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#203 Spoiling the Proverbial Soup

February 15, 2013


Submitted by @loudmind who blogs at The Lightning Words

A good chef knows if they stick to the basics, it doesn’t take a lot of ingredients to make a delicious soup. They also know that, sometimes, another chef might suggest one small dash or pinch of something to make the soup even better.

But if that proverbial kitchen were run by an international relief and development organization, there would be 47 expat aid workers huddled around the pot and a dozen people from headquarters on the phone. And what was once a simple but wonderful soup would begin to go hideously awry.

Someone would insist that it be strictly organic. Another would mandate it be vegan. A third would demand that all ingredients be fair trade. The next would ask if it all came from a female-owned cooperative. Still another would want to make sure, in fairness to a variety of ethnic groups, that the ingredients were sourced from different countries of origin.

During the entire soup-making process, from chopping to sautéing to simmering, several subject matter experts would offer capacity building. Working groups would form to discuss whether vegetables should be diced or Julienned. An emergency team would hover close by just in case of cuts or scalds.

And then, just as the soup was about to be triumphantly ladled into a bowl, a monitoring and evaluation advisor would proclaim that, since there had been no baseline survey of how the water for the broth tasted when it was put on to boil, there would be no way to determine its impact once it reached the table. So the soup is thrown out and it all starts over again.

By that time, the customer who ordered the soup has left the restaurant and gone for a cheeseburger at the beer joint across the street. But, sure enough, another customer enters the restaurant, sits down, browses the menu and orders the soup. When it’s finally done and served, the customer raises the spoon to his mouth, takes a sip and spits it back in the bowl. “That’s terrible,” he says, wiping his mouth with a napkin crafted from hand-spun organic cotton. “It sounded so appetizing on the menu, too.”

The problem? Too many cooks in the kitchen, of course. In EAWs choose to call it “collaborative problem solving” or “consensus building.” But there’s a real-world term for that: fucking things up.

EAWs – hell, international relief and development workers – excel at overanalyzing, over-planning and over-reporting everything. And just like you can’t take too much salt out of a dish you’ve prepared, you can’t take overcomplicated out of a project.

In any kitchen, there are utensils. In any organization, there are toolkits. But the EAW toolkits aren’t something you can hold in your hands and use to, say, create something tangible. EAW toolkits are conceptual things that are squirreled away in highfalutin white papers, or on easily-forgotten websites, or up in some EAW brain somewhere.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing, for once, to actually hand an honest-to-goodness toolkit to someone? Maybe even a kitchen set – a water jug, pans, knives and a soup pot.

And then maybe EAWs could restrain themselves from hovering, get the hell out of the kitchen, and just see how everything cooks up.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2013 7:56 am

    Of course there always has to be one person who gets serious and spoils the long-running joke … barely disguised behind a soup-making analogy this is simply a factual report on why the work of responding to human need is strangled by the people and organisations entrusted with the task. This is not funny at all, it’s serious, a little light satire is fine but let’s not have any wake-up calls – no more posts like this please;

    • February 15, 2013 11:42 pm

      Thanks for commenting. While I certainly meant this to be more sarcastic than critical, I can see how it hits home; there’s a bit of us all in there. As a writer for NGOs, I could see myself in there doing human interest stories about the cooks while my documentary photographer friends take pictures of hands at work. I definitely don’t mean to be a downer; I’ll I’m saying is we can strive for more simplicity. I think we get caught up in our heads and in one-upsmanship when we should just be trying to make it as easy for our clients as possible (while still smart and sustainable). Thanks again for your comment – and let’s all remember simple (albeit more complicated than my suggestion) can be beautiful as well as effective.

  2. Dis-affecto permalink
    February 15, 2013 11:01 am


  3. February 15, 2013 2:00 pm

    Wow! I’ve been running into a lot of “overanalyzing, over-planning and over-reporting everything”. I’ve seen this in religious circles and in academic circles, but not in business. It seems that when ideology is high on the priority list, practical things start to drop. When you make soup, the impact is potentially infinite. In reality, the impact is the taste. Well done!

    • February 15, 2013 11:45 pm

      Thank you for your kind comment – and I agree, we trade practicality for high concept too often. The smartest development I’ve seen (mostly in the NGOs I’ve been part of) sometimes seems too simple to be true, but then it succeeds beyond anyone’s hope and keeps on going. It has to be easy enough for everyone to understand and the change needs to be immediate enough to encourage the work that needs doing. Thanks again.

    • Eric Jakob permalink
      March 30, 2018 12:53 am

      Loving language, Though you may not see this from the business sector, its ironic that over analysis comes from the business element of humanitarian work—donations (or what enterprise would term revenues), reporting and reinvestment. If we want the funds to keep flowing, the techniques must (appear to) be honed to (appear to) offer the best bang for the buck.

  4. February 15, 2013 10:45 pm

    Sad, but true – pretty good analogy.

  5. February 16, 2013 8:50 am

    Roger, thanks for your – it was a pretty perfect analogy, far superior to the somewhat confused irony in my response. I will share your soup recipe with some friends who may benefit from pause for thought. :-)

  6. Natasha permalink
    February 16, 2013 12:37 pm

    Love the analogy, just what I was thinking during the last workshop where thankfully we all agreed the solution was not another working group.

  7. Hellen permalink
    February 17, 2013 3:02 pm

    Am wondering what hindered the chef to keep everyone focused on the instructions and ingredients –

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