Aid Work Priority One: Keeping the Doors Open

There is, undoubtedly, a fundamental conflict of interest involved in any aid work. That being, the better you do your job, the faster you make yourself irrelevant. So what’s an NGO to do when their good work means people might not want to write as many checks?

The Columbia Journalism Review recently addressed this issue, specifically how NGOs use journalists to push a narrative of a hopeless Africa to ensure that their funding isn’t threatened.

Some of my favorite bits:

But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.”

Rasna Warah, a Kenyan who worked for UN-Habitat before leaving to pursue a writing career, says that exaggerations of need were not uncommon among aid officials she encountered. “They wanted journalists to say ‘Wow.’ They want them to quote your report,” she says. “That means more money for the next report. It’s really as cynical as that.”

Have I seen anything like this in the Peace Corps? Nothing this blatant, not even close. But does the Peace Corps do what it takes to survive? Of course.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m operating outside of the traditional aid-work infrastructure, to an extent. But even in the Peace Corps, an agency that is almost assured of continued funding by the US government, this culture of self-preservation exists. Sometimes, it takes precedence over actual aid work. Much time and energy is spent on filling out reports, tallying numbers, following policies, submitting the right piece of paperwork, and not doing anything that might make the Peace Corps look bad. And much of our money is spent on staff and resources that at least partially exist to minimize negative exposure and maximize positive. I’m sure it is better in the Peace Corps than it is in most other organizations, but the fact is this culture of self-preservation exists.

PR is often the bottom line for an organization dependent on the money of others to keep them in existence. And PR in turn is dictated by what kind of stories draw eyes. Thus, volunteers getting hurt, raped, or killed is much more likely to get attention in the US than actual accomplishments benefiting host countries. Death gets better ratings and more hits than a new school or clean water. Likewise, in our countries of service the same sort of principle applies. “American does something stupid” is going to be of much more interest than, “Volunteer does something useful.”

Unsurprisingly, this shifts the priorities of Peace Corps management. And this places them in a tough position. They know the bottom line is maintaining the existence of the Peace Corps, but if word gets out that self-preservation is truly the bottom line it’s bound to turn off volunteers, host countries, and probably American citizens (and thus their congressional representatives).

Not that self-preservation is all that terrible of a priority. I think the Peace Corps does far more good for the money than most aid organizations, and if the Peace Corps is going to continue to aid developing nations, it needs to exist. Every organization is always just a scandal or two away from complete collapse. So I do believe in the importance of self-preservation.

And even if the organization isn’t doing good, nobody has a right to be shocked if self-preservation is top priority. From the simplest single celled organism, to a family in the suburbs, to the largest institutions in the world–things that have the power to look out for themselves do. Whether those things are life forms or institutions is beside the point.

In some ways, to a logical person this CJR article isn’t really news. We shouldn’t be shocked that people and organizations are looking out for themselves. I would certainly be shocked if an NGO was knowingly working to perpetuate problems because they didn’t want to close up shop. But making the problems sound worse with the help of a lazy mass media…that’s all sadly part of the fundraising game.

And if there’s a real lesson to be learned from this article, it’s that NGOs have to compete with each other for funding. Unfortunately, too much of that fight plays out in the media. And death and starvation are far more effective media ammo than a bunch of policy wonks and statisticians sitting around a table discussing the real impact of aid projects.