Some time ago I was asked to contribute to a discussion about improving the Humanitarian sector. If there were any three things I could magically change about our industry, what would it be?
Well, better late than never I guess.
I had intended to have this post written up for World Humanitarian Day on August 19th, but unfortunately in the days leading up, I found myself flat on my back with a neck injury and found it hard enough to get to the toilet, never mind write for the interwebs. So, sorry about that. And also my total lack of engagement around the whole WHD online campaign. Now I feel like the guy who didn’t wish anybody a Merry Christmas.
[Full disclosure: this year, I hardly wished anybody a Merry Christmas]
If I could snap my fingers and change three things about the Humanitarian Industry, these are they:
1. The Right People in the Field (and lose the dross)
Humanitarian work (whether emergency or long-term development focused) happens at the field level. It is, above all else, a service industry that revolves around support provided to community members by staff mobilized through our programs. The guys who operate at that level are essentially the fingertips of our agency. They are the face that communities see and they are the ones who ultimately make the decisions on a day-to-day basis that affect whether or not programs see success.
They are also the bottom rung on the organizational ladder.
We have this crazy idea that there’s a hierarchy of importance in the aid industry. The field pleb who carries out community mobilzation meetings to talk about how to go to the toilet without getting cholera is at the bottom. Then there’s the program manager who reports on the daily activities to their boss, an area manager of some kind. Most likely, these guys are locally hired, maybe even national staff from somewhere else in the country if they’re in management roles. Some of them are totally awesome. Some of them haven’t finished high school, or are useless. Some of them haven’t finished high school and are still totally awesome.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got headquarters office in some European nation where white guys (and increasingly, I’m happy to say, non-white guys and non-guys) with thirty years’ experience in the industry have desk-jobs where they make decisions on how best to do our work. Some of these guys even started working as field plebs in some country office and ‘worked their way up’ to become senior managers, or technical experts, or sectoral advisors, or whatever it is they’ve become. Some of them are totally awesome. Some of them are a complete waste of space.
The thing is, we’ve got it topsy-turvy. We’ve assumed that our field works like a corporate model, and the further you get from the field, the more of an expert you are, and the better contribution you can make to the organization. When the fact is, when you’re stuck at some lofty level in a dysfunctional bureaucracy, your contribution gets watered down until, at the field level, it mixes with the hundreds of contributions from hundreds of other technical experts, and comes to pretty much zilch. Meanwhile, some local kid hired last year is running field activities and has never even heard of your innovative collaborative cross-cutting approach, and is just getting on with business.
I know some awesome field guys stranded in head offices, men and women who really know how to interact with and inspire a community. In fact, I know people like that at pretty much every level in the industry. I can list off passionate local field coordinators who really know how to communicate with their own people. Dynamic expat area managers who have an amazing and inspirational connection to their staff and the programs they’re responsible for. Maybe the best community engagement field worker I’ve ever met was a Latina expat who ran a multi-country disaster preparedness program in Central America. Man, she had communities eating out of her hand- they loved her.
I’ve also known a lot of space-wasters. People who’ve been promoted simply because they’ve put in the time, or because their brother works in the right ministry. Expat experts who’ve been around too long and are keeping a desk warm until their long-service-leave matures. Field workers who are ignorant, don’t care, or are abusive to the communities they’re supposed to be serving, and local area managers who’ve set up their own kingdom and are skimming off the top. Internationals who once upon a time made good field staff, but have had to return to home-base offices to raise a family, and are drying up inside and getting too cynical to be of much use.
This is due partly to an inherent trend to favour a corporate model, and partly due to perceptions of financial restrictions. Why would we pay an expat ten times what we can pay a local to mobilize at the community level, especially when the expat wants a place for their kids and the local has a better connection with the community.
Well, there is some truth to these constraints, but it’s not complete. You see, we need the right people in the right places. Sometimes, that’s gonna mean we need somebody from that community to be the face of our organization. Other times, it might be a national from somewhere else. In some circumstances, there might be an expatriate who is just the right person for that particular job- they have a way of interacting that inspires and provides leadership, and they have the right technical skill-set to really make a difference.
Basically, we stick some of our best field staff behind desks where they can’t be effective, and pay our lowest salaries to the men and women who represent the organization and are ultimately going to operationalize our plans.
Think about this. Our reputation, our impact, our very humanitarian imperative rests on the people we invest least in. Is this good business? No.
