‘Do-it-yourself development’: the world of citizen aid and what to do about it

Guest post by Seb Rumsby

As our world becomes increasingly globalised, there are now more and more chances for people from vastly unequal economic situations to meet and connect – be it through tourism, migration or social media. At the same time, we are witnessing a widespread disillusionment with so-called ‘experts’ and technocrats in the realms of politics and international development. This has led to a democratisation of sorts whereby ‘development’ is no longer seen as the exclusive job of governments and professionals, but something which ordinary citizens can take the lead on.

The past 30 years have seen a huge increase in the number of small-scale non-profit organisations, which don’t quite fit the traditional NGO box – they are usually informal, unregistered and privately funded. We can call it citizen aid, everyday humanitarianism or ‘do-it-yourself’ development. You know the sort of thing: some Westerners go backpacking, are shocked to see abject levels of poverty and decide to ‘do something about it’. They start teaching English to local children, and raise funds for materials among their friends and families back home. And just like that, a new private development initiative is born!

That’s not to say the world of citizen aid is an exclusively North-South affair. Ordinary people within developing countries organise grassroots aid initiatives among their own communities, and everyday humanitarianism has become increasingly visible in wealthier countries over the past decade in tandem with the increasing levels of inequality and retrenchment of public welfare. Think about the volunteers delivering goods to makeshift camps in Calais, setting up soup kitchens and helped recent arrivals at the height of the European refugee crisis.

Citizen aid typically relies on volunteers with no formal experience in the development industry, with projects often focusing on youth, education, disability or health support. According to Fechter, a key feature that sets them apart from “mainstream” development practice is the personal relationships at their heart. Close personal connections – which are not always possible through large, ‘professional’ NGOs – are made between founders, donors and those they support, and the immediate, visible rewards of their efforts are key motivators. Indeed, private development practitioners often intentionally distance themselves from the red tape and bureaucracy of the development industry, which they see as inefficient.

For example, an American friend of mine regularly fundraises among his community as well as digging deep into his own pockets to travel to Laos annually, build houses for some impoverished villagers he has met, provide capital for them to invest in fish-farming and teach them business skills. He refuses to work with ‘corrupt’ state officials or formal NGOs because, in his words, “you can’t build a nation with nonprofits”. Instead, he sees himself as a ‘batman’ figure, “saving those who can’t be saved” through the formal poverty-reduction schemes.

Inevitably, it is tempting to consider the problematic dynamics of such a comparison. Appe and Schnable give five of them for starters: amateurism (lack of technical skills/training), fragmentation (lack of wider collaboration), restricted focus (not addressing root causes of poverty), material scarcity (lack of funding/resources) and paternalism (outsiders control resources and make decisions on behalf of disadvantaged populations). At best, these combined problems lead to well-meaning but inefficient development projects. At worst, they are unsustainable, unscalable and do more harm than good.

Because they tend to stay ‘under the radar’ and avoid collaboration with both state and other international development actors, everyday humanitarians can be guilty of ‘reinventing the wheel’ by repeating the mistakes that more established NGOs have already made, learned from and now train staff to avoid. Unfortunately, for the same reasons it is difficult for the development industry to engage constructively with citizen aid – for one, we have no idea how many thousands of unregistered initiatives are operating across the world.

So what should we do about this phenomenon then? It would be easy to dismiss citizen aid as another ‘developmental failure’, more often than not rooted in the same unequal international power relations which causes endemic poverty. On the other hand, there is a great deal of enthusiasm and goodwill associated with these initiatives, and the reality is citizen aid is here to stay. A more pragmatic approach might be to provide training and support for everyday humanitarians in order to maximise their developmental impact.

This is what we are trying to do by creating www.diy-development.com. Aimed at citizen aid founders and volunteers, this website offers an interactive self-assessment survey and free, personalised feedback in order to encourage best practice regarding issues such as local power relations, measuring project effectiveness, potential for wider collaboration and sustainability. The idea is to get people to critically reflect on what they are doing, encouraging them to think about the bigger picture and learn from others. Currently, we are trying to promote it to the very diffuse and decentralised world of citizen aid – readers, please feel free to share it on to those who could benefit from it.

A common theme of do-it-yourself development is what Fechter calls the ‘logic of the one’: if we can just change one person’s life, then it will all be worth it, etc. But what if we could just change two people’s lives with the same resources, if we were a bit more sensitive of the local community’s priorities, a bit better at measuring our impact, and collaborated a bit more with others working towards similar goals? Like it or not, citizen aid is not going to disappear but is rather growing in importance. The least that the development community can do is overcome our qualms, and at least try to engage and improve its impact on the people it is trying to help.

