If we look at aid for individuals, broadly there are three general-ish types:
The first we can call “sustenance aid” and it is things like food or mosquito nets or clean water: it keeps people alive and it keeps people healthy. It’s important.
The second could be called “capability aid” – stuff such as education and internet access. It helps people enhance their human capital. It’s also important.
The third is something I’m gonna call “mobility aid” and here is an example: in America, we now get that people in poverty don’t just need blankets and food, they need to be able to get a job. To do that, they need to interview, and they need a suit. Mobility aid is the suit. It helps people become socially and economically mobile. It lets them use their human capital.
My hunch is that we don’t do enough suits in other countries. We like to keep people alive and healthy (great!) and we like to give them books and an education (also great!) and then we kinda just abandon them (not so great!). And so we help the world have a bunch of healthy, educated and impoverished sustenance farmers.
I’m not totally sure why we do this, but I’ve got a couple ideas:
FIRST, we have this fetish for entrepreneurship, and it’s stupid. Starting a business is hard enough in America, so I’m not sure why we all get super amped-up telling people to start one in, like, Goma. But entrepreneurship is where most of our mobility aid goes.
SECOND. It doesn’t “fit” with how we like to see our aid recipients. We just feel like it makes more sense to drill a water pump for starving poor people than it does to give a suit to a well-educated healthy man so that he has a better chance of beating out patronage for a job.
But this is important stuff! It’s important because we have this pretty noble goal of trying to help people live fulfilling lives and we only give them two-thirds of the tools to do it. It’s important because it shows a level of respect to our recipients that we care about them as functional people and not just hungry mouths. It’s important because it is necessary for aid to “work”.
So I think it’s time we get over our issues and do it.
And that’s where there’s good news – I don’t think changing this is that hard. It’s like a supply chain and we are working out the kinks. Help people be healthy, help them get an education, help them get a job. If we are doing the first two things but people aren’t ending up with gainful employment, let’s follow up, let’s be close to our programs and our recipients, and let’s figure out what the bottleneck is. The aforementioned “suits” are an American example, and people might and probably do need something else in Kampala to let them utilize their shiny wonderful human capital – but we won’t be able to figure out what that need is unless we change our approach. Let’s get started.
If foreign intervention is good, then, African countries should be the most prosperous countries in the world, because we have had the greatest dosages of that: the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, etc. But all those foreign-imposed phenomena have been disastrous. It is only recently that Africa is beginning to come up, partly because we are rejecting external meddling. External meddling and the acquiescence by Africans into that meddling have been responsible for the stagnation on our continent. The wrong definition of priorities in many African countries is, in many cases, imposed by external groups. Failure to prioritize infrastructure, for instance, especially energy, is, in part, due to some of these pressures. Instead, consumption is promoted.
– President Museveni of Uganda writing in Foreign Policy
No doubt much of historical foreign intervention has harmed Africa, but has it all been bad?
And more importantly, moving forward, can there be positive foreign intervention, either economically or militarily – or must Africa develop completely on its own?
Quoted in Monday’s NYTimes:
“Arguing that those working for the benefit of the neediest people in our society should make millions and multimillions like corporate leaders defies common sense.”
– Ken Berger, President of Charity Navigator
There may be some foundation to Berger’s argument – though I think it represents mainly a kneejerk reaction to perceived misuse of donor funds – but calling it common sense? That seems a little strong.
It seems to me that, to the contrary, there are some very viable arguments for why large and effective* non-profit leaders should get corporate-style compensation. One of these arguments could be moral; these leaders deserve it based on the social benefit their organization provides. Another could be that their work is often quite difficult, and high salaries are adequate rewards for such a challenging profession.
The most common argument, however, is one of talent attraction, and it’s such a classic argument because it’s by and large true. The most talented, intelligent, and ambitious people are the ones we want running our nonprofits. They are also the people with the most opportunities available to them, both public sector and private. Some of them might be driven to charity work by their moral compass; most are driven by their financial compass. To have this top-talent at the helm of our most impactful and most complex nonprofits is, clearly, going to cost money.
Of course, it’s no surprise to see the president of a charity watchdog arguing against this idea. It’s a lot easier for him and his organization to keep count of tangibles (like bed nets, medicine, school supplies, etc.) than it is to make a quantified measurement of the impact of a good leader. His whole organization is based off condemning nonprofits on the very basis of spending too much on salaries and other “overhead” instead of the poor.
But in the non-profit world, just as in the corporate, it’s not a zero-sum relationship. Every dollar spent on the leader’s salary is not a dollar less being spent on the poor; rather, it’s an investment. It’s an investment that’s admittedly hard to measure (though looking at the fact many directors oversee the solicitation of donations worth many hundreds of times their own salary is one positive and indicative count). But the impact of a good leader – one that organizes efficiently, spends effectively, innovates, and more – is well worth a million dollars to an organization with hundreds of millions to spend. The – relative to budget – small savings from a cheaper leader are not remotely worth the decrease in leadership quality. These are people that have an enormous impact on the effectiveness of the organization.
Clearly, there’s cognitive dissonance up the wazoo when people working for the benefit of the poor are well-paid. But this cognitive dissonance is a logical fallacy. We seek the most qualified to lead our businesses, we try to do the same for our government. Why shouldn’t aid organizations be given the same status?
If we want non-profits to be effective, innovative, and efficient, they need first-rate leaders. Such leaders are expensive. These are simple facts.
To deny them, in my opinion, defies common sense.
* The world of large and effective non-profits (think Red Cross, MSF, etc.) is quite different than the prolific small and corrupt non profits that amount to little more than ways to steal money from donors. This post does not concern that type of institution.