Written By: Joe Costanzo
Director UK Institute for Migration Research (UK-IMR), www.uk-imr.ac.uk

Anyone today with access to modern media has heard a podcast, watched a news story or read an article/blog about migration—even those without access to media have almost certainly heard or shared a personal, migration story.

December 18th, is International Migrants Day when we recognize “the large and increasing number of migrants in the world”. (United Nations @ http://www.un.org/en/events/migrantsday/)

Rarely a day goes by when stories of migration do not affect our lives. For some, migration is a first-person experience—our own stories of leaving, of change, of struggle, of searching for something better for us, for our families. For many, migration is part of our families’ stories. For some, migration is something we worry about, how it appears to be changing our villages, our cities and our nations. Migration is all of these things and more.

Who is a migrant? What about refugees, are they migrants too?

These may seem like basic questions but they cause confusion and frustration for many, including students and teachers, statisticians, legal scholars and policy makers trying to make sense of the complex world around us. The public conversation about migration has been nearly constant this year when we have witnessed unprecedented levels of human displacement across the globe.

Journalists, politicians and researchers have been responding daily to a rapidly changing landscape where all forms of migration continue to reach historically higher levels; where public support for humanitarian migration has abruptly shifted towards security concerns; and where long-standing (and assumed stable) policy and philosophical frameworks are in crisis—the European Union’s policy framework on asylum (called the Dublin Regulation) and the principle of free movement within European borders (the Schengen Area) are now being challenged. Here, in the UK, local authorities are responding, attempting to develop strategic plans on how to manage the certainty that change is coming but the uncertainty of what’s to come. This includes the formal resettlement of Syrians and steady claims for asylum from nationals of many other countries, as well as the continued growth in intra-EU migration towards the UK.

International agreements, like the 1951 Refugee Convention – which defines a refugee – and international organizations, like the United Nations, provide legal frameworks and guidance on how to describe and count the many different sorts of people (migrants, refugees, students etc.) who may cross national borders by choice or by force to travel, live, work or settle outside their home countries. The term “migrant” has no universally-accepted definition around the world, but the UN suggests that, in the international context, it refer to “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence” regardless of their motivation or legal circumstance.

Where can I find good, reliable information or learn more about migration?

The ‘simple’ answer could be in three easy steps: In places you likely already know, a few you may not and a few classics!

First, locate the basic terms and numbers: For definitions and other migration-related lingo, check out our migration institute’s new glossary of terms. Even though it might seem daunting at first, for numbers check out the experts at the national statistics offices in your country (like the Census Bureau in the United States, or the Office for National Statistics in the UK). These are excellent first points of contact for getting the big picture.

Second, think critically about what you read on migration. Ask yourself (and, why not the person or organization putting out the information?) where the numbers come from and whether sources you trust use those same numbers.

Third, google it (responsibly). I just googled “migration” from here in the UK. It gave me 170 million responses. I might be a migration researcher but I don’t have the time (or the money) to read all those results! Be more specific, googling “migration research” or “migration statistics” reduces the number of hits by millions. Even more important, the top results are recognizable names and organizations—universities, think tanks and government agencies working specifically on these issues. Adding even more specific terms you’re interested in, like your city, or themes like “jobs”, “impacts” or “asylum” will help again. If you find yourself caught on an academic website—fear not! Sources like TheConversation.com and DiscoverSociety.org translate academic research into compelling, accessible and timely data and analysis that can be readily used and understood. Too, targeted google searches have the added value of introducing you to new, emerging sources of information.

The importance of an informed discussion on migration could not be more critical given the historic levels of all forms of migration underway worldwide including, and most visibly, the forced (or humanitarian-led) migration of refugees. And, through the determined efforts of many actors in and outside of academia, a hard-fought and important place has been created for evidence-led debate on migration.

For many reasons, the debate over migration will continue to grab headlines. Hopefully this short blog post gives some easy to remember and easy to use tools so you can question (and provide your own answers to) the migration conversation.

