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.