Earning The Right To Be In The Wrong

Image from: NYU Development Research Institute blog

The ridiculousness of ‘aid’ in Hollywood shouldn’t be replicated in the real world (or, as in this example, vice versa).

The Development Blogosphere was abuzz a few weeks back when this very well written blog post started getting a bunch of attention. This was a post about ‘the aid bitchslap’ or, as SEAWL put it, “the strange, ugly and enlightening time of moving from idealism to realism.”

It spurred a fair amount of hand wringing and debate over the whys and wherefores of the aid sector in general, with particular reference to US policy decisions – check out the Reddit discussion on the post. I have to admit, I found myself underwhelmed. It reminded me of a post on Aidsource a few months before in which a student who ‘figures out aid is messed up’ was met with a firm rebuttal. Here’s a telling extract:

There are two widely known, but rarely spoken (and never written down until now, so far as I know) rules in the full-time practicing professional humanitarian world that I inhabit:

1) Aid is messed up. Everyone knows it. It’s not a surprise. Seriously – everyone knows it. That aid is messed up may be just the latest soda-machine-crisis for Karen [the writer of this blog post], but it is old, old news in the aid real world. You don’t impress us by telling us what we already know.

2) You have to earn the right to get all angsty about how messed up aid is. Yep, the truth is out there for anyone to see. But as unfair as it perhaps is, we don’t really respect dissenting voices from those who have not actually “been there”, whether “been there” means having spent the last 10 years running distributions that went nuts, being tasked with making impossible decisions, or simply clocking some hard time as a cubicle-farmer in an NGO HQ.

Now, the first point is why I was underwhelmed by this story of heartbreak from Haiti. You’re entering a flawed field which plenty of people think is pretty much morally bankrupt anyway – you should have done your research before you went and the failure of your project might not have been so demoralizing. Not that I want to seem too cynical or dismissive about this post: he seems like a genuine and thoughtful guy and I hope he continues to want to help people.

Point 2 highlights why the reaction to this post in the blogosphere got on my nerves – it’s the double standards of it all. Because Quinn figured out Part 1 while ‘in the field’, it’s more legitimate because he’s earned it by getting his hands dirty. This is ridiculous. In fact, his having spent two years on a project he feels like is a failure is MUCH worse than figuring out that aid has problems while still at University or while doing some low-impact internship like Karen. His learning was linked to a bunch of money being spent on ‘helping’ people that didn’t work. Even worse, at least in his estimation, the project went some way to worsening relations between humanitarian groups and Haitians.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not think this is Quinn’s fault. Everyone ends up in a crappy project or organisation in this field, it happens and people do learn from those experiences. I also think that the more people who haven’t ‘been there’ who realise this kind of work is messed up are just as worthy of praise than people like Quinn. First of all, it could save potentially damaging community good will towards other, more successful projects. Second, if less people are willing to work their arses off trying to do these projects and, therefore, less of those projects.

A lot of aid is bad and broken – knowing this as an industry is pointless if it allows new people access to that knowledge only by repeating mistakes. That just means everyone has to go through the time/money-wasting, demoralising experience that Quinn did – and for what? So you’ve earned your stripes? So you can talk in dark, measured tones about your rock solid field cred?

Give me a break. Aid is macho and ridiculous enough in Hollywood, nobody needs that infiltrating the real world.


5 thoughts on “Earning The Right To Be In The Wrong

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  2. Rowan, I think you need to remember that the post (of mine) that you extract from above, was in response to this post on another blog: http://morethanaruby.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/international-development-disillusionment/

    I don’t hear many voices out there saying that those with little experience have *zero* offer the conversation. But let’s be very clear: Experience matters. Karen had her crisis, presumably as the result of some combination of a soda machine accident and cold New York winters. Quinn had his after two years in – hands down – one of the toughest aid environments currently available, having rocks thrown at him and being called a inappropriate names in Creole. They may have both reached some similar conclusions, but you just cannot compare the two. Reciting and reacting to facts and theories that one has read in books is a universe apart from reacting to being slapped in the face – hard – with gritty reality.

    For me this is less about earning the right to get all angst-ridden about aid industry dysfunction, and more about simply being credible. We accept this easily enough in other fields of endeavor, from parenthood to being a soldier – those who’ve actually been there and done it speak with a level of credibility that simply cannot be matched by those who haven’t. I honestly don’t understand the general pushback that invariably ensues at the suggestion that a similar situation exists in the aid world.

    While of course it’s true that many veteran aid workers speak in ‘dark, measured tones’ (particularly on those dark days, and which seem to come closer together as you stay in the industry longer), I think it’s unfair to suggest that this an effect we’re after or that we intentionally cultivate. Part of what drives – and I can only speak for myself – what others possibly read as ‘macho’ is precisely the opposite of what you suggest: I want to see *fewer* young aid workers slog through the demoralizing bits, but I am simultaneously frustrated beyond words by the fact that almost every attempt to change “they system” for the better falls flat. The apparent insistence of the industry, as well as of far too many individual newcomers to it, to wantonly and needlessly repeat mistakes of the past is what makes us – me, anyway – drink, rant, and whip out field cred.

    • It’s a dangerous situation, certainly.

      Increasingly, most of my contemporaries (the ones with souls, that is) end up going away from the aid industry at all – for profit, community based schemes more often than not – because they see it as both systematically and morally flawed. They reach this decision from something as simple as decent having a economics grounding and looking at published results of various projects. Then they look at the how difficult it is to get a paying job and, fairly, decide spending x years working for free for a big organisation that bullshits its results isn’t going to help anyone.

      Which is a pretty dangerous thing for the industry because they’re losing some of the brightest at the get go.

      Now, where’s that bottle?

  3. Hey Rowan, one of the reasons I shared that article on my blog was for ‘young aid workers’. Reading those kinds of posts can, I hope, alert people in a very real, visceral way, to what they might find in the aid world. Plus I thought it was well written. I liked that Quinn exposed his own shortcomings and feelings about what it felt like. It seemed the post was about the sense of failure and hopelessness of aid in general in Haiti, not specifically a failure of the organization Quinn worked for. I didn’t read it as his particular project worsening relationships with local people, but a description of a generally ugly relationship among ANY aid organization working in Haiti and the communities where those organizations are working. Rather than hear generalized, sweeping statements about this from the media, I thought Quinn’s take on it was humble and honest and could help head off the romanticized saving the world kind of aid more effectively than a text book or newspaper article. Anyway, I also see your point. I’m as tired as everyone else of watching people and organizations re-learn lessons on an individual scale over and over and over. And I’ll admit, I didn’t have the time to read through many of the Reddit comments, so maybe they were annoying.

    • I also think it was a very well written post. I felt like it was a reaction to his being part of a short-termist project, I wish people didn’t have to have a bad experience to realise what they are – there must be a better way!

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