"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


people who need people

If we are to move away from the savior mode into an empowerment paradigm when it comes to assistance to Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, what needs to happen? In today's post, I'm going to think about the foreign aid system as it is and as it could be. As I see it, there are four key sets of players in international development and humanitarian relief: donor governments, recipient governments, aid recipients, and development and humanitarian professionals. For today's post, I'd like to think about the latter two groups. We'll talk about the first two tomorrow.

Who receives aid? I can think of three broad categories of recipients:
  • People who need help and have human capital (that is, skills and abilities developed through education and experience).
  • People who need help and can't use their human capital to make a significant difference in their well being. Here I am thinking of children (although I believe children have great contributions to make to community development, most children cannot reasonably be expected to provide for their basic needs), those dying of incurable diseases, and those who have other physical or mental limitations that make it difficult or impossible to provide for their basic needs.
  • People who need help and have human capital, but are limited by their circumstances. Here I am thinking about refugees (who are usually not allowed to work in the countries in which they have taken refuge), war victims whose livelihoods and opportunities are severely restricted by the conflict, or people who live in places where the educational system is so weak or focused on theory rather than practice that they cannot develop their skills to their full potential.
Acknowledging that there are millions of people on the African continent whose live in conditions unthinkable in the West is important here. I believe strongly that Africa has the capacity to solve many of its own problems. To believe this is not to deny that the huge dilemmas of poverty, disease, conflict, and environmental degradation exist. Because these circumstances produce a high degree of human suffering in the form of early death, displacement, being orphaned, and a myriad of other miserable happenings, I don't subscribe to the view that all aid to Africa should end immediately. Too many people would die for no reason.

That said, though, we cannot behave as though the African continent is full of helpless, uneducated people who don't know what their communities need. I cringe every time I hear a white Westerner claim to be a "voice for the voiceless" in Africa or anywhere else. Nobody is voiceless. It is arrogant and naive to assume that someone who lacks a platform for announcing his or her views, dreams, and needs ipso facto lacks those views, dreams, and needs in the first place.

There will always be a need to help the most vulnerable members of society, like children, the elderly, and those who live with illness. That's true in wealthy industrialized states and it's true in Africa. The disconnect with the savior paradigm is not related to the need; it's related to who is delivering the services and to what ends.

Who provides aid? Again, I can think of three broad categories on the basis of motivation for getting involved:
  • The well-intentioned. These are people who want to help out of a sense of altruism or a desire to save the world.
  • The missionaries. These are people who want to help out of a sense of religious obligation or calling.
  • The adventurers. These are people for whom helping is just a job or an adventure.
(See Scott Gilmore's excellent post on the types of people his organization does not like to hire, some of which overlap with these three.)

Within all of the above-listed categories of recipients and providers, there is one further subdivision:
  • People who know what they are doing when it comes to aid and development work.
  • People who don't.
I think it's important for us to recognize this last point especially. There are people providing aid who are doing an absolutely terrible job (working outside of best practices, providing inappropriate aid, creating dependence, etc.). And there are recipients who are perfectly willing to accept aid (or even ask for it) despite solid evidence that the type of assistance they want is inappropriate. Some people have good intentions, some have mixed motives, and some are just in it for the heck of it. This is true on both sides of the aid dynamic.

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the need to empower rather than save those living in poverty. How do we actually make aid and development assistance work to empower people? Here are a few ideas - please add your own in the comments:
  • Build human capital. This is perhaps the most important thing we can do to help Africans who want to stabilize and develop their countries. As commenter Saira pointed out on yesterday's post, too many programs in high-tech and other key fields at African universities are focused on theory rather than practice. This is not due to a lack of intelligence or desire to learn, but rather to the fact that computers, a reliable internet connection, and the latest software may not be available to be used in training.
  • Capacity building. And by "capacity building," I do not mean, "Host a series of workshops at which 100 participants talk for four days and come out with nothing more than a plan for another series of workshops." If we are serious about building human capital, we have to transfer control of concrete resources to those who are in a position to use them well. It's not enough to train the computer science students to use computers; they also need computers on which to work, and jobs in which computers are available, and an electrical grid that can function long enough to get some work done. Which means there needs to be someone who really knows how to maintain an electrical grid.
  • Take advantage of skills and capacities that already exist. One of my favorite programs in the eastern Congo is Mawe Hai, a program affiliated with the Heal Africa Hospital. Mawe Hai was started by several Congolese who have PhD's in agronomy. They spend their days in a plant nursery, figuring out how to grow food in the rocky volcanic soil outside of Goma where traditional farming methods fail. They then teach what they learn about irrigation, plant varieties, etc. to women who are victims of the violence, thus giving them a way to feed themselves and their children. They in turn spread their knowledge to one another, and pretty soon you've got entire neighborhoods that are well-fed. This is a brilliant example of a simple, local program conceived by members of the community who used their skills to make a difference. Rather than trying out the next big trend in development, perhaps we should focus more on funding people who are already doing this sort of work.
  • Create community ownership. Aid programs should be conceived in the communities they are meant to serve. This does not mean that best practices and solid examples of success elsewhere should not be emulated. It does, however, mean that the reality on the ground should be more important than donor priorities.
  • Engage in dialogue. Linda explains her organization's method of engaging in community dialogue in this wonderful post. If communities are truly allowed to be a part of the planning, implementation, and evaluation process, ownership will develop.
  • Develop skills required to compete in the aid market. There is no reason that Africans should not be writing their own grant applications. Aid funding is a game, and we should be training people in the communities that money is supposed to serve how to compete for it.
  • Hire locally. When educational standards are held high, more and more locals will qualify for jobs that are currently filled by international staff. INGO's should move towards hiring more local than international workers and towards paying local employees competitive salaries.
  • Train aid and development workers to work themselves out of a job. True community ownership of programs should always be the goal. The perpetuation of the aid industry and its presence in a given location should not. If we are serious about empowering Africans to solve the continent's most serious problems through education and capacity building, we need to have a plan for leaving it to the Africans.
  • Convince donors that Africans can manage their own affairs. This will be a tough one, especially in the religious sectors. Like it or not, many donors, big and small, expect that a Westerner will be on site to manage, oversee, and direct the use of funds. I don't know how we do it, but it is absolutely essential to move away from the idea that Africans need foreign overseers.
Does all this mean that there's no role for the altruists who genuinely want to help? I don't think so. It's going to take time to build up capacity, and there's a need for sharing knowledge and expertise along the way. Remember, though, that if our goal is really to empower Africans, there must come a time that we outsiders exit the stage. We have to keep reminding ourselves: Africa is not ours to save.

