The Answers Aren’t on Any Flatbread

So. That happened.

Recap: I blog-ranted about Misha Collins’ new charity. Misha Collins comment-ranted back. Other people left comments. I replied to some. There was a generally civil discussion, both here and in various other parts of the internet, about charity and kindness and international development. I’ll be honest, that was totally my intention. You all fell for my not-so-carefully constructed trap, even Misha, to force you to think about things.

The discussion also forced me to think about things, thus the “not-so-carefully constructed” part up there.

First, I should have been clearer about my staunchly pro-kindness leanings. I know it’s controversial, but I think everyone has a right to kindness, both giving and receiving. Except salespeople who ignore “No Soliciting” signs. They deserve no kindness whatsoever.

Second, I should have better explained my thoughts on small non-governmental organizations versus big non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the equally important roles they play in international development. Some big NGOs are great, some are not. Some small NGOs are great, some are not.

(Warning: this is going to be very boring. Click here to skip to the tl;dr.)

Big international NGOs get a lot of their work done by subcontracting out to smaller NGOs. Donating to one doesn’t necessarily means sacrificing the other. For example, this list of “prime partners” to whom the U.S. government has handed out large sums of money in the fight against HIV/AIDS names a bunch of organizations you may know: Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, and the World Food Program among others.

Not all of them use subcontractors. One huge organization with a big budget can implement multiple types of responses to a given emergency on its own. It could, for example, run a camp for a community displaced by violence in their town, distribute water and medical supplies, and begin working with women on gender-based violence awareness without local NGOs as sub-partners. In this case, the organization’s size allows them to be flexible to community needs.

But it’s true, large organizations also have large staffs of lawyers, accountants, and paper pushers in various fancypantaloons capitals the world over who never leave their offices. What’s said less often is how these people allow the organization to raise money, send aid workers overseas, hire local staff, and basically get things done. J at Tales from the Hood says it better in his post “Noble Savages.

I have a colleague. A young mother, very bright, exceptionally good at her job. She’s a long ways from “the field”, both literally and organizationally. She sits in a cubicle in Europe does a lot of writing, a lot of consensus-building internally and a lot of networking externally. The world is probably a better place as a result of her doing her job diligently. But most days it would be tough to explain to an aid non-insider how what she does amounts to more resources in the hands of the world’s poor.

When it comes down to it, large organizations have a desk-bound bureaucracy just as they have international and national aid workers on the ground fighting that bureaucracy daily in order to save lives. They’re not totally one thing and they’re not totally another. And not every large organization is as good at being flexible or working with local partners as every other large organization.

Just take another look at the list of “prime partners” in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia. Save the Children, for example, lists 29 “sub-partners” with whom they worked. Of those, only three are other large NGOs, the rest are small, local Ethiopian NGOs.

You know what I love? (Besides kindness.) Small NGOs—and especially small, local NGOs.

In fact, my day job is at a small, U.S.-based NGO that promotes the importance and expansion of small, local NGOs in a country formerly known as a war zone. I love small NGOs that much. But two things come immediately to mind:

1. It’s very hard to run a small, successful NGO in the United States.
2. It’s very, very hard to run a small, successful NGO in a developing country.

Both can be done. Both take a lot of work. The people on the ground that I talk to, I can’t imagine doing what they do every day: facing death, facing threats to their own lives, facing government officials who would rather arrest them than listen to their policy recommendations. I have it easy, I sit in an office in a world capital all day and the worst thing a government official is going to do to me is cut in front of me in line for coffee.

Running a small NGO well—and there are tons of poorly run small NGOs—takes dedication and commitment. It takes a time commitment, something more than a few hours a week from volunteers.

In many cases, it’s small, local NGOs that respond to a community’s needs first and it’s small, local NGOs that will be working in communities long after the large NGOs have left. Thus, small NGOs should be held just as accountable to their donors and stakeholders (the people they help) as a large NGO. Simply because an NGO is small does not necessarily make it better or more efficient than a large NGO and it’s size should never be an excuse for harmful consequences of its work.

