“A little evil…”

25 Aug

: There will be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good.

There is plenty wrong with the aid industry, and it would be patently foolish to try to argue otherwise. Professional humanitarian relief and development, for all the good that they can and often do do, very often also cause harm as well. I’ve been around for a little while, and I don’t know a single actual person in the aid industry who wants or intends or hopes for that harm to happen. That harm sometimes happens is an unfortunate reality.

I’m not new at this. I’ve seen that harm up close and personal. More than once. I’m well aware. So don’t patronize me in the comments thread by reminding me that there is a lot wrong with the aid industry.

And sure. You know what? I’ll grant that amateur relief and development, in its various forms, accomplishes some good. Voluntourism, volunteerism, Clowns Without Borders, Waves For Development, TOMS Shoes, random dorks from Montana and a gazillion variants and permutations on those themes (frequently recognizable by the fact that they’re being lauded by Oprah, Kristof, and the Huffington Post) all get lucky on occasion. I’ve acknowledged this before: it would be foolish to argue that amateur aid workers accomplish only harm all the time.

* * *

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few posts, you know exactly where I stand on the issue of professionalism in the humanitarian sector. In my opinion this is a professional field from which unqualified amateurs should be barred from practice. I know this seems controversial and offensive to some of you, but I honestly don’t see any value in mincing words or pretending that my opinion is something else.

But heck. Let me say it one more time:

Where one falls in the “aid is a profession that should be practiced by professionals” versus “aid is equally open to anyone who wants to help – everyone has something to offer”, ultimately comes down to ones’ tolerance for the possibility of delivering harm along with help.

Keep aid as an open arena for participation by anyone who just “wants to help” and who can afford to take two-weeks off of life is essentially gambling with the well-being of other people on the possibility that making it up as you go just may work. This earns you a malpractice suit in the medical world. But in the aid world it may net you a book deal if you play your cards right.

Professionalizing the aid sector – by definition applying standards which would mean excluding non-professionals from practice – means improving the quality of service provided to the poor. No, of course it will not solve every problem. But it will absolutely solve or eliminate many. Who knows? Maybe I’d even end up out of a job. But even so, professionalizing the aid sector is, or if it ever happens, would be a good thing. Absolutely.

I struggle to see why this is such a challenging concept.

31 Responses to ““A little evil…””

  1. Isaac Holeman 25 August, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

    I agree about professionalizing aid as in becoming more professional, but the idea of accreditation makes me feel hypocritical. I started volunteering abroad with aid organizations years before I had the professional competence to understand whether they were effective. I assumed that working in a structured environment with what seemed like a professional organization would help me avoid needless errors. It was an assumption though, or at best a nominally educated guess because I lacked the experience to evaluate whether their model of development was legit for their community.

    One way or another I got hooked on this crazy beautiful field we work in and I’ve put in the time to professionalize my conduct. I don’t know whether I’d have been motivated to put in that learning time but for a few very personal experiences as a naive “Human Rights Delegate” with Global Youth Connect in Guatemala.

  2. Stephanie White 26 August, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    It’s interesting for me to hear you and others lay such blame at the feet of the non-professionals. I understand the critique and am supportive of the whole good intentions thing.

    (note that there is no ‘but’ here)

    I suppose I really see the larger, more damaging outcomes in aid and development coming from the professionals, akin to the damage caused by the ‘professionals’ in the banking sector in the US. It seems to me that many of the problems of development are caused via pervasive systemic problems, which compel a certain orientation towards aid. And that orientation has been created by the very smart, well-dressed, well-educated professional people.

    Maybe part of the dissonance in my understanding is that the ‘aid’ landscape is just as diverse as any other, and maybe there are certain kinds of aid that are more negatively impacted by non-professionals, and certain kinds of aid that are more impacted by professionals.

    But, OTOH, right now, I’m a little preoccupied with objecting to locating development problems close to where they are apparent. I view it as a bit Sisyphean to try to address poverty with local solutions when so much of the deck is stacked against the marginalized and powerless at a global level. The flip side of that is that I tend to think that bad aid carried out locally is less of a problem than bad aid carried out globally. And that is fundamentally a problem of the professionals.

    BTW…do you have another post on how you’d professionalize the industry?

    • Daniela 26 August, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

      I have exchanged conversations with J. around “professionalism”, and I agree (more and more daily) that ad hoc “volunteering” in a programmatic setting can be very harmful. (That is opposed to more administrative interning, like filing papers and the other basic office roles normally associated with internships when it comes to “professional” jobs like legal and consulting firms) I especially like Ivan Illich’s speech “To Hell with Good Intentions” when considering this: http://lessonsilearned.org/2011/04/to-hell-with-good-intentions-my-imaginary-conversation-with-ivan-illich/

      But I also have to agree with Stephanie here – a lot of the harmful aid practices are perpetuated by the “professionals” themselves. Big “professional” aid organizations, with headquarters in “ABC” northern country making decisions about how to help the people of “DEF” southern country and imposing their solutions with strings which tie the “beneficiary” up in knots. Being a professional, having a Masters in Development, and having a job which pays you a “hardship bonus” for living in a “difficult to live” area, does not mean you are not causing harm. I think you would agree with some of this too J. – aid work all across the board needs to be revamped, improved, and held to a higher standard – and that applies to the professional aid worker just as much as for the visiting do-gooder. Perhaps – rather than calling it “professionalizing”, as it makes it sounds like being a “professional” is what you think makes aid work – it should be worded just around improving and holding NGOs to the impact they claim to be aiming for.

