The Refugee Rethink: Part Two

Losing Our Religion

In our escalating pursuit of funding and a seat at the table of influence, I think we lost our way, and worse — we lost our souls.

A girl gazes off into the horizon at the Gihembe refugee settlement, Rwanda.

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

“We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 per day” — Linda Evangelista

Recently, a colleague and I shared a cup of tea with a government official in a country we both work in — a nation once notorious for its restrictive work environment. This official was responsible for coordinating all humanitarian activity in the country, so he had gained plenty of exposure to American and international humanitarian groups over the years. We had just spent few days together and conversation was flowing freely, so after a few sips, I asked him what he thought of the humanitarian groups that he had worked with.

He looked at me over the rim of the cup, paused a beat and said “I work for a government that has many issues. To many, we are the bad guys. No one expects anything good from me, or from my government.” He continued, “But you and all those other INGOs: you represent normal, everyday people who decided that they wanted to help others in need, and have crossed oceans to do it. You have freely chosen to come to places at war, to risk your lives not for your neighbor but in service to strangers. I thought you would represent the best of us, and all that was good about humanity.” He paused again “But in truth you are all small, competitive, and obsessed with your funding. You are not living up to your promise.”

That one hurt. Later, as I walked away from that conversation, I found myself agreeing. I don’t think we are living up to our promise. I think we have lost our way.

How did this happen? How did we get on this treadmill of mediocrity? I think it dates back over two decades. In the mid-90s/early 2,000s, humanitarian and development organizations experienced a high. We grew in size, revenue, and attention. We were getting better at our work. And we were bullish: we thought if we were doing “awesome” work at $100 million, it only made sense that we would do even “more awesome” work at $500 million. We believed that the rest of the humanitarian and development community could learn from us, and that we really (and I mean REALLY) needed a “seat at the table”, so that we could exert our influence over the larger official donors — UN, USAID, World Bank etc.

Now looking back…I draw three insights.

First, it turns out financial growth is not a proxy for growth in impact — it’s just financial growth. The “more awesome” bit didn’t work out; at best we just got bigger.

Second, influence works both ways. In trying to influence others, you can be influenced yourselves. You can unwittingly become part of the status quo, even become its very instrument.

And, third, mediocrity at scale is worse than low-level or isolated mediocrity. Large organizations, well-intentioned or not, can become over-confident. And when compounded by immense financial pressures (bills to pay, and growth needs growth), they can move further and further away from the customer: refugees and people in need.

In our escalating pursuit of funding and a seat at the table of influence, I think we lost our way, and worse — we lost our souls. We lost the burning sense of purpose that drove our founders: the desire to change the world, expressed through a singular and powerful mission animated by the volunteerism of everyday people. Instead we have become output-driven machines, funded by government, and implemented by technocrats.

Recently, a very senior member of the USAID leadership team from the last administration visited our headquarters to speak about that agency’s challenges and desire to change. During the speech, he explained how his team thought about their approach to funding organization’s like mine. He showed us the formula:

a) We (USAID) decide what we want.

b) You (INGO) bid to do it.

c) Then we (USAID) choose one of you (INGOs) to do it.

Are we nothing but contractors with better words (save, care, help etc.) in our names?

One colleague of mine states it succinctly: “we are all the same, just different pictures on the wall.”

Who do we serve? What is the unique value that we bring? Is it possible to flip the script? Building on my last post — can we find a new engine to drive us? Can we move from the establishment-centric mindset toward a people-centric model?

Within my own organization, the American Refugee Committee we have been trying to do this very thing. We have adopted a “design-thinking” approach to transform not only the services we deliver but how we re-orient ourselves so that we actually listen to people. This approach was pioneered by IDEO, and it seeks to bring together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technically feasible and financially viable.

Here’s the thing: to have a great product or provide a great service, you need all three components — no point coming up with something that is desirable to people but isn’t technically feasible, or can’t be funded. And no point offering something that is financially and logistically possible, if your customer doesn’t want it (unless of course they have no choice).

That logic is simple — but over the last two decades, in our pursuit of financial growth and influence, our industry has become pulled toward feasibility and viability, at the expense of desirability. That third pillar became subsumed in standards and left to the discretion of large institutional or government donors rather than the needs of the world’s most marginalized people. When refugees choose to leave camps voluntarily, spend their every penny to live locally in cities like Amman, or risk everything to cross the Mediterranean, we cannot possibly say that we are providing the services that refugees value.

It is time to rebalance our focus toward the desires and needs of the people we serve. The founders of our organizations didn’t wait for a RFA to come out before trying to change the world — why should we?

Of course, this recalibration is not as simple as determining what refugees want and then providing it. I’ve learned something, as I’ve tried to drive this shift within my organization: desirability MUST be shared. Donors, organizations and refugees need to come together to find a shared place — something we all want to do. We are simply better together. And finding a way to shoehorn services or outcomes that a refugee might desire into an established RFA process is not the same thing, nor is solving something on their behalf from a hotel room in Nairobi.

Fortunately, the process is much more interesting than that. It’s something more akin to co-creation. And it’s something our organizations were born to do — to unleash the abundance, not only contained with in large institutional donors but also that which lies within refugees and everyday people that want to help. And in the doing, might we become organizations that represent the best of us, that which is good about humanity. Might we be the organizations everyone hopes we would be?

More on that in my next post. Check back here next week.