Spitting into the Wind

What is the problem with aid and development?

Well, if you ask me, one of the main problems is that even if for years, as the good program manager (or whatever title you have in the area of programs) that you are, you have naturally, in your own small way, been doing something like this… eg., you’ve been listening to people in communities and to local staff…

The Listening Project - listening to aid recipients since 2005

Note: Image respectfully pulled from The Listening Project’s report.

And you’ve been hearing from community members and local partners that:

  • staff don’t spend enough time in the community
  • staff show up late for community meetings
  • staff don’t take the time to sit with us
  • staff are late with materials or funding for projects we are implementing
  • we’d like staff to accompany us more, to train us more
  • we’d like some cash benefits for participation in training
  • we’d like some material benefits for ourselves like some t-shirts and maybe some school supplies

And you’ve been hearing from local community outreach staff that:

  • the nicest vehicles are kept at the head office for higher management, when it’s we who need them for our field work
  • they keep cutting our administration budget and giving us more paperwork to do
  • the central office is slow in approving things for us to do our work on the ground
  • the time we should be spending in communities is taken up by paperwork to fulfill audit requirements
  • processes are too bureaucratic, they just keep adding more layers and rules
  • we don’t have the equipment we need to do our jobs
  • they keep cutting community outreach staff in order to reduce overhead
  • people are used to hand outs because other organizations come around and give free things
  • it’s hard to get people to participate in some programs because other organizations in the past always paid them to participate
  • our biggest challenge is to change mindsets, to help communities see that we will not be here forever, that we do not do handouts

And yes, granted, you are doing this listening informally… but still you are doing it… And you are reporting the difficulties upwards to higher management… and you are having meetings where field staff can share their issues with higher management… and you are sticking your neck out at global management meetings to relay what communities and community outreach staff are telling you… and you are adapting your own proposals and modes of working and doing your best to support your overworked field staff so that you are not the bottleneck… and those higher management folks you are relaying these things to profess to be in this for all the right reasons, eg., they say they want to make an impact… (though you often doubt that they are really listening to you….)

And you can see the impact that’s being made when you and your team have the time and the space do things right, when you work hand in hand with local people for them to manage their own development….

…Even if you’ve been doing that, there is still an issue:  there are still a billion things that are outside of your control.

For example:

You still have to deal with the pyramid of micromanagement:

Dr Alden Kurtz Pyramid of Micromanagement

And the pyramid of blame:

Dr Alden Kurtz' Pyramid of Blame

Note: Images above shamelessly skimmed from Dr. Alden Kurtz’s excellent explanation of the virtues of micromanagement.

Not to mention the hubris of the captains of industry that your organization hires at the top and philanthrocapitalists that influence your organization’s direction, and who think you and everyone working in your organization is an imbecile (because these folks have never actually had to implement any aid or development projects before) (well, and until they realize after a year or 2 that they are hitting up against the same walls you have been….):

Hedge Funds for Development and Philanthrocapitalists

Note: Image nicked from Duncan Greene’s blog

And 1 million stupid ideas by wannabe do gooders sent for your consideration via the head office, taking your time away from the real work (no, we don’t need 10,000 used pencils collected by that grade school):

The doomed 1 Million Shirts Campaign

Note: Image stolen with pleasure from Project Diaspora’s site.

And the Badvocacy and Poverty Porn that certain teams in your office are promoting, and that messes around with the image and dignity of the people you are supporting, and stirs up misguided ideas, and you have to either waste your time fighting them or just give up and participate against your gut feelings of aversion:

Poverty porn and Badvocacy

Note: Image heartlessly torn from AidThoughts.

And the fundraising, marketing and communications department at the head office trying to get the most shocking stories out of you in order to score airtime in the media and get in the game early with donors and the public, because if they don’t you won’t actually have any funds to support those good programs that your team and the communities implement when you have the time and resources:

INGO Fundraising, Marketing and Communication Teams Jostling for Position

Note: Image from a hotly disputed article in the Lancet.

And cowboys like Sean Penn giving the impression that you’re all a bunch of idiots and that they can do it way better than you can (because they have a huge budget, ready-made media attention, and less of the aforementioned constraints because they are just getting started, and are not held particularly accountable):

Sean, Wyclef, Angelina, Madonna, and the like

And your Whites in Shining Armor telling the public that there are no capable people locally, and giving the impression that everyone is waiting for an American or a European with some business savvy, good intentions and no real applicable skills or experience to fly in to save the day, and this tends to resonate with your head office, because they are still jostling for media attention and corporate funding, and because you were slow to respond to Stupid Idea from Wannabe Do Gooder #999,997, which confirmed to the head office that you and your team are incapable of getting the work done (plus some Whites will get them local media coverage):

Whites in Shining Armour

Image: Taken from Good Intentions blog.

