I’ve mentioned on Twitter (though haven’t here) that the international aid agency World Vision has been running an interesting social media experiment. Being run by @RichendaG, they’ve taken a bunch of high-profile vloggers (video bloggers Frezned, Nerimon and Nanalew, for those who tube) across to Zambia to check out some of the charity’s field work on the ground. These vloggers have put up regular video posts on their YouTube channels and elsewhere to engage their followers on understanding some of the basic tenets of development work in a very personal way. I’ve talked about the applicability of social media to aid work in the past, and this is something I’ll be watching with some interest as it unfolds.
Another vlogger, Shawn of The Uncultured Project, has been following the story as well. According to his video posts, he was involved in the planning stage of the vlogger trip to Zambia, and he has a few things to say about it.
Shawn is an interesting guy. As well as having a vast network of online followers, Shawn has dedicated a large chunk of his time to trying to raise the profile of poverty-related issues, and carry out assistance work himself, taking his viewers along for the ride.
Following Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007, Shawn travelled to the country himself and, through his YouTube network, raised money to fund a series of rehabilitation projects over two years, including repairing a school damaged by the storm. Check out his YouTube channel for an uplifting video summary of the process.
Shawn has used his strengths in social media and mobilization to support a good cause. This is similar to the sort of stuff a lot of aid bloggers were talking about around the time of the Million T-Shirts escapades. It was a good confluence of using an individual’s passion and resources, coupling that with an organization which had local networks and know-how (in this case, the international NGO Save the Children), and using the interactivity of social media to engage both donors (fundraising and mobilization) and the local community.
In a more recent video post, Shawn reflects on World Vision’s current project and, while supportive, challenges it in further ways. He argues that while using vloggers to raise the profile of countries, issues and events in a general sense is one thing, what the online community really craves is the high level of interactivity with specific projects and people which new media tantalizingly promises. He holds up his time in Bangladesh as an example- where he could mention specific donations, and then show video of that individual’s gift being delivered to a family in need. He also references other specific charities which offer that kind of interactivity particulary Charity: Water.
There’s a bit of a negative vibe among the aid blogger community about the appropriateness of voluntourism, and high-profile well-intentioned (and occasionally self-promoting) do-gooders jetting off for a few weeks to some developed country, seeing all the flaws in the aid industry, and sharing their epiphany on how they can do such a better job than the aid professionals currently working in the field. On the surface, Shawn appears that he could be an easy target for this sort of criticism. I’d actually like to suggest he isn’t. Shawn’s approach has on many levels been substantially different. He’s remained engaged with a community not just for a few weeks, but over a three-year period. He’s done his time reading up on the subjects he’s interested in so that he has some theoretical knowledge behind him. He’s not gone off half-cocked with his own project, but he’s joined forces with a well-established aid agency (Save). And to boot, he’s gone to a country to which he has some cultural links, speaks the local language, and can engage directly with people in what appears to be a meaningful way. And he’s used his strengths- his social network- to add value to the process.
I do, however, want to discuss some of the points that Shawn raises in his latest post. He raises some very valid challenges, but I feel a couple of his observations probably don’t sit well with the realities of aid work on a global scale.
The model that Shawn proposes holds two main tenets as central. First is the notion that, unlike large NGOs, individuals like Shawn and small NGOs like Charity: Water can keep their overheads low and operate more cheaply for local beneficiaries. Second, that interactivity between donors (the YouTube community, for example) and the community creates both fundraising and accountability in an effective way because of the relationship that is built.
The first is a common myth among individual start-up style aid interventions and MONGOs. I, Joe DoGood, can rock up in community X with my suitcase of money, and give all that money straight to the project- unlike those big greedy NGOs who slice off huge percentages in overhead margins. It’s not true, but it sounds great.
