KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources


with 12 comments

I’ve seen a lot of interesting blog posts discussing aid, development, aid workers, NGOs etc. recently that highlight an important problem.

While we all use these terms, we frequently don’t understand them to mean the same thing, and this leads to a lot of confusion in our debates with others which might be as much about semantics as it is about actual meaning or opinion.

Below I’m throwing out a few terms and how I define them – not because there are the “right” definitions – just because this is how I currently see things. I’d be interested to hear what you all think.


Development – The improvement of the economic and social wellbeing of a country including the realization of the economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights (i.e. human rights) of its citizens. I should probably add  environmental sustainability to this. This is a process which is ultimately driven by the citizens and government of a country itself, although there are many external and internal factors which can affect it. ONE of these is aid. It’s not the only one – it’s not even the most important one.  Some of the other important external factors that influence development include security, trade policy, migration policy, intellectual property and technology transfer arrangements, investment and the environment. The Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index has a good explanation of this and ranks donor countries not only by their aid, but by the sum total of how their actions in all these areas affect development. Of course there are a whole host of internal factors that affect development such as climate, geography, natural resources, culture, history, governance etc. which aid scholars will long continue to hotly debate.

Aid – Support given from one country to another. It can come in many forms  – it could be financial and/or technical assistance, supplies, services, goods in kind or direct assistance and action. It can be provided to different actors:  governments (central and local), civil society organizations or to individuals. It can be provided for the purposes of long term-development, it can be provided to deal directly with an immediate crisis or some combination of the two. It can come from different sources  – from government donors, from multilateral organizations and international financial institutions, from non-governmental organizations of various sorts including religious groups, from private enterprises, and it can come from individuals. People frequently use the term aid to refer to some subset of these activities but not all of them.

A corollary of this is that development is about much more than aid – but also not all aid is directly about development. I’d divide aid into broadly two types with plenty of room for overlap.

Humanitarian aid/emergency aid – This is aid provided in the immediate aftermath of some type of emergency situation whether a “man-made complex humanitarian emergency” or a natural disaster.  The main purpose of this aid is immediate relief in order to save lives and mitigate the worst effects of the emergency as quicky and efficiently as possible. Often this means that participatory approaches, local ownership and long term development ans sustainability concerns take a back seat to  the need to the need for speed to save lives. Over time as the situation stabilizes aid transitions from emergency aid to longer term development aid. Humanitarian aid is kind of like “give a man a fish”, which if he is close to starvation might be preferable to teaching him to fish in a dried up stream.

Development aid – Aid aimed at supporting a country in its long term development. This generally means that its aim is to strengthen local resilience and capability to develop by helping build skills and provide missing inputs with a longer term aim of making  a country, community or individual self reliant. This is the “teach a man to fish” including “teaching him how to sustainably manage his fish stocks” as well as give him the possibility to be a better fisherman than you are. For more ruminations on the difference between aid, relief and development see “Appropriate aid vs aspirational development” from James Bontempo’s blog (and read the comments).

So who works on aid?

Aid organizations – an organization whose main function is the provision of aid, whatever type of organization it is, government, multilateral, not-for-profit, for-profit. Some organizations provide aid, but that isn’t one of their primary function – so for me that means they are not aid organizations (The military might be a good example of this!).

Aid workers – so it follows that this is someone working in the field of international aid, most likely, but not necessarily for an aid organization. I don’t think you need to be a front line worker risking your life in a war zone to be an aid worker. If your work supports the delivery of aid – then for me that makes you an aid worker. Alanna Shaikh put this very well in her recent blog “So I’m an Aid worker“. Yes you are and so am I.

You might ask, what about drivers, finance people, procurement specialists, human resource managers? For me this then comes down to attitude. If you do one of these jobs with the attitude that your aim is to try to support the delivery of aid to those that need it, and how you do your work and why is based around doing this as well as possible then I think you are an aid worker. If you do it only because it’s a steady paycheck, a nice 9-5 and you are qualified to do it, then maybe you are not.


I’m guessing a lot of you will disagree with me on some of these, or can point out holes in my logic. Please do, I don’t think these definitions are anything near perfect -they are just working definitions I have in my head., and I’d love to improve them. Also, if we could all stop for a moment and think about what we mean when we use these terms, and how others are using them too,  then I think we might be a lot clearer in our thinking about aid and development issues more generally.


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 30, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. You know I have been working on a typology of aid for some time now, so I don’t think you will be very surprised to see me react here. In fact, the reasons why I am working on that project are exactly what you point out in your last sentence, so I am very happy that you started this discussion on your blog and am very curious to see what the comments will lead to.

