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Does Aid Need a 12-Step Program?

Friday, May 11, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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After a couple of weeks in Afghanistan I’m reminded just how broken, in many ways, the international aid machine is. Which is not to say that I didn’t see anything good happening. I did. And I heard from Afghans who are crystal clear on the improvements that have happened in their country over the past 10 years as a result, at least in part, of the support of the international community.

But I also saw projects that had fallen over in the four years I’d been out of the country. Projects that relied so heavily on the championing of certain international development workers that they collapsed when their champions moved on. I sat in on meetings in which newly deployed aid professionals had exactly the same conversations I’d heard their predecessors have four years earlier. I wondered how the Afghans in the room (the only faces that hadn’t changed) could stand it.

How do the real local champions tolerate us, international ‘experts’ who rotate in and out of their countries and keep showing up – different faces, same stupid questions – like a bad penny? What do we mean when we talk about supporting local actors? And are we really ready to relinquish control, face our shortcomings and humbly listen?

All of which made me pay attention when Jennifer Lentfer, creator of, asked ‘Does aid need a 12-step program?’ Is it time for international aid to “Let go and God”?

“Let go and let God.” It’s a mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous. And after the last week or so, I’m wondering if it’s time for international aid to adopt the same approach (with more politically correct secular references of course).

Last week I attended three conferences in Washington, D.C. related to international aid. The framing questions from one meeting helped shape my mindset for the others:

  • What does country leadership mean to your work in development?
  • Are you ready to let go and let countries lead?
  • How will we know that US dollars are being used effectively if we let countries lead programs?
  • How do we let go?

With those questions in mind, I’ve listened to old school “experts” in suits. I’ve listened to “local champions” via Skype from around the world. I’ve listened to people who identify themselves squarely as supporters of local activists and leaders. And in each of their presentations and in the pursuant discussions, I’ve been listening for answers to these questions for insight into how the shifts needed to make aid more locally responsive can occur.

My conclusion? The international aid industry (and the people that make it up) might need a 12-step program to overcome what ails the system in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

So I offer these 12 steps, reworked for us aid workers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and volunteers, written as if we had successfully gone through the program and come out the other side—stronger and more devoted to our purpose:

Step 1:  We admitted we were powerless over a project-based mentality–that when we considered the changing world, our frameworks and tools as they come to define us had become obsolete.

Step 2:  We came to believe that notions of complexity and resilience, as powers greater than ourselves, could help guide us towards more adaptive programming.

Step 3:  We made a decision to turn our will and our roles over to this reality and to the adaptability of natural systems.

Step 4:  We made a searching and fearless inventory of our character as do-gooders and of the limitations of our internal systems in relation to the people we aim to serve.

Step 5:  We admitted to ourselves, our organizations and to our partners (implementing and funding) the exact nature of our faults and misdeeds.

Step 6:  We were entirely ready to practice responsive mechanisms of support (funding and accompaniment) in order to remove our defects of character.

Step 7:  We humbly used the feedback from our partners in the removal of our shortcomings and resolved to work to remove these faults by utilizing robust feedback mechanisms.

Step 8:  We made a list of all persons we harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9:  We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step 10:  We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Step 11:  We listened, studied, and meditated to improve our awareness of the natural laws and forces that govern the real and valued contributions of changemakers at all levels, focusing only on accountability to the people we serve and the strength to follow that pursuit above all else.

Step 12:  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many people and international assistance efforts have started down this path.

And if you haven’t yet embarked on your recovery, what are you waiting for?


This post originally appeared on, a blogsite devoted to raising the level of human dignity within international assistance. Its creator, Jennifer Lentfer, has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade. Having served with various international organizations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the U.S., today she works to advance the efforts of aid workers, grantmakers, and social entrepreneurs that make international aid more locally responsive.

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