All posts by marc

Evidence vs Evidence

Let’s get one thing out of the way. This is a blog post and a not-so-subtle plug for an upcoming webinar. Check out our panel discussion – it’s part of Humanitarian Evidence Week. We’ll be working counter intuitively, taking a critical look at the call for the greater use of evidence in humanitarian decision-making.

That humanitarians should use evidence to identify the greatest needs of crisis-affected people seems like a pretty good idea.  Similarly, it seems a rather unassailable proposition to use evidence to decide what works and what doesn’t work, or what works more effectively/efficiently.

In the webinar, we aim to discuss the shortcomings and challenges in the way humanitarians use evidence, or the gaps in its quality. Importantly, that discussion will be placed within the humanitarian context.  These are not lab conditions. Uncertainty cannot be eliminated, and will often remain substantial.  The deep political pressures which characterize humanitarian crisis cannot be sidestepped, and often undermine the technocratic establishment of programming.  It is in this complex, dynamic, politicized, inhumane context that humanitarians must take decisions. To seek evidence that provides final answers is often, then, to seek an unattainable perfection.

As a webinar, the critique of sector’s use of evidence will try to remain concrete. Nonetheless, fuzzier questions abound.  Chief among them: Why it is that this sector will spend somewhere around $29B this year on the basis of faith, on the basis of its self-belief that its efforts are necessary, efficient and effective? Put differently, why has it been OK that we simply imagine our goodness? This strikes me as both a cultural issue and a structural one.  Humanitarian action lacks incentives that push in the direction of needing and therefore developing evidence.  Across the entire chain of command, from the field project to the board of directors, and over the past decades, why have so few been insisting upon proof?  My evidence-free answer: Maybe we don’t really want to know.

Looking further at the issue, recent research has shown that the cultural problem is in part a problem of multiple cultures. Practitioners and academics have very different ways of thinking about evidence, about the questions they wish to answer, and hence the nature of the data they need to collect.  Another issue is that all of this ignores the degree to which the localization of humanitarian response requires the localization of our understanding of evidence and its uses.  I don’t hear anybody talking about the risk of exporting our Western ‘scientific method’, let alone our evidence-challenged ways of working.

Finally, in the big picture, this evidence gap is a cousin or perhaps child of our accountability gap.  As such, how likely is it that we can engineer the closing of this gap by external pressure, such as pressure from donors demanding more evidence, or our own internal resolution to emphasize evidence-based programming?  We’ve seen this before.  At least in terms of accountability, two decades of trying to manufacture accountability has not produced much accountability. Our incentives, structure and culture push in a different direction. To make matters worse, one could argue that the big donors are asking for evidence not to know if things work, but to prove to sceptical politicians that things work. In the end, do these combined pressures – set within an aid sector rife with fudged narratives of success – generate evidence that is biased from within? Another evidence-free conclusion: faith and imagination will get us closer to the effective programming than bad evidence.

Headlines of Harvey

Have you heard about the Cajun Navy?  Google it.  644,000 hits. The Cajun Navy is not a one-off story, it is one of the top Hurricane Harvey storylines. If I had to sum it up: ordinary people coming together in the face of extraordinary adversity to save the lives of other people.  Mother with small children stuck in waist deep water? Some bass fisherman on a boat will haul them out.  Elderly man drowning in a car?  A human chain forms and performs the rescue.  The Lt. Governor of Texas likened the civilian effort to the rescue of Dunkirk. If nothing else, this makes for great TV.  But there is more than nothing else.

The accompanying story is that Hurricane Harvey has met its match.  Unprecedented destruction? Sure, but this is Texas, and even a storm like this will not defeat the spirit of the Texans. Is there anyone who has not seen that story?

Exit Harvey and back to the world. When was the last time coverage of a disaster / crisis somewhere in Africa sounded like that?  Or Asia?  These are not occasional human interest stories sunk within the reporting on a major catastrophe, these are top, persistent headlines. The hero is not a brave individual but a brave population. Here’s a sample headline: Spirit of Texas: People pull together to help Storm Harvey victims. I’ve blogged before about the narrative divide, about the power of the narratives that shape our world view. It’s not a new story.

Media and even aid agencies are doing better, but neither the Western public nor aid agency fundraising targets are ready for the courage, resourcefulness and agency of ordinary Sudanese or Bangladeshis as a predominant image of crisis response. We may be able to feel admiration for the fortitude of an IDP mother and rape survivor who has lost a husband plus two children and has now walked 100 miles to find medical care, but that story is of a heroic individual, the victim of a pervasive venality and brutality.

