I get asked to do stuff because I have some experience developing and managing HIV programmes. It’s a broad field, and while I have a basic understanding of most areas, I focus on a handful of technical themes that I know best. The idea is that a client – an NGO, a UN agency or a government – has some money to develop or evaluate something, and I get asked to help, and if I think I can help I say yes.
It is very rare, however, for me to pitch up and do the job as planned. I’m ok with that, as long as the revised job doesn’t stray out of my comfort zone. But that is not usually the problem. The problem, often, is that I find myself in a morass of different organisations, which ostensibly share the same overall aims (reducing new HIV infections! reducing deaths from HIV!), but all of which have their own unique way of going about it. Some emphasise communities, others emphasise clinical services; others still emphasise gender human rights, cost-effectiveness. Different organisations doing similar things but with different approaches, often slightly reluctant to share information, all wanting to be the game-changers, the innovators, the ones who will hit on the magic bullet. I’m sure I get dragged in to the same dynamic, and lots of energy gets expended on managing the wants and needs of everyone involved, rather than on the actual work.
At the point in time, about ten years ago, when funding for AIDS really started to take off, I remember watching NGOs and agencies recruiting AIDS advisors and officers, and thinking that it was like a form of nuclear proliferation. Everyone wanted one… and if they had an officer, soon enough they needed funding, programmes, a department… and more advisors to go to those policy meetings they were missing out on, to help set the agenda, to be a player. If they were lucky they might even set up a regional or sub-regional programme, more centres for attracting funding and from which to provide advice. And the more officers, programmes, and departments there are, the smaller the amounts of money are that each has, so they’ve got to work “strategically”. Everyone wants to be the leader of the pack, everyone wants to make a big difference with a small amount of resources.
It’s been about 13 years since I worked in any other sector so I have no idea if this is unique to aid work. Of course, I understand that a lot of work is about dealing with other people. I also understand that coordination and consensus can be overrated, and that plurality is an important way of testing new ideas. But something that almost certainly sets aid apart is that a lot of this jostling originates from outside organisations and individuals – not the people who aid projects are actually for.
Knowhow, new ideas, are all well and good. But it often looks more like organisations trying to preserve their influence; and rooms full of well-paid foreigners (yes, I’m fairly well paid, and I’m foreign – most of the time) spending more time managing each other than coming up with anything particularly new. It’s all very Lords of Poverty.
I think aid, whether in the form of money and advice, can be a great force for good. But I also think we need to get over ourselves a bit. All this synergy and strategy and positioning and beauty pageant stuff means there’s much less energy and fewer resources to really get down to the business of getting stuff done.