Making A Statement

The Need for a Clean Message in a Messy World

This past month my life has been a lot about refining the message of this new non-profit endeavor I’m fostering called ParticipAid.  It’s become clear to me that in order to get the masses on board, I’ve got to package our message in a bite-sized, easy to understand way.  Just a few nights ago I went to a fundraiser for the amazing Seva Foundation.  They can restore sight to a blind person in less than 15 minutes for just $50.  I was moved and impressed by their work, but also envious that their message is so simple, so easy to convey.  It got me thinking about the tension that exists between the enormous complexity of the global humanitarian system and the neat and tidy missions that individual organizations within it must create to attract donors.  Let’s take a walk through the history of our humanitarian system to explore how this tension came to be, and what can be done about it.

People have been helping people forever I assume, but the “system” of humanitarian aid can be pretty agreeably traced back to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863.  They treated and protected victims of war and crisis, pretty straightforward relief work. By 1919 Save the Children was on the scene as the first recognized international humanitarian NGO.  They asserted that all children, regardless of which side their parents fought for, were eligible for relief.  At its roots, the humanitarian system was set up to provide immediate relief to those in need.  Donors gave their hard earned dollars to fund this important work, and the organizations were held accountable to their donors for how they spent the money.  Makes perfect sense, right?  I don’t know what it was like back then, but I imagine these as pretty straightforward days for humanitarians.    

Over the years, the work of long-term “development” as opposed to short-term “relief” entered the increasingly connected global system.  Relief work has a definite end, and development is more of an on-going process.  With this change, things weren’t as straightforward as they used to be.  Then in the 1970’s people really started to speak up about the beneficiaries - the local people on the receiving end.  What was their role in all of this?  I wasn’t around in those days either, but I’m going to venture that this is when things really got complicated.  On top of the task of incorporating long-term development projects after short-term relief, humanitarians realized they ultimately had to hand over control of their projects to the beneficiaries.  All this while remaining accountable to the donors that made it all possible.  Officially complicated.      

Today humanitarians operate within the imperfect framework of the “emergency-development continuum”.   On one end emergency aid is meant to be led by outsiders, and on the other end the beneficiaries are expected to lead their long-term development.  In theory it’s neat and clean, but in practice it’s not nearly so simple.  For one, the institutional cultures and donor bases on either end of the continuum are quite different, and don’t overlap as much as you’d think.

Back to that tension between the clean message and the messy system - no matter how clean and simple a package ParticipAid’s message is delivered in, I know that a clean and simple humanitarian system will never work.  The world and its problems are too complex for a “this plus this equals that” solution.  Until donors are excited to fund evolving processes over measurable outcomes, humanitarian organizations are charged more than ever to get creative.  These are exciting times to be a humanitarian – we need new disciplines and alternative perspectives to introduce the innovative approaches we’ll need through a funding paradigm that’s a tad slow to catch up.

ParticipAid is very much up for the challenge.  Check out our starter website www.particip-aid.org, and tell your friends to subscribe to my mailing list to see how all of us fit in as our work continues!