Does aid need a 12-step program?

“Let go and let God.” It’s a mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous. And after the last week or so, I’m wondering if it’s time for international aid to adopt the same approach to recovery (with more politically correct secular references of course).

Last week I attended the “Summit for Aid Effectiveness in Global Health: Making Country Leadership a Priority,” hosted by MIDEGO. Then earlier this week is was the InterAction Forum 2012, “Engage * Learn * Build,” and ending up yesterday at the Chesapeake Bay Organization Development Network Annual Meeting, “Shifting Organizations from Reactive to Resilient.” (You can check out my Storify-ed tweets from the events here, here, and here respectively.)

But it was the framing questions for MIDEGO’s event that helped to shape my mindset over these three meetings:

  • What does country leadership mean to your work in development?
  • Are you ready to let go and let countries lead?
  • How will we know that US dollars are being used effectively if we let countries lead programs?
  • How do we let go?

With MIDEGO’s questions in mind all week, I’ve listened to old school “experts” in suits. I’ve listened to “local champions” via Skype from the developing world. I’ve listened to people who identify themselves squarely as supporters of local activists and leaders. And in each of their presentations and in the pursuant discussions, I’ve been listening for answers to these questions for insight into how the shifts needed to make aid more locally responsive can occur.

My conclusion? The international aid industry (and the people that make it up) might need a 12-step program to overcome what ails the system in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

So I offer these 12 steps, reworked for us aid workers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and volunteers, written as if we had successfully gone through the program and come out the other side—stronger and more devoted to our purpose.

Step 1:  We admitted we were powerless over a project-based mentality–that when we considered the changing world, our frameworks and tools as they had come to define us had become obsolete.

Step 2:  We came to believe that notions of complexity and resilience, as powers greater than ourselves, could help guide us towards more adaptive programming.

Step 3:  We made a decision to turn our will and our roles over to this reality and to the adaptability of natural systems.

Step 4:  We made a searching and fearless inventory of our character as do-gooders and of the limitations of our internal systems in relation to the people we aim to serve.

Step 5:  We admitted to ourselves, our organizations and to our partners (implementing and funding) the exact nature of our faults and misdeeds.

Step 6:  We were entirely ready to practice responsive mechanisms of support (funding and accompaniment) in order to remove our defects of character.

Step 7:  We humbly used the feedback from our partners in the removal of our shortcomings and resolved to work to remove these faults by utilizing robust feedback mechanisms.

Step 8:  We made a list of all persons we harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9:  We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step 10:  We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Step 11:  We listened, studied, and meditated to improve our awareness of the natural laws and forces that govern the real and valued contributions of changemakers at  all levels, focusing only on accountability to the people we serve and the strength to follow that pursuit above all else.

Step 12:  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many people and international assistance efforts have started down this path.

Folks, if you haven’t yet embarked on your recovery, what are you waiting for?


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  1. Like Marianne, my past is in the aid world and this post needs to be widely read and absorbed by the sector. You hit the nail on the head. Our global intentions are good, but not creating the necessary positive impact. Great post.

  2. rita

    wow – yes really like it . I think that we have to admit that we are powerless over many things – this I think will help us actually listen more. I think we should also think of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions because sometimes when we are faced with disaster the most obvious awnser is not the real awnser but the one we are comofortable with because we can say ” we tried “

  3. Judith Baker

    True, true, self-criticism, reflection, humility are rare human qualities and very helpful in the aid community. But as castigated as we’ve been lately, people in the aid/solidarity community seem to me to be a lot more willing to use these tools than, say, people in politics, military, business or high finance – the people who often create the situations we try to ameliorate. We need equal portions of righteous [not self-righteous] indignation, and justice-seeking as of humility and contrition for mistakes. We make mistakes, we should examine them carefully and humbly, listen carefully to those we are working in solidarity with, but we must keep the true sources of human misery clearly identified.

  4. Devaki Shrestha

    I like the frank opinion of Jennifer about these 12 steps. Yes, sometimes when we talk about the development partners, aid utilization etc always forget about our role and responsibility and talking differently for beneficiary partner and funding partner, Great Jennifer has spelled out clearly about the do’s and dont’s.It will help all development professiona think once more to review ourselves!

  5. Dr John Munyoli Musyoka

    I do not believe in Aid unless it is humanitarian aid. The rest of Aid is retrogressive because it denies recipients the opportunity to exploit their potential to the full. Worse is that non-humanitarian Aid encourages corruption on a grandscale in the World today

  6. Hi Jennifer

    This is an excellent post, creative and to the point.

    I would like to request that you allow us to repost it on our website on with full credits to you and a link back to your site. We would also promote it on twitter.

    Most of our content (our website just got revamped) is on the impact of business in Africa, and I blog and write about my personal conviction that engaged business is more humanitarian than bad aid.

    Please let me know – I see you have other similar demands.

