Our supposed right to help will trump the reality that the poor, very simply, need what they need.
This is not the for-profit sector. In the humanitarian world we should do something because it is the right thing to do. Not because we advance a cause of ours or get something back. In the humanitarian world we often get nothing – at least nothing that would resonate in the for-profit world – in return for our investment. Nor should we expect anything in return.
Call me a purist, and I’ll thank you for it. But humanitarian aid and development should be gifts given with no strings attached.