What if etiquette and impact collide?

Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. A friend or acquaintance asks for some advice or help with their charity. I’d like to help that friend… but the work or structure of the charity raises the alarm in my head. On one hand, I’m not helping a charity with those alarms unanswered, but on the other, to put my pal through the scrutiny which is warranted would be just rude because the concerns are so numerous and so profound. What to do?

Sometimes these alarm bells are really very serious, because I genuinely suspect that the charity could be doing a better job. And doing a less-good-than-is-possible job means children not getting educated, families not getting fed or housed, people not getting jobs – the ‘opportunity cost’ as economists dryly say is very significant for some real people somewhere. (This example is just one, in which a programme helps 1 child when it could have helped 25, meaning that fully 24 miss out each time. Huge.) Worse, some charitable programmes exacerbate the problems they’re trying to solve. Programmes have been found which increase vulnerable people’s chances of leaving school, or which increase susceptibility to disease. As a result, it’s simply not an option to applaud my friend’s good intentions.

Here’s an actual example, anonymised a bit. A senior ‘friend’ is involved in a UK-based charity which does health-work in West Africa. Great. Really? Well, I noticed that:

–  The board. There’s only person there who seems to have experience of West Africa. (And even that might not help: it’s a pretty heterogeneous place.) The others are all marvellous senior Western business people whose experience looks pretty irrelevant. The dynamics which keep poor countries poor, and which keep poor people poor are way too complicated for amateurs with essentially zero relevant experience. If I sound angry, it’s because I am.

–  The work. Is ‘delivering services’. Not building local skills and infrastructure? Why is western charitable money running hospitals, rather than (e.g.) training local staff and pushing for better provision by the indigenous governments? Again, the dynamics which keep poor countries poor do not get resolved by Westerners providing things which could be delivered locally. Indeed they may be exacerbated by it, that is, the charity may make things worse.

–  The theory of change itself. There really are better approaches than that used by this charity, as decent randomised control trials (RCTs) have shown.

All of which suggests that my friend’s efforts might, at best, not be producing as much as they could, and at worst, might be deepening the problem. So, er, that implies a moral responsibility to put the concerns to the friend.

Perhaps the answer is to select the most important alarm bell, and raise that issue diplomatically. ‘Oh great… how does the RCT data for that approach compare to the data for XYZ intervention?’ – a question to which they almost certainly won’t know the answer but might prompt them to look. But the trouble with that is twofold. First, people who are a couple of years into a programme are rather unlikely to be instantaneously persuaded to change it by some cold data. And second, they may anyway have restricted funding (that great scandal) which essentially compels them to continue.

‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?’

‘I might change my mind, sir, but I can’t change my work, for my funding is restricted and won’t allow it.’

While we can all objectively see the merit of evidence,  its implications may be shockingly profound and challenging, to the point of being rude. I’m genuinely interested in how other people deal with these situations.

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1 Response to What if etiquette and impact collide?

  1. Miles Witham says:

    This is difficult, but given how important the issues are, I think that it is better to be right than popular. Healthcare is a bit like this as well – there are a lot of half-baked ideas that get put into action, some without evidence, some with evidence that they are actually harmful. Professional duty is to point this out, and indeed to withdraw cooperation with the potentially harmful initiative. I think that there is a parallel with supporting poorly-managed charitable endeavours (not to mention what it does to your personal integrity / reputation)

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