      In fact, the professionals should know better, and be better models, but many blogs that are run by these “professionals” are too afraid to call other professionals out – as it’s way easier to make fun of the ignorant travelers for their mis-allocated good intentions. I’m just as guilty of spending many of my blogging minutes focusing on short-term volunteer harm – but I thought it should be mentioned. Saundra pointed out the same in her “Explaining the radio silence over World Vision” piece http://goodintents.org/in-kind-donations/radio-silence

      • J. 26 August, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

        Daniela – Look, I think we agree more than we disagree here. And while I take your points – and yessssssssssssssss, I’ve written about many of them many times myself already – the argument I grow most weary of (and that you seem to be making here) is essentially:

        “Modern Dentistry is in crisis. Dental care is not what it should be. Holy crap! Professional dentists make mistakes ALL THE TIME. People have rotten teeth and those bastard dentists drive around in BMWs all day long. So stop picking on the amateur basement dentists for trying to help, and focus on whipping the professionals into line already.”

        Yeah, yeah, yeah… I get it. The Aid Industry is messed up. Professionalizing will not solve everything (I wrote that in the post). But it professionalizing absolutely will solve many things. It’s decades overdue. It needs to happen.

      • Stephanie White 27 August, 2011 at 6:04 am #

        This is actually in reply to J’s reply, but I don’t seem to be able to take the thread that way.

        Like I said, I understand the frustration with individualized ‘humanitarian’ work, which I think functions mostly as a result of the most current iteration of “oh, look at the poor savages who can’t do anything for themselves…they are so backwards, let me help” instead of any real understanding about the causes of poverty. I just don’t think it’s worth getting your panties in a bunch about since I think it is unlikely you are going to prohibit non-professionals from going to ‘help.’ That would require a sort of authoritative infrastructure that isn’t practical. Additionally, coming up with standards for ‘professional’ seems a bit far fetched.

        Furthermore, I think your position, J, underestimates the agency of people on the receiving end of these things. I think that people who are typically receiving aid don’t just sit there being uncritically open to the ‘help’ of these do-gooders. Mostly, what I’ve seen is people receiving these thing, and taking them or leaving them, based on how they practically assess their value.

        The same thing happens among professionals, by the way, who sometimes just don’t seem to understand why people don’t adopt a certain technology (e.g. Playpumps-http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2005/10/south_africa_th.html, and countless numbers of agricultural seeds and technology), and often chalk it up to the intractability of culture (aka ‘backwardness’), instead of what it really is…people saw that the ‘technology’ did not suit them and actively, deliberately, consciously rejected it.

        Of course, your point is most resonant when we’re talking about how renegade humanitarians actually make things more dangerous for other aid workers and citizens, because they are acting with impunity or carrying guns around or whatever. In that case, it seems to me those people should be subject to prosecution.

      • J. 27 August, 2011 at 10:23 am #

        Stephanie – I take your points.

        You should be aware that humanitarian sector “standards for professionals” and “certification” trains are leaving the station even now (subject of a future post). How long will it take for these to become universal reality? Hard to say. But the day is almost certainly coming…

      • Stephanie White 27 August, 2011 at 10:53 am #

        Funny. As I was writing that I was thinking, I’ll bet I’m wrong. Thanks for the information. I was not aware.

  3. Martin 26 August, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    The problem with amateur humanitarianism is exacerbated by a deficit of professional schools that teach humanitarianism. This, is combined with the tightly knit networks among the more seasoned humanitarians who determine who is welcome into the “elite club” and who is not.

    However, the real issue is; has humanitarianism really evolved into a rigorous theoretical and practical discipline that can be termed “professional” or is it in its immature stages of development? What do we know about what works and what does not?

    In any case, should you professionalize the way a neighbor helps the other other in crisis?

    No easy answers.

  4. Steve Nuchia 26 August, 2011 at 6:43 am #

    Sometimes real professionals who are not full-time aid workers do their homework and self-deploy to the field carefully, responsibly, humbly. Granted, that’s not the norm. But not everyone who isn’t full-time is a dangerous amateur.

    While working up those deployments I’ve been dismayed by the “matching T-shirt” groups too, I very much identify with your point of view. It just stings sometimes to be lumped in with them.

  5. Luc Lapointe 26 August, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Mr J.

    I am glad I had breakfast before I read that blog again and two espresso (yes purchased in Guatemala). I am busy but what the heck I thought I could give five minutes to reply (not that it matters anyway).

    I am not a professional (i.e. did not graduate with a Master / PHD in international development). I’ll spare you the details on my background since you think you know me already thanks to Google.

    I haven’t read all of your post but I imagine that you have already defined was is “aid” on how effective it is. The question of a narrow perspective in aid effectiveness will be addressed very shortly at the HLF4 in Busan. Again a very narrow perspective on how to measure single actions when it takes thousands of connected action to achieve meaningful results and impact. They are still building hospital or clinics in many parts o the world where clean water and better nutrition would do much further.

