When ‘inefficient’ is actually ‘efficient’

by | Jul 2, 2020 | Change, Ideas |

When we lived in London we needed a utility company to send an engineer to fix something in our flat. The engineer would come in three weeks I was told. Then, the customer service representative on the call told me that if we were not in when engineer arrived, we’d be charged £100. So I rearranged a few meetings so I could be in our flat during the 1-6pm window of time the engineer was to come.

The time came and window. No engineer. No phone call, email, or anything. So I called the company. “Oh yes, I can see hear on your file that we were able to fix the problem remotely 2 weeks ago.” I tried to remain calm and polite asking why they did not communicate this to us and I also asked for £100 in compensation for the engineer not showing up. “But we fixed your problem” was the response. “Perhaps you did, but you did not communicate it to me and your engineer did not show up. If you would charge me for not being home, it’s only fair that I charge you for not showing up.”

Over the years, this has been a common frustration we’ve experienced with companies here in the UK. Occasionally, companies get our perspective and pay us. Those are the companies that communicate better and their engineers tend to show up. In return, we tend to be loyal to them.

However, I realise we do this regularly to aid recipients. We think of and measure efficiency from our perspective. We measure and account for staff time in our efficiency calculation, but not the time of the recipient. While, we consider how long it takes to register an aid recipient (6 minutes), but we don’t factor in how long the recipient needs to wait around or stand in line to have the 6 minute interaction.

It is like their time doesn’t matter. We don’t think about the ‘opportunity cost’ for them. Weirdly, we talk about community resilience or wanting to help the community ‘bounce back’ or build back better. And in these aspirations we talk of helping people work again – in their fields, shops, and so on. But then, we take people away from these jobs and this work so they can stand in line to be registered in an efficient way for us.

Going ‘door to door’ or ‘field to field’ would take us a lot more time. It would be considered inefficient in comparison to bringing everyone to one central location where registration and distributions can occur. However, if helping get communities ‘running again’ after a disaster or ‘improving local economies’ is our goal. Then perhaps, going field to field becomes the most efficient way because it takes the least amount of time for the recipient.

Even though aid will never achieve its aspirational principles, we can do a lot more to improve how it helps the people we seek to serve. Just like some companies do serve their customers and consider the impact on they have on our lives, so we, as aid agencies, can too.

The choice is up to us.

Photo by Rajesh Ram


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