Humanitarian Assistance

Back in September, HURDL released its final report on our work assessing Mali’s Agrometeorological Advisory program – an effort, conceived and run by the Government of Mali, to deliver weather and climate information to farmers to improve agricultural outcomes in the country. You’d think this would be a straightforwardly good idea – you know, more information (or indeed any information) being better than none. So our findings were a bit stunning:

  • As we found in our preliminary report, less than 20% of those with access to the advisories are actually using them
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is a man
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is already relatively well-off
  • The advisories were most used in the parts of the country where precipitation is most secure (see map below).

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 5.10.27 PM

This was, to say the least, a set of surprising findings. And, on their surface, they suggest that the program is another example of development failure: a project that only reaches those who least need the help it is providing.

But that conclusion only holds if this program was oriented toward development and adaptation in the first place…and it was not. The program was established in 1981 as an effort to address conditions of acute food insecurity closely linked to severe drought. The goal was simple: use short-term and seasonal advisories to help farmers make better decisions under stress and boost food availability in Mali. This program, in other words, was an effort to address a particular, acute problem (food insecurity linked to extreme drought) through a very specific means (boosting food availability). This was not a development project, it was a humanitarian response to a crisis. And as such, it was brilliant – and each of the findings above demonstrate why.

  • The goal was to rapidly boost yields of grains (and cotton), for which men have most decision-making authority.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost overall yields of grains to improve availability within Mali, and therefore targeting the wealthy farmers who had the access to equipment and animal traction necessary to use the advisories made sense.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost grain production…and much more grain is grown in the wetter parts of Mali than in the dryer areas in the north.

In short, the project was never intended to address development goals – it was supposed to address a particular aspect of a humanitarian crisis through particular means, and its design targeted exactly the right decision-makers/actors to achieve that goal. Indeed, one could argue that the rather narrow use of advisories speaks to how well designed this humanitarian intervention was. In short, the gendered/wealth-dependent character of advisory use, and the fact they are most used in areas that are already very agriculturally productive, are not bugs in this project: they are features!

The problem, then, is not with the design of the project, but the fact it continued for more than 30 years, and some 25 years after the end of the droughts. As a narrowly-focused effort to address a particular, short-term humanitarian crisis, the gendered/wealth-based outcomes of the project were acceptable trade-offs to achieve higher grain yields. But over 30 years, and without the justification of an acute crisis, it is likely this project has served to unnecessarily exacerbate agricultural inequality in rural southern Mali.

HURDL is now engaged in a project to redesign this program, to shift it from a (now unnecessary) humanitarian assistance effort to a development/adaptation project. With this shift in priorities comes a shift in how we view the outcomes of the program – the very things that made it an effective humanitarian assistance program (gendered and income-based inequality) are now aspects of the project that we must change to ensure that the widest number of farmers possible have access to information they can use in their livelihoods decisions as we move into conditions of greater economic and environmental uncertainty. In short, we now have to bridge the DRR and Humanitarian Response/Development and Adaptation divide that has so plagued those of us concerned with the situation of those in the Global South. This will be tremendously challenging, but through this process we hope to not only work with Malian colleagues to design and deliver a development and adaptation version of this program to Malian farmers, but also to learn more about how to bridge the particular time/scope emphases of these two assistance arenas.

Look, I know there have been lots of Star Wars and development posts/tweets (here, here, here), so I won’t belabor things. But forgive me a quick observation after seeing the most recent Star Wars: isn’t the continual construction of bigger and more powerful flying orbs of death by the bad guys (the Empire, then the First Order) a perfect metaphor for the sort of thinking that gave us the Millennium Villages?

Goal: Galactic Domination

Project 1: Star Wars: A New Hope

Logframe: Build giant Death Star space station, blow up a representative planet, watch galaxy cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Failure to address single design flaw results in giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Lack of Domination


Project 2: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Logframe: Build bigger, better Death Star space station, everyone will remember the last one blew up a planet, and because this one is even bigger the galaxy will cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Fixed previous design flaw, overconfidence in tactics and shields failed to account for another fatal flaw, giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Catastrophe, Complete collapse of the Empire


Project 3: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Logframe: F*ck it, we’re making an actual moon/planet into an absolutely massive, sun-powered Starkiller base (rebranded to avoid stigma of previous Death Stars), blow up the entire Federation home system, watch galaxy cower in fear=> Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Pretty much the same flaw as with the second Death Star, with pretty much the same result: Starkiller base destroyed

Outcome: Still no domination

So, to summarize: we have a problem, we can’t seem to solve it, so we will keep plowing ahead with the same approach, but bigger and more expensive, because clearly it isn’t the concept that’s flawed, we just haven’t gone big enough!


