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.

Three bad ideas for helping Haiti

plane over Haiti

In the rush to engage on Haiti, a lot of well-meaning groups are jumping in to help. Some are brand new, and some have never worked on a disaster like this before. Most of these groups are going to be useless. Some will actually do harm to themselves or others. A tiny minority will have a positive impact. I wish those odds were better, but they’re not.

I’ve seen three bad ideas for helping in Haiti floating around recently. I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism – after all, everyone is trying to do good here. But in this case, the culture of nice may be letting bad programs hurt people. I need to say something.

Bad idea #1 – 50,000 Shoes The idea is to donate 50,000 shoes in 50 days for Haiti. They are asking for a $5 donation for each pair of shoes. The problem with this idea is that it’s based on an assumption – that lots and lots of shoes are what Haitians need right now. What if they need clothes? Or food? Or water purifiers? Should they sell their new shoes and use the money to buy those things? Has anyone done an assessment to find out if shoes are needed? To decide what kind of shoes are needed?

The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.

This is almost a good idea. The time-delimited fundraising with easy to remember numbers will drive people to donate, and they’ve got celebrity endorsements that are raising their profile.

How it could be a good idea – call it $500,000 in 50 days instead of 50,000 shoes. That would double their fundraising goal (since they are trying to provide $250,000 of shoes) but I think they could pull it off, considering their level of media attention. Then they could make a high profile donation, including a ceremony with one of those oversize checks on poster board to Partners in Health.

Bad idea #2 – Flight to Crisis Volunteer doctors and nurses are banding together to charter a flight to Haiti and help with medical care. It’s brave, it’s scrappy, and it shows amazing initiative. It’s also a horrible idea. The people don’t seem to have any plan from bringing in their own supplies and haven’t set up a place to stay in Haiti. They don’t have a hospital to work out of or any background in responding to this kind of disaster. This is exactly the kind of misguided effort I was afraid we’d see, because Haiti is close enough to the US to make it possible. For more information on why this is such a bad idea, read this account of another group of health care providers that chartered a plane.

[Edited to add: please see comments below for a response from Flight to Crisis. They are better organized than their page makes them look.]

How it could be a good idea – in about three months, when rebuilding gets serious and Haitians have time to think, this group could choose a Haitian hospital to partner with. They could fundraise to help it rebuild, and donate supplies and equipment. They could visit the hospital quarterly to train the providers there as needed, and make sure that the equipment is in good shape and well maintained.

Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer.

This, however, is even worse than usual. This isn’t just useless feel-goodery for rich people. This will hurt people in Haiti. Traumatized children should not be making emotional attachments to volunteers who will be gone in six months. Volunteer labor for building and construction will keep Haitians from getting paid jobs to do the work themselves. And no outsider volunteer has any business providing counseling; counseling needs a background in local culture and context that a visitor won’t have.

How it could be a good idea – It’s almost impossible to rescue this one, but short-term volunteers could offer brief, targeted English or French classes to Haitians who needed them. They could cover technical topics that local teachers might not be able to offer. Not in a week. There really isn’t anything useful you can do in a week. But two months might work. It really wouldn’t qualify as disaster response – or rebuilding – but it would at least be useful.

For more information on how to help in Haiti, take a look at my Aid Watch post.

Photo credit: simminch