Hippos and Helplines: Unintended consequences and diminishing returns

“The more you provide services for things that people can do for themselves, the more you diminish social capital.”

We have always been taught that helping is always a good thing. But sometimes helping hurts; it can be harmful, not just to individuals, but, to entire communities. Recently a colleague of mine who works with a number of projects that Nurture Development is involved with in East Africa gave me this example:

A fishing village, on completion of an economic and environmental gap analysis conducted by a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), were alerted to the fact that they were almost exclusively dependent on fish as a staple diet and as a source of income. The NGO ran a number of capacity building sessions to help the villagers unpack the inherent dangers of this situation in the long-term, and to make the case for the introduction of more diverse revenue streams, not to mention more diverse sources of food.

Sold on the idea, the villagers asked the NGO what they should do. The NGO, in an effort to be helpful, told them – and the Villagers listened. The NGO had built up a degree of trust by a previously successful schools project that had seen school attendance become the new norm for their children – literally shifting the situation from no school attendance to full attendance.

It was agreed that the NGO would ‘enable’ villagers to farm arable land within and around their village. In an effort to ensure sustainability at the end of each crop cycle the villagers would receive a seed match for the seeds they themselves sourced/generated. Additionally they were offered micro-grants for enterprise development which were tied to crop yield. These grants were highly sought after.

The village people continued to fish as much as they ever did and when time permitted they tended to their crops, though the burden for the most part fell to the women. Strangely though, at the same time as the crop yields were increasing, school attendance was decreasing. Why? Because of the Hippos of course!

While the fishermen were at sea and the women were tending to their young and the crops, the Hippos were busy eating the produce!

The villagers weighed up the costs of the new opportunities suggested by the NGO. Firstly, when calculating the loss of a good days catch against the potential yield of their farming endeavours they were unconvinced of the value of hanging up their nets in exchange for forks and spades. Secondly, they wanted the aid, especially the micro grants. So they compared the cost of taking their children out of school to keep the Hippos away from their crops against losing out on the benefits of the ‘sustainable growing initiative’. School no longer seemed as important and the messages that were so well received during all the awareness raising campaigns to encourage parents to send their children to school now appeared to them unconvincing and a bit top-down: ‘Outsiders priorities, who are they to tell us what to do for our children?’

It took over a year for the NGO to spot the correlation, since by then they had stopped evaluating the schools programme – after all it was a roaring success – they had exceeded their targets. Culture change had been achieved. Instead, the NGO was busy measuring the impacts of their ‘sustainable growing initiative’. And the figures were showing the programme to be back on track, in fact showing it to be a roaring success. The programme was hitting its targets, but, missing the point. The programme hit its target because the children’s education was hit by the Hippos.

Once the NGO introduced a ‘product’, (when they told the community what they should do), and then designed a programme around their (NGO’s) solution – and then incentivised, (or ‘nudged’), the villagers to implement it then the wheels of unsustainable actions had been set in motion. By then the die was cast, the NGO had crossed the Rubicon and the law of unintended consequences had kicked in.

“When Change is done to people they experience it as violence. When change is done by people they experience as liberation.” (Elizabeth Moss Kanter)

That explains the references to ‘Hippos’ in the title; now for the ‘Help-lines’.

Some time ago in a community very far from the village mentioned above, a woman spoke to me about her concerns about the number of older people living alone and frightened on her street, she was passionate in her belief that they had a huge amount to offer and that it was fear that was acting as barrier to them making a contribution to community life. She was ready to act, had a clear handle on the issues, which revolved around perceived rather than actual danger and crime and loneliness.

She was sure that she could easily encourage her neighbours to become involved and that they could include older people in a reciprocal way. I was on cloud nine!

The following week when I spoke to her again, her mood had changed dramatically. She was nervous, negative about her own ideas, and resistant to further conversation with me and a ‘connector’ who was with me – a neighbour of hers. However, it didn’t take long to bring to the surface the issues behind the change; she told us that a Project Manager, who ran a Development programme for Older people offering a range of supports, including a ‘helpline’ for older people, whom she had contacted to discuss her idea had ‘scared her off’ – (her words, not mine). One of her ideas, by the way, was to circulate mobile numbers to ensure everyone on her street has at least five people to call on. Further, she intended to do this in a way that involved neighbours getting to know each other so that older people weren’t treated as solely needy, or as she put it ‘charity cases’. As said, she wanted to create a framework for reciprocal relationship at street level.