Currently the Director of the UK Institute for Migration Research, Dr Costanzo got his start in the migration field in the early 1990s as an intern in the Consular Section of the US Embassy in Paris (State) before working for many years on migration statistics and migration policy for the US Commission on Immigration Reform, US Census Bureau (Commerce) and US Citizenship & Immigration Services (Homeland Security). Joe and the UK Institute for Migration Research are based in Kent, England.



“The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own, identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose, expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your inner self, a rite of passage to a new life.”
– The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Recent trends highlight the satisfaction of decluttering one’s life; to let go of sentimental attachments to things, and to live more fully with less ‘stuff’. Marie Kondo’s book was a New York Times Best-Seller and flew off the shelves this past summer. Why? A fervent rush to ‘tidy-up’? Not quite. People are recognizing the freedom and joy that comes with owning less. The main take-away from “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is to only surround oneself with what brings joy.

But then, what do we do with all of our discarded stuff?

It is satisfying to give someone something they need. I recently went through my closest to give away items I did not need nor use. All it took was a quick call to my local women’s shelter to determine if they had need for my used clothes and jewelry. Subsequently, I drove my donated goods over to the shelter and knew exactly to whom I was giving my in-kind donations. Not only was I paring down but also giving to a good cause.

If I had not called my local women’s shelter and determined their need, I most likely would have dumped my donations in one of those metal boxes in the grocery store parking lot. I would not have known if my things were needed, nor have seen who it was that my donations were going to, or whether all of it was sold as scrap cloth. Too many mysteries and not enough empowerment – I’d rather give locally!

This holiday season, as we seek to help those in need and share the wealth we have been given—let’s consider needs in our own communities. Blankets, winter clothes and food for local shelters that house the homeless in these cold winter months. At the end of the day, we want to give, but its best and most satisfying to donate locally when giving away goods.


“If everyone donates cash, the effect is cumulative and more tangible as such aggregate impact would improve the lives of not only the recipients but would also boost the local economy.”

I donate cash because I know that cash can be used for many needs. As the recipients know their needs better than I do, donating cash avoids my second-guessing of their critical needs. For example, instead of sending clothing to some needy families in Somalia, I donate cash so they can determine how to best use that cash. The critical decision of whether to have a change of clothing or necessary medication for a sick a child can be made on the ground by the recipients. This has made a world of difference to those receiving my cash donations.

On the larger scale, if everyone donates cash, the effect is cumulative and more tangible as such aggregate impact would improve the lives of not only the recipients but would also boost the local economy. Therefore, I look at the bigger picture when donating and, as a result, I donate cash. Simply put, cash is the best.

Barlin's photo

Barlin Ali, Program Coordinator for Center for International Disaster Information


“What is altruism without effort?”

As a researcher at USAID CIDI, I have spent a great deal of my time conducting research on humanitarian supply chain logistics.  As a result, I now know that the effectiveness of the humanitarian supply chain is critical to the success of disaster relief efforts. We as donors can help logisticians working for professional humanitarian organizations more effectively plan disaster relief operations and better serve survivors by making more effective donations.

When we contribute unsolicited material donations, these can create “logistical bottlenecks” in the humanitarian supply chain that can slow down the provision of aid to those in need.  For this reason, I donate cash to professional humanitarian organizations responding to international disasters because I want to provide them with the opportunity to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While it’s not always easy find NGOs that are trustworthy, actively involved in a relief effort, or participating in a way that we as donors want to contribute to, the internet is making it easier for us as donors to do our homework and identify professional humanitarian organizations that we want to support. Websites like GuideStar or Charity Navigator allow us to read reviews from other donors that share their experiences with donating to a particular NGO and offer donors the ability to measure an NGOs legitimacy by evaluating their financial statements, tax returns, and more.  This process does require some time, but what is altruism without effort?

As donors, we rarely consider what happens to our donations after we make them. When I think about what would need to happen for an item to leave my hands and enter the hands of an international disaster survivor, it becomes clear that an incredibly complicated and expensive journey must ensue. How much would it cost to send a pair of jeans from Los Angeles, California to Kabul, Afghanistan?  The answer is roughly $202.05 if you bought the jeans at WalMart and sent them to Afghanistan through FedEx.  Though this isn’t the primary method donors choose to send donations, the process for NGOs that receive unsolicited in-kind contributions is much the same and equally costly.

