No strings attached

9 Aug

“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.

16 Responses to “No strings attached”

  1. Clare 9 August, 2011 at 7:20 am #

    Well said. This captures some of the problems I have with the “investing in girls is smart because they’ll do more to help their communities” or similar rhetoric. It makes me feel like I have to be doing everything for everybody else, useful to other people, in order to be valued or worth saving. Like there’s some kind of implicit if-a-girl-isn’t-enough-to-save-for-herself, save-her-because-she’ll-save-men-too ROI business. Or that weird ‘save the boobs’ breast cancer campaign to get men on board, like we need to make sure there’s something in it for everyone to make them care. Yukky.

    I always feel like some kind of unrealistic sparkly unicorn optimist for expecting people to do things just because it’s right (send a girl to school because she deserves it, lift people out of poverty because it’s unfair, full stop), but this whole business of there having to be incentives leaves me feeling kind of dirty.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Rebecca Pointer 9 August, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Exactly – on the money. Doing what’s right is not about win-win and returns on investment. This type of profit motivated thinking is creating land reform and restitution impasse in South Africa.

  3. ansel 9 August, 2011 at 7:56 am #


    Seriously, well said!

  4. Agent Cooper 9 August, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    Another spot on post, thank you.

  5. solemu 9 August, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    You can’t say it better…

  6. Amelia 10 August, 2011 at 1:00 am #

    Echo of applause! Well said dear boy!

  7. David Week 10 August, 2011 at 2:54 am #

    Oddly, I think the richest get this the best. Because they’re not accountable to anyone. People like Gates might expect results, but they don’t require return. Governments, on the other hand, seem to be more return-oriented, because they have to account for what they are doing to Parliaments, Congresses, and the electorate.

    But I still think its important that all actors in aid be transparent about their interests, motives and expectations—which might require a little hard reflection.

  8. Brigid 10 August, 2011 at 6:26 am #

    I don’t think the rich actually got where they are by being shrewd. Luck plays a huge, huge role in being rich: who were your parents, primarily, plus your schools/community. And even the hedge fund manager who’s richer than the other hedge fund manager is so because of luck and randomness of the market. The law of numbers says someone’s got to come out at the top.

    The problem is that the role of luck is ignored, that folks instead do think that they got where they are because of their own, individual, self-controlled actions.

    The best donors I know, the most thoughtful, most willing to listen, acknowledge the role of luck in getting where they are.

  9. ehtisham 10 August, 2011 at 8:44 am #

    it seems you’re saying that by removing measures of performance you are somehow better “giving the poor what they need.” if you implement programs without a return on investment, your beneficiaries will be better off. how convenient.

    what humanitarian wouldn’t like this? you and the rest of the community can revel in your munificence and continue to pleasure yourself on the feeling that you’re saving the world. meanwhile, recipient populations remain impoverished and dependent. you don’t have to demonstrate results, becuase your work is so addressing a human right and basic need. what a great way to obscure the fact that the results are nonexistent.

    the difference between moretenson and the rest of the community is not kind, but degree, and a small degree at that. mortenson wanted to help people, loved the admiration and wealth he garnered, and needed to maintain his business. you and your organization, if not fabricating your work like mortenson, have the same motivation to exaggerate your projects and the effects on beneficiaries and ignore the unitended, negative consequences. humanitarians crave the same satisifaction and sense of purpose that he sought. its implicit even in this post. “children in guatemala have a right to education.” sure, and the $1 million you’ve collected from donors is really going to make that happen! what it will do is give you a feeling of self-importance and ensure your organizations continued existance, just as the central asia insitute did for mortenson.

    nevermind that you’re decreasing the guatemalan ministry of education’s ability to manage, fund and implement their own programs. or that you’re empowering elite “local partners” and exacerbating the massive inequality. or that you’re destroying any traditional teaching practices because you’re education experts “buiding capacity.”

    continue doing good because its what people need. its much more convenient to revel in how noble you are, rather than thinking about any of the consequences, be it fighting terrorism or any of the more realistic, negative outcomes.

    • Devt Setter 10 August, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

      I have a very different reading of this post. Seems to me J is getting at a question I deal with in my work almost daily: reconciling donor (and colleagues’) desire for larger numbers, more ‘efficiency’ with my/our commitment to working with the most vulnerable, who cost more to serve but are (should be) the ones we’re here for. This doesn’t mean we don’t measure impact, but it does require a deeper understanding of the work we do, beyond # families reached. I’m happier with 200 served in an area noone else will work in than 300 people served who’d otherwise have access to other services.

      You can fill more baskets grabbing at the lowest hanging fruit, but that doesn’t mean they’re the ones you should be picking.

  10. Isaac Holeman 10 August, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Compelling post.

    How do you feel about this statement?: The appropriate role of social enterprises (especially those organizations questing for the elusive win-win) is to displace crappy for-profit businesses, not charities of any kind.

