Leaving Haiti

The other day, the WHO asked aid groups in Haiti not to leave for at least 60 days. I found that kind of confusing, to be honest, because no aid agency is going to leave Haiti on purpose. Their humanitarian mission will make them want to stay – these groups do after all, want to help people. So will their competitiveness. Getting to open an office in a new country is exciting, and expands an NGO’s global reach.

NGOs will leave Haiti when they no longer have the funding to stay. They will do their best to stay – intense public fundraising appeals, unsolicited proposals to government donors, staff drawdowns, and salary cuts – but eventually there will be no money to remain in Haiti. Then, and only then, they’ll leave. (Except MSF. MSF leaves when the “emergency phase is over.” But as far as I know, only MSF does that.)

That means there is no point in appealing to the NGOs to stay. The WHO is aiming its pleas in the wrong direction. It’s not, in the end, the NGOs’ choice. We need to donate the money to keep them there, and push our governments to do the same. Whether or not the NGOs stay in Haiti is up to us.


Photo credit: Zedworks

Chosen because – that’s how you leave, right? On a jet plane?

Why I hate the word sustainability

What happens when your intervention is over? When you stop training the doctors, providing the bags of food, or advising the Ministry of Finance? Will anything remain? If something will remain, your project is sustainable. That quality – being designed to continue once the outsider effort ends – is sustainability.

I hate this word because the grammar makes no sense.

I also hate this word because it means so many things to so many different people. The definition I just gave you was the one that I learned from a former boss, the smartest woman in the world. (Seriously, she is. If you had ever met her, you’d agree with me.) Sheila taught me that sustainability isn’t about your project continuing, or even the institution you support or develop. Sustainability is about the change you help bring about being a lasting change. It doesn’t matter if your child health center closes if children continue to get improved medical care.

Other people think other things. Some people think sustainability is about building organizations and institutions that last. A lot of projects think that sustainability is about having a steady supply of new donors; a project is sustainable if it will be able to find a new donor once you stop funding it. MSF, of course, thinks sustainability is irrelevant.

So, I guess I hate the word sustainability because it has no agreed upon-meaning, and it’s a prime example of the kind of jargon that keeps planners from thinking about the details of what they want to do.

Edited to add: Jeff Trexler reminds me that I left out an entire set of meanings for the word sustainable. One of its most common usages is as part of the phrase “sustainable development.” Sustainable development refers to development which occurs without damage to the environment, culturally appropriate, and continues on its own once begun (according some combination of the criteria I defined above).

Edited again: Owen Barder has his own take on what’s wrong with sustainability.

International development blogs

My Google alerts have been good to me. I have been heartened to discover more and more blogs which touch on international development in interesting ways. You may have seen my blog roll expanding; I’m trying to create something like a comprehensive list. Check it out and explore.

Here are a few highlights:

NGO blogs

Oxfam and Refugees International both have great organization blogs, which showcase deep topical knowledge and passionate writing. Medecins sans Frontieres has a whole compendium of personal accounts by aid workers. Project HOPE has a blog all about (and by) their field volunteers, which would be a great resource for someone who wanted the nitty-gritty about medical volunteering.

Individual blogs

Vasco Pyjama has amazing, amazing posts about life abroad doing international development work. She is the real thing; full of insight on the work she does and with a wry and engaging voice. Chris Blattman is a famous development economist (insofar as there is such a thing) and one of my personal heroes. The Road to the Horizon, by Peter Casier, is dense with interesting information, personal observations, and lovely storytelling.

Relief and Development, Part Two

Adrienne had some great questions in the comments on my last post; I thought they deserved a longer response than another comment would permit.

1) What happens when a relief agency realizes that the emergency isn’t over, but leaves anyway? (And a sub-question – why do they do this? Is it only about the funding?)

It’s almost always about the funding. NGOs that respond to emergency needs are dependent on individual donations and government funding. They do not tend to have endowments or any other financial capacity to fund long-running programs without outside support. Therefore, when UNHCR or OFDA decides to stop supporting their programs in Kashmir or Lira, if they can’t fundraise to keep those programs going, they have no choice but to close up shop and depart. And fundraising for long-running humanitarian emergencies is very difficult – these situations are no longer in the news and they trigger donor fatigue because they begin to seem hopeless.

There are also a few NGOs, such as Doctors without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres), who have very strict criteria for what constitutes an emergency. They may leave very quickly, because they see their role in the response as over.

I can tell you from the inside that having to close an office where you know there is need is horrible. It’s heartbreaking, and makes you feel like you have failed everyone who depends on you. Closing an office feels like death, and not unreasonably so.

2) How many organizations claim to be in development, but are really just providing relief? (This one in particular bothers me.)

This is a tricky question. Development and relief are not a binary system, or even a continuum. They’re…more of a pie chart. And how much capacity building do you have to do before it counts as development? Also, when you say “Claim to be in development” – do you mean in an analysis of their overall portfolio of programs or the makeup of each individual program? I don’t think anyone is setting out to deceive, but every program is heavily dependent on donor intent.

There are some capacity-building things that every relief program should do. Hire your staff from your target population. Contract out everything locally that you can. Never provide direct services if you can train or support someone in-country to do so instead. Give the communities you partner with a voice in your programs – ask them to evaluate if you are succeeding. Professional organizations do these things, so nearly all provide some level of development assistance.

3) How can relief truly help? If, like you say, relief should “give aid that empowers the communities who receive it,” then shouldn’t relief be kind of like mini-development?

The problem with doing relief as proto-development is the timeframe. In Burma, for example, people need clean drinking water, anti-cholera drugs, emergency food relief, and places to live. We can truck in water, hand out drugs to clinics, and distribute rice and tents very fast (or, we could if there was access) and the faster we do it, the more lives we save. If we train people to build sturdy, sustainable houses and then sell them at an affordable price to people whose houses were destroyed, a lot of people are going to suffer, or die, while they wait for those houses to be built.

In my opinion, there are two powerful cases for pure relief activities, when they truly help. The first is in situations where functional, prosperous communities are damaged by unexpected events. Relief can then sustain life and restore livelihoods so that communities can return to their pre-disaster quality of life. The second is to keep everyone fed, clothed, and housed until the development projects can begin.