DIY follow-up, part 3 of 5: Improving the development industry. (Or: Don’t the professionals screw things up too?)

(This continues a 5-part series which responds to the responses that I received following my Foreign Policy post about Nicholas Kristof’s D.I.Y. aid concept. For more background, also see Part 1: How complicated can things really be?)

3. Improving the development industry. Or: Don’t the professionals screw things up too?

If you saw Kristof’s article as “anti-aid establishment”, and saw my piece as “anti-Kristof’s article”, then I can see how you might think that I’m “anti-anti-aid establishment” (by the transitive property of being against stuff) and reduce the equation to conclude that I am “pro-aid establishment”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Do development professionals screw up? Heck yeah. They screw up a lot. So do doctors. That doesn’t mean I want someone who hasn’t been to medical school removing my appendix.

The more interesting question is: How can we improve the development industry (broadly defined)? How can we make sure that the resources and efforts have more positive impacts and fewer negative impacts? Do we reform the current organizations or start new ones? There is already a robust debate around these issues. I won’t try to recap it here. See the “further reading” section below if you some other good blogs to follow. What I will address are two issues that came up in the DIY debate: local knowledge/control, and new organizations.

Local knowledge and control

Two great comments on the FP blog pointed to the importance of local knowledge in development. First, LIZINBALI writes:

sometimes the ‘amateurs’ who have lived in an area for many years DO know better than the development ‘experts’. … I’ve found development ‘experts’ to be surprisingly ignorant of the consequences of their often-misplaced programs on locals.

And also, DEBBIE says:

Instead of encouraging more Westerners to get international development degrees, wouldn’t it be better to simply support the efforts of intelligent, skilled local residents to solve local problems in whatever ways communities deem best?

These comments raise good points. After all, the ultimate DIY efforts are grassroots initiatives by poor people in their own communities. Though these local efforts were curiously absent from Kristof’s recent article, everyone in this discussion agrees that local knowledge and control are important. So the questions become: How to be a good outsider who allows for local knowledge and control? How to provide the right kind of support? How to make the appropriate contacts, and how to manage those relationships?

Many commenters to this discussion who proudly (even indignantly) align themselves on the “amateurs” side seem to think that this side correlates with local knowledge. There’s some humility in this: they feel that they have made common cause with the poor people of the world, and that they are working hand-in-hand with those people. They conclude that out-of-touch “professionals” could never understand poor people the way amateurs can. If you equate “professionalism” with “being out of touch with beneficiaries”, then I can understand why you’d react negatively when I (and others) argue for professionalism.

Let me put my response bluntly: People from developed countries who do development work have not made common cause with the poor of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re with a large international NGO, a small DIY operation, a hulking multilateral like the World Bank, an Irish rock band, the Peace Corps, or whatever. Even if you move to a rural village on your own and live like the locals, you’re still there by choice. That’s a key difference between you and your neighbors that can never be overcome, no matter how much you love each other. You (and I) grew up in a very different environment, with relative luxury and a very different health and educational system. You probably have resources and contacts that could take you back to the US or wherever. You might care a great deal about the fate of a poor community, but your fate is not the same as theirs. If a reader has a counter-example, I would love to hear it.

Of course, it’s important for an outsider to have some understanding of the challenges people face, regardless of how that outsider approaches the work. This is what an experience like Peace Corps service or living in-country for extended periods can provide so well. I never realized just how important a paved road could be until I took a matatu ride through rural Uganda.

But — for an outside organization engaging with a community, the structures and processes that put local knowledge at the center of decision-making are much more important than having your staff actually internalize that local knowledge themselves. These structures and processes pose technical questions about needs assessments, program evaluations, accountability systems, and more.

This question is broader than a single organization. There are various resources from the developed world that can be used to create positive change in the developing world. Is it best to do that through the developing country governments, with all their institutional problems? And how does the approach affect those institutional problems? Or, is it better to hire local staff and work through local civil society partners, as many of the big international NGOs do? Or do you forget the aid model entirely and invest the resources in the private sector, perhaps through large-scale foreign direct investment or through microfinance institutions?