Yep, sounds like a lot of development.

Raj Shah has announced his departure from USAID. Honestly, this surprises nobody at the Agency, or anyone in the development world who’s been paying attention. If anything, folks are surprised he is still around – it is well-known (or at least well-gossiped) that he was looking for the door, and at any number of opportunities, at least since the spring of 2012. There are plenty of reviews of Shah’s tenure posted around the web, and I will not rehash them. While I have plenty of opinions of the various initiatives that Shah oversaw/claims credit for (and these are not always the same, by the way), gauging what did and did not work under a particular administrator is usually a question for history, and it will take a bit of space and time before anyone should feel comfortable offering a full review of this administrator’s work.

I will say that I hope much of what Shah pushed for under USAID Forward, especially the rebuilding of the technical capacity of USAID staff, the emphasis on local procurement, and the strengthening of evaluation, becomes entrenched at the agency. Technical capacity is critical – not because USAID is ever going to implement its own work. That would require staffing the Agency at something like three or four times current levels, and nobody is ever going to approve that. Instead, it is critical for better monitoring and evaluating the work of the Agency’s implementing partners. In my time at USAID, I saw implementer work and reports that ran the gamut from “truly outstanding” to “dumpster fire”. The problem is that there are many cases where work that falls on the dumpster fire end of the spectrum is accepted because Agency staff lack the technical expertise to recognize the hot mess they’ve been handed. This is going to be less of a problem going forward, as long as the Agency continues to staff up on the technical side.

Local procurement is huge for both the humanitarian assistance and development missions of USAID. For example, there is plenty of evidence supporting the cost/time effectiveness of procuring emergency food aid in or near regions of food crisis. Further, mandates that push more USAID funding to local organizations and implementers will create incentives to truly build local capacity to manage these funds and design/implement projects, as it will be difficult for prime contractors to meet target indicators and other goals without high-capacity local partners.

A strong evaluation policy will be huge for the Agency…if it ever really comes to pass. While I have seen real signs of Agency staff struggling with how to meaningfully evaluate the impact of their programs, the overall state of evaluation at the Agency remains in flux. The Evaluation Policy was never really implementable, for example because it seems nobody actually considered who would do the evaluations. USAID staff generally lack the time and/or expertise to conduct these evaluations, and the usual implementing partners suffer from a material conflict of interest – very often, they would have to evaluate programs and projects implemented by their competitors…even projects where they had lost the bid to a competitor. Further, the organizations I have seen/interacted with that focus on evaluation remain preoccupied with quantitative approaches to evaluation that, while perhaps drawing on Shah’s interest in the now-fading RCT craze in development, really cannot identify or measure the sorts of causal processes that connect development interventions and outcomes. Finally, despite the nice words to the contrary, the culture at USAID remains intolerant of project failure, and the leadership of the Agency never mounted the strong defense of this culture change to the White House or Congress needed to create the space for a new understanding of evaluation, nor did it ever really convey a message of culture change that the staff of USAID found convincing across the board. There are some groups/offices at USAID (for example, in the ever-growing Global Development Lab) where this culture is fully in bloom, but these are small offices with small budgets. Most everyone else remains mired in very old thinking on evaluation.

At least from an incrementalist perspective, entrenching and building on these aspects of USAID Forward would be a major accomplishment for Shah’s successor. Whoever comes next will not simply run out the clock of the Obama Administration – there are two years left. I therefore expect the administration to appoint an administrator (rather than promote a career USAID staff caretaker with no political mandate) to the position. In a perfect world, this would be a person who understands development as a discipline, but also has the government and implementing experience to understand how development thought intersects with development practice in the real world. Someone with a real understanding of development and humanitarian assistance as a body of thought and practice with a long history that can be learned from and built upon would be able to parse the critical parts of USAID Forward from the fluff, could prevent the design and implementation of projects that merely repeat the efforts (and often failures) of decades ago, and could perhaps reverse the disturbing trend at USAID to view development challenges as technical challenges akin to those informed by X-Prizes – a trend that has shoved the social aspects of development to the back seat at the Agency. At the same time, someone with implementing and government experience would understand what is possible within the current structure, thus understanding where incremental victories might push the Agency in important and productive directions that move toward the achievement of more ideal, long-term goals