    It seems like the crux of your problem with ROI language has to do with who specifically the benefits ‘return’ to. Many of us use terms like ROI because a funder wants to hear such language, when all we really mean is measurable impact for the beneficiary. If a funder specifically states that all returns should be to the public/beneficiary community and not the ‘investor,’ are you comfortable with ROI?

    Are you defending charitable endeavors that lack a relatively large and immediately tangible impact per dollar spent? I might be inclined to agree with you ( ), but it is a contentious position and I’d be interested to hear you clarify.


    • Jamuna 10 August, 2011 at 11:44 am #

      Now that is a good reply! Very well articulated🙂

  11. Jamuna 10 August, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    As I read this post I realize It is good to have the clarity about doing something and doing it for its sake (educating girls for the sake of educating girls) – while one can acknowledge the butterfly effect kind of ripple effect it might have on another issue/concern/phenomena (terrorism for instance) – that will always remain that – one cannot force fit that probable “effect” as the “focus/intention/purpose” of work! No way.

    It is like me running a family reunification programme for street children because I envision my city to be a safe city for the presidents, tourists and citizens who will visit and live in the city! Eeeks.

    Hence even if we use the world ROI or measurable impact – it is after all a “return” and “impact” that comes “after” and very often is “ideal” and many impacts or returns are also “chance factors” that have not been expected or anticipated. Some touted returns/impacts like “controlling terrorism” are sure to get attention and instant help too – hence it is so easy to plaster it as the raison d’etre!

    Like Greg Mortenson fudged the numbers of schools he had built and Jon Krakauer questioned it saying would we have admired him less had he built just 3 or 4 or 8 schools even? But to “appeal” or for some other such reason he fudged the numbers to many times more. Let us accept the true details, true reasons why we are doing what we are doing…and not seek to fudge data and the very reasons why we do something just so that we can appeal to the masses. It is good to accept we are doing something for “its” sake.

  12. Observer 31 October, 2011 at 3:32 am #

    Running from demands for ROI will not help. You must build sufficient hypothesis to define ROI so that it is fundamentally about what the poor need. You also must come up with some rationale to convince those with money to accept your definition – unless you have enough money personally to bankroll the work you want to see done.

    I have done a lot of advocacy training over the years. The most common mistake is for someone to lay out their argument in terms that make sense to the arguer, not the audience. If you cannot analyze the reasons why (governments, rich people, foundations, etc) will support the work, then you cannot successfully advocate for their support. Once you do have their reasons, you have to articulate your results on their investment in terms that THEY will see as a return. The real danger comes if you start to accept those terms as YOUR meaning of a return.

    As a side note, this also neglects the opportunity costs of activities in a resource-scarce world. I’d like to give the poor what they need; if they need a water management system, a legal aid clinic, and a well-managed drug dispensary, but I can only fund one of these, I’d like to imagine that I have some underlying ROI schema with which to make the hard choice.

    • J. 31 October, 2011 at 4:46 am #

      “The most common mistake is for someone to lay out their argument in terms that make sense to the arguer, not the audience. If you cannot analyze the reasons why (governments, rich people, foundations, etc) will support the work, then you cannot successfully advocate for their support. Once you do have their reasons, you have to articulate your results on their investment in terms that THEY will see as a return.”

      Well, you’re the marketing expert (I guess), but I disagree. I think that the international aid industry has spent far too long simply trying to articulate what it does in terms that it thinks rich people, foundations… will understand. I think it’s time to educate them so that their understanding is more realistic. We did with seatbelts in automobiles and smoking in public places. And while I’m not suggesting just yet that making smart donor choices based on realistic understanding of actual issues be legally mandated, I am absolutely saying that we need to educate our donor base, rather than continuing the practice of the past 40 years which has simply been to market to the lowest common denominator and pick only low-hanging fruit.

      We need somebody within the marketing world to seriously ponder the reality that international relief and development simply cannot be marketed in the same way that shoes or cars or IRAs are marketed. Good marketing is not necessarily good aid marketing.

      The real danger comes if you start to accept those terms as YOUR meaning of a return.” — We certainly agree on this.

      • Observer 31 October, 2011 at 7:38 am #

        I think that this articulates exactly my point – looking not at seatbelts but at airbags. There was some effort spent trying to convince people that airbags were lifesaving and making them mandatory. More successful in terms of adoption rates (before legal compliance kicked in, which isn’t likely to be an option for aid) was that having an airbag in your car was part of your car being a topline model – it appealed to people’s sense of luxury, of style, and of other aspects of their pre-existing ingredients related to interest in buying a car (including safety, to be sure).

        I would also certainly agree that relief and development cannot be marketed in normal ways, and that efforts to do so have led to distorted expectations.

        So I don’t think that we fundamentally disagree, just that if you value, for example, local ownership, but your donor sees things through a frame of religious charity – make them see their locally-owned program, even if that is slower/more expensive than proudly handing out commodities, as the “highest example of teaching a man to fish.” Translate the things YOU value into the things THEY value, and educate them in terms that make sense to them. This does not substitute their measures for yours – that’s the red line to avoid crossing, letting their measures distort what you do so that you can sell it to them.

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