Saturday, March 5, 2011

In which Dr. J is answering a Life-Saving Question: "What's it All About?"

If you've been around a bit in this business, you must have noticed how small this world is. That consultant you dissed when she was writing up a proposal for a competitor partner back in Bogotá shows up just when you are taking the edge off with a vodka tonic in the Emirates lounge and mentions she is on a donor assignment that happens to be very relevant to you; the guy you hired back in Kosovo to make a lame attempt at coordination of distribution of "Non Food Items" turns up in Manila flying high with another HRI affiliate, and yesterday's little green intern is tomorrow's Emma, funding or de-funding an affiliate near you, on a whim.

Speaking of Emma, just the other day, in a moment of lobster-induced introspection she asked, perhaps rhetorically "what's it all about, this business?"

Never the ones to leave a donor wondering, I thought why don't we do her a favour and find out. What with us being cutting edge and all, we thought we find a consultant that can make an assessment for us and answer this simple question with a comprehensive report.

We looked around and, since time was a factor, we "sole-sourced" an old acquaintance, a reliable, known entity, a man with a fair share of assessments under his tasteful white patent leather belt. A busy man of course but who, for the sake of old days, only charged us 60 days consultancy fee plus some change in travel and subsistence while fact-finding in "the field" - a bargain that, yet again confirms HRIs awesome cost-efficiency.  

So, without further ado, let's hear it from Dr. J, our old mate from TFH*:

"It’s harder than you think, driving an appropriately rugged SUV (with GPS) between the plate-glass highrise that houses the HQ of a HRI-affiliate and the modestly upscale (and racially monochromatic) suburb of a “Humanitarian Capital”, to stay focused on what is really important in this incredibly important business of ours. Somewhere between facipulating life-saving workshops, supervising interns, and remembering mission-critical details such as which Star Alliance lounges in Europe have the best wet bars, we too easily lose touch with the core of our raison d’etre:

Brown Babies.

Thankfully the leadership of most the most cutting-edge HRI-affiliates frequently roll out different “initiatives” meant to keep us all focused on this central purpose. On the surface such initiatives will involve lots of enlarged glossy photographs of Brown Babies on foam core, mounted or hung at intervals over the warren of cubicles that characterize the HQ and regional offices of the best HRI-affiliates. This way, no matter how many spreadsheet disasters we may be called upon to respond to, all we have to do is look up and be reminded that this is all really about the Brown Babies.

Brown Babies are truly part of the culture and language of any HRI-affiliate worth the day-rate of its’ reasonably-paid consultants. Whenever some poor misguided soul (from, say, the finance department) gets frustrated in a meeting by an insignificant discrepancy (say, on a report that we’re overdue to submit to a donor representing the country just south of Canada) there will usually be someone who, with cat-like mental reflexes, calmly reminds him or her that it’s okay, really. Let’s lower our voices, take some deep breaths, and refocus. Let’s remind ourselves why we’re here. It’s all about the Brown Babies.

Or maybe it’s been a hard day of “negotiating” with HRI HR about whether that 72-hour layover in Singapore qualifies as “work” and so also counts toward “comp days” (already taken). In such an instance, one can always count on a sympathetic colleague to poke his or her head around the cubicle wall and in a voice laden with empathy, say something like: “Tough day? Yeah… just remember, it’s really all about the Brown Babies…”

It’s all about the Brown Babies”, or some close variant thereof, can be invoked in even the most fraught and charged debates – like a Scotch neat (and make it a double, thank you very much) after a day in “the field” with our respective organizational Emmas – as a way of bringing the universe back into internal self-alignment. Or at least dulling somewhat the pain of obvious dumbassery that is beyond the control of anyone at this paygrade. “Training” retreats at all-expenses-paid resorts in Bali and “monitoring” trips to Cape Town are what make this otherwise thankless job bearable (oh, the hardships we endure). But it is the Brown Babies who give us that higher purity of purpose, so crucial to maintaining unity, morale and also moral high ground with the sacred confines of a HRI-affiliate HQ.

But the concept of Brown Babies is more than just simple industry and organizational culture. Brown Babies are also Big Business.

The value of Brown Babies as a marketing strategy is incontrovertible. Many from within the brotherhood of successful HRI-affiliates have repeatedly proven the viability of Brown Babies in generating that all-important, life-saving revenue (Brown Babies bring in the cash + GIK keeps the overhead low = the consummate “win-win”). I know this will come as a surprise to many who consider themselves “do-ers”, safely distanced from and unconcerned by the messy world of marketing, but the Brown Babies pay their salaries. Imagine a world where HRI-affiliates could only show pictures of latrines or tarps in their glossy, three-fold pamphlets or on their websites (please update your browser so that you can view the flash video)? That would be a dreary world indeed.

Some of us who are a little closer to the cutting edge of sustainable aid marketing are taking things even a step further. We’ve been be able to build Brown Babies in as integral parts of actual programs in the field (imagine!). With Brown Babies as our core programming model, we are able to align every activity (whether direct program or support) and every stream of income (whether cash or GIK) against a specific “Brown Baby Outcome.” The “Brown Baby Outcomes”, are then supported by a discreet set of “Brown Baby Holistic Wellness Indicators.” As a result of this innovative way of integrating programming with marketing, we are able to report to our donors with great precision regarding the specific impacts of their donations on Brown Baby X in community Y, with pages of supporting data on which holistic wellness indicators were measured over what period to help us track success towards Brown Baby Outcome Q.

I’m afraid that I cannot divulge much detail beyond this, as a) our operations research is still very much a work in progress, and b) we don’t want other HRI-affiliates to overtake us on the integration-of-programs-with-marketing front (this is still a competitive business, and I still have a mortgage…). Rest assured, though, that Brown Baby-focused organizations are not merely the wave of the future, but in fact define the future of replicable, sustainable life-saving poverty reduction programming".

*before someone asks, TFH is short for "Tales From the Hood"


  1. OMG I am laughing my head off. God this is so so true and so perfectly described! Thank you!

  2. Dude, I always enjoy TFH's prose. This post's brilliance is in a class all its own. Love it!

  3. Dr. Kurtz, you have a window to my soul.

  4. Currently attending a life-saving workshop in Kampala, I notice that almost all presentations start or end with a Brown Baby picture. Brown Babies hence make an excellent material for power point and I wonder whether you have sufficiently explored this observation. In any case, your brilliant prose is well... just brilliant.

  5. as a brown baby who now has access to the 'internets' i whole heartedly thank you for H.R.I's highest standards of compatancy and competative trasparency.
    Salud Good Doctor, and remember, public areas, stick to drinks that visualy come off as a smoothie or the like.
    We dont want the word to get out, wink wink, nudge nudge, sip sip.

  6. I liken this to The Screwtape Letters of aid blogs.