Last night on PBS, I watched a documentary about rebuilding Haiti after the earthquake. The devastating earthquake was the catalyst for bringing poverty stricken developing countries and the issue of foreign aid into the limelight once again.
The Haiti documentary compelled me to consider my own participation in international development and to rethink the roles of NGOs(nongovernmental organizations) in developing countries. It's an issue that I wrestle with frequently and I never really arrive at an answer that leaves me feeling comfortable or resolved.
A Little Background
Robert Perito of the United States Institute of Peace has called Haiti "The Republic of NGOs". There are about 3,000 NGOs currently working in Haiti. However, Haiti isn't alone in its abundance of aid agencies. It was estimated that in the year 2000, there were 5,900 NGOs operating just in Africa....
For most people, foreign aid brings to mind either the UN or organizations operating as charities. However, there are a growing number of independent NGOs focusing on sustainable international development as an alternative to charity. What's the difference? In general, a charity's mission is to ensure people are fed, housed and receiving medical care at no cost to the beneficiary. Sustainable development, on the other hand, operates on the premise that developing countries need a strong economy that provides its citizens with jobs and the resources to buy those things for themselves.
What's the Issue?
My own internal conflict is fueled by the question of whether foreign based NGOs are helping or hurting the development of a country. Are charitable programs that provide free services helping in the "right" way? In the case of natural catastrophes like Haiti's earthquake or the Asian tsunami, emergency food and medical care are unquestionably essential for saving lives. But in the absence of a disaster, food and medical care are consumable goods that have to be replenished time and time again.
As a response to this self perpetuating cycle of foreign aid, during the past decade, more NGOs have shifted their focus to investing in a country's private business sector with the belief that more jobs and more money circulating in the economy will provide the means for people to make and buy those items for themselves.
Both models of are derived from heartfelt good intentions to help "less fortunate countries". But like a parent who does everything for a child, is the unspoken message that the child isn't capable of doing for him or herself?
As the the founder of an NGO working in Kenya, these are the questions I ask myself; Does the mission of our program reflect the needs of the community? Is it relevant and working in harmony with the Kenyan culture? Are we unconsciously implying that outsiders have better solutions to their problems?
In the end, I'm left wonder. Is it better to try in a mindful way to help those in need in developing countries? Or should we get out of the way and let developing nations find their own way forward?
Further Reading: White Man's Burden by William Easterly.