New online magazine DevBalls holds aid industry to account

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DevBalls

The aid and development has a new thorn it its side. And it comes from within. DevBalls is a new online magazine written by people working in the aid industry that hopes to make it better by holding it to account.

“DevBalls is here because the aid industry has – functionally and morally – lost its way,” says the group’s mission statement. “And those who should hold it to account – the media, researchers, politicians – don’t. DevBalls is here because aid can only become better when its absurdities and hypocrisies are open to view.”

With anonymous authors, DevBalls allows for more free criticism about the aid industry. As Lee Crawfud points on in his blog, Roving Bandit, DevBalls fills in the void for criticisms about aid as an industry and not simply as a tool.

“The blogosphere has been pretty light on cyncial scorn since the demise of Bill Easterly’s AidWatch, so DevBalls looks like one to watch. Won’t be comfortable reading for DFID or ODI or ASI,” blogged Crawfurd.

The first edition of DevBalls features stories that critique the way that the UK government has carried out aid. It even includes a bit of friendly communication advise for explaining its budget increase.  I reached out to the creative force behind DevBalls to talk about why it was started, how media is failing to hold the industry to account and what to expect next.

Humanosphere: How has aid “lost its way?”

DevBalls: In two senses. First in terms of the functional task – the ‘how to’ of making large-scale and lasting differences to the world around poor people – there’s actually been much learning. Technically we know more about how to do this. But this is increasingly buried beneath the wider politics of aid – the need to look and sound good, the self-interest of organisations and individuals. There is a core misalignment between the goals of development and the incentives shaping how aid industry players and individuals within them (donors, contractors, researchers etc) behave, to thrive commercially, to progress the career-ladder, to be important, to keep on doing what you do – none of which need to have much to do with doing good development. All of this has got much worse as the aid jamboree has grown – the global Doing Good Industry that Devex (I fear without irony) refers to.

Second, morally, you try and explain the aid business to a ‘normal’ person and you’ll struggle. Especially its rewards. Try to explain, for example, how the aid industry – the poverty business – has created so many thousands of millionaires (and globally it is thousands). Many (maybe most) people in aid have lost the ability to stand back and see ourselves as others might see us. Of course people will burble that much of development is technically challenging (and it is) and people deserve appropriate rewards (and they do) but no other industry sees itself in quite the blessed self-righteous light that aid does (selfless good guys, heroic field workers etc) and so none has the depth of hypocrisy that aid does. Many in the aid game have become that guy in the Talking Heads video from years ago (yes – that ages me) – Once in Lifetime – “You may ask yourself/How did I get here?/Am I right .. Am I wrong?/And you may tell yourself/My God … what have I done”.

The purpose and promise of development have substantially been betrayed by the self-serving aid industry that has emerged over the last few years. And if people in aid don’t see that and seek to more self-critically and radically reform from within, others (from outside) will.

You call out the lack of accountability for aid. What in your estimation is the reason for the lack of accountability?

Some of this is about the nature of development and aid. Aid is a curious and complicated endeavour way outside most people’s experience. So there’s an awareness and understanding problem which allows the public discourse on aid to be pretty superficial, and for aspirations to be conflated with achievements. If you like there’s a (quite natural) ignorance problem. While in other spheres of public spending people/citizens are the direct recipients of spending – and they and their representatives are close to it – here they’re not. Development happens in far flung distant places outside people’s experience from donor countries. For many people this is charity. Worthy deeds. Helping the poor. A good thing, right?

But the real culpability for the lack of accountability lies with organisations who just don’t do their job. Many research organisations in development have been captured by commercial self-interest so that they don’t question the efficacy of the aid machine that feeds them. The UK’s ODI is a prime example, supposedly the country’s leading think tank – it’s sold its soul (we’ll have more on that in the next issue). And researchers are much more comfortable delving into development issues than the mechanics of aid. (Contractors incidentally do know more about aid mechanics but they increasingly are empty amoral shells, doing anything as long as the price is right).

