I’ll be vulnerable and just admit that I’m supremely bored with the usual critiques of the aid system.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the aid system is in great shape, or even good shape. I don’t think that things are acceptable the way they are right now. And I do think that some things need to change.
But when I look at the substance and tenor of the vast majority of what passes for online discussion about the aid world and what’s wrong with it, I begin to get the feeling that most of those doing the discussing are bringing drama rather than substance. They’re not very skilled at guiding their existential angst around to some kind of grounded conclusion. More than anything else, I get the sense that there is a disconnect, not between what people think it’s going to be like and then what it’s actually like, but rather a deeper, more fundamental one: Disconnected thinking and expectations around what the aid system is for and how it actually works.
I’m going to guess that most people who sign up to be police officers accept, perhaps implicitly, the basic premises of police work. That police forces are local extensions of state power, for example. Being a police officer is about imposing the will of the state on a local population. There’s nuance and variation within the system, of course. But at the end of the day, that is the basic premise of police work. Many people have issues with the basic premise of police work, and predictably these people do not aspire being police officers.
Similarly, I’ll guess that most people study to be paramedics have accepted the basic premises of pre-hospital care. They don’t cure cancer. They don’t provide end-to-end service. Emergency Medical Systems (EMS) are set up to respond quickly to situations where people have suffered physical trauma or acute medical stress, stabilize them, and then get them under the care of someone who can provide more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment. If you reject the tenets of pre-hospital care, then paramedic is not the right job for you.
The basic premise of being in the military is that it is your job to enforce the will of your country nationally or internationally. There might be different ways to go about this, but that’s the basic premise. If you want to be a soldier, you need to get to the place where you’re okay with this basic premise.
The basic premise of being a teacher is that you impart knowledge and skill at the standard of whatever educational system that you’re in. The basic premise of being a bus driver is that you have to drive a set route, rather than wherever, whenever you please.
Accepting the basic premises of whatever line of work you happen to be in is key to being able to go to work and do your job, day after day. Thinking through and understanding in as many words what those basic premises are, in my opinion, simply part of being a grown-up.
I think it may be time to have a quiet chat about some of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. There are three:
This is a global system. There are two parts to this one:
The aid system is a system, and yes, you are part of it whether you’re the head of OCHA, leader of the OFDA DART, a programme officer for CARE Malawi, or the founder of some self-started charity that collects bras for women in India. You are part of the system, even if you don’t participate in any kind of coordination or share your programmatic data with the UN. You are not off the grid. You/your organization/your project exist within a framework of control and accountability.
Second, it is a fact that the aid system exists globally. As I wrote in the prior post on this blog, there are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere. Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.
Go ahead, figure out what role you want to have in the system. Take some time to discover where your knowledge, skills, and experience can be brought to bear to do the most good. But if you cannot come to grips with the premise that no matter what you do and where you do it you are part of an integrated global system, then you may want think carefully about whether international aid and development are really the right place for you.
This is about affecting change. I am honestly baffled by the number of times that I have to have this particular conversation, but here we go again: The world can be a pretty crappy place. We look at a situation somewhere (could be local, could be in another country) and arrive at the conclusion that things need to change. We further believe that we can be personally part of that change process. Then we implement what we believe our role to be. Whether we’re a donor or an implementer or something in between, we are part of making change in the world. At a very basic level, you literally cannot embrace the status quo and also make the world better.
That is one of the basic premises of aid and development. We—you, me—are part of making change happen. Aid and development are about causing change.
Yes, we must be honest, reflexive, and introspective. Yes, we should follow good process (which can mean many things). Yes, we must take it seriously. We should not be cavalier or arrogant. Yes, being part of a change process implies necessarily that we pass judgment on conditions somewhere. It implies that we think we know or can do better. Yes, it is audacious.
But at the end of the day, if you cannot accept this basic premise of international helping, then perhaps this is simply not the place for you.
This is about power. Maybe you don’t feel powerful as you sit and debate the format for this year’s annual report. Maybe it feels ludicrous to talk about power when your life is an endless series of capitulations, when you’re endlessly hounded over petty bureaucratic details, or when your typical day is a lot of fighting for the obvious. It may feel silly to talk about power when global humanitarian and development assistance is a small fraction of, say, global consumer spending on technology.
But make no mistake: Aid and development are about power. Aid and development are very specifically about reducing the power of the powerful and increasing the power of the less powerful. The aid system, like it or not, is about exerting the will of donors on beneficiaries, even when donors insist that beneficiaries get to choose (being forced to choose, to participate as a requisite for assistance is another kind of submission to power). The aid system is about exerting the will of donors, many of whom represent political power, on communities and countries. Even the stridently self-described “neutral” NGOs still impose their agenda for change on the world, and by so doing use power.
As a participant in the system, you, too, use power: you influence resource use and allocation decisions (not saying that you always get your way); you influence outcomes at the level of end-users. If you are in the aid system, you are part of that power-wielding and influencing structure. You are part of often complex negotiation of moving resources (and by extension power) from one party to another. And the same caveats as the above point also apply: None of this is license to be arrogant or cavalier.
This is one of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. The system at all levels is about power, and you also posses and use power if you are in the system. Now is not the time to get all obsequious and self-loathing. The aid system is about power. If you cannot live with this premise, then perhaps you should not be here.