When I started designing my program I knew that situations and opportunities can turn on a dime. I want to teach youth about international community development, but I had seen time and time again the effect of broken promises and the damage it could cause. I did not want to become part of that problem.
The question came up again last night in a conversation, what harm could someone trying to help out do? Isn’t it better to do something, than nothing at all?
No, truly it is sometimes better to do nothing. Below is a somewhat bewildering list of examples to back this up, food for thought as I organize the work I do.
Look at the #SWEDOW phenomenon- the donated items racket has put many many people out of business. We saw this when imported used clothing put tailors out of business, and we are seeing it again as a surge in donated clothing threatens the used clothing industry. Shawn Forde wrote a very interesting blog post about similar challenges with donating sports goods.
Today Chris Blattman directed us towards an interesting article written by Friends of Africa, “Is Philanthropy Killing Africa.” This article notes that the very NGO’s that try to build capacity in an area can make it next to impossible for local business people- competing for business or competing for talented employees.
A colleague I met this morning for coffee told me a similar story. He was chatting to a Ugandan friend in Gulu Town. The town of Gulu existed before the conflict in northern Uganda but the town grew to meet the needs of all of the international NGO’s based there. Those NGO’s are starting to leave Gulu, leaving behind local people whose careers and livelihood became dependent on this NGO economy.
William Easterly’s post on Aid Watch today looks at Ghana’s interest in developing their tourism industry. He knows tourists are a fickle bunch. As he puts it:
This is the problem with trying to make tourism a major source of revenue… This chain is only as strong as its weakest link: one bad experience and it scares off the tourist masses.
One bad experience became a reality with the terrorist attack in Kampala earlier this month. This colleague I met this morning has heard a similar concern from a community project in the Jinja area of Uganda. Two volunteer groups have cancelled their trip this summer because of the terrorist attack. The community project has become dependent on volunteer groups- not to do the work, but to fund the project. Their funding source has been scared away!
I too am dealing with this challenge right now- I have a school that was planning to travel to Uganda in 2011. But the terrorist attack in Kampala has given them cold feet. I can do my best to encourage them to stay their path but ultimately it is a decision the parents will make for everyone.
This brings me to my dilemma. How do I run my program but ensure it doesn’t become part of the problem?
The program is very simple. A North American school is linked to an organization in Uganda (or elsewhere). It is often another school, but they are also working with social enterprises, health organizations, and food security programs. The students visit these partner organizations and attend talks, workshops, or volunteer to a certain degree. They visit to learn about community development in that country. And they say thank you to their partners for hosting them by fundraising for a sustainable resource project (solar power, library resources, etc). The projects aim to improve access to knowledge so all community members can benefit from them- whether it is for education or to build one’s business. The idea is that if a school walks away from the program for whatever reason, the impact on the community is minimal. This is because we work with existing organizations that were around before we arrived and will be there after we leave. The project students fund helps improve the resources of the existing organization and should be able to sustain itself (for example through library fees or charging mobile phones for a small price).
Through a series of workshops before and after the international experience, combined with their personal experience overseas, the students would develop tools they could use for the rest of their lives when deciding what good community development is, what programs to support, what charities to donate to, and how to influence their government’s role in international aid and development.
I will stay my course, I think it is worth it in the end. I will do it with eyes and ears open and I will make sure the program benefits everyone involved. If the school doesn’t want to go to Uganda next summer, then that is okay. In the meantime, I am pursuing a social enterprise opportunity to bring internet into rural Uganda, and I will find schools interested in connecting with the organizations in Uganda regardless of whether they will travel there. I will continue to focus on simple resource development projects that build the capacity of existing organizations, that employ local people, and that can be maintained locally. When the schools are ready they will start travelling to Uganda again, and the students will finally get to see all the amazing things that are happening in Uganda in regards to education, health, food security, and social enterprise.