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February 24, 2012

A rant or two...

Recently a little article entitled "7 worst international aid ideas" from the Matador Network has been making the rounds on the Facebook and the Twitter. A friend of mine shared it, then her friend commented on it. Then I filled up her page with counter-comments... then I deleted them because I thought they needed a blog post, rather than a discombobulated commentary on Facebook. 

A long blog post at that: Aid is criticized in the media (and it should be, like anything), but often people focus on things that are exaggerated by some sexy, dramatic, shocking story and hence myths are born. Here I'll comment on the article, then I'll talk about exaggerated issues. As an aid worker, I obviously believe in aid and I think you should too, despite its issues.

First, I like the article: I think it did a good job of choosing several higher-profile examples of dumbassery that occurs everyday (1, 2, 3, 4, and 6), as well as highlight two bigger issues (5 and 7) that no one really talks about, but should.

Second, the article is talking about bad aid ideas, not problems with aid. There is a subtle, but important, distinction here. 
> Bad aid ideas like this: What should we do to help the poor? Oh, let's send them used underwear.
> Problems with aid are more like this: Why isn't aid working? Oh. Shit. That's a hard one, but let's blame the NGOs. 

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The 7 Worst Ideas + 2 more bad ones

#1 - SWEDOW, or "stuff we don't want", a now ubiquitous term coined by my favorite aid blogger Tales from the Hood (though I like to say "shit we don't want"). 'Nuff said. The article got it covered,  just to say there are a bazillion examples of this: used bras, pillow case dresses, motel soap bars... the list is endless. 
I personally would choose another as the WORST example: old, outdated baby cribs "that do not pass new safety standards".  Most mamas living in a poverty stricken slum in Nairobi don't want a crib, don't have room for one in their home, and much less one that could perhaps strangle their child. 
(Here is some more on SWEDOW from Good Intents are not Enough, an excellent blog about aid. I couldn't get the link to Tales from the Hood to work... sorry.)

#2 - TOMS shoes is SWEDOW, but with a hint of bad CSR (corporate social responsibility) - or vice versa. Not much to add here, this probably is one of the WORST examples because it is so popular. TOMS raised a hullaballu in the aid-blog world sparking the "Day without Dignity" campaign by Sandra over at Good Intents (my contribution to that campaign). 

#3 - Crazy dudes with guns claiming to save kids. Bad. Very Bad. Crazy dudes without guns are bad enough. I am glad there are not very many examples of the armed type, but sad to say there are too many of the unarmed type. I'd put the hot aid-worker marrying a warlord in this category as well. The article definitely got the WORST crazy dude example, especially since this one was made into a movie... (nice transition to #4).

#4 - Crazy celebrities and their stupid ideas, perhaps a subset of number 3? I might say that when Nick Kristof purchased the freedom of 2 prostitutes maybe a WORSE example. 

#5 - USAID "buy American" is indeed the WORST example because this is a government (and a big one), not a corporation, but this is basically an example of bad CSR. Grants for aid (by a do-gooder government or corporation) who then says "Okay but you gotta use (or even worse, you gotta promote) our products in your project" whether or not their product is the most appropriate for the project or context. 
  Some commentary on the Facebook feed mentioned that USAID has loosened their guidelines on this recently, but not by much.

#6 - Food looking like landmines. Oh god, say it ain't so. Definitely the WORST example of confusing packaging of aid products. Other examples that I have seen include oral re-hydration salts and water purifiers that look the same, chlorine tablets that look like medicine...

#7 - Aid as foreign policy. This one is a little heavy and really beyond my expertise. But I agree, it is evil (though not only American).

So, that's my take on the article's 7 WORST ideas. I would add 2 things to the list... 

>  Orphanages: Please read more by Good Intents who asks "Does funding orphanages crate orphans?" and has many other enlightening posts on the subject.

