Getting closer to the client

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Map One common complaint lodged against aid organizations is that they are too distant from local contexts. Staff housed in distant headquarters in the capitals of rich countries are not able to gain detailed knowledge of complex local social and political circumstances, and so deliver 'cookie-cutter' solutions that don't serve the recipients of aid very well. But there is at least a partial solution to this: get closer to the client.

Let's say -- just for theory's sake -- that you are a senior manager within a large, complex aid organization with its headquarters in an OECD country capital. Let's also say -- again, just for the sake of theory -- that you have to figure out a way to decentralize the organization to get staff closer to clients. Your organization serves countries in all regions of the world and at many income levels across multiple sectors.  

One potential model is to pick three or four "global hubs" to help bridge the distance between the organization's headquarters and its country-level presence. So, which cities do you pick?

But before you decide on your list of cities, remember that you've got a lot of tricky issues to consider:

  • Although your staff are highly dedicated to their work, they are still human beings and not a perfect model of homo economicus. Many are raising families, so they can't simply be moved around like cogs in a machine. They will also be looking for a modicum of stability, decent living standards, etc.
  • On top of this, you have to consider both the staff you have and the staff you will recruit in the future. It may be tough to get current staff to move out of headquarters, but you may be able to recuit highly talented new staff depending on the location of these hubs. 
  • You need to pick cities that are geographically diverse, which probably means one hub per region.
  • The cities will have to be in countries that are reasonably politically stable since the costs of relocation/closure of the office at short notice would be prohibitive. 
  • The structure of the world economy is changing, although in ways that are quite unpredictable. You need to choose cities that will maximize the chances that you are close not only to your current clients but also to the countries where you will be doing much of your work in the medium and long term. 
  • It would be helpful -- although perhaps not essential -- if the denizens of the city spoke a major world language.

I am sure there are other criteria that I haven't listed, but these strike me as the most important. If I had to make a choice, I might go with (1) Singapore; (2) Johannesburg; and (3) Istanbul. I would add Brasilia to the list if I also wanted a South American city. But I am curious what cities readers might pick, and for what reasons.

(Photo credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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