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.

Related posts:

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

  1. Hi David – first, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a well thought out response. And, you’re right, I do agree with you and much of the nuances you’ve added.

    I think it’s important to stress that the aid industry is no more a homogenous industry than Islam is a homogenous religion. There is debate, disagreement, and disunity in both.

    However, to the non-Muslim world, what sticks out the most about Islam and Muslims? I think you and I both know the answer, but here is a video for those that don’t:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbjwcX1tEpY#t=5m36s

    Similarly, what is their impression of the heterogenous aid system? Much like the above, it’s the most extreme (the snarky, the loud, the dogmatic) that set the tone for the whole.

    I still contest that aid bloggers do have “groupthink”. It has a lot to do with how the labels used in discourse can reflect ethnocentric attitudes.

    Take “The Day Without Dignity” for example. There is much to be criticized about a gift-in-kind approach to aid. I agree with much of this criticism. From wasting resources exporting goods that don’t need to be exported, to the risk of squelching out local businesses, to the issues of giving something that is not needed, wanted, or helpful.

    But, the very manner in which this conversation is occurring among aid bloggers is that it is implying implies that giving “stuff” is a “handout” and, as such, it is aid without dignity. It’s an implication that offers no margin for specific contexts, situations, traditions, cultures, or unique needs in specific places and communities.

    Similarly, while much of my three points in quotations in my original post were not direct quotes, they were essentially paraphrasing things I’ve been hearing from very vocal aid bloggers on a regular basis.

    For example, I once observed an interesting exchange between two aid bloggers about a new orphanage opening up in Haiti. Neither I nor these aid bloggers knew anything about this orphanage or what (if any) of the niche needs it might be serving for the community. But, the aid bloggers didn’t like and started bashing it.

    Sadly Twitter doesn’t let you search very old tweets or I would be linking you the exchange one aid blogger snakily tweeted to the other. To paraphrase, he snarkily/sarcastically claimed that this is “perfect aid” because there is an “endless supply” of “stupid” donors who care about orphans and an “endless supply” of people willing to “create” orphans.

    Just think about that for a moment. Think about how that conversation would seem to many devout and conservative Muslims. Did you know, part of the reason Muslims place an emphasis on helping orphans, is because the last and final Prophet was an orphan himself? Did you know that the duty, obligation, and rewards of helping orphans are specifically stated in the Qu’ran? Thus, I have no doubt, many Muslims would see this snark as insulting something that pleases Allah.

    In fact, even the phrase “donor driven aid” is a Western-centric notion. There is two reasons for this. First, for a devout and conservative Muslim, what and how much one donates to the poor (be it cash or in-kind items) are often dictated by the rules and protocols based in the Qu’ran, Sharia Law, and Islamic and cultural traditions. In this regard, “donor driven aid” is “Allah driven aid”.

    Secondly, especially in Bangladesh among those who have ties beyond urban areas, there is a great deal of interaction between those that are typically “donors” and those that are typically “recipients”. The lines, in fact, sometimes blur and cross over quite frequently. In this context, donations are often rooted in a sense of empathy, communication, and verstehen. “Donor driven aid” is “Donor driven to seek the approval of recipients”.

    But it’s not perfect – no system is, of course.

    Finally, I want to thank you for making me mindful not to try and put myself in the “anti-aid blogger” corner. That’s not a corner I want to be in. Rather, I just want to say that I don’t see myself directly part of the aid blogger community. And, I admit, this maybe just a self-identity. But it’s important nonetheless.

    As many Western Muslims know, in a post-9/11 world, you are not just judged by your own conduct – you are judged by your affiliations. You can’t go a mosque where the imam preaches hate – or it reflects on you. You can’t have friends that bash America or joke about violence – because it can ultimately get you in trouble.

    Similarly, in the Muslim world (and I would argue beyond it as well), you are also judged by your affiliations. This is especially true in the aid sector. The first question I usually get asked in a village in Bangladesh is “Am I an NGO?” or “Do I work for an NGO?”. Saying no – truthfully – usually gives me greater trust than the majority of aid workers. Sad reality – but a reality nonetheless.

    And so, as the digital divide closes, I have to make sure that I do my best to make it clear I don’t condone the snark, abrasiveness, and groupthink (or should we call it “unintentional ethnocentrism”?) that is sometimes intentionally or unintentionally present in a lot of online conversations about aid in the blogosphere. It’s the aid equivalent, I suppose, of a Muslim condemning Islamic extremism.

    1. Your comment system works a bit differently than mine. I didn’t mean to embed a video. Rather, I wanted to link to a specific part of that video. The portion I was referring to was at the 5 minute and 36 second mark.

      In that point of the video, Morgan Spurlock was doing impromptu associations with Americans on the street. When hearing the word “Muslim”, people often responded with “terrorist”. I think the equivalent word association to “aid blogger” would be “snark”.

      I also wanted to touch upon DIY-aid. But I can do that at some other time given the already lengthiness of my original response.

      1. Shawn, thanks for your response, it’s helped me to understand your position better. However, I still don’t think what you’re describing is groupthink. Nor is it quite ethnocentrism — but I’ll come back to that.

        Let me start with the donor-driven aid question. There’s a certain set of issues and structures that are top-of-mind for people working in the international development industry (of which aid bloggers are a non-random subset). When we talk about donor-driven aid, we’re talking about Western donors (private foundations, bilateral aid agencies, etc.) who are guided by their own incentives and perceptions of the needs in poor countries. Those donors often ignore the context of the people they seek to help, leading to problems like inflaming radicalism (as you described), undermining local economies, or simply being ineffective.