Joe DoGood, of course, still costs money. His flight to the field costs money. His accomodation costs money. Ditto food. Then there’s his salary or income on top of that. He’s probably still paying taxes back home, maintaining a home, possibly a family. He’ll be paying travel insurance, contributing to a pension fund, and so forth. He might be drawing benefits, or on sabattical, maybe drawing down on a savings account- but whatever the reality, there will be a host of other costs associated with keeping Joe DoGood alive and healthy.
These costs are invisible. They may not be coming directly out of the pot of money being raised for the project in question. But the fact remains these costs are still there, being paid, but unlike with an NGO that hires paid staff, these costs are never factored into the equation when considering the cost of the project itself- thus the claim that there are no overhead costs. It makes the donor feel better, but it is actually a zero-sum game.
I’m not saying that there’s anything insidious or malicious about this. It’s fine. But it’s a fallacy to suggest that Joe DoGood doesn’t have any costs associated with his time on the project, and this needs to be clearly understood when weighing the benefits of small, individually-funded responses against those run by ‘overhead-heavy’ NGOs. It’s just the source that’s different. This is an issue when it comes to transparency in advertising (essentially, a gimmick). And this is very relevant when it comes to the issue of sustainability. Because Joe DoGood may be perfectly happy to spend 3 months of his time running a project without a salary, or even six months, or even two years. But unless Joe DoGood has already made a mint as an industrial capitalist and is now seeing out his twilight years living off the interest from his investments in rolling stock, sooner or later he’s going to need to go back home and start earning some money again.
Shawn references the agency Charity: Water a couple of times. It’s a smaller US-based NGO focusing on water projects. They have a donor promise that 100% of their funds raised goes to the field because “a group of private donors, foundations and sponsors help pay for the everyday costs” associated with aid work. Well, really this is just an example of robbing Peter to pay Paul, where instead of all donors sharing a percentage of the overhead costs, a handful of specific (and presumably quite forward-thinking) donors have chosen to carry that cost for everybody else. In fact, if you look at their figures (from the 2008 annual report) Charity: Water spend USD 1,113,591 on the dreaded operations/overheads costs, out of an overall budget of USD 5,421,990. That’s 20.6% overhead, or a percentage of 79.4% of funds going to the field. Which puts them in a dead heat with most of the major aid agencies out there, who operate at a rate somewhere between 75-85% of funds going to the field. If major NGOs could get their funds covered in the same way, they would. The fact is, few single donors have the funding available to pull off a stunt like that, and those that do- namely, international governments- choose not to. While an agency the size of Charity: Water (annual budget USD 5 million) can find organizations able to foot 20% of that to relieve them of the need to charge overheads to their donors, an agency the size of World Vision, for example, with an annual budget of well over a billion dollars, simply cannot.
(I’ll take a moment to bitch about government donors here for a second. You’ll find that unlike the giving public, who are very generous and tend to accept overhead rates of around 20%, government donors are far less acquiescing, and will cap their field overhead rates at a figure that is usually well below cost- 10-15% maximum, which means that it often falls to NGOs to cover their actual running costs from other donations)
In fact, the notion of unrestricted funds is a fair one. If 100% of NGO funding was unrestricted, that would mean that all overhead costs could be shared equitably across all donations at a set rate. As it is, some donations have to get a higher portion taken out for overheads, because governments (among others) place such restrictions on their contributions (or, as in the Charity: Water case, some donors get lumped with 100% of their donations going to running costs!).
More to the point, unrestricted funding is the way forward in terms of good donorship. Agencies have been pushing for decades for the removal of ‘tied aid’- both at an intergovernmental level, and at the level of charity giving. Placing restrictions on where, when and how funds must be used often locks agencies into fulfilling promises made to donors at a point in time, after which the field reality changes. In some cases, this means NGOs have to implement promised project activities which no longer meet the best interests of communities due to these changing circumstances, because if they don’t, they’ll get punished by the donors (either in terms of legal ramifications in the case of government donors, or loss of trust by the public). By contrast, unrestricted funds allow agencies to be reactive to changing needs on the ground in real-time. As discussed in my article on Cynefin and humanitarian assistance, the currency that needs investing in here to allow this level of reactive implementation is trust. What Shawn is suggesting- moving donors back away from the notion of unrestricted funds- actually flies in the face of a lot of what NGOs are currently advocating for in terms of good donorship.
