Advice to the Amateurs: Ignore the Professionals

This is part one of a two-part post about the role of amateurs and professionals in aid and development.

The other day, Develop Economies was asked to move to a different table at the iHub because a European government aid agency would be holding a workshop on gender equality.  Grudgingly, he moved.  They spent the next few hours coming up with ideas on how to “engage the private sector” to develop programs that would empower women to increase their incomes while turning a profit.  If I had to venture a guess, less than a third of the people brainstorming ideas had ever actually held a job outside the civil service.  Needless to say, their ideas didn’t seem grounded in practical reality.

If you read development blogs, as I do from time to time, one consistent theme is animosity among “experts” toward to amateurish do-gooders.  In 2011, Nicholas Kristof, the voice for the voiceless, wrote a long piece in the New York Times magazine titled “The DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution,” in which he highlights the good works of people who decided to give up their day jobs to come up with solutions to problems in the developing world.  The centerpiece is a young lady who develops a low-cost sanitary pad made from local materials for girls who cannot afford or do not have access to other products.  It is a great idea and, if executed well, has the potential to prevent girls from dropping out of school.

One of the major criticisms of articles like this is that Kristof typically focuses on a young American protagonist, and fails to acknowledge the local staff and community-based organizations that making the biggest difference.  It is a fair point, and this development blogger, for one, has defended Nick Kristof on that very issue on multiple occasions.  Yet, this criticism took a backseat to the concept of “do-it-yourself,” amateur foreign aid.  The notion that anyone can change the world caused a backlash among a great many bloggers within the development community.

In an article from Foreign Policy magazine titled “Don’t Try This Abroad,” Dave Algoso, a development worker and blogger who writes “Find What Works,” responded with criticism:

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?

But in this field, amateurs don’t just hurt themselves. A project that misunderstands the community or mismanages that crucial relationship can undermine local leaders, ultimately doing harm to the very people it was meant to help. There are also opportunity costs when funding could have been used better. Every dollar spent on PlayPumps or an unnecessary orphanage could be spent on other, better interventions in the same communities. My advice is to hire a professional. And if you want to do this work yourself, become a professional.

Despite all my complaints, I think Kristof’s article does some good if it convinces more people to pursue international development as a career. We all start as amateurs. The difference is whether we seek to learn more or assume that we can just start doing something, muddling through as we go. The “DIY foreign aid” concept might spur a few people to launch ill-advised ventures that eat up scarce resources and get in the way of better efforts, but it might also convince a few others to read a couple books, go to graduate school, get jobs with professional aid organizations, and spend their whole careers making a real impact.

I enjoy Algoso’s blog and admire the fact that he has committed himself to this work, but I have to disagree with his main points.  He cites the example of PlayPumps, an infamous example of how DIY foreign aid projects can go awry.  A South African billboard advertising executive and couple of engineers developed a playwheel to be placed in rural communities that would actually pump water out of the ground as kids played.  A huge amount of money was invested in developing Play Pumps and installing them in villages around Africa.  Unfortunately, they were expensive and, as with most aid projects, once the funding dried up, so did the maintenance, causing them to lie idle and break down frequently.  By most accounts, the organization, while well-intentioned, was a failure.

While many of my loyal readers may have never heard of Play Pumps, the organization actually relates to how I became involved in this work.  Back in 2006, when I was 22 and living at home after college, I sat down to watch an episode of Frontline World with my mom.  In this episode, Frontline highlighted the works of two fledgling social enterprises that had the potential to put a real dent in poverty in Africa.  One of them was Play Pumps.  The other was a small tech non-profit based in San Francisco called Kiva.  The latter organization was founded by Matt Flannery, a programmer at PayPal, and Jessica Jackley, an MBA student at Stanford – hardly the profile of microfinance or international development experts.  At the time, they had a handful of partners in Africa and had built a platform to allow their friends and extended network to lend money to women who did not have access to banks.

I thought it was an amazing idea and, at the time, I thought to my unemployed self: “I’m going to work for them.” Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about finance, business, computer science, or anything else that might be useful for an organization like Kiva.  Plus, I didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford to volunteer.  So I took a job in what one might call the private sector and, after three years, applied for a fellowship with Kiva, where I would represent Kiva on the ground at one of their partner institutions.  By that time, they had grown to over $100 million in loans and over 100 partners.  I flew to San Francisco for a one-week training on microfinance, quit my job, and moved to the Philippines.

Since then, I spent nine months working in microfinance in the Philippines and another six months working in agriculture in Ghana before moving to Nairobi to work for an education company.  There is no doubt in my mind that, had I tried to work for Kiva in 2006, I would never have learned certain things that are valued by the organizations I have worked with in Asia and Africa.  If I had gone back to school and gotten my masters degree in international development with no real substantive job experience, I would have been all but worthless to the microfinance institution I was sent to work with.

My story is hardly unique.  Out here in Kenya, I see former lawyers, software programmers, investment bankers, management consultants, journalists, engineers, college students, product managers, teachers, physicians, and tech entrepreneurs starting and working for very cool companies that are making a difference.  None of them are “experts” – in fact, nearly all of them come from the private sector in their previous lives.  And if they had taken the advice of some development bloggers, they, like me, would still be at home.

These people are what the development economist Bill Easterly calls “searchers.”

In foreign aid, we see the follies of planners manifest in numerous ways. Mosquito nets, medicine, and food are often traded away to support non-necessities or vices. On-the-ground habits, lifestyles, and environmental conditions often spread diseases faster than medicine or recommended methods can contain them. Even when real, entrepreneurial spirit is successfully channeled, there is often no infrastructure to competitively bring certain products to market.

At the end of the day, the clearest and most simple demonstration of the failure of planners is that after billions of dollars in aid and systematic tweaking, there appears to be no real or lasting change in the developing countries in question (at least, not attributable to aid). In fact, many countries appear to be getting worse.

It seems reasonable, then, that the answers for developing countries can be found by tapping the searchers therein — the entrepreneurs, the missionaries, the workers, the teachers, and the students. Instead of seeing the people in these countries as victims, our policies need to focus on empowering them as individuals. We need to focus on their potential, not their limitations.

The searchers don’t necessarily listen to the professionals.   Instead, they came out here – just as the “amateurs” criticized by the community of aid bloggers did – and got to work implementing their own ideas and vision.  They seek inspiration and guidance from a broader range of sources.   And, for the most part, they have pretty successful, picking up the requisite anthropological knowledge along the way.

In my next post, I will discuss why amateurs bring a fresh perspective to development, and why that is so important.


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About Josh

"Josh Weinstein is a visionary. I read his blog every day." - Bono
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One Response to Advice to the Amateurs: Ignore the Professionals

  1. Pingback: Why DIY Foreign Aid Amateurs are Necessary - Develop Economies | Develop Economies

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