Archive for the ‘aid industry’Category

US global health architecture

How confusing is the US global health bureaucracy? Here’s a sentence with 6 acronyms to help clear it up:

We tried to map out what the USG GH architecture might look like with USAID as the GHI leader, and OGAC as the PEPFAR coordinator; after several attempts to create a diagram, we gave up.

From “Is USAID Being Set Up to Fail on the GHI?” by Nandini Oomman and Rachel Silverman.

31

10 2011

How Sam Childers endangers humanitarians everywhere – reax from the web

(For background see my original long post and this update.)

Sam Childers gets back from Somalia (where he’s currently scouting for a humanitarian mission??) on August 10th, and I’ve been asked to contact him. I plan to, as I want to see if he’s willing to answer some of the many questions that potential donors deserve answers to — based on his own prior statements.

In the mean time, several aid/development bloggers have written about the Machine Gun Preacher:

A couple short mentions: Tom Murphy and Ken Opalo both link, while Tom Paulson at Humanosphere calls it all “fascinating and disturbing.”

Tales from the Hood is a long-running blog written by “J.” While the author is anonymous, many aid / development bloggers have met him (including me) or know who he is and what he does — which is how we know that he’s not just talk: he’s a legit humanitarian bad-ass who’s worked in countries your high school geography teacher has never heard of. J’s work is widely respected and his blog is a watering hole for aid and development workers around the globe. He also has a certain flair for description, as you can see in his piece on Childers:

[Childers] has a custom chopper and a movie deal, and when he’s not out busting caps into LRA, Childers pastors a biker-themed church in rural Pennsylvania (but of course). I think my favorite part is where he states that he is after Joseph Kony. Like, to kill him. Like, good old-fashioned cowboys and Africans.

And nothing says, “I worship the Prince of Peace” quite like vowing to kill someone.

While some commenters on this blog have said that Childers’ actions are just “between him and God” — and thus we shouldn’t criticize him — in reality nobody works in a vacuum. Reckless actions today can make future work via more reasonable approaches impossible. This critique, regarding how what Childers does and says can impact humanitarians everywhere, is very important. Here’s J again:

There is already suspicion, in some cases rightly earned, that humanitarian aid workers may not be strictly humanitarian… But thanks to the Machine Gun Preacher, next time I’m stopped and questioned at a checkpoint, it will be even harder for me to make the case that I’m really there (wherever ‘there’ is) for strictly humanitarian purposes. And so that we’re clear, this is true regardless of whether I’m in Killinochi, Erbil, or LAX. His videos and pics (along with those of many others) are up there, out in the open for all to see…

I have colleagues and close personal friends in South Sudan, including exactly the areas where Sam Childers claims to “help where no one else will.” I frequently must make the decision to deploy people who I supervise and for whom I am responsible to places where the ratio of assault rifles to healthy babies in the general population is far higher than it should be…. We very often go into insecure places where our presence and the associated suspicion that we may have ulterior motives puts not only us, but our local colleagues and those we’re trying to help at greater risk, too.

And so every time the inarticulate Machine Gun Preacher packs heat into South Sudan he makes the entire world more dangerous for me and my friends and innumerable real aid worker colleagues. Every time he puts up another video of himself jumping into his white SUV with an AK47 across his lap, he increases the likelihood that I or someone I care about is going to get shot.

Commenter MB adds this:

As someone who spent many years in South Sudan (pre- and post- CPA), who is currently in Iraq (stuck behind T-walls and armored SUVs)… this burns me up!. Any one who portrays us as CIA, military, armed, mercenary, or anything other than trying to help is beyond stupid! And anyone who would do a “reality series” (is that for real??) about them puts all of our lives, the lives of our friend, colleagues and those we are trying to help, in serious danger!…

Later in the thread the same commenter notes:

I think it’s fairly telling that those of us who have worked in South Sudan, over many years and people currently in South Sudan (a friend did an informal poll of people she knows there) knew nothing whatsoever about this guy.

I’ve heard the same sentiment from others, which is telling. I’ve also exchanged emails with two people in Sudan who have raised other concerns about Sam, and I’m hoping that they’ll decide to share those publicly soon. While there are some supporters who will believe Childers is on a mission from God regardless of what I say (or anyone else for that matter), it’s important for anyone who has information or concerns about Childers to share them as the publicity machine for the movie gears up. On that note, it would be great if someone who edits Wikipedia (I won’t because I think I’m too close to the issue) could update his ridiculously one-sided Wikipedia page to have a more objective voice.