Promoting small NGOs means promoting best practices and accountability. We want small NGOs to be sustainable and self-sufficient so when the large NGOs do leave, the small NGOs have the capacity to continue their operations and a framework within which to do so. Heck, maybe they’ll even become large NGOs (Heaven forfend!)

Yes, part of capacity is funding. That brings us back to nearly where we started: funding small NGOs.

Before donating money to any NGO, do some research. Do more research than, “Oh, [C-list celebrity’s name] is on it!” You should make sure you know what the impact of your dollars will be—good or bad. Once again, I suggest looking at what Saundra says about the “Dos and Don’ts” of disaster donations. A donation could go to a large or a small NGO (or a medium NGO!) for all I care, but it should always go to one that is accountable to its donors and its stakeholders.

Which is almost never an orphanage. (Saundra has a whole category devoted to this.)

The easiest way to make sure your donation gets put to good use? Do some research and pick a large aid agency that has a history of working with small, local NGOs. Yeah, it adds a “middle-man,” yeah, it’s not “sexy,” yeah, it’s easy, but the best large relief agencies work with their partners and build local responses to future disasters.

Want to work harder? Do even more research. Find out what a small NGOs’ code of conduct is, what their mission statement is, and—most importantly—what their track-record of success is.

Tl;dr: Small NGOs are essential to international development work, but running them is really hard and takes a lot of work. Many times, large NGOs partner with small NGOs. Donating to a large NGO is an easy way to make a difference and doesn’t have to mean cutting out stakeholders or the grassroots. Never donate specifically to orphanages.

This isn’t to say starting a successful small NGO is impossible. It’s not even impossible for a celebrity to do it. In fact, Ben Affleck might just be getting it right with his Eastern Congo Initiative, or so says Laura Seay, cynic about celebrity activists and aid-blogging celebrity cynic.

(Reminder: Ben and Misha’s organizations are vastly, vastly different in mission and scope.)

What’s Ben getting right? According to Professor Seay, it’s by: demonstrating a commitment to hiring local leadership; working with community organizations that have already established a record of solving problems, providing services, and making programs work, even with extremely limited resources; not trying to reinvent the wheel; and being program-driven rather than personality-driven.

I would add that its holistic approach to the economic and social development of the eastern DRC also means it approaches relief work in a wholly different way than Misha’s Random Acts. It’s not just about reintegrating child soldiers, it’s about increasing educational opportunities for children. It’s not just about supporting survivors of rape medically, it’s about supporting them with legal assistance, too. And, like Professor Seay said, Ben’s organization does this by partnering with local NGOs.

Just because something is easy doesn’t make it a bad option and just because something is hard doesn’t make it a good option. Donating to a large NGO isn’t always a bad option just as starting a small NGO isn’t always a good option.

Just like God doesn’t appear on tortillas, the answers aren’t easy to find. The challenge is figuring out what separates a good option from a bad option and not being afraid of the journey and what you might find at the end.

What’s never a bad option? A YouTube video of a dog dancing the merengue.


3 thoughts on “The Answers Aren’t on Any Flatbread

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Answers Aren’t on Any Flatbread « @laurenist --

  2. All great points and an awesome summary of why both types of NGOs can work and why some NGOs deserve to die. The general dislike of either small NGOs or large ones seems to have an ebb and flow to it. Every few years there seems to be a change and people start saying one is a better form of aid/development.

    But we do need a system that deals with your 24 year old friend who decides that since they can’t find a job, they must start a NGO. This NGO will, of course, end injustice across the world. They, however, tend to fail and worldwide injustice actually increases since you are now forced to pick up their bar tab.

    • Patrick, I feel your pain with regard to the increasing injustice associated with the bar tabs of failed 24 year-old NGO administrators. If anyone were capable of doing the handholding necessary to get someone through such a difficult time in their life, would it not be a Nats fan?

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