Humanitarian Aid 101: #4 – Accept that some good ideas cannot be implemented.

15 Aug

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

Lesson #4. Accept that some good ideas cannot be implemented

This was a difficult one for me to get my head around, back in the day. Truth be told, even now there are still moments when I have to step back and reconcile myself to this basic reality of humanitarian relief and development: Very often even very good, logical, technologically sound ideas just cannot be implemented.

Why? There are at least three overlapping reasons:

Many good ideas aren’t. The most common mistake made by both amateurs and seasoned veterans alike is to mistake for a “good idea” what is, in fact, a totally dumbass idea.

How do you know what is a good idea and what isn’t? Well, you know what has been tried before, and what has worked in the past versus what has not. You don’t assume that you know more than you actually do. Contrary to good ol’ fashioned down-home common sense theory, good ideas in humanitarian relief and development do not come out of thin air. Humanitarian work is a profession which requires specific knowledge, skills and experience to get right. I know that it annoys some of you to hear this, but it is still true.

Theory v. Practice. What looks great on paper very often does not work in the real world. What flows perfectly in the sanitized order of a logframe matrix, or what makes infinite sense in the variable-less sanctuary of a classroom very often falls flat in the multi-layered, textured chaos of “the field.” It doesn’t go much deeper than that.

I have seen basically well-planned, well-resourced programs fall flat for reasons that I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined. I have seen programs fail out in the field under circumstances that were too strange to be even good fiction. Seriously, some days you can”t make up the situations that happen out in the field. There are a million contingencies that even the most well-designed program cannot deal with. You can’t plan for everything. Simple as that.

Disaster survivors (“the poor” in development programs) very often prefer the “lesser” option. Sometimes their reasons make sense to us, and sometimes they do not.

I have seen people drink brown river water, rather than use a purification technology that would have worked beautifully and almost certainly reduced mortality and morbidity. Why didn’t they go for the NGO solution? Because it was too complicated to use. In their minds, the cost of following precise, complicated steps outweighed the cost of possibly getting sick.

Or I have seen people who would rather farm their barren patch of ground for whatever they can get out of it than drop everything in order to risk starting up something else in a new place. Or people who would rather be an overworked, underpaid employee in a sweatshop and have some kind of job security, than throw everything they have into a small or micro- enterprise. Or who would rather eat contaminated and/or low quality food that was familiar than eat pure and/or high quality food that was unfamiliar.

Sometimes people want those old-school blue tarps instead of a high-tech geodesic dome tent. Sometimes they want flip-flops instead of proper shoes. Sometimes they would rather walk half a kilometer for water than only 100 meters. Some families would rather live in poverty with eight children than live in less poverty with only three.

Sometimes there are reasons for these choices that “make sense” to us – those tarps can be used for a lot of things beside just shelter, those tents, not so much. But sometimes there is no perceptible “real” reason, and the reasons given by the people themselves make no obvious sense whatsoever.

* * *

As humanitarian workers we very often see it as our job to be agents of change, however variously we may understand what that means both theoretically and in practice. It is very often our job to go into situations that very obviously need to change and recommend practical action to affect those obviously needed changes. Moreover, it is often our job to stand firm in the face of local resistance to the changes that we recommend. Sometimes we have to badger and pester and cajole and offer incentive. Sometimes local partners try out our suggestions just to indulge us because they think we’re cool or funny or because having us around breaks up the monotony. Or maybe they try out our ideas just to get rid of us. Sometime, if we feel strongly enough about the issue, we may us whatever power we have to bludgeon an idea through.

At the end of the day, though, this all has be about those we say we’re trying to help. If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work.

As true humanitarians, this is perhaps our biggest and most important challenge: The challenge of knowing when to push, cajole, pester, or leverage our local relationships in order to make things happen “for good” in the communities where we work… and also knowing when, on the other hand, to simply let go. It challenges our knowledge and skill, it challenges our maturity, it challenges our wisdom. It forces us to make this really not about us, but about them – and maybe this is the biggest challenge of all for humanitarian workers.

Many, many excellent ideas simply cannot be implemented.

4 Responses to “Humanitarian Aid 101: #4 – Accept that some good ideas cannot be implemented.”

  1. maria 15 August, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    ideas have to come from the people. we often forget that. we never ask people if they suit them, and when they dont we’re surprised. but not enough to change or ask them again. I was once asked to research why a particular intervention was not working. it came up that people had simply better things to do than getting the aid, as crazy as this might seem to aid workers, because it was direct aid for severely malnourished kids (you know, the ones with the flies on their mouths and big bellies). but their priorities differed from the ones of my employer, and where complex. I had the privilege of design a research to try to understand , but I have seen no other NGO since financing anthropological studies previous to interventions. We know so good.

  2. Anonymous 16 August, 2011 at 6:01 am #

    You don’t talk about why some ideas cannot be implemented, but how some ideas were implemented and did not have the desired effect and that you think they should not have been implemented. And therefore are not good ideas.
    While I do agree that it is important to test ideas before implementation, go through a participatory planning process and all that, I don’t think that it is enough to “know what has been tried before, and what has worked in the past versus what has not.” Everything changes, and what has not worked for you in your particular time and context might actually be a good idea in a different context in a different time for different people.


  1. Top 10 Tuesday: fave blogs from the past week « lindsey talerico. - 16 August, 2011

    […] Always a thing or two to learn from the aid bloggers — Humanitarian Aid 101: #4 – Accept that some good ideas cannot be implemented. on […]

  2. links, links, links, links « Waylaid Dialectic - 17 August, 2011

    […] finally, J. nails it: some ideas, no matter how good, just can’t be implimented. To which I’d add the […]

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