A new paradigm of international aid

By Tony Lenart, with a little help from Albert Einstein

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

- Albert Einstein

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”

 - Frequently attributed to Albert Einstein

I am constantly amazed at how people keep using the same thinking and approaches that created the problems that they are trying to fix, and how they ignore what should be obvious questions.

In this thought I will seek to address some of the ways in which we remain blinded when it comes to international development,

To make it interesting, let’s assume you’re a government bureaucrat from a Western country arguing that your government shouldn’t spend any more money on aid.

Some of the complaints that you (and other people) would be likely to have when it comes to international development might include:

  1.  “The main problem is corruption and bad leadership. I don’t want to send money over just to fund a corrupt regime.”
  2. “We spend so much money, but nothing seems to help.”
  3. “The trouble with aid is that the more you do for people, the more they become dependent on you.

Let’s take a further look at these legitimate complaints:

Complaint 1:    “The main problem is corruption and bad leadership. I don’t want to send money over just to fund a corrupt regime.”

Response:         “Fair enough. So obviously the next question that you’ve asked yourself is ‘What work is being done to train the top leaders (in Africa and elsewhere) to think differently… to become less corrupt, more loving, and more focused on working in a win/win way?
And what have you done to support this work?’ Surprisingly the answer is normally “Good point! No, I haven’t asked that question , and we haven’t supported any training like you mention.”

Complaints 2 and 3:   “We spend so much money, but nothing seems to help.” & “The trouble with aid is that the more you do for people, the more they become dependent on you.”

Response:       Have you been focused on the underlying problems, or are you only dealing with some of the symptoms?

e.g. If you’re working in a war-ravaged country like D.R. Congo, are you working on building schools, orphanages, hospitals, feeding people, improving sanitation, water etc?… Or are you working to transform the thinking, attitudes and approaches that lead to the continuation of the wars and violence which perpetuate the problems?

If you’re just treating the symptoms—then whether you’re treating your own body, or the problems of a country, you’re unlikely to achieve any substantive long-term improvements.


We might ask why 99% of work is directed at symptoms, and virtually nothing is directed at transforming the underlying causes.

Not everything that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.”

-Albert Einstein

We’re so focused on doing the type of things everyone else is doing, that :

a)     We  don’t step back and analyse the true, underlying causes that create the problems.

b)     In focusing on the tangible and the obvious, we overlook the thinking, attitudes and approach that typically create the problems—or that might provide the solution to the problems if the thinking, attitudes and approach are transformed.

A primary component of our blindness is what I sometimes call “The Tyranny of The Tangible

In most areas of life, we focus on the tangible and measurable, even when the intangible and immeasurable is far more important.

a)   Most people focus on getting degrees, more than they do on learning.

b)   We recognise that happiness is more important than money, yet we spend far more time and money and energy on earning money,  than on learning to be more happy or developing our thinking so that we think (or respond to situations) in ways that make us happier.

c)  A huge percentage of the value of many corporations’ is held in intangible assets. (e.g. 97% of Google’s Market Capitalisation represents intangible assets.) Yet, bonuses, most of the focus, and most of the investment of these firms is in tangible assets and tangible results. Dozens of research studies have shown ROI’s (Return on Investment) in training to yield between 100% and 5900% in the U.S (Avg.=1570%), and between 30% and 7000% in Australia (Avg.=1200%). (The average for all studies was a 1313% ROI.) Yet training normally forms only a very small percentage of a company’s investment expenditure and is often one of the first “expenses” (investments?) to be cut during difficult times.

d)   Many people believe that if something can’t be measured, it’s not real, or at least it’s too vague and insubstantial to focus on.

e)    I wonder what Performance Measures  and KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) they use to measure their marriages and to ensure their marriages are on track.
And in a similar way, NGO’s (Non Government Organisations / Charities) will typically only fund work that is measurable… even if virtually every measurable project is only addressing the symptoms.

Another problem is a focus on certainty.
Most important things in life are pretty uncertain.

  • You may be confident of getting married, but you’re probably uncertain if you’ll stay happy for decades.
  • A teenager might be confident that he can get a job as a teller but if he aims big—e.g. If he wants to be President, then this is far from certain.

Now, most people would be happy to bet some money on a horse that pays 100:1if they knew it had a 10:1 chance of winning.

Yet those same people may shy away from backing a charitable project if it only had a 10:1 (or 10%) chance of succeeding—even if the benefits may be massively greater.

To make this a little more real, let me share my own situation. Ten years ago, in Goma, I trained 178 rebels who controlled Eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), on a variety of topics—primarily centred around improving their leadership skills (done in such a way that they became more flexible, more caring, more able to see things from their opponents’ view etc.). This helped result in them giving up fighting and joining a Government of National Unity. Many of my participants became ministers or governors. And the General Secretary of the rebels (who I did One-on-One Leadership Development with) became Vice President of D.R. Congo.

A number of years later a new rebel group called CNDP formed in the same area. On March 23rd 2009, they signed a peace deal, but a year later they were threatening to go back to war because they felt the government wasn’t honouring the deal. Their political head wanted me to train them. I suggested I’d also need to include the government members of the Peace Deal Implementation Committee. The Peace Advisor to President Kabila thought this was a great idea, and agreed. And the General controlling the region also wanted me to train both CNDP and the army. Unfortunately I was unable to raise the funds to do so. (Just because a government official is keen for a charity to do certain work, doesn’t mean that the government will pay for it.)  And so the work never happened. Earlier this year, a new rebel group (related to CNDP) emerged called M23 – signifying the date of the peace deal (March 23rd) that they felt hadn’t been upheld. And last week, M23 invaded and took over Goma, and said that they will march all the way to the capital to take over (which is the equivalent of declaring war).

