If I was to ever teach an intro-level course in humanitarian principles and action, it would go something like this:
Lesson #2. Aid is never simple. Even if it seems like it is or ought to be. Aid is always more complicated than you think.
So obvious it seems like it should go without saying, and yet this is the most frequently disrespected aid truism of all: Aid is never simple. Even if it seems like it is or ought to be. Aid is always more complicated than you think.
It doesn’t matter who you are, aid is always more complicated than you think. You can hold a Ph.D. from a prestigious institution and be the author of a widely acclaimed and cleverly titled book. You can be a passionate, driven member of the Diaspora with the local language plus all kinds of mad ICT and social media skillz. You can be a famous “mom blogger” with a massive following for your down-to-earth, “common sense” analysis of… pretty much anything. You can be fresh out of grad school with a head full of the latest theories and critical analyses of aid. Or you can be a professional humanitarian aid worker with decades of experience and the logo of a HRI-Affiliate on your name card.
Aid is never simple.
No matter what they may look like, the communities where we work are inherently complex and complicated places with inherently complex and complicated problems. And so the analytical processes and planning, and eventually the programming that we deliver – what we actually do – has to adequately reflect this reality. This is true whether we’re implementing long-term development programs or delivering life-saving emergency relief, yet we very rarely arrive on the scene fully appreciative of or fully prepared to deal with this complexity.
Aid is never simple. Aid is always more complicated than you think.
All this means at least two things:
1) There is no magik bullet. So stop looking for one. Because while the big, basic principles of good aid always apply, (and make no mistake, bad aid is always bad aid) when it comes to implementation at the field level, everything is context-specific. There is no slam-dunk program model o r miracle product that would, if only we could replicate or distribute it globally, permanently eradicate poverty, malnutrition and the subordination of women. The approach that works in this village does not necessarily work in the next one. The strident claims that you make about what is or is not needed here, do not necessarily hold true over there. This is not provincialism. This is the recognition of reality that no matter how well you think you understand the community and no matter how simple the issues appear, there is no substitute for following good aid program process every every every time. Cut corners on good process and aid programs fail, guaranteed.
2) Dealing with complexity requires bandwidth. This is an increasingly unpopular concept in a time (now) when it’s kind of trendy to rant about the large household charities with their expats and their vehicles and their seemingly large overheads. And to be certain, there is plenty of fat that can be cut from the budgets of most, if not all of the established name-brand INGOs. But all of this as may be, it does not release anyone from the reality that dealing with complexity in the context of humanitarian aid and development requires sufficient organizational bandwidth (people, infrastructure, assets, resources…) to analyze and understand it, and then to implement appropriate programs that make an actual difference. Sounds basic. But it’s far harder than it looks. It’s also where D.I.Y. aid typically falls down. This is not elitism (even though I have exactly zero problem embracing elitism). This is recognition of the fact, again, that dealing with aid complexity requires enough organizational strength to “get” that complexity and then make something happen.
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Late-breaking update: See also “Simple Kind of Man” from the “American Culture” series.