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Chairman Mao knew how to improve aid

I am not sure how I started thinking about this.  Maybe it was because I spent this week in San Francisco, one of the biggest hubs in America for social entrepreneurs.  Or it could have been this article about some enterprising undergrads who turned a class project into a real NGO.

Regardless of the reason, I’ve been recalling the period before I quit my job as a diplomat to launch Peace Dividend Trust.  I was a rash thing to do.  So, before I leapt, I cautiously tested the waters of the non-profit world and spoke to every charity I could find.  I’d sit down with the Executive Director and tell them my idea, and ask them for advice.  Without exception, the reception I received was negative.

“It’s not needed.”

“It won’t work.”

“You’ll never find funding.”

“We’re already doing that.”

In one memorable case, the ED used all four of those lines in the same conversation.

Since then, I have wondered why all those other NGOs were so discouraging.  It was partly because, in Canada, the aid community relies almost entirely on domestic funding and CIDA.  Therefore any new entry is seen as simply more competition for pieces of a small pie.  It was also partly because PDT’s objective to rethink and change the way aid and peacekeeping is delivered basically implied that their organizations were doing a fairly lousy job.  (For the record, they were and most still are.)

Anyway, being as bloody-minded as I am, this chorus of opposition pretty much guaranteed that I would give it a shot.  And I did, quitting my job on the day my first daughter was born to set up an organization that at the time was nothing more than an idea on a laptop.

In the intervening six years, PDT  survived and prospered and more importantly, our ideas made a difference.  For example, we convinced the UN that they needed a manual to manage how peacekeeping missions were launched, and then we wrote it for them.  And we changed the way that aid procurement is viewed and in the process launched a pilot that redirected almost half a billion dollars into the Afghan economy.

If our ideas weren’t needed, or didn’t work, then PDT would have failed and I would be slinging burgers now (demand for ex-diplomats is surprisingly low).  But they were needed, and they did work, and we are making a difference.  Which is why I always support anyone who wants to start a new charity or a new NGO.  Their idea may sound stupid, but on the other hand it may work.  And our track record as an industry suggests we could use as many new ideas as possible.  More aid organizations force greater competition for donor dollars, which means we need to work harder to prove our plans make sense; we have to work harder to prove we can implement them, and we have to work harder to prove we can change the world.

Chairman Mao was right. We should “let a thousand flowers bloom”.  Of course, in that case he then executed all those new blooms, but let’s not let a mere historical fact ruin a great metaphor.

Chairman Mao: Aid visionary, florist

POSTSCRIPT: About two years ago it was pointed out to me that PDT is now twice as large as the NGO run by the Executive Director who said “It’s not needed.  It won’t work.  Besides, we’re doing it already”. It’s petty of me to point this out, but if you can’t be petty in your own blog, where can you?

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