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Cordaid NL

Blog: Keep talking about ‘aid industry’? Yes, please!

The 19th of January, I attended the debate in ‘De Balie’ about ‘Development Aid 2.0’. Pity about the title as 2.0, in my opinion, is already far behind us. Yet the intentions were good. The evening was mostly about philanthrocapitalists: people like Bill and Melinda Gates who donate billions to good causes. And Zuckerberg.

This blog is written by Simone Filippini, Cordaid’s Chief Executive Officer from October 2013 – September 2016. A passionate bridge-builder, she takes a business-like approach to the non-profit sector.

Now, you won’t hear me say that emergency aid work is all peaches and cream. Especially not in 2008, when Linda wrote her book and much still had to be improved. Aid coordination needed strengthening, local organizations were hardly involved and beneficiaries (what a word!) were seen as victims and had little to say about how relief was organized.

In the meantime though, much has changed. Unfortunately, Polman remained stuck in outdated language. It irritated me. As if time stood still since she blew the whistle in 2008.

Development cooperation made a lot of progress. The time when aid workers hugged trees and used soft language without steering for measurable results and impact has passed a long while ago. An organization like Cordaid is a social enterprise that is managed like a business, with only one goal in mind: creating maximum impact in the most fragile areas – conflict-affected  countries. The UN Global Goals and the rock-solid measurable indicators of those Goals are our framework. Everyone can nail us to the wall: all our projects, expenditure and achieved results can be found online. Transparency that is sometimes lacking with philanthrocapitalists like Zuckerberg.

Polman remained stuck in outdated language. As if time stood still since she blew the whistle in 2008.

When our work does not contribute to sustainable change in countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, we search for alternative solutions. When it appears we won’t reach our targets, we correct our course or stop the investment. When we are successful, we scale up. Like a multinational. Businesslike, but always with the heart of someone who refuses to abide by structural injustice against his fellow men.

Yes, perhaps we, relief and development workers in the year 2016, form an aid industry, to use Polman’s incriminating wording. Because we are business-minded, commercial, aim at results and cost efficiency. Because we establish partnerships with companies, knowledge institutes, governments from around the globe. Because we are not donors but partners, because we do not ‘help’ but deliver goods and services that change lives. Because we built revenue models into our programs, to enable people to continue on their own again as soon as possible. Water shops in India and mobile pharmacies in Burundi, for example, by which entrepreneurs make a living. Because in the Netherlands with the Dutch Relief Alliance, we improve the efficiency of emergency aid with each intervention.

We build revenue models into our programs, to enable people to continue on their own again.

So yes, Linda Polman, do keep talking about the aid industry. But do it with the right charge and with the acknowledgement that professionalism and sound market forces continue to improve the quality of aid. It’s development cooperation 3.0.