Explaining the radio silence over World Vision
Posted on February 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm
Within days of Mashable announcing the 1millionshirts project dozens of blog posts were written on the subject. Jason Sadler and his project were duly trounced by the aid blogosphere. Yet, with the announcement of World Vision’s equally questionable NFL shirt donation, the blogosphere is eerily silent. Thus far only six posts have been written on the topic (there are now 36 posts about the controversy, click here to read the other posts.)
Wanderlust, one of the few posts written thus far, does a great job of putting World Vision’s experience into perspective:
“You are among the world’s largest, most established and most recognized non-governmental organizations. In 2009 you were responsible for over USD 2.5 billion in donated goods, services and financial support. You work in 96 countries on 5 continents, providing a wide range of services. You have been carrying out development activities since1953. You are signatory to the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the INGO Accountability Charter. You have been a part of the creation of the Sphere Project, and involved in programs such as the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP), the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Practice (ALNAP), People in Aid (PIA) and the Emergency Capacity Building Project (ECB)”….
“Why, then, are you proposing to send 100,000 unwanted t-shirts from the losing Superbowl team to poor communities in the name of Gifts in Kind (GIK?). We all know it’s bad practice. You know it’s bad practice. Please could you come up with a more appropriate course of action.”
So why does Jason, who did not know any better, get a barrage of criticism. Yet World Vision, with decades of experience, does not? Is it because aid workers think that the World Vision gifts-in-kind is a better program? No, that’s not what I’m hearing behind the scenes. Is it because World Vision handled their initial response to the criticism better? That’s probably a small part of it, I think Jason’s original vlog stirred up people’s ire. But it’s only a small part of the silence. Is it because we are all sick to death of talking about the problems with donated goods? That’s likely a small part of it too. I, for one, am so tired of this issue that I’d love to never have to write about it again.
But in the end, the biggest reason for the silence is aid industry pressure. I’ve heard from a few aid workers that they can’t write - and some can’t even tweet – about the topic because they either work for World Vision or they work for another nonprofit that partners with World Vision. Even people that don’t work for a nonprofit are feeling pressure. One independent blogger told of receiving emails from friends that work at World Vision imploring them not to blog about the issue.
The reason for the silence is addressed by Dennis Whittle in his November, 2010 post Free the Aid Bloggers.
“In general I fully support transparency, but these people could lose their jobs.”
That is what Saundra Schimmelpfennig told me when I asked her why some of the best aid bloggers out there were anonymous. She is right, of course. But it is also a shame. If there is a common thread running through our understanding of effective aid, it is the need to experiment, learn, and adapt. This means admitting to – rather than hiding – things that don’t work, so that we can learn from them. The anonymous bloggers I was referring to talk about the reality of aid work, warts and all. They have a following because their readers know that they are speaking the truth. But their employers could not tolerate the truth, so these bloggers have to remain in the closet.
One day, aid agencies will brag about the bloggers they have on staff. This will happen when they realize the best aid agencies are platforms for conversations and learning rather than infallible oracles of aid wisdom. Until then, many bloggers will have to remain anonymous.
This suppression of criticism and severe image control is one of the reasons that the aid and development world is so slow to learn from their mistakes and improve their practices. This is why initiatives like Engineers Without Borders Canada Admitting Failure website is critically needed. This is why ALNAP was created following the Rwanda genocide. We have got to start learning from our mistakes and really improving our practices.
We need to do this to gain the trust of the donating public, many of whom already believe that the aid world is ineffective and self-serving. We need to start admitting and learning from our mistakes to increase the professionalism of the industry. And we need to do this because we owe it to the people we’re trying to help. After all, they are the ones that always pay for our mistakes.
My hope is that World Vision and other NGOs will use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate not only the NFL shirt donation, but their entire gift-in-kind portfolio. My expectation however, is that World Vision will go on the defensive with little, if any, real change.
Other posts on this controversy:
To read all the other posts written on this controversy, see Tracking the World Vision / NFL Shirt Donation Controversy.
World Vision’s Response:
Response to GIK discussion – World Vision - As predicted showing little, if any, real change. But very polite. I am disappointed, but not surprised.