Another aid worker who blogs, Erin in Juba, adds some thoughts here. She notes this passage from the Machine Gun Preacher blog:

As we neared Nimule we began to relax but we weren’t out of danger yet.  We rounded a corner and hurtled in a tribal clash between the Dinka and Madi tribes.  4,000 fighters, armed with pangas (machetes), rudimentary bows, spears and clubs, stormed back and forth looking for someone to fight.  In amongst the drunks I saw an elderly man poised for battle and a young woman with a bow in her hand and a baby slung across her back.  As the situation escalated we had no choice but to lock and load.  Shots were fired and we drove through the screaming remnants of the volatile mob.  Luckily, no one was killed.

If that strikes you as outlandish, you may appreciate Erin’s take:

AGGGGHHHHHH.  Tribal violence in South Sudan is a complicated clusterf[***], to say the least. However, most of the violence is in between the tribes. The traditions of violence and cattle raiding go back generations, and are a tragedy for sure, but because of their specific tribal-focused aims, they tend to not focus on targeting humanitarians.  And then this idiot claims he has “no choice” but to go blazing into the middle of a mob? …

Right. She also notes:

It’s also ironic that Sam claims to work with the SPLA to free child soldiers since the army had its very own child soldier branch (the Red Army).

For now the feedback is this: some aid workers who work in Sudan and other dangerous environments think Childers’ stories should be taken with a grain of salt, and say that what he is doing makes this work more dangerous for everyone. All of the supporting statements seem to be coming from people who are associated with his church and don’t seem to question Rev. Childers at all. They shouldn’t expect the same free pass as the movie brings him more attention. Childers has simply said a lot of outrageous things, and if he wants people to trust his judgment and give him money he has his work cut out for him.

09

08 2011

Another way to help in Somalia

One of the best ways to address the severe acute malnutrition seen during famines — like the one in Somalia now — is a Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). They’re basically nutritionally fortified peanut butter manufactured to certain quality standards, and they’re incredibly effective.

Which brings me to MANA, or Mother-Administered Nutritive Aid (and yes, a Biblical reference). They’re on a long list of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but my memory was jogged by their Somalia email blast. I’m a natural skeptic about start-up nonprofits, but over time they’ve won me over with their idea. The model is relatively simple: for now they’re manufacturing RUTFs in the US and selling them to UNICEF and large NGOs that have established distribution networks. I like that aspect — they’re not trying to be all things to all men by distributing it themselves, as they’ve recognized that role is better done by others.

But the US manufacturing is just a stop-gap. For one, it’s helping them learn the ropes on producing high quality RUTFs  and supplying these badly needed and under-produced goods to organizations with complicated purchasing requirements. Their end goal is to establish a self-sustaining (ie, profitable) manufacturing plant in Rwanda, and they’re making progress on it.  A donation now will help them make more RUTFs and help them establish the Rwanda facility until it gets to a point where it no longer requires ongoing help.

One reason I think MANA is the right sort of group to establish such a business in Rwanda is that it’s co-founded by Mark Moore, and he’s well situated to work on both the problems of small enterprises in east Africa and international politics and supply chains. Like me, Mark is a Harding alum. He’s a smart guy who spent ten years in eastern Uganda as a missionary (and started the Kibo Group development org), but he also has a Masters in development studies from Georgetown and served as Mary Landrieu’s Africa specialist in the Senate. His work was the sort of evangelical aid I thought of when I read Dave Algo’s recent post on how secular aid and development workers should be less hostile to good aid work done by evangelicals. Well, this it: in my opinion it’s a smart business model run (an being an aspiring development professional, I’d welcome critical feedback in the comments as well) by people who can provide some necessary help to get things set up, and then step back out of the way. Once the facility is up and running in Rwanda it will mean more of our aid money can actually go into the east African economy as NGOs buy RUTFs from MANA and pay its local workers’ wages.

Those who know me well or read this blog know that I have ambivalent feelings about Harding. I went there planning on being a medical missionary, and while I lost my faith I also made many friends, and my experiences there led me to my current interests in global health. So I have good things to say and bad things to say. One of the good things — that I don’t say enough — is that there are a lot of incredibly sincere, hard-working people who come out of the school and do work that I couldn’t find fault with if I tried. This is one of them, and I’m sure they’d appreciate your support.

