A Moderate Elitist

There are some very active ongoing conversations around aid elitism at Tales From the Hood here and here, and at viewfromthecave here and here.  It’s had some spillover with the conversation about poverty tourism here and here. The posts themselves have been fairly moderate, but the comments seem to be driving a troubling polarity into the conversation. I think a case for competence can and should be made, but I don’t see the value in embracing elitism. Every aid professional started somewhere and I bet most of us made mistakes that would make us cringe today. But, what if instead of being mentored into professionals and allowed to learn from our mistakes, some aid elitist had bashed us upside the head and told us we should take our good intentions elsewhere and leave development and aid to the pros? What we should be doing is encouraging competence with a healthy measure of grace and humility.

A Case for Competence

A friend once tell me that “passion is perfected in discipline.” The passions that turn people into activists should be harnessed, channeled, and nurtured. Although I’m a big believer in action learning, sometimes the best expression of a passion is to wait, stay out of the action for a while, and invest in your capacity to act with competence. Although it escalated into a sad shrill kerfuffle, I think this was the primary message from the aid bloggers to Jason Sadler and his now defunct 1millionshirts project.

Let’s be clear, you don’t need a Masters degree to effectively serve others, but my own experience has shown that I’m less effective when I’m uninformed. When I don’t know the relevant theories, what has been tried before by others, what the practical steps are to efficiently accomplish what I want to achieve, or even how to frame the right questions about the matter, I’m less effective. Whether at a formal institution or in our hammock – we should all be balancing action with ongoing contemplation and learning.

Effective passion is not about spikes in blood pressure, raised voices, and rock throwing, it’s about caring enough to consider that you might cause harm if you storm in unprepared. It’s about strengthening your voice so that you can be an effective advocate, deepening your knowledge so you can be a non-trivial player, and sharpening your skill so you can be a builder of capacity in others. If you launch into community development, humanitarian aid, environmental activism, peacemaking, or any of the other important activities that people are passionate about without investing in your own preparation, you reinforce the subtle condescending view that these activities don’t constitute real work that require real skills, professionalism, intelligence, or competence. You tacitly underline the idea that the people you serve don’t deserve the best that you or the world has to offer. You reveal your own prejudice that service is more about good intentions than effectiveness. Good intentions aren’t worth much if they bring harm to the people you intend to serve.

An Example of Harm

A lot of the commenters following J’s critique of the Hughes’ bike project wanted to know what the harm was. This is a valid question. The premise for Saundra’s blog title: Good Intentions Are Not Enough, begs the question, “What’s wrong with good intentions? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?” Development and aid professionals need to be able to demonstrate with concrete examples why good intentions aren’t enough, and why being an aid elitist isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

It basically comes down to the law of unintended consequences. The world is a complex place and things don’t always go the way you plan. There will always be unpleasant surprises, but with experience and training comes the ability to foresee and avoid some of them and mitigate others. I’m sure there are better examples than this, but I’ll share an example from international child rights activism that I’ve written about before in The Global Citizen journal.

There are millions of child laborers around the world working in scores of industry and service sectors. The idea that we could we save them by simply boycotting a few of the products manufactured using child labor is a tempting one. In fact, at any given time one can find dozens of ongoing child-labor related boycotts against corporations like Nike, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Nestle, and Coca-Cola, and specific trade goods like Chinese fireworks, Indian carpets, and Pakistani soccer balls. A quick Google of “child labor boycott” provides ample evidence of how popular the boycott is. Activist teachers turn boycotts into school projects, activist churches turn boycotts into missions, activist politicians turn boycotts into campaign issues and bills.

The intentions are good; the problem is with the outcomes. Few boycotts are ever followed up to see what the actual impact on child welfare was. Most are based on the unexamined assumption that, if they force the closure or relocation of a factory that employs children, child welfare will improve. And so the measures of success are in terms of pain inflicted on the offending companies and changes in their behavior. However, there are some good studies that do follow up on the impact of boycotts on the formerly employed children, and the evidence does not offer much support to these assumptions. The truth is boycotts sometimes result in a decline in child welfare, not an improvement.

When factories close, the underlying preferences and incentives that brought the children into that factory in the first place don’t just disappear. Parents don’t suddenly decide that they can afford to send [their child] to school now that factory is closed. The children don’t suddenly realize the long-term value of pursuing an education. Governments don’t suddenly make policies that obviate the needs of these families. Children who end up laid-off as a result of a boycott often end up moving into more dangerous and lower paid work like stone crushing, fireworks manufacturing, street hustling, and prostitution. Boycotts can lead to a decline in wages paid to child laborers and, paradoxically, even an increase in child labor.

Clearly I’m not advocating child labor, nor am I saying that boycotts of abusive businesses can never improve child welfare. The point is that assumptions about what will happen when you take an action need to be examined carefully. The world is complex and we can’t always predict how economic and social structures will respond to interventions. This shouldn’t paralyze us but if we really care about the people we wish to serve, it is good to value competence. Make sure you are actually affecting the intended change without creating unintended counter-directional change. [We should] intentionally take time to think before [we] act, observe as [we] do, and reflect on what [we’ve] done.

Whatever your service assignment or vocation, take it seriously. Just because you are a volunteer or do social work or are employed by a faith-based non-profit organization, you are not excused from being professional and well-informed, from being held accountable for both your process and results, from having more than good intentions expected of you by those whom you serve. Subscribe to the pertinent journals, read the relevant literature, attend a conference, find a mentor, go to graduate school, whatever. Get engaged, value competence, be relevant, and do no harm.

