I have faith
and this has nothing to do with religion.
This is the third post in a series about my experience in South Sudan. For the past four weeks, I’ve been here, working with UNICEF Innovation, War Child Holland, and my teammates back in San Diego, to break ground on an open-source platform, based on the work we've done with KA Lite, that will deliver free, high-quality, curated educational materials to offline communities. The post that follows is quite personal, and reflects no views but my own.
A question has managed to lodge itself inside my head. Its answer is critical for the work that our organization is doing, and for the international aid industry as a whole. And its answer is important to me, because as of three years ago, I’ve completely based the direction of my life on what I have blindly assumed it to be.
Being the new kid on the block here in Juba, I didn't want my colleagues to get the impression that they'd imported some naive Californian idealist who forced discomfort on everyone via disconcerting curiosity, and I certainly didn't want to insult or call into question the impact of work that people have dedicated their lives to. But in the end, the desire for discussion and some tangible truth overtook my misgivings. So in search of an answer, I’ve put the following question to almost every single expat I’ve met here:
“How do you know—how can you know—that the work being done here, and collectively by international aid groups, is truly having a net positive impact?”
The responses I receive are almost always personal and hardly defensive. It normally starts with silence. If we're in a group, the others will exchange quick glances. There will be some murmuring about how it’s good that people are still asking these types of questions, or feigning surprise that they haven’t heard this one in a while. And then someone will admit that they have managed to dislodge the uncertainty completely from their mind. They simply are capable of not thinking about it, and continue to ride the steady wave that is the status quo. Spurred by this, others admit that they've managed to reconcile their doubts by establishing their own personal truths—almost in the style of an affirmation—that go something like “these people need help, and doing something is better than nothing.” And then there are a salty old few that will look me straight in the eye, and tell me what I sense is equal parts taboo and vogue to say as an NGO worker: “everything is an industry my friend—what makes you think aid is any different?”
It’s almost as if they’re saying that while impact might matter to the layman, the work being done here is fulfilling a purpose, and is simply a cog in the international economic machine. And maybe it is. I don't know yet. What I do know is that I still don’t have a good answer to that question. I feel as though I'm gathering lots of little pieces to an enormous, table-sized puzzle—pieces that are based on personal observations, insights, and conversations with others who have been doing this a lot longer than me. And from these little pieces, all I’ve managed to develop are gut feelings about what the big picture might truly look like. My reading list for when I'm home has already grown long, and I look forward to increasing my true understanding of the subject with hard data.
In the meantime, just like the other expats I’ve talked to, I’ve found myself yearning for some affirmation that this is the right track, personally, for our organization, and for our society. I feel the desire to know this more deeply here than I’ve ever felt it before back home with the team in San Diego, because as it turns out, what I’ve experienced of the larger nonprofit sector thus far isn’t exactly what I imagined it would be. Take the following with a grain of salt.
Around me I'm observing what would appear to be inefficiencies. I see donor dollars being poured into things like first-class plane flights, large office compounds, high salaries, comfortable per-diems for well-educated and sometimes incompetent consultants. I'm hearing about work schedules that are six weeks on and two weeks off. I'm hearing about $10,000 per month for rent for high ranking US officials, and for each of their security staff. I’m wondering if it makes sense to spend thousands of dollars a month on Internet access, especially when you’re sharing 50KB down/second amongst an office of 20 people. And I’m thinking about the countless gallons of fuel burned daily in generators all over this city so that offices of people here to help can have power and AC while almost the entire population of the country lives in poverty.
And I’m not an economist, but humor me for a second. If you create value and you get paid for it, you’re economically incentivized to continue creating that value. From what I can tell, in the aid industry, the only economic incentive is to convey need to funders and then maintain the status quo. The people getting served typically don’t have much of a choice. Instead, donors that are literally thousands of miles away looking at pictures and reading reports get to vote on programs and initiatives with their wallets. And so instead of a clean, self-balancing cycle, you end up with what I’m envisioning in my mind to be a political cartoon of a sloppy fire brigade, with donors on one end dipping buckets into a seemingly infinite well of cash, and a line of NGOs sloshing most of it out onto the ground as they pass it along toward the fire of in-need communities.
And that’s not really the end of it. Silicon Valley might move fast and break things, but in this sector, at least as far as I can tell, fail and you’re out. And so there’s this constant battle between programs, which produce outputs, but don’t fundamentally solve problems, because how could you possibly solve humongous problems like these on the first try? And even if you did, how would you really be able to attribute the positive outcomes directly to your work? Because there are so many inputs and outputs and unseen forces at work, that it doesn’t seem like anything can truly be measured definitively.
Ok, I’m done. If you haven’t already ingested the salt, now’s the time.
So I’m observing these things and I’m laying awake night after night in my little mosquito net, and full disclosure, there have been some passing moments when I’ve wanted to rain down criticism and accusations and attempt to spark a revolution to disrupt the status quo—in fact, early drafts of this post were well on the way there. But honestly, I know that would be a little more than naive. To be fair, I’m sure there are certain inefficiencies that I’m observing that are completely valid. I’m also sure that, given time, many of these things would start to make more sense to me, and seem less infuriating. I’m torn between the hesitation granted by self-awareness and self-righteous denial, like a little boy who just realized that the world isn’t made completely of sunshine and roses.
It would appear that, as of yet, there is no good answer to my question—the question. For now, just like the other expats, I have to make my own peace and frankly, I’m not finding that to be difficult, for three reasons.
First, here in South Sudan, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with the people and principles that make up the UNICEF Innovation Unit. This group teaches that failure is something to learn from, rather than to be shunned, and that solutions should be designed on the ground, using human-centered methods with the communities that they will serve, rather than in the head office of an NGO back in the developed world. They believe that success is measured in units of scalability and impact, rather than donor dollars and project longevity. They get it. They’ve done it. And I am thrilled that our organizations are going to be working together to break down barriers to access to education.
Second, I work with a team of absolute ballers—always wanted to say that—who work way too hard for infinitely less than they’re worth and eat tough challenges for breakfast. In our own geeky way, we set out to change the world by providing unprecedented opportunities to the estimated 4.5 billion people around the world without Internet access, and we share a deep conviction that we will do just that.
Finally, I firmly believe that education is the key to making the world a better place. When I say education, I mean: the development of critical thinking skills and the ability to adapt behavior and thinking to changing circumstances, better known as leadership. If we can get enough people to the point where they can think critically and be leaders, I believe that the tides will turn and all of the shitty things that we humans do — killing each other, suppressing and enslaving and stealing from each other, destroying our own environment in the name of dollar bills and profit-maximization — will start to dissappear when critical thinkers and leaders make up the majority of the world’s population.
So let’s get people educated.
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