A new theme is emerging in many books coming out these days about war zones and other unstable regions: the yawning chasm between directives handed down by First World cubicle dwellers and the realities faced by workers on the ground.
One I just came across is Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails, by Christopher Coyne. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read this book yet, as I just discovered its existence. But this review, by Peter Van Buren, who has suffered his own disillusionment with nation building, makes me think it’s a must-read.
As Van Buren points out, Coyne’s book outlines how “internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.”
This is the same theme of my book, Victor in the Rubble, where our hero, Victor Caro is trying to catch a terrorist. But Victor faces more challenges from his own bureaucracy and its short-term objectives than from the terrorist group he is chasing.
Maybe we’ve hired too many consultants. I feel like everything has been boiled down to metrics that look great on a Power Point slide but have no connection to the often messy reality on the ground. And the same metrics are applied, no matter the situation and with no input from the field. A recipe for failure, indeed.
Any ideas on how to fix this? Let me know!