Finally, one example Shawn gives is how individuals can get a better deal from local suppliers than aid agencies can. I don’t want to query the information Shawn was given in the specific example he cites. But I can tell you about how major charities do business in these places. First off, charities know that expatriates will get charged through the nose if they take control of purchasing items. You need spend no more than five minutes in any market in the developing world to witness this. NGOs, for all their flaws, aren’t actually stupid. So it would be an extremely rare and unlikely circumstance that would see an expatriate taking charge for purchasing and procurement. On top of that, staff makeup charities’ country program offices are usually 90-95% local staff, so odds are, it’ll always be locals doing the purchasing. Next up, agencies have very strict systems around making purchases. Usually they involve things like a competitive and transparent tender process to a minimum of three suppliers, to get the best possible prices. Then a bid analysis takes place to ensure that the deal is a good one. This will be compared with staff local knowledge about appropriate prices, and market analyses are also regularly done. Finally, because large agencies are usually running fairly large operations, they can usually benefit from economies of scale and discounts on large purchases, further making prices competitive. Whatever the details of the specific incident Shawn refers to, the likelihood of an individual being able to get a better deal from local suppliers than a major purchaser like an NGO is quite low. If we then bring in the outsider model, it’s nearly impossible. Shawn has roots in Bangladesh, but if any other Canadian rocked up in that store and tried to make a purchase, I guarantee they’d be paying much higher rates.
(Note: This is not to say that big NGOs always get it right, that they never get ripped off, or that there’s never any corruption in their ranks; only that they have systems that will, on balance, mean that they’ll usually get a pretty good price on local purchases).
The other issue worth addressing is that of micro-level accountability. Back in the middle of last century, a number of the now-large NGOs hit on the ‘child sponsorship’ model- namely, you give your donor a picture of a child with their name on it, and the donor gives their money to the aid agency to give to that child. There’s been a range of variations on the model which range from direct benefits to the child (my $10 goes straight to the child, with a little admin cost taken off the top) to indirect community benefits (you donation goes into a pool with all the other donors, which the agency invests in improving that child’s community). The charm in the model is the sense of personal connection created between the donor and the child.
Shawn’s model is a bit like the sponsorship model for the New Media generation. It creates a bond between donor and recipient- but one which is even more tangible and interactive. There’s a lot of great things that can be said for this idea as a concept. It’s an exciting new way to mobilize donorship. It gives the opportunity to educate donors in a really tangible fashion. And it allows near-real-time accountability: I get to see my donation being handed out to the recipient the next day on my 3G iPad screen sitting in the tram on the way to work.
The thing is, this model works great on a micro-scale, like The Uncultured Project, where we’re talking about a single community, a few dozen beneficiaries, a few tens of thousands of dollars. Ditto for an organization like Charity: Water with a field budget of some four million and change. But what happens when you hit a crisis like Darfur? I think of distributions I’ve been a part of where 200,000 people will receive a monthly food ration over a two-day period in a single location- food in one distribution worth more than Charity: Water programs in a year. Two million people across the region every month, consistently for the last six years. And that’s just one sector, in one emergency. How do you video that? How do you link that to tens of thousands of individual donors? How many hours of footage do you need to shoot and sort through?
It’s a lovely idea- but one which, on a large scale, is utterly impractical. Impossible- no. But the cost in terms of staff time, data storage and processing, communication, and administration would be immense- talk about a bite into your overheads! That’s not the sort of thing a roving vlogger could cover on a voluntary basis. That’s not to say that the idea couldn’t be adapted to match the reality of larger scale events- I like Shawn’s challenge and think agencies should look to investigate how they can do a better job of engaging new media generally and YouTube specifically in this sort of context. But to hold up the work Shawn did in Bangladesh as an example of what YouTubers should expect to see if they engage with aid projects is, I’m afraid, not realistic when faced with the scale of global need.