The core humanitarian principle of humanity manifests itself in the compassion to respond to the suffering not of family, neighbours, clan or countrymen, but to anyone, anywhere in the world, simply because they are human beings just like us.  Our hardwiring sometimes works differently, though, and we see and feel attachments or bonds to family, neighbors and fellow citizens that get in the way of us seeing the entire human race through the lens of a dispassionate equality.  Ethnocentrism may even prove biological in origins, which makes humanitarian ideals all the more important, even if ‘unnatural’.

I choke up and find tears on my cheeks when I watch the videos of the Cajun Navy.  I feel pride at the American can-do spirit. There is a special sense of connection because I lived in New Orleans for several years.  I know quite a few actual Cajuns.  Beyond the near-hegemony of a Western worldview, that helps explain why the Western media run with these headlines. Because I will read them and be touched by them.  Of course I am interested and often moved by stories – in the media or the ones I’ve heard in person – of the extraordinary resourcefulness of disaster-affected communities in the so-called global south. But that is different in both degree and quality.

Two conclusions come to mind.  The first is that the depiction of Hurricane Harvey lines up so much better with the reality of humanitarian crisis.  The people of Houston and Beaumont and Port Arthur will rise to the occasion and overcome this catastrophic event. At the same time, they require support from outside to overcome the immediate needs, to support reconstruction, etc.  They do not need to be saved or rescued as they sit there, helpless.  And they do not need the international community to arrive with the intention of solving painful structural issues such as gender/racial inequality, illiteracy, violent crime, drug addiction, undemocratic institutions, environmental degradation…  (Or, at the least, they might very well need that, but it is not how we as humanitarians understand our role.). So why do we humanitarians think so differently about Sudan or Haiti or Bangladesh?

The second is to consider what the people in places like Texas (or Bihar) need most at a time like this.  Water, shelter, food etc come to mind.  Hope and reassurance come to mind.  But perhaps more than these is that spirit, the one Texans reportedly have in spades, the one that sits not in a briefcase or in a convoy full of water bottles but in a bar, shelter or church full of people. It also sits in and is inspired by headlines and stories and Tweets across the media machine. It is a manufactured swell and it is vital to crisis response. Which raises the question, what happens when there is no such inspirational headline, where 99% of the story reinforces a swell of helpless incompetence or the hope that rescue will come in the form of a foreign intervention?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Localization

Localization — the agenda formerly intending a shift of humanitarian power?

The Good

The one year anniversary of the World Humanitarian Summit’s ‘Grand Bargain’ offers time to take stock of progress.    At a conceptual level, a key goal of the Grand Bargain is to drive the humanitarian sector towards the irrefutable good of contextualizing its work: re-imagining a humanitarian action that departs from top-down, cookie-cutter approaches and empowers programming that is borne in and is effective in meeting the needs of people within a specific context.  It will do so by shifting greater focus and cash to responders, a departure from a system based on the near monopoly of international aid conglomerates. We call this the localization agenda, even though a more neutral perspective would grasp the humanitarian system as already suffering from an over-localization (in the West).

The Bad

Let us imagine this contextualization in full bloom, a localization that moves beyond its current emphasis on the location of the funding recipient and beyond even the crucial focus on meaningful participation/involvement of local communities. To truly embody the shift in power first envisioned by the localization agenda, it should also comprise a locally-driven rethink of how to address people’s needs. How do we build the freedom for that rethink to occur? How do we avoid the seemingly unstoppable bulk transfer of managerial systems, best-practices and standardized (read: homogenized) methodologies that decontextualize humanitarian assistance in the first place?

This ongoing stampede of North-to-South ‘capacity building’ exercises risks producing globalization instead of localization, a kicking of the humanitarian can down bumpy local roads. [link] We already know the contents of this can — dozens of colourful guidelines on the same topic, neatly venned organizational processes and tick-box exercise after tick-box exercise to ensure quality control.  As the NEAR Network has declared: “Local actors have had more than 30 years of supposed capacity building and ‘partnership principles’ which has not resulted in any significant gains.”

This Trojan Horse of sectoral bureaucracy accompanies a more insidious globalization as local responders clamber for direct funding from Western donors. As I have written elsewhere, the prospect of local agencies tethering themselves to the soft power and avowedly self-interested geo-political ambitions of Western donor funding has already proven itself a debilitating experience for the Western INGO.  We must also guard against the globalizing effects of reducing localization to a donor-driven search for cheap labor, a rationale of efficiency gains by which localization reduces transaction costs by decreasing layers.

More deeply, localization must pierce the imposition of our (globalized) world view, and the universalist approach to exporting our truths, even where the underlying values may be universal in nature.  In other words, humanitarian ideals may be universal, but the architecture and processes designed to realize and defend those deals must be seen as a rather localized product of history and geography.  Let’s not confuse universal with sacred cow.

