florence and the (aid) machine

We raise it up. We raise it up:

This is a gift, it comes at a price.

Who is the lamb, and who is the knife?

Midas is king, and he holds me so tight

And turns me to gold in the sunlight

Hello from Juba. Bit tired for profound thoughts but thought sharing this tune would do for a Friday night blog post. There in four short lines are the conundrums of what we do, the chains of donor/INGO/partner, the HQ/country/field, the power imbalances, the accountability, the getting played, and the… belief? Misplaced belief? Transmutation of leaden money into golden change and personal redemption of those who think they bring it?

I take no issue with the disappointment and disavowal by @giantpandinha of ‘big aid’. But like I said when kicking off this blog, colour me incrementalist. Aid exists. It grows. (At least from my primary back donor it does.) It grows and grows and with that comes risk and with that comes scrutiny. With scrutiny comes systems and layers and compliance and bureaucracy…. much of which sucks.

Deal with it. We campaigned for it. We got what we wanted. Ergo: do it better, or else. Do it better, or the imbecile million-shirts myNGOs will fill the attention vacuum. (While eschewing the desperate needs in the more challenging corners of the world, obviously. Hello, Abyei!) Do it better or @giantpandinha will show you up. Actually, that wouldn’t be so bad at all.

I had someone say to me today: we don’t do engineering, we don’t import blueprints. What we do has to be context, it has to be relationships, it has to be political moments. Normally, so what? But the person saying it was a very senior manager in my HRI affiliate. Now maybe there’s people who’d say he’s objectively wrong. Maybe the cynics will say I’m deluded for taking a moment of hope from that, in spite of the fact that much of what I do is down in the guts of the aid machine, greasing the cogs. But there it is. Be conscious of your limitations. Be clear eyed about institutional faults. But raise it up.


UKaid

So did you hear you can watch TV on computers now? Sometimes not even when it’s showing on the TV but later? You go to a TV channel’s website like BBC iPlayer and there’s all this stuff there. Crazy times we live in, eh? Which is a luddite way of saying I watched some of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” the other day. Though I know it’s a couple of years old and you’re probably completely over it. Nevertheless: has anyone thought of showing this in first year university lectures on International Development? Or in high schools? It’s a wonderful demonstration and a highly accessible object lesson for an inexpert audience.

Seriously, look at it – Well Meaning White Fella goes into impoverished town in another country and tells the poor fools what’s good for them. Literally in this case. Lots of celery I think. But unlike tramping into the Wilds Of Africa, Jamie shares a language with these poor Americans, albeit with a funny accent. He basically looks like one of them. He and his beneficiaries have an enormous amount of shared culture and history; I bet they can talk about their favourite Simpsons episodes together. He comes with fame and facts and funds at his disposal.

With all these advantages, short-cuts and leg-ups, it is nevertheless a real slog of wading through school canteen bureaucracy, sucking up to petty tyrant local politicians and influence peddlers, winning over hearts and minds, dressing up like a twerp in some kind of celery costume (hello, Public Health Promoters!) and spending hours and hours with household level beneficiaries. And despite the schmaltz and strings and success stories and sobbing to camera, strip away the scripted-for-TV narrative arc and you can’t help thinking that in the end, the impact has been pretty minimal, the locals really don’t give much of a toss, and as soon as he leaves will go back to eating choco-puff krispies and Big Mac pizzas for breakfast washed down with hot cups of runny lard.

The learning point for our eager beaver rich-world development studies students: what makes you think that doing the same between countries and cultures and communities far more radically different than the US and UK is going to be easy or quick or straightforward in any way? Why is the foreigner there in the first place? When you watch this, who are you in this story? Why do you like this narrative? If you can come up with valid reasons for there to be a  ‘Jamie’, what gives you the right to think that you’re the one to do it? What are you really going to bring to the table?

Hello. Sorry. I’ll try to blog more.