Aid “Industry” vs Humanitarian “Relief”
We don’t call it this, but there is a “PDT Doctrine”, a general world view among PDT staff that informs what we do and how we do it. Regular readers of this blog or those with whom we work can sketch the rough outlines without much trouble. We believe job creation comes from private entrepreneurs, not government planners. We think market forces (and not a log-frame) determine if something will be sustainable. Like some bloggers we admire, we believe “good intentions are not enough.” And we believe you shouldn’t send your yoga mat to Haiti.
One of the most elemental parts of our doctrine is that aid is an industry. Functionally, there is very little that differentiates it from any other industry, such as plastic surgery or shoes. There is demand and supply, competing organizations, and the profit motive is a key driver (be it explicit, or implicit).
Because we see it as an industry, I (switching to the first person here – as I dive deeper I don’t want to speak for my colleagues) strongly believe that greater impact, innovation, and efficiencies will only come from greater competition. For example, imagine how heavy your laptop would be if IBM was still the only manufacturer on the market. IBM isn’t, which is why we have things like the MacBook Air.
So, when aid types whine about new NGOs “crowding the field” and spreading scarce resources too thin, I say balderdash. If your NGO isn’t getting funded because another NGO is, then you need to make your NGO faster, smarter, leaner, and more effective. And, even if there is a short reduction in the overall effectiveness of the NGO sector in a particular country because there are too many, it is offset by the long-term improvement that competition and innovation will bring.
But that’s for the aid industry. Not for humanitarian relief.
It is called humanitarian relief for a reason. Short-term relief, to save the starving for example, is a public service not an industry. The immediate threat to life outweighs the long-term need for competitive innovation. Let me illustrate with an example:
Imagine there is a famine in Eritrea, and 1 million people are starving. Three relief agencies are on the ground, but collectively, they only have enough money to feed 700,000 people. You have $100,000, which you can spend in 2 ways:
- Send it immediately to one of those 3 agencies on the ground, and save 100 people. Or,
- Start your own NGO, which will be on the ground in 6 months, and with a more innovative model but proportionally more administrative costs, save 90 people, which may or may not lead to an incremental improvement in the entire industry. (And in the meantime, the other 100 died.)
I see this as a variant on the philosophical “trolley problem”, and my own view would be save the 100 now, competition be damned.
I’ve made (belabored?) this point because too often in the debate about development reform and aid effectiveness we get sloppy and lump humanitarian relief into the mix. We shouldn’t. It’s not an industry and shouldn’t be seen as such.