Tag Archives: Effectiveness

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.

A Political Economy of Aid Reform?

The IRC has recently released a study of reports on studies of the Ebola crisis. Their conclusion is that these reports ‘offer valuable solutions, but they also perpetuate problems by ignoring fundamental realities.’  That is because these reports ‘reflect a persistent weakness of the global conversation about health systems: the erasing of politics.’  And now, for a bit of shameless self-promotion, IRC singled out our ODI report for not falling into this trap, for correctly saying ‘what most reports, and indeed most health systems efforts, failed to recognize: that any effort to improve health systems can only succeed if it is based on an understanding of the politics involved.’

What does the Ebola response tell us about the World Humanitarian Summit?

The fast-approaching World Humanitarian Summit holds the promise of a better humanitarianism, meaning it also holds the risk of repeating the same mistakes that have doomed so many of our good intentions in the past. Of course, there are multiple mistakes that undermine implementation of the humanitarian imperative. Shortcomings and gaps as well. Not multiple, but thousands.  But in some ways, there is only one mistake that needs fixing. We need to replace talking about what we should do with talking about how to do it. And in particular, how to do it given the incentives, architecture, political dynamics and culture which govern the ecosystem of humanitarian aid.

Thus far, and the Ban Ki Moon’s recently released report reinforces this weakness, the Summit process has traded more heavily in attractive ideas than in an analysis of how history might avoid repeating itself.  New and intriguing recommendations surface, and yet they resemble the sector’s standard recommendations, conclusions and lessons learned in the degree that their feasibility is wishful. As the UNSG admits, the measures he proposes are not new, a “testament to the failure to learn from the past and to embrace necessity and change more forcefully.”  (UNSG ¶170).  It does not help that the UN’s #1 humanitarian, ERC Stephen O’Brien, has proclaimed that the system is ‘broke’ but ‘is not broken.’

How do we change our stripes? By ending the gravy train of funding for technical evaluations, dismissing rather than embracing so-called ‘lessons learned’ approaches (see here for one of my previous blogs on lessons identified but not learned), and basing analysis on a thorough political economy of the given situation.  In other words, at the system level and at the organization or project level, stop promoting reforms based on an overly simplistic understanding of the problem. Top aid thinkers Ben Ramalingam and John Mitchell explain it a lot better than I could:

Two broad sets of reasons for this lack of change are widely cited. One is that there are many drivers of change for the sector, of which the reform agenda is only one. Reforms, moreover, are seldom, if ever, the most prominent of the internal drivers. Others include organisational interests, professional norms, donor interests and so on. These serve to reinforce the status quo of the sector. … The second set of reasons relates to the reform efforts themselves. Seldom have change and reform efforts attempted to change the fundamental rules and incentives that underpin humanitarian aid effectiveness.

The paramount question is whether we will do better in the future by examining how and why we failed in the past, replacing the question of what do we want to achieve.  In this regard, the Ebola outbreak and response signaled (once again) the need for a more transformative agenda, one that avoids wishfully imagining the dawn of a new age where global public good trumps political self-interest, and instead addresses both the shortcomings of humanitarian action as well as their underlying causes.

Ebola: Lessons not learned

[Thanks to Aid Leap for publishing this on their website. Check it out here, along with lots of excellent thinking on aid.]

Tomorrow will mark 42 days since the last new case of Ebola in Sierra Leone, meaning the country will join Liberia in being declared Ebola-free. That brings the world one step closer to a victory over Ebola the killer.

But Ebola has another identity – messenger. We listened. It told us that many aspects of the international aid system are not fit for purpose. Many – too many – of the problems the outbreak revealed are depressingly familiar to us.

Pre-Ebola health systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were quickly overwhelmed and lacked even basic capacity to cope with the outbreak. The World Health Organisation (WHO) failed to recognise the epidemic and lead the response, and international action was late. Early messaging around the disease was ineffective and counterproductive. There was a profound lack of community engagement, particularly early on. Trained personnel were scarce, humanitarian logistics capacity was insufficient and UN coordination and leadership were poor.

The lessons learned should also come as no surprise: rebuild health systems and invest in a ‘Marshall Plan’ for development; make the WHO a truly robust transnational health agency and improve early warning systems; release funds earlier and make contracts more flexible; highlight what communities can do, and engage with them earlier. Except these lessons learned haven’t really been learned at all: they are lessonsidentified repeatedly over the past decades, but not learned. 

Why is the system almost perfectly impervious to certain lessons despite everyone’s good intentions? The short answer: these lessons are too simplistic. They pretend that the problem is an oversight, a mistake to be corrected, when in fact the system is working as it is ‘designed’ to work.  The long answer: what is it about the politics, architecture and culture driving the aid system that stops these lessons from becoming reality?

