I really do want to say something nice. But it’s so hard. I’ll come back to it in a bit.

How about some background first?

The column is titled “D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution” (full text here). It’s composed of various aren’t-they-inspiring anecdotes about Americans running off to save poor people in developing countries from whatever afflicts them. He mostly tells stories of American women who have left successful careers or otherwise made personal sacrifices to start NGOs/social enterprises.

Sounds lovely, right? So why is it hard to say something nice?

Well first off, the analysis is generally soft-headed. Here’s one example:

It’s striking that the most innovative activists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most resources, or the best tools. If that were true, a team at the World Bank would have addressed the menstruation problem long ago, and G20 countries would be leading the effort to prevent Congolese warlords from monetizing their minerals. Rather, what often happens is that those best positioned to take action look the other way, and then the initiative is taken by the Scharpfs and Shannons of the world, who are fueled by some combustible mix of indignation and vision.

So the World Bank, NGOs and others “look the other way”? Couldn’t it be that maybe they, along with the civil society and governments of developing countries (so often missing from Kristof’s narratives), were already working on other things. He makes it sound like they’re all sitting around, twiddling their thumbs while poor women and children suffer. I’m not saying the existing system is perfect, but to suggest that it’s doing nothing at all is insulting to a lot of people I know who work pretty damn hard.

However, the main criticism I have of this column is not the false distinction between passionate, hard-working DIYers vs. lazy, slow-thinking government/nonprofit bureaucrats. That’s a silly distinction, of course. But the bigger problem is the split between amateurs vs. professionals. Kristof’s chronic problem is that his sloppy analysis makes development work seem relatively simple. It’s not. There are extremely complex issues surrounding how outsiders interact with communities, how to ensure accountability, and how to generate economies of scale in larger organizations. As I said above, I’m not arguing that the existing system is perfect, but it’s absurd to suggest that just anyone can show up and do this.

Some would call this attitude elitist. I quote J. of Tales from the Hood:

I mean, no one complains that neurosurgery is a terribly elitist field of practice. Or what about high-stakes contract law? Those fields are both dominated by a very small and, for lack of a better term, elite group of practitioners. And for very good reason, as I think most of us would agree. There are horrible consequences for even the smallest error while a patient is on the table. One misstep during the proceeding of a contract lawsuit can have far-reaching effects, beyond even the immediate issue of money.

It seems to me that the stakes are no lower in humanitarian aid work. In fact, I’d argue that the stakes are higher. What we do affects not just a single individual, but entire communities, regions, in some instances maybe even nations.

And yet, somehow we think that this is a field of practice where any random well-meaning person can be relevant to the conversation? You kidding?

I want to clarify: I have no gripe with the work done by the individuals described in the column. Frankly, I don’t know enough about their work to evaluate whether it’s worthwhile. That said, general concerns about new and small organizations apply: Is this really the most efficient use of the resources? Is there any accountability for their results? Would their time and money be better channeled through an established organization?

So do I actually have anything nice to say?

Oh, right. The development blogosphere has a tendency to pounce on Kristof, so I wrote this post with the intention of saying something nice. Here it is:

As cheesy as it sounds, I think the inspiring/encouraging aspect of this kind of column is a positive contribution. Out of 100 readers, maybe 1 goes off to start some ill-advised venture that eats up scarce resources and gets in the way of better efforts. But then maybe 2 readers pick up a few books, go to graduate school, get jobs with professional aid organizations, and spend their whole career making a real impact. In fact, the first anecdote Kristof tells is about a woman with dual-degrees from HBS and the Kennedy School. What’s odd is that he focuses more on her passion and indignation than on her technical skills.

Am I overly optimistic about the positive impacts of such a column? Maybe. But that’s all I’ve got.

  1. I was curious what you were going to say about it. I don’t know as much about that field as you do and I thought of you when I read it, but my general impression is the more you know about the subject, the more you cringe at how it’s characterized in the news from my time in the mortgage industry. I’ve read some ridiculous tales about the mortgage industry recently, and they generally have that same sort of, well, I heard one or two examples, so it must be true and here they are and doesn’t that industry suck feel to them. I usually find myself apoplectic at the simplistic way they are presented. So it’s it’s nice to hear from a person that I know who’s more informed on the subject, not some article in the NYT that I can’t really verify easily.

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  2. The fact that so many people feel called to help is hopeful. However, the biggest thing that well-intentioned do-gooders all recognize is that in the developing world, local people with that same “combustible mix of indignation and vision” (Kristof’s phrase) are often already organized and doing something about whatever problem they are concerned about. Many of the organizations he listed in his accompanying blog post operate with that central to their approach – kudos to him on that!

    I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa in my career. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. A UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups working with children affected by AIDS in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). WiserEarth.org has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that there may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

    Yet, the web of local organizations and grassroots initiatives in the developing world are still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses to relief and development that even the most comprehensive and impactful macro-level, white-in-shining-armor efforts may never be able to accomplish.

