Help When Needed

You should probably watch the video above. Although I’m not very fond of TEDx, this particular talk is something that resonates with my experiences. I could talk on and on about various shortcomings of development projects, especially in Africa, but I’d rather speak with anecdotal examples. Besides, who has time for data? /s.

A couple of calendars issues back I ran a project that involved several high-school kids from around the world going to a certain African country to work on a school project. It involved working with a local orphanage-run school with limited resources. If memory serves me correctly, we had to build several classes and do some overall maintenance projects. In short, a typical high school project. Except this one was someone else’s goldmine.

I had already worked with the same orphanage a year prior, but I was never involved with the organization side of things. By then, the previous leader had a house in the area where all of us could crash after a long day’s work. During my time, however, I had to organize our own lodging facilities. This involved contacting various local facilities and the orphanage founder and director who was of tremendous help. All things were sorted out, with the exception of minor unavoidable inconveniences. One can imagine my surprise when three days before my colleagues arrived I received an email from 6000 miles away, asking to prepare $3000 for each of the 13 people involved. That’s nearly $40K for a one month project. In our budget we had a rough total of $2000, not even enough for a single person. I had a mini-crisis and had to lock myself in my room for a while.

The email was from a US-based fund-raising director who was the main contact for the organization’s foreign activities. It turns out, the norm was to charge $3000 for every US college student who wanted to ‘volunteer’ in this school. For that amount they would live in special fully furbished quarters, right next door to the densely occupied dorms while never sharing the same meals. The relevance of their interactions with students were quite limited but the complaints were rarely raised. Luckily, I was a local and could spot them. And this was how our group was expected to interact with the kids. The understanding of the local culture was never brought to attention but the school was expected to revere practices from a country where none of the students and teachers had been in. The act of charging someone to volunteer is obscene, if not insulting. How could you charge me to help you?

Dan Pallotta gave an incredible talk on the perception of development NGOs and how they ought to be run. I do agree with him that such institutions should be held in the same standards as normal for-profit organizations, at least in their budget allocations. You can watch the video below on the talk:

I do have a problem however in the way wish-fulfilment runs rampant within the industry. Lots of capital is directed into projects that range from unsustainable to pure delusion. Majority of the time ideas seem to spring from outside and enforced in the societies.

We are still not sure about the optimal approach to development projects. However, we do know which ones aren’t.


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