Who is Sam Childers?

He goes by many names, Reverend Sam and the “Machine Gun Preacher” amongst them. If you haven’t heard much from Sam Childers, you will soon. To date he’s been featured in a few mainstream publications, but most of his exposure has come from forays into Christian media outlets and cross-country speaking tours of churches. In 2009 he published his memoir, Another Man’s War. But Childers is about to become much better known: his life story is being made into a movie titled Machine Gun Preacher. It hits the big screen this September, starring Gerard Butler (300) and directed by Oscar-winner Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace).

Why should you care? If you’re concerned about Africa (especially the newly independent South Sudan), neutrality and humanitarianism, or how small charities sometimes make it big on dubious stories, Childers is a scary character. By his own admission Sam Childers is a Christian and a savior to hundreds of children, as well as a small-time arms-dealer and a killer. And, as far as I can tell, he’s a self-aggrandizing liar who chronically exaggerates his own stories and has been denounced by many, including the rebel group of which he claimed to be a commander.

It’s hard to get to the bottom of much of Childers’ story. I first heard of him months ago and have been scouring the web, but the trail is still pretty thin. On the on hand there’s a ton of copy written about him – but almost all of it originates with Childers’ own storytelling. I think there are a number of good reasons we should be skeptical.

The short version of his coming-to-the-big-screen story is this: Childers used to be a drug-dealing gang member who loved motorcycles almost as much as he craved women, drugs, and violence – especially violence. He fell in love with his wife after they met through a drug deal, and she convinced him to turn his life around. Sam found Jesus, got involved with the church, and went to Africa. There he encountered the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and it use of child soldiers. He found his calling leading armed rescue missions to free enslaved children in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Now that his life story is being made into a movie — a goal Childers has long sought — his ministry will only grow stronger and save more children.

His website, MachineGunPreacher.org, makes no apologies about his violent tactics. Here’s one of the banners that adorns the front page:

What you see now is a slickly-polished presentation, but it hasn’t always been that way. Childers’ story has grown over time, apparently aided by a PR firm, sympathetic media, and a quest to be ever more sensational. My gut reaction is that he’s making much of it up – and I’ll present evidence that shows at least some of his claims are likely falsehoods. We can choose to believe that Childers’ claims are true, in which case he is dangerous, or that they’re false and he’s untrustworthy. The reality is probably that he’s a bit of both.

This is part 1 of a longer article on Childers. Continue reading part 2 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

03

08 2011

The Onion of Africa advocacy

The Onion of Africa advocacy” is my new nickname for Falling Whistles, the Congo advocacy group that appears to be staffed more by graphic designers than people with policy chops or good taste. On first read it’s hard to tell whether all of their material might actually be a big inside joke designed to mock tasteless, shallow advocacy messaging. Which would be awesome… except that they’re serious.

Their latest email, with the subject line “Announcing the Hamptons Edition Whistle” and a message body composed entirely of an image, is pasted below (click for larger version):

Judge for yourself?

02

08 2011

Best practices of ranking aid best practices

Aid Watch has a post up by Claudia Williamson (a post-doc at DRI) about the “Best and Worst of Official Aid 2011”. As Claudia summarizes, their paper looks at “five dimensions of agency ‘best practices’: aid transparency, minimal overhead costs, aid specialization, delivery to more effective channels, and selectivity of recipient countries based on poverty and good government” and calculates an overall agency score.

Williamson notes that the “scores only reflect the above practices; they are NOT a measure of whether the agency’s aid is effective at achieving good results.” Very true — but I think this can be easily overlooked. In their paper Easterly and Williamson say:

We acknowledge that there is no direct evidence that our indirect measures necessarily map into improved impact of aid on the intended beneficiaries. We will also point out specific occasions where the relationship between our measures and desirable outcomes could be non-monotonic or ambiguous.

But still, grouping these things together into a single index may obscure more than it enlightens. Transparency seems more of an unambiguous good, whereas overhead percentages are less so. Some other criticisms from the comments section that I’d like to highlight include one from someone named Bula:

DfID scores high and USAID scores low because they have fundamentally different missions. I doubt anyone at USAID or State would attempt to say with a straight face that AID is anything other than a public diplomacy tool. DfID as a stand alone ministry has made a serious effort in all of the areas you’ve measured because it’s mission aligns more closely to ‘doing development’ and less with ‘public diplomacy’. Seems to be common sense.