Monetary contributions, by contrast, provide NGOs with much greater flexibility in the way they can carry out disaster relief operations.  NGOs can exercise bulk purchasing power in countries where the cost of goods in general is considerably less than the cost of the same goods in the United States.  With monetary contributions, NGOs can more easily respond to changing needs on the ground, which is a common occurrence in the wake of severe natural disasters.

I donate cash to international disaster relief efforts for all these reason and simply because monetary donations allow efficient humanitarian supply chains that provide goods and services to disaster-affected people faster.

Eric Chavez (second from left) Senior Research Analyst for The Center for International Disaster Information

Eric Chavez (second from left) Senior Research Analyst for The Center for International Disaster Information

“Just because you didn’t receive a tax write off, recognition from a local organization, or a thank you card doesn’t mean your efforts were unnoticed.”

So if you haven’t heard, #GivingTuesday is all the rage around the holidays! Recognized globally on December 2nd, this day is dedicated to bringing communities, families, organizations, causes and students together for one common goal: to give.

There are so many ways to give back;  whether it’s done anonymously or intentionally, the warm feeling you’re rewarded with is indescribable. The holidays are a time where you are around people you care about the most and every memory is special and imbeds itself into your psyche. That’s what makes it the best time to start traditions; giving a reoccurring role for all to take on and share with their other communities and families.

Whether you choose to give your time, talent, or money, giving back can be done in any fashion. This day fits perfectly between Thanksgiving and Christmas time. So with one day encouraging you to give thanks, another infecting you with cheeriness and acts of generosity, and the one in between actively encouraging you to give, why not donate the best way possible?

Giving money assures that you’ve done your part, and the recipient, who knows the situation best, has comfort in knowing a need is about to be met. I think that is the most important position to view donating from: the position of the recipient. Maybe the need is food and not clothing? How much? What do people need or want to eat? These questions will circulate through the head of the giver who practices #smartcompassion, a giver who channels the desire to give back in the most effective way.

We’re no strangers to donating and giving back. Just because you didn’t receive a tax write off, recognition from a local organization, or a thank you card doesn’t mean your efforts went unnoticed. I think giving money to a friend or family member and not expecting it in return is considered donating. To me, the act of giving itself is what is appreciated by the donor, the recipient, and everyone else.

If you stop and think about it, money travels faster than goods. Cash can meet any need and fill any gap in most circumstances. I think when giving cash, it feels just as good learning that I was responsible for helping build the infrastructure of the organization that feeds children after school as it would feel being responsible for the food they are eating.

With hash tags like #unselfie and #GivingTuesday, this holiday is an excellent way to help push social impact while also giving millennials a chance to be a part of something emerging before our eyes on the platforms we know and love! Great job New York’s 92nd Street Y.

Lauren Chatman, Online Communications Specialist for The Center for Disaster Information.

Lauren Chatman, Online Communications Specialist for The Center for Disaster Information.


When people find out I’m writing a book on aid, they often regale me with stories of their favorite charity. Just last week a woman told me of a project helping elderly Navajos. The program provided assistance by selling rugs woven by the Navajo at an art fair without taking a cut, as well as donating either in-kind goods or certificates that could be used to purchase goods from a store. Although I am always concerned about in-kind donations, what really disturbed me was the ceremony.

If I understand correctly, three times a year donors travel to the reservation for a traditional Navajo ceremony. During this ceremony the donations are given, and the money from the sale of the rugs presented to the weavers. Although my acquaintance described the ceremony as very moving, I question it on several levels.

First, this ceremony would appear to be part of the disaster/poverty tourism issues that both William Easterly and I have both addressed in our blogs. Having lived on the Navajo reservation for two years and learned the history of the Navajo people, I know they are very cautious about inviting non-Native Americans to their ceremonies. I was eventually invited to ceremonies near the end of my two years, but I do not recall any of the other teachers attending ceremonies. Thus, I can only think that this ceremony was done to please donors at the cost of turning the aid recipients into cultural curiosity pieces.