>  Products that don't always work: I hate the LifeStraw because, while it may work for a little while, it is going to ware out and get gummed up pretty quick. I also think it's a little un-dignified to walk around with a straw around your neck. Another example is the bio-sand filter, which seems cool because it can be made by local masons, but which doesn't always clean the water. Both of these would often give the idea that the user is drinking safe water, but that in fact she isn't. Dangerous.

* * *
7 myth-buster comments on Why Aid Doesn't work

My subtitle is a little misleading: I do think that aid is helping. Aid is making the world a better place, although I would have to say that poverty is not being eradicated: the subtle distinction between "helping" and "working" that I won't address here. 

Anyway, let's get on with it. My goal here is to address a few misconceptions highlighted about how aid works (or doesn't work). 

> 1: "Emphasis on building large dams" - First, I don't think there is an emphasis on dams in development. No grand conspiracy to dam all the rivers of the world. Second, sorry to my environmentalist friends, but dams have the possibility of being an excellent project for a developing country to alleviate some poverty. I don't like dams either, and no they are not always good, but they aren't all bad either (electricity, jobs, exportable commodity...).

> 2: "NGOs that crowd out weak or disinterested governments": NGOs substituting for governments is indeed bad news and happens all too often. But sometimes the goal is to save lives, not to develop the country, in which case substitution can be appropriate and acceptable. Also, NGOs don't have as much power as this statement implies. NGOs are more often manipulated by governments for political gain than the other way around.

> 3: "The creepy emphasis on combating the 'brain drain' ": Well, it works both ways - aid can increase and decrease brain drain. In the long run, it probably will decrease it. Again, there also isn't any hidden agenda on this.

> 4: "The principle of paying immense salaries to mildly-qualified foreigners and putting them in charge of local specialists": Oooooooh, a touchy one.  When this happens (and it does) it is indeed bad. Very evil white men. Neo-colonialist. Bad. Bad. Bad.  
  (Full disclosure: I am a foreigner paid to be in charge of aid projects.)
  BUT, it actually doesn't happen that often in NGOs. The basic fallacy in this statement is "mildly-qualified" and "immense salaries". Foreign aid workers are brought in with skills that the host country doesn't have. You might not think so, but host governments regulate this pretty well, and NGOs are pretty transparent about it too. Addtionally, local hire salaries and expat salaries aren't usually very different for the same job. (Full disclosure: expat benefits are often significantly better than for a local hire.)
  The other fallacy this brings up is that aid-workers have to suffer to do good work. How ridiculous is this idea. So for me to do good aid work, I need to be a volunteer? To get good people, you need a living wage. I volunteered for 2 years (Peace Corps), then I needed to make a living. And I do. And I am not ashamed of the money I make. I deserve it. I'm good. You want me out there doing aid work. Trust me. (And by the way, it isn't a lot. But it's enough.)

> 5: "Spectacular programs to eradicate various diseases, instead of spending much less money to provide the basic medical services that would control them, and take care of many other ailments as well": Says he who lives in a country where malaria has been eradicated... First, eradicating certain diseases can be the most cost effective program ever, especially in the long run. Imagine how much money in curative care that would be saved if malaria were eradicated globally, not to mention savings in terms of deaths and suffering. (I've had malaria, trust me one suffers.) Second, providing basic medical services that would control them also is VERY expensive and complicated.

(The next two are not in quotes because these misconceptions didn't come from the Facebook comments, just one I know exist.)

> 6: All those NGOs with high overheads are inefficient, ineffective because they are just lining their greedy pockets: Basically, overheads are necessary to do good work and the "overhead figure" is easily manipulated. Again, I'll refer you to Ms. Sandra and her wisdom over at Good Intents here or here. She has basically written the book on this myth. No need to really re-hash it.

> 7: There is one solution that will alleviate poverty: Nope. That's the thing. It's complicated. 
   Something that worked in India won't always work in Africa. In fact, something that worked in village X might not work in a village 5 miles away. 
   It won't just take more money. That money needs to be well spent. 
   A little technological gadget won't solve it. Not even the cell phone. 

* * *

But you know what'll help? Continuing to question aid, continuing to think about it, and continuing to do it.