        When we talk about donor-driven aid, we’re *not* talking about people who give within their own communities or give to communities with whom they have a close affiliation — such as the example you give from Bangladesh. Another example is diaspora communities who send remittances back. That’s a different kind of donor entirely.

        So in the future, if you hear us talk about “donors”, please adopt a heuristic of generosity in interpreting what we mean. Language precision is important, but communication becomes unwieldy if you have to give a definition each time. If someone writes something about “donors” but it doesn’t make any sense for a certain type of donor, it’s worth asking for clarification.

        Now, given that we talk primarily about one set of donors, could that imply groupthink? Not necessarily. The only thing it necessarily implies is that we’re all concerned with a certain set of issues. That’s not groupthink; it’s just the definition of an epistemic community. It would be groupthink if we always agreed. Here we should distinguish between aid bloggers and the rest of the international development sector. I reckon that most of us started blogging on aid because we think the system could be better than it is. In other words, we disagree with the way things are currently done. That disagreement inherently rules out the possibility of groupthink between aid blogers and the rest of the sector.

        There still might be groupthink *among* aid bloggers. This is where my point about amplifying one another’s voices comes in: on the issues where we tend to agree with one another but we disagree with someone else (like Toms Shoes or Greg Mortenson) we’ll shout loudly in unison. None of us have advertising budgets, so that’s the only way to get noticed. You’re right to point out that our counter-arguments often come across sounding just as simplistic as the simplistic aid we’re arguing against. It’s something we should be better at. But I would also point out that nuance doesn’t get you far in public discourse. Sometimes the only way to fight simplicity is with a countervailing simplicity.

        But as I mentioned in the post, I think this unity of opinion only exists on a fairly small set of issues. There are disagreements among the bloggers on many topics, e.g. RCTs, ICT4D, industrial policy, and even the basic question of whether aid is effective.

        Finally, is it ethnocentric? Maybe… I think we should always be on guard against that. We are focused on certain issues, and those issues are guided by our place in the world. Even while we disagree on things we discuss, there may be entire issues that are not paying enough attention to. I’m not sure “ethnocentrism” is right — maybe “professionocentrism”? In any case, we should cast a broader view and listen to local voices more. Though as you rightly pointed out in your post, the narrowing of the digital divide won’t necessarily allow the voices of the poor to be heard.

        However, I think the solution to that is not draw a narrow definition of “aid blogger” but rather to make it as broad and inclusive as possible. That’s why I’m making it my new mission to have you admit that you’re an aid blogger. 🙂 Continuing your Muslim/terrorist/aid blogger/snark analogy: the way you combat the association between Muslim and terrorist is to raise the profile of non-terrorist Muslims until the audience gets the difference; similarly, I’d like to see more non-snarky aid bloggers in order to dissociate the snark from aid blogging! Let’s tip the balance from “personal catharsis” to “public discourse.” There’s a role for humor and even sarcasm, but they shouldn’t be the center-of-gravity for a community.

      2. A few quick thoughts to add to what Dave has already said.

        1) If thought of in the general context of wanting to examine effective and smart aid, group think does exist. However, on the finer points there is quite a bit of divergence. In fact, I will even say that it is not the same on some of the issues where there is more general agreement. For example, when it comes to GIK, most will write that it is generally not a good thing. Some say that it is always bad, others say mostly bad, I put myself in the group that thinks that more often than not it is the wrong decision but there are times when it is necessary or even the best alternative. Others do not care as much and do not take part in the discussion.

        2) Snark can be a turn-off and it is something I try to avoid when possible.

        3) If you are a blogger and write about aid then you are an aid blogger. Own it. You miss out on the diversity by removing yourself from the group. Once you begin to see that you are as much a part of it as anyone else you will start to see the diversity of ideas and opinions.

        4) On orphanages, I do not think you will get as much disagreement as you believe. The general concerns about orphanages are borne out of seeing how they are used in Africa. The criticisms about them are not to say that they are inherently bad, rather to point out that the word ‘orphan’ has a different meaning in other parts of the world. For many, they do become something similar to a boarding school. There is nothing wrong with that if the incentives and structures are set up to provide support for the children. Because of the name “orphanage” a different level of empathy is triggered and people can lose sight of what is done and how it impacts children and their families. All in all, it is a complex issue which requires some nuance. What should be done in Bangladesh might be a terrible idea in Kenya. You know that well as do other aid bloggers. The point of discussing orphanages is to say that oftentimes they are not the best way to provide aid. Are there exceptions to the rule? Always. You have shown that Bangladesh is one of those places where it is one of the best solutions.

        5) On overheads we have discussed this at length before. So I do not want to beat a dead horse. Still, I do think that there are problems when we tell Western donors that the money is separated out. This basically applies the principal of a free lunch which we know does not hold up. I do understand your concern when the money then travels to Bangladesh and that needs to be addressed, but I think that it would be useful to strike a balance rather than viewing it as a binary overhead-donated money paradigm.

  2. Very good read. Thanks for the public critique. It’s important to see many sides to the same story especially when the “other side” has valid points, statements, and data to back up their disagreement and doubly so when it is done so in a positive manner. Also, on a side note, I’ve seen some pretty nasty things said about Shawn and I do believe this was his attempt to defend himself without directly feeding the trolls.

    I believe the main argument you have with Shawn is his attack ad hominem which, I’m sure you would know, can feel like the case sometimes. However, we must always be weary against such statements.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.