Second, this ceremony diminished the work of the aid recipient. The weavers earned the proceeds of the rug sales, why not just give it to them. We wouldn’t expect Expedia to hold a ceremony each time they pay a hotel their portion of the bill? You might argue that that’s different because Expedia takes a fee for their services. However, if the weavers were given the choice between paying a commission on the sales or receiving charitable assistance to sell the rugs, I bet most of them would choose to pay the commission. With a commission it becomes a business deal where they are paid for their products and maintain their dignity. Selling the rugs as an act of charity requires them to be grateful recipients of the largess of others.

Third, the ceremony highlighted the generosity of the donors at the expense of the dignity of the recipients. A key part of the ceremony was the giving of either in-kind donations or certificates. Giving in this way may meet the needs of the donors, but it can be demoralizing for the recipients. If you were poor enough to need to use a food pantry, how would you feel if the people that had donated the food watched as you filled your shopping cart. Although this would allow to donors to see that the food they gave made it to people in need, it might cost you your pride.

For those three reasons I question the purpose of the ceremony. I understand that aid agencies need to please donors, but must it be done at the expense of the aid recipients. Although I question that particular ceremony, I’m not against all aid ceremonies.

Ceremonies are appropriate if the aid recipient earned the assistance through either their past accomplishments or through hard work on the current project. These ceremonies should highlight the efforts and achievements of the aid recipient.

Water projects where the community had a large part in creating the design of the project as well as contributing either partial funding or labor and in-kind donations. I have been to several of these opening ceremonies where the contribution of the school or the community were proudly displayed.

Scholarships earned through a competitive process and based upon student achievement. I personally struggled to afford college and received a competitive scholarship based on my academic record and community service activities. My family attended a dinner held in honor of all of the scholarship recipients.

Livelihood projects where participants develop and display their skills. I attended a ceremony for students of an intensive year long livelihood training. In addition to studying computers and English, they learned to lead dive trips and had to pass the PADI test. This ceremony focused on student accomplishments, although several donors attended, they were not the focus of the event.

In all of these cases the ceremony celebrated the hard work and achievement of the people receiving the aid, rather than focusing on them as recipients of largess.

Ceremonies are not appropriate when it requires the recipients to share their culture with donors. If you would not expect a similar ceremony or cultural experience in your neighborhood, then do not expect it in another country or culture.

Ceremonies are not appropriate when the aid that is given does not require anything of the recipient other than poverty. These types of ceremonies celebrate the generosity of the donor at the expense of the dignity of the recipient.

My Navajo students received shoes and coats based on need. There was no handover ceremony and no photos taken. Parents simply filled out a sheet with the size and style they wanted and the students picked them up in the cafeteria a month later. Had their been a ceremony it would have embarrassed the students by highlighting the fact that they were too poor to buy their own clothes.

I attended a ceremony where a group of Mokens were given boats. The Moken went to the ceremony under duress. They had not been consulted, and although they needed boats, the ones they were given were too small for seafaring and therefore of little use. In addition the boats were improperly caulked and sank during the ceremony. Even though this ceremony was done solely to meet the needs of the donor, the aid recipients were still expected to show up and look grateful.

Another gift to the Moken was that of school supplies from students in the US. These could have easily just been given to the teachers, but all the students were rounded up, the supplies were formally presented, and the children were all made to thank the donor and have their picture taken. This was just one of many unrequested donations given to the Moken, and for each one I’m sure they were expected to show their “gratitude”.

If aid is given purely on the basis of poverty, then ceremonies giving aid to individuals should be avoided. It is hard to retain your sense of self-worth while publicly receiving handouts.

If the aid recipient has accomplished something that needs a celebration to properly mark the achievement, then by all means celebrate. Make the recipients and their work the focus of the ceremony.

As director of D-TRAC I was often asked to orient heads of aid agencies and donors on the tsunami recovery efforts. As part of this there was usually a request to visit temporary camps and villages to see things in person. I was always torn as to the right thing to do. Was it more important for that person to see the situation on the ground, or was it more important for people who have just lost their homes and loved ones to be able to care for their children and rebuild their lives without having strangers walking through their village looking at them.

