Development work should start at home, says Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe

Thomas Tighe, the president and CEO of Direct Relief, in New York City.  Photo: Amy Lieberman

NEW YORK — The development community should seek to bridge the divide between relief work in developed and developing countries, the CEO of Direct Relief has said — and dropping the jargon that can often drive development work is a good place to start.

Speaking to Devex during an interview in New York, Thomas Tighe, the CEO and president of the international humanitarian aid nonprofit, said: “I don’t see much difference between international development and what we call social support spending in the United States.” In both cases, “You are trying to mobilize resources and put them exactly in the place where people need help,” he said, adding that both sectors are experiencing a squeeze on resources.

Direct Relief is unusual in that it offers the same kind of emergency medical response “irrespective of place,” whether it be in northern California in the United States during the recent wildfires that have displaced approximately 100,000 people, or in West Africa following the deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Tighe — who served as chief of staff and chief operating officer of the Peace Corps before joining Direct Relief in 2000 — believes that operating in the U.S., where the national poverty rate hovers at about 14 percent, gives the organization an edge when it comes to engaging with local partners and communities elsewhere.

 “The U.S. is a very wealthy country, but we clearly have a lot of gaps, and there is a role for what internationally would be called development assistance but here in the U.S. would be called social support services.”

— Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe

“I like the fact that Direct Relief does the same thing in its own country,” he said. “When we go internationally it is very reassuring to people to see that, ‘No, this is not patronizing, this is not some foreign expert; we do this in our own country, where there are a lot of gaps and there is poverty and people need help,’” he added. “The U.S. is a very wealthy country, but we clearly have a lot of gaps, and there is a role for what internationally would be called development assistance but here in the U.S. would be called social support services.”

Direct Relief provided $124.7 million worth of medications, vaccinations, and supplies last fiscal year to community health centers and clinics in all 50 U.S. states, in addition to the $635.6 million it gave to support health programs in 81 other countries. It also gave $4.4 million to partner organizations. The California-based nonprofit has also worked with a host of high-profile private sector partners, including Facebook, PayPal, and FedEx.

Tighe believes that the bridging of development and social services work is yet to catch on among his peers. But he said that for Direct Relief it helps to “clarify the issues,” offering the hypothetical example of a foreign aid worker who did not speak English arriving in California following the wildfires.

“I am not sure we would want in people in California who had not been there before, or were not licensed to provide health services, who would swarm in and say, ‘We are experts here to help,’” he said. “If you look at it through that lens, you can see some of the absurdity of some of the traditions of international development actors who have never worked in your country before, don’t speak your language, but say, ‘I am here to tell you what to do with a gazillion dollars.’”

“So much of the focus on international development has been to build capacity in developing countries and the trick now is to tap it, support it, respect it, and it doesn’t need to be led as much as supported.”

— Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe

“People are really smart, and they have grown up doing a lot of this work. But so much of the focus on international development has been to build capacity in developing countries and the trick now is to tap it, support it, respect it, and it doesn’t need to be led as much as supported these days.”

Through its work in the U.S., Tighe said, Direct Relief has learned that the nearly 170 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals can easily translate to developed countries, fulfilling the promise of the global SDG framework. But the terminology itself can sometimes get in the way, he said.

“I’m not sure community health centers in the United States track the SDGs, like the international development [community] does, but they would certainly understand its importance intuitively. For us it is one of the false dichotomies,” Tighe said.

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president last year has pushed Direct Relief, like many other aid and relief organizations, to consider the anticipated contraction of international development and foreign assistance spending. In Direct Relief’s case, it has also monitored the anticipated contraction of social assistance spending within the U.S.

“It pushes us to say, ‘What private resources can be mobilized [to support this need], and how do you target them?’” he explained. “We see kind of a contraction of government in general, whether it is international institutions like the United Nations, or the U.S. Agency for International Development. So how do you tackle these problems differently with new partnerships, different funding sources, and also in a way that costs less?”

Dropping potentially exclusionary terminology and jargon can help bring new partners to the table, Tighe suggested, including social support services and the private sector.

“If you can recite the SDGs you can have legitimacy within the international development circles. But there are a lot of very smart people who are involved in public health and development activities everywhere who might not know those terms but really know the substance of what is underneath them, and you want their involvement,” he explained.

As a result, the industry should resist the urge to “mystify the simple with big words.”

“Almost any industry does it. But really good lawyers simplify the complex and make it accessible to people and I think that is something we can all aspire to do, because you want more involvement in these issues. NGOs and development agencies don’t have a monopoly on righteousness or insight. I think kind of getting over ourselves and thinking we do is a very helpful recognition,” he said.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.