Waylaid Dialectic

July 15, 2011

My NGO is teh Perfectest!

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 2:31 pm

Via Chris Blattman we find the aptly named J Starr enthusing about his own NGO and lamenting the fact that the rest of the development industry isn’t as wonderful as he is.

MONGORS (My Own NGO Rocks Syndrome) is a surprisingly common development affliction. From surfers lugging goats to far flung parts of Indonesia to volunteers in Africa, the symptoms are pretty much the same:

1. Smart capable person sets up small NGO in country where they have some connections.
2. Puts in a lot of work.
3. Gets some results.
4. And then concludes that they have it absolutely right and everyone else is hopeless.

1,2 and 3 are laudable. It’s just a pity they often seem to lead to 4.

In Mr Starr’s case he, along with a bunch of like-minded volunteers, has set up an English language boarding school in Somaliland which now has 300(!) students of some form or other. From this he concludes that the secrets to NGO success are:

* Volunteers
* Charging at least a nominal fee for your services
* English language classes
* And staying focused in only one part of the world.

According to Mr Starr the only reason everyone else doesn’t do this is because other NGO workers are venal, self-interested and insufficiently schooled in economic theory.

Yes, well either that, or perhaps, just perhaps, reality runs a bit more like this:

1. Mr Starr has succeeded in creating a very cost-inefficient way of solving a particular problem for a small group of people (those 300 students). It works because it’s subsidised by volunteers. On the scale that it currently operates that’s fine but it couldn’t be scaled up enough to be a real global solution because, while there are a lot of people willing to donate some time to volunteer in developing countries, there are many, many more people in developing countries in need of assistance. Which is why a lot of aid to education goes towards trying to get Ministries of Educations functioning or to community schooling projects. Because, at the end of the day, if you really want to educate all the people who need it education in country X, you’re going to need systems and teachers in and from country X to do this. This is a much harder task.

2. Lack of education is not the only problem faced by people in developing countries. Many problems (logistics in complex humanitarian emergencies, for example) can’t be solved by your mate with a physics PhD. Experience and relevant expertise matter. Which is why people are paid to work in development. Other than already wealthy financiers, most of us can only donate finite amounts of time. And time is needed to acquire the skills that are needed.

Also, because the skills required to work in complex humanitarian emergencies (to continue the previous example) take time to accumulate, while at the same time being reasonably transferable between emergencies, it makes sense to specialise around skill sets not just locations. The same is true with other skill sets such as evaluation or those used in community development initiatives. This is why you get international NGOs.

3. There is actually a lot of evidence that suggests that for the most needy even minor fees are a significant barrier to obtaining services. This is why a lot of development assistance is given for free; because it’s intended to help the poorest of people – people who can’t afford to pay.

For taking the time to go and help people in developing countries Mr Starr is a star. For assuming that, because he is running one small NGO that is producing positive outputs, he knows everything there is to know about aid he is the opposite of a star; he is a chump.


While we’re at it, Chris Blattman linked to this article saying: “Instructive approach to aid in Somaliland. But replicable on a larger scale?” Replicable on a larger scale? Dude. Replicable, and already replicated on as large a scale as possible. What Mr Starr is doing is merely the same volunteer sending work undertaken by VSA, VSO, AVI, the Peace Corps and a bunch of other similar entities. It works after a fashion but it’s no miracle, nor a secret.

I’m often taken aback by just how little academics working in development related fields actually seem to know about actual aid practice.


And while we’re still at it…it strikes me that one of the unintended consequences of Bill Easterly type “Aid Has Failed!” narratives is that, rather than leading to better aid, they often lead to worse. This happens because aid failure narratives often make it seem like aid fails for simple reasons, which in turn leads people to deduce equally simple solutions. But things really ain’t that simple.

Some aid fails because it’s bad. But a lot of aid is actually pretty good. And the reason why it still fails, when it fails, is only sometimes to do with the qualities of the people and organisations delivering it. More often, failure stems from the simple fact that the problems aid is being asked to solve are frequently close to intractable.


  1. Star wrote the same silly article in the WSJ back in April. Nicely done Terrence on calling him and Blattman out. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704425804576220524034207558.html

    Comment by Tom Murphy — July 15, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  2. …sorry for misspelling your name!

    Comment by Tom Murphy — July 15, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

  3. Thanks Tom, and no worries regarding my name.

    Comment by terence — July 15, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

  4. “Dude. Replicable, and already replicated on as large a scale as possible. ”

    Amen. I read the article months ago and though it was silly then.

    Comment by Matt — July 15, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  5. When this article first came out in the WSJ I gave it a weary sigh but declined to engage further – where do you start with something like that?

    Well done for getting to and through the nub of it.

    Comment by Cynan — July 15, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

  6. My rule of thumb is now: if it’s an aid fad promoted by WSJ (owner: Rupert the Murdock) it’s a crock.

    Comment by David Week — July 16, 2011 @ 12:29 am

  7. Thanks Matt, Cynan and Dave.

    BTW – I hadn’t realised that the Starr piece had made it into the WSJ. That’s bad, but apt.

    Comment by terence — July 16, 2011 @ 5:18 am

  8. ah come on, Chris Blatmann just wrote a quick response which is actually pretty similar to yours, no reason to assume he’s unaware for peace corps, vso etc.

    Comment by Luis Enrique — July 18, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

  9. Hi Luis,

    You’re right he’s probably aware of them. And possibly his question is rhetorical: a polite way of criticising Starr’s post. In which case mea culpa. Yet his original comment on the article seems to read to me like he thinks this guy’s onto something and his only question is can it be scaled. If this is true then he really can’t know, or has forgotten, much about aid practice. Starr is on to nothing whatsoever that hasn’t been done before. Or scaled as far as it can go.



    Comment by terence — July 19, 2011 @ 6:05 am

  10. […] the Waylaid Dialectic, tears a couple of fair sized strips off Jonathan Starr’s self-righteous polemic about Big Aid. Terence’s points are well made, but […]

    Pingback by The Charges against Big Aid « Bottom Up Thinking — July 20, 2011 @ 12:44 am

  11. […] Then, accept you are on a learning journey (welcome aboard). Be humble (here’s looking at you Mr Starr. And keep trying to […]

    Pingback by When you can do nothing, what can you do? « Waylaid Dialectic — August 6, 2011 @ 10:48 am

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