When I told a friend about this situation, and how a small amount of money would enable my charity  to do very important work that might stop the violence, she was initially quite excited. But when I started quantifying the probability of my work preventing a war, she grew cold on the idea—because it was far from certain.

Let’s look at some statistics:

                    The DRC war has already resulted in over 5 million excess deaths.
                   And an average war costs the country $67 billion dollars.

To carefully analyse the impact of my training 10 years ago, or of possible future work would be very difficult and would depend on numerous elements that can’t be accurately quantified. But as a very rough indicator of what the impact might be, let us assume that my work may (have) contributed  to reducing these amounts by just 1% on what they otherwise might be, then this is equivalent to an expected impact of 50,000 lives saved, and $670m of financial benefits.

Given that I’m seeking less than a million dollars (and that my previous work was done for less than a million) this seems like a pretty extraordinary return on investment to me.

I am sure my friend is not alone in shying away from making such an amazing investment, simply because its results are not certain.

And a third reason that we typically focus on symptoms instead of addressing the cause is a derivative of the previous reasons: – We want the path mapped out and clear.

If we are doing things for the tenth time or the hundredth time, we probably have a reasonable capacity to predict the path we need to take… and the results we’re likely to get.

But if we’re doing things for the first time then we need to determine our path as we walk along the path. (Certainly, we will do as much preparation as feasible, but if we are a trail-blazer walking where no-one has walked before, then there is a limit to how much we will know in advance.)

Now, this isn’t as rare as it might seem.
If you hire a mediocre investment advisor, he might suggest a timeline of investment for you,with a mapped-out path of what he suggests that you buy, how much he suggests you invest, and when he suggests it.

However, if you go to an extremely good investor (like Warren Buffet) and you ask him to tell you in advance what he’s going to invest in over the next few years, then he will tell you that he honestly doesn’t know.
If you give him your money he will commit to doing his best to maximise your return, by constantly being on the lookout for the best investment opportunities—and he will take action as soon as he’s identified and decided on those opportunities.
But for him to tell you now, what he’s going to do in the future, would simply lower the results that he could get in comparison to constantly looking for the best opportunities and seizing on these.

So in the same way, the greatest social returns from investing in non-profit activities will occur when a highly-motivated, highly skilled, very wise and capable charity worker / social entrepreneur is able to constantly look out for the best opportunities to serve, and to seize on these when they occur.

If I go over to D.R. Congo now, I wouldn’t know in advance the best ways that I could contribute.
As I meet my friends and former students—including Generals and Vice Presidents and Ministers and Rebel leaders—I am sure that many great options will emerge. These might include formal or informal mediation; formal or informal training; or possibly the main impact I might have might be a brief conversation I have over coffee that transforms how a leader I’m working with thinks about the situation.

Possibly, I could make some plan about some sub-optimal trainings I could commit to that might help.

But why would I want to close off my options, instead of remaining free to do what is most important?      

__   __    __

Now – I’m not suggesting that all international aid should be done in a way that isn’t measurable, or pre-determined, or fairly certain of succeeding. There are thousands of people and organisations competing for donations, and unfortunately some of them are corrupt, or lazy or ineffective—and when dealing with such people, having definite budgets and timelines and KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) may help to ensure that less of the money is diverted from where it’s intended to go. And there are many very genuine, good, and helpful projects (like building orphanages and schools and hospitals and sanitation or feeding or water projects that are very helpful) that are measurable, planned and fairly certain of success. But most (if not all) of these are treating the symptoms and so will have little long-term transformational impact.

If you want to treat the causes… If you want to really make a difference… then you need to step back, and operate differently.

 As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over  and over and expecting different results.”

And if you want to create profound change, then not only must you think differently, but you must also work to help others in thinking differently.

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

- Albert Einstein

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that:

            “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day.
If you teach him to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”

And I would add

“If you teach him how to teach others how to fish, then you feed a village for a lifetime.
And if you teach people how to think like the person who first discovered fishing,
then you can transform a nation — not only to eat well, but to be all it can be.”

 - Tony Lenart
Senior Trainer and International Chairman, Institute of Advanced Leadership
www.PeaceAndProsperity.org, support@peaceandprosperity.org,
Phone – International Roaming: +1-202-681-0008
Landline: +61(0)2-9686-6003
Uganda: +256 (0)772-788000

P.S. I am frequently amazed at how the most successful entrepreneurs and CEO’s seem to forget what made them successful. If they look back over their last 30 years, they realise their path and the key elements that led to their success were typically uncertain, based on non-tangible factors, and somewhat unpredictable. (They probably had a long-term desire to achieve the success they did end up achieving—but they couldn’t have predicted the exact people or circumstances or conversations or luck or a confluence of factors that created the actual results.) And yet, most of these successful entrepreneurs and CEO’s forget their own lessons, and try to manage others in a way that is controlling, limiting and lacking in trust.  (And with some employees this will work well.) But the same CEO will probably complain that his staff don’t take the same level of personal responsibility that he does. That they aren’t as committed. And that they lack innovation and miss many opportunities. But he won’t recognise that his own management style has created an environment in which he himself could not have succeeded, and which keeps out, pushes out, or demotivates entrepreneurial, lateral-thinking people who are more interested in helping the business (and themselves) succeed, than in becoming a yes-man within the existing stifling managerial hierarchy.

P.P.S. Please see Tony’s thought “Some reasons philanthropists and aid agencies significantly limit their impact” for a brief summary of many of the above points, and some additional thoughts on the issue.