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The Aid Industry and Making Good Pencils

No one single person knows how to make a pencil.  It looks simple, though.  Wood.  Graphite. Pink eraser.

It’s not. There is the wood itself, which needs to be chosen for certain qualities, cut down, transported, treated, milled, and packed.  The graphite is mined (manufactured?) and processed into thin delicate rods.  The orange hue can only come from a specific mixture of dyes and is baked on using a process enhanced especially for the wood being used.  Then there is the eraser.  What is that even made of?  I have no idea.  Each of these elements is accomplished by hundreds of people who know how to do their specific task, but have no idea about the other tasks or even how all of it comes together.

Consider the pencil...

But the tasks do come together.  We have pencils. And erasable markers.  And laptops.  And space stations.

And aid programs.  Which I figure must fit somewhere between pencils and space stations in terms of complexity.  And like the others, no one single person knows how to make an aid program.   In order to create an aid program donors act as manufacturers.  They bring together the means of production and the talent and all the various brains necessary:   Data collectors to measure a problem.  Analysts to determine the root of the problem.  Sector experts to design a solution.  Contract officers to issue tenders.  Implementing agencies to implement the solutions.  Evaluators to measure progress, etc. etc. etc.  And if the data is telling us anything, aid programs are rarely as well made as pencils.

To make a great pencil, manufacturers bring together the best miners and lumbermen and painters to produce reliable wonders like the orange HB #2 special that got me through grade school.  Manufacturers can do this because a) they have a wide choice of suppliers, and b) they know which of these are good and which aren’t.

And this is where it all goes wrong for the aid industry.   The donor starts with the data collector, the only person in the entire country who has studied the issue and understands the methodology he used to do so.  The analyst was hired because she was the only one available on short notice.  The sector expert was engaged because he used to work for the donor agency and is one of a small handful able to design programs using its peculiar terminology.  The contracting officer is a life-long civil servant who can’t be fired no matter what he does or doesn’t do.  The implementing agency won the contract for one reason and one reason only, it is very very good at bidding on contracts. (Actually delivery? Not so much.) And the evaluator?  The donor hired the original data collector to do the evaluation because he is still the only one who understood the measurement methodology that got this whole country program going in the first place.

The donor has very limited choice of suppliers, and they rarely have any idea how good they may be.  As a result, aid programs are rarely as useful, practical, and elegant, as the pencil.

This is  why I am always amazed at how little time is spent talking about the HR side of aid.  It’s not just a question of weeding out the mercenaries, missionaries, and mad men.  The ones left over are rarely held up to much scrutiny and no one ever tries to apply hard metrics to measure their performance.

PDT is in the midst of a big rethink.  We are looking at what we’ve done.  Where we’ve done some good.  Where we might do good in the future.  The verdict is still out, but I keep writing “HR” on the white board in the board room.  I think there must be a way for the aid industry to make a decent pencil.

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4 Comments

  1. Sherrie Zollinger says:

    Thanks Scott for this post. It illustrates clearly why the devloping world including disaster/post conflict areas is littered with projects that were “well intentioned” while being way off mark and fail to last for even a couple of years past the departure of the last donor/volunteer.

    People in the aid industry are no different than anyone else, they too would like to have some level of job security. If the data collector is the same as the evaluator, there is some job security there!

    So, Scott since you’ve made it clear what you don’t want in colleagues and employees, (mercenaries, missionaries and madmen) what do you want? Do you have to have eight years of post graduate education at an elite school and 20 years of experience in a developing nation? Is there room for someone who wants to make a difference and is willing to be open, learn and work hard and earn a reasonable wage for doing so?

    If so, we should probably have a conversation.

  2. Scott Gilmore says:

    Sherrie – I’ve been pretty negative on the HR issue on this blog recently, largely because we are going through a big hiring push right now and I am snowed under with CVs. What I haven’t talked about is what we do need. Which is summed up as follows:

    1. Common sense.
    2. Ability to learn.
    3. Plays well with others.

    So, if you’ve got that, we should talk.

    S

  3. Sherrie Zollinger says:

    I do, so we should talk! Look for my email and breathe easy … no CV attached.

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