Three things that annoy me today:
NGOs. We need fewer NGOs. There, I’ve said it. There are too many NGOs. Too many INGOs, too many LNGOs, too many SLoNGOs, too many bloated BINGOs muddling along, resting on their laurels. For goodness sake far, far too many clueless startups. There is a glut of impromptu, unqualified, parasitic participants in this field. Time to ban from the sector those who don’t add value. We will improve aid outcomes, not to mention make everyone’s life easier. Time to make this all about quality rather than quantity.
Yes, I see you, over there in the back corner, nodding vigorously, all smug, certain I’m not talking about you. Don’t get too cocky…
Development. NGO-style development doesn’t really work. At least not very well. There, I’ve said that, too. There is simply no evidence to support the grandiose claims of large-scale, sweeping change made by development organizations, practitioners, and institutional donors. Meta theories and grand strategies look great on PowerPoint and make awesome cleverly titled books. But they don’t bear fruit on the ground. Okay, okay. Sometimes one-off projects work on a limited, local scale. Yet even there the successes are random enough that it’s hard to pin down the rhyme or reason. So stop fronting.
You want to make a difference in the aid sector, get your disaster response house in order.
Provincialism. It’s international aid. IN-TER-NAT-IONAL. This enterprise is, by definition, about moving resources, ideas, people from point A to point B, specifically for the purpose of making changes at point B. Make peace with this reality. Yes, I know how things sometimes look. But expats in the field are not the problem. Poor people management, indiscernible mission focus, lack of organizational discipline, being donor-driven, and general cranial-rectal inversion are the problems (among others).
I think we can all agree that ideas, plans, and strategies need to be evaluated on their own merits, and not on the basis of who came up with them. Let’s remember that that knife cuts in more than one direction.
* * *
Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
Some days I think NGOs are the bane of the aid world.
* * *
Back when I was first starting my career in humanitarian work, I spent what felt at the time like an eternity living in and going to some of the most out-of-the-way, infested, grimy, uncomfortable, downtrodden, and generally impoverished places you can imagine. Once during that period, I ran into in a British guy passing through the town where I was living at the time. It was small, dusty settlement in the bend of a dirty, slow-moving river. He described that place as “the arse-end of nowhere.”
For humanitarian workers, it is almost a point of pride to say that we log our share of time at the arse-end of nowhere. Whether the arse-end of nowhere is an urban center recently decimated by a huge natural disaster, a high altitude community with no access or services, or a tiny island with no airstrip or harbor. We love to tell ourselves that we love to suffer in those obscure places where the power always goes out, where there’s no water and we get sick from the food, where dogs yap all night.
The arse-end of nowhere is those remote places where life is tough, where progress is hard to achieve and see, and where even the smallest gains are incredibly fragile and can evaporate in a split second over issues that would be nothing in the “outside world.” At the arse-end of nowhere information about the external context is hard to get. When you’re at the arse-end of nowhere things that seem straightforward and obvious from the outside, suddenly become entangled and messy. Logic and reason go out the window at the arse-end of nowhere: people from there, with little or no external worldview, frequently make ludicrous assumptions about how things are or jump to wild conclusions about causes and effect.
Everything takes longer, too. Tasks that an outsider might think should be simple can in reality take all day, or maybe even longer, at the arse-end of nowhere. And there’s sometimes danger. Sometimes just getting through the day without being kidnapped, shot at, driving on a landmine, or falling over the edge of a cliff can be an accomplishment of significance at the arse-end of nowhere.
When you’re at the arse-end of nowhere you have to consciously lock yourself into a mode of thinking which says approximately, “I will do what I have to do to get by, to survive, to function effectively in this environment.” Maybe you have to dress differently in order to accommodate local sensitivities. Maybe you have to eat different food, because that’s all there is. Maybe you have to summon every ounce of patience that you possibly can when working with local staff and partners – not that they’re not nice people, and not that you dislike them as people, but because their core beliefs about what you’re all there to accomplish and what your respective roles in that process of accomplishment are so vastly different from your own that there is almost no common point of reference. Sometimes the only thing that you have when it comes to local working relationships at the arse-end of nowhere is a shared meal and maybe a cold beer at the end of the day.
Working at the arse-end of nowhere can sometimes feel like an endless string of capitulations in an apparent total vacuum of logic and reason. You can spend an awful lot of time not really knowing what’s going on at the arse-end of nowhere. It can feel like – and often is – a seemingly endless cycle of returning to square one, re-establishing basic consensus, laboriously moving on to square two, establishing basic consensus, putting a tentative toe ever so lightly onto square three… and… it all crumbles.
And… you’re back square one.
There are reasons why the arse-end of nowhere is the arse-end of nowhere.
* * *
Don’t get me wrong. I love aid work, and I get that that – almost by definition – includes NGOs. But as I look at how hard it is for aid organziations to stay on track, or by contrast, how easily we get distracted, entangled, and muddled it becomes tougher to fight a growing sense of despair with the system.
And yet, in an odd way, at the same time, when I look at the amount of energy and effort that goes into just keeping the machine chugging along; when I consider the amount of angst, drama and dumbassery involved in simply keeping the ship steered in one direction; when I look at the amount of work that it takes to achieve consensus on even the basic, no-brainer kinds of decisions, even before one piece of relief has reached even one disaster survivor; when I look at the number of life-saving meetings that have to be not just attended, but called, I begin to feel… nostalgic. I feel nostalgia for times and places where I could at least claim a little street cred for having survived a supposedly difficult environment.
Because as I think about it, the substance of what it takes to “make progress” in the field is almost point-by-point identical to the substance of what it takes to “make progress” in an NGO context. It’s the same battles, the same painful processes that derail in the end, the same boondoggle, the same sidetracking of meaningful discussion about what needs to happen with utterly illogical and very often self-imposed restrictions in the name of corporate culture or identity. We’re so wrapped up in our own spin on reality, so closed off from external conversation, so unable (or unwilling) to consider substantive change at a paradigmatic level, that we really might just as well be in an inaccessible mountain village with no electricity or water.
Working for an aid NGO, whether at HQ or in the field is an awful lot like being at…
the arse-end of nowhere.