Stop Trying to Hold My Baby

So, on Monday I had a baby. (He’s healthy, I’m healthy, and he’s the most perfect and adorable baby in the whole world, for the record. And no, that’s not him in the picture; the internet and kids makes me nervous.) We’re home from the hospital now, and returning to ordinary life, which is as you’d guess a lot of work. And lots of well meaning people want to help me. So they offer to hold the sleeping baby so I can get something done.

But holding the sleepy baby is not helpful. Holding a baby while they sleep is the single best part of having a newborn. They’re all sweet and snuggly in your arms, and they look like angels. Holding the unconscious baby = not work.

If you want to help me, offer to make me a sandwich or clean my bathroom or scan my tax documents so I can pay the IRS. Or hold the baby when he’s crying and won’t nurse or sleep or settle down. That’s the help I actually need right now.

I think too many aid projects just want to hold the baby. (In the case of orphanage tourism, quite literally.) They see what they think is a need – a need that’s easy to fill! And they rush to do it. They don’t stop to ask – what do you need?

This is true both of big institutional donor programs that are eager to apply the sexy solution of the day to every situation – microfinance, health savings accounts, results based financing – and small individual donors who create tiny barely-functional NGOs to provide broiler chickens or used clothes to the needy.

The answer is to pause first, and actually find out what people need. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Just asking people generally isn’t enough. I feel like a total jerk complaining about the nice people who want to help me by holding my son, and I am a deeply privileged resident of the wealthy world.

If I was a Bangalore slum-dweller or a Congolese villager, who would I feel comfortable talking to about my needs? Would I talk to a researcher from the capital about what I need and what I don’t? Or would I just be afraid that if I criticized any aid, they’d send it all somewhere else to people who were grateful?

Bad aid isn’t solely the result of laziness or indifference – doing research on people’s true needs is surprisingly difficult. So is designing programs that meet those needs. But taking the time to do it makes all the difference.


(Photo credit: Sinosplice)

Chosen because it’s a guy holding a baby

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

Jargon and Its Discontents

I need advice.

A friend of mine is going to be doing some training for journalists on aid and relief work. She asked me what jargon I think journalists need to know, what aid clichés I hate seeing, and any pet peeves in general on reporting about aid work. I had some answers for her, but I thought I could probably collect a lot more by asking the readers of this blog.

So, let’s hear it: What are the words journalists need to know? What are the words to avoid? And how can journalists find the real stories in the aid world?

Here’s my list, to help start the conversation:

1)      Not paying attention to the money. An aid group’s freedom to act is heavily dependent on their donor funding. It’s easy to blame an aid agency for not doing X, but if they’re funded by OFDA to do Y, then X isn’t an option for them.

2)      Lumping all aid groups together, as though they have the same motivation, skill set, and competency.

3)      Getting hung up on either a savior narrative that focuses on one person as a hero, or a villain narrative, that decides all aid is a failure and picks a single agent as scapegoat.

4)      Declaring aid a success or failure without looking at similar aid efforts in other years or locations for context. Not having an actual idea of what success would consist of, yet still declaring failure.

5)      Spending the whole article giving visual descriptions and leaving out actual content.

6)      Taking donor press releases as gospel. Or, alternately, ignoring them.

(photo credit: jovike)

Fundraising and who does it

There’s been a lot discussion in the development blogosphere lately about fundraising and the images we use to trigger donations. It’s a serious conversation, and one that interests me. Exactly how much damage do we do when we use condescending portrayals of poor people in NGO ads? Tales from the Hood has an interesting take on it. So does the Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog. Aid Thoughts has a whole series, and Waylaid Dialectic has the iconoclastic view.

But you know that? The whole debate is irrelevant to my life right now. It’s not something I have to think about in my work. Because I work for a company. An employee-owned company that works for the public good, but an actual profit-earning company.