    I have had the opportunity to travel extensively (on my tab thank you) in Latin America and Africa. I drove from North of Colombia to Chile and stopped in many communities that are still hoping that their governments or some professional come and help them build the much needed social and environmental infrastructures and believe me they will wait for a long time when you look at the current indebtedness of countries that normally provide well spent ODAs (yes I am a little sarcastic). So even if you increase aid budget, you won’t necessarily provide better aid. Doesn’t matter how you look at the world (North or South) – every community at one point or another will need some kind of a business (income model) to pay for infrastructures unless you think that we can pay taxes forever and hope that are elected official and theirs make the right choice for us or them.

    So how would you finance development, that is if you believe in development, because as you know, there is a large community within your sector that suffer from reverse ethnocentrism. They believe that yes….we are bad and they should be exposed to our way of living. Easy from here to say that they do not deserve better reads, clean water, education, and access to health/illcare.

    There are no magic cure to finance development outside of the few choices that curently exist on this planet ODA, FDI, Trade, Remittances, and yes the most evil of them all “tourism”. [side note if you allow me here – you should think that if mass tourism wouldn’t exist you would never be able to afford a scheduled flight to the majority of LDCs.] It’s funny to see that when the development community was bashing the mass tourism sector or provider for not being sensitive to the local communities the industry reacted and created niche markets where they would bring people out of the resorts into smaller communities. Now that they are out there and engaging with the local communities, the new trend is to tell then to go back to the beach and send the cheque payable to……..!

    So that brings me to how “professional” do you need to be to build a well, a school, a clinic, install a solar panel, build a foot-bridge, etc? Do you need a phd in development to help some communities have access to basic services? Would you be bold enough to tell these communities that they should wait for a newly graduate to come and yes maybe that new graduate isn’t professional enough to be in the “field”.

    Outside of the perfect world of development (and yes I know a little evil is good — so no harms that people should still drink water that is not clean and that they should wait a professional to do this). I am a little sick of the term guilt trip – people are not seeing the impact of the billions of dollars paid in taxes and feel that there is no harm in helping while on vacation or simply on their own time.

    Who owns development after all!? I think that better coordination, engagement of people in addressing the needs of communities can only help create a better world. I sincerely believe that there is a role for everyone to play in development beyond paying more taxes or sending a cheque at Christmas s when they see a beautiful commercial from World Vision or adopt a child program, etc!

    Maybe a little respect would go much further and for all of those that suffer from reverse ethnocentrism should sell their nice condos, stop eating red tuna, and move into those communities that are still awaiting for a professional to show up.

    Enough for me today…got to go back to more serious writing on innovative financing for development.

    By the way — did you see when you googled me that I ran for municipal election, owned restaurant, worked on vaccine preventable diseases, wrote research paper on portability of social benefit for migrant workers, set up the sector council for HR on agriculture, lobbied on banking reform in Canada and the USA, obtained legislative change for greater transparency, worked on economic and financial literacy, worked on tobacco campaigns, created national framework for chronic diseases in Canada, that our research on innovative financing for development was nominated for a Global Development Award, worked on TB program in Ecuador, and that I have three beautiful kids!

    • J. 26 August, 2011 at 8:40 am #

      Luc – Wow, that’s sure some resume of accomplishment. You must be proud.

      Look, I’m gonna be straight up honest with you, here: I don’t see how 90% (rough estimate) of your comment relates to this post. You’re conflating “be a responsible citizen of the world” with “be a humanitarian worker.”

  6. maria 26 August, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    J, As always I agree with you (pfff boring hein?)

    you talk of those Jim-Bobs out there🙂 there are jim bobs and there are NGO jim-bobs, which are the real danger. (btw waiting for the next chapter)

    personally I did not study “development”, I am a social anthropologist by training and have worked in some missions in the humanitarian proffessional sector, that was my intention when studying this. II have always been paid (sometimes a LOT, most of the time a decent salary with all the regular benefits that go with it in western countries) to manage, research, and coordinate programs. ( I dont think studying “development” makes you an aid worker btw) I studiedsocial and medical anthropolgoy as well as some international relations. I consider myself professional when I am paid to work and deliver results in NGOs just as in any other setting. I never apply with the Jim Bob ngos. its bad enough with the professional ones…:-)

    I don’t really have a “profession”. But I surely did work in a professional way with professional organisations, who paid employees and functioned as companies do (except for the profit making part). I worked with trained people such as nurses, doctors, humanitarian logisticians (yes there are some studies in this now), financial people, engineers. They all knew their job, it did not necessarily make of the good humanitarian workers. Managers were different. Its extremely hard to find a good one, regadless of what they’ve studied. All this didn’t mean we delivered good aid, but thats another question.

    I was paid to make sure that money was well spent, workers people were happysecure and productive, objectives where reached, funds nor corrupted and nobody would die or be hurt. I was paid to attend meetings, to find what to say to all sorts of people, to represent the ngo towards authorities of weak unstable states, to be there 24h if needed and sort out all kinds of problems at all kinds of levels. This goes from finding a way to repatriate the corpse of one suddently deceased staff to manage a staff kidnapping after a murderous riot. I was responsible for the credibility of my employer ngos in the region. For making things happen in the best way possible and avoiding anyone to get hurt. I did not do this with good intentions but with brains and skills.

    There is no school for this. Good intentions are not needed at all when working in the humanitarian sector. And it is my opionion that “Humanitarianism” cannot be theorised. One needs quite some solid knoledge, skills, experience, and personality to take on this kind of job and do it properly. And even professional ngos hire the bad people frequently, for lack of someone better, or becasue they have weak or plain unqualified HR depts at HQ. So I can’t imagine working with the amateur ones.