The Ugly

It has taken nine months of discussion to settle simple questions because they came burdened by complex institutional consequences: What is a local responder? What does ‘as directly as possible’ mean? To answer simply requires only an understanding of the catalyst for the localization push – the spectacular North-South power imbalance and inequitable distribution of resources within the humanitarian sector.  As it turns out, local responders were effectively shut out of owning the local response, even though often sub-contracted to deliver it. One stat summed up the embarrassing state of affairs: a mere 0.4% of international humanitarian assistance in 2015 went directly to national and local NGOs, a situation that makes global inequality look relatively tame.

The definitional debate, however, has compromised this clear intent. The accommodation of political and bureaucratic interests means that a local outpost of a billion-dollars-per-year INGO could be considered ‘local’, and that funding funnelled to local responders via the same old rent-extracting Western INGO intermediaries may count towards the Grand Bargain’s target of going 25 percent local (an issue still to be settled).

Proponents of localization take note.  Lesson 1: wealth and power are not so easily captured. Lesson 2: a logic of localization based on effectiveness and efficiency favors the status quo.

Lost in these debates over effectiveness and efficiency, lost in the scramble of trying to establish INGO standards of financial accounting in smaller, differently-developed local organizations, is any notion of localization as an ethical undertaking. The modern humanitarian sector is founded upon the principle of humanity, that a fundamental human dignity resides within each one of us.  There, we should house the right to self-determination and the ability to possess at least some degree of power over the forces affecting one’s life.

Enter the humanitarian machine at a time of crisis, wielding its monopoly power over decision-making as to who will live or die. That is an abusive power inhering in its unaccountable decisions as to who will and who will not receive aid.  That is a sovereign power being held by a non-sovereign body. It is time then for a realization that localization may or may not yield either effectiveness or efficiency, but those laudable goals should not be the standards by which it is ultimately judged. The ‘decolonization’ of humanitarian action constitutes an ethical mission, not simply a technocratic one; a transfer of power not merely from international to local agencies but from an alien civilization to a home society. Accepting such a meaningful transformation (read: loss) will not be easy for people like me. But our humanitarian action in their house? Time to admit that we haven’t exactly gotten it right, and the principle of humanity means that they should hold the power to get it wrong.

[7 July 2017.  In response to comments that the original blog misstated certain elements, changes were made to the second paragraph of The Ugly.]

The Advocacy Tax

The Advocacy Tax

Did you miss this excellent piece of journalism, exposing the oversimplified story of how conflict minerals are being stopped by international countermeasures such as the Dodd-Frank law (also see this INGO’s response)? My recent work touches upon the issue. A client’s project needs to be reshaped because its theory of change is based on a causal link between gold mining activities and conflict in DRC, a link that has grown questionable.

Underneath IRIN’s story of minerals, violent exploitation and INGO self-interest is a story to which we humanitarians might pay careful attention because it is a story of agility and adaptation. It is also a story of how institutions perpetuate themselves, and how this self-interest (unfortunately) helps militias to be better militias, but does not help advocacy teams to be better advocates.

The humanitarian sector has invested in a plethora of largely similar advocacy guidelines. (In itself, a small example of how self-interest – my wanting to feel that I am contributing to the good – produces extraordinary levels of duplication and churn).  Advocacy forms a core part of our oft forgotten and misunderstood protection work. We know how to develop strategic goals, core problems, SMART targets, stakeholder analysis, etc., etc., and then implement a plan of action.  Good advocacy can result in quite some achievement, with the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act’s Section 1502 a prominent example.

But what happens when you tax people for turning left?  They turn in another direction.  The aid industry’s advocacy sector functions much like a tax on ‘bad’ behavior.  It imposes a cost. Noise, diplomatic pressure, public finger-pointing – if done well these can create a disincentive.  In Congo, did it make the bad guys go away? I’ll leave that question for the Congo experts. But the ‘tax’ on conflict gold does seem to have shifted militari-economic exploitation to other minerals/resources and/or regions (either that or it generated more sophisticated bribery and disguise).

The first mistake here is seeing gold mining as a monolithic cause or driver of the conflict, as opposed to an interchangeable one, easily replaced.  In fact, it is difficult to think of it as a driver at all – it operates more as a method of doing business for those with a gun. The second mistake is underestimating the bad guys and overestimating our importance. These are battle-hardened predators.  It’s not as if they lack talent when it comes to circumventing the law.