    I think your definitions are an interesting start (although definitely not even near an exhaustive typology), but let me point out a couple of issues around them as ideas for further discussion.

    1. You define ‘aid’ as “Support given from one country to another”. I think aid is wider than that, because many of the organisations in aid are not linked to any specific country — your own employer not the least.

    2. You collate humanitarian and emergency aid into one. This is questionable: much humanitarian aid is not related to any emergency; and taking the word ‘humanitarian’ strictly, most emergency aid is probably not humanitarian in nature. (As an aside: the definition of ‘humanitarian aid’ is the stickiest point in my whole typology project. Not an easy one.)

    These are just two issues. I am sure a lot more will come up in further discussions, which I am really looking forward to.

    Michael Keizer

    December 30, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    • Michael – thanks for your coment. Yes, you are right on your first point. What I really meant was that a defining feature of aid is that it comes from outside (And in the case of an international organization the money or expertise does come from outside the beneficiary country and indirectly comes from other countries).

      On humanitarian versus emergency I think you know this much better than I do. I brought this up because I often hear aid used to mean only short term direct relief, and not efforts geared towards longer term development.

      On the idea of an aid taxonomy – I think this is a noble pursuit – but I remain a little skeptical as to whether its possible to come up with a taxonomy that most people will agree on. Nevertheless I wish you luck with it – and hope it will be successful. In the meantime its a good start if we can realize that we don’t always mean the same things when we use the same terms and can recognize our different meanings and find some common ground.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

      • Often, most aid as I would define it actually comes from inside the country, especially after natural disasters. Of course, as you say, that is a question of definition — what you define as ‘aid’, I would define as ‘international aid’, which is a subset of ‘aid’ in my definition. Your definition is as valid as mine, but personally I like mine because it stresses that much of the response to emergencies comes from people near to it, often the same ones who are affected by it. Again, just a question of personal preference.

        … its a good start if we can realize that we don’t always mean the same tihngs when we use the same terms and can recognize our different meanings and find some common ground

        Totally agree there!

        Michael Keizer

        December 30, 2010 at 11:01 pm

  2. Hi Ian,
    Nice initiative and nice picture. The Babel tower stands for dev/aid I guess 🙂 That tower is the place to be for semantics! It is build on semantics!
    My Q is what debate – which to me is build on confusion otherwise we would agree constantly 🙂 – you are pointing at when trying to define terms? In other words for what debate do we need the definitions / descriptions/ listings? Do you mean the debate on budget? On intervention strategic? On ….?
    Best, Jaap

    For your pleasure a text the Duch base their policies on in respect to dev/aid.
    Development Aid That Makes a Difference (jan 2010)!sessionid=1!dtD8XH5WfcxG1jmb5WBNDecGa19fs1WDcV!js7tW8nhb9oWMdxXGwqyxTagM31&objectid=5225&!dsname=default&isapidir=/gvisapi/

    Jaap Pels

    December 31, 2010 at 9:47 am

    • Jaap – thanks for the comment and the link. It’s a nice clear and straightforward document. Part of my point is that when people are discussing about what makes good aid or good development we are often departing from different understandings about what these terms mean, and the misunderstandings around terminology can confuse the debates around how to improve things and we can end up talking at cross purposes.

      I’m not sure if its possible, or even desirable for everyone to have the same understanding – but it is useful to try to make clear what we as individuals or organizations mean when we use these terms, and also to seek to understand how others use them differently so we can better get to the heart of the discussion.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 31, 2010 at 9:54 am

  3. […] the rest here: Definitions AKPC_IDS += "8473,";Popularity: 50% […]

  4. […] There has been lots of interesting discussion lately around the difference between aid and development on various blogs and on twitter which also helped inspire my recent post definitions. […]

  5. […] Ian Thorpe works at a large UN agency on knowledge management, and his blog talks about his work in knowledge management, aid and development. Some notable recent posts include 20 (Deceptively) Low-Cost Ideas for Development, Outside-In Development and Definitions. […]

  6. […] things so we can better relate to them from our own experience. I’ve written before about definitions and terminology and it seems it frequently trips us […]

  7. […] One of the challenges in knowledge sharing in development (or anywhere for that matter) is that different people often use different words to describe the same things, or even more confusingly they use the same words to describe quite different things. […]

  8. […] Ian Thorpe works at a large UN agency on knowledge management, and his blog talks about his work in knowledge management, aid and development. Some notable recent posts include 20 (Deceptively) Low-Cost Ideas for Development, Outside-In Development and Definitions. […]

  9. […] sometimes ironic, usually humorous (but sometimes dead serious), always honest vignettes of the humanitarian aid industry from the inside. Sometimes we want to complain about one of the many ills of the Aid […]

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