People complain a lot about involving the private sector in development aid, both as donors and as implementers. But I will tell you this: my employer never runs ads featuring scrawny, weeping, big-eyed children. We never have to make sure our logo is in the picture when we take a photograph. Our organizational development department just writes proposals and applies for contracts. No fundraising appeals. No donate link on our website. We don’t send anybody address labels and you sure can’t sponsor a child through us.

International development companies do have to market themselves. But that marketing is a very different game; it’s about looking competent, reliable, and professional in everything they do. They are selling their own skills, not someone else’s pain. (And let’s be fair here. NGOs don’t use heartbreaking pictures because they like to demean people. They use them because they are proven to work. It’s what they have to do to get their funding.)

I’ve worked for NGOs, and the US Government, and universities and the UN and all kinds of places. (I was a consultant; I got around.)  No particular tax status makes for a perfect employer: companies can’t do advocacy the way NGOs can, the UN’s got bureaucracy like fast food has French fries, and universities treat minor politics like blood sport.

On the other hand, for-profits don’t need photo ops. Universities access a nearly bottomless human resource pool and access to cutting edge research. UN agencies have moral authority and sector clout no one else can match. NGOs that do a good job of fundraising can start moving money really really fast when they need to.

This is our field. It has a lot of very different players, with different strengths and weaknesses. I like that. NGOs are not inherently virtuous. Companies are not inherently greedy. It’s a all mixed bag of human beings organized in different ways, attempting to do good things. Doing effective work matters a whole lot more than tax status.

(photo credit: #1millionkittensforAfrica)

The usual disclaimer: I am speaking for myself. These are my views and my views alone. I am not in any way speaking on behalf of my company. I believe in what we do, but I do not speak for the company in this or any other instance.

More Pie: Some Thinking on World AIDS Day

Pumppie cake

(Two delicious pies baked into a cake. We should think big.)

The most common complaint about World AIDS Day goes like this – HIV already gets the lion’s share of global health funding and attention. Why don’t we pay attention to diarrhea/pneumonia/NTDs/indoor air pollution for a change? Ten years ago, I would have agreed with that argument. Diarrhea and pneumonia and NTDs and indoor air pollution do need more funding and more attention. It’s infuriating that they don’t get it.

But here’s what I have figured out in the last decade: we can have more pie. Differently put, global health is not a zero-sum game. We can increase the funding that goes to it. In the last ten years, we have. The Global Fund and the Gates Foundation have radically increased the resources available to global health. The private sector has started funding global health, and government donors have increased their commitments.

There is nothing wrong with so much attention going to AIDS. HIV gets exactly as much attention as it deserves. It’s the second most terrifying pandemic of our time. (I really think first place belongs to MDR TB.) About two million people a year die from AIDS, and there are about 33 million people currently infected with HIV. It is devastating to communities, families, and nations. It is worthy of every red ribbon, activist, and dollar of funding it receives.

What is wrong is that other health problems don’t get as much attention. And that’s not a problem we solve by ignoring HIV. It’s a problem we solve by bringing more attention to the rest of the world’s serious health problems. We should learn from the publicity for HIV, not complain about it. What we need is to get that kind of attention for everything that deserves it.

I wanted to post this on World AIDS day, but ended up writing for two other blogs instead. (End the Neglect and UN Dispatch, both worth reading, I like to believe.)

Please let’s stop talking about PPPs

As you might guess, I didn’t originally write this post for this blog. But no one else wants it, so I’ll publish the poor orphaned post myself.

The term public-private partnerships don’t get explained much. They partnerships a lot of attention, but it’s such common vocabulary that no one ever stops to explain it. That’s okay, though, because it’s a useless term.

A public-private partnership is any collaboration between public bodies – like a government, the UN, or an NGO – and a business entity. That’s all. Public organization working with a private one. A pharmaceutical company donating drugs to UNICEF or a developing country government. A consulting firm offering free services to the Global Fund. A local government providing start-up capital to a business that may serve a public good.

