A Constraint of the Aid-Business Model: Whose Need First?

I have moved to UN from the private sector and I have found many things I like, and I don’t like. But instead of nagging unconstructively, I will seek how we can improve the process of the international cooperation.

Before joining UN, I had struggled so much (and failed…) to start my own “social business” activity. Being such a layman on entrepreneurship and its experience, I found it is very tough to connect what I want to achieve (or motivation you will build on) with what customer want, especially in the field of social business. It is the vital importance of business to identify or discover the true needs of the client. Otherwise, your product will stay in your warehouse and your company will go bankrupt.

Let’s move to the case of aid institutions. Who is our customer/client? Whose needs do we have to understand deeply? You may naively say “Of course, the local people who are suffering poverty, lack education/healthcare, WASH, and basic human right!” Or you are a hardcore activist on the environment, it could be any form of life on earth.

I also thought like above before start working in UN. Otherwise, what’s sense of working in the aid institution? Why do you seek to work there if those most in needs are not your customers? However, through the experience I had so far, I have to conclude that the clients for us are actually “Donor” and what we have to understand more is their needs, instead of the ones mentioned above (for aid organizations to survive). I now think this is the constraint that may cause the unsuited interventions to the local situation.

But why like this? These days, even UN agencies are said to be suffering from the lack of budget, and they have to show their reasons for being (This is the fundamental question for me: Who and how can we say “Hey, the time has come to dissolve UNXX!” I will write about this topic later). In this kind of situation, their core value is to rather meet donor’s need than those of local people or country. And this won’t be a problem if donor’s need in line with the locals. But I think it doesn’t. Donors are not necessarily giving their charity purely from conscience. They have their own business and strategy. In my opinion, aid institutions are more and more affected by donor’s intention under the current trend.

Aid agencies are of course seeking to meet the needs of the ground. But what I want to claim here is that the aid workers have to understand and meet the donor’s need deeper than before if they want to continue their activity with the traditional their business model. That is why, more often than not, the competency to understand the local needs or hearing their voice is less evaluated in the organization than external people imagine. And in turn, this will be reflected on the promotion or survival in the organization.

This constraint may sound like a serious problem if we think only aid agencies can solve the developmental challenges. But in reality, what aid agencies can do is much smaller than what other stakeholders such as private companies and civil societies can do, particularly at the ground level.

So I think the true challenge that the UN is facing is to transform its organization’s role into the catalyst of future sustainable development, and so does organization itself. But this is something very hard.