What is interesting and educational to you may be intrusive and demoralizing to them

Recently, a reader argued that the donor’s needs for understanding and education are just as important as the needs of the aid recipients. I would disagree with that. I strongly believe that the needs of the aid recipients should be paramount, with the needs of the donor accommodated only when it is appropriate. What is interesting and educational to the donor may be intrusive and demoralizing to the people they are trying to help.

Feeling like an animal at a zoo

Perhaps I am hyper-aware of this issue because of my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 90’s. I was one of the few westerners in my province and many people had never seen a westerner close up. As a result of this I was regularly stared at in the market place with parents pointing me out to their children saying “farang, farang” (westerner). When I sat on my front porch at night cars would slow down as they drove by. Old women on buses would rub my arms telling their friends my hair was like gold. All of this made me feel like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. How then, must aid recipients feel with foreigners walking through their neighborhoods or temporary camps, staring at them, and talking about them.

In addition to being stared at and touched, many Thais used me as an educational tool for their families or students. Although my job was to train teachers on environmental education techniques, most principals just wanted me to visit their school so the children could see and hear real westerner. There were far too many times when I had to stand in front of a classroom, or an entire school, while the principal pointed out my straight nose, blue eyes, and “gold” hair to the students. This was usually followed by having me speak in English, to the amusement and astonishment of the students.

None of this had anything to do with my skills, my experience, or my job responsibilities, but it had to be endured to get the support I needed to get the job done. How often do aid recipients feel as though they are not respected for their knowledge and abilities, but instead have to endure being viewed as an educational experience or cultural exchange by the myriad of people attracted to a disaster. I choose to become a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that this was a price I paid for that experience. For them it must be worse because they did not choose to become disaster victims, instead it was thrust upon them.

How would you want people to act in your own neighborhood?

Imagine having just lost all of your possessions, your job, and members of your family. How would you feel about the stream of people walking through your neighborhood? There would likely be foreign and national aid agency staff, researchers, photographers from corporations and aid agencies wanting pictures of you or your children, dignitaries garnering a little PR, donors wanting to understand the situation or check up on aid agencies, volunteers looking to be helpful and to have a cultural experience, and plain old tourists wanting to see the impact of the disaster. Which of these people would you feel were appropriate and which would you feel were intrusive. How would you want them to behave?

Before becoming a disaster tourist, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is visiting this site crucial to your decision making, or will it just satisfy personal curiosity?
  • Is visiting temporary camps and newly built villages necessary, or would visiting destroyed areas  provide you with the information or photo ops you are seeking?
  • If you must go into the village, how would you want a person of equal standing to act when walking through your own neighborhood, near your children, or watching you in the unemployment or food pantry line?
  • If you want to speak with disaster victims, then under what circumstances would you feel it was appropriate for someone of equal standing to take up your time with questions?

I would argue that these same guidelines should be used by anyone thinking of becoming a poverty tourist as well. But I’ll leave the debate on poverty tourism to others (see Aid Watch).

Good aid puts the needs of the aid recipients before the needs of the donor

As in all cases, it is crucial to evaluate an aid activity not from the standpoint of what is good for you as a donor, but from the standpoint of what would be good for you as an aid recipient. How would you want others to act if you were an unwitting part of disaster tourism?


Do you agree or disagree? Do you have any research or guidelines on this? I look forward to your comments.


What’s the worst present you ever received? A crazy colored sweater from your aunt Martha, questionable cookies from a neighbor, a tacky decoration from a coworker. We’ve all received those types of gifts, but have we given them as well?

The gift that doesn’t fit

We’ve all received that sweater, shirt, or tie that just doesn’t work. It’s too big, too small, too tight, too wide, or too something else that means we’ll never wear it.

From my own childhood it was the year that all of the cousins received little knit hats from our grandmother. They were so small that nobody could actually put them on, they would only fit on teddybears. Reflecting back they were probably baby hats that my grandma got on sale. But at that age few of us still had teddybears and none of us had babies, so the gifts were useless.

How often do we give to charities just assuming that if people are so poor they need charity any gift is helpful. Just like my hat, there are many times when what is given is of little use. Look for charities that vary their aid according to the needs of the local population instead of one-size-fits-all projects.


“You wouldn’t want to receive something you didn’t ask for or need at Christmas, let alone during a humanitarian crisis.”