(There are also resources that should not be brought to bear. In disaster situations, outsiders often attempt to dump stuff-we-don’t-want on a country. For some reason, this seems to happen a lot with shoes — see herehereherehereherehere, and here for more commentary. What should be sent and what shouldn’t? Here’s a useful flow chart of the questions to ask.)

To answer DEBBIE’s question, I would say: Yes, it’s best to support local efforts. But doing so requires that whatever outside entity is bringing the resources be able to answer these technical questions. And having a degree helps with that.

New organizations

When to start a new organization, and when to work through existing ones? There really is a difficult issue here, so I wasn’t surprised that it struck a nerve with some people.

The crux of the problem is the social sector capital market. In the private sector, money flows to seek the highest returns; it doesn’t work like that in the social sectors. In theory, funds go to the best organizations with the best ability to solve the world’s problems. In reality, this is very hard to judge. How do you know the real impact of a program, without a counter-factual? And how do you compare across different issues (e.g. educational results versus health outcomes) to decide which programs deserve support? Because of these difficulties, money goes instead to the best marketed organizations. Fundraising is often based on pulling heart strings or enlisting the help of celebrity spokespeople. Success in these fundraising efforts is often only loosely linked to programmatic impact. (I touched on these issues a bit in a prior post.)

This system results in many problems. One problem is that there exists a bias toward starting and funding new organizations. Painting a rosy picture of future impacts is easier, existing challenges can be downplayed, and you can position yourself in opposition to the known problems of existing organizations. There’s probably a psychological effect here: “new” is full of possibilities, and if you’re an optimistic person then you can fill in the blanks with whatever you hope to see. Of course, a new organization with new talent might be exactly what an issue needs. I tried to nod toward this fact in the FP piece by mentioning how Paul Farmer and Muhammad Yunus started small. If a “grump” (as one commenter described me) had dissuaded them from starting, the world would be a worse place for it. The sector is slowly developing new structures and getting better at dealing with this issue.

However, “DIY” is not about general sectoral reform. The message seems targeted at young people starting out. For an affluent young person who graduated from a good college in the United States, there’s a shockingly low bar for starting your own organization. And all the cool kids are doing it. If you’ve got former classmates, family and family friends who will chip in support, you don’t really need the best idea or the ability to execute it. I argue against the DIY revolution because I think that, for the vast majority of young people, it makes more sense for us to learn with an established organization first, then strike out on your own once you have the skills, knowledge and contacts to do it right.

But maybe you’re sure of yourself and think you’re in that tiny sliver of people who can do it right. I’m not going to stop you. I just want you to do more than a gut check; actually research it. I want you to be really sure you have the idea, the skills, and the commitment to execute it. Because if you don’t, you could actually do damage to the communities you intend to help. And if you’re smart, driven, and skilled, there are certainly existing organizations that could put you to good use.

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Further reading: Want more information about aid reform? I suggest checking out the following blogs.

And for just a relentless mocking of the current system, there’s always HRI.

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Check out the full series:

 

    9 thoughts on “DIY follow-up, part 3 of 5: Improving the development industry. (Or: Don’t the professionals screw things up too?)

    1. Dave–

      This is really a fantastic series, and I find myself nodding a lot when I read these posts.

      Couple of things:

      1) One thing that I don’t think gets enough thought by would-be NGO founders is the impact that starting a new NGO has on the larger ecosystem of already existing organizations working in development. Seems like fundraising, perceptions of NGO effectiveness, etc. could be negatively impacted by newly formed NGOs (in my mind, this relates a bit to Ramalingam’s stuff on complex systems). If done well, a bit more centralization (or harmonization?) does have its benefits.

      2) I wonder if the proliferation of small NGOs relates to a problem-centric versus institution-based view of development (a la Pritchett). If we’re trying to solve specific problems (e.g. increase school attendance), forming an NGO to address this need may turn out to be somewhat effective (at least in the short term, though that result is contingent on a bunch of things). But if we’re trying to build systems/institutions that permit communities and countries to solve these problems internally, then maybe we don’t want thousands of small NGOs operating in the same space.

    2. Kartik, great comments. Thanks for chiming in. I think #1 is especially interesting. It seems like we often equivocate on this issue: sometimes we want more collaboration between efforts, sometimes we want more competition so the best organizations rise to the top. I don’t know of a clear articulation of how to balance these two principles.

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