Up close and personal

Is it appropriate to single out individuals for help?

Slate recently ran a piece by Emily Meehan, an aid worker who weighs the pros and cons of giving a young Congolese boy money for school:

It was a long time before anyone explicitly told me that they didn’t like what I was doing with AimĂ©. I knew that I was breaking an aid-worker code, one that says it’s unprofessional for an individual aid worker to single out an individual “beneficiary” and help them with their own money.

No one would actually talk about this code, just as they didn’t talk about the code against discussing why you left home and came to work in a warzone. In fact, people didn’t talk about a lot of things, and I sometimes think that’s why we had become expatriates—to avoid talking about our lives and to avoid our lives.

Still, I had heard a number of vague reasons why I shouldn’t help AimĂ©. One was that if you help an individual, they will become dependent on your help, and when you stop helping them, which is inevitable, they will be crushed. Aid agencies do that all the time, though. They help a group of people here one day and then stop another day. Besides, almost everyone broke the code.

The dependency argument is a compelling one, but, as Meehan points out, one that applies to all aid. Aside from official aid and charitable interventions like the one in the story, many local staff becomes dependent on expatriate aid workers for their livelihood.

Meehan’s piece is insightful, but a little naive at times. It perfectly captures the ambivalence and uncertainty aid workers feel about giving to specific people – such concerns boil over at the end of the piece when Meehan temporarily suspects her beneficiary, AimĂ©, of lying to get more money out of her:

“And they stole my money,” said AimĂ© quietly, smiling and looking at the ground.

“What money?” I asked.

“All the money you gave me,” he said, still looking at the ground and smiling. My little brother used to smile when he lied.

“Who’s they?” I asked, in shock.

“I don’t know,” AimĂ© replied.

After thinking for a minute, I told him I didn’t believe him.

“You think I would trick you?” said AimĂ©.

…..I was confused and upset. I realized that I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know whether AimĂ© was tricking me. I didn’t know why he would trick me. I didn’t know if anything I have told you about his life was true, and I didn’t know if foreign aid works.

I think part of the frustration over helping individuals is driven by the contradictions that arise: aid workers work on programmes that are meant to, directly or indirectly, help people in recipient countries. If we were driven purely by altruism, we should be working in the programmes that offer the greatest chance of improving people’s lives. The desire to spend time outside the programme helping people might be driven by a desire to maximise time spent doing good, but more likely it is a silent acknowledgement that we don’t know whether or not our aid work is doing any good. Otherwise, if we wanted to help more people, we could just put in a few more hours of work per day, or return a hunk of your pay check.

Perhaps there are less rational reasons that most of us have been in Meehan’s shoes before: we have an innate desire to see our charity up close. We have to question who’s needs we are really satisfying when we single out people to ‘save.’

Accepting money from bad people

We are now accepting nominees for the Aid Thoughts-Emperor Palpatine Award for International Diplomacy Research. Please send the relevant forms to Matt Collin,P.O. Box 20481, the Death Star

Early last year, UNESCO created the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.  Unfortunately, the benefactor, the President of Equatorial Guinea, is a renowned for being a particularly repressive dictator and all-around bad person. Names associated with mass economic exclusion, theft of public funds, torture and (even) cannabilism don’t make for highly-marketable awards, but it seems that they tried anyway.

As UNENSCO prepares to make its first award, the blogging communinity, which seems to retain the right to delay outrage for a considerable amount of time, have begun to speak out. Those voicing discontent include Texas In Africa, Vijaya Ramachandran at the CGD, and Te-Ping Chen at Change.org. The arguments roughly follow this line of thinking:

  1. Obiang is a serious crook who is trying to improve his image with the award, and UNESCO is helping him do it. We should not legitimize him any further.
  2. Obiang’s wealth comes from the millions (or billions) of oil revenue he has pilfered, which should have been used for badly needed public goods in Equatorial Guinea.

The first argument is initially pretty compelling. I do believe that we should find ways to pressure Obiang into behaving better, but is denying him a name on a small prize really the most effective method of doing so? In a world where Equatorial Guinea was an embattled dictatorship, chastised and isolated by the international community for Obiang’s sins, then UNESCO’s move would be really pretty scandalous. However, the world we do live in is one where American presidents pose for smiling photoshoots with him, where diplomats occasionally grumble about human rights abuses or governance, but at the end of the day are happy to let the oil exports continue.

We legitimise Obiang’s government in so many ways, for difficult, vexing reasons; attacking UNENSCO for putting his name on an otherwise unremarkable reward might be an easy attack route, but one of dubious efficacy.