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16 Responses to “‘Do-it-yourself development’: the world of citizen aid and what to do about it”
  1. Michael Schwaabe

    This article comes across as a horrible oversimplification. What about all those relationships that get tossed in the bin because an iNGO’s programmatic priorities have changed? Or because they can’t, or won’t muster the funding? Or because they are beholden to Donor priorities? As a private citizen you can keep a relationship alive and continue to provide support to people and activists under circumstances where other organisations can’t or won’t. And perhaps keep the door open for future iNGO support.
    And let’s not get started about the implicit bias in the DIY Development Online Survey… Clue: there is more to it than “country of origin” and “online presence”.

    • Seb Rumsby

      That’s a good point about iNGOs being beholden to Donor priorities, especially an increasing proportion of their income is coming from government funding – which in turn raises the question about how accurate the name ‘non-governmental’ is. Yes the blog an oversimplication, but I only get 800 words! Regarding the bias in the survey, I value your feedback Michael – what do you think would be better/less biased identity categories for the intro details?

  2. Ignace Pollet

    Dear Seb & Duncan,
    Back in 2013, together with my colleagues Rik Habraken, Lau Schulpen & Huib Huyse, I have published an overview study on Citizen Aid in about 20 European countries. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320945081_The_Accidental_Aid_Worker_A_Mapping_of_Citizen_Initiatives_for_Global_Solidarity_in_Europe The study showed that the dynamics developed by Citizen Initiatives is quite substantial and long-lasting, even when the impact is often questionable (fragmentation, lack of professionalism, disruptive local effects… all though this critique could also be expressed about some more ‘established’ NGOs). The value of Citizen Aid often situates in the connections and personal ties between people in different continents rather than in economic terms (improved standard of living of significant groups of population in LIC/MIC). Also, Citizen Aid certainly holds a positive effect on societal support in HIC for global solidarity. The wish of many citizens to be personally involved makes that Citizen Aid cannot easily be scaled up of substituted by more institutionalized Aid. Therefore, it should be considered as a supplementary source of solidarity, rather than a source of competition (or even – to some – of irritation). That said, efforts (like training…) should be paid to avoid local disruptive effects (e.g. by bypassing local entrepreneurs). I hope this helps to nuance the view on this particular form of solidarity.
    Ignace Pollet

  3. Gareth Price-Jones

    Tricky one, and a great initiative – it’s a well trodden path for both global North and South organisations – I was privileged to work with several local NGOs in 2010-2013 in Bangladesh who had transitioned from ‘Citizen aid’ to ‘NGO-driven-by-a-charismatic-founder’ (and her/his team) in the 1990s, and in the 2010s, as their charismatic founders were moving on, were transitioning to a branded organisation driven by professional staff and an organisational culture. It reminded me of reading about the fights within organisations like Oxfam as they professionalised in the 1950s-70s, which saw huge anger and loss at the idea of moving from passionate volunteer leadership to what were (and still are) seen as ‘corporate’ paid professionals.

    However, I can’t help thinking that in almost all contexts things have moved on so far in terms of government capacity, standards, regulations and expectations that we do have better routes now, and need to constantly make the case for expertise and structure, which is so easy to dismiss as elitism and bureaucracy. Cases like Serving his Children in Uganda highlight the risks of, in particular, North-South Citizen aid, and well-intentioned locals can potentially be as wasteful, or even harmful, as well-intentioned ‘white saviours’.

    Making that case in partnership, and working out how to share and transfer that experience and learning respectfully, will need to be a more visible element as we move to more locally resourced and led humanitarian and development programming.

    • Seb Rumsby

      Thanks for your thoughts Gareth, I share your concerns about the discrediting of expertise in our wider society, as well as potential for Citizen Aid to go wrong and ‘re-invent the wheel’, while larger NGOs have already learned these lessons and have better practices. The feedback which users will receive on http://www.diy-development.com promotes training and learning from the experiences of NGOs among others, and encourages users to reflect critically on such issues you have raised.

  4. This is an emerging scene-the development of a middle class and also technology.
    I noted this in 2015 floods in Chennai, India. And indeed I was supporting individuals and groups. It is important that established Ngos -local, National and INGOs take a good hard look at this phenomenon.
    At the height of Tsunami in TamilNadu, India, I was asked by a group of substantially well endowed young IT professionals to advise how to fund directly and also be a part of an independent monitoring group.