It is Christmas eve and presents are lined beneath my family’s tree. Do you remember that present from a distant relative last year that you opened, cringed and never used? For me it was Barbie dolls when I was sixteen. I appreciate the thought that my relatives put into gifts but sometimes I receive ones I know I will never use. It led me to ask for cash.

Now raise the stakes exponentially. I’m not talking about holiday gift giving but donations given during times of crisis.

In Ebola-stricken areas, healthcare workers may give more than a cringe upon receiving in-kind donations of canned food or used clothing when they are not needed or when those needs have been met. You wouldn’t want to receive something you didn’t ask for or need at Christmas, let alone during a humanitarian crisis. Just as I would hate to give a gift I know would be discarded, I would never want to donate goods that would impede a relief effort. Instead, I donate cash.

It’s difficult to anticipate the needs of a relative; it’s even more difficult anticipating the needs of those in a humanitarian crisis. Cash is best.



This year’s Christmas tree! (an image from Margot Morris, Program Assistant for The Center for International Disaster Information)


Smart Compassion has recently been an important issue at the “Ocean State” of Rhode Island.  At the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business Administration, students of the introductory Operations and Supply Chain Management course – BUS 355, taught by Professor Koray Özpolat, have been offered an optional semester-long project called “Humanitarian Logistics Project”

Building on their logistics and supply chain training, teams of three to four students design public service announcements (PSA) to inform the American public about the most effective way to donate in response to the international disasters. These PSAs are then submitted to the national PSAid contest run by USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI).

The outcome has been fantastic. In 2012 and 2013, four URI teams were nationally recognized in this contest which created lots of buzz in the university and state media (below, see a PSA that was awarded the 2nd place in 2012). Not only the winning teams but many other students doing this project received satisfaction. A student evaluated the project as follows:

URI info

Educators willing to adopt a similar project may take a look at the Özpolat et al. (2014)* paper recently published at the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education.

Overall, contests, similar to PSAid, can successfully be integrated into syllabi of college courses as semester-long team-based projects. While only six PSAs are recognized annually, all contestants are actual winners because their entries are ever-green at the contest website serving the humanitarian relief community in educating their donors.

* Özpolat K.,Chen Y., Hales, D., Yu D., and Yalcin M. G., 2014. “Using Contests to provide Business Students Project-Based Learning in Humanitarian Logistics: PSAid Example”, Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 12(4), 269-285.


Most of us have heard of bad aid projects, but few of us really know what makes a program good or bad. Because of this, most donors fund what feels good to them. Unfortunately, what feels good to donors might not be best for the people they are trying to help. So I’ve decided to share a system I use whenever I’m trying to determine whether an aid project is a bad idea.

First, research the current situation on the ground – this is key to making good aid decisions. If you are unwilling or unable to take the time to do the research, then I recommend not donating. Without this information you’ll likely donate based on assumptions or stereotypes, both of which play a large role in bad aid. To avoid the possibility of biased information, make sure you use a source other than the agency that is seeking donations.

This is a modified repost from a previous month

Craving beef I stopped by a McDonald’s in Indonesia looking for a hamburger. I was surprised at the menu filled with fried chicken and only one hamburger choice. Both McDonald’s and international aid are affected by market forces. At McDonald’s local tastes of the diners affect what’s on the menu. In international aid the “menu” is often based on the taste of the donors and senior management, not the diners.

A hamburger analogy

Imagine aid as fast food. In a top down or “donor led” model, here are some things that could go wrong.

  • The restaurant is paid to make hamburgers, but the local people are Hindu and don’t eat beef
  • The villagers will eat hamburgers but they prefer chicken, which is cheaper
  • The villagers can’t pick up their hamburgers because they are only served from 9 to 5, which would mean missing work
  • The restaurant was built ten miles away from the village and it’s too far to walk every day
  • To save administrative costs the restaurant is only open one day a week. Villagers are expected to pick up enough food to last a week, however, without refrigeration the meat quickly goes bad.
  • An opportunistic family sends each child in separately to pick up enough food to feed a large family and sells their extra food to families not so “fortunate”.

