This week I re-entered an aid “institution” after five years of working with small foundations and local groups.

After just two short days, I can’t help but be reminded of why I left.

I am once again surrounded by smart, driven, committed people. But unfortunately they are largely a group of people who are also exhausted, overwhelmed, and discouraged by fighting while propagating the very organizations in which they serve. From my still outsider’s perspective, it’s as if the system closes in and the perpetuation of the institution itself slowly, silently becomes what consumes people.

As I’ve sat in cubicles and listened to stories of obstacles and what’s needed and what’s wrong and “why I know this, due to all my years of experience”, what I picture of this institution in my head is not a grand cathedral, a revered edifice. Rather all I can picture is a deserted dirt road, derelict wooden buildings, and a tumbleweed blowing by—a ghost town.

The Community Development Resource Association in South Africa describes the “particularly undevelopmental global development industry” as characterized by:

  • the need to urgently disburse money;
  • a tendency to focus on product rather than process;
  • higher respect for suits and ties than rages and bones;
  • a proactive rather than responsive orientation;
  • centralized and hierarchical decision-making; and
  • bureaucratic and instrumental rigidities, practiced largely (if unconsciously) for the benefit of those who intervene.

The place where the organization’s mission used to live?

The corporate culture of the large development agencies I believe results in many talented people spending most of their time dealing with the constraints of donor-controlled, project-based funding, which ties their hands and shuts down any possible processes that could result in local ownership and empowerment.

But we actually need to enable these same talented people to expand their attentiveness to how to change the rules and regulations by which their work is governed. We need these talented people to focus their roles on service and advocacy, rather than abstractions and bureaucratic technicalities.

Creative thinking requires an outlook that allows you to search for ideas, and play with your knowledge and experience. You use crazy, foolish, and impractical ideas as stepping stones to practical new ideas. You break the rules occasionally, and explore for ideas in unusual outside places. ~Roger Von Oech

But does creativity shrink, and is change more difficult, the larger an organization is?

I would like to see the large aid agencies examine and question the heavy accountability systems that take up most of their staff’s time, that marginalize and de-motivate people, and that ultimately do not lead to any real assurance of long-term results. Can aid agencies harness the energy currently focused on controlling finances and demonstrating “results” based on donors’ needs, and use it instead to concentrate on the priorities of those their mission ultimately serves? Or must protecting the interests of agencies always come first, given that they ultimately rely on fundraising from donors and the public at large?

Dylan Ratigan wrote a very interesting piece yesterday entitled, “This Thanksgiving, Occupy Yourself.” The following passage struck me as something that aid agencies may need to confront:

“You cannot know honesty without knowing deceit, good cannot exist without evil, and life is not life without death. Our challenge is to reconcile all of these forces as they all exist in each of us. Any institutional arrangement that denies this, that relies on images of perfection bereft of the shadow, will inevitably be dominated by the very forces of that darkness. Namely fear of the shadow, ironically.”

As Dov Seidman, author of "HOW: Why HOW we do anything means everything", and Bo Burlingham, author of "Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be..., encourage those in business to do, I want to see aid agencies put behavior and relationships first. After all, they do not operate from a profit motive. They can change the game until the game doesn’t look the same.

Until then, I’ll be supporting and encouraging the seasoned and dedicated humanitarian and development practitioners from within these institutions to begin to openly, bravely, and constructively question “business as usual” in our sector. If not, they will continue to fight a tiring and frustrating uphill battle.


Want an illustration of an aid worker’s typical day-to-day? Most people I know did not get involved in aid to be a penny pincher or a paper pusher. Yet check out this excerpt from a position description I recently ran across. It struck me because this is what appeared before the sector or type of project was even mentioned!

Org X in Country X is looking for a Project Director who overall responsibility for leading and managing a Org X Project in Country X to ensure that the project achieves its intended impact. S/he provides strategic leadership and managerial oversight of the administrative, programmatic, technical, and operational aspects of the Project. The Project Director oversees the day-to-day work of the Project and is responsible for the effective use and deployment of staff and financial resources to achieve project targets. S/he is accountable for all aspects of the Project’s effective management, including financial and budgetary oversight, timely implementation of activities, and stakeholder relationship management.

Responsibilities include:

  • Provide strategic direction of Project activities.
  • Develop and update the Project strategic plan, ensuring that programmatic directions are technically sound, evidence-based and consistent with National priorities;
  • Ensure that Project performance objectives and mandated deliverables such as technical activities, annual work plans and programmatic/financial/technical reports are carried out in a timely fashion and meet the highest quality standards;
  • Provide leadership and direction to Monitoring and Evaluation strategies, frameworks, plans and indicators to capture project performance and results;
  • Lead a periodic implementation review process to monitor progress and to identify specific actions that may be needed to achieve expected results;
  • Employ appropriate management procedures to ensure that all resources are in place, adhered to, and in compliance with donor rules and regulations;
  • Manage funds at local bank and approve expenditures in accordance with Org X and donor procedures, cost principles, and regulations;
  • Partner successfully with Org X’s Senior Program Manager and Headquarters financial, technical, and operations backstop officers by providing accurate and timely reporting and updates on the Project progress and difficulties.

Does international aid's day-to-day work need a re-think?

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