    If you want to help your neighbor, do so, stay home and do help your neighbor. Maybe he’s alone and needs company. or he’s old and needs somone to help with groceries. Good intentions are ok and enough for this.

    But dont go into the aid sector. It has already many challenges to face, to add up people not enough prepared. a job is a job, wether it implies selling cars, cutting hair, building a latrine, or getting several tons of cargo from point a to point b. You need to know how to do it.

    In humanitarian settings,there are too many variables at too many levels, and frequently not only bad aid but the lives of staff can be at risk.

    The organisation MUST be able to evaluate the consequences of the actions at micro and macro level, in changing environments. For this they need to hire people who know how to do it. Regarless of their intentions. Many, many aid workers are there for the money, the salary, and their results are good. Or bad. Regardless of their intentions.

    Political analysis, human resources management, funds management, analysis of performance,..cannot be done on the basis of good intentions. Of worst, people running away from their lives, or cowboys with something to prove themselves (Jesus and guns optional for these) Ngos need to hire people with real skills and knowledge, pay them for what they’re worth. This for me is professionalisation of the sector.

    • Luc Lapointe 26 August, 2011 at 11:24 am #

      Love Shock Jocks!

      Can anyone send me one of those famous impact measurement and outcome mapping reports from one of those professional NGOs? I could really use it right now for what I am writing.

      I’ll make sure I tell these poor people that J and Maria are coming to help….eventually!

      My email consultant.luc@live.ca

      PS. Hopefully not an accounting report where they showed that a local guy was hired. Hopefully this report that you will send will address question of long-term sustainability outside of charity and ODAs.

    • solemu 26 August, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

      Great comments Maria!

  7. Nathan Yaffe 26 August, 2011 at 1:58 pm #


    Two things I’d be very curious to hear you elaborate on, if you ever have the inclination… [Disclosure, I’m thinking-out-loud a bit]

    1) Following up on Maria’s parenthetical comment that studying development doesn’t make you an aid worker, I find myself wondering: I’m an active “student” of development (read the books follow the blogs blah blah blah – I don’t want to get called out for self credentialing). However, because I just graduated from college, my time in the “field” is limited to a few months in Ethiopia and a shorter time in Haiti. For us young’uns interested in pursuing a career that involves fieldwork, can you think of a direct connection between what one does in the field, and what one learns reading blogs like yours, Tom Murphy’s, Dave Algoso’s, Owen Barder’s, AidWatchers before it died, etc.?

    Off the top of my head, they seem to be good at a few different things. They demonstrate the need for respect, humility, knowledge/expertise, and realistic expectations. They also seem to be a great resource for thinking about aid system design / flaws in the aid system / NGO mistakes (particularly re: marketing, SWEDOW, etc.).

    However, the format doesn’t seem particularly well designed for actually helping you *develop* those things – largely, perhaps, because they’re inherently experiential. Aside from developing those traits, the next essential element seems to be local area knowledge/language skills/expertise in a particular field (e.g. engineering or agriculture or HR or whatever), which is definitely not what the blogs are for.

    But aid system design and running an NGO aren’t the two most applicable skills to have in the field, as Maria’s comment illustrates. So – the aid/development blogosphere: useful for prospective aid workers, and if so how? (… I’ll keep reading regardless of how you answer).

    2) On when aid helps vs. hurts: Okay, I’m on board with your basic point in this post. Aid by professionals usually (but not always) good. Aid by amateurs often (but not always) bad. So, you wrote a bit back that the professional aid sector should leave Haiti, because it has been failing for 200 years. I mostly agree with that point. You talked about the fact that it hasn’t helped, but didn’t offer that many explanations about *why* aid has systematically failed in Haiti moreso than in other places. You said Haiti isn’t interested in being helped and that we can’t engage without imposing our will. So my question is: does the simple combination of those factors explain the why a professional aid force didn’t help / sometimes harmed in this case? I’m curious from a determinants-of-aid-effectiveness angle rather than a Haiti angle…

    That was longer than intended. Apologies.


    • J. 26 August, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

      Nathan – so, brief responses now. Maybe more later…

      1) In addition to the benefits you mention, I think the main contribution of the aid blogosphere to young-in-their-careers and/or aspiring aid workers is simply that is a place for unvarnished discussion of what it’s all like: what the issues are, what’s good or bad about working for NGOs, what’s good/bad/frustrating/rewarding about being in the field. I won’t say that aid blogs give The Reality, but they absolutely do give bits of reality that can’t be found elsewhere for public consumption. It’s access to information, perspective and conversation that you would otherwise probably not have.

      Luc seems keen to make the point that the aid bloggers (or at least I) are/am largely irrelevant from a policy changer perspective. http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/08/23/kicking-ass-and-saving-souls-a-book-review/#comment-5479 …Well, let’s just see about that….😉

      2) I think the determinants-of-aid-effectiveness angle here is basically that in order to be effective aid has to be a conversation which unfolds between providers and recipients. In the case of Haiti specifically however, for a very wide range of reasons, aid was not a conversation. Or at best it was a one-sided conversation. And to the point, it was not a conversation for so long that eventually conversation has become impossible.

      • Nathan Yaffe 27 August, 2011 at 6:22 am #

        Dear J.,

        Thanks for the reply.

