It’s interesting to note the emergence of two strands of discussion in the public space around humanitarian aid and development. One is the issue of chronic and/or traumatic stress and accompanying PTSD among humanitarian workers. In an earlier post I pointed out this article in The Guardian, and then a more recent offering in the New York Times. Of course recovery from traumatic and chronic stress is a very real concern in the aid world—one only now getting the kind of publicity that it deserves, in my opinion, despite the fact that it’s been an issue for decades, now.
The other is the issue of fair/ethical payment for NGO staff, most specifically entry-level staff, interns, etc. This discussion is less well-developed in the blogosphere, but you can see bits of it at The Development Intern, and a few other places. This piece on WhyDev is a good specific example. While the author mainly juxtaposes this phenomenon against the recent dramatic rise of corporation funding for INGOs, it’s fair to say that entry-level and some rank-and-file aid workers were essentially being exploited long before Walmart or Coca-Cola started throwing CSR dollars at the global south.
While we’re a long way from anything like industry-wide consensus, it seems that there is a slowly growing, if thus far poorly focused, movement within and around the industry to recognize the legitimate needs of aid and development workers. This, whether those needs be things like specialized staff care for those who have been exposed to traumatic stress, or simply adequate salary so that staff can realistically afford to live.
In my experience so far it’s fairly easy to get agreement on the above from industry colleagues. Sure, we can get all melancholy, introspective, and even downright self-flagellating at the thought that we typically live better than the poor we say we’re all about helping, and I neither want nor expect these debates to go away. Nevertheless, at an in-principle level, we typically agree: Yes, we should be paid enough to feed and clothe our own children; yes, we should have insurance and retirement plans; yes, we should receive treatment and care for injuries sustained on or as a result of the job, whether those injuries are obvious to others or not. Everyone nods in agreement. We re-draft the operating budget. Done. Right?
Not so fast. Even as I write the words, my mind goes to the problems of public opinion. I mean, we attend a coordination meeting in a white Land Cruiser and books get written about how bad our industry is, and by extension, we are. We take basic security precautions in a volatile context, and the blogosphere lights up with angst and vitriol about how we’re minions of an evil empire. How’s it going to be when they find out we’ve gone an upped the salaries of entry-level staff, or that our employer covered the cost of a few hours of professional counseling after that bad incident in Malakal or Raqqa or wherever? I can already see the headlines in my head: Charities Divert Donor Funding To Pay For Expensive Therapy.
It feels like there’s some unresolvable tension, here.
It helps to remember that as of this writing, the most trusted charity rating services continue to base their assessments of, you know, us on a late-1980’s notion of “overhead” (for example, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch). There are other measures, of course. Transparency and accountability are by now traditional favorites, but overhead feels deceptively objective. You can look at the accounting and measure it, or so it seems.
Of course anyone who’s ever worked on the budget for a relief or development project knows that overhead is neither straightforward nor objective. You can go back-and-forth, in some cases for days, with your finance officer or programme officer over what percentage of the field office driver can realistically be charged to the project and thus be legitimately considered direct or project costs, and therefore not overhead. Even the most junior aid industry finance staffer gets to be something of an expert on drawing linkages between a janitor in the D.C. office, and WASH outcomes in, say, Tanzania.
The practical problems of overhead are closely linked to its in-principle problems. Namely, that the value of “low overhead” in the relief and development world is a relic leftover from the days when missionaries would spend their furloughs fundraising at churches. They’d sing songs, show slides of “Africa”, and take up an offering, all the while assuring parishioners that their money wouldn’t be wasted on frivolities and needless luxuries. Donations would be used to win souls for The Kingdom, not taking their own children on vacation in Mombassa. Their qualification to do the work of the Lord came down, more than anything else, to their willingness to live lives of sacrifice and deprivation. The value of proclaiming low overhead to the world is essentially an assertion of moral superiority, grounded in the assumption that volume of need is the overarching concern. And, by extension, relegating things like quality and professionalism to secondary or tertiary status (if they were even considered).
To justify the existence of a project or organization on the basis of low overhead, you have to literally believe that what you actually do and how you actually do it is of little consequence, compared with volume of output. You have to be able to believe that every dollar spent paying the salary of those doing the implementing literally erodes the overall end result. You have to be willing to believe that the level of personal sacrifice of the practitioner has a tangible effect on the end result. And further, that it’s possible to evaluate the outcomes a priori, based on that apparent personal sacrifice. If we could only find someone who would do the work for free, we could save more lives…
I can think of few things more damaging and detrimental to the relationship between ourselves and the publics who support what we do, then these embedded, mutually reinforcing concepts of low overhead and the importance of apparent personal sacrifice. I don’t think I can think of anything that sets us up for dysfunctional relationships with everyone—donors, beneficiaries, the public, The Media—than these notions that our organizations should do more with less, and that we, as individual people inside the system, also should experience an acceptable level of personal deprivation, because our level of personal deprivation is somehow linked to humanitarian outcomes. Our collective continued fixation on low overhead and aid worker personal life sacrifice forces us and our donors feel as if we must choose between white interns or brown babies. And only a really horrible person would ever choose the white interns.
So, where does this leave us? And what is the way forward? I don’t think there is a single universal solution. But I think it starts with a few obvious things:
We need to assertively remove every shred of overhead from how we discuss our work, whether internally or externally. Efficiency matters, for sure. But low overhead and efficient delivery of humanitarian outcomes are not only not the same things, but they’re not even related. We have to take references to “how much of your dollar goes to beneficiaries” out of our marketing, off of our websites, and out of our conversations. We have to get charity rating services to stop using percentage of revenue to the field as a metric. If we cannot articulate how HQ activity X contributes to outcome Y in the field, then we need to stop doing activity X. Everything is, or should be, related to impact. There’s no such thing as overhead.
We need to assertively remove any doubt about the legitimacy of our own needs as humanitarian aid and development workers. As Alessandra Pigni puts it, this is not a contest to see who can suffer the most. Lots of embedded issues, here: This is a job, like any other, that we do to make a living. We are professional people with specific, identifiable skills which we employ in the course of doing our humanitarian work. Aid work is work, for which we absolutely deserve to be compensated fairly. To suggest otherwise erodes the argument that we deserve anything more than treasure in Heaven in exchange for our service. We need to be able look our donors in the eye and tell them in as many words that yes, we do expect them to pay for salary and benefits for ourselves and our staff as a perfectly legitimate part of the cost of implementing aid and development. We have to disabuse ourselves and everyone in our spheres of influence of this falsely dichotomous choice between taking care of aid workers (us) and delivering more life-sustaining aid to those who need it most.
Will doing as I suggest fix everything wrong with aid? Of course not. We still have a lot to work out with regard to our own efficiency and impact. There are miles to go before our industry is accountable to the communities we serve as it should be. We still have a lot to discuss, perhaps without ever achieving complete resolution, around how we make things work between foreigners and non-foreigners.
But the context for what we do is changing. We have to take care of us. Moving the larger conversation away from outmoded ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it—away from things like overhead and personal sacrifice—is a critical and necessary step toward making that happen.