Foreign Policy: Nick Kristof is wrong

Nick Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote a popular article about individuals launching humanitarian efforts that he celebrated as the “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution.”

The humanitarians he profiled (most were women … Kristof’s thesis is that women are more focused on helping the most vulnerable, which are often women) were an impressive lot. One was a Seattle couple, Eugene and Minhee Cho, who ask people to donate one day’s wages to help fund certain causes they vet and select.

Many of my friends said they found the article inspiring and encouraging. As Kristof put it:

“It’s striking that the most innovative activists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most resources, or the best tools…. Rather, what often happens is that those best positioned to take action look the other way, and then the initiative is taken by (these lone activists) of the world, who are fueled by some combustible mix of indignation and vision.”

All of these efforts are admirable, but something about this DIY aid idea bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this article “Don’t Try This Abroad” by Dave Algoso in Foreign Policy magazine.

Algoso says he, too, gets all “warm and fuzzy” reading about these people trying in some small way to make the world a better place. He acknowledges that many great movements begin with a single step taken by one person.

But Algoso said he was disturbed by Kristof’s simplistic description of the problems of poverty and the “implicit arrogance” that a groundswell of well-intentioned outsiders represents a solution. He says:

“Many globally minded, can-do Americans these days have come to believe that the world’s major problems have solutions, and that these solutions are within reach. This feeling often leads to frustration: Why doesn’t someone just do something about these problems? Are the NGOs and foreign aid agencies lazy, incompetent, or both?”

The reality, Algoso says, is that these problems are often way more complex than they appear. Building an orphanage may end up disrupting a community’s extended family social order. Donating goods can rob locals of a chance to address a need by instead starting a business. Outsiders coming in to help may diminish efforts aimed at empowering people to help themselves.

“Yet Kristof’s headline is: Do it yourself. Bring the same attitude you would have toward re-painting the living room or installing a new faucet. After all, how hard can it be? The developing world is like your buddy’s garage. Why not just pop in, figure things out, and start hammering away?”

The road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions, Algoso reminds us. It’s easy and sometimes justified, he says, to criticize the big, established assistance organizations, aid agencies and government development programs.

It’s not so easy to criticize individual humanitarian efforts, Algoso says, in part because they exist in isolation, they assume (and advertise) that they are doing good — and yet are accountable to nobody.

Update: Today, Friday, Nick Kristof responded to Algoso (indirectly, and directly to others’) criticism.

Another update: I’d somehow missed it but Sarah Arnquist of GlobalHealthHub.org earlier wrote a good post in response to the Kristof piece drawing attention to the DIY underbelly.

Is Do-It-Yourself foreign aid a step in the right direction? Or is it a misstep based on naivete?

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Marla Smith-Nilson

    Tom – thanks for posting this. Many of my friends love Nick Kristof and I sound way too cynical (and maybe I am) when I remind them that he has a book to sell, so it’s kind of in his best interest to make us (the people who buy his books), the hero of the story. Needless to say, I was happy to read Dave Algoso’s blog. I agree with him in that lessons learned are often ignored by newcomers, and the same mistakes are made over and over again. But the lessons are also ignored by those who should know better.

    Dave mentioned the PlayPumps example. If USAID had paid attention to its own lessons learned they wouldn’t have invested $10 million in this system in 2006. There were many flaws in the PlayPumps system, and in my opinion, the biggest flaw was the operation and maintenance scheme. It relied not on users, but on revenue from ads placed on the water storage tank, to pay for operation and maintenance of the system. Turns out the advertising revenue was not so good. During the three decades preceding the PlayPump, there were a lot of lessons learned about rural water supply in poor countries, and one of the most significant ones was that users themselves needed to be responsible for maintenance. That is the formula that has worked. Water is clearly valuable, and I know from experience working in hundreds of communities on 3 continents in both rural and urban areas, that people are willing to pay to have a good, clean water source that ends their walk for water.

    I happen to work in water and sanitation, but I imagine the same is true across all fields – regardless of how much people like talk about sustainability, the lack of actual, rigorous monitoring remains one of the main reasons so many international aid projects fail just a few short years after implementation. And interestingly, these failures always seem to be the fault of someone else.

    All the well-meaning people in the world, DIY-ers and established charities too, need to match their good intentions with results. The only way they can do that is if they invest in learning from others first, and then identify and monitor the critical outcomes of their own projects. This is a process that has clearly been hard for traditional aid because, as Dave says, this work is not simple. I think the evaluation step could be much harder to DIY-ers, who may not have the professional backgrounds or instincts to recognize what outcomes to look for in determining a successful/sustainable program from one that is not.