        1) That makes sense, and I appreciate the perspective on that topic. Honestly, I mostly do it out of interest and because I find the conversations/debates/issues stimulating, but that helps clarify a little. I think sometimes I slip into thinking of this as preparing for a career in development, when in fact it’s not prep for the vast majority of things (even if it serves that function for a few things…)

        My intuition leads me to your side of the policy-changer debate, although Luc seems to only half be paying attention to what you write when he comments (speaking generally, not just in this thread), so I’m not sure he’s worth debating in the first place …

        2) I quite like the aid-is-a-conversation metaphor (although maybe I’m revealing a lack of depth here and that is a common way to frame it). Actually, I think framing the procedural aspect as a matter of how successfully we engage in a (two-sided) conversation is more useful than saying we must search vs. plan for solutions á la Easterly. Sometime, could I quote you (on that way of framing it) on my (Haiti-related) blog? I only ask because I don’t want it to seem like I was baiting you into giving me something for me own purposes, but it’d be in a flattering context anyway…

      • J. 27 August, 2011 at 10:17 am #

        I’m not aware of anyone else using the “aid as a conversation” meme. You’re welcome to quote me.

      • Luc Lapointe 27 August, 2011 at 11:23 am #

        Good comment Mr Anonymous (J),

        Who owns development is the right question to ask? You can point to HLF4 or any other forums on aid effectiveness and you will see that these things are developed in a vortex that excludes the stakeholders….So ownership alone will not guarantee better aid.

        In his article “Aid Effectiveness after Accra,” Booth agrees and argues that “in principle, ownership refers to the kind of political leadership, developmental vision and willingness to transform state structures” but that “the Paris Declaration reduces these needs to the setting up of a particular kind of technocratic planning apparatus, based on lengthy texts, monitoring matrices and statistical information systems.” Because civil society, volunteer sending organization and corporate volunteering program, maintain a more direct connection with citizens, its participants can offer policy suggestions that are specifically tailored to address citizens’ most pressing demands.

        As you know, this notion of ownership has not been accepted without criticism. The Paris Declaration on how domestic ownership should be implemented was agreed upon by numerous national governments and various multilateral agencies, with civil society, the private sector, entirely left out of the drafting process. Civil society organizations are mentioned briefly as potential contributors to ownership, but only as promoters of pre-established national strategies which can fill the gaps left behind by the government, and not as unique, development agents.

        For civil society, the private sector, and definitely volunteer sending organizations; this framework, is too detached from its real-life impact on the lives of individuals.

        Aid experts Burnside and Dollar confirm in their report, “Aid, Policies, and Growth” that in developing nations which lack effective development policy, “aid is dissipated in unproductive government expenditure.” Ownership is not a guaranteed consequence of monetary aid, regardless of the aid delivery mechanism utilized. Instead, ownership is a quality that needs to be cultivated independently of outside assistance. Collier and Dollar highlight that “below the rather grand level of ‘economic policy’ there is an array of practices which can be improved simply by the transfer of knowledge.”

        A new strategy would require an increased focus on project implementation, measurement, information, and collaboration as opposed to complete reliance on grand budgetary schemes, like the ones the Paris Declaration promote. Rethinking the relationship between budgetary aid, civil society, and ownership in this way presents a space for civil society, volunteer sending organizations and the private sector to contribute their own expertise in disseminating information and fostering a will for change outside of the governmental sphere.

        The question of ownerships becomes extremely important in an era where the face of development and aid is metamorphosing. The Paris Declaration offers a model that still excludes the majority of small NGOs and Volunteer Program, the private sector that are growing at an exponential pace. Migration has also helped foster a new aid model where volunteer organizations and the diaspora community abroad has now access to human and financial resources that supports, not only their family back home, but the community that they once were part of. How can the notion of ownership become more flexible to not over regulate individual actions? But instead would provide frameworks which leverages and encourages participation and social investment in the social, economic, and environmental infrastructures.

        Will you be in BUSAN? How will this entertaining blog impact the agenda….aid effectiveness….ownership, delivery of aid? You are still advocating for a delivery system that is old, passé, and somewhat ineffective in reaching people in need.

        >>>and I respect your views except when you play god and YOU become the voice of the people who are still awaiting those professionals.

        No I am not upset Maria!

        Have a good weekend

    • solemu 27 August, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

      Hey J. I’ve been in touch with a great research group “IKM Emergent” (http://wiki.ikmemergent.net/index.php/Main_Page) that has been using the concept of “development as a conversation”. Soon it will be out a special issue of PLA Notes on that. The project is called “How wide are the ripples”. Good stuff to check out!

      • Holly Ashley 6 October, 2011 at 12:52 am #

        Just to follow up on Solemu’s comment: IIED’s Participatory Learning and Action series has just published it’s special issue with the IKM Emergent Programme: ‘PLA 63 – How wide are the ripples? From local participation to international organisational learning.’ It’s available to download free online: http://pubs.iied.org/14606IIED.html?k=ripples

        ‘This special issue explores how widely the impacts – or `ripples’ created from participatory processes spread. How do international development organisations use and manage the information, knowledge and perspectives generated through the participatory processes they initiate or fund? Are these experiences translated into wider organisational learning – and if so how – or why not?

