Algoso's skepticism in the FP piece begins with a theme that has troubled me as well in the past year:
Here's one critical question: How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe?It is indeed a question of local community involvement and investment and, in turn, a question of the project's response to communal needs and its eventual sustainability. I agree with Algoso that this is not a question we ask ourselves enough -- but "ourselves", in my mind, includes individual development workers and institutional aid agencies alike. How frequently do we laugh (and cry) at the development projects that ignore local customs, traditions, and myths and, therefore, fail to have the intended impact? The toilets that flush automatically and scare the locals out of using them, hence failing the goal of increased sanitation. The doctors who ignore the myths and customs of Haiti, resulting in patients not visiting them and not receiving care, as Paul Farmer narrates in the early chapters of Mountains beyond Mountains. Perhaps the institutionalized programs of the UN and assorted NGOs in each field have a greater capacity for finding the answers to these questions and increasing the impact and sustainability of their respective projects -- but it has been my experience that too often they, too, fail at asking the questions at all, making Algoso's concern of serving the beneficiaries' best interest one that troubles individuals and organizations alike.
The answer, for both institutions and individuals, lies in needs assessments. Ensuring the work serves the interests of the beneficiaries becomes easier when we ask the beneficiaries what they hope to gain through their participation in a development initiative. What do they hope to learn? What kind of skills would they like to develop? Which of our proposed topics do they find more interesting and which are less relevant? A needs assessment extends beyond participant interviews; indeed, other NGOs, community-based organizations and aid agencies in the field can offer great insight as to the best and worst practices in a particular country or project sector. Many of Kristof's critics would argue that 'this is not the stuff of amateurs' and they may be right. Training development professionals to conduct and supervise these processes correlates well with effective project completion. However, this need not be as esoteric a process as it currently appears: Individuals with curiosity, a commitment to project sustainability and adaptability to local needs and cultures, and meticulousness can apply this formula and avoid common project design pitfalls.
Similarly, Algoso asks:
How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe?My answer to this question mirrors my response to his previous one. First of all, funding comes from across the globe for UN aid agencies, NGOs and individual projects, so this is once again not a problem that is particular to the independent development practitioner. Secondly, a needs assessment and survey of best and worst practices in the field can minimize the risk of the project not fulfilling the wishes of its intended beneficiaries. It is for this reason that fundraising staff and project design and implementation staff have different mandates and are involved in different aspects of development programming. Indeed, a fundraiser cannot necessarily be expected to know the best public health interventions to minimize the spread of cholera in a particular region -- for that reason, epidemiologists, development workers and field staff have greater input into the design of the actual intervention. Skeptics will say that the greater the financial assistance of the donor, the more heavily involved s/he will attempt to be in the project implementation, regardless of his or her expertise -- and they will sometimes unfortunately be right. However, the fact that the source of funding comes from abroad, from outside the community that the donation intends to assist, does not mean the project itself will necessarily be foreign, incongruous, irrelevant and, consequently, of diminished impact.
Texas in Africa, a blog I greatly respect and a resource I consult often, added the following critique of Kristof's article:
The problem here is that Kristof is relying upon anecdotal evidence (NGO's he has encountered) rather than systematically gathered evidence. [...] Because Kristof's only research method is his personal observation, we can't be sure that he's not simply making general claims on outliers. He's not using data; he's using anecdotes. And anecdotes are a slippery slope on which to base claims about the kind of aid work that will best aid the world's poor.I do not dispute that this appears to have been Kristof's methodology for writing this article. However, I do not agree that this is necessarily an erroneous approach. Kristof did not submit an academic paper that posited to hold the truth to innovative, independent aid work projects. Instead, he submitted to the New York Times Magazine profiles of individuals whose story can inspire others to become involved in the field of development. Whatever happened to the power of the story? Why can the narrative -- indeed, the anecdote -- not be moving and successful in mobilizing others to action?