Partly, this reflects their skill.  Partly, this reflects our Achilles heel. The simplified narrative on which our advocacy industry is based (end exploitation of blood gold/diamonds = end massacres and conflict) is a donation-spinner, and maintains its narrative power long after it has lost its accuracy. We thus establish inadequate responses because we have not yet learned (not yet been taxed so as) to produce narratives that reflect the actual complexity.

Moreover, humanitarian advocacy structures rarely self-redeploy, as do the structures of exploitation and violence. The latter prove more agile and adaptive than us because they are products of the environment in which they act.  We are not.  We, as is has been so often discussed of late, are products of the environment in which we ‘sell’ our actions.

Such a political economy of aid work or advocacy explains much about the shape of our sector. When I look in the mirror, though, I see the other shaper. Not a political economy but a psychological and spiritual one. I see in the mirror my personal investment, my addiction to the humanitarian identity, my individual drip feed of self-esteem.  Advocacy campaigns run on passion, on a genuine immersion in the cause, in the righteousness of hurling even one small stone at the forces of unconscionable brutality. How do you tax that?  You don’t. Perhaps we should consider a healthy dose of blood-spilling greed?

Let’s Ideate … Part II

This is Part II (apologies, but sequels never live up to the original thing). If you have no idea what I am talking about, please read the previous blog for an explanation. If after that you still have no idea, join the club.

  • Ask Angola. Repeat after me: You’re not poor, we’re not rich. You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  What to do about the (self-fulfilling) belief that certain nations are rich and should therefore fund international aid while others are too poor to worry about crises beyond their borders?  Perhaps so-called poor nations should take note of poor people, who routinely prove themselves extraordinarily generous when crisis strikes. Leaving aside all the questions of economic self-interest and geo-political soft power, why did one group of nations evolve with the belief that it should take care of others who are far away? It is a good question, and I suspect the answers lie as wrapped up in our superiority complex, graduate student surplus, “white man’s burden” and (neo) colonial guilt as they do in generosity or compassion.  The better question is why places like Ireland or Portugal have foreign aid budgets while places like Angola and Uzbekistan do not.  I say, every time there is an emergency somewhere, let’s go to the Angolan government and ask them to fund humanitarian operations.  Let’s keep doing it until they take some of that oil money and put it into a foreign aid budget.
  • Yes/No vote. An NGO finishes a year of working in a community on a project.  The NGO writes a progress report to the donor. (See Translate It, in Part I). The donor offers another year of funding.  And then comes then comes the opening of the seventh seal. Not so fast!  Accountability (power) to the people. Not some complicated mechanism of consultation – who has time for that? How about a simple yes/no vote?  A bit brutal, but then referendums and self-determination do not have to be pretty.  Majority decision.  Yes and the NGO gets the money.  No, and another organization gets a chance to do a better job. (Or, better yet, the community gets the money and they can hire themselves an NGO, but that was somebody elses idea.).
  • The smiley face / frowny face vote button thingamajig. Want customer feedback? Are you ready to admit that placing suggestion boxes in an IDP camp full of peasant IDPs may not be the most effective way to seek out customer feedback (and, judging from the emptiness of those boxes, may actually be designed to fill a different box, the one you tick so your donor will be satisfied that feedback mechanisms have been put in place)? How about one of these?

And my best (a relative term, to be sure) idea? Perhaps it is this one:

  • Corruption-buster. At the Design Theory workshop, the facilitators covered the walls with the stories of actual aid recipients, prompting our empathy. I was struck by how many of these stories contained complaints of corruption. Poverty wears you down. Injustice eats you alive. The one that boiled my blood was this story of humiliation, as aid agency staff forced refugees to sign receipts for $20, when in fact they were given only $2. You see? So on my side I will be forced to accept. So you are ripped off in front of your eyes and there is nothing you can do about it. These are things that are happening. The aid workers forge numbers. I was not born a refugee, I have to come out of this kind of life.

Take a place like New Orleans, where nothing works.  Take any city where nothing works.  What is the one exception to this golden rule of incompetence and inefficiency? Ticketing for parking violations. That works. That always works. Spend two extra minutes in the shop and there it is, fluttering under your wiper blade. Those parking meter bastards work harder than any ten civil servants because they aren’t civil servants, they work for private companies that collect a percentage of the fines collected, and each of those bastards gets to smile at the ka-ching of personal gain every time he or she slips a ticket under the wiper.  So why not do the same in the aid world? Forget some sort of hyper-bureaucratized ombudsmanship. We need unannounced visits of a private firm that is paid nothing. They get a cut (20%?) of any corruption uncovered.  Ditto for fat rewards for any refugees whose tip leads to a bust.

So, are you now feeling ready to ideate?

