I noticed something today: the recent debate over the One Million Shirts Project sounds an awful lot like every other debate over a flawed aid project. The same responses come up over and over any time an effort takes criticism.
There are five primary replies, and a really high profile conversation will bring them all out. Smaller discussions will net you two or three. The problem with these responses is not that they’re repetitive. Good ideas bear repeating. The problem with these responses is that people use them instead of actually listening to criticism and finding a way to learn from it. Helping other people is hard to do well. If you don’t know what went wrong you can’t learn from your mistakes.
These are the five response tropes used on aid critics:
1) We’re just trying to do good here
Taking the criticism personally, instead of seeing it as a sign that the idea needs refinement. Examples: “You need to understand that we mean well. Our intentions are good. If you understood how nice we are and how much we want to do good, you wouldn’t be saying these awful things about us.”
Here’s the thing, though: trying to do good does not equal actually doing good. It really doesn’t matter if you mean well when you end up doing damage instead of helping.
2) Being mean doesn’t help / I don’t like your tone
Complaints about tone and attitude. “You are mean. You are shrill. Your tone is too aggressive. Don’t be so snarky. You’re not talking in a way that helps people listen. You should be nice to people who want to help and criticism isn’t nice!”
If you actually want to help people, you need to put your ego aside. Listening to criticism that’s phrased in a mean way is probably the least ego-wounding thing that is going to happen. You will go on to encounter communities who don’t want to partner with you, staff members who think you’re an idiot, and government officials who think they can lie to you and get away with it. You need a thick skin to work in international aid. If you can’t handle some snark, you probably can’t handle all the misery your project will put you through as it gets going.
3) You need to offer constructive suggestions, not just criticism
Demands for assistance. “We want to do good. You should be helping us. Tell us what we should do instead of just telling us what not to do. Sure, you have a full time job. But our work is important. You should be helping!”
This response comes from a good place. It aims to do better. And if you can convert critics to advisors, more power to you. But no critic is obligated to become an advisor. Lots of projects have to pay for consultants to evaluate their efforts; free criticism is a gift. You can take that criticism to your advisors and staff and get their take on it.
4) Don’t you have anything better to do than pick on people?
Attack the critic for paying attention to your project. “You are sad/pathetic/bitter to be spending time on this. You should have something else to do.” Or, alternately “There are much more important things that you can be paying attention to. Why pay attention to this?”
As far as I can tell, this is complaining that people actually care about the problem you are trying to solve. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be paying enough attention to notice your project or have an opinion on why it won’t work.
5) I’d like to see you do better!
Claim you’re doing as well as can be expected in a difficult situation. “Our project is better than nothing. We are doing our best. No one else could do better in such difficult circumstances.”
This is the strongest of the five responses. It might actually be true. That doesn’t make it useful. You might be working on a very difficult problem in a very difficult place. But there is always a way to do a little better. Assuming that you’re doing the very best work possible in your tough situation keeps you from finding ways to improve.
It’s easy to fall in love with your work. When you’re engaged in something as difficult as international development, you need that passion. But your passion can blind you to the flaws in your work. If you find yourself using any of these five defenses, it’s a warning sign that you’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, you can’t improve.