A Case for Humility

The bread and butter of a lot of aid bloggers is critiquing aid and development done by professionals. Those of us with Masters degrees in international development and a dozen years of experience still stumble about mucking things up, so isn’t it a bit hypocritical to be so hypercritical of good folks like the Hughes? When I read some of the outright mean comments about these folks, I just want to say “Darn it, we need more people like the Hughes, not less! The world benefits from people who give a damn and are willing to do something, people who can be moved and are motivated to move others. We need the Jasons and Hughes of the world because the alternative is apathy, stagnation, the status quo.” Maybe the world doesn’t need their first efforts, but maybe we shouldn’t shoot them down, but instead nurture them into better second and third efforts.

We tend to manage the tension between embracing people with good intentions and the knowledge of the law of unintended consequences. But we start with being a bit more honest: we aid professionals are first and foremost people with good intentions with a shocking lack of adequate knowledge, experience, and tools to act on those good intentions without causing harm. We do it all the time, so let’s lay off the non-professionals a little bit. In fact, the history of bad development is the history of hubris run amok. I think of the excellent book by James C. Scott, “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” and I think about our profession. Our best examples of the law of unintended consequences come from  within our own professional ranks, not the amateurs who generally lack the credibility to be entrusted with giant budgets and resources to really mess things up on a grand scale.

Good critique is necessary, I agree. But we can do it without being mean-spirited, condescending, and elitist. I like Saundra’s approach at Good Intentions are Not Enough. She’s posted numerous helpful and well-toned lessons and guidelines like this one; she’s also pushing for a panel at South by Southwest to discuss what we all can learn from the 1millionshirts venture – an effort that’s also being championed by Tom at A View From The Cave. Sure, blogging success can be found sometimes in being controversial and highly-opinionated, but it can come at a cost of being dishonest and mean, and ultimately it can erode the legitimacy of one’s voice – maybe all of our voices.

I think the best we can do is to encourage good intentions while raising cautionary red flags, demonstrating how real harm can be done by acting too quickly on good passions, and then working to facilitate competence in others, especially those new to the aid and development field. And we can and should do this with grace and humility.


Quick shout out to Jina Moore for her post The Alleged Power of One, a good example of what I’m talking about in this last paragraph here.


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Categories: Development Principals, Service Ethics, Volunteering


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13 Comments on “A Moderate Elitist”

  1. August 25, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    This is a well balanced look at the issue that I think addresses a lot of concerns from myself and from the angry comments after my post. The one good thing out of all of this is it has lead to some better discussions about how to approach education. I for one am very glad to have your voice as a part of the aid blogging community. Thanks Aaron.

    Also, thanks for supporting the SXSW panel!

  2. August 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Nice post! I think you really summarized what I’ve been struggling with and feeling in trying find a balance in this debate.

  3. August 25, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    I inform my work in development with a little game of the imagination: I think, how would I behave in my home environment? For instance, if I found out that there were sanitation problems in my own neighbourhood, would I immediately raise funds and start a sanitation NGO? Or I would, for instance, first: (a) talk to local government about what’s going on; (b) research the problem to become an informed participant; (c) seek out relevant solutions to already developed by others; (d) talk to experts in the field?

    For a professional, doing such things constitutes a legal “duty of care”… and in fact every citizen in our society has an expected “duty of care”, which varies according to level of expertise. But all of the above steps would be considered normal for any good citizen to take, before getting out a spanner and starting to monkey with the pipes. What is a little concerning about the T-shirt project or the bicycle project is that, as far as I can see, the founders of these haven’t taken any of these steps.

    Why not? I’m sure they’re good people. But I fear that most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, suffer from a subtle prejudice in our society, that “we” have it “all”—wealth, power, health, the good life, knowhow—and “they” have “nothing”. We have: they have not. Under the spell of this kind of cultural bias, it’s easy to fall into the mode of thinking that this presumed superiority is sufficient, and no learning, research, caution, duty of care, consultation with locals or local government or even experts is necessary. I feel have to guard against this bias constantly, in reflecting on my own work.

    Here’s another little mental game that I find useful: I reverse the roles. Let’s say a group of foreigners from a rich country—maybe Saudi Arabia—showed up in my neighbourhood, and decided that we were woefully undersupplied with T-shirts or bicycles, and therefore made me and my neighbours their “project”, which project consisted of giving out free T-shirts or free bicycles. How would I view this?

    • August 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

      David, I like the concept of “duty of care.” The subtle prejudice you speak of probably plays a larger role than any of us would like to admit, and I suspect that many of us could benefit from an annual head house cleaning to see how much of that seeps in over the course of a year’s work. I also like your two mental games, although I think the equivalent for the second game in some communities might be free jeans or free ’85 Honda civics.

  4. August 25, 2010 at 11:42 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due, there are many people besides myself that are pushing for the SXSW panel. Tom, author of View from the Cave whose blog you link to as well, is the person that really championed it.

  5. August 26, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    Thanks A, for this balanced view of the debate. It’s so important to remember that we all started somewhere. How we engage those just starting out is very important. Here was my take on my own personal struggles with this issue:

  6. August 29, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    Excellent and insightful post that really made me think about my first years working in the field with an NGO. And the importance of sitting back and learning from those already engaged, especially the people who are at the frontline fighting against poverty because they live it day in, day out in their community. Finding the necessary mixture of humility and audacity is an ongoing search.

  7. October 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Can’t believe I first found your blog this week.

    I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one feeling this way + your prose is probably (slightly :)) more constructive than my own ranting was.

    Anyway, I’ll have to do some back-reading here. Very promising! (not least for a Community-based/driven development nerd)

    • October 7, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

      Thanks Sceptical Secondo,

      Well, the blog is really quite new – I’ve only been at it about 3 months (and haven’t been active for the last one) – so pretty everyone who reads it is just discovering it. I appreciate the comments. I look forward to reading some of your work as well.


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