And that leaves the media: why don’t they hold aid agencies to account? Well, some aren’t bothered – too difficult, too distant from their readers/listeners/viewers. Not news. For most aid is a reflection of their gut instinct world view. The Right-wing press will happily focus on high-profile aid disasters – waste, corruption etc – which fits easily with a xenophobic agenda. For the Liberal-Left, aid is inherently a good thing which they should support, and serious scrutiny is seen somehow as disloyal. So the mainstream media has neither the insight nor the incentive to look at the aid industry in detail. And to add to that, like researchers, parts of the media have also been effectively captured by aid interests. The UK’s Guardian newspaper, standard-bearer for the internationalist caring Left, now has a major web-based resource paid for by aid organisations – in particular the Gates Foundation. Don’t expect too many probing features on the Gates Foundation from the Guardian (and more on that in the next issue).

How can DevBalls help to fill the accountability void?

We hope that it plays a couple of roles. First, it obviously tries to be funny. The aid industry has generally been free from satire and humour – aid has cultivated an aura of serious moral purpose around it which handily helps to deflect criticism (don’t you know that we’re on a noble mission here?) and can keep comment rather plodding and virtuous (and there will be no giggling – let me remind you that this is all about the poor!). But it needs it. The absurdities of the aid game have grown so wildly that it merits both impassioned criticism and, the twin sister of rage, humour. And humour is sometimes more effective.

Second, we hope that it provides a space for stories on what’s going on. For informed ‘insider’ perspectives and whistleblowing. And therefore an opportunity for the many people engaged in aid who are often appalled at how it works in practice and feel they can’t change it. This is a place where those frustrations can be given uninhibited voice. Hence the need for anonymity.

We think these are valid roles but they’ll only be effective if others – especially in the mainstream media – pick up the issues raised. If that doesn’t happen then we’ll fail – and the accountability void will be untouched. So let’s see.

What ways can media do a better job in holding the aid industry to account?

By giving more priority to international development, yes. And, yes, probing into the efficacy of development efforts more effectively. But looking beyond this at the way the aid industry works. We shouldn’t expect aid to stimulate meaningful change when so much of its workings and processes are flawed.

Are there any other places or individuals who you think are doing a good job at holding aid to account?

In terms of media in the ‘development space’ – at the risk of sounding all backclapping and luvvie – Humanosphere is good – although mainly US focused. Some blogs are interesting of course but with others there’s a sense of development as a slightly sterile intellectual debate. And it’s a pity that Bill Easterly’s Aid Watch is no more. But in terms of the mainstream media – written or broadcast – I see little that’s applying useful informed pressure on aid. And that’s a real problem – because without that the contradictions and absurdities of the aid industry grow until someone, somewhere says “you know what, this is all crap. Let’s just forget it and start again”. Something like that happened in Australia with the recent implosion of aid and the death of AusAID.

Why do so with an online magazine?

The format is consistent with the roles we want to play – independent comment, anonymous, humour etc. DevBalls is put together by people working in aid – that’s what we do – and it has to fit around that. And there are lots of blogs – not sure we need another.

The first edition is UK-focused, do you hope to expand to critical articles elsewhere (ie. US, Australia, Norway, etc.)?

We certainly do hope that the range of articles will expand but that is in part dependent on the responses we get. So we hope that happens yes. However, the UK will remain an important focus both because we know it well and because of the extraordinary and unique goings-on the world of UK aid. What’s happened in the UK is that, after years of clever lobbying by NGOs and celebrities, the UK aid budget (at a time of major government cutbacks) has ballooned to reach the fabled 0.7% of GDP target. And what have we found now that we’ve reached the promised land? A donor that, on the one hand, has so much money it has no idea what to with it but on the other wants to demonstrate its value-for-money toughness by obsessing over minor expenses. Which has become so politicised that how you look and sound takes absolute precedence over substance. Where, under the rubric of becoming more business-like, processes have reached new depths of bureaucratic grotesqueness. Where staff incentives follow the political distortions and the challenge is to simply muddle on through to the next project and the next posting. Where contractors comply with whatever nonsense is set for them as long as they’re lining their pockets. Where money has bought debate. The UK is development gone bad and mad in extremis. A Babylon that can’t last.

What kinds of reactions are you receiving about the first edition?

Mixed. Some people like it. A worthwhile initiative etc. And some are sending their contributions – some wanting reassurance over anonymity (which we’ve given them) given the risks they see to careers if they are seen to break ranks. And some are angry over the perceived disloyalty of ‘insiders’ highlighting the aid industry’s woes, suggesting that this can only help the enemies of development (we’d say the opposite).

When can we expect the next edition of DevBalls?

Sometime in June.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.