And a comment from Tom that starts with a quote from the Aid Watch post:

“These scores only reflect the above practices; they are NOT a measure of whether the agency’s aid is effective at achieving good results.”

Seriously? How can you possibly give an aid agency a grade based solely on criteria that have no necessary relationship with aid effectiveness? It is your HYPOTHESIS that transparency, overhead, etc, significantly affect the quality of aid, but without looking at actual effeciveness that hypothesis is completely unproven. An A or an F means absolutely nothing in this context. Without looking at what the agency does with the aid (i.e. is it effective), why should we care whether an aid agency has low or high overhead? To take another example, an aid agency could be the least transparent but achieve the best results; which matters more, your ideological view of how an agency “should” function, or that they achieve results? In my mind it’s the ends that matter, and we should then determine what the best means are to achieve that result. You approach it with an a priori belief that those factors are the most important, and therefore risk having ideology overrule effectiveness. Isn’t that criticism the foundation of this blog and Dr. Easterly’s work more generally?

Terence at Waylaid Dialectic has three specific criticisms worth reading and then ends with this:

I can see the appeal, and utility of such indices, and the longitudinal data in this one are interesting, but still think the limitations outweigh the merits, at least in the way they’re used here. It’s an interesting paper but ultimately more about heat than light.”

I’m not convinced the limitations outweigh the merits, but there are certainly problems. One is that the results quickly get condensed to “Britain, Japan and Germany do pretty well and the U.S. doesn’t.”

Another problem is that without having some measure of aid effectiveness, it seems that this combined metric may be misleading — analogous to a process indicator in a program evaluation. In that analogy, Program A might procure twice as many bednets as Program B, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better, and for that you’d need to look at the impact on health outcomes. Maybe more nets is better. Or maybe the program that procures fewer bednets distributes them more intelligently and has a stronger impact. In the absence of data on health outcomes, is the process indicator useful or misleading? Well, it depends. If there’s a strong correlation (or even a good reason to believe) that the process and impact indicators go together, then it’s probably better than nothing. But if some of the aid best practices lead to better aid effectiveness, and some don’t, then it’s at best not very useful, and at worst will prompt agencies to move in the wrong direction.

As Easterly and Williamson note in their paper, they’re merely looking at whether aid agencies do what aid agencies say should be their best practices. However, without a better idea of the correlation between those aid practices and outcomes for the people who are supposed to benefit from the programs, it’s really hard to say whether this metric is (using Terence’s words) “more heat than light.”

It’s a Catch-22: without information on the correlation between best aid practices and real aid effectiveness it’s hard to say whether the best aid practices “process indicator” is enlightening or obfuscating, but if we had that data on actual aid effectiveness we would be looking at that rather than best practices in the first place.

12

05 2011

The Tea Test

If you haven’t been following it, there’s currently a lot of controversy swirling around Greg Mortenson, co-author of Three Cups of Tea and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute. On Sunday 60 minutes aired accusations that Mortenson fabricated the ‘creation myth’ of the organization, a story about being kidnapped by the Taliban, and more. The blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough is compiling posts related to the emerging scandal, and the list is growing fast.

If you haven’t read it already, Jon Krakauer’s mini-book, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, is really worth the read. Completely engrossing. It’s a free download at byliner.com until April 20. It’s about 90 pages, and Krakauer has obviously been researching it for a while — in fact, my guess is that Krakauer turned 60 Minutes onto the story, rather than vice versa, which would help explain why he was featured so heavily in their piece. In the TV interview Krakauer quotes several former employees saying quite unflattering things about how CAI is run, so it’s good to see that he gets many of those people on record in his ebook.

A few disclaimers: I think it’s worth pointing out that a) as a one-time supporter and donor to CAI, Krakauer arguably has an axe to grind, b) several of Krakauer’s previous books (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven) have had sections disputed factually, though to me Into the Wild is the only case where he seems to have actually gotten things wrong, and c) I’m a big fan of him as a writer and thus am possibly a bit predisposed to believe him. Admitting by biases up front like good epidemiologist.

That said, it sounds like CAI has been very poorly led. Krakauer’s book levels many damning claims about Mortenson and CIA’s financial management that, while less emotionally shocking than the exaggerations about the ‘creation myth,’ should be much more troubling. CAI and Mortenson’s responses to the accusations so far on 60 Minutes have seemed superficial, and I think it’s safe to say that they will not come out of this looking squeaky clean.

