Why you’re disillusioned with aid work

overconfidenceChris Blattman posted an interesting blog recently reflecting on why people get disillusioned with aid work. He argued that the “median development job is insulated from the world.” Cynicism isn’t an irrational reaction to aid work, but “completely sane and correct”.

This is a paradox; in a profession dedicated to reducing poverty, almost no jobs in aid actually have any connection with the poor. Why is this? I think the reason is that many aid jobs aren’t actually about delivering a good programme, or helping poor people, or managing finances, or any of the purposes stated in the job description. Huge numbers of jobs exist to manufacture confidence that the aid programme is going well, in order to reassure those one step up in the aid hierarchy.

The problem is that donors have minimal contact with the actual implementation of aid programmes. Reasonably enough, they worry about what their money is spent on. Many have constituents and/or Parliaments to report back to. In order to make this report, they pass the worry to their implementing partners, who pass it down their hierarchy till it reaches those at the field level. With a recent increase in aid budgets and scrutiny, demands for information about how and why money is spent have got increasingly salient. This has reached the point where the main job of many people working in aid is to convince other people that the aid money is getting spent in the right way.

This happens in all sorts of ways. Monitoring and evaluation staff produce data-sets and reports, which nobody ever looks at, but all sound reassuringly scientific. Technical specialists in gender, health, agriculture, etc all massage proposals and reports in order to reflect the latest fashionable jargon. Finance staff produce information about how money was spent, while procurement staff extensively document the processes that they went through to spend it. HR staff have an even more vital role – they hire the people needed to produce all the other reports. A vast array of interns and other administrative staff format, calculate, and mediate. And so, at each level in the aid chain, confidence is slowly manufactured.

While many aid workers manufacture confidence, I suspect it is particularly important for expats. Expats are less useful for any other role; they don’t speak the local language, don’t understand the culture, and don’t have the connections and contacts which would allow them to get things done. Moreover, expats are much better placed to build confidence. They speak English (or whatever language the donor works in), and look good on TV at home. They’re generally outside local power structures and hierarchies, and are considered – at least by those with no expertise in the area – to be less corrupt. Consequently, my guess is that those who blog and complain about their disillusionment with aid work – primarily young, idealistic expats – are those most likely to have a job centred around manufacturing confidence.

Many discussions on this topic focus on the problems that manufacturing confidence causes. To an extent, of course, they’re right. The desire for confidence creates really stupid processes which drive perverse incentives, from badly implemented payment by results schemes, to output-based monitoring. It looks like a vast waste of time and money – hence most involved quickly become disillusioned.

However, manufacturing confidence is not pointless. It’s a crucial aspect of any system where money is spent on behalf of others, and all the more so in aid programmes, where the distance between donors and ultimate users of aid is so large. Disillusioned graduates who spend their time in offices grumpily writing reports may be a long way from the dusty village that they dreamed of, but they are still playing a valuable part in the aid machine.

Consequently, it would be better if aid staff accepted that manufacturing confidence is really a significant part of their job, rather than a secondary, unwanted side-note. They could then spend more time thinking about how to build confidence as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible, rather than complaining about how much time they need to spend on it. They might still end up disillusioned, but at least they’ll have made a contribution in the meantime.