Don’t Try This Abroad

By Dave Algoso

Many globally minded, can-do Americans these days have come to believe that the world’s major problems have solutions, and that these solutions are within reach. This feeling often leads to frustration: Why doesn’t someone just do something about these problems? Are the NGOs and foreign aid agencies lazy, incompetent, or both? Why can’t we end poverty?

Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about people who have taken matters into their own hands. The piece, Nicholas Kristof’s “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution: The rise of the fix-the-world-on-your-own generation” offered several aren’t-they-inspiring stories about Americans who have run off to save poor people in developing countries from whatever afflicts them. A woman from Oregon begins fundraising for community work in eastern Congo, and later shifts her attentions to conflict minerals. A recent high school graduate from New Jersey uses her babysitting money to start an orphanage and school in rural Nepal. You get the idea.

The stories sound lovely. I admit to feeling a little warm and fuzzy inside reading them. After all, this is what drives me to do development work: to make the world just a little better. (I study international development at New York University.) We all want to tell ourselves the story about fighting through hardship — each of these women made personal sacrifices for their work — to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, such stories don’t reflect reality. Spend a little time in any community in the world, and you’ll see people from that community finding ways to improve it — not outsiders. Working in eastern Uganda last summer, I found well-organized community groups who weren’t waiting for any outsider’s help. I worked with an NGO that conducted business and financial skills education in rural villages, and our best trainers were Ugandans from those very villages.

Yet these sort of people — local community members helping their neighbors and themselves — are absent from Kristof’s stories. Instead, he gives the reader an American heroine (his stories are mostly about women) who comes to save the day. Local individuals exist as needy targets of the protagonist’s benevolence. If they act on their own behalf or the behalf of their community, it’s only after the American has prompted them to do so. Developing country governments and domestic civil society are barely mentioned. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who blogs at Good Intentions are Not Enough, has dubbed this the “Whites in Shining Armor” storyline: Americans and other outsiders are uniquely positioned to bring change to a community, as if we are saviors come to deliver them from poverty.

Such implicit arrogance aside, a more fundamental problem is that Kristof’s narratives make development seem simple. In his stories, the hero sees a problem and fixes it. Women are suffering from war and rape in Congo? Raise some money, build some homes, and regulate conflict minerals. Lack of affordable sanitary pads keeps women from work and girls out of school? Develop a cheaper pad. Orphaned children in Nepal? Build an orphanage. He even implies that the established foreign aid organizations “look the other way” when it comes to these problems. How could they miss such obvious opportunities for improving lives?

What Kristof misses is that even seemingly obvious solutions are more complicated than they appear. Development means change, and change is always complicated — and often political. Change is also political. Being an outsider supporting development in a community raises difficult questions with both moral and strategic dimensions.

Here’s one critical question: How can we ensure that the work actually serves the best interests of the beneficiaries, when the funding comes from the other side of the globe? A community’s needs may be too complex for foreign staff and volunteers to understand, and too nuanced for a fundraising pitch. Outsiders in the community may see homeless children and relay the need for an orphanage to donors. With a few pictures to tug at heartstrings, the money starts flowing in. However, those children might be better off living with members of their extended families, and the same resources that built the orphanage would be better spent providing support to make this happen. Unfortunately, that work requires a deeper understanding of the community and a more complicated fundraising message.

Another question that’s often overlooked: What impact do outside money and volunteers have on the local economy, political structures, and culture? Adding a wealthy outside investor can skew incentives in unexpected ways. Local businesses lose market opportunities when NGOs give donated goods away, for example. Similarly, local officials face less pressure to provide public services or cultivate a sustainable tax base when donors fund schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure. And since it is outsiders — not the government — providing those services, citizens have no means to hold them accountable for quality. Political and economic changes can also have unintended cultural impacts. For example, an agricultural project dividing communal land into private farming plots can weaken social ties. Even programs with intended cultural impacts have unpredictable repercussions in all spheres.

The world of aid has spent the last 50 years grappling with these questions. The development industry is by no means perfect, but it has made progress and learned valuable lessons. The lessons are often ignored by newcomers, and the same mistakes are made over and over again. Kristof nods toward this fact while breezing past it. He focuses on the passion and indignation of his heroines while downplaying their technical abilities.

I have nothing against the individuals described in Kristof’s article. The concerns I expressed above apply to all development organizations — they just happen to be especially relevant to small and new ones. Admittedly, every organization starts small and new. Muhammad Yunus spent decades developing the Grameen Bank model before winning the Nobel Prize. Paul Farmer delivered health services to rural Haitian communities for years before Partners in Health became a world-renowned organization. There have been books written about entrepreneurs like Yunus and Farmer, and the years they have spent understanding the communities they work in, refining their work, and building their organizations.

But other initiatives fail, and sometimes they draw massive support away from worthier projects before that happens. A recent high-profile example is the PlayPump, a merry-go-round that would let village children pump clean water as they play. An initiative to install PlayPumps across Africa received millions of dollars from the U.S. government and other donors — until the high cost of the pumps, their potential to break down, and their basic inefficiency led to a drop in support. PlayPump’s backers were lured by the mirage of a quick technical fix to a seemingly simple problem. But providing clean water was harder than it looked.

Yet Kristof’s headline is: Do it yourself. Bring the same attitude you would have toward re-painting the living room or installing a new faucet. After all, how hard can it be? The developing world is like your buddy’s garage. Why not just pop in, figure things out, and start hammering away?

But in this field, amateurs don’t just hurt themselves. A project that misunderstands the community or mismanages that crucial relationship can undermine local leaders, ultimately doing harm to the very people it was meant to help. There are also opportunity costs when funding could have been used better. Every dollar spent on PlayPumps or an unnecessary orphanage could be spent on other, better interventions in the same communities. My advice is to hire a professional. And if you want to do this work yourself, become a professional.

Despite all my complaints, I think Kristof’s article does some good if it convinces more people to pursue international development as a career. We all start as amateurs. The difference is whether we seek to learn more or assume that we can just start doing something, muddling through as we go. The “DIY foreign aid” concept might spur a few people to launch ill-advised ventures that eat up scarce resources and get in the way of better efforts, but it might also convince a few others to read a couple books, go to graduate school, get jobs with professional aid organizations, and spend their whole careers making a real impact.

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