Which is worse?

Posted on: January 4, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

unknownWhich is worse? (You have to choose…)
Some months ago my friend, colleague and frustrated social scientist Evil Genius (otherwise know as J) put out through social media a link to a ten item survey.  The ‘hook’ used in this survey is the fun involved in encouraging aid workers to express exactly which is worse when posed with two similar options, both of which are annoying, contentious or otherwise frequent points of controversy within the sector. Here’s the survey (still open).

No, the idea having fun making binary choices is not new.  There are some pretty, uh,  juvenile web sites devoted to just this including one that allows you to make a choice and then instantly see the results and another that uses your choices to act as personality test.

All snarky comment aside, the parlor game of being asked to choose the ‘lesser of two evils’ is of some value and, in this case, may allow us to know aid and development workers a bit better by hearing their voices -and choices- yet again.

Here is how the survey was introduced:

Which is worse? (You have to choose…)

Aid workers love to complain. It’s just how we roll. But now it’s time to make some hard choices.
For each of the following 9 pairs you must choose which is worse. And by “worse”, I don’t mean “which annoys you more?” (that poll will come later). I do mean, of the two things mentioned, which one represents the most actual harm to those we claim we want to help. In some cases “harm” may be direct (the thing actually hurts people), while in others it may be indirect (the thing hinders or obstructs help to people).
Select the one that is worse than the other. No skipping.


Interesting -maybe some telling?-  results
The nine pairs included some clarifying information, making the choices seem clearer.  A total of 148 responses were completed, and a few offered some additional thoughts. There appears to be no logic or intention thereof regarding the order in which the pairs were placed, though there are a couple themes.

screenshot-2017-01-04-14-26-161. Voluntourism or celebrity activism?
By a big margin 76% to 24% people felt that volunteerism was worse.  I can hazard a guess that this result is a reflection of the fact that there is far more impact of voluntourism overall.

2. TOMS or Raising Malawi?
The TOMS shoes versus Raising Malawi response was similarly skewed, with TOMS taking the bigger beating, 68% -32%.  Amy Costello, founder of Tiny Spark, perhaps explains this result here, though if Raising Malawi had gotten the same level of coverage the results may have been different.  Madona is trying her best to save the day, though.  Stay tuned.

3. Low intern salaries or inadequate staff care?
This one was clarified when the full choices were presented.  The respondent was asked to choose between “The fact that UN interns get paid next to nothing.” and “The fact that most INGOs do not cover staff care for employees who suffer traumatic stress (being abducted, being assaulted, etc.) in the line of duty?”  The results on this question were more skewed than any other with “The fact that most INGOs do not cover staff care for employees who suffer traumatic stress (being abducted, being assaulted, etc.) in the line of duty?” garnering 88% of the votes.  This issue has been discussed in the blogosphere a good bit and one would hope HR is listening.  There do seem to be policy changes along these lines, happily.

4. Americans or Chinese?
This one gets specific and infers a certain depth and breadth of knowledge for the respondent. The more detailed choices were “American evangelical anti-LGBT lobbying in Uganda.” or “Chinese mineral extraction in the Congo.” By a 63% to 37% spread aid workers thought the anti-LGBT lobbying was worse.  This result is no surprise, at least to me given my previous research  on LGBTQI+  issues.

5. Poverty porn or charity muggers?
This one was pretty straightforward the the results were demonstrative with ‘poverty porn‘ as the frequent response by an almost 4 to 1 ratio (81% -19%).  This article about ‘chuggers’ allows you to vote, so have at it.


6. Overhead or being led by industry non-experts?
Yes, this one needed more detailed choices. Which is worse, “The fact that major industry watchdogs (e.g. Charity Navigator) and the media (e.g. AlertNet) still flog “overhead” as a metric of aid effectiveness.” or “The fact that most major charities place industry non-insiders in positions of executive leadership?” Of the nine pairs, this choice seems too most “apples to oranges”, but both deal with the overall frustration with bureaucratic politics and policies.  Perhaps appropriately this one has the closest results at 48% to 52%, respectively.

7.  Metrics or innovation?
Or, in a shade more detail, “Obsession with metrics” or “Obsession with innovation.”  I find the result interesting with “Obsession with innovation.” winning, as it were, with 60%.  As I reflect in the many narrative responses presented and commented upon in our original research (now in book form), this seems to make sense.  Collectively aid workers have “been there, done that” and know that the (typically top down) obsession with the “next big thing” is misguided.

8.  Racism or sexism?
As a sociologist, this one is fascinating and brings up so many issues.  The choices were “Widespread institutional racism within the aid industry.” or “Widespread institutional sexism with the aid industry.”  The results were near even, with racism being seen as causing slightly more harm (55% to 45%).  Both are significant, chronic issues that must be addressed more aggressively on many levels both within and outside the sector, of course.  In the comments one respondent noted that, “The racism vs sexism question was HARD.”  Yeah, exactly.

We asked nearly the same question in our original survey, focusing rather on how these social forces impacted the aid workers themselves.  Look here (gender) and here (race) for these results.

images9.  Land Cruisers or big team houses?
Or, more specifically, “White land Cruisers” or “big team houses.”  Yeah, tight race here but the land cruisers won (60%-40%).  Why?  Land cruisers, well, cruise; they go places and are seen by more people, spreading the brand far and wide and, with it, the perception of aid workers as monolithic, powerful and flush in resources.  Not an image that many aid workers feel good about perpetuating, methinks.


Many people appreciate being asked these kinds of questions because they do serve the function of clarifying and prioritizing issues, so kudos to J for presenting this opportunity.  Do we now know anything we didn’t before this survey was responded to and the results presented?  Not a whole lot.


But that’s how social science works:  we add one tiny, seemingly mundane bit of insight after another until voilà! we know now more than we did before.  And, more importantly, we have heard many voices speak.

You’re welcome.

As always, contact me if you have any comments or questions.  Reach Evil Genius through his website if you’d like to get all snarky about the survey or go here for links to all his mini-polls.

Want to learn a whole lot more about what aid workers think?  Buy the book:  Aid Worker Voices.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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