Why do aid workers like to cut off their nose to spite their face?


I’ve always liked that phrase, about cutting off your nose to get back at your face. It’s both wonderfully absurd and so bloody descriptive of our tendency to act against our own interests.

Today, I want to defend aid and development workers against themselves.

To be clear, I am not really an expert on this stuff. I am a journalist and, I accept, a lower form of life with no special insights into … well, much of anything.

Worse, as someone of Scandinavian bent, I am predisposed to holding a relatively bleak view of humanity and distrusting those who smile too much and/or claim they’re primarily motivated to help others.

Yet my job is to write about these folks who aspire to reduce global poverty, prevent deaths from unacceptably stupid causes like dirty water or lack of basic preventive health measures like vaccination — and generally keep slogging along trying to make the world a better place for the poor, for all of us.

I have to admit I am, despite myself, constantly amazed, encouraged and even inspired by these people.

So what the heck is their problem?

Why do they keep flogging themselves, even celebrating those who criticize and ridicule them? Why are they so passionate and engaged about what’s wrong with what they do?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Aid Cannot and Will Not Fix Anything

This is a post from an excellent blog by an anonymous aid worker, at Tales From the Hood. He published this (a first installment in a series to come, mind you) to make the case that aid generally only addresses symptoms rather than root causes. The opening salvo:

One of the most important lessons that we’ve never really learned is that, in fact, aid does not fix anything. This is most likely a difficult one for you to wrap your head around.

Yes it is. I agree with the contention that aid often addresses symptoms and not root causes. But I think he overstates the case and, well, cuts off his nose to spite his face. Here’s what I said on his blog, in response to this post:

Didn’t the eradication of smallpox fix a problem? Wasn’t that an aid program?

Unless I’m missing a nuance, I think it’s fair to say the global smallpox eradication program (and its recent heir apparent, today’s announcement re rinderpest) was an aid program. And I think it’s fair to say it fixed smallpox.

Do we still have other diseases, other problems? Sure. But it seems to me some things do get fixed, sometimes even thanks to aid programs.

Given the level of ignorance and even hostility that exists in this country toward spending much on foreign aid and development, I think the main challenge for this community is make the case for the value of aid and international development. Saying “aid cannot and will not fix anything” is a dangerous soundbite in this political and cultural environment, I think.

But you should read the entire post at Tales From The Hood with comments from many others, and with replies by the author, to decide for yourself.

My second case study in nose-cutting and face-spiting:

It’s a Better Life Without Oxfam

I ran across this spoof video of an Oxfam pitch at Tom Murphy’s blog A View from the Cave. It was put together by students at the Miami Ad School in Madrid and won some award called the Golden Pencil. Tom posted it because he thought it was both funny (and it is, assuming you already know a bit about Oxfam) and made an interesting point. Says Tom:

In starting with imagining a world without Oxfam, the focus is on achieving the mission of the organization and putting itself out of business. Other ads could be developed that imagine a world without poverty and show how Oxfam would not be needed.

Yeah, except that most people already imagine a world without Oxfam.

I suspect most people, if asked, don’t really have much of a clue as to what it is Oxfam does. I replied similarly on Tom’s blog, saying (with, sorry, some mild use of expletive language) that this seems like it would only be funny to insiders — and would simply encourage the dismissive or cynical views many already have toward such organizations.

Duncan Green, at Oxfam, took it all in good stride and called it a “lovely” video. Green said it makes a case for getting rid of poverty and, in so doing, getting rid of the need for (annoying requests by) groups like Oxfam to help them fight poverty, injustice and the chronic tragedies caused by global inequity.

Good grief. Don’t you folks know when it’s time to punch back?

To me, I feel like slapping these future advertising executives for picking such low-hanging fruit to ridicule. Maybe the reason this thing won a prize has something to do with the fact that the advertising industry makes a lot of money trying to disguise all the problems Oxfam tries to draw public attention to.

In reply to another commenter on this video at A View From the Cave, Jessica Keralis, I said:

I think the joke here — and the point — may be well-received and useful within the aid/development community. But I still think it misses the bigger point and, if it was widely circulated, would only help undermine the already anemic public support that exists for aid and development.

Sorry, but I think both of these episodes indicate a serious problem of self-loathing within the aid and development community.

I appreciate and respect self-criticism. I do. It goes along with my ethnic mindset. But I have to say you aid workers are even out-doing my Norwegian Lutheran relatives when it comes to pathological self-deprecation.


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 or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Lisa

    “Maybe the reason this thing
    won a prize has something to do with the fact that the advertising
    industry makes a lot of money trying to disguise all the problems Oxfam
    tries to draw public attention to.”

    I think this point is key.  But then, I’m of Scandinavian extraction, too, and am afflicted with  Nordic pessimism/cynicism.

  • http://lauritamoore.blogspot.com/ Laurita

    Watch the movie: Turtles Can Fly

    When babies survive, if they are living in a world where children are not valued or cared for, they may survive only to be brutalized.  I am no expert.  I am certain that some of those saved go on to be great heros and contributors to the world.  How many others are brutalized in one way or another?  Eventually problems need to be solved one bite at a time and global health is the best place to start.  There are so many other bites to be taken…

  • Cdoheny

    I think this article makes an excellent point.  Let’s stick to the point, eradicating poverty and it’s causes.  Not talking about how much we are bothered by the people and organizations doing the work.