Why I support isolated aid workers across the globe and so should you!

Rich countries delivered $3.2 trillion of aid to poor countries between 1960 and 2008 (World Bank, 2011). Yet only 36% of aid workers think projects achieve their intended impact (McKinsey & Devex, 2011).

Aid recipients agree, calling for a change in aid’s business model—from that of delivery of goods and services to one focused on relationships (The Listening Project, 2010).

I have experienced the impact and potential of alternative funding and support mechanisms that could serve the conservatively estimated 1,000,000+ local groups and grassroots movements operating across the globe (Wiser.org, 2011).

A major obstacle to this, however, is the estimated 595,000 aid workers (ALNAP, 2010) who are rarely called to examine the bureaucratic rigidities that govern their day-to-day work and that deflate and/or marginalize local activists and changemakers. Cynicism, burnout, and jadedness on the prospect of any “real” progress can seriously compromise the hopefulness that many workers had when they entered the aid industry (Satori Worldwide & Mindfulness for NGOs, 2011). Much of the time, the needs of aid institutions and philanthropies overshadow the needs of grassroots-up initiatives, with SO much being lost in the over-technicalization of aid work and grantmaking.

Yet in my experience as a loudspeaker for “local changemakers,” I’ve seen a growing cadre of skilled professionals that openly, bravely, and constructively question “business as usual” in the aid industry. And they are so needed. Connecting aid workers who want to instill and/or re-cultivate a sense of public service and downward accountability within their roles is the first step to change.

Imagine if just a small percentage of the large-grant aid resources are “unlocked” for grassroots-up initiatives. To re-direct even 0.01% of industry resources for local changemakers would be a tremendous win.

By supporting and encouraging dedicated and self-identified change agents within aid institutions to create more trust, equity and mutual accountability with those we serve in the developing world, the system-wide reform needed becomes possible. Like you, I no longer want to see local civil society organizations as the lowest common denominator of international development assistance. It’s time to recognize local initiatives and indigenous organizations as vital to supporting demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries, and unleash social change.

I support whydev.org‘s initiative to build an international support network for isolated aid workers because, aside from offering mentoring and coaching, I think this effort could help share the good practices and actionable insights about how to better serve local partners, from within the system and outside of it. Now is the time to be corrective and imaginative, shifting the cognitive frameworks with which we talk about international aid.

No matter how you relate to your role in making the world a more equitable and peaceful place for its people to share in its prosperity, you have to do the internal work to know yourself first. In order to “be there” for anyone else, whether it’s your partner you sleep next to or the partner to which you give money, your own sense of well-being is the first thing that affects how effective you are in relating to and supporting others.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we will have to “flip the aid system” to put more local and national actors in the driver’s seat of development. I, for one, want to make sure the next generation of aid workers is ready.


Related Posts

Whom do I actually serve?

How to Work in Someone Else’s Country (A Book Review)

How to build strong relationships with grassroots organizations, Part 1 of 3

Don’t change the message. Change the messenger.

Has aid lost its humanity?

Changing the aid system: 5 more ideas from the inside

Mentoring Among Local Organizations—Here’s How!


  1. Gbawu F. Woiwor

    I think that Jennifer is achieving much with these types of ideas that tend to challenge the way things are. But the greatest thrust could be directed to the funding agencies, that seem to be satisfied by current project implementers. Unless donor agencies decide to apportion their aid for instance – 40 percent for international agencies and 60 percent for local organizations, there is less that such advocacy can accomplish. By saying that I think that the first commitment by industrialized countries to provide 0.7 percent of GDP to poor countries could be a starting point and moving unto the local organizations. Thanks

  2. Claude I Salem

    The clear advantage of social networking M-apps and D-websites is the opportunity they provide for countering the isolation of development workers due to geography and/or lack of intellectual stimulation. Countering this widespread but relatively “silent” phenomenon is of utmost necessity for a positive and conducive grassroots development environment . And if Facebook and Twitter and G+ aren’t of interest http://www.partners4cd.net (or something like it )may be more relevant in enabling rural development professionals to network and provide a support mechanism for capacity development.

  3. Good! I love this! Dear Jennifer, you don’t know what you are giving me in form of critical information (data) for my work on http://www.huridev.org. I have always believed and argued that no matter how much development aid can be dumped into this continent (Africa), nothing much can show in terms of real human development. And I mean human development, in contrast with the traditional development or supply of mere services. In fact, I often call our continent a ‘Black Hole’ in analogy to that Black Hole concept in astronomy where the so-named area attracts all matter and light around it to itself but shows no trace to where all this goes. I have argued that in Africa we started getting aid as early as the 19th century, even before we so-called became independent in the 1960s. You might talk of the schools and roads, plus foundations for medical service systems, etc that were started then. But not much of these show today. Not even improvements of them. For, if I know the meaning of development, then I should expect us to have built on these to advance far enough possibly to the level of Europe or thereabout. Why do I say this? Our continent is possibly the most endowed by nature in terms of mineral, flora and fauna, water (until recently with the onset of global warming effects, we had rain all year round), and land resources. But all these have no indicator at all that they actually exist on the continent. I can assure you that this is despite some insignificant resources that have since been taken away by foreigners in form of colonial and so-called neo-colonial exploitation. The continent still has abundant resources but which we cannot exploit today to our advantage because some inhuman structures in form of the contemporary African states are sitting on us. We cannot think, even act, freely to develop, not until we can be saved from these killer states.

  4. I really appreciated this post as I feel it’s important for people to do what they can to help, whether they work directly in international aid or not.

    I was a senior defense policy director in an earlier life, and found my work in peacekeeping policy among the most exciting and humbling. I’m now a writer and expat, and in addition to other writing projects and assignments I blog at Adventures in Expat Land. It’s mainly about living abroad, but periodically I’ll post about a global issue (e.g., international refugees, human trafficking, drought, etc.) to help raise awareness and encourage others to get involved.

    I also do a lot of writing on emotional resilience (I’m writing a book on the importance of emotional resilience on those living abroad/in a different culture), and one of the greatest projects was writing an article on emotional resilience in international aid workers for Expat Backup (http://www.expatbackup.com) which is run by and for international aid workers. Elie put it in the issue on Moving, and it’s on pp. 19-21 http://www.expatbackup.com/2011/08/the-expat-backup-guide-to-moving/

  5. Sayed Saeed

    Impressive post. Simply; whenever you want to support or complement others ” needy”; your prime responsibility as a complementer or provider or donnor is to know yourself and your partner from all aspects; Well Being, Potentail, Vission and NEED; and start your intervention from to transfer the ownership of services or things you are complementing others with. This the only reason for failure and this is a big persisting gap in Aid industry and never initiated and addressed properly despite of plenty of research papers, articles and text books published in the subject.

  6. Pingback: Something “knowing thyself” requires - IntDevCommunities | IntDevCommunities

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