Do relief based NGOs profit from people’s misery?
In a word: yes.
When I arrived in Indonesia after finishing my Bachelor of Computer Science and Diploma of Modern Languages in Indonesian the NGO thing was actually what I thought I wanted to do, by some twist of fate (read: nepotism) I ended up working as a financial analyst in a local investment bank. So, the other weekend I thought I’d do my part for the recent earthquake victims and head over to Yogya to help out the relief effort and check out what I was missing along the way.
I read a book recently called Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It was pretty average in a lot of ways, although it was interesting in its portrayal of relief workers and the general NGO industry. The workers themselves are variously described as self-serving, incompetent, and reliant on “hunger porn” to prove their self-worth to the rest of the world.
The most wonderful thing about game theory is its mathematical simplicity. Well, that, and the fact that it provides a basis for the analysis of pretty much every organism based interaction in the universe.
The first ever version of game theory applied (whether the organisms knew it or not) and the most instinctive version, is what is commonly referred to as evolutionary theory. It relies on one axiom: each organism must do what it can to succeed. An organism itself doesn’t necessarily know what it needs to do to succeed, and may choose any number of strategies in reaching its goal. Some of those strategies are good – eating and otherwise obtaining good nutrients – and some are bad – being eaten (unless you're a salmonella bacterium, or a fruit with very hardy seeds, or something like that). There are infinite shades of grey in inter- and intra-special conflict, but I will dub the two extremes Arseholes and Hippies. A Hippie will gather his food and eat it, if it meets another Hippie they will have themselves a little party and share their food. An Arsehole gathers no food, if it meets a hippie it will beat it up and steal its food. If an Arsehole meets an Arsehole they will beat each other up, run the risk of an injury and get no food.
While there are so many strategies and so many local environmental dynamics that there is never one optimal solution to the problem, two things are clear… In a world of Hippies, the Arsehole is King. And, in a world of Arseholes, everyone suffers, but the Hippie suffers the most*.
Politicians may go into their job thinking they will stand up for what they believe in, but they quickly find themselves championing populist policies without which they will fade into obscurity. Australian companies could pay higher wages or give longer breaks, but their Chinese counterparts aren’t imposing such “unnecessary constraints” on their quest to succeed so why would the Aussies? A political party in a newly democratised nation that chooses not to buy votes may suffer a loss on polling day to another that does. Sure, it’s mean, but sometimes it pays to be an Arsehole.
An NGO survives by getting donations from various sources, spending an amount on administration (usually between 5-15%) and using the rest to fund their various projects around the world. To succeed they need to find the worst suffering (or at least the suffering that looks the worst) and get the most money from you. For example, evolutionarily speaking, it is in their interest to give poor farmers hybrid seeds that don’t reproduce, find pockets of unaddressed suffering in disasters and not tell any other organisation about it, and so on. Fortunately, in this most Hippie-fied (although mainly on the individual level, not necessarily the organismation level) of industries, I would like to believe that no NGO genuinely seeks to prolong the suffering for their own ends, although the minor sins of sexing up photos and sensationalism are rife.
So, we’ve established that NGOs are Arseholes (at least in a limited way), so who are the Hippies being taken advantage of in this situation? Us; the donors.
Thinking about it though, you know, I’m glad it is this way. We rich country nationals should be taken advantage of a little bit, don’t do nearly enough to really combat poverty (in our own countries or abroad**). Making us the Arseholes, and the poor the Hippies (if you consider not giving them money to be equivalent to beating them up). And sure, they make a profit. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be around very long. As long as they are open with their financials and all donors are aware of how their money is being spent, then of course they should!
Like banks, which take idle capital and make it available for use by entrepreneurs, NGOs play a useful role in the global economy: they take excess capital and redistribute it to those most in need, hopefully, in the most effective way. In the emergency phase of relief, that involves handouts, in the reconstruction phase, that involves reconstruction and livelihood building.
Having recently been a normal, healthy, lefty university student, I have found myself somewhat disturbed by slightly right leaning economic theories I have found myself espousing after only 2 years in the Real World (more on that later), but I’m happy that apparently my support for the UN and pinko-do-gooder projects in the developing world is intact. I did see some frustrating bureaucracy and jaded relief workers, but I’m trying, I’m trying real hard to be the Hippie; and I think they are too.
*Depending on how you formulate the game… It should also be noted though, that everyone in a world of Hippies is better off than everyone in a world of Arseholes. This is also a simplification where Arseholes contribute nothing to the system. For a much better and wonderfully written explanation of the complexities of game theory (although written in a wonderfully uncomplex way) read the last few chapters of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.
**The linked article is seriously awesome and everyone should read it.