The Story

I just figured out why people call me controversial, when I hold the same opinions as pretty much everyone else who works in international development. (I’ve written about this before; I am just the one who writes this all down.)

It’s because my views don’t match the media narrative about development – the metastory. And unless you’re done an unusually pragmatic course on international development, or actually worked in this field, the only story you have about international development is that one you learn from the media.

Nick Kristof is the most prominent example of the typical media narrative: whites in shining armor, helpless poor people in need of our charity, simple programs with immediate, long-term impact. Basically, international development is easy if you just care enough and are ready to spend some money. Good solutions are right around the corner!

Nobody who actually works in this field believes the metastory any more. But the media keep looking for that story, because it’s the one that the reporters all know. A few journalists – Glenna Gordon, Jina Moore, and Stephanie Strom come to mind – have been writing about development long enough that they know they field, too. They write different stories.

But the others, the ones working international affairs or disasters or whatever – they come looking for the same old story and they find it. (Penelope Trunk has a good take on this phenomenon.) I do a lot more media than ever gets published; no one ever wants my quotes because they don’t match the metastory.

Three of the topics no one wants my opinion on:

1.       Innovation – to use a deeply American sports metaphor, focusing exclusively on innovation is like throwing a Hail Mary pass when we ought to just use our running game. [1] Spend too much time chasing innovation, and you run the risk of failing to support the boring programs that are proven to work.

2.       Crowdsourcing – I think it’s just one more way of collecting data. And the problem with data has never been getting enough of it – the problem has always been getting the right data and then knowing how to use it. A new data collection method doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with it once collected.

3.       The future of international development – It’s not mobile technology, social entrepreneurship, or heat stable vaccines. It’s partnership, where donors and recipients recognize that both gain from the process. It will mean businesses getting involved in development because they’ll benefit from it, and the slow erosion of exploitative fundraising efforts because the communities who benefit will help to design the campaigns. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but it is what the future will look like.

Those aren’t exactly radical, contrarian opinions. Everyone I work with would agree with me, as would almost every development professional I know. But they’re not the story.

[1] Random aside: I grew up watching American football with my dad. We lived in Syracuse but cheered for the Dallas Cowboys because it was the 80s, he was an immigrant, and the Cowboys were America’s team. By the time my brother hit elementary school, we discovered Central New Yorkers supported the Buffalo Bills and switched allegiances.


photo credit: wili_hybrid

Dear everyone who’s ever thought of starting an NGO

Don’t do it. You’re not going to think of a solution no one else has, your approach is not as innovative as you think it is, and raising money is going to be impossible. You will have no economy of scale, your overhead will be disproportionately high, and adding one more tiny NGO to the overburdened international system may well make things worse instead of better.

Now that you’ve ignored me, here’s the rest of my advice:

1) Make your bones. Go work for an existing NGO that addresses the same problem, or one like it. Learn from the existing knowledge in the system so you don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. If you’re not qualified to work for an existing organization, you’re probably not qualified to run your own.

2) Identify a new funding source. If you’re just going to compete for the same donor RFPs and RFAs that everyone else does, you’re not bringing anything new to the world. If you didn’t get that grant to reduce child mortality in Liberia, another organization would. The children of Liberia benefit equally either way. If you can bring new money in, then you’re having a genuine additional impact.

3) Hire experienced people to work with you. There is a certain charm to a bunch of inexperienced people trying to change the world together, but a group that combines new ideas and actual experience can produce genuine innovation.

4) Your finances are probably the most important part of your NGO. Your donors will want to see your financials before they give. Your projects will require a steady stream of reliable funding to succeed. You can’t do good if you can’t pay your bills.

(photo credit Mosieur J.)

Innovation Part II

We need to get over our obsession with innovation. It’s hurting our ability to do good development work. We get caught up in trendy new ideas – we fondle the hammer – and we exhaust out energies looking for the next big thing instead of supporting interventions which have been proven to work.

Innovation is not a quick fix. It is not a magic bullet that will solve all our problems. Social media is a genuine innovation (as Our Man in Cameroon points out), but it has rules and best practices. It takes time and skill to learn to use it well. Antibiotics were an innovation in their time, but they too had to be perfected and properly used before they could save lives.

When I lived in Cairo, people on the street used to talk about Japanese engineers. Everyone was sure that the Japanese government was about to build a new sewer system, repave the roads, or extend the subway. I lived in Egypt ten years ago. Cairenes are still waiting for their Japanese metro.

Chasing innovation too often leads us astray, when we could be plugging along at the things that have been proven to work. Those things do exist. Girls’ education. Microfinance. Contraception. We need innovation; it’s true. But it’s not all we need.


Let’s talk about innovation. Innovation ought to be a game-changer. It out to be the insight, the idea, the new way of doing things or the amazing new tech that inverts the way we approach a problem. Positive deviance was an innovation, and it leads to more innovation. Cell phones were an innovation. Vaccines were an innovation. Capitalism, way back way back when, was an innovation.

Doing the same thing in a slightly new way is not innovation. Nor is making up new words for existing techniques.

And it’s okay if you’re not innovative. Innovation is not the answer to all problems. Innovation, in fact, can go horribly wrong. (French revolution, anyone?) If you’re doing things that are not innovative, there are other words you get to use. Research-based. Proven. Evidence-based. Play to your strengths; don’t try to fake something else.

(topic suggested by James Bon Tempo)


I adore #14 from this list: “Don’t even look at your own industry for ideas – look everywhere else. If you take it from your own industry, you’re a copycat. If you go to a different industry, they’ll tell you how they did it – and you’re the innovator in your industry.” I try to do that all the time – look from place to place for ideas that can be applied in a new way. It’s what this blog is about.