Friday, November 20, 2009

Help? Part II

When an NGO applies to a big donor (like the US government or the United Nations) for funds, usually it's important to demonstrate that as much of that money as possible is reaching the community we want to help. So a good portion of our budgets include activities in the community. For community development and empowerment projects, that often means we are budgeting money to host meetings or trainings, feed the participants, rent meeting venues, pay the transportation of people to attend the meetings, etc. Sometimes people are even given a bit of cash to thank them for their time.

What I've seen, though, is that when everything is perfectly provided for by the donor via the NGO, members of the community start to appreciate and even take advantage of the perks. They may or may not be interested in the topic of the meeting, but the food's good! In very poor countries, what the NGO project provides may be much nicer than anything they could get on their own. Perhaps they are interested in the topic of the meeting, but the food and transport money becomes their real reason for attending. Then, after 2 years or so, the project ends. The NGO and the donor pull out, having taught and shared everything they could. The community may still be interested and is now very well trained to carry it on alone - but with no food?! The meetings cease and the cause is lost.

Example: A Health Education project, training community health assistants. Everyone in the village is concerned about how far away the nearest doctor is, so is eager to learn everything they can about how to care for each other. The NGO finds a government agency who is willing to send health trainers to this remote village - at the government's expense. The NGO, however, contributes by paying the community leader for use of the town hall, providing snacks and lunches during the training, paying for a bus to bring villagers to the town centre. The training is on-going for a year, and at the end of the year, everyone has learned something but there's still a lot more to learn. The NGO leaves because they have done their part. The government agency is willing to keep sending its trainers, but the villagers have grown accustomed to a bus picking them up and to being provided with snacks and meals. It just doesn't seem worth it anymore.

I'm seeing a lot of similar situations, and find myself increasingly considering the option of staying at a fancy hotel when working on a given project, for example, because then I know the money is being spent on something that doesn't do harm. If the money goes to the community, it could ruin the community forever!

Meanwhile, I am working very hard to organise the activities but am noticing that the staff and the community members are willing to let me just do it. They aren't really helping at all, and even though it was their idea and it is for their community, they've gotten so used to the outsider doing it that they don't help at all. It makes me wonder if perhaps the cause I am trying to support wouldn't be aided if I stepped out and they were able to (forced to) take over again?


Rachel said...

I had a professor who often said "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".

I was talking with a friend, who is currently working in Uganda, about how trash litters the landscape in even the most pristine of places. Then we were laughing about how some NGO at some point in time installed garbage cans but never thought about what to do with the garbage once it was collected. The resutlt, people use the cans and then dump them right back on the ground when they are full.

That's when the phrase came to mind; and I knew I needed to share it with you after reading your blog.

I think there is an extremely fine line between development and dependancy. It's hard to find the balance and sometimes no matter how hard we try we still tip to the wrong side.

I'm not willing to give up though, but I do think we need to be more careful about our methods and our ideas of "doing good".

One of my favorite quotes by Gandhi is "be the change you wish to see in the world". Sometimes the best person to influence is ourselves.

Unknown said...

Hi, Katie. Here is Carol Prado, from Brazil (IPI do Ipiranga). It´s been such a long time!!
I always receive your prayer letters, and this time, they took me to your blog (which I´ve enjoyed very much!!)
I also work in an international NGO here in Brazil, so I´m with you in your thoughts. I understand your "desânimo". I have also thought the same things when helping development projects here. A few things, though, help me keep on working: First of all, I don´t believe in short ou middle term projects. The change / development comes with long long term projects. If in a given culture their used to be dependent, to not participate if they don´t get any immediate reward (like snacks, and so on), first of all, there is a cultural and sociological explanation to that (and even spiritual, right?). And 2nd, I believe one or two years working with them is not going to change that. We do what we understand is best for local development (for example, we know keep on distributing money or food, does NOT help in the long term. Capacity building, does help), and we have faith that things are going to change,little by little.
Don´t give up! Keep on working and keep on writing. It´s been so good to read your thoughs.

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