Take a simple idea, like reconstituting the WHO as an intragovernmental agency with a robust mandate to safeguard global public health, and the power to stop an outbreak like Ebola. Sounds great, but not new. So it also sounds like wishful thinking. It does not address the inherent tension between sovereignty and transnational institutions.

Think of it this way: the more robust an institution, the more of a threat it poses to the individual states that are its members, and hence the greater incentive for those states to set limits to its power. WHO was ‘designed’ not to ruffle feathers.

A robust WHO? Can you imagine the WHO ordering the US or UK governments to end counterproductive measures such as quarantining returned Ebola health workers or banning airline flights to stricken countries? It will never happen.

Here is the true lesson to be learned: at a time of public fear and insecurity, it would be political suicide for any government to allow such external interference. The problem isn’t the institution, it only looks like it is; the problem is the governments that comprise it. That is not to say that WHO cannot and should not be improved. It is to say that the solution proposed cannot address the fundamental problem.

Or take a complex idea, such as community engagement. Our Ebola research found that the ‘early stages of the surge did not prioritise such engagement or capitalise on affected communities as a resource’, a serious omission that ultimately contributed to the spread of the disease, and hence a key lesson learned (see e.g., this Oxfam article).

Disturbingly, this is a lesson with a long history. Here, for example, is what the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) found in evaluating the international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The relevance, virtually word for word, to the situation in West Africa speaks for itself:

The international humanitarian community – with the exception of the organisations already established in Haiti for some time – did not adequately engage with national organizations, civil society, and local authorities. These critically-important partners were therefore not included in strategizing on the response operation, and international actors could not benefit from their extensive capacities, local knowledge, and cultural understanding … This is not a new observation. Exclusion of parts of the population in one way or another from relief activities is mentioned in numerous reports and evaluations.

Why is this lesson so often repeated and so often not learned? Does the answer lie in an aid culture where ‘taking the time to stop and think – to comprehend via dialogue, engagement and sociological research – runs counter to the humanitarian impulse to act’? Our report also discusses a greater concern: the degree to which people in West Africa were treated ‘as a problem – a security risk, culture-bound, unscientific – to be overcome’. 

The ‘oversight’ is hardly an oversight: people in stricken communities ‘were stereotyped as irrational, fearful, violent and primitive; too ignorant to change; victims of their own culture, in need of saving by outsiders’. Perhaps that clash of cultures highlights why we should not expect community engagement to spontaneously break out simply because the problem has been recognised.

Powerful forces work against aid actors engaging with the community during an emergency, leaving us with a lesson that has not been learned even after years of anguished ‘never again’ promises to do better.

Lessons learned are where our analysis of the power dynamics and culture of the international aid system should begin, not where it ends.

Humanitarian Effectiveness (2)

My previous post on this topic prompted a slight twitter buzz, with Patricia McIlreavy astutely pointing out that the aid ‘oligarchy’ isn’t just the big INGOs, but donors and the UN as well.  Dead right on that one.  They all employ wield effectiveness in an exercise of power.

Effectiveness seems to be part of a powerplay within the oligarchy as well. By way of broad generalization, the question of effectiveness functions as a spotlight, used by people in desk chairs to examine the work of people with mud on their boots.  Sounds good, right?  What about the reverse?  When can Mud-on-Boots cast the same light on the work of Deskchair? More importantly, why doesn’t the functioning of the aid system drive Deskchairs to cast the same scrutiny on the mountain of Deskchair work in the system?

It should. The aid system comprises immense resources and people – energy and ‘action’ – at the level above the field project.  Having just sat through one, how do we assess the effectiveness of a conference on effectiveness? Better yet, what has been the collective effectiveness of years of debates, research, publications, workshops, tools, guidelines and previous conferences on effectiveness?  In other words, why don’t those of us thinking about effectiveness shine the light on our own work?

At great effort and cost, the aid system produces a spectacular amount of material designed to improve the effectiveness of aid. How does that translate into lives saved, or suffering alleviated? Might it even work as an impediment? I remember a medical coordinator in MSF telling me that in the span of six months in South Sudan she received over 600 recommendations from headquarters.  No doubt lots of good advice, but what is the combined impact on stressed out and under-resourced field teams? Trying to regulate or rationalize this onslaught of advice leads to discord at HQ, with staff feeling disenfranchised from the operational mission. Put differently, each and every one of those 600+ recommendations represented the aspiration and drive of somebody at HQ seeking their ‘fix’ of field involvement, their dose of ‘making a difference’.  That’s not speculation. That was my fix too.