On top of that, there’s also the issue of market saturation. Right now, The Uncultured Project, and like it, World Vision’s Vlogger project, are a bit new, and a bit unique, and somewhat ground-breaking. But imagine if we did try and cover every distribution in that way? The market would quickly become saturated. The concept would lose its appeal (how long before people are tired of Old Spice rip-off style viral marketing campaigns?). Worse- donors would come to expect that level of intense coverage, jacking up administration and reporting costs. Think how outdated child sponsorship is now considered in many aid circles.
Finally, I want to just remind folks of the risks of observer bias- that being that when you rock up to Village X with a notepad, or a camera, your very presence affects the answers that will be given. Community members may lack resources, and even education, but they’re not stupid. When a donor representative like myself or Shawn asks them a question, they will always give the answer that makes it most likely that they will receive more funds. If they turn around and complain about the quality of aid, they know there’s a risk that the donors in question may write off the village as a failed project and move on. Big smiles and thank-yous are far more likely to make a donor feel good and give more- and they know this. When agencies carry out accountability and evaluation processes, observer bias has to be built into the analysis of the results. The same holds true for any new media interactions such as the sort of accountability that Shawn is suggesting. That’s not to say it shouldn’t happen, but it does mean that everything that gets reported back can’t be taken at face value.
I want to drive home several key points.
1. Overheads are necessary. Donating but wanting no overheads is like buying a meal then complaining because the restaurant charges a service fee on top of food costs, or buying a car and expecting to pay for the value of the metal and plastic in the components, but not the labour or design costs. It takes people to deliver aid, and good people to deliver aid well. It is not a matter of chucking sacks off the back of a truck. Aid is a complex, difficult and dangerous profession that requires years of training and experience to implement. It’s also important to recognize that a very significant portion of overhead costs come from needing to meet the demands of donors themselves around demonstrating accountability- systems, report-back mechanisms, and so forth. This all costs money. The notion of zero overheads may sound nice, but either it means the overheads are just hidden somewhere else (Charity: Water), or there’s a good chance that from the service and accountability side, your donation may not actually be being put to good use.
2. NGOs have to prove they are worth their overhead rates (and this includes Charity: Water). Agencies do need to demonstrate to donors that they are in fact adding value to an operation through their experience and expertise, and doing so in accordance with international standards. In fact, this is where big NGOs- as opposed to well-meaning individuals- have a distinct edge. Meeting international standards such as Sphere, the Red Cross Code of Conduct, aspects of International Humanitarian Law, accountability codes, host-government requirements, the UN humanitarian system, interagency collaboration, and so forth, takes tremendous work and hours of labour. Large NGOs can engage at a professional level (and the sector is increasingly professionalizing) with these aspects of aid work. Bypassing these systems is ignorant, runs the risk of doing harm to local communities, and undermines decades’ worth of hard-earned experience and learnings that established aid agencies have developed together (and we saw this happen hundreds of times over in Haiti with ill-informed, ill-prepared but well-meaning startup NGOs). Overheads alone (high or low) are no measure of program quality. As donors, you have the responsibility to check into the agencies you’re giving to. Are they accountable to the communities? To their donors? Operating to the very highest standard of emergency response or aid delivery? Challenge them- and yourself.
3. Unrestricted funds are good donor practice. There is a huge volume of material that talks about the need for donors to reduce their demands on donor funding, not increase it. Calls for restricting donor funds fly in the face of good donorship advocacy and risk creating more poorly-designed and poorly-implemented projects that might satisfy a donor’s feel-good needs, but will compromise communities’ wellbeing. While it’s essential to engage with donors and educate them, it’s important to stress that their needs are secondary to those of community members, whose lives and wellbeing are at stake, and as aid agencies it’s our job to represent them to the giving public.
