Is The Aid Sector Tèt Anba?

06/2023 | Marie-Rose Romain Murphy

In Haitian Creole, tèt anba means upside down or absurd. We say “bagay saa yo tèt anba” – things are upside down – when we want to describe a chaotic situation or just the state of the world gone wrong. 

Is the aid sector tèt anba? Is it absurd? Spoiler alert, it is, and even more so that its absurdity is normalized into an ‘acceptable reality.’ One could argue that this dynamic exists through our entire societal framework, except that aid is supposed to help the world find justice and right the wrongs, isn’t it? 

Let’s explore this observation.

Tèt Anba Fact #1: Aid is about ending aid

The aid sector’s core public message is that it seeks to end the need for aid. Think about it: how many organizations talk about ending hunger, ending war, poverty, or inequality?

The reality of the aid construct is that it is structured and animated towards sustaining itself with an accountability system catering to donors, while it mostly ignores the self-identified needs of “affected populations” and “the targeted regions” that we “locals” simply know as our communities. Case in point: there are no set institutional metrics for an accountability process to communities. It isn’t even a thought.

Moreover, the truth is that there is no substantive systemic push on the donor side to make international partners accountable to communities. I once talked to donor country representatives who told me that “they didn’t have the power to do so.” I would have thought myself impossibly naïve and plain stupid if my fellow panelists from U.N. organizations and global think tanks who had also been advocating for a more localized approach had not been as dumbfounded as I felt. People with the most power are too often the most reluctant to acknowledge it and leverage it for good.

Tèt Anba Fact #2: Innovation or common sense?

What are the approaches that the humanitarian and global development sectors are  touting as cutting-edge and innovative right now? Community-led development, participation revolution, and localization. These approaches are quite basic and capture what should really be the natural order of things.

If aid is really about ending the need for aid, shouldn’t it be about Global South countries and communities getting to a point where they have a strong enough ecosystem that they don’t need aid? Shouldn’t aid be set up in such a way that countries and communities identify their needs and design and lead the long-term initiatives that can actually meet those needs? It is common sense and a human right that communities be in charge of their own development.

Reality check: we function and evolve within the framework of an aid system where, somehow, it has been made acceptable for other stakeholders to be in charge of communities’ humanitarian and development needs. Let’s face it, it is completely tèt anba.

Tèt Anba Fact # 3: Impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity?

There are very good and dedicated people in the aid system, but I have lost count of the number of expats and international stakeholders who have a deep sense of superiority underlying their good intentions. 

The aid system operates under the idea that White/Global North equals unbiased, objective, and rightfully motivated. Anything else, the system purports, is not up to par. This core inarticulate but omnipresent norm is deeply damaging to our world, and will continue to impede our progress towards justice, sovereignty, and equality until all stakeholders fully face this reality and work together to dismantle it. This profound bias is behind the never-ending call for Global South “capacity building” initiatives that have us running in place without making any real progress towards equity.

Even progressive Global North practitioners have been conditioned to think within a certain framework and don’t see how much they benefit from the complex support structures that European and North American countries have elaborated and nurtured for more than a century. Even when these practitioners strive to be fair, their expectations of Global South organizations and leaders tend to be shaped by their environment, leading them to downgrade Global South leaders’ capabilities.

Tèt Anba Fact #4: Communities and local organizations as partners?

Maybe we should call this one a plain lie. So-called community-led programs and initiatives are designed and managed in Washington, Brussels, London, Geneva, Paris, and other Global North metropolises. They are donor-led and implemented through a top-down process, so much so that said projects and programs rarely acknowledge the community groups that they work with, and instead highlight the Global North stakeholders involved.

Partners of these so-called community-led programs are often local organizations and community members who play a critical role but are often under-appreciated and looked down upon by subcontracting actors. They also receive a tiny fraction of the large project funding that rarely factors in proper overhead costs. It’s important to recognize and respect community partners’ contributions and to adequately compensate them for their time and expertise (avoiding harmful narratives that suggest people should work for free because they care about their community). In 2011, a “friendly” donor snapped at me when I told him that I needed to be paid. With a contemptuous sneer on his face, he said to me: “You want to be paid for working in your country?” Because of this mentality, many in the Majority World¹ spend years running themselves into the ground financially to support these initiatives. Personally, I quickly gave up on getting paid for my work for the Haiti Community Foundation and had to spend years getting out of the resultant financial hole. Sacrifice should not be a way of life for Global South leaders. There should be regional and international structures to support the work that we do for our countries and communities.