  8. maria 26 August, 2011 at 3:12 pm #


    I sense you are very angry.. I don’t know exactly why. But I dont like your tone of voice. I know its easy, though, for certain people, to get very aggressive over a screen. But please refrain from making fun of my “helping others”. You dont know me, or my work. The fact that you need to be aggressive on a virtual, anonimous forum, says a lot about you.

    Should you need documents over a particular subject (are you a researcher?) I advise you contact development organisations (not only ngos’s as such) that work in the subject, introduce yourself and explain your needs to them.

    Personally, I do not think the aid industry as a whole is sustainable or efficient (except perhaps in the sustainability of the salaries of civil servants at UN and EC) . Particularly the development ones, with or without Jesus. I do not think they know how to address sustainability. And the emergency ones do not bother with sustainability, as what they do is relief. They do not claim to address root causes of poverty/violence. (Nor should they actually, as this is the role of states. And since we talk of states, I would be curious to see any doc from the EU or UN measuring sustainability of their activities, such as direct budget support to rogue states).

    You are not the only person to point that out. I have evaluated quite a few ngo and technical assistance “development” projects applying for EU funding, with the same worry. But I am not aggressive on forums.

    What I was refering to when speaking of professionalism is to have people with enough training, brain and experience to avoid putting 100 “orphan” kids from Chad in a plane and saying it is for humanitarian reasons so they get a “home” somewhere in europe (violating several laws and the rights of the child, getting in jail, obliging the prime minister to come and “rescue” them with taxpayer’s money, and putting the whole humanitarian community at risk of their lives becasue of the consequences on the population’s perpetions of “humanitarian” work). Its just an example.It occurs to me that you have never been on the field working in development or emergency. Am I wrong?

    I was quite explicit in my previous post. If you dont understand the difference between amateur and professional aid work, I don’t know how else to explain it. Now, it is clear that being pro does not mean to be perfect, in this industry as in others (professional bankers are making a very bad job right now, same for many heads of state).

    Sustainability will be always a problem in “development”, since we operate in a globalised, neoliberal system in which other forces andf actors shape realities and produce structural injustice and violence. People have ot stop thinking that development will change the world. Still, each of the steps (financial, HR., technical) can be done in either a professional or in an amateur manner.

    • Luc Lapointe 26 August, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

      Oh my god Maria!!!!

      I am not upset – life is too short to be upset. I am currently researching / writing which I hope would be a good piece on the changing world of aid / development. I am writing this in the context of the European Year of Volunteering, the HLF4 on Aid Effectiveness, and a growing interest in innovative financing for development.

      The only thing that gets me upset (for sake of a better word) is the lack of willingness from civil society, development purist, and others; to understand that we live in exponential time and what was impossible 5 years ago is now at the reach of almost anyone on the planet. I get better cellular connection in the middle of the Amazon than in the middle of Ottawa.

      Even if Mr J and company doesn’t like it, new players are participating. There is no good data available and the majority of these organizations, groups, associations prefer to fly under the radar than to be hang publicly by purist (right or wrong, is not for me to judge at this time but this present a new opportunity for the future).

      If people think the situation is bad right now, wait until next year, the world of ODA will change dramatically. I am sure that the next meeting in Busan will do nothing but to fragment the world of aid or development.

      I welcome the idea that we will never potentially agree on everything but I think that we should pays respect to the people who are trying (amateurs) — still waiting for a good definition.

      I think that a healthy and respectful exchange of ideas will go much further to advance the field and hopefully bring “help” <> those communities who more than welcome anyone that is willing to help. Is this being done with the best use of human and financial resources right now? Absolutely not! Can we improve and increase participation and impact? Absolutely! Do I think by sending more people out there will do better??! Absolutely not!

      If you need a house built, you not only need engineers and lawyers but laborers are extremely important.

      Let’s agree to disagree but there is no need for calling people unskilled or unprofessional and my comments are not directed at anyone in particular and definitely not at you.

      Thank you for taking the time to reply. I hope I do not sounds upset simply late in writing …so to be honest these discussion stimulate the research that I am doing.

  9. maria 26 August, 2011 at 4:57 pm #


    financing for development- you really should ask those funding it, the Big Donor, the EC. Ngo’s compared to EC work with crumbles, which btw come from gov. money. (Except one or two.)
    Development I believe is not only about humanitairan aid from ngos. it’s also (mainly?) about govt budget policy support and is, broadly speaking, the little sister of Trade and GeoPolitics. So ask the EC why they keep commercial, diplomatic and “development cooperation” relations with Sudan, DRC, Israel or Guinea while at the same time funding, through their humanitarian directorate general (ECHO), many emergency ngos that deal with the immediate or long term ravages of these same governments’s policies.

    .Development is not only about aid as such but about the ground in which these exchanges take place. And the current ground is quite rotten, My English is not good enough to express this. More money is not needed. What is needed nobody wants to work for it: another economic global model, including trade rules more state accountability, a rethinking of the role and scope of the UN…) .

    Many states lack the absorbtion capacity needed to channel the current “aid” money, because they are lacking basic functioning state structures for instance. One can have millions and not have a proper banking system or civil servants to manage it, or a society deeply rooted in nepotism or directly in open armed coflict. or the knowledge to build a system (health, education…). And some countries do not want to use that money for development of their societies. they want to put in in their pockets and run before the next coup d’etat ou de machette. most heads of state could not care less about their citizens (this happens in europe so imagine in the so called LDC’s) I believe there is generally a complete lack of political will to go on the sense of “development”.. Ngo’s are a mere PR thing for western countries’ civil society to feel they do something about those neverending starving children.