I understand that glamorizing these individuals' stories can provide false motivation and an inaccurate picture to aspiring aid workers. I further understand that the allure of this lifestyle and these profiled successes can draw people to this field who are not qualified to run their own development projects individually. The people in Kristof's article are role models and, yes, they are examples of successes. Some have called them "outliers" and they may be that as well. But critical readers should be expected to understand that Kristof likely did not highlight these stories as blueprints for exact repetition. The very function of a role model is as a source of inspiration, as a seed in one's brain that can grow into a good idea, a new path, and a source of further research. Kristof appears to understand the potential for "wrongful application" of his piece as well, so he makes sure to point out potential drawbacks and dangers -- and it is valuable to have other development practitioners contribute to the debate by highlighting the caveats and nuances and difficulties of this kind of work on which Kristof may not shed as much light. However, at the end of the day, I see nothing wrong with inspiring and moving people with the power of a story; in fact, it can be as compelling as an academic paper or scientifically-researched article. t is not as though we have too many individuals donating their time and energy to causes in the developing world. And if the problem is that some people who do not have the guts or the training to be in the development field end up feeling disillusioned or ill-equipped in Africa or Latin America or the area of their choosing, then the field itself, its challenges and its learning opportunities will either force them to seek guidance and education in what they have yet to master or push them out, towards a direction that is more suitable to their skills and interests. In this sense, I am an optimist. I believe that anyone who wishes to learn and succeed and make impact and goes so far as to take a leap of faith and jump right in the middle of the issues one cares about will find a way to make up for his or her deficiencies - will find a way to learn and be taught and be successful.
Which brings me to the final point about independent development practitioners vs. institutional affiliations. When I was a junior at Harvard University, friends and classmates were going through the e-Recruiting system, whereby they submitted their resumes through an electronic platform to recruiters, mostly in the field of consulting and financial services (but also, in smaller numbers, in teaching and public service). Competitive rounds of interviews would follow and Harvard graduates would flock en masse to consulting firms and investment banks -- en such masse, in fact, that President Drew Faust acknowledged the pattern in an address to the Class of 2008 during Commencement Week. I was not interested in financial services (nor was I honestly qualified to be a consultant or investment banker). When I asked a friend with prior experience in this field what its appeal was, he earnestly said that it is good to receive this kind of structured training early in life; it does not matter in what field. It is helpful and valuable and significant to have someone teach a young graduate and young professional how to be a professional and how to function in the work sphere.
Even though I still have little interest in the field of financial services, my friend's words still resonate deeply. His argument is the same reason why it can be instructive to be a paralegal or to hold an entry-level job in the publishing industry: We all need to be taught and trained how to conduct ourselves professionally and development is no exception. In that sense, the title of Kristof's article may be misleading. "Do It Yourself" aid does not mean "do not ask for help, teaching, training or mentorship and assume that you know better than all the above." Capacity building initiatives for development professionals are catching on and they are initiatives in which I enjoy both participating and contributing to the design. Algoso and other critics of Kristof's article are right to point out that development is not easy enough to be a "Do-It-Yourself" endeavor. They are right. Where I diverge from their argument is in the ways one can be taught. There are mentors out there -- individuals with years of development and project design experience who will happily teach what they know. There are seminars and workshops and books and opportunities to learn outside strict academic or professional environments. Few of these ways of learning would be as structured as being part of a UN or other agency and I do know that all of these other ways of learning require the learner to take initiative, seek out mentorship and guidance and truly commit to amassing knowledge. However, I have found that such guidance and mentorship is available -- meaning that those independent development practitioners who actively seek out qualification and knowledge and instruction can find it.
- The problem of unsustainable projects or projects with minimal community involvement and inadequate response to the beneficiaries' needs is not particular to independent aid workers; it plagues aid agencies and independent professionals alike and its solution lies in comprehensive needs assessment processes and field evaluations on all sides.
- Anecdotal, story-based evidence does not have to be less credible than academic, scientific data where the profiling of individuals is concerned, particularly when one of the purposes of these profiles may be to showcase role models. This methodology places an emphasis on inspiration and the generation of ideas and its intention is not to provide a single, ready, universal blueprint for individual development work. [Algoso is right to point out that Kristof does pick a homogeneously American sample of stories -- there are local leaders whose stories and projects are just as inspiring and there should be room for them in the NYT Magazine pages as well. Having read Kristof and WuDunn's Half the Sky, I do appreciate Kristof's awareness of this and his commitment - in the book - to highlighting the stories of a more diverse group.]
- "Do It Yourself" Aid does not -- and should not -- mean "Do It Without Outside Assistance, Teaching or Guidance." There are ways to become a qualified aid professional outside academia or institutional affiliation and it is doubly important for independent practitioners to take advantage of them. Mentorship, capacity development initiatives and the very nature of work and life in the field build aid workers' qualifications. I will, however, agree that institutional affiliations are advantageous in this regard; it is hard to compete with a rigorous training program and constant oversight as an individual.
Thank you for bearing with me and for contributing to the debate -- it is the passion and commitment of individuals to the field of development and to their respective projects that account for thoughtful, successful, sustainable initiatives and I am inspired to read about these programs, the individuals behind them and, indeed, their stories.