Of course, there's still the problem of donor and recipient governments, who may or may not be interested in aiding, empowering, or even helping aid recipients. We'll discuss that tomorrow. For now, what do you think are good ways to shift the paradigm?


Anonymous Matt said...

"Develop skills required to compete in the aid market."

I'd be a little more cautious about this one. Ideally, aid should be as non-distortive as possible, supporting things that should be going on anyway. In reality, recipients (mostly governments) end up chasing after aid with policy, not the other way around.

This can be *extremely* time consuming and can crowd out activities that would be a lot more productive (like planning what you would do with the aid).

Given the enormous opportunity cost to participating in "the aid game" - I'd rather have communities (and governments), worry more about where they want to go, rather than being teased around by the marginal aid dollar.

Thursday, May 06, 2010 4:08:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Good point. I would, too. But I'm working off the assumption that donor priorities are unlikely to change (more on that tomorrow) and that the system is so entrenched that the only way to get cash is to participate in it.

Thursday, May 06, 2010 7:29:00 AM

Blogger James and Kristie said...

Hey TIA, always enjoy your posts, and I may have missed it, but have you interacted at all with Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid", especially its claims that bilateral/multilateral aid is one of the primary causes (she may say THE cause) for sub-Saharan Africa's lack of economic development since independence?

Boomer Sooner,


Thursday, May 06, 2010 8:21:00 AM

Blogger Shona said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, May 06, 2010 8:25:00 AM

Blogger Alex Engwete said...

Wow, Texas in Africa, this is a brilliant handbook of best practices in development. And I don’t really have anything much to add to it, except these 3 comments:

1) “Nobody is voiceless.” My daughter Elikia, who was born and grew up in America, is my personal advisor on matters relating to Americana and pop culture. She recently told me about the trope of “Black Best Friend” (BBF) now prevalent in American movies and television: to show the roundedness of a white character (or to pay lip service to political-correctness), scripts assign to her a black sidekick… Well, Africans will need for a long time to come their own “White Best Friends” to mobilize moneyed constituencies in the West—especially in America. So my attitude is: If Ben Affleck wants to go to Goma or set up an NGO, God help him!

2) I think that in Scott Gilmore’s typology, the missionaries castigated are those who freelance outside the “charisma” of their religious aid groups. Missionaries are doing a terrific job in the DRC. They brought to the attention of the world the staggering death toll of the senseless strife while governments were indifferent. In the DRC where the state has given up its functionalities, missions have stepped in to fill the vacuum. Before the proliferation of Western Union offices in the DRC, and with the death of the postal service in the country, Congolese relied on Catholic missions to transfer remittances to their relatives in remote areas of the hinterland—free of charge.

3) “Aid programs should be conceived in the communities they are meant to serve.” A while back, the Belgian cooperation in Kinshasa commissioned from the Congolese graphic novelist Barly Baruti a graphic novel on how to set up and operate a fish farming unit. Baruti, a friend of mine, then hired me to write the script. When the graphic novel, entitled “Aube nouvelle à Mobo” [New Dawn in Mobo], came out, I was dumbfounded by the flak I got from my Belgian friends—mostly those in academia. They blamed me for having a Belgian cooperation character storm into the village of Mobo to introduce the novel technology of fish farming! They all operated on the assumption that conceptions of development programs would somehow pop up in the village—as if by spontaneous generation. It’s for example a myth to think that people in a village in the Congo Basin would necessarily have, embedded in their culture, the notion of biodiversity conservation and preservation… BTW, maybe I missed your point…

Thursday, May 06, 2010 12:35:00 PM

Blogger Shona said...

You say that there are...
* People who know what they are doing when it comes to aid and development work.
* People who don't.

While I agree with much of what you said, this particular point strikes me as extremely dangerous. It invites us to put ourselves in one of those two boxes and that is problematic on both sides.

Yes, there are many people throwing themselves into development work/advocacy/social entrepreneurship who seem to have both no knowledge and no interest in best practices in the development field and this is problematic. Sometimes it seems they wear their lack of knowledge as a badge of honor, as though it is the sign that they are on the cutting edge of something new.

But I find equally concerning, the idea that others of us can say so confidently that we do know what we are doing in development. As you said, so much of a good program relies on authentic knowledge of the needs, obstacles and strengths on the ground, and these not only change from one region to another, but they change from year to year and day to day. Working in a country that is not our own, in a culture that is not our own, should give us pause and humble us,no matter how much we think we know about development or about life on the ground there. We never know enough.

We ought not divide ourselves into two categories...those who know what they are doing in development and those who don't.

We exist on a continuum of knowing what we are doing, and that depends not only on how much we know about development but how much we understand about life on the ground and that is ever changing.

Unfortunately it is the very believing that we know what we are doing that can sometimes hinder us the most.

Thursday, May 06, 2010 2:56:00 PM


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