Good aid has five characteristics. Let’s talk about those:
1) Starts and ends with the needs of those affected by poverty, disaster, and conflict (a.k.a. “the poor”, “aid recipients”, “program participants”, “beneficiaries”…). Some might want to articulate this point as aid needs to be demand driven, rather than supply driven. How we think about aid – how we rationalize it, how emotionally and intellectually honest we are about why we do it, and why we do it the way we do it – matters. But if we’re to do it right, if we’re to plan and implement good aid, our starting point needs to be those whom we seek to serve. If that starting point is anything else (for example, the needs of a particular donor, surplus of something…) then a recipe for bad aid has already been started.
2) Follows good process. To put it very simply, you start with what the need is, define the most logical good solution, implement that solution, and evaluate your program or project against what you defined as the need. Some call this Project Cycle Management (PCM) (See also) Of course in actual practice there is a lot that goes into each of those steps. Knowing what the need is requires commitment and follow-through on assessments.
Defining the most logical good solution can require an amazing amount of organizational honesty and discipline – especially when an organization has defined it’s focus, capacity or “niche” very specifically. One of the most common mistakes which leads to bad aid is when an oranization, project or individual defines the solution in terms of what they have to offer, rather than in terms of what the most logical solution is. (I call this the “solutions in search of problems” approach.)
Evaluation, like assessment, is very often glossed over. Amateurs typically focus on implementation (and of course good implementation is critical), but implementation outside of the context of overall good process is meaningless.
3) Is evidence-based: Digging a little deeper into the assessment, planning, and evaluation steps of PCM, it is absolutely critical that assessments be done properly (see Texas In Africa’s outstanding series on how social scientists think – assessments are more than just asking a few villagers what they want). If you don’t understand clearly both the issue (problem) that you’re trying to address, you can’t design a workable response, and at the end you can’t know if you’ve been successful.
Yet in my experience, this is the single most common downfall of small startup NGOs/projects and amateurs: skimping on assessments and evaluations, or simply not doing them at all. This is partially because those things require specialized skills, resources and organizational bandwidth. Sometimes where an organization or project defines it’s “product” very specifically (volunteer teams, 1,000,000 T-shirts, shoes, etc.), there is little point in doing either assessments, planning, or evaluation because the implementors already know what they’re going to do.
Good aid will be disciplined enough to go through the process of collecting and analyzing evidence, and then basing action on need, not on the surplus of a particular resource.
4) Tool-box approach: Expanding the above point with respect to action/programming, good aid will approach available resources as “tools” inside a “tool-box.” Which is to say that good aid will select the right tool for the job. Bad aid, by contrast, typically uses backward logic by selecting the tool (action, program…) in advance of having evidence.
Where an organization or project has only a few tools in it’s box, it can take real organizational discipline to say “no” to programming. Again, this is a very common mistake of small startups and amateurs: the desperate desire to act (or the real, survival need for resources) drive many to try to operate outside of their actual capacity or expertise – sort of like using a screwdriver to pound nails.
5) Learns lessons-learned: While humanitarian aid and development are not as old as other fields (accounting or urban-planning), there is already a substantial body of experience and lessons-learned. Good aid does not repeat the mistakes of the past. While this sounds simple, in my experience this also can require an amazing level of organizational discipline (organizational discipline is a common theme…), particularly (again) where an organization is founded on the premise of a specific kind of activity, particularly where that activity contravenes known best-practices. The existence still of foreign-run “orphanages” across the Third World are but one outstanding example in real-life.
Learning the lessons-learned also requires that an individual, project or startup NGO be aware of the history, be looped into the overall aid conversation, be current with industry thinking. This, also, requires organizational bandwidth and (wait for it…) discipline. It requires that people prioritize thinking and learning along with doing. It requires that organizations dedicate resources towards participating in learning events (sometimes feel like HRI-style “life-saving meetings”). It requires participation in coordination specifically, and generally being part of the larger community of practice overall. While few people would argue against learning the lessons learned in principle, in actual practice the realities of tight budgets, scarce resources, and staff already working 18-hour days frequently mean that the lessons learned do not get learned. And the result is frequently that while as an industry we know what to do and how to do it, many individual entities within the industry don’t.
Note: But what about “Local”? I know that some of you are already itching to fill my comments thread with hate-mail because I didn’t include something about “local knowledge” or “local NGOs” as one of the five characteristics of good aid. There are two main reasons why I did not:
- “Local” is a cross-cutting issue: In my direct experience in almost two decades of practice, getting the above five things right invariably means involving local… people, organizations, partnerships, knowledge, etc. When the above five things are done properly (really done properly), “local” happens organically.
- “Local” is not a magik bullet: The above five apply equally to “local.” And in my experience, local NGOs are just as prone as INGOs, local staff just as likely as expats, to get the above wrong. (see also: here) The concepts of needs-based logic, good process, evidence-based action, picking the right tool for the job, and learning from past experience are as important (and as easy to get wrong) for local NGOs as for INGOs.