When Global South professionals do get paid, we get paid less. There is a need for a systematic return on investment analysis to figure out what the market commands and who best meets the needs of community projects. There have been studies but not enough of a widespread survey of the sector. There also needs to be a focus on objective performance management within the sector, where you often see a white person with less than five years of experience called up to replace a country director, while this same role should have been given to a “local” person already working within that organization who has far more experience and is much more qualified for the position.

What Would a Right-Side-Up Aid Sector Look Like?

What Would a Right-Side-Up Aid Sector Look Like?In this set up, the new Global Solidarity Sector would focus on community-led prevention and proactive planning, targeting communities’ short, medium, and long-term needs. Communities would capture their vision, address their needs, and work with donors, governments, and local, national, and international organizations on implementing these plans in the most effective, inclusive, and impactful ways possible.

Why is it necessary to turn the sector right side up? It is about ensuring the just and effective redistribution of power and control. As it stands, Global Majority communities are seldom in the driver’s seat or at the decision-making table. Our fates are in the hands of Global North donors and international stakeholders, whose jobs, status, livelihoods, and careers depend on the sector’s current structure. Many may realize that the system is unfair as it is, but they have no sense of urgency and no real incentive to initiate and implement the structural change that is needed. There are many conversations about changing the aid sector, but when it comes down to it, the structural change that we need has yet to come. Global South countries and communities continue to suffer, our needs go unmet, our children starve, die, and/or get their spirits crushed, and we watch our land become uninhabitable by climate change and conflicts fuelled by Global North countries working closely with country leaders that they support and maintain in power.

If we truly want to change the current paradigm, we need to turn it upside down for it to be tilted in the direction of justice, fairness, inclusivity, and long-term sustainability for all. Anything else is a compromise designed to appease Southern leaders and communities who are fed up with the status quo.

What would it look like to have communities in control? We are not talking about a revolution as much as we are talking about a holistic process that would involve community-led inclusive planning at the start and develop a comprehensive long-term plan where all (national and international actors) work together to meet community needs and develop local and national ecosystems.

In such a system based on a community-led collaborative process focused on sovereignty and justice, solidarity would finally end the need for aid, fostering independence and equity.

Utopia, we might think and say. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” said Nelson Mandela. We need to imagine a new reality if we are to build it. Join us!

 


  1. Why I use the term ‘majority world’ instead of ‘developing countries’ or ‘Third World’, Sadaf Shallwani
Marie-Rose Romain Murphy

Marie-Rose Romain Murphy

President, RMC - Romain Murphy Consulting

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series, designed to listen to people most affected by aid as they explore and amplify their leadership experiences, stories, and lessons for the aid sector. 

Check out recent blogs:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing, please contact Hasangani Edema at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Sarah Cechvala

A lifelong advocate for community-led transformational change, Marie-Rose Romain Murphy is the Founder of ESPWA, Inc., a Haitian-led organization focusing on the long-term development of Haitian organizations working in Haiti.  She’s also the Co-Founder and Chair of the Haiti Community Foundation, Haiti’s first community foundation. 

Born and raised in Haiti, she has 30 years of experience and a strong track record in community development, human services, humanitarian projects, philanthropy, marketing, executive leadership, and social entrepreneurship. As President of RMC-Romain Murphy Consulting, a nonprofit management and strategy firm that works with U.S and International organizations, she is a partner for community change who creates viable and sustainable pathways of development for low-income individuals, marginalized communities, and Global South countries with an anti-racist and decolonization approach.  

A member of various international networks and a recipient of a number of awards, Marie-Rose has an MBA from Babson College, an M.S. in Community Economic Development from New Hampshire College and a B.S. in Journalism with a focus on International Relations from Boston University.  She is fluent in French, Haitian Creole, and English. A published author of two books, she has written a number of articles and blogs for U.S and international organizations as well as international magazines and publications.