[Spoiler alert. This post should end right here. The next bit is a real downer. I blame the start of a cold, wet final weekend to England’s so-called summer.]

Shining the spotlight of effectiveness on this work can be disconcerting. Much of my considerable HQ product seems rather obviously designed to have allowed me to be part of the crisis response based on a blind faith in its actual impact.  This is a faith requiring permanent contortion, to avoid noticing the ten degrees of removal between my efforts in London and saving a life in the field.

It looks like this:

Start with a new / improved [fill in the blank: protocols/tools/reports/guidelines/strategies/etc].

  1. Did overworked field teams even read it?
  2. If they read it, did it change practice?
  3. If it changed practice, was it in a positive direction? Was the new thing better than the old thing? No shortage of examples where idealized efforts at improvement collided with reality on the ground.
  4. If it changed in a positive direction, by how much? In other words, did the impact actually save lives and alleviate suffering more effectively? Remember, much of aid work is pretty damned good from a technical perspective – improvement runs into the law of diminishing returns.
  5. If it had a positive impact, did that outweigh the cost/effort/resources that went into producing the improvement? How many meetings and emails!
  6. If it had a positive impact, did it last? Or: did it calcify into a tick-box exercise? Or: did new teams = old ways?

That, believe it or not, is only the first level of analysis.  If it stopped there, the verdict on effectiveness might often come out OK.  The key here is # 5. Here is what the process does not look like: a couple of smart Deskchairs put their heads together, come up with a new [fill in the blank: protocols/tools/reports/guidelines/strategies/etc], show it to their boss, make a few changes and ship it out to the field.

It looks more like this: a couple of smart Deskchairs put their heads together, come up with a new [fill in the blank: protocols/tools/reports/guidelines/strategies/etc] dealing with X, which then unleashes a frenzy of effort to take the good thing and make it very good.  Within the various branches of the organization, there will be ten, maybe twenty or maybe a hundred who have made a heavy investment in X.  Each will need to comment on the new thing. Many comments will replicate each other, others will contradict. Skirmishes will ensue – “communities” vs. “people” in paragraph 7, roll out in August (rain season!) vs November (too late!!!!), and so many more. Complaints will move up the food chain – Why weren’t we involved sooner? You need our approval! Meetings will be held and hair will turn gray. The thing will launch. Now start at Step 1.

And on it goes.  I have been involved in many of these processes. Even the ones avoiding the quicksand of organizational politics involved multiple, duplicative commitments of effort.  More to the point, they involved faith that improvements – objectives phrased more clearly, the addition of a resource annex, newer research included – actually mattered in some way. How could they matter? How could a rephrased set of objectives save lives and alleviate suffering? Faith is beautiful that way.  Proof is not required. A collective investment in the possibility that what we do matters.  The spotlight of effectiveness is unwanted here.  And so is it rarely shined.

The Problem with Effectiveness (1)

My first blog sent from the city of Manchester, arguably the birthplace of modern Capitalism: “there are good reasons why those in the Southern Hemisphere view [the big NGOs] as the ‘mendicant orders of Empire’” (Michael Barnett in The International Humanitarian Order). So an appropriate location for an HCRI-Save conference on humanitarian effectiveness.

What is effectiveness? As with many concepts, the further one dissects it, the more wooly it becomes. So a nice generator of the sort of navel-gazing exercises that I find so stimulating and that consume a lot of humanitarian energy.  That said, the discourse of effectiveness warrants being unpacked from a number of angles, especially within a political economy of aid. On that, two initial reflections.

First, the ‘oligarchy’ of global western humanitarian NGOs uses the language of effectiveness to defend its turf, funding and power.  Argument to donors: give us the money, because we are more effective than them.  Here, ‘them’ refers to emerging NGOs from the global south, who are almost by definition going to come up short in terms of effectiveness. After all, it is the oligarchy’s definition of effectiveness in the first place, and the oligarchy has enormous advantages in terms of resources, experience, infrastructure, etc.

Second, the discourse of effectiveness sidesteps ethical issues.  As somebody pointed out in one of the sessions, what is effective and what is right are two different questions.  Those arguing for the supremacy of effectiveness miss the problematic reality of an aid industry that is often ineffective and unaccountable.  Let’s be clear, aid is a tough business, and we should expect that it often falls short of being effective, no different than welfare programs in our home countries, which have regularly failed in efforts to lift the poor out of ghettos, improve public health or reduce drug abuse (for example).  That is the nature of the work.

But there is a fundamental difference. There is something regrettable about our ineffective efforts to do good in our backyard and for ourselves.  But there is something regrettable and unethical with our ineffective efforts to do good in their backyard, with their lives at stake, and yet where they have neither say over how it unfolds nor recourse when it does not go well.