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.
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.
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.
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.
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?