And all the other INGO marketers and fundraisers in the world telling the public that the capable, intelligent, solid people you are working with in the local office and in communities are pathetic helpless victims, because no one will donate if they don’t, and your head office has to keep doing that too, or they will lose out on fundraising and media and branding opportunities:

NGO marketing: donors don't respond to smiling people....

Note: Image from the fabulous Perspectives of Poverty project over at Water Wellness blog.

And the academics and aid critics looking at all the above, and reading books by elite Africans who don’t live in Africa, and thinking that aid and development don’t ever work, and should be abolished in favor of capitalism and making everyone and their mother an entrepreneur… and yeah, considering some of the giant aid and development programs you’ve seen, and some of the terrible initiatives started by outsiders with no experience, and some of the crafty government bureaucrats you’ve worked with, and the way that aid is politicized for gain by those political parties, you agree that some kinds of aid and development (the kinds that you also have no control over) have negative effects and should be abolished….

"Africans don't want aid"

Image from Aid Watch’s “just asking that aid benefit the poor” blog.

And the…. well yeah, you get the point.

You feel like you are spitting into the wind, but you plug along with the conviction that what you are doing really does matter, because when you listen to staff and community members, they are telling you what the obstacles are, but they are also saying that they don’t want you to leave.

So, the thing is, I love the Listening Project. Their findings resonate fully. I’ve been listening and hearing those things for years myself. But how do we fix it when the shit storm is coming at us from all sides and no one single person or organization or sector has the power to make it all better?

…and when we figure that out, maybe we can fix government and business and healthcare too and end all the wars.

Oh, wow, update: just read this ODI report called the Humanitarian’s Dilemma which gives a lot of insight, in a more eloquent and academic way than what I wrote above….


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

8 responses to “Spitting into the Wind

  • Jennifer Lentfer

    When I hear from my fellow aid workers, “we’re already doing all this!” e.g. known good practice around community participation and the like, I think of all the surveys of the U.S. general public, who although they have terrible perceptions Congress’ performance overall, think their own representative is doing a fine job.

    Insulated by privilege, professionalism, or the power dynamics of working for donors, we can often choose to assume we are doing our best. Unfortunately, that’s when our worst cynicism can take root and we become ineffective in what we are trying to achieve.

    As we all know, unfortunately, listening and relationship building too often take a backseat to deliverables and logframes in relief and development aid. Indeed, the Listening Project study tells many of us what we already have learned (most often the hard way) but I personally hope that because it was carried out with the all-important rigour of a third party and with a Harvard affiliation, it can gain some recognition among the key decision-makers who deem research as the only reason to make the changes needed in the sector to truly put the people we are trying to “help” in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to make this a reality, but we need ALL our best efforts to get there.

    So…spitting into the wind or swimming among inherent complexities?

    • shotgunshack

      Thanks for your comment Jennifer! I’m honestly not quite sure what you mean with your first 2 paragraphs, so I’ll skip to the last 2.

      I also hope that the Harvard academic seal on the work means that those at the top will listen and that the things that have been wrong in the broken aid system for years will some day be fixed. I wouldn’t write about it or work in the INGO world if I didn’t believe that there is some value in the some of the work that the aid and development sectors do, and that it can get better somehow.

      I hope you’re not taking my post as being critical of your work on the Listening Project. I was actually endorsing it. And I was also talking about the complexities inherent in aid, apologies if that wasn’t clear!


      • Jennifer Lentfer

        re: first paragraphs – guess I’ll have to work on that analogy before sharing it again. (;

        Glad you find the Listening Project relevant and hopefully useful. Have to just state that I’m in no way associated with the study, just a blogger who wants to help promote the findings.

        Great summary post by the way. I’ll definintely recommend it to folks who don’t follow the aid bloggers but want to know what’s being discussed of late.

      • shotgunshack

        Oops – sorry! And thanks for the clarification. You were so enthusiastic about it and it was so prominent on your blog that I assumed the material was yours!

  • bramalingam

    Hi, thanks so much for this piece and the link to the Humanitarian’s Dilemma paper!

    I like your piece a lot too, and will link to it on my own blog http://www.aidontheedge.info

    All best,


  • Q-tip

    Couldn’t have said it better. And don’t sell yourself too short – The Humanitarian Dilemma wasn’t bad, but you make the point better.

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