    It’s the local activists that are the true heroes and the true experts about what’s needed at the community level to fight poverty or conflict or AIDS or climate change. It’s time for a dose of humility in the sector to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders around the world do have. Thus our jobs, whether we are working for a multi-lateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams while we work a boring office job in Ohio, must be about getting existing and effective community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities—something that must truly fuel the foreign aid revolution.

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  3. I could not agree more! People who are truly well-intentioned should use that “indignation and vision” to bring change to the NP sector. Coordination, monitoring, evaluation and accountability are all areas that are sometimes severely lacking in NGOs in the developing world. It was reported that Haiti has the most NGOs per capita (even before the massive earthquake), and they continue to be the poorest country in the Americas (according to the Human Development Index)! So what we don’t need is ANOTHER nonprofit. What the NP sector REALLY needs is fresh perspectives on how to work with existing organizations and projects, and figure out how to make them accountable and useful for the countries and communities they claim to help. Without better evaluation of projects, increased coordination and partnerships, we will continue to have competition for limited resources and projects that may not create truly lasting change.

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  4. Yes, I also have some cautions about encouraging even more small nonprofits. I see plenty of terrific, well-run projects that can use more support.

    But then, most of these well-run projects started as tiny initiatives by passionate people who brought their skills and commitment to the project they started.

    Like others, I noted that he skipped over ability/learning to focus on ‘passion’. In the context of an article focussing on women, this emphasis seems to imply that men are capable and women are emotional, which is a pity.

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  5. Jane, great point. Every complex issue gets simplified in the news. Lucia and Jennifer, great points as well – I’ve got nothing to add.

    Gillian- Wow, two great points there. First, on how every organization starts tiny: I thought about saying more on this in the post. Whenever I think about new/small initiatives, I think about how Paul Farmer started out working in rural Haiti, before Partners in Health became so renowned, and how Muhammad Yunus spent years developing the Grameen Bank model. It’s probably unfair to expect anything different from the next entrepreneurs. My gripe with the sector is how we all get excited about these tiny ventures, like being small and new is virtue in itself. So when to applaud the entrepreneurs and when to dissuade them? A much longer topic.

    Second, on the gendered aspect of the article: I hadn’t really thought about it much, though I have often thought that the “women can change the world!” stuff (which Kristof does a lot) is a bit condescending. Of course they can.

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    1. There’s a balance here somewhere. Amateurs going in doing “voluntourism” can do more harm than good – but so can ossified or marketing-oriented development agencies, with out of touch development consultants and a tendency to big-ticket “solutions”. Yes, they’re getting better, but slowly.

      One thing we need to be looking at is: how can regular people contribute? It’s one thing to get inspired, but what practical actions can someone take when going and earning a degree in development is not appropriate for them right now?

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  6. I have to disagree with you on this. Having spent the last 12 years living in various parts of Asia I actually feel that the large development agencies are the ones that are not effective. Go spend some time in Cambodia and tell me the number of brand new SUVs driven by the aid workers are justified. Also, as a teacher in International schools for the past decade I am almost shocked at how excessive the life styles of most NGO employees are.

    Also, as an educator i have personally witnessed very effective DYI aid programs.I have seen students initiate, plan, fund and complete a water project that brought freshwater into the homes of Tibetan 200 families (with no help from the Chinese Government). I hope that once you finish your Masters Degree you become educated enough to be enlightened that development is a big and complicated issue, and that professional development agencies and DIY ones both have their place. Hopefully then you can approach your career with less arrogance than you did your response to Nicholas Kristof (who by the way will inspire more change than you are ever likely to).

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  7. You’re quite a grump David. What exactly is your approach to fixing international woes? When governments and leaders can’t solve the problems of their people (and they really are the ones who would make the biggest difference) you try to tackle hunger, AIDS, child prostitution, access to clean water etc. from every angle and with all types of organizations. Don’t pass judgement on people’s efforts and convictions from the comfort of your blog.

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  8. […] week, I posted on this blog with my brief response to Kristof’s DIY aid article. On Tuesday, I posted a longer version on Foreign Policy’s […]

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  9. […] J’s opening salvo was to accuse me of elitism. Others have done the same. My original post on DIY quoted heavily from another blogger and professional aid worker. I’ll do so again, in case […]

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  10. […] need to be looking at is: how can regular people contribute?” (Chris Watkins, commenting on my original post here last […]

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  11. […] I want to say something nice about Kristof’s column @ Find What Works by Dave Algoso […]

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  12. […] to the support I’ve received from other bloggers: my first big bump came when I reacted to a Nicholas Kristof column, Chris Blattman linked to my post, and (about two hours after Blattman’s link) Foreign […]

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