Let’s Ideate Our Way Out of Here

Constructive deconstruction. That is the label placed on an intriguing initiative led by HPG/ODI.  How could I even question the value of disassembling the humanitarian system?  I jumped in. The process is based on design theory, a recently-arrived savior of humanitarian action, in case innovative phone apps and cash don’t live up to their advertizing.

And in that previous sentence lies a clue to design theory’s promise. As a humanitarian no longer in the field, I am drawn to the ills of the sector before those of the people in CAR or Syria.  I am hardly alone in that regard.  To fix that proximity bias: design theory.  Because one doesn’t design a new sofa with the furniture sector in mind. The trick in design theory is to immerse oneself in the user experience; to empathize with them.  The other trick is to prototype, to churn out new ideas, see how they fare, adapt them, see how they fare…

In one exercise, we were asked to ideate. That involves said churning of ideas without the brakes of affordability, feasibility or desirability. I churned. My small group astutely relegated these ideations to the ‘kill’ pile. The beauty of having my own blog site is being able to re-animate them here, for you, even at the risk of generating the ideation equivalent of false news. (This blog not to be confused with a few of my legitimate ideas). In no particular order:

  • Ban innovation. That seemed like a contrarian place to start.  Remember the kid who couldn’t dribble a basketball, couldn’t shoot it, couldn’t play defense, but spent a spectacular amount of time perfecting his alley-oop slam dunk?  That’s the humanitarian system’s relationship to innovation.  As donors dump money into innovation and we all drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid of gadgeting our way out of crisis – as the system devotes ever more resources and effort to innovation – it seems further away from getting the basics right.  Here’s an innovation – deliver emergency aid to people in crisis.  Here’s another innovation – engage in protection work as part of your efforts.  And another — ensure that the needs of people determine what you do.  Get those right and maybe we can start celebrating the latest phone apps.
  • Translate it. Mandatory – in the form of contractual obligations to donors, technical agreements (or regulations) with host governments — translation into local language(s) and community-level dissemination of key documents, including project proposals, budgeting and progress reports.
  • Invoice it. More than once at last month’s DRR conference (see previous post) did we hear that governments refused to invest in disaster risk reduction because that was ‘for the internationals’. Yes, that old issue – aid undermining responsibility and building dependency. But it is not just that we perform/replace the work of governments, armed groups and communities. It gets much worse. Take South Sudan, where an MSF hospital might get burned down and looted a few times over the course of a decade. Or where the government has managed to transform international goodwill, billions of dollars and the joy and hope of millions of South Sudanese into violent catastrophe.  That much destruction and squander takes dedication and it takes talent. It takes intent. So why does MSF rebuild its hospitals?  Why do humanitarians continue to provide healthcare when the government didn’t even try, but instead looted the goods? Why do we feed people who were driven into man-made famine?  Well, because that’s often what humanitarians do. That’s our job. But why don’t we do something more?  I mean, something other than shaking our finger and holding press conferences to declare that we are deeply peeved?  How many hundreds of millions has the international community spent in South Sudan due to the gross negligence and wilful misconduct and criminal behaviour of those in power? I say, send them the invoice. Hire some clever lawyers. Get a judgment. Garnish their wages.  Freeze a few bank accounts.  Invoice it even if you never get a cent back. Invoice it out of principle.
  • Context testing. Everyone working in the aid sector in a foreign country (for longer than six months) must pass a test to show that they have grasped the basic history, geography, culture, economics etc. of that country. They must take an induction course run by a local business or university. They must prove that they are capable not just of being neutral (read: completely disconnected), but of being contextual.

[To be continued in a few days]

Be Careful What You Ask For

The discussion of localization is beginning to deepen. Here (summarized) is an opening salvo from Charles Lwanga-Ntale, director of the Kenya Academy Centre:  localization often seems to resemble ‘deconcentration’, a process whereby the systems and structures of the existing humanitarian sector are exported downwards.  Certainly an interesting reflection to lead off a conference entitled “Localization and Contextualization of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) in East Africa”. Hosted by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and the (Kenyan) National Drought Management Authority, the conference mixed government, NGO and academic communities, and placed a particular focus on regional examples of DRRM at the sub-national level, where counties and districts struggle directly with fires, landslides, refugees and drought.

True enough – localization can be many things to many people. Yet the warning on replication was eclipsed as quickly as it was issued. Localization has momentum and it has an engine – from diverse voices a rather uniform set of calls for more capacity building. A palpable hunger for knowledge and learning peppered our two days of discussions. A desire not only for the processes, tools and know-how of the humanitarian sector but also a deep conviction in the power of capacity building to change the behaviour of communities and people.  Have the past five decades of capacity building not curbed our appetite?