The argument that the money rightful should go to the people of EG is also true, but it’s not going to them, and cancelling the award is not make Obiang turn it around and give it to them. So we should ask ourselves: would we prefer to have the money remain in overseas bank accounts, earning interest for Obiang and his progeny, or we would prefer it be used for some small good?

If we want to get serious on Equatorial Guinea, let’s get serious. If we’re not ready to get serious, then we should smile, take the awful man’s money, and channel it towards better things.

The 10 billion dollar question

What would Lawrence do with $10 billion dollars?

Deciding what to do with $10 billion is difficult.

The Wall Street Journal features eight of the world’s top philanthropists explaining what they would do to help the world with an extra $10 billion dollars. Their answers are a mixed bag – there’s a lot of unproven and some very old ideas and odd misconceptions, from carbon-capture toilets (really?) to AMCs, investing in education and climate change mitigation.

Mo Ibrahim (the only person in the article who is actually from a developing country) made one of the most interesting suggestions: bolster the statistical capacity of the continent.

Better data will support improved policy making by governments and interventions by donors. The data will enable them to identify needs, to make better use of existing resources and to assess results. In the case of donors this will finally lead to aid that is “smart”—for both donor nations’ taxpayers and recipient countries’ development needs.

The only other suggestion that I found worthwhile came from Judith Rodin of the Rockerfeller Foundation, who would dedicate part of the funding to

…..equipping groups and governments with talent, technology and training so cycles of growth continue after funding dissipates.

Both Ibrahim and Rodin see aid as an potential enabler for governments, rather than as an end in itself, which is uncommonly refreshing, as philanthropists are usually more interested in reaching people directly. It’s also harder to raise money for this sort of thing, as it doesn’t directly involve starving children. Let’s have a go:

This is Steve

This is Steve. Steve works in a statistics office, earning less than ÂŁ90 a day. Steve works on assessing poverty indicators and informing policy makers of the appropriate data, but has no computer. His office is dangerously understaffed (one out of every two government statisticians is poached by development partners every year). Please, when you're deciding where to send your check this Christmas, think of Steve.

Sadly, in the business of aid, the long term needs are the least photogenic.

Kristof on faith-based giving

A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.

Read the article. Then read this article. See the comments – I was being unreasonably snarky and I take it back (a reasonable rule of thumb is: don’t blog at the end of a long day).

More hardcore poverty porn, now with landmines

MSF have done it again. I’ve already discussed how these ads play to stereotypes and quite effectively use the medium to envoke the “right” emotions. See for yourself:

Common themes between this and their original ad “Boy” are pain, rape, and war. My prescription is the same.

Unfashionable philanthropy


This may look like self-parody, but it's not.

I just discovered the blandly-named Project Migration, which is the brainchild of (model?) Hillary Rowland. The organisation purportedly sells merchandise (in this case fashionable t-shirts with the African continent on them) made by “single mothers in Africa” (no indication where it might be, but at least they found it on a map).

On the website are links to a number of photo shoots Rowland has done with the new t-shirts, as well as a video of her looking sexy during a particularly skimpy photo shoot (Bill Easterly, eat your heart out).

Rowland is one of those self-made socialites who uses the internet for self promotion (such as by posting lots of pictures of herself with real celebrities). As she seems to dominate most of the photos on the site, her sudden decision to join the philanthropic community might seem a tad suspect.

The photo at the start (which is directly from the merchandise shop!) says it all. Also read the fine print: “For each Project Migration product sold, a single mother in central Africa will receive 5 to 20 years of clean water and life-saving medical supplies.”


Hat tip to AFRICA IS A COUNTRY for the link.



I spotted this on Alanna’s twitter feed: the “International Network for Enabling Poverty Development” or the INEPD charity. It’s obvious a heavy dose of parody (although the site looks so much like the typical small-NGO setup, that it took me a few minutes to be sure). It has some wonderful quotes:

Our Inepd coordination systems allow us channel your funds to any emergency that has a high profile in the news.

We are happy to announce that applications are now open for the Humanitarian Couple of the year award

On the 22nd the acting head of the Inepd Public Health Department Shirley de Vries noticed 3 suspected cases of Mexican flu. She immediately quarantined all staff in the Inepd International office including two visitors to the office and subsequently a pizza delivery boy.

It reminds me of a joke that we had in Malawi about the proliferation of useless (and often fraudulent) NGOs – we talked about the NGO TWACIB, which stood for “Two wankers and a computer in Blantyre.”

International Network for Enabling

Poverty Development