Required Background Reading:
1) New York Times online edition article by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution.”
2) Foreign Policy online response by Dave Algoso entitled “Don’t Try This Abroad.”
3) Rebuttal to the rebuttal by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Answering Readers on D.I.Y. Aid”
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The comments threads under the three posts linked above, as well as a large number of comments on different posts on this blog would seem to indicate (note: not calling this “evidence” @TexasinAfrica :) ) a great deal of emotional energy out there around the word “professional” in the context of aid work. As I alluded in a prior post, I think we’re seeing a bit of the American Tea Party movement mentality creeping into public consciousness around humanitarian practic. There seems to be a growing wave of opinion that an infusion of random, well-intended aid industry “outsiders” with no prior experience or knowledge is what is needed to fix the perceived ills of the aid system as we currently know it. And I think such a perspective is absolutely dead wrong.
But I also sense that the emotional energy around the words “amateur” and “professional” is not going away any time soon. So forget those terms if it makes you feel better. Here is what I think humanitarian aid work requires, at a minimum:
1) Knowledge. There are certain very specific things that you need to know in order to do good aid work. There is a large body of aid theory that you need to know, and there is an even larger body of raw information. You need to know (fluently) standards like Sphere, HAP, or those related to your area of technical expertise/interest. You need to know grant management (not just management, grant management). You need to know the latest thinking in community assessment, organizational learning, and maybe child protection. Been busy tweeting and blogging about how the big INGOs just aren’t accountable? You’d better know what humanitarian accountability is (and what it isn’t), because if you strike out on your own, the day will very likely come when a journalist or another blogger accuses you of not being accountable…
You need to understand R2P (don’t know what that is? Better Google it…) and why it matters. You need to know industry best-practices related to humanitarian protection. You need to know the difference between OCHA and UNOPS and UNHCR. You need to know how humanitarian coordination works and where to find information about it. Depending on your job, you may need to know basic logistics, financial management, communications or security. Even if you don’t think that you’ll ever do fundraising, you need to understand how it works because the manner in which funds are raised back home does matter in the field. You need to understand advocacy, too. That’s just off the top of my head right now, and we haven’t even gotten to what you’d need to know about a local context…
(Oh, and by the way, as with any other professional field, the body of knowledge and theory related to aid work changes and evolves constantly. You can’t just know it once. You have to stay current.)
2) Skills. There is a wide range of both general and specific skills that you’ll need to master if you want do aid work properly. As much as anything else you need to be good at writing – and not the emotive, soul-baring, self-righteous naval-gazing that far too often passes as aid blogging (yes, I’m aware of the irony here), but the concise, grey technical-ese that gets grants funded (and keeps your staff salaries paid). You don’t have to be a statistician, but you do need to know what a “regression” is, what it means to “groom data” (and why data should be groomed at all), and how to read an evaluation report.
Maybe you’re one of those who’s all up in arms because the NGOs just don’t listen to beneficiaries? Well, you’d better get good leading focus groups and key-informant interviews, because this is how that listening happens. You’d better be up-to-speed on what what is evidence and what isn’t, because you’ll soon discover that there is a very wide gulf between “listening” and “understanding what you’re listening to.” You’ll need to develop the ability to triangulate information, too, because until you’ve been through a community assessment process you really cannot appreciate how wildly varied responses can be to what you think are easy, basic questions. More generally, you need to be good at working cross-culturally, because unless you’re hiring a lot of local staff (like those wasteful big NGOs with all the white Landcruisers do), you’ll be talking to those beneficiaries yourself (you do you speak their language, right???). Also, unless your situation is highly specific and quite unusual there will come a day when you need to understand and also be understood by someone who sees the world very differently. And in the vast majority of aid jobs out there, regardless of whether the position is field or HQ-based, that day is pretty much every day.
You need to be good at recognizing when to be patient and when to be pushy. You need to be good at simply getting from point A to point B without a lot of drama in a country you’ve never been to before. Depending on your job, you may need to be skilled at selecting and securing a distribution site and/or running distribution (no, actually you can’t just open the back of the truck and expect disaster survivors who haven’t eaten in several days to queue-up quietly…). You need to be good at leadership (even if you’re just a junior program officer). You need to be good at managing assessment and evaluation teams. You need to be a good communicator and knowledge manager (even if these terms are in neither your title nor job description). You need to be able to see the big picture and deal with details simultaneously. And again, this is all just for starters…
3) Experience. How, you must be wondering, does one get good at all of those things? The answer is simple: by practicing doing them. You need to practice, in my opinion, under the guidance of someone who knows what they’re doing. In other fields we might call this “apprenticeship.” But regardless of what we call it, you need to spend time writing grants that are reviewed by a more experienced practitioner before they’re submitted. You need to be part of an evaluation team a few times, and prove by your performance that you have an aptitude for evaluation before you lead an evaluation yourself. You need spend a few years as a program officer, supporting program implementation before you move up to be a program manager yourself.
Being well-supervised is an incredibly important part of gaining experience. If you practice doing something wrong, you get good at doing it wrong (duh). While I won’t prescribe a specific length of time that you should “apprentice”, I can tell you that I spent about 8 years as a program officer and/or text bitch, under the close supervision of people who had been at it much longer. During those years when I was young in my career I made a huge number of mistakes, some small, others not. Thankfully, because I was under the guidance and supervision of more experienced practitioners those mistakes were caught and corrected before they could come back to harm those I was honestly trying to help. Having this experience was an absolutely necessary prerequisite to eventually taking a job where I was in a position to make decisions which could affect the lives of entire communities of people.
4) Commitment. Humanitarian work is not a hobby. It is not something to do for two weeks out of the year during your vacation. It is not a spring break option. All of the things above require the willingness to commit, to invest the time necessary to make them happen. You don’t hear about bankers who do dentistry for fun on the side. Or about marketing executives who spend their vacations practicing gynecology. We are very often quick to say things like, “either do it right or don’t do it” when it comes to almost any other field of endeavor. Why anyone would think that aid work is any different is simply beyond me. It takes knowledge, skill, experience, and commitment to getting aid right.
So either commit to it – commit to gaining the knowledge, skills and experience needed to do it right – or else don’t do it.