Personally, I think this piece of jargon has pretty much outlived its usefulness. It doesn’t describe an unusual situation, help corporations understand their role, or serve as an accurate or specific term. We should retire it.

Ten years ago, when private sector business rarely got involved in development, we needed special vocabulary to encourage them. “Public-private partnership” sounds reassuring. “You’re not in this alone, frightened little corporation! You’re in a partnership. The UN will help you, we promise!” The special term helped to normalize business participating in international development efforts.

Now, though, it’s pretty much become the norm. Businesses get involved in international development and global health all the time. They don’t need supportive language to help them understand that they belong. They have decided it’s in their interest to support global health, and that’s pretty much enough to motivate a profit-making entity.

Because it’s the norm, we also don’t need special exclusive language that sets apart business-funded development work from work funded by government or private donors. Those are not the traditional donors any more; people expect that there will be corporate involvement in global health, for example. So we don’t need to single out public-private partnerships as a special case. They’re just one of the many ways that we fund international development work.

It’s also a term that is so general it’s useless. For all that it was supposed to helpfully describe a special kind of health or development effort, instead it’s meaningless. I mean, what if the US government hires an international development company like Casals Associates to implement a development effort? Why isn’t that a public-private partnership?  If Oxfam buys plane tickets for its employees, why is that not a public-private partnership?

The horse has left the barn. The bird has flown the coop, and you can never get those square foam pieces to fit back into the box once you’ve opened it. The corporation has entered the hen house, and it’s pretty much okay with the hens. Public-private partnerships vary, to a huge degree. It’s not useful to try to lump them all together, any more than it is to assume all official development assistance is the same. This new world of business participation in global health needs a new vocabulary to describe it.

Blog posts I am apparently never going to write

Linus Pauling Photo

I have started all of these posts more than once, and I never seem to get them fully written up. Therefore, some half-baked ideas for your consideration.

1. How I learned to love the MDGs

I used to think the Millennium Development Goals were a cruel cheat. I thought that since they were set too high to actually achieve, they were dooming developing country governments to failure and disillusionment. It turns out, though, that governments are used to missing their targets. And the MDGs make sure that everyone is aiming for really good targets. So I take it all back. The MDGs are pure genius.

2. Why I don’t hire development studies majors

Because the degree doesn’t leave you with any actual skills – maybe it would be useful for someone who’s been working in development and needs a frame. But it is not preparation for international development work. Learning a whole chunk of development theory has remarkably little to do with the actual work of improving lives and creating better opportunity.

3. All volunteers are not the same

Whether or not you get paid has nothing to do with your skill set. Volunteers are capable of doing vital work extremely well. However, they may also be unskilled, unqualified, and damaging to the programs and communities that take them on. It is very hard to use volunteers well because they tend to want a short-term commitment so you lose a lot of time training and integrating them, and because often people with relevant skills get paid jobs in development. Long-term volunteers are more likely to be useful than short-term volunteers.  Volunteering has more impact the closer to home it gets, because the learning curve gets shorter and shorter.

4. International development is difficult

It’s hard, it’s expensive, and we have trouble knowing what works. We make the same mistakes over and over. I have seen individual projects that actually succeeded but I honestly don’t know what theory of development is most likely to be true. (Though I do think people believe anything they see in a soap opera. Is that a development theory?) This field feels sometimes like medicine back in the age of leeches and bloodletting and I have no idea if Jeff Sachs, Paul Collier, or Bill Easterly is going to turn out to be Louis Pasteur or Linus Pauling.

5. The official list of crushes on development thinkers, as confessed to on Twitter:

  • Hans Rosling
  • Mohammad Yunus
  • Amartya Sen
  • Ruth Levine
  • Robert Chambers


Photo credit: Wikipedia – Doesn’t Linus Pauling look handsome and idealistic? No clue at all he’d turn into a Vitamin C quack at the end of an illustrious career.