Too big to fail? Mapping Clay Shirkey’s newspaper metaphor to the aid system


Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody: the Power of Organizing without Organizations” (thanks to Sean Lowrie for the recommendationposted an excellent story about the collapse of newspapers due to new web tools on his blog.  Are there parallels to the humanitarian aid sector?

About the  newspaper industry, he writes,

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

Alex Steffan comments

A whole host of North American industries have allowed fabulists to set their agendas for resisting reform: sprawl developers, auto manufacturers, coal-dependent power companies and cattle feed lots.

What they refuse to see is that a business model is not a mandate.

Stefan continues, “The single biggest delusion in North America today is that the interconnected planetary problems bearing down on us can be faced with slight alterations to the current order… [it won’t, because] we are in a situation where incremental reform has already been made meaningless by a revolution in context.”

The same is true for aid, where much of our current efforts towards incremental change have not succeeded in their original aims to stay competitive.  See Paul Currion’s excellent post “Welcome to the Future” at for an excellent summary of why.  He writes:

The recent ICVA annual conference took as its starting point the depressing premise that, despite the four previous conferences discussing reform, little actual reform seems to have taken place. Our resistance to reform has developed partly from our lack of transparency and accountability, but that era is coming to an end. Change or die, folks.

As Steffen concludes, “We’re moving more and more quickly into a period of rapid transformation. We could be embracing that change and setting out to build the next smart, bright green economy. Instead, we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that the current models are “too big to fail.” They’re not, and the longer we listen, the more epic the failure will be.”  

Currion agrees: “There needs to be a radical restructuring of the entire sector, not just in the face of growing criticisms of aid at the macro levelbut at the roots of the entire humanitarian effort.”  This, after all, is part of HFP’s grand mission, isn’t it?  Many echoed this sentiment at the 2008 HFP Stakeholders Forum.  The issue then, seems to be not if this is necessary, but how and when it will happen.



One Response to Too big to fail? Mapping Clay Shirkey’s newspaper metaphor to the aid system

  1. Paul C says:

    I’m preparing to write a few more blog posts to explain exactly what I mean, and why the sector should be worried, but I thought I’d comment here. Get my shots in early, so to speak.

    The current financial crisis, and more recently the expulsion of NGOs from Sudan, has seen the usual laments about how indispensable we are to poor people around the world. This is true only in the sense that we’ve created the situation in which this became possible, and if the lives and livelihoods of poor communities are now in jeopardy as a result, then I would suggest that this is a serious critique of our business-as-usual model.

    This is not an exceptional case – as you note, there are crises across a wide range of sectors, not just the humanitarian. One particular point to bear in mind is that the modern humanitarian industry is very recent – for example, compared to newspaper publishing – and is by no means guaranteed a future. The industry could collapse and people would still find ways to channel their humanitarian impulses – or the industry might not collapse, but I think it will be hollowed out and left as a shell. If I’m right then we need to ask how we can salvage the best parts of what we do.

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