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Tales from the Hood takes up my holiday challenge

I’m still on holiday break but I wanted to publish this guest post from “Tales from the Hood,” an aid worker-blogger who has provided many of us with great insights and perspective from inside the humanitarian industry.

“Tales” was posted anonymously, in part to avoid causing trouble for his organization or himself. But this was also because he cares about promoting knowledge and understanding more than his personal brand.

Tales is now moving on to new things, putting the blog to bed. I’m not alone in seeing this as a loss and so I hope to convince him to continue posting here on Humanosphere.

For a start, here’s his answer to my holiday query in which I ask if we are entering a new phase for humanity in which the concept of “charity” needs to be reconfigured and if we need some new lingo for these folks we call philanthropists, humanitarians or, worse, do-gooders.


Tales from the Hood:

Three things I wish more “ordinary people” understood about humanitarian aid:

1) It’s possible to do aid wrong. There’s always some woman at the Christmas party who, once she discovers what I do for a living, wants to talk my ear off about some awful idea she has about how to help poor children in El Salvador or Cambodia. She’s watched the Brian Williams “Make A Difference” segments, maybe Googled a few things, and now she’s got it all figured out. Then she gets somewhere between hurt and mad when I tell her that her idea won’t work. It’s clearly come as a surprise for her to learn that it’s possible to do aid wrong.

If we do aid wrong, the people we think we’re helping actually get hurt. It’s doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a catastrophic system meltdown minutes later. But make no mistake – getting aid wrong causes harm. I don’t think there is a single more dangerous misperception about how to help “the poor” than the simple assumption that whatever we do in the name of “helping” is automatically, well, helpful. Why? Because knowing that it’s possible to get aid wrong, we’re responsible for getting it right. Once we know, we’re responsible for knowing the difference between good aid and bad aid, and giving our money to charities that do the former.

And that is a message that most people I know simply do not want to hear. Most people I know simply do not want to hear that the cause they’re supporting or maybe even the project they’ve started themselves is doing it wrong. Most people I know want to be unquestioningly affirmed for donating or volunteering or collecting clothing for Africa or whatever. In Western culture, particularly, there is a very strong cult of the giver: We’re programmed from a very young age to believe that “charity” and “doing good” and “making a difference” are all about us, the givers. People often get offended when it is suggested that their so-called “good intentions” may be good enough, as intentions go, but are actually the wrong way to help, or worse, may cause harm.

But it is not about us or our emotional desire to help. We do have the responsibility to know the difference between good aid and bad aid and, further, to support or do the former.

2) The overhead rate doesn’t tell you anything useful. There’s always a guy at the neighborhood barbeque who, on discovering what I do for a living, is all, “so… how much of my donation to [MY EMPLOYER] actually goes to beneficiaries? And how much goes to overhead and administration?”  It’s always as if he’s about to trick me into giving up some embarrassing aid world secret.

See, there are legitimate costs of doing business for aid organizations, for NGOs. Costs like the office electric bill or the office rent or the salary of an administrative assistant. These are costs which for a range of very logical reasons can be difficult to attribute to specific program outcomes in the field. Difficult, but not impossible: the electric bill can be divided up by the number of beneficiaries over the life of a project, as can the salary of the admin assistant. But doing that takes time and effort, it takes the additional salary of someone to do the calculation, and those calculations all have to be redone every time a project finishes or a new grant is won. The larger the organization, the more projects in the organization’s portfolio, and the more donors the organization works with, the more complicated becomes the exercise of tracking the so-called “administration costs” down to individual beneficiaries. And in the end “overhead” basically represents the level of effort an NGO puts into breaking down and linking those legitimate costs of business with those field-level outcomes. Overhead is simply the agreement between NGOs and their donors about much effort the NGO has to put into documenting the breakdown of every portion of a donation in programmatic terms (effort, therefore, not spent doing real relief and development work) versus how much of a donation can simply be put into the general category of “overhead.”

I have worked in situations where “zero overhead” policies were in place (every sheet of paper through the copier, every phone call, every minute on the job was documented and charged to specific project), and I have also worked in situations where the allowed “overhead” was close to 50%. Under both systems we did the same work and the impact (benefit) to beneficiaries was about the same.

So when the guy at the neighborhood barbeque gets smarty-pants with me about overhead, I look him straight in the eye and tell him that unless he’s prepared to accuse me of misusing donor funds, he can safely assume that every single penny of his donation contributes to helping the poor.

3) There are no magik bullets. One of the most common misunderstandings that I encounter about “the poor” in other countries is that they and their problems are simple. My neighbors and non-aid worker friends seem to really want to believe that what poor people in other countries really need is more money, a good ol’ American work ethic, and maybe more respect for human life. They want to believe that it’s literally just a simple teaching a man to fish will empower him to feed him family for a lifetime. Simple solutions to simple problems.

We’re all captivated by the idea that a cool new kind of soccer ball will save money, improve community health, help the environment and create a feeling of empowerment, that something as simple as a “fuel-efficient stove” will transform livelihoods across entire continents or that a specially designed rolling water bottle will lift poor African women out of squalor. We’re in love with the possibility that four tweenage girls can solve Cambodia’s water issues for just $12 per family, or that post-earthquake Haiti’s housing problems could have been solved with old tires and bottles. We’re stuck on the belief that, like fuel injection or the dual-core processor, if we can just pinpoint that one thing in [POOR COUNTRY X] at the crux of the problem, and then innovate the right solution, we can permanently solve the problem.

I’m not saying that any of these are necessarily bad things to do. But let’s stay clear in our own heads: the causes of poverty are systemic, structural and global – gadgets that generate electricity for reading lamps or that make carrying water easier treat symptoms but don’t address core problems. Cambodia’s water issues go all the way back up the Mekong river to Tibet – low-cost point-of-use water filtration is an inherently short-term and unsustainable stop-gap solution. Global warming and desertification are caused more than any other single thing by American over-consumption, particularly driving – fuel-efficient stoves might make us feel better, “greener”, but won’t solve the problem. The overwhelming challenge with housing in Haiti is land. Period. So, in this context, irrespective of their technical merit or supposed cost-efficiency, houses made of recycled trash solve nothing.

The reality is that the vast majority of what it takes to address the problems of the world involves hard, slow, boring, wonky, superbly unsexy work. It is about seeing and understanding enough of the context to know where to push and how, but not being distracted by the context. Making change happen in a poor community in a poor country (or a rich community in a rich country, too) takes time – years, maybe decades. There are no simple, quick solutions. There is no gadget or invention which, if we can just get everyone to use it, will change the face of poverty. There are no magik bullets.


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.