This article by Nick Wadhams in Time.com, Bad Charity? (All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!) puts arguably the most important question in the non-profit environment on the table: Is foreign aid bad for Africa? Hat-tip to Wendi Wade Hammond, US coordinator of Project Glory who sent me the link via Facebook. Project Glory supports Shiselweni Home-Based Care, a grassroots movement of volunteers in Swaziland who care for people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
This is of course not a new question but unfortunately many people who want to help Africa – and other places where there is large-scale poverty – often cause more harm than good.
The article relates the story of Jason Sadler, a 27-year old entrepreneur from Florida, who decided to collect a million T-shirts and send them to poor people in Africa. Critics say this will weaken the textile industry in those countries, thus putting people out of jobs instead of helping them.
It is understandable when people who have been working with poor communities for decades get very frustrated if others still don’t get the message. And it’s not just Americans who get it wrong. I remember very well the mistakes I made as a young student (I’m South African), organising shortterm mission trips to rural communities in South and Southern Africa.
The main problem however is not making the mistakes, but not learning from them. I would love to ask Sadler’s critics if they had it all figured out when they started helping the poor. The truth is that it’s complicated and that you can never say “I’ve arrived”.
The core question is: How do we minimise the damage caused by inexperienced / uninformed / incompetent helpers? Realistically you can’t prevent it from happening but those of us who are close to the recipients of aid have a responsibility to change the tide.
How do we do this? I don’t think it’s helpful to shout at people like Sadler, calling him an idiot. Maybe what we need in Africa are forums where people who want to help can come and listen to local communities, spend time with them and observe what other more experienced workers are doing, before they are allowed to jump in and dish out charity.
We also need to ask how this issue can be addressed on a much larger scale. To quote the article in Time:
“The long-term solution is not aid. It may seem cruel that aid should stop, but really it should,” says Rasna Warah, a Kenyan newspaper columnist and editor of the anthology Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, a call to arms against aid. “Africa is the greatest dumping ground on the planet. Everything is dumped here. The sad part is that African governments don’t say no — in fact, they say, ‘Please send us more.’ They’re abdicating responsibility for their own citizens.”
In Global Relief, the South African volunteer-organisation I work with, we assist communities to process the trauma of having lost loved-ones, houses and other infrastructure after disasters. We then train local leaders to carry on with the process. They speak the people’s languages and understand the culture. This is one way in which we attempt to empower victims to take responsibility for their own future.
What is your experience with aid gone wrong? Which ideas do you have for addressing this issue?