A response to “The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism” that was way too long for the comments section

Shawn Ahmed recently shared some fascinating reflections on his Uncultured Project website. The post is titled: The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism. I like the post because it goes deeper than the standard defense/COIN conversation about trying to “win hearts and minds” as part of the War on Terror, and the NGO conversation about how (or even whether) to be a part of that. He gives some great insights from his work in Bangladesh (where his parents are from) and elsewhere.

However, Ahmed also takes a few swipes at aid bloggers (including my FP article) that I think deserve a response. Some of his criticisms are right on the mark. Others miss the point entirely. I can’t speak for the other bloggers he references, but I think that he and I actually agree more than his post suggests.

Conflict sensitivity and understanding context?

Ahmed’s thesis is that humanitarian aid and development work can inflame religious extremism when it ignores context and pretends to be impartial to local conflicts. I’m with him 100% on this. Among academics and some development practitioners, this is known as “conflict sensitivity.” In fact, I just recently posted a link to a brief on it.

This concept is relatively new — it only really got started with the CDA’s Do No Harm project in the mid-1990s. It deserves a lot more recognition than it currently gets. There’s a persistent tension between this approach and the Dunantist principles of neutrality/impartiality that guide the Red Cross, MSF and many other humanitarian organizations.

Consensus and groupthink?

In fact, this sort of tension rebuts Ahmed’s explanation for why aid work sometimes inflames Islamic extremism. Ahmed says that aid work can inflame Islamic extremism because:

…the aid and development sector – even in open discussions such as aid blogs – is developing a consensus that more reflects groupthink than it does reflect the specific contexts and realities on the ground…

I disagree with this point to the same extent that I agreed with the last. As demonstrated by the tension between conflict sensitivity and the Dunantist principle, there is a great deal of disagreement in the sector. As I’ve discussed before, nothing has fully replaced the paradigm provided by the Washington Consensus — and that’s probably a good thing. This might be the sector’s greatest advance in the past two decades.

Aid bloggers are a specific subset of the industry, and I don’t know if we’re representative of the whole. I’m ambivalent on the implication that there’s a consensus among aid bloggers. There are some issues where many of us agree with one another (see here, here or here). On those issues, we have a tendency to amplify each other’s voices. However, the only way to conclude that this represents “groupthink” would be if you only read what we write on those particular issues. If you read what we write on other issues, you’ll see a much wider range of opinions. I don’t agree with everything written on the other blogs I read. I know they don’t always agree with me. We could use more good-spirited disagreement, but I would hardly say that we form a consensus on most issues.

Let’s turn to some of the issues where Ahmed thinks the sector ignores realities on the ground…

Orphanages: a bad idea, or just an over-used one?

Ahmed has an interesting discussion of Islam’s rules against adoption, and how these limit the benefits of encouraging orphaned children to live with relatives or other community members. He describes Islamic orphanages doubling as madrasahs, which can be manipulated by extremist Islamic groups. It’s interesting stuff.

What gets me is that this section of Ahmed’s post is titled: “Orphanages Are Bad.” The quotation marks are his. I’m not sure who he’s quoting though. Despite the links to three posts (including one from me), I haven’t found anyone who says that orphanages are bad.

The critique of orphanages is not that they shouldn’t exist. The problem is that there’s a market failure in terms of donor support for them: it’s relatively easy to fundraise for an orphanage, compared to more complicated aid/development activities. The result is that there are often resources available for orphanages, even when there might be a better way to care for those children or a better way to spend the resources in that community. This type of aid is donor-driven rather than community-driven.

Ahmed makes a strong case that, in certain Islamic communities, it might be a good idea for outsiders to fund orphanages that promote comprehensive education (rather than just reading the Qu’ran) and even progressive values. It’s a good point worth making. But he sets up a straw man of the “aid bloggers” who think orphanages are always a bad idea. I, and other bloggers, have argued that they are sometimes a bad idea; that doesn’t imply I’m always against them, any more than Ahmed’s argument (that they are sometimes a good idea) implies that he is always in favor of them.

