March 2, 2021
Over the past 12 years working in nonprofit and private sector international aid, spending quite a bit of time embedded in benefiting communities, my teams and I have developed a thorough protocol for how we approach our work and relate to our beneficiaries.
When I began traveling into rural, developing regions, I quickly got a sense that a lot of the charity work I came across was just “off” in some way. Some of the (well-meaning) people doing the work were celebrating the wrong things, and there were nonfunctioning projects everywhere — more than there were functioning projects.
I lacked the maturity and self-awareness to identify that discomfort at the time, but I’ve since been able to clarify these issues — with the help and support of many aid beneficiaries and sector colleagues.
We all mean well when choosing to support an international organization, and we can all be better philanthropists with a little extra information and context for our giving choices.
Do understand the results over time.
One of the most frustrating parts about working in international aid is the overall lack of focus on results over time. We have created a false notion that once the building, the well or the garden is built, the project is a success. I’ve been beating this drum for years, and I’m not alone.
Infrastructure is only one piece of the solution. It’s actually no solution at all if it’s not accompanied by proper training on maintenance and operation of that infrastructure. Developing countries, particularly in rural regions there, often have abandoned and sometimes broken-down buildings, wells and other infrastructure that was not even put there by the local population.
The point here is that it’s wonderful to know that contributions are going to make a tangible difference for the benefiting community. But it’s both wonderful and responsible to understand that this investment will last over time and needs to be appropriately managed and maintained.
Don’t send boxes of goods.
With some exceptions, it can sometimes be more of a detriment than help to send (or take over) items from your hometown into these communities. In my experience, most of the items that are shipped from overseas as “donations” can be made and purchased in the region it’s being delivered to. And, as a matter of fact, their local economy may depend on selling those items to the local community.
If anyone reading this has done this in the past, you’re not alone, and there’s no need to feel ashamed. We are all learning how to be better. As a matter of fact, my friend at TOMS Shoes, Blake Mycoskie, made a remarkable pivot away from their one-for-one model in response to exactly this realization.
TOMS and many other social impact companies are now investing in local economies instead of undercutting them, and I believe the rest of us should follow suit. When we’re compelled to send supplies and materials, we should instead consider sending the money to have them purchased there. We get to help, and the benefiting community actually benefits. We all win.
Don’t make yourself the hero.
Once we understand that we are only supplying resources that these regions lack, we can have clarity around the role we are playing. We must not make ourselves the hero. Those of us with deep knowledge of international development work know that benefiting communities will restructure their entire way of living to support a project that will help their families.
They move domiciles, they give up land, they sell belongings, they lose workdays to offer skilled and unskilled labor, and they put their faith in their NGO partner that all of this sacrifice will lead to a better life. They are the heroes. We are the supporting team that catalyzes their own efforts to create a better community (if the project is executed correctly).
Do let the experts do their jobs.
While we may really want to be in a developing country painting walls and planting trees, the truth is that there is plenty of skilled and unskilled labor in these areas, and they need and want the work. When we are asked to ceremonially plant a tree, there’s nothing wrong with that, we just must remain aware that it is just that, and we are not “helping” them by doing it.
More and more these days, there are experts nearby who are local, and their employment makes a bigger impact on their regional economy. These local experts are aware of cultural nuances and considerations that can mean the success or failure of implementation.
Where there simply is no local expertise, and we are introducing people with the skills needed for an international project, these professionals must be well trained to consult with the local professionals with similar experience to ensure we are planning and implementing with that cultural awareness (as best we can).
Do defer to the beneficiaries.
We all have cognitive biases about what works and what doesn’t — it’s human nature. It’s also difficult to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others whose lives, beliefs and struggles are exceedingly different from our own.
Western aid is notorious for applying solutions well fitted for developed countries in impoverished nations where they make no sense. This is usually the wrong approach. The best way to make the biggest difference is to ask what is needed and how to get there (and spend as much time as is needed with the questions), and to enter into this work knowing that it’s the beneficiaries who will always be the best leaders of the project. Where we are unable to have direct contact with beneficiaries (as donors and volunteers), we need to ensure the NGO we are supporting approaches the work in this way.