I believe this episode raises two broader questions for the nonprofit community.

First, Krakauer chronicles a string of board members, employees, and consultants who came in, were shocked by how things were done and/or discovered discrepancies, and ended up leaving or resigning in protest. This section (pages 50-51) jumped out at me:

After Mortenson refused to comply with CFO Debbie Raynor’s repeated requests to provide documentation for overseas programs, Raynor contacted Ghulam Parvi (the Pakistan program manager) directly, instructing him to provide her with documentation. For two or three months Parvi complied – until Mortenson found out what was going on and ordered Parvi to stop. Raynor resigned.

In 2007, Mortenson hired an accomplished consultant to periodically fly to Central Asia to supervise projects. When he discovered irregularities and shared them with Mortenson, Mortenson took no action to rectify the misconduct. In 2010, the consultant quit in frustration.

In September 2007, CAI hired a highly motivated, uncommonly capable woman to manage its international programs. Quickly, she demonstrated initiative and other leadership skills the Institute sorely needed. She had exceptional rapport with Pakistani women and girls. In 2008, she unearthed serious issues in Baltistan that contradicted what Mortenson had been reporting. After she told Mortenson about these problems, she assumed he would want her to address them. Instead, as she prepared to return to Pakistan in 2009, Mortenson ordered her to stay away from Baltistan. Disillusioned, she resigned in June 2010.

Seriously — ff this has been going on for so long, how on earth is it just coming out now? Evidently a nationally known organization can have nearly its entire board resign and multiple employees quit, and it doesn’t make the news until years later? Some of this (I’m speculating here) likely results from a hesitance on the part of those former employees to speak ill of CAI, whether because they still believed in its mission or because they were worried about being the sour grape person. Were they speaking out and nobody listened, or is there simply no good way to raise red flags about a nonprofit organization?

Second, while most organizations aren’t guilty of fraud — we hope — there’s at least one other take-away here. Another excerpt that jumped out at me:

On June 13, 2010, Parvi convened a meeting in Skardu to discuss Three Cups of Tea. Some thirty community leaders from throughout Baltistan participated, and most of them were outraged by the excerpts Parvi translated for them. Sheikh Muhammad Raza—chairman of the education committee at a refugee camp in Gultori village, where CAI has built a primary school for girls—angrily proposed charging Mortenson with the crime of fomenting sectarian unrest, and urged the District Administration to ban Mortenson and his books from Baltistan.

Based on Krakauer’s footnotes, Parvi may be one of his less reliable sources, but this idea — that the people portrayed in the book were outraged when it was translated to them because of how misleading it is — comes up several times. Yes, fabricating stories is really bad. But how many other things do nonprofits say in their advertising that would be uncomfortable or downright offensive if you translated it for (and/or showed the accompanying pictures to) the recipients or beneficiaries or their services?

I propose a simple way to check this impulse — to write about people as if they are victims or powerless — and in honor of Three Cups of Tea, I call it the “Tea Test”:

Step One: read the website content, blog posts, or email appeal you just got from your charity of choice. Or, if you work for a nonprofit organization, read your own stuff.

Step Two: imagine arriving in the recipient city or village, with a translated copy of that text. Would you be uncomfortable reading that website or blog or email to the people you met? Would it require tortured explanations, or would it instantly make sense and leave them feeling dignified?

That’s it: if Step Two didn’t make you cringe, then you passed the Tea Test. If it made you uncomfortable, made them feel ashamed, or got you attacked — re-draft your copy and try again. Or find another organization to support.

I think there are many organizations that pass the Tea Test, but probably many more that fail. These organizations don’t necessarily share all the faults of CAI as laid out by Krakauer and others, but they wouldn’t fare much better in this situation, because they say something for one audience that was never intended to get back to the others.

I hope the idea of the Tea Test — reading a translated copy of that material to the people it’s describing — will be helpful for donors and nonprofiteers alike. As a former online fundraiser I know I’ve broken this rule, and as a donor I’ve found things appealing that I probably should have reacted strongly against. I’m going to try to do better.

Update: I’ve posted a slightly revised (and I hope easier to remember) version of the Tea Test on a permanent page here.

Why World Vision should change, but won't

Note: I’ve edited the original title of this post to tone it down a bit.