“Donor led” vs. “Owner led”

In donor led or top down programs, donors or senior management determine what type of aid will be provided and to whom. Unfortunately, they are often unaware of the needs and limitations of each location receiving aid. If there is no feedback loop programs may waste money and even do more harm than good.

The following excerpt is from CDA’s issue paper The Cascading Effects of International Agenda and Priorities compiled from listening exercises in 13 countries.

People also resent assistance that is pre-determined and inappropriate. They say things such as, “NGOs are inflexible in the types of assistance (they provide)…it is top-driven and is simply channeled down to us.”  “Some international NGOs come with their own agendas and are driven and influenced by the priorities set by their donors.”

One Listening Team summarized what they had heard, noting “There are common complaints that NGOs take a blanket approach and arrive with pre-planned programs.” Another suggested that, “NGOs are often bound by rigid proposal submission deadlines set by donors and this hinders their ability to consult communities.”

Listening Teams have heard many people express their anger at the arrogance of outsiders who pre-determine need in categories that they feel are biased and inappropriate in their society, or when they apply programming approaches that have been developed elsewhere in quite different contexts. Some used the word “insulted” to describe how they felt when NGOs brought pre- packaged assistance such as very low microcredit loans and training programs based on employment opportunities in other countries rather than their local economy and markets.

In “owner led” projects, aid recipients pay a key role in determining what type of aid will be provided and how it will be distributed. In addition to the programs being developed to meet local needs, it also gives aid recipients ownership of the program, which increases the chance that the projects will be survive once the aid agency leaves.

MANGO (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organizations) outlines Two Golden Rules for managing aid agency field work.

  1. NGOs have to maintain a respectful dialogue with the people they aim to help.
  2. NGOs depend on their field staff and have to empower them to make good judgments.

The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership – International (HAP-I) has developed a system for training and certifying aid agencies that are accountable to those they aim to serve.

“HAP certifies those members that comply with the HAP Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management, providing assurance to disaster survivors, staff, volunteers, host authorities and donors that the agency will deliver the best humanitarian service possible.”

To ensure that the aid we give does the good we intend, we have to stop giving hamburgers to Hindus. How can we break out of the common top down, donor driven, aid model to ensure that aid recipients voices are heard and aid programs are developed accordingly?


“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and “beggars can’t be choosers” are platitudes I hear when I talk about inappropriate and unhelpful aid.

Misconception #1: Aid recipients can’t be choosers

Those who say beggars can’t be choosers mistakenly assume that people that receive aid are begging for help and therefore any aid is helpful. The truth is that most aid recipients are not out begging for assistance, instead aid agencies have decided to provide assistance for a variety of reasons – which will be the topic of another post.

“I wish my parents had died so I could get all this stuff too.” An aid worker overheard a student say while visiting a school receiving tsunami recovery assistance. Rumors of people pulling down their own houses to claim tsunami assistance were also common. Why did this happen? Because people that were “directly affected” received far more assistance than those that were “indirectly affected”.

Should aid only go to those “touched by the water”?

Directly affected usually meant that their house was damaged or destroyed or one of their parents died. Aid workers began to call this “touched by the water”. However, many more people were “indirectly affected” losing their livelihood, transportation, or extended family.

Menus vary according to local taste and preferences

Craving beef I stopped by a McDonald’s in Indonesia looking for a hamburger. I was surprised at the menu filled with fried chicken and only one hamburger choice. Both McDonald’s and international aid are affected by market forces. At McDonald’s local tastes of the diners affect what’s on the menu. In international aid the “menu” is too often based on the taste of the donors, not the diners.

From the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation:

Mosquito net manufactures are teaming up with the provincial administration and village elders in several parts of Kenya in an effort to apprehend and prosecute people who use the products for purposes other than covering beds.

According to Dr Elizabeth Juma, who is the head of malaria control under the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, there has been evidence of people turning the nets into fishing gear especially in Nyanza Province. Now a different group has discovered another lucrative business venture, and are using the nets to make wedding dresses.

Upon reading this news clip in William Easterly’s blog “Aid Watch“, I was reminded of condom training in the Peace Corps. The rampant AIDS problem in Thailand meant we were all trained on teaching rural Thai’s to use condoms, even if we weren’t health volunteers.