    I do not lack respect for “amateur “aid workers, (except the stupid ones breaking the law and putting everyone at risk of their lives). Im pointing out the differences between being amateur and being professional. I really do think that if you have good intentions, you should volunteer for some activity to engage as a citizen, but this is not the same than to engage as an aid worker. You will notice it right away when reading the job descriptions of the vacancies for the professional ngos. There’s nothing there about good intentions, and loads about skills, training and experience. If you do not fit all of the requirements, it means you’re not professional enough. Then you can collaborate by giving money and buying the Xmas candles and it will be much better and efficient than starting your own ngo for the sake fo helping. If they need a surgeon and you’re not, you wll NOT be taken, that’s all. Would you like an amateur surgeon to operate on you?

    and just so that we are clear, the formulated need for “development aid” should come from the communities involved that feel they need it. They should formulate their plans and priorities, and actually work on the projects. This is rarely done like this. (Emergency aid is a differente issue I believe),

  10. Anna 26 August, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    I’m still ironing out the details of where I sit on this debate, and I agree, J, that Maria makes a pretty compelling, possibly flirt-worthy, argument. Here’s my question for the both of you, and anyone else on that side of the debate:

    Where do civil society and local NGOs fit? I get the argument when it refers to people from developed country X going to save the poor souls in developing country Y. But the people who already live in country Y, the ones who are just “helping their neighbour”, become an NGO when they organize. And the people in cities, town, villages, and communities in the “arse end of nowhere” are generally organized, doing something to help themselves, before the arrival of/in the absence of/along side the INGOs that have highly trained and qualified professionals. Most of those local people don’t hold Masters degrees or PhDs, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they must attain those qualifications before they can try to improve their lot.

    This, of course, is a slippery slope. What if those local NGOs want to accept foreign volunteers because there aren’t enough people in the community who have the time to dedicate to the cause? Inevitably, one of those volunteers will want to turn their experience into a longer term commitment, offering to help build a school, send over used t-shirts, adopt all their orphans, etc.

    I’m all for professionalization, but I’m not sure where it fits in the aid sector, especially in countries where standards of qualification are frequently lacking in the already professionalized fields of medicine, law, education, etc.

    Yes, it’d be great if a professional could work with each of those local NGOs to help them professionalize their practices with or without the advanced degrees, and in many cases that does happen. But in the meantime, people are going to help themselves rather than twiddle their thumbs and wait for their professional western saviours to show them how it’s done. And I’m not sure I see any way to professionalize or regulate civil society groups and local NGOs without sending that message.

    • maria 27 August, 2011 at 11:15 am #


      I tend to agree with you. I would say that “development” belogns to the people who want to be “developped”. If ivil society in a country wants to organize and take volunteers form opther countries or form wherever, I dont really judge that as bad. I was referring in my posts to international development and relief as it is currently going on at the donor/international ngo level. of course people organize and do their own thing. For me they’re more than welcome to do so But the they should be aware of what will happen when these volunteer leave the coomunity. Are they “voluntourists”? can development and self- autonomy be based on visiting people form outside? This, the society has to decide and see where they want to go and how.

      Countries have laws so at some point the activities of these volunteers will face the laws and limits. for me, if the society and its heads/chiefs/power people/representants is fine with foreign people giving them t-shirts, then fine, they decide what they want to do, and how they will then pay the teacher at that school. And power relations will shape these interactions, at every level. This will probably stay very local and low profile. See Disastrous Passion , Jim-Bob character (chapter 25 I think) for an illustration of this kind of interaction🙂

      Sometimes, I have observed through work in Africa and Asia, “civil society” and “local ngos” are very quick to see and judge what’s at stake (money, jobs) when an international ngo arrives or tries to network. It is a human thing that some people emerge and try to make the most of this for their own personal benefit, claiming to represent their fellow “poor people” or just trying to get some benefit out of the “partership”. in this way, what for you is “partnership” becomes buyng that “local ngo” or that local gov. authority a jeep, some fuel, or a laptop, or giving his uncle a job as guard. Partnership is a tricky thing. When one is “professional”, one sees it coming, analises the consequences, and makes decisions accordingly.

      It is not the same to engage in representation of an international ngo, that has a fiscal and legal status and accountability to its donors, staff, and beneficiaries, than to go as yourself and a couple of friends, without this level of accountability.

      On of my friends is involved in a home made ngo with a handful of his friends. They’ve beem giving money and school stuff to a tiny school in remote mali (Araouane, north of Timbouctou) since may years, wihtout making a fizz about it. it went all right for all these years. It was pure charity and human exchange, the lcoal teacher and powermen were fine with it. They were kidnapped last year in the desert between these two towns by a group that defined themselves as al qaeda. They were robbed and for several hours they did not know if they were going to be killed, accused of wanting to preach the catholic faith (which I know for sure wasn’t the objective). Luckily they had some of their local partners with them in the car. after several hours they were released and told never to come back if they were ever seen again they’d be killed. They later went on to report to the French embassy.

      I do not condemn their actions and their initiative to help this school. it was done with the tiny local community of touareg people. but we live in a violen and dangerous world. “Professional” ngos have permission form governments of countries where they work, they have radio systems and security analysts and logisticians, they have everyday conections and infos from UN intelligence in conflict areas, to shape their decisions and actions in the most secure way.

