Tom Paulson over at Humanosphere makes an interesting argument that philanthropy-charity-aid-humanity is on the threshold of something… new, something different. Read the article. It’s compelling, but it leaves us with an un-answered question: what’s coming?
Matthew Bishop and Michael Green attempt to tell us in their co-authored article in the Huffington Post. Read the article. While I positively loathe the term “philanthrocapitalism”, and absolutely do not agree that corporate dogooding will save the world or even necessarily change the world for the better (both are frequently claimed), I agree with many of the predictions by Bishop and Green. They hit the main points in my opinion and give us at least a partial glimpse of the future.
The word is out: “aid” accomplishes far less, and at far greater a cost than everyone thought. The arena is packed with slathering competitors of all stripes, each stridently proclaiming their own awesomeness by defining their own self-interest in terms of the supposed needs of the poor. Moreover, aid in public consciousness is essentially entertainment – a reality drama that anyone can be part of whether they send $20, spend two weeks building a church in Mexico, or start their own non-profit. The genuine good that aid does do is fleeting, contingent, fragile, often despite the distracted inefficiency of the organizations that implement it.
Fairly or unfairly (both, actually) aid workers and aid organizations no longer occupy the position of good grace we once did in public opinion. Our real expertise is being questioned (typically by those not competent to understand real answers when given), and we’re being called out in those areas where we’ve been faking it. For the moment the vast majority – by which I mean practically all – of the journalistic expose and ordinary citizen outrage about aid is misplaced. They’re missing the point for now, but they’ll connect the dots eventually.
Whether one sees it as a good or a bad thing, there is a general movement within the industry to professionalize the aid sector. Right now the discussion is basically bogging down over issues like whether it will be, say, Harvard or Tufts University who “owns” the right to accredit aid organizations and license aid workers to practice, or whether the aid industry will somehow continue to be self-accrediting and self-licensing but to a higher standard. But it’s all largely a discussion about how and within which parameters to professionalize the aid sector, and distinctly not a discussion about whether or not professionalizing is a good idea.
Putting it all together (and there are plenty more articles out there), it’s safe to assume, as Paulson suggests, that we are in time of great change. I don’t know exactly when the penny will drop, but the clock is winding down. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but we are very quickly coming to the point where “business as usual” will simply no longer be an option for the aid industry.
So what does it mean?
I think it means at least three things:
1) We need fundamental innovations to the ways in which we think about and conceive aid. So-called “innovations” in the aid sector have more or less mirrored innovations in various technical industries. The automotive industry, for example, has not experienced a fundamental innovation since it came into existence. Sure, we have much nicer cars now than when Henry Ford built the first Model A, but a car is still a car: it has three or four rubber wheels which roll on the ground, directly powered by some kind of on-board engine or motor. No one has innovated a powered personal transportation machine for mass production that significantly challenges this formula.
And aid is the same way.
We tweak and fiddle, but sixty years later we still haven’t really gotten that basically the menage a trois is not working. Aid effectiveness, any hope of sustainability, and even the slightest glimmer of possibility for true local ownership and empowerment all directly hinge on whether or not we successfully find a way through or past the menage a trois.
And if we don’t…
2) We have to face and deal with the distinct possibility that NGOs are or may soon be irrelevant. Paul Currion explains here. He writes,
“A child of their time, INGOs clearly filled a niche in the international system, particularly as a counter to a post-war foreign policy based on military-industrial interests. Yet INGOs were based on assumptions shared by that same establishment, and took on forms that were familiar with that establishment. The fundamental problem for INGOs – as for governments and corporations – is that the world is changing in ways which are increasingly difficult to manage for these old forms.
The worst case scenario for INGOs is that they find themselves filling in where government has failed, providing alternatives that are not alternatives at all but simply poor substitutes for the old system; or find themselves filling gaps where corporations have proved unable or unwilling to extend their reach, creating pseudo-markets which are largely unsustainable. Where these scenarios come to pass, INGOs will twist themselves into new shapes not in order to challenge the systems which lead to these governance and market failures, but to prop them up instead.”
3) We have to change prevailing assumptions about the directionality of aid. It is quite simply no longer the case (if it even ever was) that there is a modern, technologically advanced, “developed” world who bequeathed it’s benevolent assistance to the dark masses of the not-modern, low-tech, not-developed world. It is a reality that aid assistance can literally come from anywhere, to anywhere. Perhaps we in the United States will have the hardest time swallowing this pill, but I really do see the day coming when foreign aid workers, perhaps from countries that I’ve been deployed to in the past, will come to my country to help.
It is one thing to say academically that we all have something to learn from others. It’s another to let oneself be taught by those others.
As I think about it right now, maybe this more than anything other single thing – the notion that we’re all in this together and can all receive help from each other – has the potential to make aid better.