Waylaid Dialectic

July 7, 2010

To Frail to Fail?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:37 am
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Years ago I went to watch a Christian comedian perform at the local town hall. A friend of mine had recently converted and it seemed like a good way of hanging out. I don’t remember much from the evening but one thing the comedian said stuck:

“I mean have you ever seen anyone trip up on a busy on  sidewalk and then shout ‘Woah, look at me, I almost tripped up’? No, of course you haven’t. That’s because people always try and make like their stumble didn’t happen. They get up quickly and walk off in a hurry.”

I’m not really sure what his observation had to do with God. But it certainly seems relevant to the world of aid.

Much more recently I went to a talk by the charismatic CEO of a new, and supposedly very successful, NGO. He had just read “the White Man’s Burden” and was at that point in time an Easterly acolyte, convinced that his NGO was engaged in exactly the sort of searching that Easterly extols. And so, a lot of his talk involved critiquing the staid practices of the “aid industry” and contrasting them to his way of doing aid. Some of what he said was true (and his NGO does do good work), but – to be frank – his new-aid evangelism  started grate after a while. And so, when he got to the riff about how the aid industry needed to be much more transparent in reporting its failures, I chirped up.

“Is that promise that [NGO Name here] will highlight and discuss its failures on its website?”

Not exactly.

“Ummm……..No…….but……”, more pause for thought, “we’d cover them in our annual report.”

I should check up on that one day. I’d be surprised if they did. Although that’s not a criticism of the NGO in question.

Because, for aid agencies and NGOs going public with your failures is a real dilemma. On one hand, ethically, letting people know when you stuffed up is an important part of being accountable. And discussing failures openly is also one of the best ways to learn.

One the other hand, as AusAID recently discovered, placing your failures in the public realm rarely lends to considered deliberation, public education, and better work in the future. What you usually get is a media firestorm.

If you’re an NGO this brings with it the risk that people will stop donating to you. If you’re an aid agency it may well mean attention from your political masters who, rather than focusing on considered improvement, are likely to be all about putting out political fires quickly*. It goes without saying that losing donations, or snap decisions to cancel this or that programme, generally don’t help reduce poverty. And so, when aid agencies and NGOs fail, they tend to do so quietly. And, in turn, quality of aid suffers, through less consideration of how things might be done better. And we fail in our ethical obligations to be accountable.

It’s a dilemma. The ideal world solution is to have a better informed public. One which understood that aid giving is every bit as tricky as it is morally imperative. And that even the best aid work will involve some failure. The contract between people who donate and NGOs, and between taxpayers and aid agencies, would be:

“We’ll do our best, but we will fail. But when we fail we’ll be open about it. And we’ll learn.”

…accompanied with…

“And we’ll keep an eye on you. But it will be a considered eye. We won’t withdraw support on the base of a bit of bad news.”

That’s the ideal world solution. And the one I think we should be aiming for. But in a world where the public in general is relatively uninformed about the practicalities of aid giving, and where media are forever in search of a sensational story, and where politicians are risk averse, it seems pretty hard to me to fault aid agencies and NGOs for not living up to the ideal. Nevertheless, there needs to be a better way.

*Although, from what little I’ve read in the media, this doesn’t seem to have happened in the Australian Government’s case. Which is to the credit of those involved.

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1 Comment

  1. […] wrote a while ago on the challenges for aid agencies when it comes to admitting they got it wrong. Meanwhile Johann […]

    Pingback by Whole-lotta-links « Waylaid Dialectic — August 24, 2010 @ 4:50 pm


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