Development and Aid: Amateurs, Volunteers, and Do-It-Yourself in Burma and Beyond

I will pick up the Reflections on a Journey series soon, but I wanted to comment in response to a series of blog posts and articles that I’ve read recently.  They have a common theme, a rather old one, where aid workers basically tell people to leave aid and development to the professionals.  One of my favorite blogs, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, gave a rundown of articles relating to the debate between aid professionals and amateurs late last year.

Let me start by saying that I truly enjoy reading aid blogs.  I appreciate a healthy dose of snark, and many blogs by aid workers are filled with it.  I also respect the general view that “doing something” is a patently ridiculous notion.  As a lawyer, if someone who was unqualified told me they were giving legal advice to the poor because they wanted to do “something” to help, I’d be appalled.  I don’t see why it should be any different for aid or development work.  But somewhere between those who started in the Peace Corps and have spent their entire lives in the developing world and those who decide on working at an orphanage because Cancun is “so last year,” there is another group whose potential contributions often go unutilized.

There is “Expertise” and there is “Expertise”

In my experience, aid and development workers are so defensive and protective of their roles and have such disdain for “amateurs” that they deem insufficiently experienced, that they leave no room for dedicated and committed amateurs to become better educated.  I have come to believe that because many aid workers make such low salaries, they pay themselves in ego and arrogance.

This post made me literally laugh out loud.  Seriously?  In order to help a community to improve their lives,

[y]ou need to know (fluently) standards like Sphere, HAP, or those related to your area of technical expertise/interest”?

You need to understand R2P (don’t know what that is? Better Google it…) and why it matters.

You need to know industry best-practices related to humanitarian protection. You need to know the difference between OCHA and UNOPS and UNHCR.

That’s like saying that in order run a lemonade stand I need to have the same comprehension of my market as the people that run Coca-Cola.   While the person who knows nothing about supply and demand or marketing will see his lemonade stand fail pretty quickly, a little bit of training and study will allow him to be productive on a small scale.

I graduated from an Ivy League university and a top 5 law school.  I spent 6 years as a corporate lawyer, surround by similarly educated people doing what most would consider to be highly sophisticated legal work.  Yet, if you gave me an interested, smart, and dedicated person, I could have taught them to be a valuable member of my team in a month.  Could they be in charge of a deal or lead strategy sessions with our client?  Of course not.  But, if they were willing to work for free, I would see a return on my training investment pretty darn quickly while giving that person a good education in my work.   But that same person volunteering in development work?  Too complicated for mere amateurs.

No room for informed and committed “amateurs”

The poverty tourist who wants to take 2 weeks to work at an orphanage so they can circulate pictures of the poor kids they helped at their next cocktail party is pretty much a lost cause.  But for those people who are genuinely interested and are willing to put forth the time and effort?  What exactly are their options?  I volunteered as an English teacher because that was the only opportunity I could find to put my skills to use in Burma.  While doing that work, I met people across a range of qualifications, from Masters in Asian Studies to scientists and everything in between.  All of us English teachers because no one else could see any value in our skills.  The irony of it, of course, is that many of us were not particularly qualified to be English teachers.  Though I believe I brought value to my students in a variety of ways, I gladly would have swapped places with a qualified English teacher if I could have found a more appropriate use of my skills.  The shame of it is that many of the committed and skilled volunteers I met are now back at home working in offices because they couldn’t find a way to be useful and they became disillusioned with the entire notion of doing development work.  I wish those people had started doing it themselves.

Recruiting good people is hard work.  Trust me, I know.  Its what I do for a living now.  I love reading posts like this one, talking about how hard it is to find successful volunteers.  Well, of course it is.  Think about how difficult it is to find good people when you pay them.  Why would anyone think it would be easier when they work for free.   Especially since in this case, the organization in question seemed to just be taking in random people who emailed, rather than separating out the committed, informed, and dedicated ones from the rest.  The committed volunteers of today are the professional staff or donors or fundraisers of tomorrow.  Finding them is worth the effort.  And believe it or not, people with real world experience in other fields can actually be more valuable than college interns.

One reason why you get DIYers is because established organizations won’t give “amateurs” the chance to learn the ropes, even on a volunteer basis.  They put their skills to work in the best way they know how.  They become entrepreneurial – a trait, by the way which is celebrated in all areas of the economy except in aid and development.  Why don’t they just write a check?  Everyone has their own reasons, you only have to look at the Three Cups of Tea situation or any number of mismanagement stories that have come out of established charities to guess what some of those reasons are.   Moreover, during my own travels in and around Burma, local civil society organizations and activists were decidedly mixed on their view of iNGOs.  While by no means dispositive, hearing this did not make me run to grab my checkbook.

I guess my ultimate point is this – if aid/development workers want to knock someone for showing up and doing “aid” work without knowing anything at all just so they can feel good about themselves, go for it.  I’ll be right there with you. But, while they’re at it, they should ask themselves what they have


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