Understanding Aid Work

Addressing the Misconceptions of Foreign Aid

In the drive to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we’re seeing heightened focus on the role of international development and humanitarian aid in catalyzing health and economic advances.

But what is overseas aid—and where is the industry headed as we look ahead?

For one, it is not a new concept; most individuals probably have a general understanding of what foreign aid work is, but perhaps might not be able to explain the difference between the various needs and may not understand some of the inner workings of the industry. In a series of blogs, it is my hope that I can bring a greater understanding of an industry that has time and time again proven its importance.

The Funding Behind the Aid

What many people most likely understand about development and humanitarian work is that part of the federal budget goes to this industry. In the specific category of foreign aid of the United States federal budget, the amount of money administered to this purpose is typically low, in 2019 it was less than 1% (this is still $39.2 billion). This is not the only source of the federal budget that will go toward foreign aid, as other budgets such as the military or organizations such as the Department of Defense will also allocate a portion of their budget to similar activities. This is still not all of the funding that is required for foreign aid, and there are also numerous private donors who contribute. But aside from money, and maybe a few names of well-known groups, this could potentially be the extent of general knowledge about foreign aid.

Now this is where I come in, but I cannot do it alone. For this series I had the opportunity to sit down with Matthew Thacker, the Director of Global Security and Safeguarding at Population Services International (PSI). We sat down and discussed multiple facets of overseas development aid. So, let us get to it.

Addressing the Misconceptions

Q: What does leading the security for an international development organization entail?

MT: Overseeing security in 42 different countries, and every day is a balancing act of security fitted for each of those country’s specific needs. On the ground, foreign aid is moving cargo, administering necessary supplies, and working with the communities that you are helping; back in offices it includes working with large sums of money and balancing the ever-important finances. The point being that it is not a simple task, and it takes specific, valuable skill sets to both complete the task and complete it well.

Q: What do you think the biggest misconceptions are in regard to foreign aid?

MT: The notion that “anyone can do it.”

Now this is partially true, anyone can indeed apply to work for a company that specializes in foreign aid. To build on Matthew’s comment, a common misconception could be that many individuals do not understand the breadth of the work. So yes, anyone from any walk of life can participate in foreign aid – in fact, in a subsequent installment I’m going to discuss the increasing efforts to diversify (aka decolonize) the foreign aid industry.

The misconception may come from the fact that people may conflate aid work with a cookie drive; they may think that it’s minimal effort fundraising or something that is low exertion. This could not be further from the case. Aid work is meaningful work, and has to be done by meaningful people ready to roll up their sleeves and get to it. Those who work in aid have passion, drive, and a willingness to help the people around them. A misconception could be thinking that the work is easy, whereas the reality is embracing the challenges in order to do good.

NGOs, such as PSI, are increasingly moving toward building country-level capacity and shifting the decision-making power into the hands of the people on the ground. At PSI, there is a goal to hire not only public health experts who live in the countries in which NGOs like PSI work, but also diverse individuals, like consumers themselves, who drive the design and delivery of health solutions. This leads me to another misconception that Matthew mentioned, as he put it, there is a related misconception that “the north must help the south.” The drive to help others is commendable, but that effort should always be put in places where it can do the most benefit. There is little benefit of applying to a leadership position in Kenya in order to do good – companies in the aid industry know exactly what they need to do good, and “nine times out of ten, it’s money.” So much more can be done through donation rather than attempting to take leadership positions away from local nationals (which may not be the intent, but it can be a result of the action).

My Take

In my opinion, the best way to advance general understanding of what something is, is to first clear up what the topic is not. From there, you can remove incorrect information and proceed to build up the correct information. When I first sat down with Matthew, I was not expecting these to be the first two misconceptions that came to his mind. I was rather expecting to hear misconceptions on what the work actually is; and I know that if I was not aware of these misconceptions then there is a good chance that most others outside of the industry were also unaware. Through a few more installments, released weekly, I plan to highlight more of my conversation with Matthew and shed some light on an industry that many have heard of but may not fully understand. For an industry that many understand does such good work, it is also often misunderstood, or not understood at all – so, let us fix that.