      This is for me how professionalisation it can fit in the aid industry, mainly in unstable or conflict zones, where reality is made complex layers of meaning that the organisation must decypher, each day, each month, all the time, on order to be the most efficint possible.

      I finish mentioning what you say about profesionalisation in places where standards are already lacking in medicine etc. Indeed this is a great challenge, becaue there is the danger of the ngo doing the work the state should be doing. Its fits the government, who most of the time doesn’t give a damn about population and find here a way to out in a swiss bank the budget support intended to do that job the ngos are doing.

      That’s the question of the accountability of states. How is a rogue state with no structures, no governance, democracy or proper government to be made accountable towards population and towards donors? Anwering this question belongs to the Big Donors. Ngos can have the question in mind as well when they plan their interventions. To my little experience and knowledge, they never do so. Their priorities lie elsewhere and there is no room or time for self critique, self analysis or anything of the kind. They save lives so they’res no need to question other things….🙂

      sorry to be so long, thnks for your patience in reading. once you get me started….

      • Anna 27 August, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

        Well maybe I don’t understand what we’re talking about here…

        1. Disaster response or aid in conflict zones: no question about it, please, professionals only.

        2. a)Long term development activities carried out by international NGOs: forgive me for my ignorance as I don’t work for one, but don’t they already have pretty high standards of qualification (eg. advanced degree in relevant field, x years of experience doing y, etc.), with background checks, references, interviews, selection processes, etc? Is it these organizations that you’re arguing need professionalization? If so, then I’m gravely mistaken about who works for these organizations.

        b) Long term development activities carried out by local NGOs: I think we agree on this.

        c) Long term development activities carried out by non-affiliated individuals or start-up NGOs: As I said before, I think the lines here are blurred regarding when lending a hand to a local NGO/group of people turns into voluntourism and/or a start-up taking on a life of its own. And I think you’re arguing that you don’t disagree with this sort of unprofessional activity, eg. your friend in Mali, except maybe when it takes place in unstable or conflict zones (see #1). Is that right? Because I think this is where the “voluntourism, volunteerism, Clowns Without Borders, Waves For Development, TOMS Shoes, random dorks from Montana” fit that J. refers to, aid that he argues should be professionalized. And it’s here that I would agree is the highest incidence of good intentions leading to terrible outcomes, but I just don’t see how it can possibly be regulated without flexing your muscles at those in category #2 b.

  11. moi 28 August, 2011 at 8:48 am #

    I don’t necessarily disagree w you. However, given that aid is international there is a difficulty in ensuring aid workers are sufficiently trained as all will come from various countries. But that can be overcome, that’s a goal to strive to meet. The real issue and question for me is if aid workers must be trained, HOW must they be trained? Proof of language fluency? Proof of willingness to travel or to be away from family? Or proof of ability to write a graduate paper at a good university? I met some highly educated aid workers who had horrible egos and great arrogance. I suspect they met the training criteria but I don’t think they were good for the roles they were in at all. So maybe ppl require training but I’m interested to know what you mean when you put it that way.

    • maria 30 August, 2011 at 3:27 am #

      Ana, I dont know if you were replying to me? but if I may reply to you post:

      1)yep i agree

      2) this is exact as far as my little experience goes. still, HR needs to be improved, mainly in the managerial/analytical/HR positions, in HQ as much as on “the field”. Again, an academic background does not make one a good humanitarian worker. For me it’s a mix of training, gradual experience in the right positions, and personality, altogether. And then to be hired for the right position by a similarly qualified HR HQ manager.

      Besides, these organisations need professionalisation in the sense that they need to make space to accept questioning of their own existence and their scope, this for me is urgent and needed. I have seen too much bad faith, ignorance, fake discourses about transparency and audits in corrupted professional NGOs. And I have been heavily sanctioned for pointing that out.

      3)yep I tend to agree with you. Except that my friend in Mali, their approach and goals were not stupid in a TOMS shoes approach: theur were quite humble and had established a relation with the community and did not want to save the world, they just collaborated giving material for the local school…


      I believe the level of adequacy of each worker should be assesed by the relevant HR people at each ngo before hiring. globalosation of aid work should not be a problem for professionalisation.

      you cite “proofs”: indeed, in my opinion, yes all of these should be assessed, depending of each position, each one having different criteria. just take a look at job descriptions on ReliefWeb for instance, and see the kind of profiles.

      yep, plenty of arrogance, fear of the knowledge of other fellow aid workers, jealousy, plain stupidity, egoes, cowboys, jim-bobs and jean philippes (archetypal characters who appear in Disastrous Passion.chek it for a laugh). Thats how it is! Missions that owe their existence to the fact that the head of mission is married locally and want to stay, complex missions with senior management positions filled with 28 years old without any managerial experience, missions with complete financial opacity, plain incompetence when assessing security-putting at risk people’s lives, complete disengagement and total lack of knowledge from HQ to field, total lack of analitycal basic documentation after one year of intervention because extreme turnover of staff and just lack of global vision….I’ve seen this all and more only in four missions, and always in “professional” international non-religious european ngos.

      So for me more professinalisation, to avoid these, is needed and welcome, mainly in the HR and managerial department, before hiring and during mission. Its not done by lack of time of for not considering these as priority (“we’re busy saving lives” and “since we save lives we’re always right”).


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