Mar(k): Travel, Hiking, and "Doing Good"

musings on our life of travel and volunteering

08 August 2010

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Keeping It Simple

(to be published in the August 2010 edition of the Advocate)

Sometimes the simplest answers are the best ones.  Recently a group of children in the U.S. were asked how “we” could best help the poor in developing countries.  The answer?  Well, hold onto your hats.  The children replied, “give them money”.  Wow.  Why didn’t we think of that?!

The machine that is “development aid” is a big one.  There are a plethora of elaborate programs in place – to help the poor, the disadvantaged, women, children, people with disabilities, and the list goes on.  But really, so often the programs that “the North” (ie: developed countries) come up with to “help”, are really not effective.  Lots of donors, quite understandably, want their photo shot at a ribbon cutting ceremony for their shiny new “project”, whether that be a new well, a water tank, a building, or whatever other project is being offered.  But the reality is that the long term follow up is often not there.  Wells break down, need maintenance, require upkeep.  For communities who are struggling to feed themselves, it simply isn’t reasonable to expect them to somehow miraculously come up with funds to maintain a foreign machine or piece of equipment.  But by then, the well meaning NGO has moved onto its next shiny, new project.  And so the well breaks down, the building deteriorates, the water tank rusts.

Sometimes a well meaning NGO might go to the community to provide “training”.  This might include lectures on the importance of seeking medical help at the local clinic, or the importance of sending children to school.  But these community members are not stupid; they KNOW that these things need to happen.  The issue is that they simply do not have the funds to pay for medical treatment, or to pay for school fees, exercise books, or uniforms.  That is where a program of giving small amounts of money on a regular basis to specifically targeted groups of disadvantaged people can make such a difference.

These are called cash transfer programs – giving out small sums of cash to specifically targeted groups of people (in the developed countries it is called social welfare). There are opportunities for monitoring, specific outcomes that can be measured, and most importantly of all – it puts the control over what to spend the money on in the hands of the people who should know best what their needs are.  It is empowering.  An additional benefit is that by giving poor people money to spend, experience has shown that this has actually contributed to growing the local economies.  No surprise, if people have money, they will spend it!  And for the poor, this means creating jobs and opportunities within their communities.  So the spiral out of poverty is begun.

Will there be opportunistic “money grabbers” who will squander the money away?  Probably – yes.  But experience has shown in countries like Brazil, Namibia and India that the benefits are great.  In general, the people use the money wisely and do not waste it. The amount of money that is not well spent is nowhere near the amount that gets frittered away by corrupt NGO workers, or government officials managing traditional aid / donor programs.

One of the ways that NGOs can help in this process, which has been government driven in the examples that have worked in these above mentioned countries, is in the building of capacity such that the programs can be monitored, evaluated, and ensure that the funds really do get to the right people on a regular basis.  The simplicity of this is striking and  it works!

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Written by Mar(k)

August 12, 2010 at 3:39 pm

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