Posts Tagged ‘volunteers’

Rome wasn’t built in three years

This is a follow-up post to my previous one over the lack of adequate diagnosis by Engineers Without Borders in determining the cause of failures they have admitted. Here I turn my attention away from the admitting failure process to address the substance of EWB’s failure. It is also specifically a response to Erin Antcliffe’s question on Twitter and an expansion on my 140 character response:




However, this isn’t really about EWB’s volunteer-based business model. The mediocre achievements of the development industry over the past 50 years suggest that all the development experts in the world don’t amount to very much, at least not if they’re working in the wrong framework. As such I applaud EWB’s intentions and efforts to “search for new models for development impact” (Erin in comments on David Week’s post).

My top tweet above might come across as harsh, but I think is fair. I’ve been working where I do for over 10 years, and I’m still very much learning about the country and its people. All the really effective NGOs I know around here have staff who’ve equally stayed around for the long haul, many longer than me.

And yet expatriate development programme staff the world over typically stay for only 3-5 year posts at maximum, with many doing shorter stints. I had one friend who had worked for 3 different UN agencies in 3 different countries doing 3 different jobs, each for only one year. He wasn’t a senior consultant brought into to lend his advice for a set period, but a junior officer who was presumably good with spreadsheets. But why would the UN seek to foster such wasteful career management?

I can guess at two ‘inspirations’ for this myopic approach to HR management:

  • Many aid projects, equally myopically, last only 3-5 years.
  • Diplomats tend to get rotated quite regularly, and donor bureaucracies generally evolved out of foreign ministries.

But it doesn’t really matter how we arrived at this ridiculous situation, we just need to get out of the rut. Rome was not built in a day, or even a 3 year project cycle. It’s quite simple: if you are serious about tropical conservation or development then you need to make a serious time investment. We need staff who’ll stay the distance, not just lay a few bricks on an aqueduct then move on.

So to answer Erin’s question: obviously you cannot demand that staff sign up for 5+ years right from the word go (and especially not with volunteers), but you can orient your whole HR management to encourage long stays, with career development in situ. New recruits should understand that this is the organisation’s culture from early on, and learn the importance of continuity to achieving lasting results.

This would require a complete redesign of the architecture of bilateral aid projects (which certainly could do with an overhaul), but NGOs have greater freedom and could much more easily push this approach starting right now. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but then tropical conservation and development clearly aren’t easy. Time to saddle up for the challenge!

ps. The counterpoint to all of the above is that fossilised staffing is also not a great road to success. As such aid organisations need to balance continuity and long term management with regular injections of fresh blood. Again, not always an easy task.


When admitting failure isn’t enough

There have been some great posts on the second aid blog forum on admitting failure.  Many bloggers picked up, as I like to think I did, on the fact that admitting failure is just one aspect of lesson learning (another tautological piece of yucky aid jargon), that we all ought to be doing as a matter of course. David Week called attention to this better than anyone, demolishing admitting failure as just another management fad. (I find it hard to disagree with him, but reckon admitting failure has so much more humility than your average management fad, that I’m prepared to give it the time of day.)

In particular, David examined the failure reports by Engineers Without Borders, the poster child for admitting failure in aid projects. In doing so he highlighted the limitation that I had suggested, that failures identified and admitted were unlikely to be central to an organisation’s work, but focus on relatively peripheral elements. David dissected an entry in EWB’s 2009 failure report. To paraphrase: he showed that while the EWB volunteer had successfully identified that things had gone wrong, and that the project would not be sustainable, she had failed to identify that the real problem lay in the fact that the whole project design was fundamentally unsustainable in the first place.* Or as I suggested in the comments: EWB is exposed as a glorified volunteer monger. Maybe one of the best volunteer monger’s out there, but a volunteer monger nonetheless.

EWB’s Erin Antcliffe responded in the comments and an excellent little debate developed, spreading to Twitter.** Now don’t get me wrong; I have followed several EWB volunteer blogs over time. I love their questioning approach and courage to face up to failure. Without ever having been near one of their projects, I nonetheless imagine they might just be the best volunteer monger in the world. And if their initiative to get aid and development organisations to similarly face up publicly to their failures catches on, then, regardless of David Week’s and others’ reservations, I think they’ll have done the world a big favour.

But, will their project design process have changed? Will they have learned the most important lesson from their failures? I can see this how might be difficult, because it appears fundamental to how the organisation works.

Often times in this blog I have contrasted how the topsy-turvy world of aid differs from that of business. (As have many others wiser than me!) This appears to be another such example. If you came up with a great new business idea, you could give it a good go, but if, whatever your original genius, it failed to deliver you would find out pretty quickly and the company would collapse. Alas the absence of good feedback loops in aid means that as long as you can convince the donors to keep on donating (and the volunteers signing up), you can go on indefinitely regardless of what you actually deliver.

It’s hard enough to admit failure in the first place. It’s even harder to admit that you might actually be the problem. And what matter most is what you do after you’ve admitted failure.

* This raises an important point. It is not enough simply to admit failure. One then needs to correctly diagnose the cause. This is not always easy!

** You can now follow me on there too: @bottmupthinking. Don’t count on too regular tweeting.

Starting Out

We all start out somewhere. A few years ago a regular topic of conversation amongst my friends here might be to slag off one or all of the volunteer agencies that bring gap-year kids out to Africa to do something meaningful, but which mostly achieve very little, and 99% of the benefit typically goes to the volunteer. There are other good reasons why volunteers might be a bad solution (like shutting out local labour), but I also know many people in conservation and development who started out volunteering with such an organisation. They are one way of giving budding development professionals  a start in life, and for all the rest there are some take home memories of how the other half live. (Not to be sniffed at if you want, for example, to get discriminatory trade policies changed at home.) I, myself, was a self-starter, but I recall how little I knew back then, and how instantly I was dismissed as well, quite obviously knowing **** all. But some kind souls did help us and advise us, and much to my pride we are now recognised as one of the leading innovators in our sector in the country, and now I get to dismiss other people as being naive, clueless and generally a waste of time and space.

All of which brings to mind in a roundabout way the recent furore over the 1 million t-shirts for Africa campaign. Now I enjoyed reading some of the criticism as much as anyone else; 1 million second hand t-shirts for Africa does seem like a spectacularly bad idea, and general waste of resources. Most of the ire seemed to get funnelled the way of its publicist, Jason Sadler, who responded in kind. But for me the greater criticism should be directed at those ‘professionals’ who suggested the idea to him in the first place (apparently HELP International, though I haven’t fact checked this thoroughly). I think, and many development commentators have said, that the aid industry as a whole has a pretty poor record. (This is not to say there haven’t been some good things, but plenty of what we’ve tried has flopped badly; see HRI’s satirical take on the story to understand just how badly institutional aid could do the t-shirts idea.) We need new people, new ideas, fresh injections of talent, and different approaches. As Aid Watch pointed out, Jason Sadler certainly has some significant talents at promoting stuff on the web, which could be really useful to a whole range of development initiatives.

As an industry we need to get more welcoming of new people and new ideas. Aid and development could do with a bit of creative destruction.

ps. Anyone for a t-shirt bonfire? Not Jason Sadler’s. All those t-shirts made and distributed at considerable cost by development agencies to demonstrate field presence and ‘buy’ local support for their projects.

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