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Culture of nice
Development and aid work is mired in a culture of nice, and that culture keeps bad work from being eliminated and good work from getting better. We're too nice to call a bad project a bad project. When we criticize, we criticize in abstractions. No one has any problem identifying bad products as bad, but no one will ever call a bad program bad. For example, see Alanna Shaikh's blog post on NGOs that do harm, you'll see anonymous comments about unmade projects. We're addicted to nice.
One reason for this behavior is human decency. When good people are making a good faith effort to do work that matters, you feel like the worst kind of jerk calling them out for waste or incompetence. And every project benefits one or two people. Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people were not worth the effort.
But if a products is unpopular, there are still a fewpeople who like it. That doesn't keep the rest of us from explaining exactly what's wrong with it.
Another reason is self-interest.
Aid and development workers change jobs a lot. Project funding runs out, and you have to find your next gig, or your next donor. Most have worked for three or four different NGOs or companies, and perhaps a government agency. You don't want to criticize a potential employer, and a potential employer could be just about anyone. And, of course, a potential employer doesn't want an employee who criticized his last boss in public. So we all shut up, and organizations that everyone knows are sinkholes of mismanagement and despair keep getting grants and contracts.
There is no obvious way to fix this. Blogger Alanna Shaikh started a "things I don't believe in" series as one way to address the bad work no one wants to talk about, while acknowledging "I think it is still the kind of generality that doesn't do enough good."
Notes and references
- Reader Question – Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good? - Blood and Milk, November 13th, 2008.
- Search for "Things I don't believe in" on Blood and Milk.
- Bill Easterly and the Culture of Nice, Blood and Milk, January 29th, 2009.
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