I’m not advocating that the global south build a wall (although that argument holds surprising merit), but something needs to keep all these consultants, UN careerists and INGOs busy.  The call seems to aim at training from the very INGOs and agencies that shaped local NGOs into mere implementing partners, and undermined their capacity as autonomous civil society actors. Beyond that, the headlong rush into capacity building raises Trojan Horse concerns. What comes with the sector rebuilding its systems, as Lwanga-Ntale phrased it, “further down the road”?

This much is true. The core of the humanitarian sector – the UN agencies and INGOs elsewhere referred to by many (e.g., me) as an “oligopoly” or “cartel” – has developed an immense amount of experience, know-how and (sadly less publicised) comprehension of what doesn’t work. At the same time, my less optimistic appraisal is that very little about humanitarian action warrants the dash towards replication. It’s not like we are passing on a bandolier full of silver bullets. And that is the good stuff.  What about the bad stuff, which often comes along with the good stuff? Or the bad stuff that we mistakenly think is good stuff?

Take for example the seemingly innocuous technology of the logical framework.  Or the constitution of a humanitarian action upon the foundation of projects. These are exactly the sort of capacity building initiatives the system loves to export. Yet aside from their bureaucratic appeal, they come riddled with proven deficiencies: reducing humanitarian work to tick-box processes and quantifiable targets, output without outcome, short-termism, top-downism, risk aversion, fear of failure, etc.  In the end, a sector full of successful’ projects that leave behind such staggering unmet needs that we needed a Grand Bargain full of transformative ambitions.  Local actors using contextualized logframes? Is that really as far as our ambition travels?

I note that those at the forefront of development thinking (and even a few donors) have embraced the need for Doing Development Differently, exactly by unlogframing it. As agencies scramble to maintain relevance and contracts by delivering capacity building, are we replicating an obsolete and ineffective technology simply because it is so ingrained in our thinking; in how we practice aid?  Isn’t that one of the problems we hope localization and contextualization will solve?

Even beyond the issue of effectiveness, here’s question getting too much focus: What value do does the system want or expect the north to transfer to the south?  Opportunity cost asks a second question: Does that value outweigh a flood of workshops and ‘best practices’ that will bury the south’s opportunity and right to author value for itself? To author a new rather than receiving an old value?

Capacity building strikes me as expedient, but not particularly ambitious. I would think development requires more of localization and contextualization. First and foremost, the space for local actors to respond to problems in their way, and to struggle in the creative process at the same time.  This involves going through frustrations and failures in proximity to communities, to arrive at successes through effort, invention and ownership, not effort, mimicry and dependence. This also involves less of an employment scheme for the existing aristocracy.

Crucially, it is through this struggle that NGOs in the north have built not only their practices, but their institutions as well.  It may be a crap slogan for fast food, but Burger King gets it right, as does Zen Buddhism.  Be your way. Endpoints are less important than pathways. For example, what is the cost of local institutions not developing organically but instead having their financial plumbing supercharged by the global north just so that they can be declared eligible to receive direct grants? Why not change those eligibility standards? This is exactly the sort of mimicry that we should block; a mimicry whereby we reproduce a humanitarian system in which subservience to its business objectives evolved as the dominant structure of the agency, while the operational response to the needs of people became at best secondary, at worst a simple input to a financial transaction.

This call is not for reinventing the wheel. This call is for reinventing the imperfect devices of humanitarian action, because local organizations with a relationship to the community and deep knowledge of the context might just invent something entirely glorious.

The Localization Surge

MSF used to run an ad: “The world is our emergency room.”  Snappy, no?  Raises an eyebrow or two if wiped over a photograph, say, of dusty civilians shouldering a wounded neighbour, or starving children swallowed by their swaddling.   It also raises an important challenge to the implementation of the “localization” agenda.  By definition, responding to crisis – to extraordinary levels of need – requires some form of surge, a capacity to scale up aid operations in response to crisis.  The UN- and Western NGO-led humanitarian system already struggles in this regard (see, e.g., MSF’s “Where is Everyone”). Local organizations might struggle further. In how many nations could even the combined NGO community open and maintain 19 surgical theatres, as MSF did within weeks of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or mount 53 million Euros of operations in about 4.5 months?

The general view seems to be that local organizations can surge, but to a lesser degree.  As Schenkenberg’s study explains, local NGOs often have a very limited ability to scale up. He goes on to describe the causes, such as difficulties in attracting/receiving funds or the unhelpful reality that in an emergency, newly arriving international agencies will often Hoover up staff from the local NGOs. Management capacity for rapid growth poses another stumbling block. While the World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain and the general strengthening of local NGOs may address some of these issues, they do little to address constraints in the model itself.

