aid works

Aid works? Really?

Well, what’s aid?

Come to think of it, what’s work?

What is aid work?

Aid. Sitting in this plane is definitely aid. In the accounting sense of the word, anyway. Somewhere in a rich country, rich and poor taxpayers paid for this. Some of it made its way to my INGO in a grant. Some of that grant paid for this plane trip. Somewhere deep within a decimal point in the OECD DAC stats, that plane trip has been measured, weighed, and counted as Aid. So this is Aid. I am Aid. Hooray for Aid!

I hate how much capital-A Aid really ends up in the bottom lines of airlines. Never mind the accounting, if you’re flying somewhere, you had better be able to look yourself in the eye the morning after and be damn sure you’re doing something useful. If you can: no worries. But oh, you’re too important to learn to use webex? Or you’re paying to fly business class?

We have a saying in my country: get your hand off it, Darryl.

Compounds. Barbed wire. Security guards. Like the above, it’s Aid. But is it aid? It’s definitely work, for your security focal point and a lot of people besides. People kvetch about insulated INGO workers, with their compounds and curfews and high walls and insulation and isolation. That’s all true. It’s also true that employers have a duty of care for their staff that doesn’t stop at borders. It’s also true that a serious security incident can bring to a screaming halt projects across multiple agencies that are benefiting hundreds of thousands of people. Being conservative on staff security in insecure environments isn’t done because we want to coddle people. It’s about minimzing the potential for that reflex shut-down, which is ultimately hugely detrimental to the people we’re working for. The 1% of your programme costs you spend on ensuring staff safety and security are an insurance policy against the other 99% suffering a catastrophic interruption.

First person perspective, canonical. Nuff said.

Ahh, now this is more aid-ey. What are we doing now? What happens when that winds up? What did our scenario planning last week say we are (probably) going to have to do in three months? What if it all goes to shit and its actually five times worse than that? How the hell are we going to mobilize people and resources for that? Who loves us this week? Who do we need to go to? What don’t our staff know how to do? Have we got the right management team in place? Have we even got a management team in place? Which gobsmackingly obvious in hindsight simple internal issue is going to have our field teams in deadlock in three months time for want of spares, or EFSL nous, or few good nights’ sleep, or a razor-sharp accountant, or a particular government permit allowing us to walk out the office door in the morning and get on with it?

Some of the answers to the above lie in places like this. Some of the questions above are kept as far as possible away from places like this. But there are always these places: office spaces that feel like the bridge of the starship enterprise, and meetings with people who have pieces of the puzzle that you don’t and want some of the pieces you do. Donor, shall we dance?

So… am I aiding anyone yet? Does anyone up there in Upper Nile feel particularly aided? Does it matter? Is it work? Well, yes. No one slopes off to meet Commission officials and spells it F-U-N. But am I working aid yet today? Pffh, what kind of bollocks semantic construction is that? What do I think I’m doing, working miracles? Stuff down the doubts, now is not the time. It’s a division of labour. We’re cogs in the machine. So, be the cogs you want to see in the world. Keep them greased. Keep the faith.

First person perspective, canonical (inverse).

Day’s done. At last,  time to relax. Just kidding! Slurp your amber electrolytes young man, and get back to work on that proposal / assessment / report / training plan / TOR / funding strategy / backlog of email. And yet, with the swirling dark river and the moment of pause, the doubts creep in. What if everything is a mirage? What if all the plans planned, capacity capacitized, implementation implemented, evaluations evaluated, issues documented and documents issued… just don’t add up to much?

Good thing I have the answer to that. And it is the answer that every aid worker uses, but which none of us talk about in snarky blogs. So here is the great secret, and I reveal it now, though the heavens of the aidblogosphere may fall upon me:

We all work our schedules so that we’ve got time to stop by the roadside every five minutes to hug some orphans. That’s why everything takes so long to get done, the closer you get to the pointy end.

Oh wait!  Sorry, I just might have been pulling your leg a little there.

The real answer I really have is: so what if your institutionally imperfect, schizophrenically participatory/empowering and techno/managerialist struggle for efficacy and impact doesn’t give you thrills of joy and shivers of fulfilment every tick of the clock?

Aid works, and aid is work. So get over yourself. And get on with it.

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2 Comments on “aid works”

  1. Excellent – well said.

  2. […] Well, this jury of one is still out on all that. In the meantime, South Sudan is headed towards what we call a Category 2, and I will take my own advice and just get on with it. […]


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