Islam, aid organizations, and professionalism

Here’s the summary version of what Ahmed says on professionalization: Islam has traditions and structures for how to help the poor (the post has some good background on these that’s worth reading). International NGOs that attempt to work in those communities often have structures and practices that don’t mesh with the traditional Islamic structures. This can lead to conflicts and hatred of NGOs in Muslim communities.

So far so good. This is one very important example of the understand-the-context and work-with-local-actors principles that aid/development blogs hammer on daily. I’m with Ahmed 100% on this.

What’s odd is the way he ties this to the professionalism question. Let me give a small framework. There are multiple sets of actors to think about when analyzing aid/development work in poor countries:

  • One set of actors considers itself “professional” international development workers, usually working at international NGOs, donor agencies, contractors, etc.
  • Another group is the DIY international aid workers (lauded by Nicholas Kristof, criticized by me) who come from wealthy countries to work in poor countries.
  • A third group is the local actors from within those countries, who may or may not work in conjunction with the first two.

Ahmed conflates the second and third groups. When aid bloggers and other “professionals” scoff at “amateurs”, it’s pretty clear that we’re talking about the second group. In fact, we go to great lengths in arguing that the third group should be given more say and more power in development, and that the first group has to stop getting in their way. Ahmed actually agrees with us on that, despite how his argument sounds.

Shoes, t-shirts, and the other stuff we give

The third example in Ahmed’s post has less to do with aid work in Muslim communities. It was critique of three general arguments that aid bloggers allegedly put forward. I’ll take each argument in turn.

First: Is giving stuff to the poor a bad idea? Ahmed says no, while according to “aid bloggers” (as described by Ahmed), the answer is yes. But do “aid bloggers” (again, an odd group to clump together given their diversity of opinions) really think that?

This is similar to the orphanages question above: the problem isn’t with giving away physical items per se. There may be items needed in that community that would not be available otherwise. The problem is that Toms Shoes and other organizations have decided to give away items in proportion to their sales in rich countries. Again, it’s donor-driven aid. What’s worse, a company’s advertising reinforces the idea that there are simple solutions to complex problems. Although I don’t really blame an organization for doing this kind of work, I don’t celebrate it either.

Second: Is raising money separately for overhead a bad idea? Ahmed says no, “aid bloggers” say yes. I don’t see an inherent problem with fundraising separately for different aspects of the organization. In fact, I’d love to see more donors provide funding to overhead and existing programs, rather than focus only on starting new programs.

However, I do have a problem with an organization advertising that its overhead is covered by another donor, and using that to encourage donations from new donors. This practice taps into, reinforces, and perpetuates the belief that overhead is an appropriate way to measure an operation. Donors have long held the mistaken idea that overhead costs should be low, that more money should go directly to programs, and that a charity with lower overhead is better. This may be the case — or it may be the case that a particular organization should be spending more on overhead than it currently is. Overhead goes to things like staff training, IT systems, and management. Organizations can’t function without them. Donating to a charity based on its low overhead is like flying an airline based on its low spending on maintenance. It’s not a good idea and we shouldn’t be encouraging it.

Third: Should quantitative research take priority over traditional and local knowledge? Ahmed says no. And I’m completely with him on this one. The economists have great tools, but there are other tools available as well. I think many of the aid bloggers also agree that we should be promoting participatory and qualitative research practices.

And the closing…

I read through his post again as I wrote this response. On the second reading, the theme of “anti-aid-blogger” came through even more clearly. Ahmed doesn’t like the tone of sarcasm that often pervades the aid blogosphere. It’s counter-productive and turns off people who should be part of the conversation. I have to say that I agree with him on this as well. I think the tone results from the fact that aid blogs are part public discourse, part private catharsis. That’s just how some people let off steam.

What bugs me is that Ahmed goes through such pains to portray himself as the anti-aid-blogger — and in the process he misrepresents the views of a lot of very smart, committed people. I’d like to see him join the conversation on equal footing. He’s lobbed some rocks at this epistemic community, and the community has responded in kind. I’d like to extend an olive branch.

Shawn, you’re clearly a smart guy. As near as I can tell, you’re doing good work. Join us in our efforts to build a better development sector. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything everyone else writes (that would be impossible) but you shouldn’t present caricatures of those ideas either. If you hope this conversation changes, then you have to be part of it.

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