I am writing stories set in the midst of a violent conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people have had (and continue to have) their homes and livelihoods destroyed. The scene is one of devastation, and great, sudden need on so many individual and collective levels. As an ex-aid worker, I am bringing some of my own experience into these stories, and with that, my own questions about humanitarian disaster relief.
As I read and talk to others, I’ve come across some confident opinions that roll right over the complexities and assert that aid work is either intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad. The ‘good’ argument tends to rely on the good intentions are what counts (or ‘good intentions = good outcomes’) presumption, while the ‘bad’ argument relies on a reading of aid work as coming from a neo colonialist agenda on the part of rich countries. Between the two simplistic (and unhelpful, IMO) words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are many, many layers of nuance and overlap, and that is where I am trying to aim my understanding, and my writing.
Today I’m reading this: Admitting Failure.
The Admitting Failure project was set up by a Canadian non-governmental organisation, Engineers Without Borders, in an attempt to improve aid work through communicating examples of failure. It invites developmental and non-government organisations to recognise when their work is doing nothing, or even doing harm: to admit when the good intentions have been naive, misguided, blinkered, arrogant, disorganised, or badly realised, and to admit this in a public forum, before an audience of peers.
There have been interesting critiques of the project (and subsequently growing trend), here and here, for example. My sense is that this could be a useful approach if – IF – it then goes beyond an admission of failure, moves into identifying the cause(s) of the failure, and then, most importantly, takes action to change.