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I’ve been following the debates surrounding professionalism, amateurism, innovation and good practice in aid and development work on the blogosphere and Twitter for awhile now.  In their most extreme and exaggerated form, they go something like this:

Extreme side 1: Amateurs are evil

Aid is about the poor.  Amateurs and would-be overseas volunteers should stay home, give money to experienced international organizations, volunteer locally, and stop getting in the way of professionals who are trying to get some serious work done. Aid and development are complicated and there is no silver bullet. They require experience and expertise. Amateurs, voluntourists and unskilled volunteers do more harm than good — they are clueless, showing up with no experience or concept of good aid or development processes. They bypass coordination structures, create confusion and duplication, repeat mistakes and don’t follow known best practices or proven ethical and industry guidelines. You may be a brilliant designer, marketer, manager or engineer but if you don’t have experience in aid and development, please use your skills elsewhere.

Amateurs make major mistakes and get themselves into trouble, and then professionals have to waste their time dealing with them instead of on the people in most need of help.  They parachute in ideas and technologies designed from afar that have no basis in reality because they don’t have any experience in aid, development or the developing world and they don’t listen to past experiences or lessons learned. They come up with stupid ideas, take away paid jobs from local people, create hand-out schemes and other unsustainable and inappropriate models of helping, and then leave. In no other field are amateurs allowed to go in and muck around in other people’s lives with no preparation or experience just because they have good intentions, so why are they allowed to barge into poor communities and bumble around just because they feel guilty about their own wealth and privilege or think it’s their right to help? The poor deserve better than that. Aid should be left to professionals who know what they are doing.

Extreme side 2: Aid and aid workers are evil

There’s no point in talking about professionalism because aid workers and aid and development in their totality have been an utter failure, regardless of how professional aid workers think they are.  Aid is aid, how hard can it be? We need to get things done! Everyone can and should get involved in helping, because it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to help. How will things advance if new ideas and innovations aren’t tested? And by the way, my latest product/ invention/ idea would easily solve that issue that aid workers have been struggling with for centuries…. I just need a place to test it out, got any communities? Volunteers and people with good intentions can do just as good a job as professional aid workers, who have made a total mess of everything anyway with their outdated models and bureaucratic, slow, top down procedures.

New ways of doing things and ideas brought in by youth, volunteers, design students and for-profit innovators from different sectors are beneficial to aid, which is currently stagnated and ineffective and needs an overhaul, or better yet, total annihilation. Aid workers drive around in giant SUVs and don’t have any commitment to local people because they live in fancy ex-pat houses with servants, getting rich off of the backs of the poor they profess to help. It’s just a big business that is perpetuating itself and preventing the poor from developing.  On top of that, the only way you can get into it is to start as a volunteer, but volunteering is discredited by those same aid workers. The dying field of aid and development is a closed and exclusive club. Aid should be abolished, and/or bypassed by small groups of dedicated, good-hearted, every-day individuals and/or social entrepreneurs and capitalists with good intentions who really care about people in the developing world, and can bring in new ways of working and innovations.

Hmmmm.

I’m finding the arguments really interesting.  A little mixed up and too generalized sometimes, but both sides resonate with me because I’ve seen concrete examples of a lot of the above.  (By the way, I hope no one takes offense at how I’ve portrayed the sides – this is just an exercise here – I love you all).  So I was trying to step back and look at the discussion.

It struck me that the arguments sound a lot like the old media – new media arguments.  New media is less professional, less rigorous, and sometimes unethical and low quality. But it often it brings innovations and truths that old media misses. It’s quick, accessible, open, less controlled and often pretty freaking amazing and right on.  Old media is solid and has a long history of quality and impact, but it’s also slow, unresponsive and conservative at times. Old media that’s not finding a way to integrate and learn from new media is dying.

So how might old aid, old development and new aid, new development work together? What can traditional non-profits learn from traditional media outlets that have embraced new media or morphed their old models into something that is still solid and proven, yet offers a space for participation and innovation by the public?

What general standards and knowledge need to be out in the public to help amateurs or people from non-aid and non-development backgrounds who want to engage avoid pitfalls and known errors, and avoid breaking laws or forging forward unethically or foolishly, and doing damage? Can old and new come to terms and work together? What examples are there of this already happening in a way that both old and new agree is working?  Or are these two sides totally incompatible and doomed to work against each other?

[Update] See Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges for a Part 2 to this post.

For more background….

Update:  Penelope has written a great post called “On Entrepreneurship and NGOs

Saundra over at Good Intentions are not Enough does a great job of sharing standards, practices and educating on how to select good charities/organizations, and has published a “Smart Aid Wish List” you can add to.

Check out this excellent chapter (.pdf) by ALNAP on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (thanks to @talesfromthhood for sharing).

[update] Michael Keizer at A Humorless Lot wrote a great response post here:  The professional volunteer (impossible in aid?) and how about the salaried amateur?

Check out the #smartaid and the #1millionshirts hashtags on Twitter.

Follow some of the bloggers on my blogroll — they pretty much span the different sides of the issue in less extreme and more nuanced ways than I’ve done in my exaggerations above.

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