Let’s bring more results with development aid – but how?

I’m working in Ethiopia in a development aid project and my salary is paid by Finnish taxpayers. Now the new Finnish government has decided to dramatically cut the existing development aid budget by 43 %.

These cuts were expected, but their size surprised many. In my understanding one of the most pressing reasons behind these cuts was dissatisfaction with the results development aid is or isn’t bringing.

Now, if we could only see more results. Well, that is a justified request and one I welcome. However, how to take this result talk into practice? I’m taken aback by the amount of theoretical talk and the lack of concrete examples of how things could be improved at the grassroots level.

Where do I stand in this ‘more results’ debate? I strongly believe that better well-being at work brings better overall results. Development aid is no exception in this matter. Below are observations I have made in my leadership positions in student organizations as well as in various working places. Some of them could be easily applied to development aid projects. I am an idealist when it comes to this matter. I’d say start with these changes!

1. Leaders of all projects and organizations should ask themselves this question: is this working place so great that my employees won’t leave if they get another offer?

Great does not mean there has to a weekly rock concert at the office or an all-inclusive staff cafeteria. It means all employees feel they have a purpose at the working place and that their services are needed.

There is a persistent belief that most people are only looking for a nice salary. Until a certain extent that is true. But it is also true that many people do not value salary as a number one priority. They are also looking for meaningfulness in their work. Is this what I am doing in anyway important?

This seems to be an issue too often overlooked in many fields, including development aid, where high staff turnover rates pose a significant problem to continuity and handover.

2. Recruit people also on the basis of their communication and interpersonal skills, not merely their technical expertise

From a young professionals’ perspective, an almost ubiquitous focus on a person’s years of experience in recruitment is the single most annoying feature in this business. Now why do I think that?

It automatically leads to the situation where leading positions are always taken by people who have the longest experience measured in years. However, experience does not always equal to openness to new ideas.

I am not saying that technical experts are not needed. Especially in development aid projects these experts are important persons because they have a lot of connections and an established reputation. But experts also need to know how to communicate. They need to get out of their head the idea that ‘this is how it has always been done’.

This notion, I realize, would require a complete shake up of the current recruitment system in development aid.

3. Create an open organizational culture

One can easily – and wrongly – assume that organizational cultures are born organically. Well unfortunately, bad organizational cultures do and persist indefinitely if not changed.

What is an organizational culture? It is the way you share information in a team and the way you communicate with each other. It includes ways of treating each other, throwing out ideas, and it should definitely include a culture of respect for one another. In short, it is the environment where employees find themselves in.

An organization culture should ideally also be about constant learning. Especially in-house peer learning should be encouraged. We can always learn something new. Or as the famous quote goes: ‘When you’re through changing, you’re through’.

4. Don’t recruit a big team from the very first moment, not even the first year

Imagine you are setting up a business. You wouldn’t start it by recruiting 10 people. You would work alone, maybe with one helper, and gradually expand when you realize things are going well and you need more help. What you really need in the beginning is an all-around person and one person who knows something about finances and accounting.

We should broadcast that idea to development aid projects as well. Because project financing comes from taxpayers’ pockets, there is maybe too much comfort available in the project setup. It doesn’t encourage risk taking.

Before you see the conditions on the field and you have tested your ideas, you do not know what sort of expertise you need. It might even hinder your creativity if you define all those positions in advance. What if we let experience guide us instead? If there is not a clear vision for what every employee should be doing, we shouldn’t be hiring.

5. Practice what you preach

Often the best way to lead, also in development aid, is by example.

E.g., if you are promoting gender equality in a development aid project, first look at your own team. Are there any women there? And if there are, are they in leading positions or only in lower positions? If your project is focusing on fair wages, first look at your own salaries. What is the salary difference between your local cleaning lady and your top paid international experts? Is the salary gap justified?

This practice what you preach philosophy concerns everyone in development aid, international as well as local experts.

6. Now you have results. So what?

Let’s assume we manage to bring more and more great results. Now who cares? What I don’t like about the current public discussion in Finland is that it makes an underlying assumption that everything would change if only we communicated results. This is not nearly as often the case as we think. Information does not lead to informed decision-making, as we well know with wicked problems such as climate change.

That is why we need long-term commitment to development aid. If we look at development like a business, assessing it on merely a quarterly basis for tangible results, we will certainly fail. However, we are of course accountable to taxpayers.

I’m an eternal advocate for the points I have just mentioned here. It puzzles me why they are not raised as key issues in the development aid community. This is of course not to say that we need big reforms and high-level decisions. But if you look at the practical work being done, at all those teams somewhere around this globe, they all consist of human beings. What motivates human beings? Enjoyment, fulfillment, a feeling of being important! So I say start with reforms at the most banal level: the Office.

Join the discussion! What do you think?

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