And so it occurred to me that, as some level, I just did the same thing: take down without building up. I'll try to be more additive this time.
I see three objections to the DIY article. One is the “White in Shining Armor” story, which needs a rest. As it turns out, I've spent some energy arguing that criticisms of Kristoff along these lines were exaggerated: telling a narrative through a protagonist that the reader can identify with isn't a terrible sin. It felt like a lot of outsiders-in-aid-work were piling on to Kristoff because he kept on talking about outsiders-in-aid-work, which felt odd to me. But it seems that, in this case, he has shown his hand. This is not a narrative of outsiders because that is a useful journalistic trope; it is a narrative of outsiders as outsiders.
A second objection is that his article's argument isn't supported by thorough research methodology; I said before why I don't think that, it itself, is really a very helpful objection.
A third objection, which has certainly gotten the most column inches (screen width?), is that aid work is a difficult job best left to professionals — which the protagonists in Kirstoff's article could be, with work and study, but which they are not. This article seems to have made the point gracefully and with much approval. I don't know. Lots of aid professionals have done very poor jobs. The science on development economics and social change is definitely still unresolved. Also, Kristoff's assertion is that DIY aid works because it is small scale. Professional aid work is the study of large-scale aid work: the principles of managing large operational and social organizations
; and how to strive to achieve interpersonal change through the indirect mechanisms of development institutions. That's a specific field of social assistance, not the entire field. And in fact, it is probably not the largest portion of that field: I don't think that anyone would disagree with the assertion that most social development in most place around the world happens by “amateurs”, if by that we mean people who never studied development as a profession. Those “amateurs” certainly have tons of knowledge about their communities that an outside amateur lacks. But the
development-studies aid professional didn't learn those skills in graduate school, either.
So to discredit small-scale aid work because it should be left to the professionals seems to miss the mark. Large-scale aid work should be left to the professionals, absolutely. But small-scale aid work is done by “amateurs” all the time (and the professionals are constantly congratulating themselves for how much they are supporting those “amateurs”). Maybe there are other arguments to be made. Maybe the point is not that small-scale aid work is too hard to be done by “amateurs”, but that it is small scale and that ultimately large-scale interventions are needed, and that this heavy lifting needs to be done by professionals. But that argument doesn't preclude small-scale assistance, it just downplays its significance.
There is, it turns out, a pretty huge discussion going on about this in the usual places. I find myself not so much in disagreement with the mainstream view as just wary that people are protesting a tad too much.
But that's all just argument. The original critique remains and remains pretty powerful: the valiant outsider is a tired myth, and Kristoff did no favors by breathing life into it.
Previously, on Hard Consonant:
- People with no evidence can't stand people with no evidence
- Why I gave up the foreign aid biz, with numbers and graphs with symbols and arrows
- Putting money where the professionals' mouths are
- Yeah, what she said: someone else is obsessed with the sociology of this business, too
- Too important to be left to the professionals