    Take care and thank you,


  7. Pingback: How Matters / The westernized nature of the #socent industry, by … |

  8. Nadia

    I used to work on a very big program at a very big aid organization … and I love this post. Somewhere, somehow, aid professionals know the problems, but can’t change their project-based thinking. Twelve steps sounds about right.

  9. Prof. Stephen J Avalyan Newton

    I fully accept the need for individuals charged with the huge responsibility to manage aid programmes and projects, to self assess and keep constantly reviewing with the clients the effectiveness or otherwise of what we are doing. I am always aware that the money we have entrusted to us is from the pockets of hard working taxpayers so it is a good thing to see that others share the view for the need to continuously review what we are doing and to be honest in reporting our findings. Thanks Jennifer for including me in this noble initiative.

  10. Patience Mahlalela

    This 12 step process would certainly bring a high degree of self assessment on the part of those tasked with managing donor aid funds/projects. However, I feel that a similar, albeit customized, process would need to be undergone by the policy makers and also by the individuals and communities to whom the aid goes in the recipient countries in order to complete the circle in making the mind shift. That way the objectives and goals for the aid would shared. I have in mind a process that would be resemble the Appreciative Inquiry 4 D model of discovering, dreaming, designing and envisioning the destiny.

  11. Dear Jennifer,
    Thank you for this great inovation. I really love the 12 steps. It is very interesting and full of reality. Do you know, must of us do not accept change. They get afraid about it but it is time to change our bad deeds and looking to the future with more confidence. By reading these 12 steps I found so many good qualities that can help in different problem solvings. Selfishness, egocentrism, corruption, carelesness are some of bad qualities that block the progress of community development and aid. Trustworthiness, honesty, accountability and integrety are required for better management of funds received from the donors.
    Once more, thank you sincerely for involving me in this important initiative. Please, don’t hesitate to share with me other interesting websites.
    Take care and God bless you.
    Kind regards.

  12. The 12-point approach is fine for the individual. The root of the challenge is simply that if you ask almost any agency to evaluate their existence in development according to the 12-points, they would expend enormous amounts of energy to try and persuade you that everything they do is already addressing the 12 points. Why? because it is so comfortable to maintain the status quo and hierarchies that exist. So many people in the sector talk about how it is broken and not fit for purpose. But these same people will not ask their contracting agency or employers why they avoid change. If we expect the disadvantaged people with whom we work to achieve their goals and dreams, then we must adapt our corporate ways to help them to do it. At the moment there is a great deal of stagnation in the situation.

  13. Ajmal Khan

    Jennifer, you highlighted the real practices, I totally agree with you, I have seen all these in development phase, and for the last seven years in the emergency responses phase as well.
    In addition to your reflections, wanted to add that, designing of flow of funds for relief and development needs long term vision for donors.
    What I am experiencing here in Pakistan is, majority of the donors are interested to see rapid change so that they will put their logo and expect from people to praise so the focus of real change became blurred. We also depend on implementing partners feedback. Now implementing partners are cleaver enough and know how to deal with the donors.
    I think we need to be more vigilant and focus on real change, and only real change will bring the branding of donor on peoples hearts then no need to putting information broads

  14. Maria Mullei

    Right on- Jennifer, The 12 steps challenged me to refelect on my role – in that change begins with me.As I criticise the contractors/implementers- of which I’m part of them, I should ask myself what I hav done- I am therefore part of the problem.
    On the other hand, one has to realize what we are against—- I once worked in a For-Profit- Organization so called development firms, and I was shocked to hear straight from the horse’s mouth- ” I have to think about the shareholders” and I thought- are we not supposed to think about the “communities” or “stakeholders” the people whom we have been entrusted to help and our responsibility as the caretakers of development. And this is what we often face in the development industry. So I hope your 12 steps will facilitate the understanding of development- spriritually and humanily speaking!!!

  15. I totally agree with the author that the international aid industry and the people that make it up, need the 12-step program that is presented in the article, to overcome what ails the system in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

    I would, however, like to add to the 12 steps a step that, in my opinion, will make the adoption and execution of the 12 steps possible. The step that I suggest is as follows:
    Step 13: We decided that only the persons with visions about ‘how to reform aid structures and programs to become responsive to, and owned by local development partners’, and background experience in development field work and Human Right activism; are to lead aid agencies, with a free hand/full authority to realize their visions.

  16. Thank you for this post, which is so firmly on point! Even the most well-intentioned humanitarian aid can sometimes have the unintended consequence of doing more harm than good when it is too top-down. I’ve sometimes wished for a “First, do no harm” kind of Hippocratic oath for aid agencies. But your 12 steps may be an even better prescription for progress!

  17. Sabatina

    Thought provoking and really like Step 13 added by Shareef: We decided that only the persons with visions about ‘how to reform aid structures and programs to become responsive to, and owned by local development partners’, and background experience in development field work and Human Right activism; are to lead aid agencies, with a free hand/full authority to realize their visions.

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