  5. George

    I find this post a bit troubling, and I must confess that may well be in part because I’m part of that ‘development professionals’ sect that citizens aid/diy-development is a reaction against. Nonetheless, I feel that some of the assumptions made require a bit more probing. For example, this idea: “private development practitioners often intentionally distance themselves from the red tape and bureaucracy of the development industry, which they see as inefficient.” Of course there are inefficiencies in the development industry, none of us would deny that, but what is meant by “red tape” and “bureacracy” here? Would for example a equal opportunities employment policy and process be considered red tape or bureaucracy? Would a safe-guarding policy and process be considered red tape/bureaucracy? What about financial management systems? To link this point a bit to the example of an American friend travelling to Laos each year and building houses for people s/he meets: has he been trained in building and is suitably qualified to build safe secure houseing, is he aware of local building regulations – or would that be too much like becoming sub-servient to red tape or bureaucracy?
    I fully agree that these kinds of initiatives are here to stay and likely to increase, and the attempt to work with practitioners and provide support so that impact is improved feels laudable. But just as we subject our own ‘mainstream development’ organisations, structures and intentions to critical review – including here on this blog – I think we need to dig a bit deeper into the dynamics and underlying assumptions at play in diy development. My guess is that key to improving the impact and sustanability of such initiatives is that part of the sector that gets mentioned here but not explored in any depth: “Ordinary people within developing countries [that] organise grassroots aid initiatives among their own communities”. I suspect here is where the local understanding of context and pathways to change are strongest, and probably where there is greatest local legitimacy. No doubt there will be local power dynamics at play which remain invisible to outsiders, and may mean that some initiatives are less ‘inclusive’ than they may at first appear – that may be a shortcoming. I guess that both the diy-practitioners and the mainstream organisations would need to be cautious about assuming they can add value to these initiatives, but at times it may be useful. Key to understanding how will be to step-back and really listen, and then respond to what these initiatives have themselves identified as the added-value of international / non-local players – rather than plunging straight in with a desperate urge to solve someone’s problem.

    • Seb Rumsby

      Thanks for the comments George, you’re right I should have rephrased this comment – what I meant was that citizen aid practitioners often see NGOs as full of ‘red tape’ and ‘bureaucracy’, but that is not necessarily a fair or accurate perception. In fact, in the http://www.diy-development.com survey I encourage users to reflect on the benefits of having some policies and procedures in place, even in very small initiatives. And the term ‘citizen aid’ covers both external projects from outsiders and local initiatives from local citizens – which will have very different dynamics of power and legitimacy within the community. To be honest, my http://www.diy-development.com is more targeted towards the external citizen aid interventions since it is currently only available in English, but I also think it could be of some use to ‘local’ initiatives in different ways.

  6. This is a good and helpful initiative although I imagine you might have some push back from the ones that certainly feel the point of DIY is so they can do it themselves and not have to go through, or even listen, to those who, others. Cue the “traditional ways of doing this has not worked and all these institutions just make it difficult to ABC”.
    The bigger question i have, and perhaps i am asking myself, is does the preponderance of this approach doing things further threaten to sever the already fragile social contract? In other words, are we completely relieving the government and sub-national governments of their responsibility by not putting the pressure to deliver to their constituents or change the norm radically? It’s been on my mind lately and it would be good to hear what you, and Duncan, think on this. I hope that’s an appropriate ask.


    • Seb Rumsby

      Thanks for your comments Maries-Noelle, and you’re right – it has been difficult promoting http://www.diy-development.com to the diverse, decentralised world of citizen aid who don’t see the value in ‘best practice’ or professional expertise! But so far we have received good feedback from those who have given it a go, so please spread the word. Regarding the social contract, I think this is an important point – arguably both NGOs and citizen aid could be seen as ‘surrogates of the state’. In the UK context David Cameron called it ‘big society’, which had strong resonances of neoliberal self-help, and ideas of ‘social entrepreneurship’ are popular within citizen aid. I certainly don’t think DIY development will resolve any underlying structural inequalities, so it needs to be complemented with social movements which politicise poverty and put pressure on governments etc.

  7. Masood Ul Mulk

    Why do we imagine its government and NGOs or internationally funded local initiatives that are the only ones responsible for bringing about change in these societies. In such areas where the State is weak and NGOs work patchy and internationally funded citizen initiatives barely visible, there is so much that the citizens are doing on their own. Lets think of creating space for such activity and facilitating it not encroaching on it. When we keep talking of imaginary social contracts and accountabilities we rarely think that our work maybe the death knell for such initiatives

    • Seb Rumsby

      Thanks for your comment Masood. During my PhD research in Vietnam’s highlands, I also found that the social contract was an altogether unhelpful way of conceptualising the relationship between the poor and the state. And you’re right, while we are seeing an expansion of citizen aid initiatives (or perhaps an increased visibility), in fact this kind of activity has been going on across the world, behind the scenes, for a long time. Please do share http://www.diy-development.com with any citizen aid initiatives you are in contact with!

  8. Shruti Patel

    Why is it targeted at small-scale, grassroots development initiatives? Surely large, wealthy, private “helicopter” initiatives can also benefit? And shouldn’t NGOs and the development sector at large also be seeking to learn from the success of citizen aid? Tool doesn’t seem to cater for that.

    • Seb Rumsby

      Hi Shruti, the logic is that larger NGOs and the ‘professional’ international development sector already prioritises training and critical reflection – in theory, at least. Smaller initiatives don’t usually have the budget for training or don’t see the value, hence why I am targeting this sector. So you’re right, http://www.diy-development.com doesn’t cater for everyone – but please do share it with those who you think could benefit from it!

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