How Professional Do We Want Development Work to Be?

There is a growing trend among NGOs to adopt a business model in the hopes of improving the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Business-like practices include streamlining costs, improving efficiency and attracting highly skilled workers. This Guardian article discusses this new trend and points out that while it is important for NGOs to improve the mechanism by which they deliver aid, the pursuit for efficiency must not compromise the overall mission of NGOs.

By Jonathon Glennie


June 29, 2011

People are confused about how professional they want development work to be. On the one hand, they want to see professional values such as high-quality monitoring and evaluation at the heart of the work, and they will certainly criticise every mistake or pound wasted. On the other, they tend to express concern at "admin" expenses (for which read "professional management") and sometimes at the salaries or working arrangements of development workers. When I was working in the charity sector, I was occasionally met with surprise when I told people that I didn't work for free, and actually got a half-decent salary.

There is a balance to be struck, as in all public sector jobs, between nurturing the sense of solidarity that is vital if you are going to seriously counter poverty and injustice, ensuring that you are not taking advantage of people, and making sure that you have some of the best and brightest people to play their parts in very important organisations.

This balance is not easy, and it is by no means material reward that is most important. I recall speaking with a Kenyan colleague who noted that because the NGO jobs in Nairobi were among the best paid in any sector, people would apply for them even if they felt no sense of solidarity with the values and objectives of the organisation. That is a problem for organisations whose ethos is about much more than profit and efficiency.

Before a radio interview I did recently, there was a report from Sudan in which a local development worker complained of "rich NGO workers in white land cruisers staying in the expensive hotels with extra allowances ... and we have lots of unemployed professionals who could do the work". It is an emotive line to take, and I do not have a general response. It is quite plausible (and I said so in my reply) that some of the foreign development workers in a particular area are totally separate from the real needs of the poorest or most marginalised. I have seen it myself.

Nevertheless, it is not a strong generalised critique. My uncle (who worked for the UN in Africa and south Asia) heard the radio programme and wrote to me: "Some people, both in donor and recipient countries, expect aid workers to adopt quasi-missionary lifestyles, living like the people they are trying to help.

"There are a few people in the world who do this, but the vast majority of aid and development workers are professionals who adopt the life either as a full-time career or as a major part of their career. They have families and mortgages like everybody else. They are needed because they are engineers, health workers, accountants and administrators. Most of them would not take up such work without decent salaries attached, and safe and acceptable working conditions. Why should they, when they can get good jobs at home and their peers in the private sector (from administrators to diplomats) all get paid good salaries (usually much better than NGO and UN salaries) to work in those same countries?

"And it is not true that local expertise is generally ignored in favour of expats. This might happen in some cases, but in my experience most NGOs and UN organisations have far more locals on their staff than expats, including at the professional level. Having said that, I realise it is a no-win argument! Aid workers just have to be sensitive to the image that they project; to reduce their profile wherever possible. Vehicles are white because they are coolest in the tropical sun. But try as they must, expat and even local aid workers can never become anything less than highly conspicuous in poor and conflict-affected areas, where they are most needed."

I thought those words injected some thoughtful balance into the debate. However, there is another side of this argument that deserves reflection. As donors require greater degrees of professionalism in what development workers are planning, executing and achieving, there is a danger that community-based organisations – where the log frame or performance target may be seen as over-complex at best, stifling at worst – will be marginalised by NGO professionals who talk the right language but are gradually becoming removed from the grassroots. And let's be honest, UN salaries are not exactly stingy.

We need both the World Bank economist and the community leader, and everyone else in between, to make change happen. The World Bank economist-type development professional will fly business class, stay in posh hotels and earn a lot of money. The community organiser will not. But one without the other would be fairly useless. The community groups, while living in a different world to World Bank operatives, would not benefit from development-minded professionals pursuing their careers in other sectors because the material rewards were greater.

The reality, as always in development, is complex and contradictory. But the answer, as often also, is simple: trust. People do not begrudge the trappings of security and power (such as white 4x4s) to those who they believe are working in their interests. Nor do they spare criticism for community leaders, with no such trappings, when trust is broken. The question is, how do you get trustworthy people into positions of influence? No one has worked that out yet.