The industry needs to put its best people in positions where they can have direct operational control over field activities and staff, where they can represent the organization to our most important stakeholders- the community themselves. People who have the capacity to simultaneously implement best practice in gender, accountability, disaster risk reduction and complexity management.
We wouldn’t expect a high-school graduate in some western nation to be able to get up and run at this level. Why would we expect it of our field-staff? And yet this is the level we should be operating at.
So you need to pay an expatriate wage for a ‘low-level’ program manager sometimes? Okay, so what? I realise it will raise a few awkward issues around pay equity between national and expat staff members, but are you really going to let that stand in the way of maximising impact? Besides, it won’t always be the case- sometimes you’ll find the right staff member locally, too- but make sure they’re fairly paid for what they’re offering (not to get all communist on you here). But let’s have a career progression that sees our best staff encouraged and supported to operate at the field level, not some lofty height where they’re effectively useless, while staff who are not-yet-competent (or in some cases, simply lack the will or capacity to do any better) do our most important work and aren’t paid, recognized or supported accordingly.
Oh, and all those middle layers of bureaucracy, expertise and hamster-wheel box-ticking management? Plebs like me? Send ‘em back to the field or sack ‘em.
[Full disclosure: Since writing this, I've been sent closer to the field- yay]
2. Downward Accountability & Complete Transparency
A reminder that seems to need to be pushed out time and again in this industry: We’re here for the communities first, and everybody else second. None of this dual-citizenship where we have to treat our donors as equal stakeholders in the process. I’m sorry. You’re a donor. You’re not why we’re here, so get over it, and if you don’t like it, then don’t give. We exist to serve our communities. Period.
As such we have to not just talk accountability- we have to be accountable. Get our communities running their own assessments. None of this seeds-in-a-pile stuff, either. I mean, sure, if it’s the most appropriate way to get information and connect with the communities, by all means run with it. But please, half these guys have smart-phones now. You’re telling me you can’t involve them in your assessment process in a more sophisticated way? And if they’re not there yet? Invest in them so they can be.
How about getting them to help write your project designs? Contribute to discussions on how the project will be managed, and what indicators and outputs they want to see in their communities. Not just , “I want a well”. How about things like flow-rate, water quality, how to set up the distribution network, and safety issues? How about bringing them to meet the donor when you negotiate the project terms? Let them see your budget- including management costs. Do they see your reports? How about letting them write the reports? Do your communities lack the capacity to do that? Really? Do they? If so, you’d better put education at the top of your to-do list, cos take it from somebody who views reports for a living: It ain’t rocket science.
HAP International has a fantastic tool that prescribes the appropriate levels of accountability for a program to be truly answerable to the community it purports to serve, but like most systems it can become a tick-the-box exercise and be paid nothing more than lip-service. “Yes, we’re HAP compliant. There’s a little wooden box they can put complaints into if they want to.”
Let’s make it actually happen so that communities get to call the shots. I bet our programs would look pretty different.
On the same topic (and not wanting to be cheating too much here by adding extra things to my list), let’s be totally transparent and accountable to all our stakeholders, not just communities. Let’s let our budgets and reports be uploaded onto central publically-accessible databases. We bear in mind the need to protect certain information for the safety of staff, beneficiaries, or the organization- but we don’t hide behind this. Let our donor public see what we’re up to. Let communities and host governments see what we’re up to. Partner agencies. The UN. Donor governments.
It makes you squirm. And it would hurt at first. There’d be a lot of re-aligning of expectations on behalf of donors. A lot of re-aligning of employment on behalf of NGOs, for sure. But it’d settle. And we’d all be better off for it. And a lot more honest.
Of course, implicit in this assumption is intelligent donorship. Donors need to be able to look at what NGOs do, and what they are, and how they work, and within the context of this transparency, make appropriate decisions about how to invest in supporting communities in need- for goodness sake stop talking about ‘overheads’. We don’t have that yet. A part of that is due to the lack of transparency and the partial-honesty with which we treat our constituents. There are other factors in there too- particularly politics- which are harder to overcome.
3. Action Fitted to Context
Wow. We’re here again. Needs oriented! Make your programs appropriate to the context you’re operating in! Humanitarian imperative first! How many times do we have to have the same conversation? I guess as many times as we keep making decisions to prioritize things other than the needs context of the people we’re supposed to be serving. Do I really need to say very much more about this one? I sincerely hope not. Suffice to say, this isn’t happening. Not yet. If there was one thing I could change with a snap of my fingers, it would be this one. Easy. Done.