Thursday, 28 June 2012

When aid gets personal

The headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Epulu, DRC was attacked over the weekend and buildings burnt, guards killed, okapis eaten, local people displaced. I want to do something. I want to take action. I want to make this right, this one thing, to make it better. I want to spend my days running campaigns. I want to go there right now and fix it. I want the people who did this sent packing. I have an overwhelming (and entirely impractical) urge to rush off and bring home an okapi. I've been there. I've met the people. I've seen the okapis. I've walked in the forests. I've sat by the river. This is personal.

But that's where the problem comes, isn't it? Personal means taking sides. It means choosing which people and which places to help based, not on the greatest need or opportunity, but on personal feelings. Based on the places I happen to have visited. It means picking strategies because of anger or fear or guilt. It's about rescuing from the violence my own magical memories, not contributing to lasting solutions for the local people.And I don't want to do that.

Thousands of aid marketing campaigns artificially try to create that personal connection to a person or a place. In the process, the impression is created that aid should be personal and that passion is an acceptable substitute for research, knowledge and local understanding. But it's not true.

I don't really know what is going on there. I can't. I'm thousands of miles away with no real understanding of the conflicts and resource inequalities and deprivations, beyond a two-week visit and a whole lot of NGO-mediated and media-mediated hype. Good aid, smart aid, should only be deployed where evidence suggests it is likely to do the  job and where it is the best way of making things better. Anything else risks wasting money and, at worst, making things worse.

Of course, I'll do something in my personal capacity, because if I wasn't the kind of person to act, I imagine I'd be in a different industry, but becasue I am in this industry I feel like I need to choose my actions based on what is most likely to improve things. Sometimes the toughest part of working in development is not allowing personal feelings to overwhelming rational, evidence-based decision-making.

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