4. Well-meaning people can often cause damage, not good. While somebody like Shawn, who’s taken time to educate himself and has chosen to invest a lot of time in a particular community, working alongside a well experienced NGO actor, has chosen a thoughtful path into aid work, he is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to small-scale and personal-driven aid initiatives. In fact, the thought of hundreds of well-meaning vloggers from Canada, the US, Australia and/or Britain running around aid projects globally, reporting back on what they’ve been seeing to the world, is in many ways horrifying. The potential for ignorant opinions, misunderstandings and knee-jerk reactions from inexperienced people who have been shelfed off into culture shock and have no idea what they are witnessing, has the potential to do tremendous damage both to aid projects, and to communities themselves. That’s not to say that individuals (even those with no knowledge/experience of the aid sector) can’t be used in exciting ways in social media engagement with development work (people such as Frezned, Nerimon, Nanalew, and at one time, Shawn himself)- but it is to say that not everybody with a video camera and a hankering for a third-world adventure should be visiting NGO project sites to vlog.
5. Accountability is a really important thing in aid projects- first to the recipients of aid, and second to the donors. Vloggers can create a specific and niche application of accountability and I would wholeheartedly support investing in creative ways to engage this community in contributing to accountability mechanisms. However I’d also remind folks that accountability is not new. The Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) is a sophisticated and extensive internationally-designed and -accepted framework to which most major agencies hold their aid projects to some degree or another- and it has been in circulation in various developing iterations for years. In fact, if the agency you donate to does NOT engage with HAP, I would strongly recommend you rethink whether you should be giving to that organization.
6. It’s good to challenge NGOs to do better. I- and many of my online aid-blogger type comrades- are big fans of holding agencies, big and small, to account over their aid practices (as well as donors and other commentators). I will always welcome and encourage the public, at any level, to challenge and question what aid workers do (so long as they do so from a platform of openness and intelligence, not ignorance as is sometimes the case). In this vein, I think it’s great that Shawn is having these dialogues, that he’s working with NGOs to try new ideas, that he’s bringing his enthusiasm, passion and network to bear here, and that he has some really good things to say. I look forward to The Uncultured Project continuing to challenge agencies and suggest new ways we can do things better.
I’ve written before about the potential for social media and technology to contribute to aid work and communications, and it continues to excite me. Shawn has some good ideas, and there’s plenty of room for aid agencies to grow in this field. Shawn says that he hopes that this vlogger project will be the first step, and not the last, down the road to greater social media and vlogger engagement. Talking with a number of different NGO ICT4D and social media types, I’m very confident that this really is only the beginning and I look forward to lots more feedback from a range of sources into this process as well.
I’d like to suggest one final thing in regards to some of Shawn’s challenges to the vlogger project, which is that to some extent, I think Shawn is speaking a slightly different language to the 3 vloggers World Vision took out. Shawn’s passion is in accountability, program quality and stretching the envelope in terms of social media engagement- in many ways quite sophisticated for somebody who is not an aid professional. By contrast, the three vloggers in question were new to the notion of development work, were learning themselves, and their goal on this trip (and presumably World Vision’s goal as well) was not so much to start conversations around aid quality and effectiveness, but to raise profile, and to explore how successful such approaches might be in engaging donor audiences. Both are relevant issues to NGOs, and NGOs need to invest time in both- both internally, and in public domains such as YouTube.
Shawn should keep challenging NGOs to try new ideas, and call them out when they go wrong- as anybody who has taken the time to learn about and engage with the industry should. I would ask that he takes a hold of some of the key messages about good donorship and good aid agency practice in the field, and help us educate the public by sharing these messages with his network. And I’d recommend that Shawn- and anybody else interested in this line of work- take a look at the large amount of important and very digestable information about aid quality and donorship, starting with the website “Good Intentions are Not Enough” (as well as several of the other blogs on the right-hand side of my home-page).
Note: All photos my own, taken during NGO response to Niger nutrition crisis, 2005