Tag Archives: Private Sector

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]

Multilateralism and its Discontents

1.  Did you miss Antonio Donini’s “The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian action,” on the IRIN website? Here it is. Donini smacks a lot of nails on the head. We live in an era of decline when it comes to the international agenda for a less violent and oppressive world. Global governance is heading the way of the polar bear, swaying in confusion on the lip of an isolated floe. Even Europe, typically much less unprincipled than my own USA, let alone Russia or South Sudan, has “become a flag-bearer for an untrammelled rollback of rights.” The article points the finger, and then examines how the retreat of multilateralism impacts upon humanitarian action. Finally, he asks, “what is the reflecting humanitarian to do?” I have the answer.

No I don’t.  I have one way of looking at it. This retreat of multilateralism rebalances the bargain between humanitarian aid agencies and their major Western donors. It rebalances our bargains with the corporate sector as well, because we humanitarians have long accepted to represent what Donini labels “the smiley face of globalisation.”  This sector we love needs to stop smiling about globalization and it needs to strike a new respect for the principles it enshrines.

On the government side and on the corporate side, some of this is aidwashing (see Point 2 below).  Some of this is soft power. Some of this is market entry.  Some of this is product placement. Some of this is guilt…  The sum of good impact far from counterbalances the sum of those somes, let alone the sum of drone warfare, hyper consumerism and political domination. Nor can it; nor should it. No government can place international interests above self interest as a matter of policy. No corporation can place do-gooderism above profit as a strategic objective.  And no humanitarian organization can afford to ignore these equations.

In other words, no humanitarian organization should continue with the delusion that this headlong rush into ever deeper partnerships with the private sector and dependence on Western donor governments will pave a virtuous path forward for humanitarians.  Of course corporations and entrepreneurs have much to offer. Of course they do good. Of course government aid agencies have much to offer. Of course they do good. But that should begin the discussion, not end it. Faust, at least, traded his soul for knowledge.  Budget relief seems somewhat less noble of a bargaining chip.

The point, as I concluded in a recently published report, is that humanitarian actors “need to decide how far they are willing to become coherent with the policies, players and multilateralism that help produce the crises of displacement, inequality and war in the first place.” Or perhaps Peter Buffett explains it better: Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. 

2.  Earlier this week I tweeted about Boris Johnson. On most days, an easy target. “You gotta love politics” I quipped, in reference to Johnson lambasting the Saudis for bombing Yemen while seemingly oblivious to the irony of the situation given Britain’s arms sales to the Saudis. That “paradox” has been noted before. And yet perhaps we aid industry vets do Yemen a disfavor with that label. Paradox? Perhaps that is only the way we choose to (mis)understand it, as a paradox between this delivering of bombs to the Saudis and relief aid to the bombed. Perhaps the paradox is more about how humanitarians can be so world weary and yet so naively full of our own wishful thinking.

There is no paradox whatsoever. There is enabling, causation and even a coherence of action, like arriving home with flowers on the day you will tell your wife what happened at Jonathan’s bachelor party. Are we really so convinced of our goodness as to ignore how the large humanitarian expenditure in Yemen pays for the arms sales to the Saudis? That is its purpose and that forms, hence, part of the impact that should be owned by us, regardless our less bellicose intentions.

Feeding the Fire

[Apologies for the absence.  Just back from two fascinating weeks — our anniversary! — in Egypt.]

Just last week I was climbing the seriously magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut with my wife.  Its sheer beauty absorbs one’s attention.  Even my peripatetic gaze.  At least until a discordant note in the form of a young Polish woman in a micro sleeveless dress descended the stairs from the first courtyard.  Her dress was day-glo orange.  All of it. And fully radioactive in the noon sun.  In my entire life, I don’t think I’d ever seen clothing that color, save for road crew vests. Not even Dennis Rodman in his lunatic prime.

In the late morning of November 17, 1997 a different sort of scene unfolded on the terrace of that very same temple.  Armed with automatic weapons, six Islamic militants aligned with Al-Gama’a al-Islamyya massacred 62 people, mostly Western tourists.  They unleashed a Breivik-esque melee, for example hacking and dismembering a few honeymooning Japanese couples.  (Tangent alert: Doesn’t it seem less than coincidental that the attack took place at the temple of the first woman pharaoh?).

Those militants understood the enormous value of tourism to Egypt.  It seems they also despised the equally enormous Westernizing impact of tourism on the predominantly Muslim country.  Today, even with an elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood, more stringent Islamic groups in Egypt still take aim at tourism.  The people earning filoos kateer (gobs of money) from Egypt’s tourism, not to mention the people scraping by on its leftovers, simply curse this kind of thinking.  The government, for its part, have put in place greater security.  The question for me:  Why the hell was day glo orange slinking down those steps in the first place?

