Tag Archives: aid professionals

Why DIY Foreign Aid Amateurs are Necessary

This is part two of a two-part post about amateurs vs. professional in aid and development.

In my experience, development professionals tend to be a jaded and cynical bunch, but also eternally optimistic, well-meaning, and principled.  In one post, a blogger who writes “Good Intentions are Not Enough” (another blog I read and respect) explains what it means to be an “aid professional.”  Here are a few:

  • First and foremost – Do No Harm – whether what we do is right or wrong, we are doing it to the people that can least afford for us to fail.
  • There is a need for fresh perspectives and a variety of ideas and approaches. However this must be tempered with knowledge of the factors that led to success and failures in the past so the same mistakes are not constantly repeated.
  • Stick around long enough for projects to have a chance to fail. Then try to stop them from failing and learn from your mistakes.

While I agree with these principles, I don’t think the status quo promotes them.  In Algoso’s article, he explains how failed projects sap money from potentially successful projects.  Yet Good Intentions is right – we need to learn from mistakes.  Some of my good friends in Ghana worked for Engineers Without Borders Canada.  One was a mechatronics engineer, another a geoscientist (by training, not profession).  The amateurs at EWB Canada even created a website called “Admitting Failure” and held a conference called FailFaire, which is cited by professional development workers as a step in the right direction.  To fault “amateurs” for their mistakes, while saying experts should learn from theirs is a bit hypocritical in my opinion.

Regarding the second point – how can experts bring a fresh perspective if they all draw from the same pool of knowledge?  Successful projects bring expertise and best practices from many different fields and apply them to development.  This is how you bring fresh ideas.

And, most importantly, regarding “do no harm,” I have seen aid projects literally destroy the rural banking sector of a country.  In this particular case, it was a multi-million dollar government aid project.  Not to mention, the amount of collaboration between aid agencies from different countries is appalling.  I once sat in a meeting between aid officials from two governments who found out that they had been training the same group of farmers on the same skills for the past six months and didn’t even know it.  Of course, do no harm.  But don’t assume that amateurs will do more harm than “professionals”.

In my personal experience, the organizations I have worked with run the gamut from large-scale bureaucratic government aid projects to the one of the most capitalist social enterprises around.  And, frankly, the most innovative and effective are the ones founded by development amateurs with a professional background in other fields – the self-taught warriors who bring their insight and skills from other industries to bear on the social sector.

My intention isn’t to say that everyone with a masters degree in international development and a resume overflowing with public sector and development experience is wrong about everything.  Clearly, that experience is valuable in understanding context and knowing what has worked and not worked in the past.  It is particularly relevant in the policy sphere – designing programs like Bolsa Familia or advising governments on legislation and policy.

Rather, I want them to recognize the critical role amateurs play in this work.  They bring new ideas, enthusiasm, optimism, and much-needed skills.  They may not always succeed, but, if history is a guide, applications of traditional development theory haven’t produced overwhelming results either.  If the CEO of a company had the same track record of results as the development experts during the past four decades, he would have been fired without a second thought.

The second and more important point is that this “leave it to the experts” mentality is far more destructive in the long-run than the trial-and-error nature of DIY foreign aid.   Algoso explains that failed ventures take money away from other projects and ventures that might work.  This, to me, is a recipe for the status quo – an approach to poverty alleviation and economic development marked by a lack of innovation, fresh ideas, and competition for funding dollars.

Take the Millenium Villages Project – a massive top-down development project thought up by a bunch of “experts” at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  The brainchild of Jeffrey Sachs – one the most influential economist in the world whose commitment to the cause no one can deny – the MVP has been criticized for its high costs and limited impacts.  At a cost of $300,000 per village per year, the project achieves modest gains that, frankly, will do nothing to solve the much larger problem of food security in the regions it serves.  This, to me, is a good example of an unsustainable project and a waste of money in development.

Among the amateurs, on the other hand, the failure rate may be high, but successes can be far greater. Play Pumps may have been a failure, but what about Kiva?  Kiva – an online peer-to-peer lending organization that uses the Internet to connect lenders with borrowers around the world – might the most successful and effective non-profit in modern history.  It has more than one million users and has distributed over $250 million in loans to borrowers in 216 countries.  The video above, titled “Intercontinental Ballistic Microfinance,” shows a stunning visual displays the movement of Kiva loans around the world.  More importantly, unlike Millenium Villages, it is fully financially sustainable – something that is paramount to the founders, who cut their teeth at PayPal.  It is a good thing that Matt Flannery and Premal Shah didn’t decide to return to their day jobs and leave it to the experts.

World Vision

For a more tangible example, the first comment on the article is illuminating.  It is from someone who works for WorldVision.  For those who do not know, World Vision is the organization that distributes the Super Bowl t-shirts in Zambia, and is responsible for undermining the local cotton industry throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  This practice is widely reviled by the “professionals,” and resulted in the online castigation of a poor sole from Florida named Jason Stadler who tried to get donations of one million shirts.  Apparently, the irony is lost on experts.  In any case, here is what the World Vision employee has to say:

This is not something amateurs should be meddling in but unfortunately starting your own non-profit is the new “starting your own business”.It is absolutely petrifying to me that independants are starting nonprofits, especially the often open access some are giving donors to vunerable children. They are also fostering a mentality of donor needs before community desires.

The next comment comes from someone who works in a rural village in Lesotho, who isn’t a fan of World Vision and raises very specific criticisms of the organization:

World Vision! This is one of the worst organizations with the least understanding of local conditions, cultures and solutions; they chase huge amounts of money in the name of religion.

The World Vision employee then gives a puzzling response:

I think you point out something really valid – INGOs make mistakes. We have made mistakes, which we are bound to do after 60 years of working in communities. We are after all a human organization and humans make mistakes and in some circumstances, get everything wrong.

We are encouraged not to hide those mistakes. To talk about them, learn from them and to try not to repeat them. I think that’s why I find it scary to think of a bunch of rouge nonprofits coming in without having lessons learned. Its more about the experience than it it is about credentials.

This, to me, is the essence of the professional aid workers mentality.  They condone mistakes made by professionals and condemn them from amateurs.  If the professional fails, it is a learning experience.  If the amateur fails, it is destructive.

An amateur at work, with Auntie Agnes, a rice trader in Ghana

So here is my advice to anyone who is thinking about quitting their job and taking up the cause of making the world a better place: do it.  Don’t hire a professional.  Don’t even try to become a professional.  Should you read a book or two about what works and think about how you can maximize your impact without being detrimental?  Definitely.  But be wary of what they tell you, because, for the last 40 years, they have largely gotten it wrong.  You don’t need an MBA to start a business, and you don’t need a degree in international development or a job at an aid organization to make a difference.

Ignore the “professionals” telling you to leave this work to the experts.  Try something.  If you fail, learn from it.  If you succeed, share it, and help others to scale.  Don’t be deterred by people telling you that you don’t have the experience.  Just go out and do it.

Over the past two years, I have seen innovative and creative minds building great things.  When I do, I am reminded how refreshing it is to be one of the amateurs.


The Roots – What They Do by The-Roots

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.