Within most Western societies the response to crisis rests upon our fortune, upon the wealth necessary to pay armies of soldiers or battalions of firefighters to sit on their ass – dead capacity that comes to life when the siren sounds. The aid sector can ill afford this model (although they increasingly pay armies of people to do little more than sit on their asses, that is a different blog).  Essentially, surge capacity in the major international NGOs exists because the world is their emergency room, meaning they are able to maintain surge capacity by distributing it globally, and then redistributing it when an emergency arises.

I suppose this marks an economy of scale. That same model works poorly on a national or provincial scale. There may be exceptions – Eastern DRC? South Sudan? – that could support such excess resources, but it is difficult to imagine many.  Note that this economy of the global scale plays a similar role when it comes to expertise.  Major international agencies can maintain in-house expertise along a wide variety of themes – nutrition, shelter, water, sanitation, etc. – because at the global level, there will always be enough business somewhere to keep such expertise busy (to justify the expenditure). Again, national NGOs do not have this economy of scale (or simultaneous diversity of crisis types/themes).

The point is that local NGOs cannot be expected to become local versions of the large international NGOs. No duh, right? And yet the bigger point is that they will nonetheless be judged for it. Rather mercilessly, I fear. They will be judged as deficient because they cannot surge. Deficient because they lack sufficient in-house expertise.  Let’s be clear. These are exactly the sort of weaknesses that the existing system will capitalize upon to claw back its pre-Grand Bargain dominion. Beyond the issue of power and control, these perceived deficiencies generate a truth in which local responders remain dependent on the existing international system for surge, one more nail in the coffin of second-class citizenship.

If we start now, can we work our way out of this?  Can we can imagine some form of standing capacity at the national level? Perhaps we should be investing now in developing/testing a number of approaches to national-level rapid response mobilization. Let’s embrace strategies based on dispersed teams/networks rather than centralized agencies. Perhaps we can imagine local chapters of an organization such as Human Surge? Or maybe we can just begin a conversation, and see where it leads.

Accountability Redux

I feel bad for the concept of accountability.  Must be hard for such a serious concept to get so little respect. At ALNAP’s annual meeting last month – a 2-day discussion of how change works in the humanitarian ‘system’, and why it so often doesn’t – poor ol’ accountability was stuck in the role of sectoral punching bag.  Need an example of how the system overcomes agreement, well-funded initiatives and 20 years of effort in order to resist change?  Then accountability is your man.  We even have trouble even changing the way we think about accountability (see e.g., my last blog), with system-led development of a downward accountability mechanism more or less occupying the entire space.

My mother says I am always too negative, so I will stop right now and change hats.   As a humanitarian motivated solely by compassion for the suffering of the downtrodden (and certainly not even nudged by the Oedipal pleasure of critiquing the aid establishment), perhaps I can rally to the aid of that punching bag?  In the spirit of a few but not exactly earthshaking ideas:

  1. Think smaller. As I have written before, there “is a danger that we ask too much of accountability”; invest too much in the search for a magic bullet. Our internal efforts, long guilty of greater promise than reward, have nonetheless delivered improvements. To do it better requires framing these efforts within a more honest and explicit understanding of their limitations, diminishing their outsized sales claims reducing the risk that they pre-empt or displace other, dissimilar efforts. In particular, that they do not function to dissuade external efforts aimed not at bequeathing accountability to people, but empowering them to take it.
  1. Make existing accountability work better. Nobody ever talks about the demonstrated accountability most NGO executives show to their boards/trustees. We talk incessantly about accountability moving upwards to donors, but almost never mention boards. Why? Humanitarian NGO boards are filled with the great and the good, titans of the private sector, masters of communication, big shot directors of non-sector NGOs, noted academics and venerated politicians (or even royal family). What they are not filled with are titans, masters or even relatively knowledgeable persons when it comes to humanitarian action. Fiduciary responsibilities, market share, communications and duty of care receive dedicated, expert attention. Do operations comply with the dictates of impartiality? Independence? What about operations? Do boards ask hard questions as to their effectiveness or luxuriate in the sense that they are “great, really really super”.  Would it not be a relatively straightforward affair to insist that boards receive training in humanitarian action, and that Trusteeship more explicitly requires challenging the executive to deliver on downward accountability (not to mention the humanitarian imperative) rather than battle for higher fundraising results and profit efficiency? (Hint: I already have a day-long training mostly ready).
  1. Untick the box. Some donors now routinely require aid agencies to establish some form of accountability to local pops.   Donors have power and the system dances to their tune.  As with all such measures, though, certain features of accountability will soon become a tickbox exercise.  And there is a moral hazard here, as both donor and agency share an interest in having the project look good, a current weakness of upward accountability to donors (i.e., the fudge factor).  But we can still promote donor pressure as a good move. We should only require that we maintain clarity on one thing: This is not downward accountability to people, it is accountability to donors. Box not ticked.
  1. Paradigm shift. It is a mistake to ground downward accountability in the discourse of effectiveness. If accountability is justified because it will make aid more responsive to the needs of people and hence more effective, then avoidance of downward accountability can be justified on the same grounds. The sector has long reduced downward accountability to an option in service to effectiveness rather than allow it to function as a control borne in ethical obligation. Effectiveness allows avoidance via the domineering idea that taking time to involve people affected by crisis is outweighed by the humanitarian imperative to act now now now. Let’s be clear: some of these downward accountability measures appear awfully burdensome in terms of time and resources, especially at the early stage of a emergency response. They will slow humanitarians down. Loud voices will complain about bureaucracy killing people. Doors will be slammed. This is what the clash of paradigms will produce. Anger and self-righteous indignation. A new normative framework needs to be explicit: ethical obligation trumps effectiveness. So the response to complaints needs to be “So what!?” or “Don’t worry, we’re looking into that”, the same responses that the existing paradigm has produced in answering those who have been looking for greater ethical accountability. The trick is to dismantle this effectiveness-based critique prospectively, not wait for it to dismantle the momentum for change.