The point is not at all that women wearing mini-skirts are legit targets for attack.  The point is not to suggest an actual justification for their actions (i.e., women who dress provocatively aren’t “asking for it”).   The point is that some behaviour – disrespectful, abusive, neo-colonial, whatever – creates a justification in their minds.  Gimme a reason! You got one.

The message was consistent in all the tourist books, and in the advice we received:  show respect.  To do that in Egypt, dress and behave conservatively: women and men should cover flesh, don’t walk around the streets snogging, boozing, etc etc.  (In one café that served beer, they asked us not to sit near the door – essentially a tactic of not rubbing the public’s nose in alcohol).  But those with the most to lose in the long run seem the least concerned in the here and now.

The Red Sea resort tour companies offering blitzkriegs of Luxor or the Pyramids seem to be the worst offenders if measured by the sheer volume of people being disgorged from their buses who don’t give a shit.  The scene:  sunburn-glowing Poles, Germans and Brits, dressed for an appearance on Baywatch, mobbing past Egyptian families dressed in galabiyahs.  In close second place were the fat Nile cruise boats, moored along Aswan’s corniche, gleaming white hulls matching the jellified flesh prancing around the pool deck.  In third place, as a matter of unscientific impression, were the French, cloaked as always in the self-assurance of being French.

The point is that Little Miss Day Glo wasn’t just an insensitive tourist. She became a recruitment poster, fiery sermon topic and a rallying cry all rolled into one.  To anybody with an anti-Western agenda, she’s ammo.  So if I were those tour operators, I’d be making sure people who got on the bus weren’t dressed to insult.  Not because it will matter to the militant.  You can’t stop the militant.  But you can stop ordinary people from listening to the militant.  You can stop people from joining the militant, or having sympathy for his cause.  You can stop making the militant’s job easy.  In the end, there is something fundamentally wrong with the everyday Egyptian left cringing, clutching the family closer, one hand across their children’s eyes.

But I’m not a tour operator.  I work for a humanitarian organization.  And yet I ask the same questions and reach the same answer:  What about our behaviour as aid workers?  We need to stop wearing the day glo orange.  We need to stop making it easy.

Model Business

The last post left off with the glow of my wife and I as givers; our sense of satisfaction, borne in the awareness of having done a good deed.   Let’s come clean:  this human sensation of good-doing pays my mortgage.  I suppose that’s old news.  The financial structure of the charity business places a primacy upon the organization’s relationship to the donor over its relationship to the beneficiary.  In terms of cash, the latter is perhaps a matter of image.  The former is a matter of existence.  The people (donors) who buy our product aren’t anywhere near the people who receive it, and that distance allows for a lot of bad aid (a well-beaten theme in this blog).

The money will flow so long as there’s a story or two, compelling photos, or a reality TV star so surprised to find poor people dying due to crap healthcare that he’s willing to sell his Ferrari and give the money to a hospital in Zanzibar.  As a business model, that’s pretty hard to beat.  Not sure, then, if I understand the stream of critics saying we NGOs need to learn from the private sector.  How many businesses have developed a model where cash comes in regardless of product quality?  Not Nike.  Not Apple.  Not Carnival Cruise lines.

The aid model is even trickier than just being able to sell an invisible product.  To begin with, there’s the religious push, imploring people to give in order to get to heaven.  Check out the Bible:  … and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).  Or Islam, which consecrates Zakat as one of its five holy pillars. But there’s more!  It turns out giving goes deeper than a trip to paradise, which is a good thing considering the ascendancy of hedonism.

It seems humans are hard-wired to give.  Researchers believe that giving has a positive health effect on the giver (hmmm … taken to the extreme:  donation to a medical charity may improve the donor’s health more than the beneficiary’s?).  As UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger puts it: “Because of the importance of support-giving for the survival of our species, it is possible that over the course of our evolutionary history, support-giving may have become psychologically rewarding to ensure that this behavior persisted.”

Turns out money can’t buy happiness, but giving it away can.  As other research shows, regardless income level, those people who spend money on others report greater happiness, while those who spend more on themselves do not.   I guess that explains the glow.

But the charity model’s biggest strength is a tendency for givers to overestimate the value of their gift.  At the consumer level, Christmas turns out to be a black hole, devouring value:  a billion of spending on gifts produces about 800 million worth of value to the receivers.  That’s bad math.  Even worse math in aid terms, because a fat chunk of giving gets nowhere near the beneficiary.  There’s my mortgage, for example.

