the ethics of aid
American Public Media's Speaking of Faith program just started a series on the ethics of foreign aid. For the first segment, they spent an hour talking to Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. It's well worth your time to download the podcast. He covers everything from why "guilt money" (the dollar you give to a charity after seeing a picture of a starving child) is problematic to Kenya's post-election violence to the growth in banking services for the poor. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the role of local institutions in providing services (emphasis mine):
"And what is amazing is just how much good work is often done by the churches … you know, to this day. Some of the most interesting projects I've seen, the Catholic Church networks, et cetera, really do exceptional work, the Muslims as well, in a certain way, because you have a very long relationship with people and you understand their value. ...And they do the things themselves. So when we had a drought in '84, the Catholic Church decided to do these water projects. They brought technology. You know, the valley water has a lot of fluoride, and the project for the Catholic Church did provide water, get the community participating in paying money, you know, the relationship of the priest with his parishioners, quite often doing projects even in places where people are not necessarily Catholics. It's just very much on the ground. It's very sensible. It's very cost effective and it's very natural and it's part of our lives. It's not the sort of dizzying thing that arrives and departs...with somebody else. So even though I'm not a practicing person of the churches, those are things that I really actually do appreciate, you know, quite a lot."So much of the debate over international aid ignores these extremely local initiatives, which, as Wainaina notes, work because they are part of their communities already. They can change norms of behavior because they fully understand and can communicate within the culture. Their solutions last. While many local NGO's are anything but altruistic (or capable), local faith institutions seem to have an advantage over many international agencies when it comes to providing simple, cheap, sustainable, and relevant solutions to development problems.
Listen to the entire program or read the transcript.