[Dear Reader: Please insert here a clever summation] [21 March: This post was updated (edits to mistakes and unclear phrasing)]

 

What’s in a name?

Change can happen in the humanitarian sphere. I kid you not. Take TPFKAB. The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries (also TPFKAAR – The People Formerly Known As Aid Recipients).  Long perceived as problematic – as passive, reductive and patronizing – over the past 18 months or so that nomenclature has been banished, the sector now self-imposing the more (politically) correct “crisis-affected populations” or “people affected by crisis.”

The new(ish) label is more correct in terms of the respect it confers upon TPFKAB. Reducing human beings to a status founded in their relationship to us – “beneficiary” or “aid recipient” or (worse still) “victim” (read: victim in need of saving by us) – placed a rather profound act of dehumanization at the centre of the humanitarian lexicon.  Kudos for recognizing the issue and making the change.  But the new label is sweeping; it too easily counts millions of people who lack a direct relationship to us at all, and whose well-being is heavily defined by that lack.  Why? Moving from TPFKAB to “people affected by crisis” involves swapping out those who actually receive aid with the larger, aspirational category of all those who probably should be receiving aid but often who do not. The new nomenclature obliterates this distinction.

The new terminology risks producing a sectoral sleight of hand, as becomes obvious in usage, for example in relation to our humanitarian Waterloo, accountability to those self-same crisis-affected people.  Here is how the Core Humanitarian Standard, the latest elixir for our accountability-challenged sector, proclaims itself: It also facilitates greater accountability to communities and people affected by crisis: knowing what humanitarian organisations have committed to will enable them to hold those organisations to account.  I hate to sound picky (actually, I am rather picky), but the word “some” seems missing: “some (and often small percentage of) people affected by crisis.”  That is who gets our aid.

As Austen Davis wrote 10 years ago, “There are no accountability initiatives that would hold agencies to account for not being somewhere.” That remains true today.  In a smart paper on accountability, James Darcy further elaborated on this blind spot, highlighting the degree to which initiatives to establish humanitarian accountability really mean accountability “for what they do, and how they do it; not for what they fail to do”. Agencies remain unaccountable for their “strategic choices.” These form no small gap: “decisions about whether or not to intervene, the timing of intervention and withdrawal, which areas and communities to prioritise, the choice of programme approach and the ‘mode’ of delivery (how to work, with what types of partner, funding etc.).” (at note 10).

The result? Accountability frameworks that offer no accountability to many of those most profoundly affected by the humanitarian response to crisis – those not receiving aid.  Accountability, of course, is just one problematic area for the use of the new terminology.  What of the very image that comes to mind in a casual expression like “The international humanitarian sector has mobilized in large numbers, with dozens of organizations busy delivering aid to crisis-affected populations in [country].”? If only it were more true.

What of the TPFKABWSBDGA? The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries Who Should But Don’t Get Aid.  The new nomenclature may not conceal the agency or dignity of TPFKAB, may not wrap TPFAAR within their own victimhood, but it nonetheless manages to exemplify the same old trait of placing our lens onto their world, with something going invisible in the process.  In this case, millions of people affected by crisis yet unaffected by our crisis response.