World Vision has recently come under fire for their plan to send 100,000 NFL t-shirts printed with the losing Super Bowl team to the developing world. This gifts-in-kind strategy was criticized by many bloggers — good summaries are at More Altitude and Good Intentions are Not Enough. Saundra S. of Good Intentions also explained why she thinks there hasn’t been as much reaction as you might expect in the aid blogosphere:

So why does Jason, who did not know any better, get a barrage of criticism. Yet World Vision, with decades of experience, does not? Is it because aid workers think that the World Vision gifts-in-kind is a better program? No, that’s not what I’m hearing behind the scenes. Is it because World Vision handled their initial response to the criticism better? That’s probably a small part of it, I think Jason’s original vlog stirred up people’s ire. But it’s only a small part of the silence. Is it because we are all sick to death of talking about the problems with donated goods? That’s likely a small part of it too. I, for one, am so tired of this issue that I’d love to never have to write about it again.

But in the end, the biggest reason for the silence is aid industry pressure. I’ve heard from a few aid workers that they can’t write – and some can’t even tweet – about the topic because they either work for World Vision or they work for another nonprofit that partners with World Vision. Even people that don’t work for a nonprofit are feeling pressure. One independent blogger told of receiving emails from friends that work at World Vision imploring them not to blog about the issue.

While I was one of the critical commentators on the original World Vision blog post about the NFL shirt strategy, I haven’t written about it yet here, and I feel compelled by Saundra S.’s post to do so. [Disclosure: I’ve never worked for World Vision even in my consulting work and — since I’m writing this — probably never will, so my knowledge of the situation is gleaned solely from the recent controversy.]

And now World Vision has posted a long response to reader criticisms, albeit without actually linking to any of those criticisms — bad netiquette if you ask me. Saundra S. responds to the World Vision post with this:

Easy claims to make, but can you back them up with documentation? Especially since other non-profits of similar size and mission – Oxfam, Save the Children, American Red Cross, Plan USA – claim very little as gifts-in-kind on their financial statements. So how is it that World Vision needs even more than the quarter of a billion dollars worth of gifts-in-kind each year to run their programs? To be believed, you will need to back up your claims with documentation including: needs assessments, a market analysis of what is available in the local markets and the impact on the market of donated goods (staff requests do not equal a market analysis), an independent evaluation of both the NFL donations (after 15 years you should have done at least one evaluation) and an independent evaluation of your entire gifts-in-kind portfolio. You should also share the math behind how World Vision determined that the NFL shirts had a Fair Market Value – on the date of donation – of approximately $20 each. And this doesn’t even begin to hit on the issues with World Vision’s marketing campaigns around GIK. Why keep perpetuating the Whites in Shining Armor image.

So to summarize Saundra S.’s remaining questions:

1. Can WV actually show that they rigorously assess the needs of the communities they work in for gift-in-kind (GIK)? especially beyond just “our staff requested them”?

2. Why does WV use a much larger share of GIK than other similarly sized nonprofits.

3. Has WV tried to really evaluate the results of this program? (If not, that’s ridiculous after 15 years.)

4. How did WV calculate the ‘fair market value’ for these shirts? (This one has an impact on how honestly WV is marketing itself and its efficiency.)

Other commenters at the WV response (rgailey33 and “Bill Westerly”) raise further questions:

5. Does WV know / care where the shirts come from and how their production impacts people?

6. Rather than apparently depending on big partners like the NFL to help spread the word about WV is doing and, yes, drive more potential donors to WV’s website (not in itself a bad thing) shouldn’t they be doing more to help partners like the NFL — and the public they can reach — realize that t-shirts aren’t  a solution to global poverty? After all, wouldn’t it be much more productive to include the NFL in a discussion of how to reform the global clothing and merchandise industries to be less exploitative?

7. WV must have spent a lot of money shipping these things… isn’t there something better they could do with all that money? And expanding on that:

Opportunity cost, opportunity cost, opportunity cost. The primary reason I’m critical of  World Vision is that there are so many things they could be doing instead!

For a second, let’s assume that GIK doesn’t have any negative or positive effects — let’s pretend it has absolutely no impact whatsoever. (In fact, this may be a decently good approximation of reality.) Even then, WV would have to account for how much they spent on the programs. How much did WV spend in staff time, administrative costs like facilities, and field research by their local partners coordinating donations with NFL and other corporate groups? On receiving, sorting, shipping, paying import taxes, and distributing their gifts-in-kind? If they’ve distributed 375,000 shirts over the last few years, and done all of the background research they describe as being necessary to be sensitive to local needs… I’m sure it’s  an awful lot of money, surely in the millions.