There are very, very few people out there who meet these criteria. Steve Radelet does, and he served as the Chief Economist at USAID while I was there, but I have no idea if he is interested or, more importantly, if anyone is interested in him. Much the pity if not. More likely, the administration is going to go with the relatively new Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt. Looking at his background, he’s already been vetted by the Senate for his current position, has foreign service experience, time in various implementer-oriented positions, and he is well-positioned to avoid a long confirmation process as a former lobbyist and from his time as House Sergeant-at-Arms, which likely give him deep networks on both sides of the aisle. In his background, I see no evidence of a long engagement with development as a discipline, and I wonder how reform-minded a former Senior Vice President for Government Relations at an implementer can be. I do not know Deputy Administrator Lenhardt at all, and so I cannot speak to where he might fall on any or all of the issues above. According to Devex, he says his goal is to “improve management processes and institutionalize the reforms and initiatives that Shah’s administration has put in place.” I have no objection to either of these goals – they are both important. But what this means in practice, should Lenhardt be promoted, is an open question that will have great impact on the future direction of the Agency.

A very long time ago, J asked me to review his book Letters Left Unsent. I’ve long been a fan of J’s writing on his blog Tales from the Hood, and have had the fortune to meet him, hang out, and develop what passes for a friendship in an era where people living on different coasts, and constantly on the move, can stay in touch through various electronic means. All this by way of saying that this will hardly be an impartial review.

So, here is my one sentence review: If you are interested in going into development/humanitarian work, or know someone who is, you need to get a copy of this book and read it/give it to them.

This is not to say that you will enjoy every message in the book – actually, you or your prospective aidworker will likely hate whole chunks of it. The reason for this is simple: the book is hard – really hard. It’s not the prose, which is actually quite fluid. It is the content. The book contains some of J’s most unvarnished stories and writing, work that strips away the romance of the job, exposing it as just that: a job. In chapter after chapter, J demonstrates that development and relief work is a very important, rewarding job, but sometimes a job where the biggest impacts come not from handing some poor soul food, but in getting a spreadsheet right or from attending the right meeting. Further, these lessons are not delivered in a detached, objective manner that can be easily forgotten, but through personal stories that emerge as J points the keyboard at himself and his own experiences. This is no casting of stones at unnamed, straw-man others (something the world could use much less of). It is, at times, a brutal first-person account of the compromises, decisions, crises, frustrations, and rewards that this career brings.

To be fair, there are personal reasons why this book challenged me. First, I know J personally. This means that I know how seriously he takes this job, how hard he works, and how much he believes in what he does. This means I cannot dismiss this book as the work of a cynic or an anti-aid crank, and therefore when the stories and their lessons hurt, there is no easy escape route. Second, some of these stories hit pretty close to home. J and I live in pretty different parts of the aid world. I’ve spent the bulk of my career as an academic, with a brief stint as the employee of a donor. I don’t live for or between deployments, and I never really have. But I’ve been in donor coordination meetings for a major crisis (the 2011 Horn of Africa famine), and in reading this book, I was transported to days of watching terribly difficult decisions get made, measuring the toll the crisis took on people around me – and I still consider those experiences to be some of the tougher ones in my career. At the same time, I’ve spent an awful lot of time conducting fieldwork. In my early days as an academic, I would disappear into villages for months on end. In the pre-cellphone era, this tended to have a deleterious effect on my personal life. Some of the collateral damage from such travel that J describes marks my own personal history. In this book, I heard the echoes of some my own decisions, and my own consequences…

So, I am not J. But I know J, both in the sense that I know the author, and I know many of those in this field for whom he writes. From my perspective, his stories ring true, and the lessons they present are real. And I have my own reasons for feeling challenged by this book, but I suspect most aidworkers would experience similar feelings as they recognize themselves in this book. In the end, my personal biases and feelings don’t change what I think is the value of this book. It is an important illustration of the development/aid worker’s life that does not resort to pieties or broad brushes. Instead, it wrestles with the ambiguities of live in this career. Development work is hard. Humanitarian assistance is hard. It is thrilling and appallingly mundane. It’s malaria and spreadsheets. Mostly spreadsheets. We succeed. We fail. We keep going, trying to learn from both. But if you are headed into this field, into this career, you are headed where J has been. Only fools ignore history, even if it is not their own. Only a very foolish prospective aidworker will ignore this book.