The COVID-19 pandemic is straining the resources of non-government organizations (NGOs) to a breaking point. As the extant donor funding is spread thinner, disruptions threaten NGOs’ supply chain for their ongoing humanitarian operations. This further erodes aid effectiveness—a goal whose achievement has met limited success even prior to the pandemic.
The example of Afghanistan is telling. In their book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson of University of Chicago show that Afghans benefited at best from only 20% of the total pledged aid to Afghanistan. Many of their humanitarian needs, from healthcare to education, still go unfulfilled.
This leads many of us to wonder: What should be done to make aid more effective? Not surprisingly, the answer to this lingering question lies in the large pool of anecdotes and personal experiences of those closely involved in aid delivery. For this reason, I teamed up with professors of humanitarian logistics and organizational behavior at Research Institute on Leadership and Operations in Humanitarian Aid, or RILOHA, to come up with a data-driven explanation. To do so, I surveyed hundreds of field-level aid workers in Afghanistan and similar crisis contexts.
The evidence I found suggests that aid effectiveness largely depends on aid workers’ ability to learn best practices from each other and formulate creative solutions. Learning and creativity are necessary to make the most out of the limited resources at hand and address the unexpected problems that emerge during the operations. To spur such learning and creativity, I also observed that aid workers need to develop a strong and close interpersonal collaboration with each other. Naturally, this would offer them plenty of psychological space for mutual knowledge transfer. Yet, surprisingly, my observations show that collaboration appears to be easier said than practiced within NGOs. This required a much deeper look at the reasons behind this observed lack of collaboration despite the obvious and urgent need for it.
Also, the composition of the NGO workforce struck me as being interesting. In Afghanistan, it is not uncommon for NGOs’ senior staff to come from abroad, mainly from Global North countries. Known as expatriates, they often go on field missions with little knowledge about the local geography, culture, and people. Ironically, however, they also occupy most decision-making positions within NGOs. Their local colleagues are the preferred choice for any assistant positions—often without a promising career path into the senior management. Expatriates usually earn more than locals and receive a range of benefits (e.g., paid leave, accommodation, health insurance, etc.) that the locals with similar job titles would never be eligible for. Above all, local and expatriate aid workers have culturally distinct backgrounds, leading them to hang out separately and cluster in independent silos inside their NGOs. In Afghanistan, mutual interaction remains particularly limited outside their NGO because expatriates hang out in bars that locals either cannot afford or do not consider culturally appropriate to join. Taken together, these differences hinder local expatriate collaboration as inequality becomes the most visible and embodied feature of their relations at work.
Social psychological research has shown us that noticeable differences, such as those in status, ethnicity, culture, language, etc. between locals and expatriates, create strong subgroup identities in the organization. This is especially problematic when one subgroup (e.g., expatriates) within an NGO has a monopoly on resources and decision making power. As a result, members of other subgroups (e.g., locals) perceive their marginalization as an identity threat, which prompts them to react emotionally in the form of conflict with the dominant subgroup. This psychological mechanism explains why locals and expatriates are by default less motivated to collaborate. Without their collaboration, overall aid effectiveness declines because learning and creativity will not occur inside NGOs.
What could NGOs do to fix this problem? My research shows that leadership plays a key role. But the conventional NGO leadership style that puts expatriates in the driver’s seat appears unfit to instigate the flow of information between the local and expatriate silos. Expatriate leaders too often view collaboration with the local colleagues as unnecessary. A case in point: In one NGO field office, expatriate leaders never invited locals to biweekly meetings where operational plans were discussed and updated.
In contrast, I found that if NGO leaders recognize the silos in their field office and go the extra mile to bridge the invisible social distance, collaboration can be created despite the animosity that might exist between the subgroups. For example, leaders should interact in an equal manner with expatriates and locals and offer them the equitable opportunities for asking questions, giving feedback, and discussing errors. The key here is to involve locals and recognize their contributions. It seems common in meetings for expatriates to speak freely whereas the local aid workers rarely say a word unless directly asked. Leaders should proactively ask for the opinions of locals to create sufficient psychological safety for them to freely voice their ideas in the future. Another effective behavior for leaders is to coordinate specific peer‐to‐peer interactions at work. This is especially relevant in case of position handover to newcomers, or when an expatriate has a learning need that can be fulfilled by a local aid worker and vice versa.
These recommendations are among the first few to be scientifically validated with actual data from Afghanistan and other similar crisis contexts. I believe evidence-based management is the best way for NGOs to identify their problems and then to articulate relevant solutions and policies to improve aid effectiveness. Yet, there is still a huge gap between the scientific community and NGOs that must also be bridged. This requires NGOs to emphasize and seek productive collaboration with universities and academic institutions.
Mojtaba Salem has a PhD in Management and leads the Research Institute on Leadership and Operations in Humanitarian Aid in Hamburg, Germany. He tweets @DrMojtabaSalem.
All are welcome to submit a fact-based piece to TOLOnews' Opinion page.
The views expressed in the opinion pieces are not endorsed or necessarily shared by TOLOnews.
Contributors are responsible for the accuracy of the information in an opinion piece, but if it is discovered that information is not factual, a correction will be added and noted.