Apparently the person who ran the helpline had objected to her proposal as follows:

  1. We’re struggling to find funding for our Project as it is, if you do for free what we’ve fought for years to get funding to do, you will play right into the cuts agenda, destroy our service, and then 1000s of older people will suffer; our staff will lose their jobs, all because you want to help a handful of people on your street;
  2. Helping people is complex, especially as they get older, it includes issues of safeguarding for you and them, as well as boundary issues. What happens, she asked, if ‘something goes missing’ and you’re blamed?


She finished with these words: “look, you seem like a nice lady, and I’m sure you mean no harm, but we’ve been doing this a long time, we know how to handle these kinds of issues, why not get your neighbours to call us, in fact why don’t you give them one of our fridge magnets with our number on it, I’ll send you some. And maybe you could volunteer with us? It sounds like you’re looking to make a difference in some way.”

The woman in the community recited this word for word.

I then asked her how this had made her feel. “Overwhelmed”, was her reply.

This scenario is all too familiar. While ‘professionalization of civic space’ is perhaps too high a charge to make it certainly exemplifies an encroachment by services/professionals into citizen space. My intention here in citing this example is in no way intended as a criticism of the Older person’s ‘helpline’ in question, anymore than my previous example critiqued the behaviour of Hippos. But, when institutions do for citizens what citizens are best placed to do for themselves they inadvertently diminish social capital. When they block citizens exercising their citizenship they are setting in train a set of circumstances which instead of growing community hospitality and safety for all, including older people, they are simply growing their client base.

I have met many second tier organisations that are actually measured by the number of clients to whom they provide services. Very few are measured by the extent to which they grow community. This challenge to change is made, therefore, not just to practitioners. It is a matter in need of attention by our leadership and policy makers.

If we are to address issues like loneliness or living well with dementia then the bottom line is that we need strong and connected communities. If we grow client base at the expense of social capital we will follow the law of diminishing returns – ultimately, the more money we invest directly into the service and medical model, the less return we will see.

So what can we learn from Hippos and Helplines?

I think they are teaching us that we need to invent a different way of helping, a way that builds community, not individual dependencies and client base.

David Ellerman, in his piece on ‘Helping People Help Themselves: Towards an Autonomy-Compatible Help‘, offers the following principles as a starting point (in his framework “helpers” are those trying to provide autonomy-compatible assistance to a certain set of “doers”, doers are citizens, not passive receivers of services):

  • help must start from the present situation of the doers—not from a “blank slate”,
  • helpers must see the situation through the eyes of the doers—not just through their own eyes,
  • help cannot be imposed upon the doers—as that directly violates their autonomy,
  • nor can doers receive help as a benevolent gift—as that creates dependency, and
  • doers must be “in the driver’s seat”—which is the basic idea of autonomous self-direction.

The consistent use of these five principles of ‘helping’ would dramatically change the shape of policy and practice and the ways in which community housing, social care and health and wellbeing are commissioned and delivered.

This is the radical call to action that underpins Asset Based Community Development as developed by the ABCD Institute and promoted by Nurture Development.

Cormac Russell


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  • This reminds me of a project where a NGO identified a community had significant health problems related to nutritional deficiencies – they came up with a plan – supplied a couple of goats – when they had kids they were passed on until each family had a goat – except many of the families sold their goats to pay for their children’s schooling…..the NGO could have done with David Ellerman’s book!

    August 30, 2013 at 8:33 am
  • This reminds me of a local NGO which “delivered” timebanking on behalf of a national NGO which required the local NGO to measure the number of people in the timebank and how may hours they exchanged in order to secure funding for the local paid time bank co-ordinator. They are still asking, ‘Why is everybody leaving OUR time bank?

    November 25, 2014 at 1:24 pm
  • Peter Roberts

    Hmmm. If they were using Timebanking UK’s current software, that sort of metadata is recorded automatically – which, by the way, allows co-ordinators to concentrate on community-weaving and capacity building.

    November 30, 2014 at 11:49 am

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