Amy at World Vision is right that their response will likely dispel some criticism, but not all. But that’s not because we critics are a particularly cantankerous bunch — we just think they could be doing better. Her response shows that, at least in one sense, they are a lot better than Jason of the 1 Million Shirts fiasco, if they’re spreading the shirts out and doing local research on needs — but those things are more about minimizing potential harm than they are maximizing impact. In short, World Vision’s defense seems to be “hey, what we’re doing isn’t that bad” when really they should be saying “you know what? there are lots of things we could be doing instead of this that would be much greater impact.” So in another way World Vision is much worse than Jason, because they have enough experts on these things to know what they’re doing and that this sort of program has very little likelihood of pulling anyone out of poverty, they know there are better things they could be doing with the same money, and they still do it.

To get to why I think that’s the case, let’s go back to WV’s response to the GIK controversy. From Amy:

At the same time, I’ll also let you know that, among our staff, there is a great deal of agreement with some of the criticisms that have been posted here and elsewhere in the blogosphere.  In my conversations, I’ve heard overwhelming agreement that product distribution done poorly and in isolation from other development work is, in fact, bad aid.  To be sure, no one at World Vision believes that a tee shirt, in and of itself, is going to improve living conditions and opportunities in developing communities. In addition, World Vision doesn’t claim that GIK work alone is sustainable.  In fact, no aid tactic, in and of itself, is sustainable.  But if used as a tool in good development work, GIK can facilitate good, sustainable development.

There are obviously a lot of well-intentioned and smart people at World Vision, and from this it sounds like there are differences of opinion as to the value of GIK aid. One charitable way of looking at the situation is to assume that employees at WV who doubt the program’s impact justify its use as a marketing tool —  but if that’s the case they should classify it as a marketing expense, not a programmatic one. But I imagine the doubts run deeper, but it’s pretty hard for someone at any but the most senior of levels to greatly change things from inside the organization, because it’s simply too ingrained in how WV works. Clusters of jobs at WV are probably devoted to tasks related to this part of their work: managing corporate partnerships, coordinating the logistics of the donations, and coordinating their distribution.

One small hope is that this controversy is giving cover to some of those internal critics, as the bad publicity associated with it may negate the positive marketing value they normally get from GIK programs. Maybe a public shaming is just what is needed?

[I really hope I get to respond to this post in 6 months or a year and say that I was wrong, that World Vision has eliminated the NFL program and greatly reduced their share of GIK programs… but I’m not holding my breathe.]

12

02 2011

"The Modern Development Enterprise"

USAID Administrator Raj Shah recently spoke at the Center for Global Development:

h/t to the Interpreter for the video clip — I hadn’t seen it before. But the full text of the speech, which is worth reviewing for those interested in the future direction of USAID, is available here on USAID’s website. Check out how many times “evaluation” is mentioned.

02

02 2011

Haiti: Constancy and Change

A friend of mine recently moved to Haiti to work for a local organization. I’ve never been to Haiti, and as with many places to which I have yet to travel, it’s difficult for me to picture the reality on the ground, especially when I know how much the places I’ve traveled to have differed from media reports and books I’ve read. While my friend and I were talking about Haiti, I mentioned that it would be interesting if I could email some questions and post the answers here on my blog. While I don’t think any of the sentiments below are that controversial, I hope this will be a continuing series where I can ask questions and get frank answers (and share them with my readers), so we decided to keep it anonymous.

I’ll call my friend “F” here. Please let me know (in the comments or by email) if you have any questions you’d like me to relay to F for follow-up posts.

Brett: Can you tell me a little about how long you’ve been in Haiti, how long you lived there in the past, and what you’re doing now (in a vague sense)?

F: I spent a nearly a year in Haiti in 2005-06. I always knew I’d be back some time, and after the earthquake on January 12th, 2010, I regretted that I hadn’t returned sooner. I finally arrived back a few weeks ago, to take up a new position with the same organization I worked for five years ago.

Brett: How have things changed since the last time you were there? Did you have a lot of expectations about how things would be post-earthquake, and if so, how does the reality compare to what you were expecting?

F: Of course it’s very sad to see so many landmarks in Port-au-Prince reduced to rubble, and what used to be great public spaces packed full of thousands and thousands of people living under tents and blue tarpaulins. Walking around the city is a little creepy: I’ll wander down streets I know well, and find that a house or church I used to pass every day is gone.

