Aid: love it or leave it?

Aid - love it or leave it? (Photo taken from - use of photo is not an endorsement of the band/message/song)

Last week, Tom Paulson guest posted for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL). He didn’t realize he was guest posting, because he wrote the post for Humanosphere, but his post could easily be re-written as SEAWL “#75: Self-Loathing”.

In his post, Paulson identifies ‘A serious problem of self-loathing within the aid and development community’ along with ‘pathological self-deprecation’ and a tendency towards ‘nose-cutting and face-spiting’ (not necessarily in that order).

He uses 2 posts to illustrate his point.

1) Aid Cannot and Will Not Fix Anything by Tales from the Hood, and

2) It’s a Better Life Without Oxfam: the video, which Duncan Green (Oxfam GB’s head of research) blogged about and View from the Cave re-blogged.

Paulson writes that ‘Given the level of ignorance and even hostility that exists in this country toward spending much on foreign aid and development, I think the main challenge for this [the aid] community is make the case for the value of aid and international development. Saying “aid cannot and will not fix anything” is a dangerous soundbite in this political and cultural environment, I think.’

I kind of see his point, and I like Paulson’s writing in general, but this question reminds me a bit of the old “USA Love It or Leave It” mantra.

Most anyone who works in the aid sector knows that aid has serious problems. Some say it’s irreparably broken and move on to a different career or start their own initiative that they think will get beyond the problems of ‘aid’. The general public knows that there are problems in the aid sector as well. It’s a bit hard to hide. And anyway, part of the problem with aid is that for years, its marketers and promoters have been promising something that aid can’t deliver and creating a skewed vision of the world.

I suspect that those who stick around in the aid sector 1) believe aid does some good and that it can be fixed (see many of Owen Barder’s posts), 2) labor on seeing the small bits of good that they or their team or their project or program can accomplish within a system they know is broken (see Spitting into the Wind), 3) are motivated by their paycheck (see Hardship Living) or other perks (like feeling hardcore) or 4) some combination of the above.

Aid is no different from any other large system or industry. It shouldn’t be held as sacred and beyond critique, including by those who know it well and can identify the fine points and details of what is wrong, and perhaps especially by them.

Would Paulson say that we shouldn’t criticize our political or religious systems because it might put people off? Or that we are self-loathing if we talk about what ails those systems and needs to be fixed?


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

2 responses to “Aid: love it or leave it?

  • Tom Paulson

    Maybe I was unclear, or guilty of the same kind of overstatement I criticized.

    To clarify: I welcome and strongly encourage self-criticism by and within the aid/development community. I’d agree it needs more of this, not less.

    I can think of many critiques raised mostly by those working within this community — e.g., the potential harm caused by TOMS shoes and donated goods — that appear to be changing minds and practices for the better.

    But to be effective and constructive, I think criticism needs to focused on a specific problem and also aimed at finding a solution. If aid really cannot fix anything, why do you all do it? Guilt? Lack of other skills?

    I happen to think aid does fix things — even when done imperfectly, which is pretty much how human beings do everything. Should we criticize failure and stupidity? Absolutely (and please contact me with story ideas since I love stories of failure and stupidity).

    But let’s not throw the aid baby out with the bathwater.

    As for the Oxfam spoof video, I laughed watching it. But then it occured to me that most people watching it would probably get the wrong message — that Oxfam is comprised of a bunch of self-righteous do-gooders who don’t really believe in what they’re doing but want your money anyway.

    I’m glad the folks at Oxfam can laugh at themselves. But, as a journalist, I recognize how indifferent and ignorant the general public is about the value of what you all do. That’s the bigger problem here.

    In my own cranky, smart-ass way, I was trying to defend you folks (even if it means defending you against your laudable tendency toward excessive self-deprecation).


  • Shotgun Shack

    Thanks for commenting Tom – and thanks for being cranky and smart-ass. I do see your point, but I also think aid needs a big giant reality check so that it’s clear what it can actually accomplish is not what its marketers say. I think those who labor from the inside to try to change things lack official channels (aside from the bar) within their own organizations to express the frustration, so it spills out elsewhere. We don’t usually have a lot of space (support?) during the day-to-day to ask the big picture questions like should aid exist, and if so, how and why and in what form? There isn’t enough honesty around those questions or enough questioning from the inside, and a lot of the criticisms levied from the outside are not nuanced to the real issues and details and heart of the matters as we see them from the inside. I think hearty criticism should be more encouraged, not less. And another point – does Oxfam even have a choice but to laugh at that video? If they get defensive it only makes them look bad in today’s world of social media.

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