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Thanks Marla,

      I appreciate your perspective and insights, especially since I believe your organization Water 1st started out as a project launched by a few people. As you say, the critical and often neglected part of many aid efforts — however well-intended — is an evidence-based strategy. And the failure to use evidence, both in establishing the approach and in measuring its results, is not unique to DIYers.

      Thanks
      Tom

  • camille01

    Tell this to the orphans. And the thirsty. Some DIY projects may not last forever, but they help a few and they inspire even more. Remember the story of the child throwing starfish back into the sea?

  • http://twitter.com/OneDaysWages One Day’s Wages

    If people are looking for perfect solutions and answers to very complex and poignant situations, we may be the ones that are most naive.

    It’s not one or the either. It’s very complex but one point is simple: We all need to do our part.

    On a side note, I hope folks might consider joining us for our Inaugural ODW Gala: http://onedayswages.org/gala

    Eugene Cho | http://onedayswages.org

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Thanks Eugene,I agree that perfect is the enemy of the good. But I don’t think that was the point of Algoso’s critique of Kristof”s article on DIY foreign aid. Algoso also wasn’t, so far as I can tell, arguing against individuals like you doing your part to try to help people. Rather, he was defending the “establishment” — the big relief organizations like World Vision, the government agencies like USAID and multilaterals like UNICEF. Given their high profile and the magnitude of the problems they are trying to solve, the mainstream foreign aid agencies and organizations are often subject to a lot of criticism. Often, the criticism is justified. But Algoso is pointing out that there’s a danger if people come to believe — as Kristof basically implied — that foreign aid might be better off done by dedicated “DIYers.” The danger is further loss of public support for traditional foreign aid approaches, which make up the bulk of foreign aid delivered worldwide — and which are already underfunded and unable to meet the needs. Best wishes to One Day’s Wages and good luck with the inaugural. Tom

  • Vdayethiopia

    I think most people here have said what I feel, though I just wanted to mention how perfect your picture was for this post.

    On first glance, its the stereotypical picture of kids looking happy and posing for the White in Shining Armor. It the “with kids this happy how could we be doing anything wrong” advert picture.

    But, on closer glance, you see one of the kids in the middle clearly giving the finger to the camera. At least someone is saying that not everything’s a-okay.

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Ha!
      Yes, I noticed him, too. The story behind the photo is that I took it while on a visit to a remote part of eastern Nigeria last year. All the kids were smiling, clambering all over me and yelling “On-yacha” (not sure of the spelling). I assumed they were welcoming me or saying some kind of greeting. I learned later they were simply yelling “white guy” — apparently because they hadn’t seen many in this small, rural community.
      I wasn’t even there to help. Just a journalist looking for a story.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Terry lawhead

    a great book by Paul Hawken is titled “Blessed Unrest” and, in an instant flawed summary, describes his amazement at the uprising around the world by people wanting to do good. One of the two or three most hopeful books I have read in eyars, and I am always searching for hope. But he also goes into excruciating detail at why life on earth is unfair. It is astounding writing. I suggest this book and his approach in context because I appreciate the discussion about DIY foreign aid. I cannot pretend I know what to do about the tragedies mounting. We lack political will as well as not having a culture that reaches out, in a systemic way that simultaneously tries to reduce inequities fostered by the West, to help. We got miraculous individuals saving people and places, but our culture, on the whole, seems to find it okay to ignore or even support bad things done in our name or not. I simply don’t know what to do about that other than getting depressed about human nature in general. Hawken’s book at least suggests the world’s peoples aren’t waiting for Americans to wake up and get on our white horses and save ‘em. Will the coming conflicts and things far worse than conflicts shake us up? Yes they will, and are. Is it in our best interest to pay attention and come to the table? I woul dlike to think so, but that is an arguable question, based on global economics. Sadly, we all benefit in many ways from the horrific inquities….I apologize for not getting to all the interesting links you provided, Tom, there just isn’t time right now and I hope get back to em–geez, that river of info sure flows fast, tho–but I sure appreciate the points raised.

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Thanks Terry,
      I have to admit to being a bit torn on all this myself. I have seen just how much difference the efforts of one person can make to affect positive change. So in that sense, I agree with Hawken (and Kristof). Change has to start there, with each of us. But I think the over-arching concern is that people will then fail to urge our government, corporations or other large organizations to also invest more in these efforts. Few Americans seem to be aware — or concerned — about how little we spend on foreign aid as a proportion of our overall wealth. What’s needed is both the DIYers and more large-scale investment in fighting poverty and global inequities.

      Cheers
      Tom