But I’ve also been surprised by how much hasn’t changed. The same fruit vendor I used to buy from five years ago still sits on the same street corner with her basket of oranges – even though the grocery store behind her has completely vanished. From my first morning back in the office, catching up with old friends and co-workers, it was as if I’d never left. Knowing how Haiti had switched from being a developing country to being (in international NGO terms) a humanitarian emergency, I think I was expecting to see some kind of fundamental change in the way things happen here. In reality, while the problems are perhaps more urgent now, the way of life is just the same as before.

Brett: What’s the latest on cholera? Is everyone incredibly concerned, or is it just one crisis among many?

F: I think people see cholera as yet another disaster in a terrible year for the country. It’s very sad that cholera seems most probably to have been brought here by the UN “assistance” force (which was already almost-universally reviled among Haitian people). However, I have to say I’ve been genuinely impressed with the speed and effectiveness of the response by the government and NGOs. I’m as cynical as anyone else about how little there is to show for years and years of public health efforts by international NGOs in Haiti: but this time, they seem to have got it more or less right. I arrived only two weeks after the outbreak started, and already by then everybody I met knew exactly what the steps for prevention were. I see people living in even the most basic conditions being meticulously careful about washing their hands and chlorinating their water.

Last week I was visiting a rural community, and I met a woman who was using water from an irrigation channel to wash her pots and pans. My colleagues, and also the local woman who was showing us around, were furious, telling her in no uncertain terms that her children will die of cholera if she continues doing that. But three months ago, it would have been completely normal.

Brett: What do you think I’m missing about Haiti from reading the news and the occasional blog?

F: Wow, where to start? I don’t think that the journalistic staples of tent cities, cholera, rock-throwing demonstrators, and heroic Americans battling against poverty gives you much idea of what life in Haiti is really like. Perhaps what would most surprise an outsider is just how normal life here is most of the time. For example, Haiti was again in the international headlines with post-election protests in December. It’s true that most people stayed at home for a couple of days while the situation was tense. But on the third day things started quietening down – and by the fourth day, the merchants were back on the streets, children were again hurrying to school in their little checkered uniforms, and the morning traffic jams were as bad as ever. Haitian people have seen a lot of political upheaval and many natural disasters over the years, they’ve seen international attention come and go, and life has carried on throughout.

There’s a fascinating story waiting to be told about the social and economic effects of the 2010 earthquake. Almost every newspaper article I read about Haiti starts by describing it as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. That’s true – but the situation is far more complex than that. This country has a lot of very poor people, but also quite a number of reasonably wealthy people too, and some super-rich. (Port-au-Prince has long had a Porsche dealership, believe it or not.) Before the earthquake, the level of inequality in Haiti was even higher than Brazil. Of course the earthquake was indiscriminate: it hit rich and poor alike, destroying the National Palace and the Montana Hotel as well as tens of thousands of single-room block-and-tin-roof houses. But this destruction of houses (combined with an enormous influx of foreigners, who all need a place to stay) has meant a huge increase in the price of accommodation, and a boom for landlords whose property was not damaged. My landlady is frantically adding extensions to our apartment building: that means she’s employing a dozen or so construction workers, which is great. Some jobs are being created, but at the same time inflation is soaring. Then there’s the complication of the massive internal migrations caused by the earthquake. I don’t think anyone really knows what all this means for the long term, but it would be great to see some informed analysis.

Most of all, while there’s a lot that’s going wrong in Haiti, I wish the media would sometimes mention some of the great things about the country: the lively kompa music which surrounds you constantly in the street, the colorful, expressive language, the way Haitian people are so scrupulously polite and courteous (even among the urban youth, or more so than you’d expect), and the way they have such a strong sense of identity and of their proud history. Coming back has also made me realise how I had missed the Haitian sense of humor. When I get on a bus in the city and ask the people next to me how they’re doing, I sometimes get a response of “lamizè ap kraze nou“: “we’re crushed by misery” – that seems to be the sort of thing people expect foreigners want to hear. But then more often than not, before we’ve gone a hundred yards down the road, my neighbors are laughing and joking with me – often teasing me about my terrible Creole. People here are certainly resilient: even after all the troubles and tragedy of the last 12 months, they are still able to find reasons to be cheerful.

07

01 2011