Bold enough to close?

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Reading this article yesterday about the “aid system [struggling] to cope”, I’m going to go out on a limb here:

Is the problem with our ability to address humanitarian crises really a result of there not being enough money? or is it just that those who are tasked with managing its response and the organisations they lead aren’t focussed enough to make the tough choices?

Over the last year in which I spent in-and-around the world of start-ups and social enterprises.  I found that a lot of advice and writing centres around being clear about your product, knowing your customer and focussing. “Don’t try to be everything for everyone”; ” Know your customer/persona”; “Define the service that supports your product”.  Even “traditional” business consulting has the tools to help you analyse yourself and your environment; service performance, performance compared to others, market potential, or just simply how well is that area of the organisation is doing compared to the rest of the organisation.  All with a view to helping that organisation rid itself of the “not so good” and focus on making the good, better.

And yet when you look at some of the largest charities you wonder whether they are not overstretched and if they have not lost sight of what their product is.  Many of these organisations work in 50 countries or more.  World Vision and Save the Children alone work in 100 and 126 countries, 51% and 61% of the world respectively. They respond to every emergency because they have to be seen to be doing so. They work where there is interest to finance to demonstrate reach. Many of the big UK charities focus on the same issues such as emergency response, health, child protection, livelihoods.  This is just the ‘easy to understand’ marketing message because on the ground each one will be even more diverse.  For example, Livelihoods might in fact involve shelter construction, well construction, seed distribution, cash transfers…and so forth.

In my experience I have only ever seen one NGO close all or part of it’s country operations voluntarily. Not because it ran out of funding, not because the needs of the people weren’t there, but because they felt that the context on the ground simply did not require their presence. They re-directed their resources and moved onto the next issue of greatest need. Oddly enough this organisation receives almost 75% of it’s funding not from big donors, but from the general public.

I believe in the principle of shared humanity, in doing what we can to help those in need. But has doing what we can reduced the quality of what we offer? Would the quality, and thus the impact of what the sector does, improve if it focussed its expertise or geographic scope?

In a crass comparison, if you had $100 but your “wants” cost you $120 you would have to make some hard decisions to prioritise what is a real need and what is actually something you would like to have. You’d ask yourself: “Is it necessary?” “Is there something else which is important?”.  If, all of a sudden, you have a willing and giving benefactor, you may start deciding things with the same mentality, being conscientious about not taking too much. But as time evolves so does your reasoning. Before you couldn’t because you didn’t have and so had to make a hard focussed choice. Now because you have there is no reason why you can’t and thus you make the choice not because you must, but because you have not given yourself a reason not to.

Its not wrong and it just is. The needs are undoubtedly great around the world, but the resources (financial, emotional) are limited. The aid system is stuck in a cycle of seeing every problem as being solvable only by money. But, lets face it, it isn’t. Organisations should take a hard look at where they are working and the impact they are making, not in the esoteric sense, but in real, practical, verifiable terms. And then they should focus their energies on those areas of their greatest impact. Decisions to close might be unpopular, and even leave gaps, but if they truly want to make a lasting impact it is better to do one thing well than several things adequately. In doing so they might even give oxygen to new solutions and players.

The time has come for the system to make some tough decisions.

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