So does giving destroy value?  Well, yes and no.  It’s a lopsided equation because it focuses exclusively on value to the recipient.   We could look at it differently.   Here’s a quote from another researcher, Arthur C. Brooks, from Syracuse University:

What many organizations misunderstand is who the “needy” truly are. In addition to those in need of food, shelter, education, the needy are also those who need to give to attain their full potential in happiness, health, and material prosperity—which is every one of us.

Giving to a charity as the moral equivalent of retail therapy!  Surrounded by beneficiaries, we humanitarians give blankets and cooking oil to the wretched and in the process give contentedness and self-satisfaction to the blessed.  Hmmm again.

I wouldn’t focus on donors, though.  I would focus on me.  On the aid worker.  We’re not exactly donors, but we are professional givers (assistance, help, protection, healthcare, solidarity, training, etc.).  Problem 1:  we therefore overestimate the value of our gift.  No wonder so many aid workers believe in the goodness of their work as a matter of faith, not measurement.  Problem 2:  If we are hardwired to derive pleasure from our work (which is far more than job satisfaction), doesn’t that create a powerful self-interest in our interventions?  In our self-perpetuation.   Now that’s a great business model.

The Corporate Responsibility

I came across this blog/forum at Tales from the Hood and thought I’d contribute:

In terms of the for-profit sector – those massive corporate-states we love to demonize – how many are naïve enough to believe that CSR is primarily motivated by a desire to do good, rather than an idea that doing good is useful.  CSR is a tool to build public image, morale and maybe even business itself.  Plenty of blogs and commentary out there testify to the rather cynical regard in which CSR is held. 

That cynicism might be well-earned (and not without its parallels in the government funding to which so many NGOs are addicted).  A corporation with a fiduciary responsibility towards its shareholders to create profit should not lightly engage in activities contrary to the banker’s bottom line.  Of course, CSR can be a way for considerable resources to be placed in the service of humanitarian goals. The world would be a better place if Big Pharma, for instance, would dedicate more resources to developing unprofitable lines of drugs for neglected diseases like kala azar and chagas. 

That said, it would probably be an even better place if Big Pharma wouldn’t spend so much effort in fortifying the protective walls around their products (read: profits) when effective generic drugs could help healthcare providers reach millions more people.  Now that would be an actual exercise in CSR.  In other words, CSR should cease to be a subset of activities/projects within the larger corporate mission, and should become instead a guiding principle of the corporation in the exercise of its mission.   In current practice, then, CSR is a figleaf, providing a get-out-of-unethical-behavior-free card.  What would stop a landmine manufacturer or a torture rendition firm from having CSR?  In short, the SR of CSR should cover the entire C, not just some part of it.

But let’s not stop at the C of CSR.  Why shouldn’t NGOs, especially aid INGOs, be scrutinized with the same level of cynicism?  The big ones are as corporate (though non-profit) as BP.  Well, almost.  Doesn’t our application of CSR to “them” betray an assumption about the motives behind our actions?  That when we do good, it is for the sake of the good itself.  Hence our blindness towards any sense of social responsility as a discrete element of our action, because we equate it with all our activity; we believe the SR ethos permeates the entirety of our organizations.  Of course, within an INGO it’s not the interest in profit driving aid activities, but one cannot deny the extent to which institutional interests drive INGO behavior, in particular the survival of the organization or of the jobs and way of life of its staff.  So what about NGOSR?  To what extent can we think of field activities – the building of a school, distribution of food, vaccination campaign – as SR?  To what extent are those activities a form of SR for the institution of the NGO?  They improve public perception, build morale, and generate the income which pays for offices and salaries and SUVs and an occasional booze up on an exotic beach.

Looking in the 2020 Mirror

Lots of aid pundits out there looking into the future.  Back in May Kate Gilmore (formerly Amnesty Int’l) asked me to write a 2020 scenario for the =mc website. The basic question: What will the international NGO look like in 10 years? I figure I can keep running this piece for another eight years or so (read: I was too lazy this weekend to come up with something new). Here it is. 

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Golden Era of the Western-based global NGO is
grinding to a halt. By 2020 we will either have re-birthed ourselves or
joined the cassette tape, Vanilla Ice and the stegosaurus. While it is
undoubtedly a mistake to treat the Western, global NGO as a
homogenous, static set of entities, extrapolating from the trends of
today yields a few broad-brushed predictions of life in 2020…

Click here for a link to Scenarios for Change, where you can find the full text of my prediction.